Anzalone, After Usama: The Jihadi-Takfiri Trend after Bin Laden

Christopher Anzalone writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

The killing of Usama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qa‘ida Central, this week in Pakistan has opened the door to intense speculation about the future of the militant organization and the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend that it represents. A great deal of attention has been paid to who the next leader of al-Qaeda Central, its next public face, will be. Bin Laden’s killing, while certainly a major loss to al-Qaeda Central and its regional affiliates, does not sound the death knell of the transnational trend known as the jihadi-takfiri (those who view Muslim holy war [jihad] as a pillar of the faith and who lightly excommunicate [takfir] and attack other Muslims who disagree with them). While the importance of his killing should be recognized, it is critically important to not exaggerate its likely impact.

A number of analysts have claimed that al-Qaeda Central and its militant call for Muslim action have been made irrelevant with the advent of the popular anti-regime uprisings across the Arab world. While not entirely incorrect, this claim is overly centered on the Arab world and ignores other regions of the Muslim world, such as South and Southwest Asia, where elements of al-Qaeda Central’s message continue to resonate with segments of the population. Though these segments are clearly a small minority, their potential negative influence is vastly greater than their actual numbers.

It is important to understand the multifaceted jihadi-takfiri message. The youth, mostly men but some women, who join al-Qaeda Central and other Muslim militant organizations cite an array of reasons for their decision to engage in violence. In their “martyrdom” wills and last testaments, either on film or in writing, they list a large number of grievances. Though they may view bin Laden as a heroic symbol and inspiration, these youth list other reasons for their decision to fight to the death.

These reasons include the U.S. military wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the killing of Muslim civilians in drone and other types of U.S. military strikes, the occupation and siege of the Palestinian Territories, total U.S. political and military support for the Israeli state, American practices of torture, the humiliation of Muslims around the world, U.S. and European support for Arab and Muslim autocratic governments, war crimes committed by individual or small groups of U.S. military personnel.

Bin Laden’s killing will almost certainly not address these issues in the minds of the youth who support al-Qaeda Central or similar movements. Thus, the Saudi militant’s death will most likely not end the attractiveness of the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend that he represents. While it is true that the “Arab Spring” has been a significant setback for al-Qaeda Central and its Arab regional affiliates, it is critically important to remember that the transnational militant trend they represent are not limited to them. The future of this trend depends, in large part, to how the U.S. and European governments together with their allies around the world react to the historic events in the Arab world, conduct the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and interact with the populations of the Muslim world.

Regional militant movements such as the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan maintain their own independent networks, leadership structures, and set of country and region-specific goals, thus they are less likely than al-Qaeda Central and its regional affiliates to be negatively impacted by bin Laden’s killing. While these movements maintain relations or alliances with al-Qaeda Central they are not dependent on the largely Arab militant organization for their survival and maintain their own military capabilities.

In fact, in recent years al-Qaeda Central has become increasingly reliant on the military strength of its regional allies such as the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Many of the goals of the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, and the Pakistani Taliban are independent of al-Qaeda Central and are unlikely to be affected by Bin Laden’s death and any turmoil that may result within al-Qaeda Central’s ranks. Chief among their raisons d’être include the continued U.S. and NATO military mission in Afghanistan and the extensive U.S. military campaign in Pakistan that is exemplified in the public eye by the extensive use of drone missile strikes that have killed a number of senior al-Qaeda Central, Pakistani Taliban, and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan leaders along with scores of Pakistani civilians. Estimates of the total number of people, militants and non-militants, killed in drone strikes range between 1,459 and 2,319.

Bin Laden is clearly a central and symbolic figure for al-Qaeda Central and the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend that it represents. However, it is critical not to exaggerate the impact of his killing. Non-Arab jihadi-insurgent organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and even al-Qaeda Central’s regional affiliates in North Africa, the western Sahel, Yemen, and Iraq are less likely than al-Qaeda Central itself to be strongly and adversely affected by the Saudi militant’s death. Though there are early reports that bin Laden may have continued to play a role in al-Qaeda Central operations, the extent of his operational importance to the organization remains unclear.

It should also be recognized that since September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda Central and its regional affiliates have cultivated an influential cadre of charismatic leaders and ideologues such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, ‘Atiyyatullah Abi ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Libi, Khalid bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Husaynan, and Anwar al-‘Awlaqi who have and will likely continue to serve as capable public voices of the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend. Country and region-specific insurgent movements such as the Afghan Taliban will continue their insurgencies as long as the raisons d’être remain. In short, careful perspective is needed in evaluating the effects of bin Laden’s death on the transnational jihadi-takfiri trend represented by al-Qaeda Central, which is not synonymous with more regional Islamist insurgencies such as that of the Afghan Taliban.

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.

7 Responses

  1. The grievances of the jihadis seem legitimate. But the US would counter that we do drones, torture, occupations because they used violence first and they threaten us. The answer is a global movement against violence, disrespect, and bondage.

