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Islamic extremism, explained

Al-Qaeda fighters in Syria.
Al-Qaeda fighters in Syria.
(Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is nothing if not ambitious. In a speech last July, Baghadi promised his fighters much more than their already large empire in Iraq and Syria: "if you hold to [the Islamic State]," he said, "you will conquer Rome and own the world."

On one level, this is absurd: no one expects to see black flags over the Coliseum. But Baghdadi's grandiloquence reflects a harsh reality: all around the Middle East, ISIS and its fellow jihadi groups have surged to power.

Jihadism refers to a violent extremist movement that seeks to establish an Islamic empire — referred to as a caliphate — governed by a harsh, extremely conservative interpretation of Islamic law. (The word "jihad" translates literally as "struggle," but "jihadism" refers to the militant ideology that has adopted that term.) Militant jihadi groups now have major presences in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. And as they rise, fears of another major terrorist attack on the United States and the West rise with them.

But since 9/11, Western politicians and commentators have gotten groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS badly wrong, often miscasting them as a mere outgrowth of Western foreign policy or a reaction to America's "freedoms." That is a distraction: the real roots of the jihadi movement actually lie in the Islamic world's efforts to grapple with a modern political and social reality that began in the 19th century.

These movements see themselves as fighting a war to purify the Muslim world and return it to its rightful place as a preeminent global power. They view their war with the West as a strategic element of that fight, not an immediate goal in and of itself. And while their quest for an Islamic empire has little chance of success, the jihadis are in a position to do immense amounts of damage — especially to their fellow Muslims.

Jihadism's appeal lies in its promise of a "return" to Islamic greatness

ISIS Teen

An ISIS recruit threatens the West. (ISIS)

In late August, American citizen Douglas McAuthur McCain was killed in Syria. But McCain wasn't killed by ISIS: he was actually fighting for the group, and died in a battle between ISIS and Syrian rebels. Like tens of thousands of his fellow Muslims around the world, McCain left his home behind in favor of a hard life in one of the world's most dangerous war zones.

His decision to fight for ISIS seems utterly baffling unless you understand the appeal behind these groups. Jihadi groups promise a romantic life for their fighters — and promise to provide a clear remedy for the problems that have been ailing the Muslim world for more than a century.

It's a question first taken up by the broader Islamist movement, since roughly the late 19th century. Islamism, broadly defined as the belief that political life should be run according to rules set out by Islamic law, "emerged in response to a set of factors that were introduced into the Muslim world as a result of the latter's encounter with the West," Mohammed Ayoob, a professor at Michigan State University, writes.

Islamists were trying to address a very painful question: why were European powers growing so powerful — even colonizing part of the Muslim world — while predominantly Muslim states lagged behind? The answer, simply, was that the Muslim world had forgotten its roots. Only an Islamic state, governed by a fairly strict interpretation of Islamic law, could restore the Muslim world to its former glory.

Jihadism isn't the same thing as Islamism — while all jihadists are Islamists, not all Islamists are jihadists. Some Islamists, like Tunisia's Ennahda, can function in a democratic system. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood wants to set up a pretty nasty government, but claims not to plan violent attacks.

That said, the Muslim Brotherhood has been violent in the past. In fact, jihadism emerged out of the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a key Brotherhood intellectual in the mid-20th century. "More than anyone else," Qutb "inspired generations of jihadis, including al-Qaeda's senior leadership," according to Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics.

Qutb hated the West and believed that Islamism — in its harshest, most unyielding variety — was the only way to cure the cancerous spread of Western influence and modern values in the Muslim world. To make that happen, he believed, the Arab world's secular dictatorships needed to be swept away, and replaced by a caliphate governed on Islamic law. Only then would the Muslim world be great again. Qutb believed that armed struggle to reinstate an Islamic state was the duty of every Muslim.

