US Whack-a-Mole View of Jihadism
Graham E. Fuller
16 March 2015
Violent Islamic jihadi radicalism continues to spread across the Muslim world with ever newer names and forms. But Washington seems fixated in each case upon the particular immediate character of each movement, its leadership, followers, and modus operandi. We analytically sift the groups for differences among them that might offer solutions to neutralizing them. But we are missing the forest for the trees: commonalities among them are greater than distinctions. Al-Qa’ida was not a one-off thing that could be individually terminated but a symptom of a far deeper problem.
The truly dismaying reality to emerge from the extraordinary growth of violent jihadism in the last decade or so is the depth of the pool of anti-western emotions and resentments that are out there. The multiple causes are by now well-known to all: colonial and imperial rule, long western control of Muslim energy resources, redrawing the borders of much of the Muslim world, imposition of pro-western dictators, reflexive support of Israel, the half-century-long Israeli occupation of Palestine, endless Western political and military interventions. These resentments were long known to anyone who worked in the area—but their depth and potential backlash could never be fully gauged; in Washington they had been routinely dismissed by most top policy makers as little more than passing Arab temper tantrums. How often did we hear these officials say about the US peace process: “the Arabs may be angry, but they have nowhere else to go; we’re the only game in town.” But which specialists could predict how, when and where the first real backlash would occur? The region awaited a spark; that spark was 9/11.
For most Americans history in the Middle East begins with 9/11; they perceive it as an unexpected, crazy, groundless criminal act coming out of the blue while the US was simply trying to ensure stability in the Middle East. Criminal it indeed was, but neither crazy, groundless, or even truly unpredictable in general terms.
9/11 indeed was the first real pushback by the Muslim world into the West, and of course it came from extremists—who else would first undertake a retributive strike against the US? Surely not the unhappy moderates of the region. 9/11 shocked, stunned, and even thrilled many across the developing world who now saw themselves as no longer completely impotent before the West. And Washington’s response is well-known–the Global War on Terror which escalated tensions to new heights: invasions, regime overthrows, wars leading to the death of several million Muslims, massive population dislocation and destruction of infrastructure, drones, state collapse, anarchy opening the way to tribal and sectarian warfare, all power structures up for grabs—the list goes on.
What we have never fully known is the depth of this long-festering Middle East discontent, or the lengths to which people—radicalized minorities to be sure—continue to be willing to resist, strike back, assert themselves. That depth is even deeper than many of us might have earlier surmised and is still unmeasurable. We can see how it keeps on feeding itself, metastasizing across a broad swath of the Muslim world: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Kenya, a handful of western Muslims… the list goes on. (China represents another major civilization deeply suspicious of the West, that went through incredible paroxysms of domestic violence and anti-foreign rage only a few decades ago.)
What is disturbing is that these diverse jihadi movements are fundamentally local variations of a common theme—resistance, backlash, radicalization, the pursuit of ever “purer” or supposedly more authentic and early forms of Islam that represent an in-your-face assertion of identity and resistance. Conditions differ from country to country but the grand phenomenon remains the same. Al-Qa’ida and ISIS may be rivals in one sense, fighting over tactical, strategic issues. But apparent ideological differences perhaps more accurately reflect issues of turf, leadership, power, and personalities. These are not separate movements, but rather a fairly cohesive, long-term, deeply-rooted radicalized expression of violent resistance, that borrow Islamic religious vocabulary and stage the theater to go with it—and bidding for new recruitment pools to strengthen their ranks.
We should not be led astray by the thought that we can deal with violent jihadi movements seriatim, one after the other, as if each constituted a separate target. Or the belief that, like the game Whack-a-Mole, you just keep waiting with a stick to hit each new movement over the head as it emerges from under the ground. That approach is above all a recipe for unending “war against radical Islam” in the Muslim world—one in which America conveniently supplies both many of the causes for these uprisings and then deploys the huge bureaucratic and military machines to put them down. That will keep a lot of people busily employed in the West for a long period of time, dealing with self-renewing, self-fulfilling prophesies.
Thus al-Qa’ida was never really defeated as such, even with its severe weakening; we have witnessed a proliferation of regional al-Qa’idas proud to borrow the successful franchise name. Association with the original al-Qa’ida brand served primarily promotional and inspirational needs and provided experience to ever newer cadres. It helped seed Taliban resistance to American occupation of Afghanistan, and inspired a variety of Sunni and Shi’ite resistance movements to US occupation of Iraq. And now it to exploits the US military operational presence in Somalia and Yemen, and the US/NATO overthrow of Qadhafi. The murderous Boko Haram in Nigeria now declares its affiliation with ISIS.
Few can now doubt that ISIS itself springs directly out of the US destruction of the entire Iraqi state, the subsequent shift of sectarian power, and the scattering of Iraq’s military and administrative capabilities (Ba’th party); many of these elements have provided the administrative and military backbone now fighting under the ISIS banner. In Syria we see multiple violent jihadi groups, all variants of al-Qa’ida or ISIS, or other violent movements. Such movements have been operating in Algeria for decades, under shifting names.
It is imperative that we understand the broad and cohesive nature of this anti-US phenomenon across the Muslim world to one extent or another. We can’t get rid of these movements piece-meal, they will simply regroup under different names in different places, all drawing on the same discontents and inspirations that create rich recruitment pools. And even if ISIS and, say, Boko Haram are militarily destroyed, the ideas and background conditions that produced them will remain until the conditions that nourish them are changed.
People are not radicalized because suddenly someone suggests a radical idea with broad appeal. Radical ideas only take root when the groundwork is sufficiently radicalized to nurture them. Muslims preaching (correctly) that ISIS does not represent the essence of true Islam may have some modest effect upon the audience, but these wars, despite rhetoric, are not ideological as such. Discontents, angers, resentments, hardships, dislocations will still remain and await exploitation by the next generation.