How Jihad Went Viral

Still from a video of Islamic State fighters at a training camp in Iraq.

The most frightening thing about violent extremism today is not the savagery of ISIS — which has at times been shockingly gruesome — but its sudden ubiquity.

Cast your eyes around the world. United States’ intelligence officials revealed last week that foreign fighters have been streaming into Syria and Iraq in unprecedented numbers — at least 20,000 in all — to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other jihadi groups.

Two Islamist militant groups in the Philippines have pledged allegiance to ISIS, which appears to be spreading into Afghanistan and Pakistan. We know of at least one active ISIS affiliate in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, and three in Libya. Malaysia has in the past year arrested more than 50 people for suspected ISIS ties.

Jihadism in Tunisia, from where some 4,000 people have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, “is threatening the advances of democracy,” according to a recent story in World Affairs Journal. Jihadis returned from the Syrian war have committed a handful of attacks in the past year — in Istanbul and Lebanon, in Brussels and the Saudi Arabian desert.

Boko Haram gallops violently across central Africa, interrupting democracy, and Al Qaeda franchises hold steady in Af-Pak, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Maghreb, along with the Pakistani Taliban, Al Shabab in Somalia, and other assorted jihadi outfits. And now comes word that many of these groups — including Boko Haram and ISIS — are in close communication, sharing tips and tradecraft to refine their attacks and expand their territory.

Finally we have the steady drumbeat of lone wolf and small cell attacks in the western world: an ISIS-inspired loner took hostages in a Sydney café in December; an American arrested the next month had plotted an attack on Congress and bought two semi-automatic weapons and a militia’s worth of ammunition; and just this week Danish police shot dead a Charlie Hebdo-inspired gunmen after he had killed two people in Copenhagen. Since the attacks in Paris last month, authorities across Europe have arrested dozens of suspected jihadis.

Jihad has gone viral, and humanity may be at a tipping point. It’s no surprise that 84 percent of Americans view ISIS and international terrorism as critical threats, according to a recent Gallup poll. Speaking after the Charlie Hebdo attack, US State Secretary of State John Kerry said we face a “confrontation, not between civilizations, no, but between civilization itself and those who are opposed to a civilized world.”

How did we get here? Contemporary jihadi ideology is based less on real Islamic tenets than on one Arab’s Puritanical, post-World War II retreat from contemporary civilization. Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb visited the US in 1949 and was horrified by what he saw in Greeley, Colorado, with its seductive women and materialistic culture. America is no place for Muslims, he decided, and called for the revival of Islamism — in which Islam is the determinant of state structure.

Qutb laid out a strained modern-day interpretation of ancient texts, a twist on Saudi Wahhabism that advocated jihad against Christians and Jews and other non-believers. His ideas were later embraced by Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and evolved into a murderous nihilism aiming to wipe out civilization and replace it with a global caliphate.

Marc Sageman, a terrorism analyst and former CIA officer, may have been the first to point out jihad’s viral capabilities, in his 2008 book Leaderless Jihad. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States and the international community focused on degrading and destroying Al Qaeda and hunting down Osama bin Laden. Today Bin Laden is dead and the globally networked organization executing elaborate, long-gestating plots is all but extinct. Instead a million remote cells bloom.

In recent decades, western foreign policies have largely been in opposition to Muslim countries, even as globalization has placed more power in the hands of the powerful. Predominantly Christian countries today hold about one-third the world’s population, two-thirds of its wealth and 90 percent of its military might.

The Sunni-Shia divide, simmering for ages, has been exacerbated by decades of Islamic revivalism, not to mention the Iraq War and booming Gulf economies’ backing for Sunni causes. The war in Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, and failures to stop the bloodletting in Syria despite red lines crossed have also sparked their share of ire.

More crucially, a global youth bulge in the developing world and weak growth in the wake of the global financial crisis have created waves of frustrated, jobless young adults. Many face violence, instability and heavy-handed leadership across the Muslim world (see Spring, Arab).

Migration from these countries to the West has understandably increased, boosting the size and frustration of marginalized Muslim minorities across the United States and Europe. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently used the word “apartheid” in reference to his country’s Muslim ghettoes.

Stir in rising corruption and problematic urbanization precisely when new forms of communication enable every alienated loner to investigate perceived grievances and connect with like-minded individuals and we find ourselves in an era ripe for a neo-Marxist uprising.

A recent Rand Corporation study found that in 2007, 28 global Salafi-jihadi groups launched 100 attacks, while in 2013, 49 groups launched 950 attacks. A US State Department report from April 2014 found that fewer Americans died at the hands of terrorists in 2013, but that global deaths had increased to 18,000.

In the turn to radicalization, Sageman and others believe identity is more important than ideology — it’s a search for meaning, not Allah. “The initial appeal is not about some guy opening the Koran and showing them Islam,” he told me in a recent phone chat. “It’s more about alienation and perceived outrage.”

In a slum in Zarqa, Jordan, a group of young men support ISIS not because of their fervent Muslim-hood. “Not once did the conversation turn to matters of faith, and none budged from their seats when the call to prayer sounded,” David Kenner writes at Foreign Policy, in his dispatch from Zarqa. “They appeared driven by anger at humiliations big and small.”

One of those humiliations is corruption. In her new book, Thieves of State, Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, details how acute corruption creates fertile ground for extremists. Transparency International data suggests global corruption has been rising steadily and now totals more than five percent of global GDP, or $2.6 trillion. “As long as people are abused by their government every day, they’ll be joining the Taliban or Boko Haram every day,” Chayes said in a recent NPR interview.

The jihadi narrative, like that of Occupy protesters, is a David versus Goliath tale — little guys teaming up to fight a powerful foe. It’s telling that Anonymous, the outlaw hacker group that tends to go after governments and corporations, views ISIS as invading its turf. “You will be treated like a virus, and we are the cure,” the group warned in a video this week. “We own the Internet.”

That’s debatable. As western nations have gotten better at breaking up terrorist cells at mosques and other gathering points, communication has shifted online. Any one with Internet access can find bomb-building instructions in Al Qaeda’s online publication, Inspire, or learn about life in the new caliphate in Dabiq, ISIS’ online magazine. A recent report in the Financial Times revealed how terrorists rely on encrypted mainstream services like WhatsApp and Snapchat.

Anwar al-Awlaki, an American convert who recruited for Al Qaeda in Yemen via online video until he was killed by a US drone strike in 2011, radicalized young men from thousands of miles away. He inspired Nidal Hassan to shoot up Fort Hood, killing 13 people, and reportedly spurred on the Kouachi brothers from beyond the grave.

Now ISIS, which inspired Amedy Coulibaly, is following his lead, in videos calling for the killing of “disbelieving” Americans and Europeans. Such calls are finding receptive ears — a German rapper has even become a key ISIS recruiter.

Despite its horrors, jihad captures the zeitgeist — the indignities of joblessness and alienation, frustration with troubling governance, an embrace of new communication tools, and the dream of a more ordered world. As a result, the jihadis seem to be winning: look at festering resentment toward Muslims in much of the West; a creeping sense of fear in modernizing Muslim countries like Tunisia, Lebanon and Turkey; and violent chaos across sizable swathes of the Middle East and Africa.

With inequality on the rise, and smartphone use expected to double, to six billion people, by 2020, the spread of jihadism may have just begun.

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