Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Global Jihadism after the Iraq War

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Global Jihadism after the Iraq War

Article excerpt

How has the invasion of Iraq influenced global jihadist ideology? Based on primary sources in Arabic, this article highlights important ideological changes; Iraq is considered a crossroads in the global jihad against the "Crusaders." New strategic dilemmas have caused divisions among militants, and Iraq's attractiveness has undermined other battlefronts. A new "strategic studies" genre has emerged in jihadist literature. Countries in Europe and the Gulf are increasingly highlighted as enemies and potential targets.

There seems to be a broad consensus among terrorism experts that the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 has contributed negatively to the so-called "global war on terror." According to many analysts, the war and the subsequent occupation have increased the level of frustration in the Islamic world over American foreign policy and facilitated recruitment by militant Islamist groups.1 Moreover, Iraq seems to have replaced Afghanistan as a training ground where a new generation of Islamist militants can acquire military expertise and build personal relationships through the experience of combat and training camps.2

Most analyses, however, seem to stop at the ascertainment of a vague, almost quantitative increase in the level of anti-Americanism or radicalism in Muslim communities since the Iraq War in 2003. This article will try to delve deeper into the matter and explore the qualitative changes in radical Islamist ideology since 2003. The next few pages are therefore devoted to the following research question: How has the invasion and occupation of Iraq influenced the ideological development of the so-called global jihadist movement?

This question demands a closer examination of the writings and sayings of leading radical ideologues on the issue of Iraq since the autumn of 2002, when the prospect of war caught the world's attention. Basing my analysis on key ideological texts, I will try to answer the following four subquestions: How important is Iraq to the socalled global jihadists? How united are the global jihadists in their view on the struggle for Iraq? How have the war and the occupation influenced their analysis of the overall confrontation with the US and the West? And how has their view of the enemy changed after the multinational invasion of Iraq? It must be emphasized that our focus will be on the militant and internationally-orientated Islamists, which means that moderate Islamist actors and nationalist Iraqi groups will not be considered here.

The research literature contains relatively few in-depth studies of post-September 11, 2001 ideological developments in radical Islamism.3 This study is therefore almost entirely based on primary sources, mainly Arabic texts from radical Islamist Internet sites. These sources are often problematic and cannot provide the full answer to our research question, but they represent one of our only windows into the world of militant Islamism.

The key argument in this article is that the Iraq War gave the global jihadists a welcome focal point in their struggle against the USA, but that Iraq at the same time became so attractive as a battle front that it weakened terrorist campaigns elsewhere. Moreover, it is argued that the Iraq conflict contributed to the development of more sophisticated strategic thought in jihadist circles, and to an increase in hostility toward Europe and the Gulf countries. The main objective of this analysis is to draw a more accurate picture of the global jihadist movement and to illustrate how armed conflict can generate unexpected ideological changes within radical political movements.


First of all, it is essential to define the notion of "global jihadism" and clarify its relation to other Islamist movements. "Islamism" - in itself a debated and polysemic term - is understood by this author as meaning "Islamic activism." It includes non-violent and violent, progressive as well as reactionary, political movements. …

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