Barak Mendelsohn is a Professor of Political Science at Haverford College in the United States, who has authored a number of books on terrorism and national security, most recently, Jihadism Constrained: The Limits of Transnational Jihadism and What It Means for Counter-Terrorism, which aims to have Western governments right-size the jihadist terrorism threat. EER was pleased to interview Professor Mendelsohn recently to discuss his conclusions and recommendations.
EER: Jihadism has been one of the top issues on the international security agenda since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, but in your book, Jihadism Constrained, you essentially ask the reverse question: Why wasn’t it a bigger threat? And one of the answers you give is that jihadists regularly face internal discord, and when this happens the arguments are conducted in a religious discourse that tends towards schism, rather than compromise and reconciliation. Could you expand on this idea for us?
BM: In some ways the book, Jihadism Constrained, was written as part of the process I have been through since 9/11, thinking about the issues of violence, terrorism, and the jihadi context. In the early stages after 9/11, we all tended to overestimate the threat, and we probably also gave too much leeway to states, believing they could safeguard our interest. But over time, I had a greater and greater sense that the costs of counterterrorism policy might outweigh the benefits, given the level of the threat. I was horrified to see that studying the Al-Qaeda threat can easily be abused to increase Islamophobia. This was not something that, as a scholar, I aspired to. I have also seen heads of state use the “terrorism” label to silence critics and those with legitimate objections to their rule. So, over time, I began looking more critically, both at what states were doing and at how we assess the strength of the jihadi adversaries we are facing.
By the time I wrote Jihadism Constrained, this was after close to two decades of observing the jihadi movement and counterterrorism policies, and reaching the conclusion that the medicine we gave for the jihadi problem might be worse than the original malady. We see the rise of Right-wing populism; the main security threat to the United States is, in my mind, Right-wing radicalism. So, I thought it was important to use the knowledge I had gained over two decades to reassess the nature of the jihadi threat and put things in perspective. And in a way I was validated by looking at how Americans responded to the COVID crisis. What we consider as intolerable threat is up to us. Apparently, Americans are capable of tolerating over a million fatalities from COVID. This reinforced my concerns that states often overreact to the threat of terrorism. This is especially the case given that most jihadi groups have extremely limited capabilities and their attacks usually result in a much smaller number fatalities than the 9/11 attacks, which are an outlier in terms of lethality..
As I said, this led me to conclude that the threat is not as significant as we thought [in 2001] and it is time we had a more accurate picture of the threat, put things in perspective, and understand the general context so that we won’t overreach. Part of the problem of the jihadi movement in the last two decades was that our overreach emboldened and expanded the movement—albeit, not in a way where the jihadis can have significant success.
EER: Two other, interrelated factors you document as constraining the jihadist movement are the national and tribal identities that its members never quite shed, and the limitations of strategic vision. Could you explain a bit how these fit together for us?
BM: I was trying to build the argument—that we are exaggerating the level of threat posed by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State—based on three claims.
First, what these groups want to do is so big, and requires such a conceptual shift in the way we understand politics and the world around us that jihadi groups are failing to get enough support. They cannot accomplish their objectives alone. They want to overthrow the existing state-based order and replace it with a system based on religion, and religious discrimination. To do this, they would need significant buy-in from the Muslim umma, but they failed. This is an image that most Muslims just don’t buy into. There are a lot of Muslims who want to see more religion in their lives, but there is a big difference between wanting to see more religion in ceremonies like weddings and wanting to live in a world based on religious imperatives. Even worse for the jihadis, within Islam there is great diversity, and the jihadis are hostile to the overwhelming majority of these interpretations. So, why would Muslims accept this repressive version of Islam?
Second, given that this is a huge enterprise, synergy is needed between locations—it cannot just succeed in one area. A state or caliphate is needed that can stand on its own two feet and defend itself. In this sense, Osama bin Laden was correct in saying that none of the Emirates the jihadists had managed to create were strong enough to withstand an attack from the West. This is why Bin Laden deferred the territorial element of his vision. But this just emphasises that even when jihadis score successes in various geographic locations in the Muslim world, they were never able to link together these victories in a way that created a transnational polity capable of enduring external attack by the West.