Qutb was hanged in 1966, after the Egyptian government decided he had become too much of a threat to its rule. But Qutb had already won: his devoted band of followers in the Brotherhood went out and spread his ideas. Eventually, they'd reach a wealthy Saudi named Osama bin Laden — who would spread a movement grounded in Qutb's ideas around the world.

Jihadi attacks on America are about strategy, not just theology

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Osama bin Laden in an undated photo. (Getty Images)

Before he died, bin Laden was very clear on one thing: the United States is al-Qaeda's greatest enemy. "No other duty after belief is more important" than the war on America, he wrote in a 1996 "declaration of war" against the US.

It would be easy to get the impression from statements like that one that bin Laden's primary motivation was hatred of the US, and that al-Qaeda's primary goal was destruction of the US and its way of life. But that, surprisingly, is incorrect. Bin Laden wasn't motivated principally by a desire for revenge on the US or hatred for its "freedoms." Rather, for extremist jihadist groups like al-Qaeda, attacks on the West are a means to an end: establishing an Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Muslim world.

While it's true that jihadis eventually want Islam to dominate the world, they believe the first step to doing so is unifying Islam under a caliphate governed by Sharia law. After Qutb, the nascent jihadi movement focused principally on toppling Middle Eastern regimes that weren't sufficiently radical for their liking. For instance, jihadi assassins killed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 — two years after he signed a peace treaty with Israel.

Al-Qaeda changed all that. Bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, argued that any strategy that focused on the Arab world alone missed the point. The real problem was the United States: a global superpower committed to backing Arab dictators in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With such a powerful patron, they argued, the Arab regimes — which they called the "near enemy" — were essentially invincible. Al-Qaeda needed to push the United States — the "far enemy" — out of the Middle East first in order to have any chance of creating a caliphate.

It's this strategic logic, more than anything else, that pushed al-Qaeda to attack the United States. Bin Laden hated America for any number of reasons, from its support for Israel to its loose sexual morals, but strategy was the primary reasoning behind devoting resources to attacking it. Al-Qaeda believed, and still does, that it can do so much physical and economic damage to the US that the US will eventually be forced out of the Middle East.

ISIS's view is quite different. Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS's leadership doesn't believe it's necessary to push America out before establishing a caliphate. Rather, given that ISIS controls territory in Iraq and Syria that's the about size of the UK, leaders thinks they already have a caliphate. They're happy to kill US citizens: murdering captive Americans helps them attract recruits, and the United States is currently bombing them. But ISIS's strategic priority is defending the caliphate from invasion and attack rather than planning attacks on the American homeland.

That points to the key ideological difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS: al-Qaeda believes the time is not yet right for establishing a caliphate. ISIS thinks that's hyper-timid incrementalist nonsense.

Jihadi groups have a vision for victory that is based on strategy, not just fanaticism

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(Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate. (Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

If the jihadi plan to create a massive new caliphate sounds crazy to you, you're not alone. "We don't usually think of terrorists as grand strategists. We're more likely to dismiss them as crazed killers or mindless misanthropes," Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor, writes.

But Hoffman, and every other authority on jihadism, thinks that's totally wrong. It's true that the notion that these relatively small bands of fighters could push the United States out of the Middle East, let alone conquer the region, is probably delusional. But the fact that jihadis' ultimate goal is probably out of reach doesn't mean they don't have a strategy for accomplishing it. They do — and it's one that's been disturbingly effective.

Al-Qaeda's plan to defeat America is much subtler than people usually give them credit for. They believe the key to defeating America is its pocketbook: convince America that the costs of supporting client regimes in the Middle East are simply not worth it.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, explains that this plan has gone through three stages: al-Qaeda tried to bleed the US by directly hitting its economic infrastructure (the Twin Towers), drawing it into unwinnable wars (Afghanistan/Iraq), and provoking costly overreactions to minor threats (airport security).

