Global Jihadism, also known as Jihadist extremism, remains the most highlighted form of violent extremism today. It refers to actions justified by a particular interpretation of Islam, forming a worldwide violent ideological movement. The actors of global Jihadism can be organised individuals, groups, networks or organisations.
Stories covering terrorist attacks committed by al-Qaeda and very recently ISIS militants in Europe and North America have swept Westerns and Eastern mainstream media since 1990s. Although it is unequivocal that most attacks – including some public executions of ‘spies’ or other enemies – were carried out in West Asia and North Africa, focus remains persistent on the impact of these groups on Western countries. So why do incidents of global Jihadism receive more attention than other forms of violent extremism?
According to FBI data compiled by the Princeton University’s Loon Watch, terrorist attacks committed by Islamist extremists (6%) on US soil from the year 1980 all the way to 2005 fall behind Latino groups (42%), extreme left-wing groups (24%), and Jewish extremists (7%).
According to Europol’s annual EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, which provides an overview of the terrorism phenomenon in the EU in a given year, all “religiously motivated” terrorist attacks (including Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist etc.) in the EU between 2009 and 2013, have registered less than two per cent. From the 1088 terrorist attacks on EU soil, only 12 of them were either religiously motivated or affiliated with terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. The number of suspects arrested for religiously inspired Jihadist terrorism, however, has recently increased between 2011 and 2015 (122, 159, 216, 395, 687 consecutively).
Based on Europol’s annual reports, the majority of terrorist attacks in the EU have been perpetrated by separatist organisations and groups, which are motivated by ethno-nationalist, right-wing supremacist, left-wing anarchist and Marxist-Leninist beliefs. So what spots the difference between Jihadist extremism and other forms of extremism in terms of notoriety?
Al-Qaeda and later ISIS have declared Jihad not only against a specific group or country but also against the whole world. Therefore, we call them global in the first place. Since Osama bin Laden’s Declaration of Jihad on the Americans Occupying the Country of the Two Sacred Places in 1996, Extremism of Jihadist groups has become an international concern. While other forms of extremism are more likely to be confined in terms of space or in terms of the group they include and exclude, global Jihadism indiscriminately excludes all others in a dualist division between believers and infidels.
The relatively successful infiltration of Western societies by global Jihadists – recruits, returnees and otherwise – has given their rhetoric a meaning. By rhetoric I mean the use of language as a persuasion method in order to reach a political end. According to their rhetoric, they plan to rule the world and that Islam, as they understand it, will dominate. They promise a utopian society without distinction based on origin, language, colour or race.
Recently ISIS has been relying on world, especially Western, media structures to send its messages of fear and division across the world. By using these already existing structures, ISIS became able to employ a successful propaganda strategy tailored to different audiences. Thus, unlike other violent extremist groups, ISIS aims to go viral as a pillar of a strategy to intimidate Western societies, signalling the possibility of more attacks to follow.
Although the reasons causing an individual to commit terrorism are different in almost every case, there has been a growing tendency that all incidents of terrorism define a connected phenomenon. Therefore, this growing tendency has led to conflating different incidents in different countries as instances of Jihadist extremism, exaggerating the threat thereof. Such exaggeration is also compounded by a pending confusion between Islam as among others a theology, belief and culture and Islamism, which broadly and vaguely refers to the ideology of Islamist conservative movements ranging between non-violent reformist, legalist, literalist and dogmatic to violent and extremist.
The proximity bias in the sense that closer to us is more interesting to us correlated with business decisions to make stories sell in Western media are vital, too. Stories about scary “others” play better in the media and receive a wider readership.
To sum up, global Jihadism remains infamously frequently referenced as a form of violent extremism because it is not confined to a specific space or excludes a specific group; its rhetoric is frightening to its enemies but attractive to its supporters; its posed threat is exaggerated; and its propaganda especially that of ISIS proves relatively successful.
Hakim Khatib is a political scientist who works as a lecturer for politics and culture of the Middle East and journalism at Fulda University of Applied Sciences and the editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics & Culture Journal (MPC Journal).