The demise of Osama bin Ladin in 2011 did not end al-Qaida. Nor will the apparent demise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi end the terror of the Islamic State. Al-Baghdadi’s death is a major psychological blow to the so-called Islamic State, but it does not spell the end of global terrorism under its black banner.
The biggest quandary facing Western intelligence services has always been the leadership succession of terrorist organizations. It’s much easier to track the leaders next in line. Tracking the third and fourth tier of potential leaders in these organizations poses a serious challenge for scholars, policy and intelligence analysts.
Despite the massive loss of the “Caliphate” territory in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State has been able to metastasize into a virtual caliphate and spread its bloody message across many parts of the Islamic world. Jihadists and others have come to realize that the extremist ideology and violent jihad are primarily an idea that transcends geography and people.
Following Bin Ladin’s demise, al-Qaida has morphed into regional and local networks. The Islamic State already moved from the Syrian-Iraqi heartland to the global arena even before al-Baghdadi’s death.
IS-local affiliated terrorist groups will continue their terrorist plans against potential targets regardless of who runs the “dot com caliphate.” Herein lies the challenge for the international community.
The demise of the three Sunni terror leaders – Zarqawi, Bin Ladin and al-Baghdadi – has left a legacy of violence that will continue to haunt the international community for years to come.
Disgruntled and alienated youth flocked from all the world to their imagined caliphate in Raqqa, Syria. Upon arrival, many discovered to their dismay a reign of terror and a brutal police state. To many, Raqqa was hell on Earth, not the promised paradise.
Conditions driving Jihadism
Aside from the radical Salafi-Wahhabi ideology, which has given rise to terrorism, the economic, social and political conditions in many Arab and Muslim countries have energized the youth against the corrupt regimes and governments.
The issues driving street demonstrations have nothing to do with terrorists or with the death of their leaders. The tens of thousands of Lebanese that are forming a human chain across the country in protest of corrupt leaders are demanding dignity, accountability, transparency and a better economic life.
Other than Lebanon, in which the government has belatedly responded to the demands of the protesters with a tangible, but limited, economic package, other governments’ regimes have not fared that well. ISIS and al-Qaida have exploited the ensuing instability.
Some of the clever regimes have reformatted Trump’s campaign slogans of “America First” and “Make America Great Again” to fit their purposes and suit their countries. For example, the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto leader Mohammad bin Salman has exploited his so-called reform agenda and the Saudi Vision 2030 to brandish the “Saudi Arabia First” and “Make Saudi Arabia Great Again” slogan.
Persistent regime repression has resulted in two consequences that could be a prelude to terrorism. First, some of the disgruntled youth begin to equate the American leadership with their autocratic regimes. Second, as some alienated, unemployed youth give up on the efficacy of gradual, peaceful economic and political change, they turn to violence and terrorism.
Muslim extremists who adhere to a radical interpretation of their religion will continue to have a negative view of non-Muslims and “infidels.” Many of them tend to focus on the Medina-revealed Koranic suras and ayahs, most of which were war-like revelations. During the Medina period, the Prophet Muhammad was engaged in several battles while trying to build an “Islamic state.”
These Salafi extremists pay less attention to the Mecca revealed text, most of which comprises Islam’s universalist principles about Jews and Christians as the “People of the Book.”
Vast majorities of Muslims, however, are not driven by radical ideology. They focus on “bread and butter” issues. They have children to feed and educate, bills and mortgages to pay, and careers to pursue for them and their children. They are concerned with their living standard, economic well-being and health care needs. Repression and corruption alienate them from the system.
If Washington and other Western capitals are interested in decreasing terrorism and increasing stability in Arab and Muslim societies, they should reach out to these governments with an eye toward a new social contract with their peoples. Can President Trump really do that if he views the Middle East as no more than “desert, sand and blood”? Al-Baghdadi’s demise, like that of Zarqawi and Bin Ladin, does not seem enough to move the democracy needle in the region.
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former senior intelligence service officer at the CIA. A longer version of this article was published on LobeLog.