Seventeen years after 9/11, the outcome of the War on Terror that followed seems indisputable. Al-Qaeda operates in many more countries and has a larger number of followers than it did before 2001. Other threats have emerged, as well. The Islamic State overshadowed its former patron in al-Qaeda in 2014, when it controlled vast areas in multiple countries, and has left behind misery, devastation, and hatred that could fuel conflicts for another generation. The war against extremism is not working.
The problem lies in the persistent tendency to view the threat of jihadism through the post-2001 prism. The attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. still shape the way both policymakers and experts on jihad approach the subject. But the threat of extremism today is better understood through events that took place after 2011, when the Arab Spring and its aftermath overturned the established order in the Middle East and North Africa, and with it the world of extremism.
In the 1990s, al-Qaeda was largely a vanguard organization. It was led by ideologues and operatives who wanted to expand the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan globally, turning against regimes in the region and the United States. It emerged out of Salafi-Jihadism, a religious and political ideology that blended the revolutionary ideas of political Islam with fundamentalist teachings derived from traditional Salafism.
When it launched the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda and its ideology were disconnected from the day-to-day realities of the broader Middle East. Young people growing up in the region knew relatively little about the group, beyond the figure of Osama bin Laden, often presented as a wealthy Saudi who had abandoned his comfortable life to fight in jihad, and, for those who had satellite channels, occasional footage on Al Jazeera of men climbing the mountains of Afghanistan, sometimes riding horses. The jihadis styled themselves “elitists,” at the vanguard of a movement, to distinguish themselves from those who followed their lead.
After 2011, that changed. Jihadis became grounded in local reality. Many locals have actually dropped the term, rather than apply it to those immersed in their culture, who share so little in common with the old elitists. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, experts on jihadism studied theorists like Abdullah Azzam, Abu Musab al-Suri, and Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi. That sort of scholarship remains a useful means of probing belief systems or exploring the origins of modern jihadism. But it is no longer adequate to understand what a jihadi stands for or what their guiding principles are, much less what drives the groups in which they operate. Policymakers and observers will now find deep knowledge of the geography, demography, and the political, economic, and social circumstances that might fuel and sustain a conflict more useful than knowing whether a person is more influenced by Maqdisi than Azzam.
Contemporary extremism is a product of local dynamics in a way that bin Laden was not. In 2011, bin Laden grappled with what was unfolding before his eyes in the region. In his notebook, released by the CIA last year, he took credit for triggering the uprisings, but he clearly struggled to understand what was happening. He barely made reference to Iraq and Syria. In some pages, he seemed to defer to pundits on Arabic television channels to grasp the underlying causes. Later, his followers would complain that the Arab uprisings eclipsed their ideology.
Soon after that notebook was written, bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The popular uprisings and the killing of bin Laden were double upheavals that crippled al-Qaeda, to the point that President Barack Obama and many observers at the time said the group was now dead or on a path to demise. When it bounced back and became larger than ever before, observers attributed that to its resilience, even its strategic brilliance. The reality was more complicated: Credit for the revival of al-Qaeda should not be given to Ayman Zawahiri and his aides, who led the organization after bin Laden. Instead, it was local insurgents who built local organizations, relying more on their understanding of local dynamics than on instructions from a cave far away. In fact, some of these groups would stop listening when Zawahiri overplayed his hand.
Take al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, once dubbed the most successful of the group’s franchises worldwide. Jabhat al-Nusra was established by the Islamic State of Iraq in 2011, before breaking off and pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2013. It was Jabhat al-Nusra’s jihadi credibility—as a powerful and effective local group fighting a vicious dictator in Damascus, backed by Iran and Russia—that enabled al-Qaeda to contain the spectacular rise of the Islamic State. Zawahiri’s leadership skills were so poor, though, that he later alienated both Jabhat al-Nusra and the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda.
The post-2001 campaign against jihadi groups established financial, political, and military norms that prepared and equipped regimes and even the local populace to contain the rise of jihadi groups in 2011. But it has now outlived its usefulness. Jihadis no longer speak to communities from the ivory tower of vanguard ideas. They are fighting the local fight, and that has enhanced their relevance and bred success. Combatting the threat they pose will require taking a similarly local approach.
In December 2009, ISIS summarized its plan for weakening the Iraqi security forces and reviving its own fortunes in a line of Arabic poetry. Loosely translated, it reads: “One cannot construct a house when someone else is constantly destroying what one builds.” The goal, ISIS explained, was to prevent the Americans, who would leave in exactly two years, from constructing a functioning Iraqi government that could legitimately govern all of the country. If governments in the region, and their allies in the west, wish to combat the contemporary threat of jihad, they will need to redouble their efforts to build that house—delivering effective governance to local communities.