Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.
I have been referring quite a bit lately to al Qaedaization as a rhetorical devise among Western counterterrorists. However, Salafist and Islamist militants and ideologues are also in on the game. Ironically, the two sides collaborate in creating a “reality” of global jihad that exists to a large degree in discourse.
Mohamed al-Zawahiri, a veteran Egyptian militant and brother of al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, provides an example of how al Qaeda seeks to inflate its image, in an interview withCNN’s Security Clearance blog:
If you read American literature, now they have understood that the strength of Al Qaeda is not in its leaders but in its ideology. Any person obtains power when his work matches his principles. Those who reached martyrdom have won life on earth and Allah’s heaven. Those who were killed by the US have shown us the light and proven that they have committed to their cause and spread the ideology.
Though I often treat such claims as utter bullshit, there is some deal of truth contained within al-Zawahiri’s statement. It reflects an development that Marc Sageman has identified as “leaderless jihad“:
In the post-September 11 world, Al Qaeda is no longer the central organizing force that aids or authorizes terrorist attacks or recruits terrorists. Rather, it serves as an inspiration for individuals and other groups who have branded themselves with the Al Qaeda name.
According to this theory, individuals, rather than organizations such as al Qaeda, drive global jihad. To commit an act of violence one doesn’t need a great deal of resources and know-how. An aspiring martyr no longer needs to travel to Pakistan for training. An internet connection, access to cheap explosives, and the willingness to kill is often sufficient to engage in jihad, as the Madrid M-11 attackers demonstrated.
While I do believe this theory has a good deal of purchase and can explain many individual acts of political violence, I also think it has been a bit overblown and far too widely applied. For the most part, political violence remains the work of organizations, more or less as decentralized and as “networked” as insurgent groups have always been. Additionally, there have been far fewer “lone wolf” attacks than the proponents of this theory predicted would occur. And, despite a few high-profile terrorist incidents, most forms of Islamist/Salafist political violence take place within the context of local conflicts by (relatively) organized insurgent groups.
The “leaderless/network/ideology/movement” theory of global jihad may, furthermore, have been a product of a specific historical moment, i.e. the period immediately following 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. My own sense is that things have changed and that Islamist insurgents, perhaps inspired by the Arab Spring, are increasingly focusing on the “near enemy” — Muslim and Arab regimes — rather than the American/Western “far enemy.” This does not mean that we will not see individual attacks by disaffected immigrants or radicalized citizens within Western countries. But, the vast majority of political violence remains local, as Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca and Luis de la Calle argue.
Of course, the “leaderless jihad” theory is just too damn good to be cast aside. It justifies increased expenditures for security agencies and the continued expansion of executive power, not to mention serving as a cover for other, more base strategic Western interests. For al Qaeda itself, it provides them with a measure of relevance and a way to keep their names in the paper despite their organizational decline and plummeting popularity. Such discursive collaboration between enemies is one of the most ironic outcomes of the War on Terror.