Religion and the American Experience
The Special Case of Jihadist Terrorism

The Global Jihadist Movement

Jeffrey Thomas, Senior Fellow
March 20, 2012

Throughout most of the 20th century, Islamist activism—both peaceful and militant variants—focused on bringing about social-political change in the Muslim world.  Islamist militants sought primarily to caste off colonial rule or overthrow secular (often authoritarian) governments in their own countries.  In doing so, they hoped to establish Islamic regimes dedicated to enforcing their interpretation of shari’ah (Islamic law).

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 added a broader international dimension to this trend.  Radical Islamic scholar Abdullah Azzam and his former student, Osama bin Laden, created Maktab al-Khidamat (the Afghan “Bureau of Services”) to channel funds to the Afghan resistance.  This organization also recruited Muslim volunteers from around the world to fight against the Soviet occupation.  Their efforts helped mobilize a pan-Islamic movement, based on the concept of “defensive jihad,” which united Muslims across national and ethnic divides to defend fellow Muslims.

Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, many non-Afghan resistance fighters returned to their countries of origin to fight for the creation of Islamic states.  Others, emboldened by victory in Afghanistan and instilled with a transnational outlook, went to Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and elsewhere to help Muslim populations fighting against non-Muslim forces.  To support the continuation and expansion of defensive jihad, Osama bin Laden and his associates established al-Qaeda (“the Base” or “the Foundation”).

As the international scope of militant Islamist activism expanded in the 1990s, Osama bin Laden and like-minded militants advocated a shift in focus toward the West, or the “Far Enemy.”  While retaining the goal of establishing theocratic rule in Muslim lands, advocates of this view pressed their belief that Western powers were oppressors of Muslims worldwide.  To counter this perceived threat, they called for a “global jihad” against Western interests around the world, including targets within Europe and North America.  They also placed an emphasis on mass casualty terrorist attacks and the use of suicide bombings against civilians.

Al-Qaeda’s advocacy of this ideology, suffused with selective interpretations of Islamic law and tradition, abetted the rise of a diverse and widely dispersed “global jihadist movement.”  This movement was rejected by most Muslims—including most Islamist militants, the majority of whom remained focused primarily on overthrowing secular regimes at home.  However, this amorphous movement appealed to fringe elements who wanted to punish the West for perceived injustices inflicted on Muslims worldwide. 

In August 1996, Osama bin Laden issued a declaration of war against the United States and called on Muslims to use guerrilla tactics to drive Americans and their allies from the Arabian Peninsula.  He expanded this mission in a more ambitious declaration issued in February 1998.  This declaration, made in the name of the World Islamic Front against the Crusaders and the Jews, stated:

“The ruling to kill Americans and their allies—whether civilians or military—is incumbent upon every Muslim who is able and in whichever country is easiest for him. . . We also call upon Muslim ulema [religious scholars], leaders, youth, and soldiers to attack the American devil and those allies of Satan who have aligned themselves with [America].” 

Sources: David Cook, Understanding Jihad (University of California Press, 2005), pp. 174-175; Assaf Moghadam, The Globalization of Martyrdom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), p. 132.

Islamist terrorism against the West spiked following this declaration.  Al-Qaeda initiated this rise in violence with simultaneous suicide bombings against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 people and injuring 5,000.  Over the next three years, al-Qaeda and allied militants launched operations across Europe, North America, and around the world, culminating on September 11, 2001 in the deadliest terrorist attack in modern history.

Today, the global jihadist movement remains a diverse collection of formal organizations (such as al-Qaeda), autonomous groups, and individuals.  Some participants in this movement are religious fanatics who distort Islamic teachings to justify atrocities, while others are only nominally Muslim with little understanding of Islam’s religious or moral precepts.  The movement may also appeal to disaffected non-Muslim Westerners who convert to Islam pro forma to participate in violence against their own societies. 

In May 2011, a U.S. Navy Seal team killed Osama bin Laden during a raid on his compound in Pakistan, where the al-Qaeda leader had been in hiding for several years.  While his death was a major blow to the terrorist organization he led for more than two decades, al-Qaeda remains active.  Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has assumed leadership of the organization and a core group of al-Qaeda militants still operates in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Al-Qaeda has also built alliances with militant organizations beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Even though its operational coordination with such groups is severely limited today, al-Qaeda’s ability to retain loose affiliations with terrorist networks abroad—such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and al-Shabaab in Somalia—helps keep the anti-Western transnational outlook of global jihadism alive.

Like all terrorist movements, global jihadism (along with al-Qaeda and other groups that pursue it) will come to an end.  Always a fringe movement (even among militant Islamists), global jihadism has been unable to advance any of its stated goals, such as driving Western influence out of Muslim lands or creating an Islamic caliphate.  Moreover, the ongoing Arab Awakening, by bringing down Arab dictatorships without the help of jihadist violence, may accelerate its demise.  However, despite its waning influence, global jihadism (and the extremists it inspires) remains a threat to America and U.S. allies abroad.