Cracks in the Jihad: Al Qaeda and the Taliban Are at Odds; and Even Internet Jihadis Are Taking Fewer Cues from Osama Bin Laden. Yet It Is Only Growing More Difficult to Defeat the Global Jihad

By Rid, Thomas | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Cracks in the Jihad: Al Qaeda and the Taliban Are at Odds; and Even Internet Jihadis Are Taking Fewer Cues from Osama Bin Laden. Yet It Is Only Growing More Difficult to Defeat the Global Jihad


Rid, Thomas, The Wilson Quarterly


"GET READY FOR ALL MUSLIMS TO JOIN THE HOLY war against you,' the jihadi leader Abdel-Kader warned his Western enemies. The year was 1839, and nine years into France's occupation of Algeria the resistance had grown self-confident. Only weeks earlier, Arab fighters had wiped out a convoy of 30 French soldiers en route from Boufarik to Oued-el-Aleg. Insurgent attacks on the slow-moving French columns were steadily increasing, and the army's fortified blockhouses in the Atlas Mountains were under frequent assault.

Paris pinned its hopes on an energetic general who had already served a successful tour in Algeria, Thomas-Robert Bugeaud. In January 1840, shortly before leaving to take command in Algiers, he addressed the French Chamber of Deputies: "In Europe, gentlemen, we don't just make war against armies; we make war against interests." The key to victory in European wars, he explained, was to penetrate the enemy country's interior. Seize the centers of population, commerce, and industry, "and soon the interests are forced to capitulate: Not so at the foot of the Atlas, he conceded. Instead, he would focus the army's effort on the tribal population.

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Later that year, a well-known military thinker from Prussia traveled to Algeria to observe Bugeaud's new approach. Major General Carl von Decker, who had taught under the famed Carl von Clausewitz at the War Academy in Berlin, was more forthright than his French counterpart. The fight against fanatical tribal warriors, he foresaw, "will throw all European theory of war into the trash heap."

One hundred and seventy years later, jihad is again a major threat and Decker's dire analysis more relevant than ever. War, in Clausewitz's eminent theory, was a clash of collective wills, "a continuation of politics by other means" When states went to war, the adversary was a political entity with the ability to act as one body, able to end hostilities by declaring victory or admitting defeat. Even Abdel-Kader eventually capitulated. But jihad in the 21st century, especially during the past few years, has fundamentally changed its anatomy: Al Qaeda is no longer a collective political actor. It is no longer an adversary that can articulate a will, capitulate, and be defeated. But the jihad's new weakness is also its new strength: Because of its transformation, Islamist militancy is politically impaired yet fitter to survive its present crisis.

In the years since late 2001, when U.S. and coalition forces toppled the Taliban regime and all but destroyed Al Qaeda's core organization in Afghanistan, the bin Laden brand has been bleeding popularity across the Muslim world. The global jihad, as a result, has been torn by mounting internal tensions. Today, the holy war is set to slip into three distinct ideological and organizational niches. The U.S. surge in Afghanistan, whether successful or not, is likely to affect this development only marginally.

The first niche is occupied by local Islamist insurgencies, fueled by grievances against "apostate" regimes that are authoritarian, corrupt, or backed by "infidel" outside powers (or any combination of the three). Filling the second niche is terrorism-cum-organized crime, most visible in Afghanistan and Indonesia but also seen in Europe, fueled by narcotics, extortion, and other ordinary illicit activities. In the final niche are people who barely qualify as a group: young second- and third-generation Muslims in the diaspora who are engaged in a more amateurish but persistent holy war, fueled by their own complex personal discontents. Al Qaeda's challenge is to encompass the jihadis who drift to the criminal and eccentric fringe while keeping alive its appeal to the Muslim mainstream and a rhetoric of high aspiration and promise.

The most visible divide separates the local and global jihadis. Historically, Islamist groups tended to bud locally, and assumed a global outlook only later, if they did so at all. …

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