Global Jihad in 2017: The Year in Review

Adam Hoffman reviews the state of global jihad at the end of 2017.

An IS fighter on guard duty (ribat) from IS' 'Khorasan Province' overlooking the mountains of the Tora Bora area.

An IS fighter on guard duty (ribat) from IS' 'Khorasan Province' overlooking the mountains of the Tora Bora area. Source: IS propaganda, Telegram.

2017 was a dramatic year in the global jihadi movement. The Islamic State (IS), the most prominent actor in the movement, lost control of Mosul in July and al-Raqqa in October. The two cities served not only as the capitals of the group's self-declared Caliphate, which the IS proclaimed in June 2014, but also as the models for its governance activities. These activities, in turn, allowed the IS to market civilian life in the Islamic State as an Islamic utopia. Now, with no territory left under its control in Iraq, the message of a fully-functioning Islamic State as a home for all Muslims is no longer viable. As a result, recent IS propaganda tried to justify its  predicament by saying that "the path of jihad was not paved with roses" and called on its supporters for patience and steadfastness.

In addition to losing Mosul and al-Raqqa, according to Iraqi officials Iraq was "completely liberated" from the IS by early December. This marks a dramatic change of fortune for the IS, which in early 2015 still controlled a third of Iraq's territory. In addition to the loss of territory, IS fighters – known in the group's propaganda as "the lions of the Caliphate" and once notorious for their brutality – have also surrendered en masse after fleeing from Hawija, the last urban stronghold that IS controlled in Iraq, which was retaken by Iraqi security forces in early October.

The collapse of the IS's Caliphate was not, however, limited only to physical territory: the media activities of the IS – once described by commentators as "slick and sophisticated" and constituting a central aspect of the group's overall operations – have also experienced a significant decline in quantity and quality in recent months. Rumiyah magazine, considered one of the IS's propaganda flagships and published monthly in 11 different languages, has not been released since September 2017, and the online streaming link of al-Bayan Radio, another of the IS' media branches, is no longer functioning either. The sudden disappearance of these two propaganda products is unprecedented in the history of the IS's media activities.

While a relatively recent development, the collapse of the IS's territorial caliphate was long anticipated by the group: in his last audio statement in May 2016, the IS's official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, asked "do you, O America, consider defeat to be the loss of a city or the loss of land? Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert without any city or land? And would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or even take all the cities and we were to return to our initial condition? Certainly not!" Instead of loss of territory, Adnani defined "true defeat" as "the loss of willpower and desire to fight." While the IS still has some remaining fighters loyal to the organization – according to the anti-IS Coalition, 1,000 IS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria – many of the group's fighters have been killed, captured, or surrendered to the Iraqi Security Forces or to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

However, while the IS's state-building project in Iraq and Syria has collapsed during the past year, its branch in Afghanistan, known as “Khorasan Province,” emerged as a significant threat to the country. “Khorasan Province” continues the fight against both US-led forces and its Taliban rivals, but also regularly targets Shiʿi religious sites: in October-November, the group claimed responsibility for five different suicide attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul through its official channels on Telegram, and only recently carried out a suicide attack on a Shiʿi cultural center and news agency in Kabul which killed 41 people and injured more than 80 others. “Khorasan Province” has also been relatively active on Telegram, publishing pictures of its fighters' everyday lives and images of snowy mountaintops in Afghanistan. Thus, both in terms of actual attacks in the country and activity on social media, “Khorasan Province” appears to be the most active IS controlled territory that may continue to pose a long-term challenge to Afghan and US forces in the country.

In addition to the IS, other jihadi groups have also been active during the past year. Some of these groups have also directly challenged the IS's authority and threatened its forces. Jamaʿat Jund al-Islam is a pro-al-Qaʿida group which was responsible for a series of suicide car bombings against the Egyptian Military Intelligence in Rafah in September 2013, but has been silent since then. However, in early November the group accused “Sinai Province”, the IS' branch in the Sinai Peninsula, of “repeated aggressions against the Muslims in Sinai” and called on the IS’s members there “to repent” for their crimes before threatening to “uproot” the IS's presence in the Peninsula. Jamaʿat Jund al-Islam's statement indicates a potential comeback of an older, pro-al-Qaʿida global jihadi group and the emergence of a new competitor to the IS in Sinai.

While Jamaʿat Jund al-Islam's attack on Sinai Province highlighted the divisions and competition within global jihad, US President Donald Trump's December announcement that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel united many different global jihadi groups in condemnation of Trump's decision. Al-Qaʿida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaʿida affiliate in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Somali group al-Shabaab all condemned Trump's announcement. AQAP defined Trump's decision as “a clear challenge to the Muslim world that sees the centrality of the Palestinian cause” and stated that it “stand[s] by our people in Palestine and support[s] them with all we possess.” Trump's announcement unified and re-energized different and competing groups from the global jihad: while normally divided on matters of ideology, doctrine, and strategy, various global jihadi groups from across the Muslim world issued multiple condemnations of Trump's decision.

The response to Trump's decision on the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was not the first time that Trump's actions re-energized jihadists: shortly after taking office, Trump approved a commando raid on an al-Qaʿida in the Arabian Peninsula base in central Yemen. The raid proved to be a disaster: one US Navy SEAL was killed, as well as several Yemeni civilians, including some children. AQAP used the operation to ignite “the flame of jihad” against the United States, publishing graphic images on social media that allegedly show the bodies of children who were killed in the raid. Qassem al-Reemi, the leader of AQAP, claimed 25 people were killed in the raid and condemned the US, saying that “Muslims around the world had now witnessed the intensity of the hatred of the Crusaders towards Muslims.”

However, despite AQAP's renewed call for jihad against the US in the wake of the Yemen raid, most of the global jihad developments in the past year concerned the IS. Despite the IS's dramatic losses in 2017, the group continues to threaten its enemies with constant war and terrorism: a recently published video in French features one of the late Abu Muhammad al-Adnani's statements from January 2015 and promises the IS's enemies "a war for eternity." The extremely violent and graphic video addresses "the disbelievers of the world," and claims that those who have not been killed by the IS' explosives "will certainly die" at the group's victory. Similarly, in the days before Christmas, the IS’s supporters on Telegram threatened to attack Western targets during the holiday season. The photoshopped posters distributed on Telegram included threats such as "the Caliphate's presents are on their way" and "wait for us, we [will] meet at Christmas in New York soon," and also called upon "lone wolves" to target worshipers across the U.S. and Europe. While such threats may be nothing more than the propaganda of a failing terror group desperate to re-capture the world's attention, the IS's threats against the West and calls for attacks will most probably continue in 2018.