    • Civilian casualties have always been and always will be a part of war. It’s almost impossible for it not to happen. I don’t have the exact numbers and no one really talks about it in the media. But I’d like to see a good estimate of how many Afghani civilians and Iraqi civilians died in the past few years compared to the Vietnam and Korean Wars. How many civilian muslims were killed when Iraq and Iran had their battles in the eighties?

      My guess is those numbers will far exceed what we’ve seen the past decade. But maybe I’m wrong.

    • “The grievances of the jihadis seem legitimate.”

      The grievances of groups like the actual palestinians or lebanese are legitimate however the grievances of al qaeda style jihadists are insincere and false.

      The entire argument that they are angry about unjust harmful interventions run into a snag when one looks at afghanistan, here is a just war in which the majority of afghans feel that the invasion was right and that their lives are better now than they were before, their support for jihadists is also very low.

      Jihadists due to their bias want to believe the opposite however, so they do, in order to justify violence against those that they dislike. They create a grievance in their heads and end up supporting groups like the taliban who tortured many muslims quite often.

      Iraq was harmful however as shown by the above example even if it did not occur or if things went differently and the iraqis situation improved the jihadists would still create a scenario in their heads to justify violence against those that they hold a strong bias against. Its also hard to take them seriously when they commit lots of mass murder there themselves.

      Sympathy from them about the palestinian situation is more likely guided by anti-jewish feelings rather than any genuine sympathy, when 60,000 muslim in darfur were killed they was very little reaction from jihadists, odd for a group that “professes” to stand up for muslim humiliation and downtrodden.

      Also the argument that al qaeda style jihadists are angry about autocratic governments is clearly wrong, they may claim to but as we see whenever they impose control over an area they create a rule far harsher than many goernemnts in the region, they also supported the taliban who were highly oppressive.

      Now that bin laden is dead and normal muslims are over-throwing their rulers hopefully insincere jihadists will go the way of the dinosaur

    • This fails to address whether or not killing of civilians is a legitimate jihad. A struggle against the issues listed in the article can most certainly be performed by a variety of means, including many non-violent, and if violent, then it could be done only against legitimate combatants. Many Muslim scholars avidly maintain that jihad that targets civilians is, to put it bluntly, unholy. There is no getting away from the fact that jihad means struggle, which can of course take many forms – exactly as it does in English. To use the expression “Holy War” and be aware of the point I have just made is neocon spin. So why has the author done that?

  2. Anyone who has paid any attention to the Republican Party over the past two+ years has noticed that political activists can put forward scores of plausible-sounding, but bogus, justifications for their behavior. Look at the silly claims about Sonia Sotomayor being a racist, or the death panels in the ACA, or the pretense that Obama, who has presided over the lowest rate of taxation American has experiences in half a century, is an economy-crushing tax-raiser.

    The terrorist doesn’t grow out of the soldier, but out of the protester/political activist. If American military action was the primary driver of anti-American terrorism, then where are all of the Iraqis carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States? We’ve been messing about militarily in Iraq for 20 years now. How about Afghanistan and Pakistan – where are the Afghan or Pakistani international jihadis? Meanwhile, the actual terrorists who launch attacks against the US keep coming from countries that are our allies, and who we haven’t attacked. Look at the 9/11 hijackers: Saudis, Egyptians, Yemenis, and one Syrian. Bin Laden? Saudi. The courier we used to track him? Kuwaiti. The Underwear bomber? Nigerian. The Ft. Hood shooter? American. The shoe bomber? Jamaican/British. The Cole bombers? Yemeni. Sure, people from countries other than those that have been subject to military attack can still be bothered by that military attack, but if such opposition was the driving factor, wouldn’t we expect to see a tilt towards those countries that we have attacked as the source of terrorists, rather than the rather dramatic tilt away from them?

    The reaction of Iraqis enraged by our invasion of Iraq, or Afghans enraged by our invasion there, or Pakistanis enraged by drone strikes, has been to pick up a rifle and join an actual military (or paramilitary) force conducting attacks on American military forces in their country.

    Go back to the original blowback theory, and you’ll find that it referred to actions we took to back up and support unsavory governments, not to military attacks on them.

  3. Two steps by the West can turn bin Laden’s death into a positive turning point.

    The Arab Spring is an enormous opportunity for the West to improve relations with the Muslim world while isolating and marginalizing jihadi/takfiris. To the degree that the West takes the side of Muslim populations seeking justice and good governance, moderates are empowered, perception on both sides of a positive-sum relationship between Muslim and Western societies is cultivated, and those relying on violence will appear to be the enemies of everyone. But that outcome will require both that the West reject reliance on violence itself and that it support the Arab Spring, which it remains very far from doing.

    The second step would be the transformation of Western policy toward jihadi/takfiris from something resembling war–which will be perceived as war against Islam–into an international police action. A police action, designed to arrest and publicly try, those who employ violence, would send the message that the West has values and standards of good governance that it takes seriously and offers as common standards for all societies. To be taken seriously, though, this standard would have to be applied not just against “terrorists” but also against violence-prone governments.

    These two interdependent steps will require some fundamental rethinking by the West but could invalidate bin Laden’s message.

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