Jihadism of the Twenty-First Century and What to Do about It
Let us return to two assumptions we made earlier. First, Islamic State is a symptom rather than a cause. Second, where both the means for inflicting violence and the justifications for it exist, violence committed in the name of ideas will exist as well.
Jihadists are no exception to these premises, and in fact the entire story of Islamic State is just that. Whereas the particulars of its project are distinct (the claim to a territory and caliphate and an apocalyptic narrative), it has also followed the trajectory of jihadism during the last century of redefining and rebranding traditional concepts as solutions to political crises. This rebranding of jihadism will take place on any media available and will become infinitely more effective when validated on the ground.
A number of the distinguishing features of jihadism in the twenty-first century:
Social media mobility. The use of social media by jihadist groups has been well documented and discussed. Besides the messages promoted on these platforms, these will be used as mobility ladders for lower-level (perhaps less sophisticated, less pedigreed) jihadist aspirants to brand themselves and emerge as jihadist authorities, whether because of mastery of certain texts or for certain documentary abilities or, still, for their journalistic qualities. In short, social media will not only be the stage on which jihadist screenplays are acted out, but also where new jihadist playwrights and directors will emerge.
Territorial causes. No longer will jihadists be able to only make a case to their followers through mere terrorizing. Rather, the most successful groups to take shape will somehow marry their jihadist ideas with territorial causes—whether to sectarian causes in Iraq and Syria, as ISIS and Syrian groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra do, or potentially to ethnic divisions (such as the Amazigh in North Africa) or tribal affiliations. In short, increasingly the attacks on the far enemy (the United States, Europe) will be justified in the name of localized and territorially bound causes.
Appeal to youth and provision of non-fighting opportunities. One unique feature of ISIS is its appeal among a distinctly young demographic. Indeed, it is the promise of not only battlefield victory and martyrdom but also, ironically, a case for a better and more “Islamic” life in the territories under their control that they promise to new recruits. We need to be mindful of the unique ways in which ideas are not only married to causes, but also packaged for a specific consumer base: youth seeking opportunities for advancement.
Technological terrorism. Because of the distinctly young demographic of future fighters, the terrorist threats they will pose will take place on technological platforms and spaces that they master. These include not only hacking, but also cyber warfare and nefarious uses of mobile apps, among others. Cyber security will increasingly be the first line of defense in preserving national security.
While our counter-ISIS strategy may end up being the final nail in ISIS’s coffin, it is only a first step in a pro-regional strategy that can curb the threat of twenty-first-century jihadism—a policy that addresses how jihadist ideas exploit political vulnerabilities in the Middle East to inspire vigilante violence at home. Unlike our current conversations on CVE, “community resilience” and other euphemistic turns of phrase, a pro-regional strategy to counterterrorism would link our conversation on domestic radicalization to planning for political stability in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and would better prepare us for the day-after scenario once ISIS is ultimately downsized to being just another militia. With the earlier assumptions about the adaptability of jihadist ideas, such a pro-regional strategy to counterterrorism makes the United States more agile in fluid political, physical and media landscapes by anticipating how groups exploit political conflicts.
In the twilight months of the Obama presidency, and with an eye towards a new administration moving into the White House in January, it may be a good time to maneuver our bureaucracy and arsenal to consider a pro-regional strategy aimed at not only political stability in the Middle East for its own sake, but also as a means towards meeting the jihadist challenge after Islamic State.
Dr. Jacob Olidort is a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Image: Al-Nusra Front members and a Free Syrian Army commander in Maarrat al-Nu'man, 11 March 2016. Wikimedia Commons/Voice of America.