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.
By taking responsibility for attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016, Islamic State, a jihadist group that emerged from the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, signaled that it was expanding its reach. Previously, the group, which holds large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria on which it has declared a self-style caliphate, or Islamic state, had focused on what jihadists call the “near enemy,” its foes in the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda concentrated on attacking U.S. and European powers — the “far enemy” — in an effort to push them to abandon regimes bin Laden wanted to unseat. Even with periodic attacks in the non-Muslim world, the bloodiest battlegrounds remain Iraq and Syria. 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. Increasingly, groups have pledged allegiance to Islamic State rather than al-Qaeda, which cut ties to its former affiliate in 2014. Islamic State practices extreme brutality — massacring civilians and executing prisoners. It had been particularly effective at attracting recruits, not just from the Arab world but from the U.S., Europe and Chechnya, although U.S. military officials say the flow of foreign fighters has diminished. A U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes in August 2014 intended to help Iraqi forces and secular Syrian rebels contain the group. A year later, Russia started an air campaign on behalf of Syria’s regime, targeting Islamic State among other groups.
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 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.
Some foreign-policy analysts argue that direct action by the U.S. and its allies against Islamic State lends support to the jihadists’ case that foreign powers prop 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 of intervention say that even putting aside orchestrated attacks on their soil, U.S. and Europe governments 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 to 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 2015 that such attacks, inspired by Islamic State, pose a greater threat to the U.S. than operations organized by al-Qaeda. 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.
First published June 16, 2014
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