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Suzanne E. Spaulding Headshot

Don't Rescue the Global Jihad

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Congress is on the verge of squandering the strategic opportunity presented by bin Laden's death and the Arab Spring. The argument for a global jihad is waning. Yet rather than developing a strategy to hasten its demise, the House of Representatives seems poised to give it renewed life by passing an expanded Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Instead, we should consider how these recent events have affected our adversary and how we can use that to our strategic advantage.

Osama bin Laden sold the notion of a "global jihad" as a way of bringing disparate terrorist groups, who had been locally or regionally focused, into his fight with the West. He convinced them that they couldn't change their local regimes, the "near enemy," because those regimes were backed by the "far enemy," the United States and other Western nations. The only way they could succeed with their local objectives, he argued, was to join his global fight against the far enemy.

His argument did not really gain significant traction until after 9/11. That attack showed these groups that attacking the far enemy was possible. More importantly, however, the events of 9/11 provoked the United States into declaring its own global war, which bin Laden used to support his claim that Muslims were called to join in the global jihad. No matter how many times U.S. political leaders asserted that they were not engaged in a war on Islam, bin Laden and his followers pointed to America's global war to inspire new recruits.

The reason the Arab Spring was such a devastating blow to bin Laden's strategy was that the near enemy was overthrown by the efforts of the local population, not as a result of the global jihad. For over 10 years, the promised rewards of the global jihad were nowhere to be seen. And when courageous citizens rose up to throw off oppressive regimes, al Qaeda simply sat on the sidelines and criticized the protests as tainted by notions of democracy. Those watching from other countries and other regions could not help but see the bankruptcy of the ideology of global jihad.

With bin Laden's death, the most effective advocate for the globalization of terrorism is gone. Tensions have long existed within al Qaeda between those who believed in the imperative of going after the far enemy and those who thought poking a stick at the West was folly and the fight should be taken more directly to the near enemy. Those fissures should now grow, further complicating the struggle for succession.

I am not suggesting that the terrorist threat has gone away or that it does not still manifest itself in a variety of places around the world. In fact, the threat in the near term is likely to intensify as followers seek revenge, as we have seen in Pakistan. In addition, while a succession struggle presents potential advantages for disrupting operational activity and the strategic viability of al Qaeda, there is a risk that groups and individuals will step up their efforts to attack the U.S. to establish their bona fides as the next leader of the movement. Moreover, the uncertainty of the Arab Summer and Fall provide opportunities for further al Qaeda mischief in that region.

We should not be so totally focused on the dangers, however, that we miss potential opportunities. If we can undermine the appeal of a global movement, that would have significant long-term benefits.

A return to largely localized terrorist efforts in place of a global jihad would certainly not be complete victory, but it would significantly lessen the threat to Americans. Moreover, local groups that are not supported by a globalized support network should be somewhat easier to defeat and, potentially, to negotiate with. As that trend develops, the United States can and should continue to assist and work with local governments and populations around the world defeat the remaining terrorist threat.

We were compelled by a successful attack nearly 10 years ago to take actions that inadvertently played into bin Laden's hand. With his death, we have an opportunity to reassess our strategy. Before we rush to affirm a global war, and risk breathing new life into the global jihad, we should pause to carefully consider which future we want and the most effective path forward.