Despite military victories against terror groups, such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates, acts of terrorism are still common around the world, claiming lives and creating fear. Though terrorist groups have lost territory, there is still public despair over their power after every attack.
Experts on jihadism and terrorism say the ideology is rapidly changing, both on the ground and online.
Though the word jihadism is often used to describe an inward struggle toward holiness in Islam, it is also used to describe the wars extremists claim to wage in the name of the religion, though the vast majority of Muslims condemn their acts of violence.
Barak Mendelsohn, an associate professor of political science at Haverford College, suggested that jihadism and its goals are often misunderstood. Terrorism is primarily about reaching political goals; terrorists want to transform the world according to their ideology, he said.
“For that, they need a multitude of people that think of themselves as Muslims in the political sense,” Mendelsohn explained at an event in July at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Because national identity is so strong to many people in the area, only about 40,000 of the 1.8 billion people in the region side with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, according to Mendelsohn.
In this sense, he said, jihadism is a failure: it will not change the world to become politically Muslim or even nearly achieve this goal.
Assaf Moghadam, an associate professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, argued that jihadism is currently facing significant constraints.
“It is certainly not an existential threat,” he said at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, explaining that jihadism will not destroy western nations. “It is important that we not conflate jihadism in constraint to jihadism in decline.”
The question is not if jihadism is going away, but what kind it will be in the future. Moghadam argued that contemporary jihadism has a few advantages going forward, as well.
Jihadis may now use social media to communicate and proselytize online. Because the movement has no real “center of gravity,” according to Moghadam, it is very difficult to extinguish their influence in a particular location.
“Individual actors will be much more important going forward,” he said. They will tend to be more individualistic, informal and diverse in the future, making them much more difficult to detect or control.
This new power is amplified in the current circumstances in the Middle East, according to Moghadam. The conditions that previously gave rise to jihadism are still at play, particularly a vacuum of power in Syria, he explained, noting that going forward, close cooperation with local Muslim communities can create a healthy, localized ideology for the region.
There are other ways to limit the influence of jihadism in the region, however.
Tally Helfont, Director of the Program on the Middle East at the FPRI, argued that ISIS needs men, money, and ideas to continue its mission.
“Stopping the money is like stopping the fuel for the flame,” she said, pointing out the importance of controlling the funding of terrorism through international policy. A large deal of money for terrorism comes from the Gulf nations, she said at the FPRI event in July.
She also pointed to the importance of promoting critical thinking in Mosques over the rote repetition that often leads to extremist ideologies.
Promoting critical thinking is not limited to mosques alone, though. Some counterterrorism measures from the United States are focusing on engaging jihadis online.
At a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on the Unmaking of jihadism, a former jihadi spoke about the role of critical thinking and the internet to the contemporary movement.
Jesse Morton, once the founder and leader of a jihadi website Revolution Muslim, spoke about how his transformation could be an example for changing the paths of potential terrorists.
Morton was arrested for threatening the creators of South Park in 2011, but found those who would listen and push back on his ideas helped turn him away from radical beliefs. He said that social media is a template for jihadism to exist today, given its polarizing nature and ability to reach those in socially and geographically remote settings.
“Now you don’t have to travel to Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s quite dangerous.”
When commenting on the notion that ISIS is going away, Morton said that he “would suggest that we’ve been here before.” When Osama Bin Laden was killed, there was a suggestion that terrorism would decline. Morton suggested that there is an ebb and flow to jihadism, and social media has made it far more difficult to track the state of the ideology.
Morton also explained jihadis’ need for the right-wing extremist movements in the west. As the movements seem to be gaining momentum in the U.S. and parts of Europe, jihadis use their rhetoric as proof that America hates all Muslims and Arab nations. Both groups feed the narrative of the other, Morton explained.
The key is to come to a place of non-violence, Morton said, because it is only there that open dialogue and thinking can occur.
The internet offers an ideological battleground that extremists use and abuse for their political and religious goals. Military force is seemingly the last line of conflict in fighting jihadism.
“I believe we have the most capable military force in the history of the world,” Former Ambassador Charles Ray said at an International Law Institute event on the role of diplomacy in counterterrorism. He explained, however, that terrorists often do not lend themselves to “kinetic solutions,” saying “you don’t hang wallpaper with a sledgehammer.”
Ray emphasized the importance of diplomats and military personnel working together to solve problems of jihadism on the ground, saying the culture and customs may result in common problems that could be solved in the forces worked together.
Unfortunately, there is no official system to connect diplomats and the military on the ground, according to Ray.
“It’s left to the personalities in the field,” he said.
The military action in Iraq specifically has been a subject of controversy for over a decade. Even though U.S. “boots on the ground” are now withdrawn, American involvement in the region is still important, according to Senator Joni Ernst, who served in Iraq herself.
“Our first and our highest priority must be to ensure that the Iraqi government has the equipment and the training to conduct sustained and resilient counter-terrorism operations,” she said at a United States Peace Institute event.
As the U.S. lessens its influence in Iraq and ISIS violence is at its lowest level since the U.S. pulled out of the nation, Ernst says there is a looming threat: a power vacuum.
“The United States must remain a partner of choice for Iraq as it develops into a young democracy,” she said, adding that is the U.S. does not step in, other nations such as Russia or Iran will step in and gain further influence over the region.
The war against terror is largely a war of influence, according to the experts. The internet has brought jihadism new avenues of growth by influencing ideologies on the other side of screens worldwide. Western forces, as they use political influence in the region, will have to learn to keep up.