Shadow Government

What al Qaeda’s push to ‘unify the jihad’ means for the U.S.

Now that administration officials have announced that the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP) were behind the recent attempted bombing of Times Square, we can turn to the question of why there have been so many threatened and actual attacks on the United States inspired by, or actually emanating from, places where the United States is not ...

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Now that administration officials have announced that the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP) were behind the recent attempted bombing of Times Square, we can turn to the question of why there have been so many threatened and actual attacks on the United States inspired by, or actually emanating from, places where the United States is not involved in an active war. A look at arrests in the United States from May 2009 to the present shows dozens of such cases — many involving multiple suspects — linked to places like Somalia, Yemen, and of course Pakistan. Four of the plotters (Abulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (Yemen), Nidal Malik Hasan (Yemen), Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Yemen), and Faisal Shahzad (Pakistan) managed to carry out attacks, although only two were "successful."

One can see how exceptional this is by looking at previous years. In 2008 there was only one such case — Bryant Neal Vinas — and he was caught before he could carry out his planned attack. The previous year saw about two dozen cases, but many can be traced back to Iraq or Afghanistan and, as in 2008, none led to actual attacks. The questions are: Why has there been such a spike in cases this past year, and why were four of them able to advance beyond planning to attacks? This second question might be beyond the scope of anyone outside the government, but it is worth asking, in any case. The first question, however, does have some public data points that might help to answer it.

The New York Times believes that targeting Taliban figures led directly to the attacks on the United States, as anger over the deaths of Pakistani jihadist leaders like Baytullah Mehsud have spilled over into the United States. While there seems to be something to this assertion, there must be other factors at play as well. This was, after all, the strategy followed by the Bush administration, but only now has it led to a spike in plots against the American homeland from not only the Pakistani Taliban, but other jihadist groups worldwide.

I would argue that there are two additional, interrelated, factors that have led to the escalation in attacks: al Qaeda’s long-running push to "unify the jihad" and the resulting ideological evolution of jihadist groups worldwide. It has always been al Qaeda’s strategy to bring all Muslims together into one global jihad. Al Qaeda does not, however, mean to compromise its ideological or strategic vision to win over Muslims, but rather to convert them to their views of Islam and the jihad. "Unifying the jihad" then is about reconstructing jihad and Islam on al Qaeda’s terms alone, which means a fight that will first target the United States and Israel, then liberate occupied territory worldwide, create the caliphate, and eventually put the entire world under their version of shari’a.

Al Qaeda’s drive to "unify the jihad" became especially urgent after its disastrous experience with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the sadistic leader of al Qaeda’ in Iraq. Zarqawi’s actions in Iraq seriously damaged the al Qaeda’ brand, a fact recognized in two letters from al Qaeda”s leadership captured by American forces in Iraq. Since about 2005, al Qaeda has become more careful about allowing jihadist groups to use its name and has focused on religious purity and agreement on methodology as the main ways to ensure conformity with their vision of fighting the jihad.

The result of al Qaeda’s persuasive arguments has been a slow but steady evolution of jihadist groups away from an array of ideological, religious, and strategic orientations toward al Qaeda”s views of a global jihad fought primarily against the United States and Israel. About two years ago, in places like North Africa, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, jihadist groups began to make public statements about attacking the United States and Israel in their homelands. Now al Qaeda is pushing for talk to become action. In a lengthy interview last June, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the head of al Qaeda’s administrative and financial commission (perhaps equivalent to al Qaeda’s chief of staff), stated publicly that the group was urging its "branches" to follow through on their ideological commitments, and to carry out attacks on the U.S. and Israel.

Al Qaeda’s push to "unify the jihad" is, in my opinion, at least partially responsible for the sudden spike in plots and attacks on the United States emanating from these parts of the world. I should also note that there are other arenas, like Chechnya and Indonesia, where jihadist groups have moved ideologically and methodologically in the direction of al Qaeda, but have not yet shifted to targeting the United States or Israel directly, suggesting that the threat from abroad has not yet reached its culmination.

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