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Islamic Extremism, Explained

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
8th June 2015 - Quoted by Zack Beauchamp - Vox

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is nothing if not ambitious. In a speech last July, Baghadi promised his fighters much more than their already large empire in Iraq and Syria: "if you hold to [the Islamic State]," he said, "you will conquer Rome and own the world."

On one level, this is absurd: no one expects to see black flags over the Coliseum. But Baghdadi's grandiloquence reflects a harsh reality: all around the Middle East, ISIS and its fellow jihadi groups have surged to power.

Jihadism refers to a violent extremist movement that seeks to establish an Islamic empire — referred to as a caliphate — governed by a harsh, extremely conservative interpretation of Islamic law. (The word "jihad" translates literally as "struggle," but "jihadism" refers to the militant ideology that has adopted that term.) Militant jihadi groups now have major presences in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. And as they rise, fears of another major terrorist attack on the United States and the West rise with them.

But since 9/11, Western politicians and commentators have gotten groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS badly wrong, often miscasting them as a mere outgrowth of Western foreign policy or a reaction to America's "freedoms." That is a distraction: the real roots of the jihadi movement actually lie in the Islamic world's efforts to grapple with a modern political and social reality that began in the 19th century.

These movements see themselves as fighting a war to purify the Muslim world and return it to its rightful place as a preeminent global power. They view their war with the West as a strategic element of that fight, not an immediate goal in and of itself. And while their quest for an Islamic empire has little chance of success, the jihadis are in a position to do immense amounts of damage — especially to their fellow Muslims.

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Al-Qaeda's plan to defeat America is much subtler than people usually give them credit for. They believe the key to defeating America is its pocketbook: convince America that the costs of supporting client regimes in the Middle East are simply not worth it.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, explains that this plan has gone through three stages: al-Qaeda tried to bleed the US by directly hitting its economic infrastructure (the Twin Towers), drawing it into unwinnable wars (Afghanistan/Iraq), and provoking costly overreactions to minor threats (airport security).

Given the massive financial cost to the United States from the occupation of Afghanistan and from overzealous "security measures" at home, it's not crazy to say that al-Qaeda has had some success with that strategy. "Al Qaeda leaders, operatives, and sympathizers believe they are winning their fight against the West, and they have a point," Gartenstein-Ross writes.

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Tags

al-qaeda, iraq, isis, jihadism, syria