In summer 2010, the National Intelligence Council organized a small, one-day conference with Europe-based academics to get their read on possible futures for the jihadist movement. I was one of the approximately 20 participants. Osama Bin Laden was still alive, but the core al-Qaeda organization was beginning to come under rising pressure in Pakistan as a result of increasingly intense drone strikes. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was degraded thanks to the surge of U.S. forces and the Sunni Awakening. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was emerging as the most dangerous jihadist group in the world. We looked for trends and debated the future of the core of the al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan, whether AQAP might take up the mantle of leadership and what that would augur, and who could emerge as the next bin Laden, among other things.
Today, with the core of the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) increasingly squeezed in Syria and Iraq the jihadist movement may be facing an even bigger inflection point. Will al-Qaeda be able to regenerate and fill the void? Could another group — perhaps an ISIL or al-Qaeda affiliate, or maybe an independent actor — take the reins? Or might we witness the atomization of the jihadist movement after years in which ISIL and al-Qaeda became its competing lodestars? In either case, what would this mean for the long-running fault line between globalism and nationalism? And what of the 40,000-plus foreign fighters who flocked to Syria and Iraq, or the technological advances that ISIL exploited to recruit them and direct or inspire attacks around the world? To help clarify the problem, we brought together three scholar-practitioners — Kim Cragin, Josh Geltzer, and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross — to weigh in on what lies ahead for the jihadist movement and the threats its adherents pose.