Despite significant gains in dismantling the leadership of extremist Islamic terrorist groups, religiously based terrorism is on the upswing and more diversified than ever, according to two reports.
Foreign Policy magazine (March/April) traces the genealogy of the name al-Qaida from its inception in 1988 (used by Osama bin Laden as a term for his training “base”) up to the present day when the term has lost much of its meaning. President Barack Obama has stated that al-Qaida’s core leadership has been decimated under his leadership, but the problem is that the group is so decentralized today that “each new startup renders that victory less and less reassuring,” writes Ty McCormick. Al-Qaida has discarded much of its hierarchical structure and it has “largely metastasized into a multinational movement with franchise operations in at least 18 countries from Mali to Syria, Yemen to Nigeria.
These so-called affiliates have largely replaced the Pakistan-based mothership—now known as `al-Qaida central’—as the driving force of global jihad.” Whether or not these franchises can equal the power and charisma of a centralized leadership, terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland report that, with recent gains in Syria and Iraq, al-Qaida and its affiliates “control more territory in the Arab world than…at any time in its history.”
Regardless of its various incarnations, jihadist terrorism tends to have a cyclical lifespan that allows it to frequently rise up from the ashes, writes Anthony Celso in the foreign affairs journal Orbis (Spring). Celso looks at the cases of Iraq and Algeria jihadist campaigns and finds that they go through four stages that most such movements undergo—mobilization, extremism, implosion and recreation. A common expectation of terrorist experts is that modern terror waves last for a generation but Celso argues that Jihadist movements . . . contravene logical convention . . . The wave’s completion could never materialize because of modern jihadism’s irrational quest for a mythical ummah, or Islamic community.” Jihadist movements tend to implode because of popular revulsion of extremist violence, internal group fragmentation and local and external enemies mobilizing against them.
But these movements also tend to revive as jihadists regroup and rebrand themselves as they seek revenge against victorious apostate forces and continue their struggle to establish the ummah. This pattern can be seen in Iraq and Syria, where jihadist groups have rebounded after setbacks. In the case of Iraq, the withdrawal of U.S. military led to new sectarian strife which al-Qaida has capitalized on, re-engaging in suicide bombing and other violence. “Confessional violence and civil war in neighboring Syria has had synergistic effect on reviving al-Qaida’s regional fortunes,” making Syria the number one jihadist battleground in the world, Celso concludes.
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