The last few weeks have seen attack after bloody attack for which a number of Jihadi militant groups have taken credit. Some of these attacks, such as the al-Shabab attack on an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya dominated international news coverage for days. Others, however, remained conspicuously underreported despite killing dozens.
Regardless of how much coverage individual stories received one thing has remained clear: a decade and change after the beginning of the Global War on Terror Jihadi groups remain among the deadliest and most destructive forces the world over. While not all Jihadi organizations have as lofty goals as Al-Qaeda, looking only to overthrow their local rulers, they still threaten to undermine the progress, both political and economic, that has been made across Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia and stoke anti-American sentiment everywhere.
But, you may ask, with the proverbial sands seeming shift constantly and arbitrarily, which militant organizations should Americans be paying attention to?
While the groups recent ascent to the summit of international infamy may make them seem like a no-brainer on this list, Al-Shabab has been a major player in East Africa for nearly a decade. The organization — properly called Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, Arabic for "Movement of Jihadi Youth" — was founded as the militant arm of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006 and strove to fill Somalia’s political vacuum with a harsh and unyielding interpretation of Sharia law. The group is known not only for their long connection with Al-Qaeda’s leadership, but also for their American-born spokesman, Omar Hammami, famous for his short-lived Jihadi rapping career.
An Islamist group that has conducted a long-term insurgency campaign against the Federal Government of Nigeria that has conducted attacks across Nigeria, but has focused on the country’s Muslim-majority north. The group — whose name means “western education is forbidden” in Hausa — grabbed international headlines earlier this week with their brazen nighttime attack on the dormitories of a northern Nigerian agricultural university, killing dozens of sleeping students. This group, which is also believed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (discussed below), has been active in the country since 2001, leaving thousands of casualties and causing a state of emergency to be established in northern Nigeria.
The North African and Sahel-based local franchise of the world’s favorite global jihadi terrorist organization, AQIM is responsible for organizing and/or supporting countless attacks in Algeria and across the region aimed at overthrowing the existing governments and establishing an Islamic Caliphate. The group’s most infamous leader is its seemingly un-killable, rebellious, monocular lieutenant, Mokhtar Belmokhtar who masterminded January’s attack on the In Amenas refinery facility in Algeria and subsequent hostage crisis.
AQAP is the Yemeni offshoot of Al-Qaeda and is among the closest of the group’s regional affiliates with what is commonly known as Al-Qaeda Central and is also the most engaged in the global goals of international jihad with a number of failed attacks having been traced back to AQAP, including the failed Christmastime attack by the “Underwear Bomber.” Because they have been the most active at targeting Americans and American interests, and because they operate in what political scientists call a “permissive security environment,” the organization’s members and leadership have been the focus of controversial drone strikes, including those which killed American-born Anwar al-Awlaqi and his similarly American-born son.
Al-Nusra Front is an Al-Qaeda affiliated, Syrian militant Islamist group fighting in the Syrian Civil War against the Ba’athist Regime of Bashar al-Assad, although only loosely in conjunction with the Free Syrian Army. While they share the end goal of all the organizations on this list, the establishment of an Islamic state governed by Sharia law, Al-Nusra’s scope is largely limited to the Syrian conflict. Because of the group’s early success in gaining and maintaining control over territory, they have become the focal point for American anti-intervention sentiment, both among those of the political right and left, but still account for a relatively small number of the overall combatants fighting against the regime.
The other major Salafi jihadi organization fighting in the Syrian Civil War against the Ba’athist regime, ISIS/ISIL formed out of the Islamic State in Iraq, an umbrella group encompassing a number of militant Sunni organizations operating in Iraq during the height of the insurgency and dominated by Al-Qaeda in Iraq. While the group has continued to stage attacks across Iraq, the group expanded into Syria after claiming control over the Al-Nusra Front (which the latter group rejected) but has continued to expand its operations in Syria largely through support from foreign fighters being brought into Syria.