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The Myth of Moderate Jihadis

The unspoken pact between Washington and anti-Islamic State jihadi groups is a short-sighted move that will reward extremists.

By , the director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Taliban fighters pass a billboard in Kabul.
Taliban fighters on a vehicle pass a billboard with the images of late Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar (left) and late Afghan leader of the Haqqani network Jalaluddin Haqqani in Kabul on Sept. 9. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has laid bare a dynamic that has quietly developed over the last six to seven years: an uneasy but de facto mutual understanding between Washington and a part of the global jihadi movement. Neither side would dare express it publicly, as it would cause both internal and external outrage. And both are unsure about what it exactly entails and are distrustful of the other side’s true intentions.

Still, given that the Islamic State remains hellbent on attacking the United States and is, conversely, a primary target of it, a slow strategic repositioning has led both Washington and the al Qaeda galaxy to adopt a less belligerent posture toward each other. It is a deal whose manifold and long-term implications Washington seems to have overlooked.

The roots of the unspoken pact can be traced to the second half of 2014, when Washington assembled an international coalition to fight the Islamic State. To jihadi strategists—and most people in the region—the rationale behind U.S. intervention was clear: The Islamic State faced military attacks not when it conquered a territory the size of France between Syria and Iraq and ruled it with medieval barbarity but only when it began beheading Westerners in Hollywood-style video productions and attracting thousands of Western foreign fighters who, from the safety of the caliphate, issued threats against their home countries.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has laid bare a dynamic that has quietly developed over the last six to seven years: an uneasy but de facto mutual understanding between Washington and a part of the global jihadi movement. Neither side would dare express it publicly, as it would cause both internal and external outrage. And both are unsure about what it exactly entails and are distrustful of the other side’s true intentions.

Still, given that the Islamic State remains hellbent on attacking the United States and is, conversely, a primary target of it, a slow strategic repositioning has led both Washington and the al Qaeda galaxy to adopt a less belligerent posture toward each other. It is a deal whose manifold and long-term implications Washington seems to have overlooked.

The roots of the unspoken pact can be traced to the second half of 2014, when Washington assembled an international coalition to fight the Islamic State. To jihadi strategists—and most people in the region—the rationale behind U.S. intervention was clear: The Islamic State faced military attacks not when it conquered a territory the size of France between Syria and Iraq and ruled it with medieval barbarity but only when it began beheading Westerners in Hollywood-style video productions and attracting thousands of Western foreign fighters who, from the safety of the caliphate, issued threats against their home countries.

The lesson was clear: Lay low, don’t behead Westerners, don’t plan attacks in the West, and Washington lets you be.

Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria and the Islamic State’s archenemy, was at the same time engaged in an effort to control territory. But save for some targeted strikes, it was not the object of the same U.S.-led military onslaught that eventually brought the Islamic State to its knees.

The lesson was clear: Lay low, don’t behead Westerners, don’t plan attacks in the West, and Washington lets you be. Which was exactly what the al Qaeda affiliate needed to consolidate its hold on territory. As a result of having adopted this approach, al-Nusra’s successor, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), now de facto controls the Idlib area in northwest Syria. Tellingly, HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani has publicly revealed that, at the time, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had sent him “clear orders not to use Syria as a launching pad to attack the U.S. or Europe in order to not sabotage the true mission against the regime [of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad].”


The Syrian lesson has recently been confirmed in Afghanistan. The pro-al Qaeda galaxy has interpreted recent developments in Kabul as recognition of the United States’ undeclared but increasingly clear policy of tolerating and even cooperating with “moderate” jihadi groups that, although hostile and openly violating human rights, do not attack the West or, further lowering the bar, just happen not to be the Islamic State.

Tellingly, while HTS supporters celebrated the Taliban takeover by distributing sweets to the local population in Idlib, Syria, a commentator close to the group referred to it as “the victory of those who have patience that must inspire us,” indicating how the Taliban and HTS believe in the success of a gradualist strategy that entails holding back on their inherent inclination to attack the United States for the greater good of consolidating power.

