When it launched the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda and its ideology were disconnected from the day-to-day realities of the broader Middle East. Young people growing up in the region knew relatively little about the group, beyond the figure of Osama bin Laden, often presented as a wealthy Saudi who had abandoned his comfortable life to fight in jihad, and, for those who had satellite channels, occasional footage on Al Jazeera of men climbing the mountains of Afghanistan, sometimes riding horses. The jihadis styled themselves as “elitists,” at the vanguard of a movement, to distinguish themselves from those who followed their lead.
After 2011, that changed. Jihadis became grounded in local reality. Many locals have actually dropped the term, rather than apply it to those immersed in their culture who share so little in common with the old elitists. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, experts on jihadism studied theorists such as Abdullah Azzam, Abu Musab al-Suri, and Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi. That sort of scholarship remains a useful means of probing belief systems or exploring the origins of modern jihadism. But it is no longer adequate to understand what jihadis stand for or what their guiding principles are, much less what drives the groups in which they operate. Policy makers and observers will now find deep knowledge of the geography; demography; and the political, economic, and social circumstances that might fuel and sustain a conflict more useful than knowing whether a person is more influenced by Maqdisi than Azzam.
Contemporary extremism is a product of local dynamics in a way that bin Laden was not. In 2011, bin Laden grappled with what was unfolding before his eyes in the region. In his notebook, released by the CIA last year, he took credit for triggering the uprisings, but he clearly struggled to understand what was happening. He barely made reference to Iraq and Syria. In some pages, he seemed to defer to pundits on Arabic television channels to grasp the underlying causes. Later, his followers would complain that the Arab uprisings eclipsed their ideology.
Soon after that notebook was written, bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The popular uprisings and the killing of bin Laden were double upheavals that crippled al-Qaeda, to the point that President Barack Obama and many observers at the time said the group was now dead or on a path to demise. When it bounced back and became larger than ever before, observers attributed that to its resilience, even its strategic brilliance. The reality was more complicated: Credit for the revival of al-Qaeda should not be given to Ayman al-Zawahiri and his aides, who led the organization after bin Laden. Instead, it was local insurgents who built local organizations, relying more on their understanding of local dynamics than on instructions from a cave far away. In fact, some of these groups would stop listening when Zawahiri overplayed his hand.