10 Islamic Militants that are Changing the Global Balance of Power
From the plains of Africa to the deserts of the Middle East to the mountains of Asia, Islamic militants are fighting for the establishment of the Caliphate, an Islamic state governed by Shari’a or Islamic law. These militants have divergent ideas about what the Caliphate will look like and who its leader will be. What they have in common is the potential to reshape the global balance of power. The leaders of these Islamic militant groups are challenging some of the most sophisticated military and security services in the world. Sometimes they win.
10. Syed Salahuddin, Commander of the United Jihad Council
Kashmir is a land of rolling mountains, green valleys, rich agriculture and precious minerals. It has also been the subject of brutal confrontations between Pakistan and India, nuclear powers that have been vying for the area’s natural resources since 1947. The United Islamic Jihad, an umbrella organization of 14+ Islamic militant groups, was organized by Pakistan’s intelligence service to fight Indian control of the Kashmir. Thanks to the leadership of Muhammad Yousuf Shah aka Syed Salahuddin, the United Jihad Council and the fight for Kashmir has taken a deadly turn. It is no longer a territorial dispute between two regional powers. Syed Salahuddin’s call out to Islamic militants from al-Qaeda to ISIS to the Taliban to join the fight in Kashmir promises to transform the conflict into a Syrian style blood bath with a pure Islamic state as the final goal.
9. Abubakar Shekau, Commander of Boko Haram
Boko Haram, a once insignificant Islamic militant group in Northern Nigeria, has become a full-blown threat to Nigeria’s stability due to the leadership of Abubakar Shekau. He is known for his erratic rants in propaganda videos but his ruthlessness on the battlefield has earned him the title of the craziest of all Boko Haram commanders. Since its establishment in 2002, Boko Haram has supported the establishment of a pure Islamic state. The focus of its operations, however, were largely local until 2009 when Abubakar Shekau took command. Boko Haram is now responsible for brazen attacks against Nigerian security forces and educational institutions. They received international acclaim for kidnapping 300 schoolgirls in April and are pursuing a campaign of territorial expansion that is spreading the group’s destructive powers closer to Nigeria’s major population centers. Abubakar Shekau is a skilled networker and has forged an alliance with al-Qaeda’s central command and satellite outfit in Yemen—an indication that the group may soon be much more than just Nigeria’s problem.
8. Dr. Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, Commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad
Hamas is the Islamic militant organization that is splashed across the headlines when Israel goes to war in Gaza. Gaza, however, is home to a far deadlier and more radical organization that refuses to compromise in its fight to destroy Israel and create an Islamic state in its place. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad employs purely military tactics to accomplish its goals and has consistently launched rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel even when Hamas has respected a truce. Dr. Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, a former University of South Florida professor, has served as Secretary-General of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad since 1995. From offices in Syria and Iran, Dr. Shallah has secured the financial support to ensure the continued operation of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Its perpetual military engagement with Israel will continue to undermine peace negotiations and spark full-blown wars between Israel and Palestine.
7. Doku Umarov, Deceased Commander of the Caucasus Emirate
The Caucasus Emirate formed when Chechnya’s secessionist movement from Russia failed. Under the leadership of Doku Umarov, the Islamists fighting in Chechnya declared a virtual Islamic state in the North Caucasus mountain range. Their terrorist attacks against Russian security forces in the Caucasus and transportation centers in the heart of Russia put the international community on high alert during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Russia responded with a brutal counter-terror campaign that eliminated many of the Caucasus Emirate militant leaders, including Doku Umarov. With the primary internal threat to Russia all but eliminated, Putin has engaged in an aggressive campaign of territorial expansion that has included the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and funding and supplying separatist leaders in Eastern Ukraine. The current situation in the Ukraine may never have come to be if Doku Umarov had lived and the Caucasus Emirate continued to pose a serious threat to Russia.
6. Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Hezbollah
Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, has vacillated between a terrorist organization and a political organization with a military outfit. Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite militant group since 1992, has been influential in leading Hezbollah from a militant organization to a political force with international diplomatic recognition. Hezbollah was formed in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war and Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon in the 1980s with substantial support from Iran. Its goals include expelling Western nations from the Middle East, destroying Israel and establishing an Islamic state. Nasrallah has close ties to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and to Iran, which it has pledged loyalty to. Hezbollah’s commitment to the establishment of a Shiite Islamic state has placed it in direct confrontation with Sunni Islamic militants. Its fighters have helped Bashar al-Assad remain in power in Syria, and it promises to be a powerful force as Shiites and Sunnis battle for their own version of an Islamic state in the Middle East.
