*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, the world has struggled to define al-Qaeda, an amorphous, growing, and seemingly inexhaustible organization. Once a relatively organized group based in one country with a defined hierarchy and clear leadership, al-Qaeda has transformed into a transnational phenomenon over the last few decades, with branches and affiliates operating in dozens of countries across the world. Many call al-Qaeda an enemy, while some define it as an ideology, and others analyze it as a network. Of course, a small minority takes it up as their cause and an extension of their religion.
Also known as ISIS, Da'esh, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and a host of other names, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has increasingly gained attention over the years for its brutal tactics and seemingly blatant disregard for human rights, but it has recently dominated the global media spotlight and made headlines when it attacked and seized control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and drove out an Iraqi army force that was more than five times its size in June 2014. It has since laid claim to various territories throughout Iraq and the Levant, and it has established operational control and maintained administrative structures on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. Most recently, it declared the restoration of a caliphate and renamed itself the Islamic State. One of the reasons ISIS has gone by so many different names is because it has rebranded itself numerous times in the past. After starting as an al-Qaeda-inspired Sunni Islamist brigade that emerged from the ashes of the jihadist struggle against foreign forces in Iraq, the group grew into a full-fledged al-Qaeda branch, then evolved into a religiously motivated army, then finally separated from al-Qaeda to become the organization it is today.
Since the Arab Spring uprising of 2011, reports of terrorist attacks around the world have flooded international media. Syria, a country about one and half times the size of Texas, has become the central battleground for many terrorist groups; those the world often focuses on and has heard much of--such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS and Da'ash, but from here on referred to as ISIL)--and those the world rarely hears about and is unable to make distinctions between others--such as Jabhat Al-Nusra. Despite the lack of focused attention on its activities, Jabhat Al-Nusra (or, the Nusra Front as it is sometimes referred to) has built quite a reputation in Syria and the greater Middle East for its seemingly endless supply of weapons, ability to ally with strategic partners, and its peculiar mix of international, albeit notorious, supporters inside the country. The complexity of the Syrian Civil War is most definitely reflected in the complexity of the groups fighting for power within and around its borders; Jabhat Al-Nusra is no exception. The group's relationship with ISIL, Al-Qaeda, and the other militant factions within Syria is complicated and appears often conflictual: as of the time of this writing, Jabhat Al-Nusra had announced its split from Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) but analysts believe this is nothing more than a re-branding technique to attract all fighting elements in Syria to be under its own umbrella of control.
On the morning of April 15, 2004, the world woke up to the extraordinary news of the kidnap in a little known hamlet of Nigeria of some 276, primarily Christian schoolgirls, by the radical militant Nigerian insurgent group Boko Haram. Almost overnight, the group, which had resided somewhat on the fringes of global consciousness up until that point, found itself at the forefront as international public outrage, culminating in a social media campaign headed by First Lady Michelle Obama, demanded the immediate return of the kidnapped girls.