Global jihadism is a phenomenon that has been around in its current, recognisable form since the ‘90s, and has, by now, become a permanent feature of the world order. It all started with Al Qaeda, the first organisation to dominate the movement, but they have since been eclipsed by ISIS. Now, as ISIS is being pushed out of Iraq and can expect, before long, to lose even their capital Raqqa, we need to ask what comes next.
What we can say about global jihadism is that it is not going away. At least not any time soon. There are just too many young radicals, already trained to use weapons and explosives all over the world. Hundreds of thousands of them, at least. They are globally mobile, and hardly likely to just integrate into other societies once ISIS or Boko Haram, or whoever takes the limelight next, will have been dissipated as a fighting force. There are far too many weapons liberally smuggled across most borders, and available at very low prices. Millions of them, at least. And there are far too many radical preachers eager to poison the minds of new recruits. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of them.
So when ISIS is gone, what will happen to this ideology of global jihadism? The answer is not much. ISIS is the symptom of this ideology, not its primary source or even its main nourishmentDr. Azeem Ibrahim
But more importartantly, perhaps, is that there is no shortage of disaffected young men (and indeed women, and older people) in the world, for whom there is very little possibility to find validation and a sense of self-worth in mainstream society, and who will thus be highly susceptible to radicalisation. And if recent events have shown anything, it is that this susceptibility to radicalisation is not a Muslim-specific phenomenon.
Extremists come from all walks of life
Most countries in the world, certainly most countries in the Middle East and the West, have become more polarised and radicalised in recent years. And right wing violent extremism is also flourishing, and also produces its own terrorist attacks: the Dylann Roof mass shooting in the US and the assassination of British MP Jo Cox in the UK, are poignant examples of a growing trend which should worry us at least as much as Islamist terrorism.
Of those who our societies are leaving behind and alienating, many will be Muslims. In the Middle East this will be an inevitable function of the fact that the majority of the population is Muslim. They are living in economically stagnant, politically corrupt societies, which are experiencing huge demographic booms, with no corresponding economic booms to absorb all the new young people, give them jobs, give them opportunities, or give them a clear path towards building a life for themselves.
In the West, this is an inevitable consequence of the fact that Muslim communities are at least as likely to experience marginalisation and alienation from mainstream society as any other group. If there is a general trend towards radicalisation in the whole of our political culture, Muslims, especially young Muslim men, are at least as likely to be radicalised as anyone else. They feel shut out of society, feared and despised, and they already have a ready-made ideology of violence which gives them sanction to retaliate against any slights or injustices, real or perceived, that they may suffer from.
Why extremists won’t vanish
So when ISIS is gone, what will happen to this ideology of global jihadism? The answer is not much. ISIS is the symptom of this ideology, not its primary source or even its main nourishment. Just as defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan and degrading Al Qaeda by killing Bin Laden and most of the hierarchy of the group did little to dampen the spread and popularity of the ideology, neither will the fall of Mosul or Raqqa. The fight will simply move on to other places in the world, perhaps to Nigeria and Boko Haram, perhaps somewhere else not yet obvious. Or it may be carried out through other means.
The terror attack in the headlines this week has been the lone-wolf attack on Parliament in London, an attack which left three civilians and one policeman dead, as well as the attacker. The attacker was a 52-year-old man who cannot be described as anything other than a loser. A man on the margin of society for his entire life, with a history of violence and petty crime. A jihadist attack will have been his only chance to make his life stand for something. His life (and death) will now represent children left without a mother or a father, people who have had their loved ones stolen from them, and people who will have to carry life-long injuries with them, just because one petty criminal had an existential crisis.
But for as long as the ideology of global jihadism thrives, for as long as we allow it to thrive, there will be more loved ones stolen from us. There will be more children growing up orphans, and more of us living with the physical and emotional scars of our failures as a society to challenge and defeat an ideology of division and violence.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim