On Aug. 22, ISIL’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued his first message to his followers in nearly a year, calling on them to carry out lone-wolf attacks in the West. The message should alarm policymakers about a potential new wave of terrorist attacks, but it also serves as a reminder of how far the group has fallen and, more broadly, of a longstanding problem with jihadist grand strategies that ISIL has not been able to solve.
Before ISIL, transnational jihadists including Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the strategists Abu Bakr Naji and Abu Musab al-Suri, all tried and failed to achieve similar political objectives. The failure of ISIL’s grand strategy is just the latest iteration of a familiar problem. These actors all want to establish a caliphate on the ruins of Muslim nation-states and gradually expand its control, but to do this they must overcome the “aggregation problem”: how to turn disparate local successes into cross-border political impact and how to mobilize enough Muslims in support of the jihadists’ revolutionary vision.