11 Years After 9/11, the Holy World War Is Over and All Jihad is Local

Al-Qaeda is in retreat and Osama bin Laden's dream lies in ruins. So what next for Washington and its struggle against extremist jihadists?

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Pakistani Taliban fighters hold weapons as they receive training in Ladda, South Waziristan tribal region, December 2011.

On the 11th anniversary of 9/11, it is some consolation that the man most responsible for that terrible morning will not be smiling smugly to himself as satellite TV brings to the leafy boulevards of Abbottabad the somber images of New Yorkers commemorating those who perished in the Twin Towers. It provides some psychic satisfaction to all those traumatized by that ghastly day, and the wars that it wrought, that our collective remembrance will not be embittered by the nagging question, “And why is Osama bin Laden still alive and free today?”

But perhaps more important that bin Laden’s own demise is the death of his vision of a ‘global jihad,’ a holy world war pitting Muslims everywhere against infidels everywhere, especially in the West. His fervid dreams of a conflict with the U.S., the “far enemy,” were dashed long before SEAL Team Six burst into his Pakistani hideout. Psychotic mass-murderers tend not to be introspective, but it can’t have escaped bin Laden’s attention as he stared at his TV screen that angry young Muslims were not lining up to kill Americans, wealthy patrons were not pumping billions into the cause, and Westerners were not cowering in their cellars.

(PHOTOS: Osama bin Laden’s Legacy: 13 Years of Terrorist Attacks)

Don’t get me wrong: there’s still a holy war abroad. From Mali and the Maghreb through Iraq and Syria to Pakistan and Afghanistan, jihadist groups are at large and enjoying various degrees of success. Many of these groups claim affiliation to al-Qaeda, chant bin Laden’s name and parrot some of his anti-West rhetoric. But look more closely, and you’ll see that these groups — whether Boko Haram in Nigeria or Al Shabaab in Somalia, the Pakistani Taliban or Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia — are fired not by the desire to strike at the U.S. but by much more local causes. Their activities are confined to a single country; occasionally, they stray across a border. Whatever their rhetoric, the target of their rage is, for the most part, other Muslims.
The most significant exception to this trend is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which is based in Yemen. Alone among the al-Qaeda franchises, AQAP clings to bin Laden’s original ideas for a holy world war. AQAP has tried repeatedly to strike at the West: it has tried to send suicide bombers (wearing explosive underwear) to the U.S. and sought to send explosives to the West through courier services like DHL. It has reached out to discontented Muslims living in the West and encourages them to mount terror attacks.

(PHOTOS: Eleven Years Later, New York Reflects on the Tragedy of 9/11)

But even AQAP has recently got bogged down in domestic issues. Last year, taking advantage of the chaos of the Arab Spring revolt in Sana’a, the group took over a swath of territory in southern Yemen and ran it for over a year, pretty much along the lines of the Taliban in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. This was a huge tactical blunder. For one thing, it made enemies out of many ordinary Yemenis who had previously been agnostic about AQAP’s anti-Western activities. It’s one thing to use Yemen as a safehouse, but when you try to take over the house, its residents tend to get very prickly. And sure enough, there was a backlash against AQAP, which culminated with a military offensive this summer that brought the territory back under government control.

(PHOTOS: The End of al-Qaeda? On Patrol in Yemen by Yuri Kozyrev)

To paraphrase an old political axiom, all jihad is local. But that doesn’t mean the West can rest easy. There can be no return to the 1990s, when the world ignored Afghanistan’s civil as a local matter, allowing the Taliban to take over and turn that country into a springboard for bin Laden. That could happen to Mali, or to Somalia, or once again to Afghanistan.

But dealing with local jihad requires a very different set of strategies, political and military, than the “global war on terror” conceived by the Bush administration and refined by the Obama White House. The good news is that small holy wars require much less blood and treasure. The bad news is that they call for skills the U.S. is often found lacking: the art of making political consensus (in Washington as well as in the countries where the jihad is being fought), the ability to work with Muslim populations rather than their tyrannical rulers, and superb intelligence work.

Just as bin Laden’s body was buried at sea, it’s time for the U.S. to cast off its old strategies and find new ways to fight a global war on local terror.

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