For decades, Sunni jihadism has been characterized by transnational terrorism, suicide bombing, and excommunication. These three pillars not only attracted the ire of American and European governments, but turned off many of the jihadists’ target constituents, namely Sunnis living in the Muslim world. Yet there are signs that Sunni extremists are changing their ways, drifting away from the global agenda that reached its apotheosis in al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center, and toward a hyperlocal one.
The transformation is happening in various countries, including Afghanistan, Yemen, and Mali. Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Syria, provides an illustrative example of how the jihadist threat is changing across the region.
In 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra put together a lengthy training manual for its new recruits. In the roughly 200-page book, obtained by me, the group argues the merits of country-focused jihad over global jihad. It advises followers that al-Qaeda’s stated strategy of going after the “far enemy” was not set in stone, and that, in the current moment, a focus on anything other than the local fight would be an “unacceptable distraction.”
Throughout the Syrian War, the group has put that theoretical injunction into practice. Its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, even pledged in an interview with Al Jazeera in May 2015 that Syria would not be used as a launchpad for jihadists to attack the West, based on orders from al-Qaeda’s central leadership. The group established a political office and reached out to countries including Turkey to sell itself as a reliable partner, one that poses no threat to anyone outside Syria.
Simultaneously, the group has moved away from the other two pillars of suicide bombing and excommunication, part of the grander effort not to alienate locals.
Jabhat al-Nusra, according to an insider source, who did not want to be identified as speaking with a journalist, has issued internal instructions ordering its commanders to refrain from the use of suicide attacks whenever possible, and never in civilian areas. And indeed, few such attacks have happened away from the front lines. Similarly, Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist group close to Jabhat al-Nusra, banned suicide bombing in the early days of the conflict. The cautious use of suicide bombing is also common beyond Syria, including in Yemen and Libya. It seems that suicide attacks reached a high point after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but they have now fallen off dramatically—with the notable exception of those committed by the Islamic State.
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Excommunication, or takfir, is on the decline as well, as jihadist groups have come around to the practicality of aligning themselves with relative moderates instead of enforcing a rift whenever a theological difference of opinion becomes apparent.
Beyond Syria, the al-Qaeda chapter in Yemen has also looked closer to home in the aftermath of the anti-government uprising in 2011 and the war launched by Saudi Arabia against the Houthis in 2015. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, once seen as the most dangerous branch for its role in international terrorism, governed Hadhramaut for an entire year; this experiment seems to have further enmeshed it in local dynamics. In 2017, the group told a Norwegian newspaper that it had renounced international operations and stopped recruiting foreign fighters as part of an agreement with local tribal and religious leaders.
One could easily dismiss these changes as limited or temporary, but there are two reasons to believe that they represent a genuine trend.
First, Sunni jihadists’ localized approach evolved organically out of the geopolitical upheavals of 2011. The popular uprisings across the region submerged jihadists deep in local struggles. Extremist groups had to respond quickly to rapidly changing events, which meant they could not always report to jihadist ideologues or leaders living elsewhere. That was a radical change from the way jihadists used to operate, mostly as a vanguard movement led by dogmatic radicals who wanted to go after the “head of the snake,” as Osama bin Laden and others labeled the U.S. and its Western allies.
The emergence of the Islamic State in 2013 and 2014 might seem like a dispositive counterexample; in reality, that group’s radicalism and global ambition caused something of a backlash among other Sunni jihadists, who sought to distinguish themselves from the hard-liners through relative moderation and localism. As ISIS rose to power, and later as it collapsed, other Sunni groups continued their local strategy, suggesting that it arose from deep convictions, and was not superficial or merely tactical.
In the past several years, Sunni jihadists have begun to speak in favor of cross-ideological coalitions in countries such as Syria and Libya, and to describe them as “corrective” or “reformist” models. They are advocating a move away from a “jihad of the elite” that looks down on the masses, and toward a “jihad of the people” that respects local communities and reflects their priorities.
Second, pro-Iranian Shiite militants evolved in just this way a few decades ago, from global to more local in outlook.
Among Muslim radicals, Shiite groups pioneered transnational terrorism and suicide bombing. In October 1983, twin suicide attacks carried out by what became Hezbollah in Beirut killed 241 U.S. personnel and 58 French soldiers. Two months later, Hezbollah of Lebanon and the Islamic Dawa Party of Iraq conducted a joint suicide operation in Kuwait, targeting six foreign and national installations, and were implicated in other terrorist attacks against diplomatic and cultural missions in numerous countries. Iran’s use of child suicide battalions to charge across Iraqi minefields during the Iraq-Iran War, from 1980 to 1988, was the most grisly and large-scale example of the tactic.
During the 1980s, by contrast, not a single Sunni extremist blew himself up—even at the height of the jihad in Afghanistan. It would take Sunni militants another decade to embrace the suicide bombing, which they did precisely because they believed it was central to Shiite groups’ success in driving out foreign forces from Lebanon and in the Iran-Iraq War. (Ramadan Shalah, the former leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, told the Saudi newspaper Al Hayat in 2003 that the tactic was “borrowed” from Shiites.)
Over time, however, Shiite militant groups abandoned suicide bombings, which they came to view as counterproductive. (In Israel in particular, the tactic had damaged the reputation of the Arab cause.) Groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and the majority of Shiite militias in Iraq also shifted from transnational terrorism to a more nationalist approach, infiltrating and then dominating local politics. This strategy has enabled Shiite jihadist groups to grow and dominate in multiple countries, even where Shiites are a minority.
(Of course the conversion is not complete; Iran, famously, uses jihadist groups as proxies in other countries. But state-sponsored Shiite militancy is not quite the same as an international terrorist campaign organized by a radical, stateless vanguard.)
So this looks like a pattern: Shiite jihadists embrace suicide bombing; Sunni jihadists follow suit; Shiites reject suicide bombing and move toward a local strategy; Sunnis follow suit. The Shiites have stuck to their local agenda, and there’s every reason to expect Sunnis to do the same.
The U.S. needs to adapt to the changing nature of the jihadist threat. The new jihadists will not focus on exporting violence to the West, but instead on infiltrating local communities and building influence. The future extremist landscape could be dominated by Hezbollah-like Sunni jihadist groups, ones that have the determination to fight a long war, but are grounded in local struggles.
The way to counter these emerging movements is through a deeper engagement to stem their influence on a local level. In practical terms, the strategy should include consistent and long-term American support and oversight for governments to fill the vacuum in restive areas. But 18 years after the War on Terror started, Washington has no appetite for such an engagement. In all likelihood, Sunni jihadists will continue to adjust their tactics to deepen their presence across the region, as their Shiite counterparts did before.