In an interview with Frontline, David Petraeus, a retired US army general and former commander of ISAF in Afghanistan, claimed that “the word insurgency had connotations that really sent a shiver down the spine of folks in Washington, in the United States – for good reason, because it means this is something much bigger than just a few terrorist cells. This is a real movement. This has an ideology. It has leadership, it has logistics, explosives expertise, tactical capability, command and control”. While David Kilcullen already suggested in 2005 that the current wave of terrorism is more of a global insurgency than a ‘traditional’ terrorist threat, especially since the rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and numerous attacks by the group within Europe, the perception has shifted towards presenting Salafi-jihadist activity as a truly global threat if not a global insurgency. But the question is whether it is justified to perceive the current Islamist terrorist threat as a global insurgency. It is important to discuss and analyze whether the threat is presented accurately because our framing of an issue influences the response to it. In order to determine whether the current Salafi-jihadist threat constitutes a global insurgency, one needs to examine both its global reach and its character as an insurgency.

We can see that the number of Salafi-jihadist groups active worldwide has dramatically increased since the 1990s. It is also evident that almost every continent is affected by the threat, but that manner in which data is presented influences the impression we have of a certain issue. If we do not map attacks by country, but individual attacks and their severity, the issue presents itself in a very different way. Suddenly, it does not look like a global insurgency anymore, but a regional phenomenon with certain outliers in the West. Even the infamous Islamic State was, at its peak, a regional force with global outliers. While there were ISIS ‘inspired’ attacks around the globe, attacks by ISIS directly were focused on the Middle East and North Africa; that is in a regional theater rather than on a global scale. To be sure, ISIS communicated global aspirations but was unable to come close to reaching this goal. We perceive Salafi-jihadist groups to be able to perpetrate attacks anywhere around the globe at any time and present jihadism as a global, existential threat to our security. However, as just shown, the way data is presented carries certain implications for our perception of the phenomenon. This is not to diminish the fact that there have been attacks in numerous countries and that online-radicalization and ‘remote-controlled’ supporters will continue to pose a security risk to Western nations, but the majority of activity of these groups is not in the West.

Another aspect one needs to consider in order to judge whether we really face a global insurgency is whether we face a unified movement at all. The focus here is less on the differences between an insurgency and a terrorist organization, but on the unity of the phenomenon in question. This aspect is very important to judge the threat. In the 19th century, anarchists executed attacks from Moscow to Washington but calling the anarchist movement a global insurgency, is clearly a stretch of the concept. While the media and popular discourse tend to convey the impression we are threatened by the jihadists or the terrorists and all Islamist-inspired attacks are lumped together, the phenomenon is more fragmented than it seems. In his 2015 book The ISIS Apocalypse, William McCants clearly describes the strong differences between Al-Qaida and ISIS and that the establishment of the so-called caliphate caused great tension between the leadership of the two groups. While Al-Qaida has always been focused on winning popular support first, Zarqawi was prepared to go against his own constituency to reach his goals. While Al-Qaida has been cautious to make sectarian differences a pillar of their ideology or strategy, ISIS has shown focus on sectarian issues and displayed extreme violence against fellow Muslims. Tore Hamming even claimed that “the rivalry that evolved within Sunni Jihadism, and particularly between Al Qaeda and its renegade affiliate the Islamic State, entailed a hitherto unseen competitive environment within the Jihadi field”.

While the frictions between Al-Qaida and ISIS have been downplayed by popular discourse and might be perceived as insignificant by the general public, broadening the perspective helps to illustrate the point that it is indeed not a unified movement, but multiple movements. Al-Shabaab in Somalia, for instance, is formally part of the Al-Qaida franchise but does not display global aspirations in their ideology. Rather, Islam is used as a political tool to unify Somalis traditionally divided along clan lines and the ultimate goal is a nationalist one, namely to overthrow the government. Similarly, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines belongs to the global jihadist movement by name only and is committed to establishing an independent Islamic state replacing the Philippine government rather than a global caliphate.

None of this is to suggest that the threat we are facing does not have a global impact or that, because it does not appear to be unified, is any less dangerous. However, we need to be clear in our discourse that we are talking about regional players united in name rather than action or ideology. It is not a global insurgency with a united leadership conspiring to subjugate the world population in a caliphate. If we present the current terrorist threat this way, we are empowering the extremists by creating a global insurgency in our heads. Framing is not only important in counter-terrorism and de-radicalization efforts, but in the discourse on terrorism as such. Our perception is shaped by the discourse we engage in and our perception influence our counter-measures and, possibly even more important, our level of fear. We, therefore, need to be cautious when making connections between actors and events and evaluate our perception of the threat we face. It is our minds, which transform this network of actors into a global insurgency by suggesting every jihadist actor and attack belongs to one big movement.

Header Image: Lorenzo Tugnoli/Getty Images

Linda Schlegel holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London and is currently the counter-terrorism consultant for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin. Her main areas of expertise are (online) radicalization, the sociological analysis of extremism and societal resilience to terrorism. In addition to her academic publications, she contributes to Global Risk Insights, the Cologne forum on international relations, the Project for the Study of the 21st Century and newspapers such as The Globe Post.