The past weekend marked the 10th anniversary of the operation, code-named Neptune Spear, that killed Osama bin Laden. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the state of Islamist terrorism and radical Islam more generally. And the initial diagnosis is clear: The movement is in bad shape.
Total deaths caused by terrorism around the world have plummeted by 59% since their peak in 2014. In the West, the current threat is less from Islamist violence than far-right terrorism, which has surged by 250% in the same period, and now makes up 46% of attacks and 82% of deaths.
Most Islamist terrorism today tends to be local — the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa. That’s a major reversal from the glory days of al-Qaeda, when its leaders insisted that the focus must be not on the “near enemy” (the local regimes) but rather the “far enemy” (the United States and the West more broadly). Al-Qaeda has disintegrated into a bunch of militias in disparate places with no central command or ideology.
The Islamic State is doing slightly better, with more funds, but it, too, searches for unstable or ungoverned places, such as Mozambique, where it can operate. This focus on local conflicts erodes any global appeal. Muslims around the world do not identify with local causes in Mozambique or Somalia.
Militant Islam, which began to flourish in the 1970s, rooted its appeal in failure — the failure of the dictatorships and monarchies of the Arab world to develop their societies. Islamists urged Muslims to give up on Western-style modernization, which had led only to poverty and tyranny, and to embrace instead the idea of political Islam — the road to an Islamic state. People such as bin Laden and his associate Ayman al-Zawahiri turned political Islam into militant Islam because they argued it was the only way to topple the dictatorships of the Arab world and beyond. They urged terrorism against those regimes but most importantly, against the superpower that supported them — the United States.
In an essay in the journal Religions, Nader Hashemi points out that the allure of political Islam was always that of an untested opposition movement, a mystical alternative to the shoddy reality that existed on the ground in the Muslim world. But over the past few decades, Islamist parties have entered the political process in Iraq, Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt, Gaza, Jordan and other places. “One general theme stands,” writes Hashemi. “The popular prestige of political Islam has been tarnished by its experience with state power.”
Millions of Muslims have now seen political Islam in action — and they don’t like it. They fled the Islamic State caliphate in droves. They protested against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. They watched Shiite parties in Iraq turn into corrupt patronage operations. And in Iran, they continue to be deeply disenchanted by that country’s theocratic government. The oxygen that fed political Islam — disgust with the current regimes and blind faith in the promise of religious leaders — has been severely depleted.
What remains now are local problems, local discontents that are really not part of some great global movement. It’s true in the West as well.
There has been a spate of Islamist attacks in France, but these were all carried out by individuals not previously known to the police and not part of any known jihadi groups. They were self-radicalized, with their own personal discomforts leading them to a radical ideology.
In this sense, Islamist attacks in Europe have something in common with far-right attacks in the United States. Alienated individuals, radicalizing online, find ideologies that weaponize their fears and furies. America has many more alienated White men these days than Muslims, hence the changing composition of the terrorism on its soil.
The lessons to draw about Islam, Islamist terrorism and the prospects for democracy in Islamic countries are complicated and varied. 2021 is also the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring, when millions of Arabs tried to peacefully protest for democracy and human rights, a movement that sprouted up again over the past few years in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq. Though these efforts have had limited success, they show powerfully that Arabs and Muslims want freedom and democracy far more than they do a caliphate.
For America, there is one big lesson: Stay calm. In the months after 9/11, we panicked, sacrificing liberties at home and waging war abroad, terrified that we were going to be defeated by this new enemy.
This is part of a worrying American tradition of exaggerating the threats we face, from the Soviet Union to Saddam Hussein. As we scour the world for new foes, let’s learn to right-size our adversaries and find a way to run fast but not run scared.