By Daniel Siegeltuch
Daniel Byman, professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, joined the World Affairs Council-Washington, DC on September 16, 2015 for an Author Series event. His new book,Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know, assesses the threat of radical Islamic terrorism throughout the world and examines the evolution of global jihad.
Mr. Byman began his talk by encouraging the audience to think of the threat of terror with more nuance than a dire evening news bulletin or newspaper op-ed; as he argued, the threat “is real but limited.” Groups such as Al Qaeda, the organization behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, are comprised of small cores of highly trained individuals committed to the mission. Though Al Qaeda since 9/11 is an “organization on the run,” Mr. Byman explained, the perception of its threat is magnified by the spheres of influence that surround Al Qaeda’s small core; its many partners, associates and sympathizers distort the global image of Al Qaeda’s relatively limited capacity to operate.
Al Qaeda’s great weakness, Mr. Byman asserted, was a narrative one. The jihadist group’s broad anti-Western, anti-Israel, anti-imperial message attracted many supporters but also earned the group many more enemies. The problem of fighting everywhere, said Mr. Byman, is “finding success nowhere”. Following 9/11, the attention of the world’s militaries and intelligence services has largely reduced Al Qaeda’s ability to perpetrate terror attacks.
In the years since 9/11, Mr. Byman argued, global jihad has undergone important narrative and operational changes. Part of the success of newer groups waging jihad, such as the Islamic State, is that instead of espousing a global message, they have turned the narrative focus inward, targeting what they see as corruption within Islam. The Islamic State believes that Muslim societies need to be “cleansed and purged” of Muslims who fail to meet the Islamic State’s stringent definition of a true believer. As Mr. Byman explained, the Islamic State has successfully exploited the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims, some of whom see the other as deniers of Islam. The jihadist ideology of today aims to combat the local enemies of its idea of pure Islam, not through terror attacks on symbolic foreign targets but through territorial conquest and conventional warfare against perceived non-believers.
Terror, Mr. Byman clarified, is not the Islamic State’s principal goal. For the Islamic State, terror is a tool of warfare that “reaches out beyond the battlefield” to demoralize enemies and gain support for its sectarian vision, especially with young disenfranchised men in the region seeking respect and recognition. Mr. Byman emphasized that a real military effort could easily bring down the Islamic State, but the global reluctance to enter into another Middle Eastern conflict, as well as fear of what would replace the Islamic State in the ensuing power vacuum, have allowed the jihadist group to continue its violent quest. To defeat the Islamic State, Mr. Byman concluded, the world must tackle the group’s most compelling recruiting strategy…that it’s winning.