The kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls last month has sparked global outrage, launched an international manhunt and instantly turned an obscure West African militant group into a household name in the United States. And it has raised a central question: Does the rapidly growing number of al Qaeda splinter groups pose as much of a threat as al Qaeda itself?
Over the last five years, al Qaeda has atomized, according to experts. As drone strikes and other attacks weakened the core, small, largely autonomous groups inspired by Osama bin Laden’s ideology are emerging, becoming self-financing and, in some cases, growing more radicalized than the parent itself.
Boko Haram, for example, is inspired by al Qaeda but acts on its own and, according to U.S. officials, receives most of its funding from local robberies and kidnappings. Its abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls prompted complaints from some militants that its tactics could drive down popular support for the broader movement.
In Syria and Iraq, the same is true of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, disavowed by core al Qaeda after the parent urged it to kill fewer civilians and obey other edicts. Al Qaeda splinter groups of varying loyalty have also emerged in Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Egypt.
“The number of jihadist groups is greater than it has ever been,” said Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corporation. “The trends are not good.”
Republicans say the rising number of groups proves that the Obama administration’s approach to terrorism is failing. White House officials argue that most of the groups are focused on local conflicts, not international terrorism. Experts agree that the groups represent a limited threat now but there is no consensus on what they could become.
Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert at the New America Foundation and author of four books on al Qaeda, said Boko Haram and similar groups wreak havoc in the countries where they operate. But they currently pose little threat to the United States because they are focused on toppling local governments.
“The people who are saying this is really a big problem have no historical perspective,” Bergen said. “This is not al Qaeda on September 10, 2001 or even close.”
But Bruce Riedel, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution and former Obama administration adviser, said the new groups will eventually shift their focus to attacking the United States.
“We are seeing the next generation of Al Qaedaism,” Riedel said in an email, “more decentralized but just as dangerous.”
One core mistake, according to experts, is making sweeping generalizations about a dizzyingly complex array of groups, countries and local political dynamics. Each movement is different. And the Middle East and North Africa is undergoing unprecedented political upheaval.
The one area where experts clearly agree is on how the international community should respond. They say it is vital for the United States and its allies in Europe, the Middle East and Africa to build up the capacities of local governments to counter local extremist groups. Creating more effective security forces, boosting intelligence-gathering and fostering economic development are widely seen as the most effective ways to marginalize the militants.
But as Boko Haram has shown, the capacity and willingness of governments to mount such efforts varies enormously. Nigeria boasts Africa’s largest economy but endemic corruption, abuses by the country’s military and long-running ethnic religious tensions have allowed Boko Haram to thrive in recent years.
In Yemen, the limited ability of the government to counter extremist groups has frustrated American officials. But experts warn that direct involvement of U.S. military forces can bolster extremists and improve their fundraising and recruitment. Only local actors, not outsiders, can strengthen weak government structures and end the corruption that insurgents exploit.
“The complexity of this is enormous,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “You want to maximize local capability as much as you can without turning it into a propaganda victory for the jihadists.”
In recent interviews, four terrorism experts said that the Obama administration was doing too little to counter the new groups. Derek Harvey, a retired army colonel and intelligence officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said national security staffers - overwhelmed by crises and leery of American military involvement – classify splinter groups as purely local too quickly.
“They’re hopeful that these guys won’t do anything targeting us,” he said. “I think there are elements in these groups that have the intent to be trans-regional and transnational.”
Jones, the Rand expert, said the issue was one of resources. The administration’s military budget cuts and “pivot to Asia” have resulted in a smaller U.S. effort to track and understand the new groups.
“You’re shifting priorities and resources out of North Africa and the Middle East and South Asia,” he said. “That has impacted the focus, the prioritization and almost certainly the resources focused on the many splinter groups that have emerged.”
Jessica Stern, a Harvard professor and terrorism expert, said that constantly tracking fracturing groups was more difficult than analyzing a single organization. And she said dismissing the new groups as purely local threats was foolhardy, because they can rapidly change.
“The word I use for the al Qaeda movement is protean,” she said. “It’s constantly shifting, which makes it harder for governments to track.”