Review

Jihadi Networks Are More Resilient Than We Think

The world may be distracted by other threats, but jihadis aren’t going away anytime soon.

Two police officers in vests and helmets hold weapons in front of a residential building.
Police officers stand in front of a residential building in Linz, Austria, where a man was detained on Nov. 3, 2020, in connection with the Vienna shooting one day before. Werner Kerschbaummayr/APA/AFP via Getty Images

With the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this August, the post-9/11 era seems to be ending. Challenges such as climate change, a bellicose China, and the crisis of liberal institutions have crowded out jihadi terrorism as the primary American foreign-policy concern. Even in the narrow counterterrorism realm, white supremacist violence and anti-government extremism are the flavors of the day, and the occasional jihadi attack doesn’t seem to change things.

Yet a new book provides a stark reminder of the persistence of terrorist networks despite over 20 years of relentless counterterrorism. In Western Jihadism: A Thirty Year History, Jytte Klausen, a professor at Brandeis University and a highly respected scholar of terrorism, traces the origins of al Qaeda and the broader jihadi movement, and how the seeds they scattered throughout the West flourished in the 1990s and even in the post-9/11 era. What emerges is a portrait of a robust movement that, despite having suffered numerous setbacks, has learned from its mistakes, become more connected, and adapted its tactics and structures to keep the flame of jihad alive.

Although the geographic scope of Klausen’s work is far-ranging, it is at its best when discussing the jihadi movement’s presence and activities in the United States and Europe. The West, as she points out, is both a target and a sanctuary for the jihadi movement.

With the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this August, the post-9/11 era seems to be ending. Challenges such as climate change, a bellicose China, and the crisis of liberal institutions have crowded out jihadi terrorism as the primary American foreign-policy concern. Even in the narrow counterterrorism realm, white supremacist violence and anti-government extremism are the flavors of the day, and the occasional jihadi attack doesn’t seem to change things.

Yet a new book provides a stark reminder of the persistence of terrorist networks despite over 20 years of relentless counterterrorism. In Western Jihadism: A Thirty Year History, Jytte Klausen, a professor at Brandeis University and a highly respected scholar of terrorism, traces the origins of al Qaeda and the broader jihadi movement, and how the seeds they scattered throughout the West flourished in the 1990s and even in the post-9/11 era. What emerges is a portrait of a robust movement that, despite having suffered numerous setbacks, has learned from its mistakes, become more connected, and adapted its tactics and structures to keep the flame of jihad alive.

Western Jihadism: A Thirty Year History, Jytte Klausen, Oxford University Press, 560 pp., , October 2021

Western Jihadism: A Thirty Year History, Jytte Klausen, Oxford University Press, 560 pp., $40, October 2021

Although the geographic scope of Klausen’s work is far-ranging, it is at its best when discussing the jihadi movement’s presence and activities in the United States and Europe. The West, as she points out, is both a target and a sanctuary for the jihadi movement.

Although many of the most attention-grabbing attacks of al Qaeda and the Islamic State occurred in the United States and Europe, these places also gave a home to Egyptian jihadi Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (“The Blind Sheikh”), the jihadi ideologue and planner Abu Qatada al-Filistini, and others, allowing them to preach, gather followers, and plot attacks around the world, including on the countries that gave them sanctuary.

In Europe in particular, militants took advantage of lax laws and a surge in requests for political asylum to find sanctuary: Klausen notes that in 1987 the United Kingdom saw 4,000 asylum applications and that this number soared to over 85,000 by 2001. Western governments rightly saw Middle Eastern regimes as dictatorial and repressive, but they often failed to recognize that the regime’s jihadi enemies posed a threat as well.

Indeed, al Qaeda and similar movements are as much products of the West as they are of the Middle East: Their members reject Western openness and the spread of Western values, but the movements as a whole are a product of globalization, with cheap travel and information technology proving particularly important. Klausen shows how this interaction with globalization evolved and, over time, jihadis developed a transnational production process, taking advantage of what different countries have to offer (robust free speech protections in the United Kingdom, a haven in Afghanistan, and so on) to organize a global movement.

Here the network analysis Klausen employs is valuable. She has created the Western Jihadism Project, which identities the over 6,000 people from Western countries who have been linked to terrorism or to insurgencies associated with the jihadi movement.

Not only does the project reveal the scope of the jihadi presence in the West, but it also shows how recruitment can grow exponentially: Norms, contacts, and opportunities to join groups all flow through networks, and as the network develops it reaches far more people. Senior operatives can manipulate these networks, at times virtually but in most cases in real life, creating and deepening social relationships in the movement to reinforce ideological bonds.

A particularly useful insight is that networks are more than opposites of traditional hierarchies. As Klausen points out, the network around the Blind Sheikh that was responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center attack and various plots in 1994 resembled a more traditional pyramid, with the sheikh himself at the top and operating through key lieutenants. Counterterrorism theories that assume networked groups are highly decentralized often miss that the removal of a few key leaders or skilled personnel can gravely weaken the movement as a whole.

Klausen’s project incorporates those linked to failed terrorist attacks as well as successful terrorists, and she correctly points out that failures are often dismissed when, in fact, “Al Qaeda was a learning machine” and regularly returned to finish a job that its operatives had initially bungled. Although counterterrorism officials should be commended for disrupting plots, they should also be on alert for a repeat attempt.

Klausen’s work, perhaps because of its emphasis on connectedness, at times underplays the importance of divisions and splits within the jihadi movement and in a few cases is too quick to give al Qaeda credit for attacks that others perpetrated. The differences among various groups and factions are often profound and at times quite deadly. They may share some goals, but the day-to-day rivalries can be all-consuming and hinder the movement as a whole.

However, as Klausen’s network emphasis shows so clearly, groups can be violently at odds, but individuals within them often remain connected to numerous others in the overall movement, allowing cells and even entire organizations to rise and fall while the networks grow increasingly robust. Indeed, Klausen points out that seemingly forgotten radicals in Europe in the 1990s reappeared in North Africa after the 2011 Arab Spring.

The impact of improved counterterrorism on the jihadi movement is also often understudied or, if it is examined, there is too much emphasis on military operations and drone strikes. The day to day of intelligence and law enforcement cooperation is at the heart of counterterrorism. It is particularly effective in disrupting networks: An arrest in Morocco might show connections to jihadis in Spain. Monitoring by Spanish intelligence reveals a financing cell in Kuwait. Kuwait then arrests the suspects, uncovering financial transfers to Indonesia. And on and on, with the United States acting a conductor of the global intelligence orchestra. In such circumstances, the networked nature of the movement can work against it: Being connected makes nodes more likely to be discovered, and counterintelligence becomes more difficult.

Such network analysis helps explain a difficult post-9/11 analytic question: Why, if the United States is the focus of al Qaeda and other components of the jihadi movement, has America suffered far fewer attacks than Europe? Klausen points out that, in general, American networks are far weaker than their European and global counterparts. The most effective Americans, such as jihadi propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, went abroad and joined networks there.

The broader jihadi movement today is at a crossroads. It can rightly crow about the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. However, the loss of the above-ground caliphate in Iraq and Syria was a tough blow, and the movement today lacks a leader as capable and inspiring as Osama bin Laden. Where to strike and which tactics to use are all in play.

What remains certain, however, is that the dense networks Klausen documents and assesses will remain robust and enable future leaders to sustain a movement that shows no signs of going away even as the world’s attention focuses on other problems.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. Twitter: @dbyman

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