The closest the jihadis got was the Islamic State breaking down the border between Iraq and Syria, and the result as we saw was that once they did this, they provoked the international community into destroying. In the book, I look at the different grand strategies offered by the jihadis, and none of them managed to offer a solution to what I call “the aggregation problem”. They cannot turn success in different locations into a comprehensive and unified effect.
It’s especially interesting to look at Abu Bakr Naji’s book [Management of Savagery], which we all heard was a template for the actions of Al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State. Yet, when you read the book, at the end of it, you see that Abu Bakr Naji says, to paraphrase, “You don’t believe this is possible? Well, the history of Islam shows that great things are possible if you really believe.” So, even the person who is supposed to be the main strategist of the jihadi movement ultimately says the movement must rely on God for success. This is not really recognised among scholars of international security as the most reliable doctrine for success in military campaigns. I looked at the various proposals—from Bin Laden to [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi, Abu Musab al-Suri—and none of them proposed a realistic answer to the aggregation problem. They all, ultimately, called for a reliance on faith that somehow things will work out.
Third and finally, given how difficult the utopia jihadis want to create is, at the least you would need for all the jihadi groups to unite as one force. But as anyone who studies the jihadi movement knows, this is not reality: they spend extraordinary amounts of time fighting each other, rather than working towards their stated political objections. So, if the jihadis’ project requires vast manpower, and they cannot even unite with each other, then clearly the kind of world they envision is not going to be realised.
Overall, then, I conclude that we are making too much of the transnational jihadi movement, and that maybe it is time to calibrate our view of the threat so we can approach it in a more useful, serious way, and perhaps release some resources for other objectives.
EER: Is this disunity among jihadists unique to them, or can this be seen in other terrorist groups?
BM: This is not unique to the jihadi movement, but I think that it is especially problematic in the jihadi movement in light of the scope of what they want to achieve. Jihadis are like all human beings; there is a diverse array of personality types, and some will clash. We have seen this in many other organizations. I think what makes it especially interesting in the jihadi context is that the religious doctrines in place to reduce friction end up having the reverse effect.
Think of the bay’a [oath of allegiance], for example. Rather than creating unity, it created opportunities for divergence, and this is a unique element of religious terrorism. The bay’a is specifically there to ensure obedience, such that even if the ruler sins he is still obeyed—the conditions under which a bay’a can be declared void are so severe that it is essentially impossible. This was supposed to make jihadi movements stronger. In reality, the nature of bay’a in Islam, the fact it is given from individual to individual, meant that every time a parent organization or a branch lost a leader, it ignited the whole cycle of creating a bay’a all over again. Which meant that instead of stabilizing organizations, it created more friction within these groups. Indeed, when branch leaders were killed, the possibility of realignment increased competition between local factions, and between the transnational jihadi heavyweights.
EER: You have basically already answered this, but just to wrap it up, you don’t think jihadists will ever be able to resolve these issues?
BM: I do not see any way that they can overcome these problems. What you can see is a shift back to localization. I have been arguing for a long time that we are making a mistake when we judge the strength of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State by aggregating the abilities of the branches and core. My book is trying to argue that there are significant differences, even between the core and the branches, within these organizations, which make them weaker than they seem because the branches are not the force multiplier the jihadis want them to be. What we see is that when these organizations manage to do more than merely survive it is by turning to the local agenda, as opposed to pursuing the objectives of Al-Qaeda Central or the core of the Islamic State. The groups that make the most serious gains are those that remove themselves from these transnational networks, most obviously Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria, which severed all its ties with Al-Qaeda to clarify to the international community that they could be responsible actors and to differentiate themselves from the global jihadis. My argument is not that you won’t see successful jihadi groups locally: they may well succeed and we might see new Islamic regimes in the future, but they will stick to the rules of the Westphalian system of being focused on one particular state, staying within its borders, and mostly respecting international law. In other words, the successful groups will be the ones that accept the existing order, not those who try to create something completely new. What this means for us is that we should look for ways of dealing with the local jihadi outbursts in a way that do not strengthen the international jihadi movement. This will reduce the scope of our fights abroad, if we understand that most of the local jihadi groups are really focused on local issues. Rather than the United States intervening, regional states can be assisted in stabilising weak and collapsing states, and in some cases, we can perhaps even accept an Islamist regime. There are many things we can do short of sending the military to address local jihadi problems, which then only leads to increasing the threat.
