Osama bin Laden is dead. So is much of the influence his organization, al-Qaeda, built with its attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. Its spirit, however, lives on through a collection of like-minded jihadists, fighting to overthrow governments they consider heretical and establish their concepts of purified Islamic societies. In the Mideast and North Africa, they have capitalized on the security and political vacuum left by the toppling of autocrats in the 2011 Arab Spring. The governments they challenge are mired in battles against them, while the U.S. and its allies struggle to respond effectively to threats to their interests.
The bloodiest battlegrounds are Iraq and Syria, where the group Islamic State holds large swaths of territory on which it has declared a self-style caliphate, or Islamic state. Jihadists also cause significant carnage in such places as Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines. The number of jihadist groups sharing al-Qaeda’s goals rose to 49 in 2013 from three in 1988, according to a Rand Corp study. Such groups kill about 170 people in 20 attacks a day on average, according to another report. Whereas al-Qaeda concentrated on attacking U.S. and European powers — what jihadists call the “far enemy” — in an effort to push them to abandon regimes bin Laden wanted to unseat, today’s militants are focused on the “near enemy.” Increasingly, groups have pledged allegiance to Islamic State rather than al-Qaeda, which cut ties to its former affiliate in 2014. Although Islamic State practices extreme brutality — massacring civilians and executing prisoners — it’s been particularly effective at attracting recruits, not just from the Arab world but from the U.S., Europe and Chechnya. A U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes in August 2014 intended to help Iraqi forces and secular Syrian rebels contain the group.
Bin Laden joined Afghan jihadists fighting their Russian occupiers in the 1980s to aid a Muslim nation that had become a battleground in the Cold War. He recruited Arab volunteers who sought a purpose amid rampant unemployment and loss of hope in nations headed by iron-fisted leaders. Those factors would draw fighters again to Afghanistan and to Iraq when the U.S. invaded after Sept. 11, and to Syria when turmoil engulfed that nation in 2011. Al-Qaeda’s attacks and ideology also energized militant Muslims farther away, in places such as southeast Asia, the Sahel region of Africa and Nigeria. With the Arab Spring, the collapse of, or erosion of authority in, police states such as Libya, Syria and, briefly, Egypt, gave battle-seasoned fighters greater freedom to return home. Libya’s chaos provided jihadists a free flow of arms and a place to train.
With the threat to their homelands reduced, U.S. and European powers have less of an obvious interest in combatting jihadists overseas than they did after the 9/11 attacks and subsequent bombings in Europe. Some foreign-policy analysts argue that direct U.S. action against Islamic State, for instance, lends support to the jihadists’ case that the U.S. props up illegitimate regimes. Those skeptical of military intervention, including drone strikes, note that it often produces civilian casualties, which can spur the recruitment of new jihadists. Supporters say the U.S. and Europe still have much at stake: their diplomatic missions, businesses and expatriate citizens remain targets where jihadists operate. Westerners recruited and trained by them may return home and commit atrocities. The jihadists’ use of social media has inspired terrorist attacks by radicalized individuals with no known tie to any organization. FBI Director James Comey said in July 2015 that such attacks, inspired by Islamic State, pose a greater threat to the U.S. than operations organized by al-Qaeda. The Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has attempted attacks on the U.S. and claimed responsibility for 12 deaths in a January 2015 strike on Charlie Hedbo magazine in Paris. Governments that are the main target of jihadists are often ill-equipped to face the threat alone. At the same time, foreign firepower may give authorities the comfort to put off political reforms that could diminish the appeal of jihadism and thus tackle it at its roots.
The Reference Shelf
- A study by the Rand Corp. tracking the growth of al-Qaeda-like jihadist groups.
- “Temptations of Power,” a 2014 book from the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid on the rise of Islamist movements after the Arab Spring.
- A report by the Congressional Research Service on Islamic State and U.S. policy.
- Stanford University’s “Mapping Militants” project, which traces the evolution of militant organizations and the connections between them.
- Bloomberg QuickTakes on jihad, the Third Iraq War, Iraqi nationhood, Syria’s civil war, Egypt’s revolution, Yemen’s fault lines and Libya’s breakdown.