Global jihad is a historically novel movement, dating only to the 1980s, but it has intellectual roots that date back a century. The rise of Islamism in the early part of the twentieth century, as embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood, sought to mold the nascent modern state in the Muslim world as explicitly Islamic. The failure of Islamism to achieve this goal led, in the 1960s, to the emergence of an intellectual architecture justifying armed jihad to overthrow "apostate" regimes. Jihadism cut across sectarian divisions, developing in both Sunni and Shia countries. Out of ideas of local jihadism emerged in the 1980s ideologies of global jihad, which focused on global systemic problems facing the Muslim world. Four distinct iterations, or waves, of global jihad have occurred in the past four decades.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 led over time to the development of the first wave of global jihad, articulated by 'Abdullah 'Azzam. The broad, systemic issue for 'Azzam was the occupation of Muslim lands all over the world, not just in Afghanistan. The solution to this problem was to create a Jihadi International of pious Muslim warriors who would work with local communities to liberate their occupied lands from infidel occupying powers. For 'Azzam, the "solid base" (al-qa'ida al-sulba) to achieve the liberation of Muslim lands shifted meaning over time from a territorial state to a fluid organization, much like the old Communist International. 'Azzam argued that armed jihad-as-permanent-revolution was the only way a Muslim could fully experience tawhid, the completeness of God. 'Azzam was also primarily responsible for the theological justification of a "cult of martyrdom" that informs many jihad groups.
The second wave of global jihad began in 1996 when Usama Bin Laden declared war not only on the "apostate" Saudi regime but also the United States. The immediate crises were the impending defeat of once promising local jihads in Egypt and Algeria, and the US military build-up in the Persian Gulf following the 1990-91 war with Iraq. The broader systemic crisis was the durability of apostate regimes throughout the region, kept in power by a 'far enemy': the United States. Only by driving the US out of the Middle East would these local apostate regimes become vulnerable to overthrow. Bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida organization were responsible for a number of acts of violence, most noticeably the 9/11 terror attacks against the US in 2001.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Syrian civil war in 2011 were the immediate sources of the third wave of global jihad, led by ISIS, or the Islamic State. The broader systemic crises for third wave ideologues was the durability of apostasy – of human sin and iniquity – that could only be addressed through the construction of a puritanical state under Islamic law (shari'a) where strict piety could be enforced. Such a state would begin in the heart of the Middle East and spread throughout the Muslim world. Caring less about theology than about the "propaganda of the deed," ISIS stressed Jihadi Cool: where savage violence, bountiful sex, and a meaningful life were promised to all. The declaration of a Caliphate in 2014 represented the epitome of Jihadi Cool. The third wave of global jihad ended in 2017 when the ISIS territorial state was defeated.
The fourth wave of global jihad was prompted by desperation: the collapse of the Taliban regime and the death of hundreds of global jihadis in Afghanistan threatened the movement's very survival. A Syrian named Abu Musab al-Suri devised a strategy for global jihad to survive, to live to fight another day. Fourth wave ideologues focused on networked terrorism by decentralized individuals and small cells, using the internet and social media to publicize the cause in an always-evolving wiki-narrative. The fourth wave uses jihad fardi, personal jihad, as its primary method of operation, a form of stochastic (inspired) terrorism that is durable and difficult to stop. This "system, not organization" is responsible for most acts of global jihadi terror in the world today. While such lone wolf attacks are nearly impossible to entirely halt, they tend to be small, representing a deadly nuisance more than a strategic threat.
Global Jihad is unusual among violent social movements in that it does not base its ideologies on Enlightenment ideals of human progress, as did Marxist, Fascist, and national liberation movements over the past two centuries. But neither is it a generic politico-religious movement seeking "cosmic war." Rather, global jihad should be understood as part of a small category of excessively violent movements known as "movements of rage." Movements of rage are distinctive because of their unique combination of nihilistic violence and millenarian ideologies designed to rid society of western cultural contamination. Global jihad shares much in common ideologically and sociologically with the Khmer Rouge, Red Guards, Nazi Brownshirts, Boko Haram (before it proclaimed itself part of the global jihad), and white nationalism. Global jihad is a variant form of a movement of rage in that it is focused on the epicenter of global contamination, not national contamination.
As a deadly but small movement, global jihad is not nearly the strategic threat as is a declining Russia, a rising China, nuclear proliferation, or climate change, just to name a few. Yet, global jihad has had an outsized influence on the United States and other countries. The GWOT, or Global War on Terror, was based largely on defeating global jihad, and included large wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and smaller wars in Yemen, Somalia, in the Sahel of North Africa, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Regimes in the Middle East often justified harsh domestic suppression of political opponents in the same name of fighting terrorism. America became less democratic and more of a "national security state" in the aftermath of global jihad's most famous act of terrorism on 9/11. It seems that global jihad has been far more globally impactful than a rational weighing of its actual threat would suggest.