The same logic is also applied to other Western countries. Recently, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) Sahel affiliate, has—for the first time—explicitly declared its ongoing war with France does not include French soil. Similarly, AQIM stated it will continue to attack French interests in the region but has made it a point to declare that French soil was never targeted from Mali.

A deal allowing Washington to spare lives and money by entrusting “moderate jihadis” to govern spaces that seem ungovernable is a form of realpolitik that has appeal.

The al Qaeda galaxy’s message to the West is clear and is similar to that of its ally, the Taliban: You let us be, and we let you be. We know you want out of the region and are no longer interested in spending your lives and money to defend far-flung places of little strategic value to you. Allow us to rule them, and we will not bother you. To the contrary, we will actually help you neutralize the one group that threatens you, the Islamic State, which is also our sworn enemy. Yes, we will denounce you in our propaganda for your support of Israel and other regimes in the region or for offending the honor of the Prophet Muhammad. But we have become pragmatic political actors and are ready to strike a deal with you that allows you to exit large parts of the region without any negative consequences.

The terms of the deal are obviously not expressed in plain words—doing so would give ammunition to the Islamic State’s propagandists, who are already painting al Qaeda and the Taliban as U.S. collaborators and puppets who have forsaken the true path of jihad, accusations that can cost dearly in the competitive market for jihadi support. But they are crystal clear to those who want to listen and are tempting to many in the United States, where fatigue from two decades of the war on terror and failed attempts at state-building are widespread among policymakers on both sides of the aisle and the general public.

Few in Washington would dare articulate it in these terms, but a deal that allows the United States to spare lives and money by entrusting “moderate jihadis” to govern spaces that seem to be ungovernable by any other force is a form of realpolitik that appeals to many. If it is accompanied by a narrative that paints “moderate jihadis” as an authentic expression of the local population and is sprinkled by occasional condemnation of human rights abuses or even some toothless sanction to clean one’s conscience, it all seems quite reasonable.


But there are solid reasons to temper enthusiasm for this deal with the devil. First, it would not mean the end of terrorism in the West. Over the last 10 years, the vast majority of jihadi-motivated attacks in Europe and North America have been perpetrated by unaffiliated jihad enthusiasts or supporters of the Islamic State; those carried out by individuals linked to al Qaeda can be counted on one hand.

And since attacks in the West are one way in which jihadi groups boost their standing among potential supporters, it can be argued that an al Qaeda-Western deal that boosts the former’s ability to govern spaces might lead the Islamic State to intensify its attacks, the group’s best weapon to counter its rival’s successes via propaganda. Moreover, the al Qaeda galaxy is fluid and not characterized by strict hierarchical control. It is not unlikely some group that belongs to it would not abide by the terms of the pact and then attack the West.

Gradualist jihadism is not more moderate but simply tactically smarter.

Secondly, many U.S. partners in the region—those al Qaeda would call the “near enemy”—are increasingly frustrated by the United States’ withdrawal from the Middle East and what they perceive as Washington’s pattern of not coming to its allies’ defense. Many of them will still remain close friends of the United States, but it is inevitable they look for additional, if not alternative, security partners. The recent overtures toward China and Russia by Persian Gulf countries that have, for decades, been firmly in the U.S. camp are telling examples of these dynamics.

But most importantly, its fatal flaw is in the deal’s underlying assumption. Dividing the jihadi movement into “moderates” (HTS, the Taliban, and even al Qaeda) Washington can do business with and extremists (the Islamic State) that are the only real enemy is a misguided approach.

A more fitting categorization is between gradualist and impatient jihadism, the former pragmatically willing to temporarily bend its strategic posture to attain goals while the latter is more uncompromising. Gradualist jihadism is not more moderate but simply tactically smarter, adapting in the short term to then be in a better position to do what is in the DNA of all jihadis: destabilize the larger region and attack the West.

The difference between the two is not so much in the end goals but in the time frame. Therefore, before striking seemingly convenient short-term deals with the devil, it behooves Western policymakers to think beyond the time frame of the 24-hour news cycles and permanent election campaigns to years and decades, as jihadis do.

Lorenzo Vidino is the director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. He is the author of The Closed Circle: Joining and Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the West and a member of the Advisory Board of the Austrian government’s Observatory on Political Islam.

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