Global Jihad
A Brief History
Glenn E. Robinson




FOR ITS TITLE, THIS EPILOGUE ASKS THE PROVOCATIVE QUESTION “Who won?”—a rather imprecise and even banal question outside the field of sports. But I do so to raise the point that global jihad appears to have had an outsized and disproportionate impact on powerful countries, especially the United States, given its rather low level of actual strategic threat. The level of threat any actor represents to another is typically defined by the combination of intentions and capabilities. Significant capabilities without malintent—such as the relationship between the United States and the UK—is a benign outcome. Malintent without significant capabilities is less benign but not a significant problem, assuming that actor does not greatly enhance its capabilities (for example, get its hands on a nuclear weapon).

The ideologues described in this book are a pretty motley crew of nasty actors, many of whom would gladly use the worst weapons in the world if they could get their hands on them. Fortunately, they have not been able to obtain those weapons over the past four decades, and there are good reasons to believe it is highly unlikely that they ever will. By contrast, the Soviet Union represented a truly existential threat to North America and Europe, what with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads poised to annihilate the Western world. The reverse was also true, hence the Cold War concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Today, and over the past forty years, there have been many significant strategic threats, or at least potential strategic perils, in the world: China, as a rising power, is increasingly flexing its muscle on the regional and global arenas to shape the world order to its advantage; Russia, as a declining power, aggressively uses cyberweapons to interfere in the elections of European and American democracies, and hybrid warfare to bully its neighbors; Weapons of Mass Destruction, and especially the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world; and, most of all, a rapidly changing climate that threatens catastrophic impacts if left unchecked, just to name a few.1

But it has been global jihadis that have disproportionately driven the news and policy formulations in Washington, DC. Certainly the terror attacks of 9/11 were a major issue, representing the largest assault on American territory since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The US response, assisted by countries around the world, was proper: the overthrow of the Taliban regime that had harbored al-Qa’ida, and the killing and capturing of as many al-Qa’ida militants as possible. But what should have been an appropriate and fairly narrowly constructed response to Usama Bin Laden’s bloody sucker punch, immediately grew into a nonsensical “Global War on Terror” (GWOT). Terrorism is a tactic, often used by weak parties because they are not strong enough to take on great powers frontally. Declaring war on a tactic such as terror is a bit like declaring war on the tactic of outflanking an enemy in battle: it makes no rational sense and seemed to morph into a justification for many varied military activities around the Muslim world. The GWOT was used as a rationale for the United States to remain in Afghanistan for far too long, making the war there—in a country that has little strategic value to the United States—the longest war in US history.

Global jihadism proved central to America’s next war, when al-Qa’ida’s purported links to Saddam Hussein’s regime were used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi became globally famous overnight when US Secretary of State Colin Powell showed his mug shot to the UN Security Council as part of making the case for al-Qa’ida’s involvement in 9/11. It was a ludicrous argument that flew in the face of deep, known, historical animosity between Saddam’s regime and Islamists of all stripes. Zarqawi’s presence in the Kurdish region of Iraq (which was outside of Baghdad’s control) was part of his scheme to overthrow all apostate regimes of the Mashriq, including Saddam Hussein’s. The mistaken war in Iraq based in part on the GWOT against global jihadis led to the death of thousands of Americans, the wounding of tens of thousands more, at a total direct and indirect cost in the trillions of dollars. Needless to say, the cost to Iraqi society was far higher, including the launching of ISIS.

Global jihadism and the GWOT were next used to inform any number of brutish actions by Middle Eastern regimes, which justified those actions under the rubric of fighting terrorism. More often than not, such actions were accepted or even encouraged by American administrations—from the crushing of the second Palestinian uprising (which was so extensive that Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling referred to it as “politicide,” the attempted destruction of the Palestinians as a national group) in 2002 and 2003, to the Egyptian military’s coup against Muhammad Morsi, the democratically elected president, in 2013, which the US government refused to even label a coup.2 Even the illegal embargo by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against US ally Qatar—where ten thousand US military personnel were stationed—was outrageously and publicly encouraged by President Donald Trump as a means to stamp out “terrorism.” The bloody humanitarian disaster of the Saudi-UAE–led war in Yemen beginning in 2015 was likewise justified under the rubric of combatting terror.

But the threat of global jihadism has not only had an outsized influence on American foreign policy; it has also had a disproportionate impact on American democracy. The events of 9/11 caused such a reaction that they led to a serious increase in what is often called the “national security state.”3 Not only did Congress pass the so-called Patriot Act, which significantly restricted civil liberties in America, but various US intelligence agencies constructed far-flung capabilities that allowed them to engage in vast electronic domestic spying.4 The public only became aware of this enterprise with the revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden. All of these measures and more were justified by the threat of global jihadism and the terrorism associated with it. Even more recently, the Trump administration’s various bans on Muslims entering the United States were justified on national security grounds due to the threat of jihadi terror. In reality, it was bigotry disguised as national security.5

A cold and sober analysis of the level of threat that global jihadism represents would suggest a modest danger of seriously brutal intentions but limited capabilities. This is a danger that must not be ignored but likewise should not dominate policy formulation. Instead, the reality has been to frame global jihadism and its terrorism as an existential threat that justifies far-reaching changes to both foreign and domestic policies. To be sure, global jihadi ideologues are open in their contempt for democracy, and their actions have led to significant changes to civil liberties and democratic governance in the West, although not necessarily in the manner that the jihadis had envisioned. While waves of global jihadism have been destroyed or degraded, perhaps in some ways global jihadis are well on their way to accidentally achieving one of their goals after all: the internal degradation of Western democracy.


1. Climate change can easily be classified as not just a major strategic threat but indeed an existential threat to humanity if it is not seriously and expeditiously addressed.

2. Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War against the Palestinians (New York: Verso, 2003).

3. For an excellent scholarly discussion of the meaning and evolution of the national security state, particularly after 9/11, see Andreas Busch, “The Changing Architecture of the National Security State,” The Oxford Handbook of Transformations of the State, ed. Stephan Leibfried et al. (June 2015),

4. This is not to suggest that all aspects of the Patriot Act were improper. Indeed, it provided some necessary tools to law enforcement that properly updated capabilities for the twenty-first century. It is to suggest that the Patriot Act and similar legislation have tipped the security-freedom scales significantly toward the former.

5. See, for example, David Cole, “It’s Still a Muslim Ban,” New York Review of Books, March 11, 2017,