The Evolution of the Global Jihadist Movement from a One-Headed Monster to a Hydra

When Osama Bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed orchestrated the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States homeland on 9/11, it was a watershed moment for the global jihadist movement. The attacks catapulted al-Qaeda to the forefront of the West’s security agenda, monopolizing Western security policy for the better part of the past two decades, with global reverberations. Ever since, al-Qaeda and the jihadist movement have transformed in several important ways, not least in response to the emergence of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Bin Laden’s original objective was to establish a vanguard movement that would lead the struggle against apostate regimes across the Islamic world and instigate local insurrections and insurgencies. Yet, since then, the global jihadist movement’s success appears to have exceeded Bin Laden’s greatest ambitions, with the proliferation of affiliate groups in numerous countries and the mobilization of thousands of fighters from around the world, including the West. In particular, the rise of the Islamic State succeeded in transforming the jihadi movement into a popular protest movement, attracting people who would otherwise have little connection with Islamist extremism or militancy. Continuing the efforts of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State essentially turned jihadism into the primary ideology of rebellion.

The franchising model that al-Qaeda institutionalized decades ago has since been replicated by the Islamic State and its affiliates. Core networks of Islamist militants now spread their tentacles across a region ranging from the Sahel in the West to the Philippines in the East, and from the Caucasus in the North to Mozambique in the South. While these militants share some level of sympathy for a relatively similar jihadist ideology, they often differ in terms of immediate objectives and priorities, and sometimes even tactics. Their affiliation to a core group shapes enemy prioritization in the direction of a global agenda to some extent, yet most of these groups remain simultaneously committed to a local agenda as well. The result is a hybrid movement that manages to prioritize targeting both its local and global enemies to varying degrees over time. This was evident during the apex of the Islamic State’s influence between 2015 and 2017, when the group successfully directed several local insurgencies while simultaneously executing and inspiring the most horrific wave of Islamist-inspired terrorism in the West to date.

Over the years, the jihadist movement has also experienced an increasing salafization following the growing popularity of Salafism within Islamic communities. Despite common efforts to describe al-Qaeda as a so-called Salafi-jihadi organization, the group actually contained a diverse array of ideological expressions, with its leadership more influenced by the thinking of the Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb. Salafi thought, characterized by a rigid and literal interpretation of the holy sources in Islam, first gained prominence within jihadi circles in the mid-2000s, and would particularly shape the thinking of al-Qaeda militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his group in Iraq. Salafi-jihadism later dominated thinking among Islamic State jihadists, and the group can be described as the first institutionalization of a Salafi-jihadi ideology. This was expressed through the Islamic State’s governance, especially its focus on indoctrinating and subjugating populations under its control through its draconian rules and punitive practices.

The ambition to govern is another evolution that the Islamic State’s rise contributed to the jihadist movement. Al-Qaeda’s strength as a revolutionary military group rested in its ability as a disruptor to effect change through effective attacks against enemies that gained attention and recruits to their cause. The group’s ability to govern was a relative weakness, as demonstrated with its failure to do so effectively in both Yemen and Mali. Yet the Islamic State and its predecessors in Iraq have been more inclined to turn their military struggle into a lasting political project. During his time in western Afghanistan between 1999 and 2001, al-Zarqawi attempted to create a mini society. Following al-Zarqawi’s death in 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) announced the beginning of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), which involved a formal political organization divided into ministries responsible for specific portfolios. The Islamic State and its relatively moderate competitor, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), would further develop this statehood jihadism and, by effect, strengthen the political sophistication of a movement that had otherwise always avoided explicitly detailing its political project.

Alongside its internal evolutions, the Salafi-jihadist movement has been forced to adapt to intense counterterrorism pressure from the U.S. and its allies. Conventional and unconventional military campaigns, travel restrictions, and sanctions regimes have critically challenged the movement’s ability to operate, amputated its leadership echelons, and limited the terrorism threat it posed to the West. Despite this pressure, the Salafi-jihadist movement has managed not simply to survive, but to periodically take advantage of opportune contexts to rebuild and strengthen. Ongoing conflicts and fragile political environments—including in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, the Sahel, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—have enabled jihadi groups to find refuge, recruit, orchestrate military campaigns, and occasionally plan and direct terrorist attacks in the West. The sad conclusion is that twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, the jihadist movement appears, at least in terms of geographical presence and numerical support, stronger than ever before.

While policymakers have done an important job crafting and implementing terrorism legislation and limiting jihadists’ operational flexibility, there remains a lot to be done. Arguably the most important factor in countering the Salafi-jihadist threat is obtaining a better understanding of the nature of the contemporary jihadist movement and its evolution over the years to represent a popular movement both locally and globally. Jihadism no longer exclusively represents religious extremists, but now presents itself as a more general ideology of rebellion, an evolution that demands a different and broader political response. Two examples illustrating this are the phenomenon of cross-over ideologies and increasingly rapid radicalization, the latter sometimes occurring over few weeks or months, where previously it had required almost years of carefully study and covert training. As a result, authorities must quit focusing too narrowly on radical religious interpretations and instead include ‘vulnerability’ as a factor.Tomorrow’s extremist or terrorist is not necessarily the person espousing the most radical ideas but could just as well be someone lacking a stable identity and searching for a purpose. The plotter of the so-called ‘matchstick-plot’ Moyed al-Zoebi is one among several examples proving this point.

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