“Get ready for all Muslims to join the holy war against you,” the jihadi leader Abd el-Kader warned his Western enemies. The year was 1839, and nine years into France’s occupation of Algeria the resistance had grown self-confident. Only weeks earlier, Arab fighters had wiped out a convoy of 30 French soldiers en route from Boufarik to Oued-el-Alèg. Insurgent attacks on the slow-moving French columns were steadily increasing, and the army’s fortified blockhouses in the Atlas Mountains were under frequent assault.
Later that year, a well-known military thinker from Prussia traveled to Algeria to observe Bugeaud’s new approach. Major General Carl von Decker, who had taught under the famed Carl von Clausewitz at the War Academy in Berlin, was more forthright than his French counterpart. The fight against fanatical tribal warriors, he foresaw, “will throw all European theory of war into the trash heap.”
One hundred and seventy years later, jihad is again a major threat—and Decker’s dire analysis more relevant than ever. War, in Clausewitz’s eminent theory, was a clash of collective wills, “a continuation of politics by other means.” When states went to war, the adversary was a political entity with the ability to act as one body, able to end hostilities by declaring victory or admitting defeat. Even Abd el-Kader eventually capitulated. But jihad in the 21st century, especially during the past few years, has fundamentally changed its anatomy: Al Qaeda is no longer a collective political actor. It is no longer an adversary that can articulate a will, capitulate, and be defeated. But the jihad’s new weakness is also its new strength: Because of its transformation, Islamist militancy is politically impaired yet fitter to survive its present crisis.
In the years since late 2001, when U.S. and coalition forces toppled the Taliban regime and all but destroyed Al Qaeda’s core organization in Afghan istan, the bin Laden brand has been bleeding popularity across the Muslim world. The global jihad, as a result, has been torn by mounting internal tensions. Today, the holy war is set to slip into three distinct ideological and organizational niches. The U.S. surge in Afghanistan, whether successful or not, is likely to affect this development only marginally.