What options do jihadists have after they lose territory? In the short term, they can regroup and rebuild. But what then?
Since 2011, jihadists have found numerous opportunities to take territory — but they have also learned they cannot hold that territory for long. Any jihadist “proto-state” will attract attention from a superior military power, which will destroy the proto-state and force jihadists into remote areas.
One useful case study is Mali, where a jihadist state-building experiment already ended in failure. In 2012, following a separatist rebellion and a military coup, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies took control of Mali’s north. Yet jihadist field commanders, ignoring advice from AQIM’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, overreached ideologically and expanded too far militarily. In 2013, they provoked a French-led intervention, Operation Serval, that destroyed their proto-state. Serval killed key AQIM field commanders and dispersed the group’s remnants and allies across northwest Africa.