EER: Do you see the challenges posed by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as different?
BM: They are different because the Islamic State doesn’t appear to have any meaningful red lines, which makes it easier for the Islamic State to accept branches that overreach and display extreme brutality, which Al-Qaeda does not. The Islamic State is also willing to accept more focus on fighting “the near enemy”—the Muslim regimes—while Al-Qaeda is still much more focused on “the far enemy” [the West]. The biggest difference is that Al-Qaeda’s core at this point seems to be no more than a board of advisers that can provide advice to the different branches, but it is not clear that they have any real authority over those branches. They definitely don’t have any real control. So, I do see differences between the groups in terms of their ideology, in terms of their strategy, and in terms of their capabilities. At this stage, Al-Qaeda Central is a shadow of its former self.
EER: That leads very nicely to the next question. Al-Qaeda’s most spectacular attack, 9/11, is now two decades in the past. Do you think it is possible that a terrorist atrocity on such a scale will ever be repeated, either by Al-Qaeda or perhaps the Islamic State?
BM: I think 9/11 was a fluke, a bunch of coincidences that worked in the perpetrators’ favor that are unlikely to exist these days. For 9/11 to work as it did, so many things had to work out for the jihadis, but now, for example, there is much better cooperation between the security agencies in the United States. So, the kind of walls that existed before—where the CIA had intelligence that the FBI didn’t, and vice versa—which meant that key information was missed in real time are very unlikely to recur. This does not mean there can’t be a terrible attack that will cause hundreds of fatalities. In fact, I am surprised we have not seen more such attacks. But I don’t think this has to lead to unusual politics. Al-Qaeda did not have much in its back pocket to follow-on from 9/11 attack, so even if Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State manages to stage one big attack, the consequences are really up to us, how we decide to respond to that. We decided twenty years ago to respond with a War on Terrorism that was very unfocused, without clear objectives, and without a clear understanding of the jihadi movement. We know so much more now that we can respond more appropriately. As I said, I think the chances of such an attack are reduced—we are much better positioned to prevent another major attack now—and we also understand the nature of the jihadi movement much better, so our response could mitigate the downsides of what happened last time. Though, one should never underestimate the role of stupidity in history.
EER: Internal threat
BM: I think Muslims in Europe are a different kind of constituency, and I’m sure that for a long, long time you will be able to identify candidates who are willing to carry out attacks. So, I expect we will continue to see occasional attacks in Europe. Even if you managed to integrate most newcomers, and help second and third generation Muslims find their place in Europe, there will still be plenty of people with grievances who will slip through the cracks. Fortunately, in Europe, you don’t have the same easy access to weapons as you do in the United States, but killing remains easy and grievances and perceived grievances continue to exist (to clarify, this problem is not exclusive to Muslims in Europe). There are lots of people who believe that the answer to their grievances, whether to achieve policy objectives or just to express anger, is to use violence. Jihad has very little to do with that. In many cases, the religious is just piggybacking on social ills, and I don’t see those social ills being resolved. Some people respond by using violence, especially when offered religious justifications for its use. But does that necessarily imply that terrorist attacks would have strategic effects? I argue that it doesn’t. We should obviously try to prevent any attack, but if an attack takes place, we are capable of limiting its consequences, through calibrating our response, ensuring it has only tactical effects. Obviously, for those who lose family members in these attacks, they are horrendous. But from a strategic perspective, we cannot see every attack as the trigger for a long war. There are things we just need to learn to live with; we can handle this kind of threat from low-level attacks. If we exaggerate the threat and overreact, then we will start again, and rather than bring peace and stability, we will just bring more friction to society.
EER: On balance, do you think the “caliphate” experience of the Islamic State has helped or hindered the jihadist movement—do you think the argument that it was possible will be more convincing, or will Al-Qaeda’s view that this proves it should not have been tried at this point win out?