Given the massive financial cost to the United States from the occupation of Afghanistan and from overzealous "security measures" at home, it's not crazy to say that al-Qaeda has had some success with that strategy. "Al Qaeda leaders, operatives, and sympathizers believe they are winning their fight against the West, and they have a point," Gartenstein-Ross writes.

ISIS, naturally, has a different strategy. ISIS's goal is to establish territorial control in as much of the Muslim world as possible. ISIS does that by sheer brutality: its terrorist attacks and killings are designed to exacerbate sectarian or political tensions. The more violent and polarized a conflict gets, the easier it is for a radical group like ISIS is to attract support from local fighters.

In places where this has worked, like eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq, ISIS has set up "governing" institutions designed to extract money and resources from the territory it controls — gains that it uses to support an army capable of defending its territory and, ideally, expanding it further.

This strategy of actually taking and holding territory has made ISIS look far more dynamic than al-Qaeda. But it's unlikely that ISIS, whose hyper-violent war has made it a plethora of very powerful enemies in the region, can keep up this momentum indefinitely.

Jihadi wars are tearing the Middle East apart

ISIS

(ISIS)

For a brief period around 2011, most experts believed jihadism was on the decline. Bin Laden was dead, and the Arab Spring appeared to be ruining the jihadi narrative that violence, not peaceful protest, was the solution to Arab world's woes. We know now that was terribly wrong. The Arab Spring uprisings in Syria, Yemen, and Libya eventually transformed into violent conflict and then chaotic state collapse. Now all three have become havens for jihadi groups. Al-Qaeda is resurgent, and ISIS has emerged as an independent threat to the Middle East. In some ways, things are worse than ever.

If you look at the history of jihadism, this isn't actually all that surprising. Jihadi groups flourish in failed states and wars — and that, more than anything else, is what the Arab Spring has brought to the Middle East. And now the jihadi groups flourishing in those failed states are tearing the Middle East apart.

Al-Qaeda grew strong after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Fighters from around the Arab world joined up to repel the Soviets, and they learned how to fight a war. They were also "indoctrinated into the most extreme ideas concerning jihad," the New America Foundation's Peter Bergen writes. These radicalized fighters became the core of bin Laden's network.

Likewise, the US invasion of Iraq created the conditions in which ISIS has flourished. After the US moved in, a minor terrorist group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi transformed itself into one of the leading Sunni groups attacking the American invaders. Zarqawi's outfit attracted huge numbers of Iraqi fighters, and pledged itself to al-Qaeda early in the war. But the groups never really saw eye to eye: Zarqawi and his deputies were far too brutal, and far too interested in trying to establish an Iraqi caliphate, for al-Qaeda's tastes. These ideological and strategic differences between the two groups forced a divorce in early 2014, and the ISIS we know today was born.

Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, today's jihadi wars aren't about repulsing foreign invaders. But they provide jihadi groups with another critical resource: ungoverned territory. The common denominator between Syria, Yemen, and Libya is a collapse of governance: in each country, Arab Spring uprisings helped demolish the central government's ability to exercise force in all of the country's territory. That means jihadis can set up shop and expand without much fear of government retribution.

And in Syria, things are even worse. Syria is now mired in a sectarian civil war: President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite Shia regime pitted against the country's Sunni majority. Jihadi groups thrive in this kind of war, because no one takes a harder line against religious enemies than fanatics. Jihadis have also benefitted from aid from regional powers, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, looking to overthrow the Assad regime. Today, al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra, is exponentially more powerful than it was in 2012, when the war began in earnest. And ISIS governs a huge chunk of the country's east.

Jihadism is a bigger threat to the Middle East now than it's ever been.

The jihadi threat to America is real, but very limited

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Airport police. (Michael Nagle/Getty Images)

As jihadism marches around the Middle East, American leaders are sounding the alarm about a new threat to American security. ISIS is "a plane ticket away from our own shores," Sen. Marco Rubio told NPR's Steve Inskeep. "We have underestimated this group's capacity in the past. We cannot afford to do that when it comes to risks to the homeland."

