Bureaucracy and Jihadism

By Jacob Olidort

Dr. Jacob Olidort is a Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where his work covers jihadism, Salafism, and Islamic political movements. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern studies from Princeton University, where his research focused on the intersection of Islamic law, theology, and modern politics.

A number of trends now seem to be accepted truths after nearly 16 years of fighting against jihadi terrorism. We have achieved concrete victories in the last two decades – killing Osama bin Laden, downgrading core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and beating back the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, however, we face an ongoing conundrum in that while we may have weakened some of our principal jihadi threats, such as core al Qaeda, we have enabled others to metastasize and shape-shift in what ultimately culminated in the rise of ISIS.

We seem to be ever distant from declaring victory against jihadi terrorism because both our objectives remain vague and our problem sets continue to evolve. In terms of our objectives, are we setting out to eliminate all jihadi terrorists and organizations or just to downgrade them so they don’t pose a threat to the homeland or our interests overseas? As we debated these objectives, the jihadi problem set transformed from al Qaeda core, a centralized global jihadist organization principally focused on directing terrorist attacks against Western targets, to a dizzying array of jihadist threats. The collapse of local governments in the Middle East over the last several years enabled ISIS and other jihadist groups to exploit instability to create statelets. Beyond physical territory, ISIS pioneered a new frontier of messaging with its slick and prolific propaganda in about a dozen languages, which has led to devastating events manifested through lone-wolf or inspired attacks.  

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