Twenty years have passed since the 9/11 attacks — an event that had wide-ranging implications from different perspectives: on policy-makers’ decisions in domestic and foreign policy; on collective imaginary and on society; and, not last, on the very jihadi movement and its evolution.
The phrase “jihadism” is one that has ubiquitously populated media reports since 2001, often in combination with other terms. Many definitions have been given to this concept by several authors; and jihadi actors themselves have spoken of a “jihadi movement” (al-haraka al-jihadiyya). However, this label also has some limitations. Its overuse has been met with criticism—especially when employed as a passe-partout label and conflated with other expressions, with the risk of becoming an empty signifier. In fact, this phrase encompasses a wide range of diverse and ever-evolving actors.
Jihadism is far from being a static or rigid phenomenon and has displayed a knack for adaptation over time—with militants responding to political developments at the international level and adjusting their strategies accordingly. Indeed, over these twenty years, on the whole the jihadi movement has been fluid and dynamic, and several processes of internal reshuffling have emerged.
Before 9/11, the jihadi community was fragmented and suffered from infighting and competition between its many different ideological strands. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were ones among many actors; and the very decision to execute the World Trade Center attacks was an extremely divisive issue even among al-Qa‘ida’s top leaders. The 9/11 attacks proved to be a watershed moment for the jihadi movement worldwide, as it enabled al-Qa‘ida to acquire an hegemonic position in this global jihadi milieu.
In short, the 9/11 attacks can be seen as one of those “critical junctures” or transformative events that had a deep impact on the jihadi community. Such events can profoundly affect jihadi actors: not only in terms of strategic adjustments, but also at a deeper level, with an impact on their ideology and at times even their identity. At times, they can bring together diverse actors and foster ideological and organizational cross-breeding; or, conversely, they can also amplify pre-existing cleavages between different actors or strands, potentially paving the way to full-fledged divisions over time.
For instance, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing conflict—with the mobilization of fighters from different Arab countries, the participation of influential figures (such as ‘Abd Allah ‘Azzam, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri), and the encounter of different strands of thought—bridged a diversity of actors and was a defining moment for the internationalization of jihadism. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq was another crucial event for the jihadi panoply, fostering convergence between different actors. Here, in 2004, Jama’at al-Tawhid al-Jihad — the group led by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, and the precursor to present-day IS — entered a marriage of convenience with al-Qa’ida. It became its Iraqi affiliate, assuming the name al-Qa’ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (al-qa‘ida fi bilad al-rafidayn, more commonly known as al-Qa’ida in Iraq). As it shall be seen, such this convergence would not stand the test of time.
Among the transformative events that emerged after 2010, the Arab revolts played a major role; specifically, the developments related to the Syrian conflict seem to have spurred new shifts in the jihadi landscape. One of the most noticeable trends is the increasing diversification between competing models of jihadism. We also witness dynamics of divergence (and competition) between previously connected actors.
The case of al-Qa‘ida and IS, once its Iraqi franchise, is telling. Tensions between the two groups and their leaders are no secret—they existed since the foundation of Jama’at al-Tawhid al-Jihad, at the end of the 1990s, when both al-Zarqawi and bin Laden were active in Afghanistan. Likewise, even after al-Zarqawi’s pledge of allegiance (bay‘a) to bin Laden, the relationships between the two remained strained, as al-Qa‘ida’s central leadership disapproved of — and looked with concern at — al-Zarqawi’s sectarian and brutal strategy in Iraq.
However, a full-fledged separation unfolded only in February 2014, as al-Zawahiri officially disowned the then-ISIS: in the post-2010 Syrian context, deep-seated cleavages between al-Qa‘ida on the one hand and its (once) Iraqi franchise on the other hand turned into a break tout court—leading to a gradual crystallization of two rival models of jihadism. On the one hand, the “IS model” has emerged—which is characterized by an exclusivist stance, has inherited and crested al-Zarqawi’s approach, and directly challenges the “traditional” model of al-Qa‘ida, especially after its “caliphate” declaration. On the other hand, there is the older al-Qa‘ida’s model of jihadism, that over times has adjusted to evolving circumstances and, now, seeks to distinguish itself from the IS approach by embracing a more cautious stance.
Reflections on “lessons learned” on behalf of al-Qa‘ida date back to the 2000s, in the wake of al-Zarqawi’s faults in Iraq, and have become more pronounced after the 2010s Arab revolts. Al-Zawahiri was aware of the need to cultivate the support of local population in the territories controlled by militants. The release of his 2013 General Guidelines for Jihad, that called for “restraints” in the use of violence, is in line with this revisionist trend. Of course, this process of revision has been further reinforced by the rivalry with IS, and as the IS model has jeopardized popular support.
Another fracture that has emerged in the Syrian jihadi landscape is the split between al-Qa‘ida and its former Syrian affiliate, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl al-Sham, and then as Jabhat Fath al-Sham). After IS, this is the second affiliate that has parted ways with al-Qa‘ida. However, the trajectory followed by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is a peculiar one—that somehow resembles that of a “third model” of jihadism, alternative to both the IS and the al-Qa‘ida’s model. Over time, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has adopted an increasingly pragmatic and local-focused approach, as it seeks to present itself as an interlocutor vis-à-vis external actors.
In this twenty-year-long trail of changes and reshufflings, the Taliban’s recent victory in Afghanistan, together with the withdrawal of US troops from the country, seem to be the latest developments with a potentially transformative impact upon the jihadi panoply. It remains to be seen whether it could create a union of intent between diverse militants or if, on the other hand, it might give rise to further fissures and instances of competition.