But the fact that jihadis are ascendant in the Middle East doesn't mean that the threat of another 9/11 is getting higher. In fact, a hard look at the evidence suggests that the risk of a catastrophic attack on the American homeland is actually pretty low.

Let's start with a look at the numbers. Two academic studies, recently reported by the Atlantic's Jonathan Rauch, attempted to quantify the risk of an American citizen dying in a terrorist attack based on past attacks. The first one put the odds at about one in 950,000. The second put them at one in 3.5 million.

By comparison, the odds of getting hit by a car and killed as a pedestrian is one in 704, per the National Safety Council. You're over 100 times more likely to die by literally walking around than you are to be killed in a terrorist attack.

These numbers reflect the fact that launching a major terrorist attack on the United States is very, very difficult. Since 9/11, the US has massively stepped up international counterterrorism coordination: law enforcement agencies around the world have invested a great deal of effort in countering and busting up terrorist cells plotting international attacks. America's location also serves as a natural barrier. It's very hard to get to the US from the Middle East without flying, and airports are effective checkpoints: anyone with suspected links to a jihadi group is likely to get flagged when they check in.

That's even true for Western nationals who go join ISIS or al-Qaeda in Syria. "We're going to know who these guys are, and we're going to watch them closely as they transit home," Will McCants, director of the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, told me in September.

"The 9/11 attacks took a couple years to put together and pull off," Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said at the same time. "To expect ISIS to be able to pull something like that is not reasonable. I don't get too stressed about it."

That's not to say that jihadi terrorism isn't a real threat to American interests. For one thing, America has real interest in preventing jihadi groups from threatening its allies in the Middle East. That makes limiting jihadis' regional rise a real concern independently of whether jihadi groups threaten American territory directly.

Counterterrorism experts also worry a lot about so-called "lone wolf" attacks: random American citizens who buy a gun or build a bomb on their own. These people are inspired by ISIS or al-Qaeda, but don't plan their attacks with the leadership cadres of those groups, making it difficult for law enforcement to track them.

But random killings, terrible as they are, are a far cry from 9/11-style mass attacks. A realistic assessment of the jihadi threat suggests America might be able to ramp down some of its more wasteful and liberty-threatening counterterrorism policies — especially given that al-Qaeda's whole strategy centers on bleeding America financially.

Jihadism's self-defeating plan

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An Iraqi Kurdish fighter poses next to a destroyed ISIS truck. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

The idea that ISIS or al-Qaeda might actually win — really, truly reestablish the caliphate — is pretty scary. "This is a group with a clear intention of establishing a Sunni Islamic caliphate that stretches through Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria," Rubio said in the same NPR interview. "It would completely destabilize the region."

Luckily, that quest is very likely to fail. Jihadis have an Achilles heel: jihadism simply is not an effective basis for a modern government.

While Islamism has a lot to say about the proper relationship between religion and society, it has literally nothing to say about how to manage a modern economy. Koranic exegesis is totally unhelpful in managing an oil economy, formulating monetary policy, or building up a dynamic private sector. Since the Arab Spring, empowered Islamist groups — be it Ennahda in Tunisia or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — have failed to deliver on their promise for a better world under Islamic law. And it's an important reason why, in some cases, they've lost what power they gained.

The problem is even worse for jihadi groups. Their extreme, brutal ideology — ISIS, for instance, is fond of beheading people in public and leaving their bodies out for display — makes life nightmarish for the civilians living in their territory. Historically, that means that jihadi governments have alienated the people they rule, which made it much easier for enemy military forces to move into jihadi-held territory and ultimately root them out.

This is built into jihadism's DNA. The core of its appeal is the promise of a return to a romanticized seventh-century Islamic utopia. But any attempt to actually recreate the early Islamic caliphate under modern circumstances is doomed to produce a terrible government. So as scary as the rise of jihadism is today, the ideology is still destined to fail in the long run.