5. Maulana Qasim Khurasani, Commander of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Jamatul Ahrar
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been one of the most potent militant forces fighting against coalition forces in Afghanistan since its formation in 2007. The alliance of militant groups operating out of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan has been responsible for destabilizing Afghanistan’s nascent democratic government and attacking Pakistani security forces to support the establishment of a pure Islamic state in the region. The TTP has consistently threatened to launch terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe; however, mere threats were not enough for some members of TTP’s leadership. Internal disputes within the TTP following the deaths of the organization’s top commanders resulted in the formation of the TTP Jamatul Ahrar in August, a hardline splinter group led by Maulana Qasim Khurasani. Inspired by the success of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Maulana Qasim Khurasani promises to increase the ruthlessness and focus of TTP attacks.
4. Major General Mohammed Ali Jafari, Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp was formed in the aftermath of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Its original mandate was to protect the Islamic state from internal and external threats but it has since expanded its role to exporting the Islamic revolution. In addition to controlling Iran’s conventional military and ballistic missile programs, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards is responsible for the actions of the Quds Force, an elite paramilitary unit skilled in irregular or asymmetric warfare, the act of drawing a conventional army into conflict with small units of combatants, and the primary force responsible for extending Iran’s Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East. In 2005, Major General Mohammed Ali Jafari, the man responsible for developing Iran’s irregular warfare capabilities, took control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Under his command, the Quds Force has increased its presence and influence in the Middle East. The Quds force is rumored to have 20 headquarters spread throughout the Middle East and has been active in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and the Arab countries surrounding the Persian Gulf. Major General Mohammed Ali Jafari and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp have been instrumental in fomenting a regional war between Sunni and Shiite extremists battling for their own version of a pure Islamic state.
3. Mullah Mohammad Omar, Leader of the Taliban
Mullah Mohammad Omar is the Taliban leader that just won’t quit and the United States’ 13-year engagement in Afghanistan has done little to diminish his influence. The creator of the Taliban, Mullah Omar took control of Afghanistan in 1996 imposing strict Shari’a law on the country until the 2001 U.S. led invasion that established Afghanistan’s democratic government. The Taliban’s version of Islamic fundamentalism blends the tribal customs of the Pashtuns with a Sunni inspired Islamic extremism. Far from debilitating the Taliban, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan galvanized the Taliban insurgency causing militant groups throughout Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia to coalesce around a common cause—forcing the withdrawal of the infidels and destroying their system of government. The Taliban has made significant gains since the U.S. withdrawal, retaking large swaths of territory that the Afghan government has all but surrendered. In July, Mullah Omar’s annual post-Ramadan message included his plan to reestablish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Without U.S. troops to support Afghan security forces, there may be no stopping him.
2. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Commander of al-Qaeda
Osama bin Laden is dead but the al-Qaeda franchise is alive and well thanks to the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian born surgeon and veteran jihadist that worked hand in hand with bin Laden until his death in 2011. Zawahiri was instrumental in restructuring al-Qaeda from a centralized organization to a decentralized franchise, ensuring its survival despite being one of the most hunted groups in the world. Al-Qaeda is no longer just one group; it is a multitude of Islamic militant groups that stretch from Africa to Central Asia. Affiliated groups include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa, al Shabaab in East Africa and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. Al-Qaeda’s influence can also be found in the Islamic militants fighting in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Caucasus and the Philippines. Al-Qaeda remains the organization most capable of launching attacks within the United States and Europe. If its affiliated groups are successful in conquering territory, it is the al-Qaeda banner that will most likely unify them into a Caliphate with a size and scope that rivals the Caliphate established by the Prophet Mohammed.
1. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Commander of the Islamic State
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi needs no introduction. His brutality and brilliance as a military commander has earned him a front page spread since the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. Baghdadi was the former commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq; however, his involvement in Syria, against the direct instruction of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, caused him to break from the al-Qaeda franchise. ISIS, renamed the Islamic State, has declared a Caliphate in the regions under its control and has extended an invitation to jihadists worldwide to take part in the fight and extend the Caliphate throughout the Middle East and Africa. ISIS is perhaps the richest of the jihadist groups with an estimated $2 billion bankroll. The Islamic State under Baghdadi’s leadership promises to be ground zero for jihadists in coming years. It will, also, be ground zero for Sunni and Shiite extremists vying for their version of the Caliphate. Baghdadi’s brazenness, however, may also be his downfall. His schism with al-Qaeda may prevent the Islamic State from extending their influence beyond Syria and Iraq.