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They Have a Strategy

The jihadists’ insurgencies may look like ‘ local power struggles,’ but their ambitions are far grander

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The president did not seek to assuage concerns about the possible terrorist threat to Americans for generations to come. He said that “there are going to be some things that are a little bit out of our control.” And he later added, “We’re not going to solve every problem in the Middle East right away, although we can make sure we’re safe and that we’re empowering better partners rather than the worst in the region.”

This is not a strategy. America is playing defense on Obama’s watch. Our jihadist enemies, meanwhile, are
on offense. And the threat they pose to the United States and its interests, both at home and abroad, is rising. They are fighting for “future generations.”

When Osama bin Laden and his closest allies established al Qaeda in 1988, they were not centered on attacking the United States. To his dying day, this was never bin Laden’s lone goal. Attacking America was always a tactic, a step, in al Qaeda’s plan. 

Bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, including his successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, sought the creation of Islamic nation-states governed by their exceedingly harsh version of sharia law. They could not create their idyllic societies, however, without first removing the dictators who, prior to the 2011 Arab uprisings, governed most Muslim-majority countries. And, they came to believe, they could not supplant the dictators without striking America.

The jihadists’ earliest attempts to topple the rulers in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, and Libya were abysmal failures. Al Qaeda reasoned that American support for the dictatorships was propping them up. Striking America became an increasingly important part of al Qaeda’s plan over time, but it was never the group’s primary reason for existence. More than a quarter of a century later, al Qaeda’s goal remains the same: to establish Islamic emirates, or nations, and eventually resurrect the caliphate.

In late June, the Islamic State declared that its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was now known as “Caliph Ibrahim,” the ruler of a caliphate stretching across large parts of Iraq and Syria. For the jihadists, the dissolution of the Islamic caliphate in 1924 was a disaster that continues to resonate. They believe that a resurrected caliphate will be capable of defending Muslims from all sorts of imagined conspiracies against the Islamic world.

After Baghdadi’s declaration, some commentators claimed that there is a sharp difference between the Islamic State’s goals and al Qaeda’s. The Islamic State is supposedly focused on seizing territory and governing, whereas al Qaeda is interested in other matters. This is simply not true. Al Qaeda also seeks to govern territory. And al Qaeda’s top leaders have repeatedly said that they are fighting to reestablish the caliphate. Just this past week, al Qaeda announced the creation of a new branch named Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, which will likely unite jihadist groups across several countries. One of the group’s stated goals is to wage jihad “so as to revive the caliphate.”

Before it expanded into Syria, the Islamic State was a formal branch of al Qaeda. Shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, Baghdadi released a eulogy pledging revenge for “the martyrdom of our sheikh.” Addressing his “brothers” in al Qaeda and their leaders, including Zawahiri, Baghdadi declared: “You have in
the Islamic State of Iraq a group of loyal men pursuing the endeavor of truth; they shall never forgive nor resign.”

The Islamic State was eventually disowned by al Qaeda’s senior leaders, in February of this year. That decision was based on differences over tactics, not goals. Islamic State leaders repeatedly disobeyed orders from al Qaeda’s general command, including by expanding into neighboring Syria. Once it became a significant part of the Syrian war, and changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the group decided that it should have dominion over all jihadists fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This brought ISIL, which was rebranded again as simply the Islamic State in late June, into direct conflict with the group al Qaeda was grooming to take over the Syrian jihad, Jabhat al Nusrah, as well as other allied jihadists. The Islamic State even initiated a bloody campaign against its fellow jihadists, eventually killing one of Zawahiri’s top leaders in the country. For al Qaeda, the infighting sparked by the Islamic State’s desire to rule the roost is a most grievous sin, as it jeopardizes the mission to overthrow Assad. Al Qaeda also does not agree that Baghdadi should be the top jihadist on the planet.

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