On February 6, US President Donald Trump announced that al Qaeda leader Qassim al-Rimi had been killed during an airstrike strike in Yemen. The terrorist group has been in America’s cross-hairs for many years since declaring jihad against the United States.
What Is ‘Jihad?’
Radical terrorists like al Qaeda have used the term “jihad” to describe and defend their heinous acts around the globe over the years. For many in the West, it’s become the norm for many reporters to conflate the words “jihad” and “terrorism.” However, in the Islamic religion, “jihad” can also mean the struggle within oneself against sin.
Much to the chagrin of Islamic clerics and scholars who prioritize religious piety, Islamic radicals like the Taliban, al Qaeda and ISIS subscribe to the more radical and jingoistic physical definition of “jihad”: namely “a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam.” It’s these Islamic radicals and terrorists, that have committed many of the atrocities around the world since al Qaeda attacked America on September 11, 2001, followed by the so-called global “War on Terror.”
The Post-Cold War Void
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a large void was created that was quickly filled by the military juggernaut of the United States. With the collapse, former Soviet countries were also freed from the grip of their rule and began fighting for independence. While involvement in military conflict rooted in religion was not a new issue for the United States, it was during the Bosnian War in 1992 when many Americans first became aware of jihadism.
At the same time the US was gaining exposure to this jihad in Bosnia, Osama bin Laden was further radicalizing his group of al Qaeda mujahideen in Afghanistan. He was backed by the US and Western powers in hopes his fighters would defeat the Soviet Union.
Capitalism, Communism And Jihad
The conflicting ideas of capitalism and communism and their influence was what defined the Cold War. In today’s cold war, however, Islamic jihad is seen as a singular force opposed to the forces of freedom. Jihad is overly simplified as solely being associated with Islamic violence, however as aforementioned, jihad is not only a military “fight against the enemies of Islam” but there is also a political componet to jihad that can not be denied.
In a recent article on The Intercept, anthropologist and author Darryl Li (The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity) put it well when he wrote:
“Consider for a moment three different things: the Irish Republican Army, the Republican Party in the United States, and Plato’s Republic. All of these employ the term “republic,” and all of them somehow have a connection with violence. If you lumped them together and claimed they represent an ideology called “republicanism,” that obviously wouldn’t make any sense. Yet that’s what the category of “jihadism” essentially does.”
The Varieties Of Violent Jihad
While not always regional, today’s jihad militants can vary from a small army in one country to a splintered section of regionalized cells in others to mass shooters and automotive attackers. It’s this transient nature that makes the battle against jihad—or terrorism—more complicated.
The nearly two decades old “War on Terror” has seen periodic military successes, but given the nature, mobility, and breadth of the combatants, it’s proven a challenge to end. Many of those successes may have been short-lived. While they may have curbed further advancement of one Islamic terrorist or group, the success, in turn, radicalized others. After ten years on the run, the death of bin Laden would splinter al Quada and lead to an even more extreme version of jihad, the Islamic State or ISIS.
The ISIS Terror ‘Caliphate’
ISIS initially began by calling for a worldwide caliphate and would go on to help the Iraqi insurgency during the American invasion. ISIS has proven to be horrific in their jihad: they videotaped beheadings of civilians, aid workers, and journalists, in addition to the destruction of cultural heritage sites as well as human rights abuses, war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide.
The group spent many bloody years fighting in Iraq and Syria, but in February of 2019, President Donald Trump declared that “ISIS was 100% defeated.” According to the US military, this was categorically “not true.” Like many of Trump’s comments about the US military, this bold statement was given without consulting military leadership. The Pentagon was left scrambling to defend the statement and explaining why the US should maintain involvement in Syria.
Six months later, the Pentagon issued a report saying that ISIS was “re-surging” in Syria, stating: “The reduction of US forces has decreased the support available for Syrian partner forces at a time when their forces need more training and equipping to respond to the ISIS resurgence.”
Two weeks after that report was issued American Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated ISIS is “not in a re-surgent state” despite the Pentagon report.
Because this type of jihad or terrorism is so amorphous, it transcends state, region, country, and continent. It also isn’t limited to one fundamentalist Islamic concept. While ISIS may be considered the more extreme and well known, there are other international groups like the Afghan Taliban, Boko Haram, and al-Shaabab.
The Rise Of Terrorism In Africa
The Middle East is still ripe with plenty of military and ideological conflict. It remains the hotbed of jihad where peace, when found, is sporadic and short-lived. However, over the years Africa has seen the rise of these Islamic extremists and jihad, making it a growing global concern.
It’s gotten so bad in Africa that in January of 2020, France President Emmanuel Macron threatened to withdraw French forces from Africa. He summoned the presidents of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania to a meeting to curb hostilities and work out how to stop the “rapid advance of armed Islamist extremists in their regions.”
Russia and China have also begun asserting more influence on the continent. Russian President Vladimir Putin has increased arms sales while creating security agreements and training programs for some of the unstable African countries like Libya. There Putin has dispatched both troops and aid to help militia leader Khalifa Haftar curb the civil war.
China has increased its commercial investment in Africa. They’ve helped build factories and infrastructure in addition to operating a major port in the East African country of Dijibouti. The Chinese military is currently considering a new port in Senegal under the pretense of assisting the Senegalese Navy.
This makes US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s weighing the withdrawal of forces in Africa perplexing. Esper’s stated goal is a re-alignment of American troops amid heightened tensions in the Middle East between Iran and the US. With the inroads being laid down by both China and Russia, it makes this move by the US Military rather confounding. Luckily, late in January Esper decided not to re-locate the troops.
US Kills An Anti-ISIS Partner
The American assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani further complicates the War on Terror, not only because it inflamed tensions in the Middle East but the US also lost one of their staunchest indirect supporters of the elimination of ISIS.
There is no doubt that Soleimani orchestrated the death of numerous American’s and allied forces in the Middle East. However, by mastering the art of the “proxy war” under Suleimani, he was equally as deadly towards ISIS.
Not helping matters is that both Germany and Britain have begun pulling their forces from Iraq and The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS has ceased operating. In a recent NYTimes Op-ed, former FBI agent Ali H. Soufan said: “In 2016, Donald Trump, then a candidate for president, described Barack Obama as the ‘founder of ISIS.’ In the end, it may be Mr. Trump who comes to be known not as the terrorist group’s founder, but as its savior.”
‘Jihad’ And ‘Terrorism’ Aren’t Synonymous—But The Line Is Pencil Thin
Regardless of what it’s called or referred to, the American led War on Terror has been a financial sinkhole. According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, as America’s global war inches into its second decade, the financial cost for the US on both military operations and veteran care is around $5.6 trillion.
In addition to the astronomical financial cost, the human toll has also been significant. According to a report in 2018 from Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the cumulative toll on impacted countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan deaths by direct violence totals between 480,000 and 500,000, with fully 244,000 of them likely civilians. That number jumps into the millions when considering those impacted by disease, displacement, and loss of infrastructure. In addition the global wars have cost 10,003 American deaths and 56,422 injured or wounded.
Despite all the proclamations from various governments, the bombings, battles and the death in the Middle East—and increasingly in Africa—prove that jihad or terrorism is still very much alive and thriving. While the periodic leader may be killed or captured, there will be someone to replace them … and they’ll be even angrier. Given the shapeless and the inchoate existence of jihad militants, the global war may not be against terror but against time itself.