For decades, Sunni jihadism has been characterized by transnational terrorism, suicide bombing, and excommunication. These three pillars not only attracted the ire of American and European governments, but turned off many of the jihadists’ target constituents, namely Sunnis living in the Muslim world. Yet there are signs that Sunni extremists are changing their ways, drifting away from the global agenda that reached its apotheosis in al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center, and toward a hyperlocal one.
The transformation is happening in various countries, including Afghanistan, Yemen, and Mali. Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Syria, provides an illustrative example of how the jihadist threat is changing across the region.
In 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra put together a lengthy training manual for its new recruits. In the roughly 200-page book, obtained by me, the group argues the merits of country-focused jihad over global jihad. It advises followers that al-Qaeda’s stated strategy of going after the “far enemy” was not set in stone, and that, in the current moment, a focus on anything other than the local fight would be an “unacceptable distraction.”
Throughout the Syrian War, the group has put that theoretical injunction into practice. Its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, even pledged in an interview with Al Jazeera in May 2015 that Syria would not be used as a launchpad for jihadists to attack the West, based on orders from al-Qaeda’s central leadership. The group established a political office and reached out to countries including Turkey to sell itself as a reliable partner, one that poses no threat to anyone outside Syria.