Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Myth of the Global Jihadist Network

In a recent blog post, Yohanes and I argued that small- and medium-sized terrorist groups frequently act like firms or businesses in market settings. Hence, we used the term "market-based terrorism" to describe this phenomenon. Here, I would like to explore one important implication of our arguments.

Put simply, the idea of a global network of jihadis had been far exaggerated.

Now, to be clear, just so some readers don't misinterpret my views, I don't doubt that there are Islamic terrorists. They do exist. Nor do I deny that some of these terrorists seek to harm and destroy Americans and American interests. There are ample examples of such behavior.

The real threat, as has been the case a number of years now, comes primarily from al-Qaeda Central (located in the Af-Pak area) and its one main offshoot in Yemen. Yet for years, particularly under George W. Bush but also under Barack Obama, Americans have been led to believe that there is a global pipeline of savvy, organized terrorists lining up to wage holy war against the U.S.

This has led to a number of changes in the way America looks and acts on a daily basis. After all, the post-9/11 period has given birth to, among other things, the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, changes in the aviation industry, new mechanisms to ensure better intelligence sharing between U.S. agencies, and, of course, two wars.

Unfortunately, the logic underpinning all of these massive and extraordinarily expensive changes just isn't true. Why? How could that be?

Let's go back to the piece that Yohanes and I penned. As we have found, most organized groups which align themselves with AQ typically have local interests and are motivated to commit violence and mayhem by local level grievances (the desire for more political power, regime change, revenge against other groups in society, etc.). So although they have ties to AQ, an organization with a global focus, the franchises themselves remain locally oriented. They're really not global jihadists. And these groups aren't particularly concerned about targeting American interests as long as the U.S. stays out of their local affairs.

For instance, Jamaah Islamiyah, Chechen terrorists, AQ in Mesopotamia, and al-Shabab, to name but a few examples, fit the above characterization. Yes, even AQ in Mesopotamia (AQIM).

Sunni groups in Iraq aligned with AQ Central to receive various kinds of support (recruits, technical expertise, funds) in exchange for inflicting enough death and destruction in the country to scuttle hopes for a smooth transition to democracy--a transition, mind you, that has uplifted the position of Shia Iraqis and disempowered the minority Sunnis. Sure, AQIM  is anti-American and has fought against the military U.S., but it is first and foremost an anti-democratic, anti-Shia organization, which coincides nicely with the views of AQ Central and made a pairing feasible. America's military has been and is currently attacked by AQIM mostly because it is seen as the shield protecting the Shia government in Baghdad. Once the U.S. leaves Iraq, possibly as soon as the end of this year, AQIM won't follow American forces home nor will it look to target U.S. interests worldwide. Instead, what we're likely to find is a continuation of the violence committed by AQIM against the Iraqi Shia-dominated government.

The failure of AQ's affiliates to participate in global jihadism, combined with the increasing impotence and irrelevance of AQ Central, has prompted AQ leaders to encourage "lone wolf" attacks against the West. This is the best an enervated and leaderless AQ can hope for. Certainly, solo terror attacks can be dangerous and Washington must remain vigilant in its attention to these murderers lurking in extremist chat rooms, message boards, web sites, and the like. That said, this is hardly the picture of a vibrant terrorist network placing the U.S. under siege from all quarters of world. It is a clear signal that AQ is desperate.

Incidentally, the set of arguments posited herein is consistent with the work of Ohio State scholar John Mueller, who has also suggested that the terrorist threat is "overblown." While I don't endorse all of his claims, the strength of his work rests in his empirical observations, particularly his finding that more people die as a result of lightning strikes or falling in the bathtub than from terrorist attacks. What he lacks is good explanation to account for the data. The logic of market-based terrorism, by highlighting the relationship between AQ Central and its terror affiliates and examining the goals and motives of these franchises, probably goes some way toward filling in this theoretical gap.

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