Since 2014 the Islamic State (or ‘IS’) has placed their bid as the global sponsor for jihad. The group has achieved a historic success during its time, namely, becoming the first terrorist organisation to hold vast territory. Most of the world’s attention has focused on how the group has since lost the vast majority of this land, and, by consequence, its Caliphate-inspired allure which proved so effective for the recruitment of takfiri jihadist extremists.
Unlike al Qaeda, who interpret the pursuit of a 7th century-inspired Islamic Caliphate as a long term ambition, the Islamic State tapped ‘into the widespread belief of Salafists that the Muslim world can and should return to the simplicity and unity that they imagine existed in the earliest days of Islam’, and did so with unparalleled urgency.
During this period, al Qaeda has reconstructed a new bid to return to the pinnacle of global jihad. As terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman observes, ‘nearly seven years after the killing of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda is numerically larger and present in more countries than at any other time in its history.’ These numbers include 10,000-20,000 in Syria, 7,000-9,000 in Somalia, 5,000 in Libya, and 4,000 in Yemen.
Prima facie, these numbers indicate the resilience of one al Qaeda’s longest strategic assets; decentralised networks. As Katherine Zimmerman observed in 2013, the ‘decentralization of the al Qaeda network has not made it weaker. On the contrary, affiliate-to-affiliate relationships may have increased the overall network’s resiliency.’ This decentralisation not only allowed the group to survive the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it has facilitated the survival of major al Qaeda branches, as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). As former FBI-agent Ali Soufan wrote in 2017, while the Islamic State ‘squanders blood and treasure defending its ever-dwindling “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, al Qaeda’s looser span across two continents makes it all but impossible to pin down.’
What else does al Qaeda’s growth tell us in 2018? In my view, it serves to underline how the West has consistently misdiagnosed the root cause of Islamic terrorism.
The counterterrorism field has been marred by a false dichotomy since 9/11. On one hand, we are told we are at war with the inherently evil religion of Islam, and, by extension, its 1.6 billion adherents. This of course is wholly incorrect, and manifestations of this prejudice are not only strategically invalid, but they do untold damage to the moral reputation of the West’s self-proclaimed liberal and democratic foundations. As an example, we needn’t look further than Trump’s US Supreme Court-approved travel ban against five Muslim majority countries from June 2018.
On the other hand, we are told the Islamic faith is to be consistently exonerated and distinguished from those who seek to impose terror in its name. This view, found predominantly in the modern left was often also followed by President Obama, who repeated claims that we are not at war with Islam but criminals and death cults. This view also misunderstands the issue – it overlooks a fundamental dimension of these groups that form the roots of their resilience. Simply one brief turn to al Qaeda fatwas or the Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine evidences the fact that these groups are, at least in large part, motivated by their interpretation of Islam.
Without the ability to look through this false dichotomy where either all Muslims are followers of evil or no one terrorist is religiously inspired, we will forever misdiagnose the threat, and therefore make the same mistakes. We interpret terrorism solely as a by-product of Western foreign policy faults or as a symptom of economic inequality. While these can be explanations for any one individual’s actions, a holistic explanation for the cause of IS’ or al Qaeda’s existence will be found wanting without appeal to religious motivation. As then-presidential candidate Gov. John Kasich said, ‘we are not at war with Islam – we’re at war with radical Islam.’
In light of al Qaeda’s recent resurgence, policymakers must remember the fundamental threat will never be one particular group’s modus operandi, and so no group will simply be defeated with military might alone. Rather, it is the extremist ideology that underpins their shared resilience to counterterrorism campaigns, which must be exposed at its ideological root, and identified in plain sight: ‘al Qaeda and the Islamic State represent only a fraction of the real enemy: a global movement, unified by an ideology – takfiri jihadism.’