The Era of Jihadist Insurgencies Is Over

October 6, 2020 | Jonathan Spyer
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Twenty years ago, inspired by Hizballah’s success in driving the IDF from southern Lebanon, Palestinian leaders unleashed the second intifada—a campaign of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks intended to drive Israel from the West Bank and Gaza, and eventually to bring about its collapse. A year later, Americans saw al-Qaeda visit similar tactics on New York City and Washington, DC. Jonathan Spyer sees these events as ushering in an age of Islamist insurgency that, as the century enters its third decade, has finally come to an end:

From 2010 to 2014, Islamist popular mobilization and insurgency arrived in mass form in the heartland of the Arab Islamic world itself. This was evident in the rapid takeover of the Syrian rebellion by Sunni Islamist militias, in the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief triumph in Egypt, and reaching its purest, most unalloyed expression in the shape of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.

Look around the Arabic-speaking world today. Where does one find an insurgency led from below—a jihad, a popular revolt—of the kind premiered by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad during the second intifada and then witnessed on a vastly larger scale by the Syrian Sunni Arab rebellion and Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the Islamist-dominated insurgency against the former Libyan leader Moammar Ghaddafi, and the mass civil revolts in Egypt and Tunisia? Nowhere.

The main legacy of Islamist insurgency’s tearing asunder of the Arab world, paradoxically, is the terminal weakening of a number of Arab states, and their penetration by a variety of regional and global non-Arab powers. These powers—Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the United States—make use of the remnant organizations of the insurgents as contractors and cannon fodder for their own designs.

Political Islam, meanwhile, has itself entered a new phase. No longer an insurgent banner, it is now a decoration used by powerful states as part of their justification of themselves. Today, it is borne along by Turkey and Iran, and this is its main remaining relevance. . . . The states have returned. The Middle East is entering a phase of great-power competition.

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