BM: What will win-out will be the reality on the ground, not the debate. If you see another group that manages to take control of territory and create a caliphate, suddenly the claim for the caliphate will sound more plausible. But the debate will not determine how jihadis act. At this stage it does seem that Al-Qaeda has been vindicated in its stance against the caliphate-now view. The problem for Al-Qaeda is that this opens it up to criticism from the Islamic State and others along the same lines as the criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood, as “those who postpone” [murji’a]. Moreover, Al-Qaeda itself failed to offer a viable alternative.
EER: I wanted to finish on another subject you have explored. You wrote a paper in 2021, “The Limits of Ideologically-Unlikely Partnerships”, about the Asad regime collaborating with the Islamic State to build the jihadists into such a threat that the West would see the regime as the lesser evil—and it worked: the West eventually intervened to in effect help Asad put down the insurgency against him, since the anti-ISIS campaign in the north and east allowed him to focus his firepower on the rebels in the west. The Algerian government did something very similar with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in the 1990s. So, a couple of questions about this.
The first is, given the extent of state involvement in terrorism in general and specifically with jihadism—Al-Qaeda has had various relationships with states like Iran, Sudan, and Bosnia—why is this aspect generally left out of the discussion of international terrorism?
BM: I think it is being left out for two reasons. First, the state-sponsorship of jihadism is not that robust. Second, a lot of states support terrorism. The American list of state-sponsors of terrorism is a joke. It’s very narrow. The Jewish settlers in the West Bank are fully supported by Israel—that’s support for terrorism, but they are not on the list. A lot of the armed nonstate actors that the United States, France, and Russia have supported, engaged, at least on occasion, in terrorism. My problem is that almost every armed non-state actor turns to terrorism at one point or another, to some extent, and nearly all these actors enjoy some level of support and cooperation with state actors. So, we perhaps need to distinguish between those states that knowingly fund terrorist activities, and those that fund groups that use some of the money to engage in terrorism. A lot of states fund armed non-state actors, but they do not have full control: much of the money goes for purposes the states want, but some of it might go to terrorist attacks the states oppose—does that make this state a sponsor of terrorism? This is just one of the conceptual problems with the label “state-sponsor of terrorism” that makes it essentially an irrelevant category in international relations. Again, with the U.S. list, states are put on the list and taken off it for reasons that have nothing to do with their activities vis-à-vis sponsoring terrorism—two obvious cases are Cuba and North Korea. The list is political, as is the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. I don’t like the label “terrorist groups”: there are groups that engage in terrorism, but terrorist group is a dubious category, and therefore not much use to analysts. For example, how many attacks would make an armed group terrorist? One, ten, perhaps one hundred? And how much of their activities need to be terrorist attacks to constitute such a group? Five precent? Perhaps fifty percent? There are interesting analytical questions about the interactions between state actors and armed non-state actor, such as whether state sponsorship makes armed non-state actors more or less likely to use terrorism, but the way scholars study state sponsorship of terrorism at the present time is not helpful.
EER: The second question is whether there is much that Western governments can do about this—can state-sponsorship of terrorism be deterred? Or only punished? And if punished, what should the penalties be?
BM: Deterrence is possible if you are clear enough about the consequences. States that support groups engaged in terrorism are weighing up costs and benefits, so if you are clear that there will be costs—and you actually take action to enforce this—you will be able to deter more of those relationships. On the other hand, the relationships and cooperation between states and armed non-state actors are such a common thing that it is impossible to imagine stopping them completely. States rarely have full control over these groups. What you can do is create some norms about what is a tolerable relationship for states to have with armed non-state actors, and what will lead to sanctions. It would be helpful to change the way we think about these relationships and decide what it is that we really want to prohibit. States should be made to understand that certain kinds of support for armed non-state actors would lead to devastating consequences for them—and the categories are not that difficult to define. For example, if states assist armed non-state actors in attacks on chemical, biological, or nuclear facilities: we can set this as a boundary, and in effect this is already the United Nations Security Council regime premised on the idea of preventing states from putting WMD [weapons of mass destruction] in the hands of armed non-state actors. So, there can be boundaries, but any attempt to prohibit all relationships between states and armed non-state actors would be meaningless; even if states committed to it, they would continue on.