The jihadists see themselves in a world-historical struggle that began in the 7th century when the first Muslim warriors destroyed two empires and spread their faith from the Atlantic to China. This rapid success seemingly validated the Koranic message that the Muslims are “the best of nations” destined to rule the world.
Unfortunately, history had other plans. The nexus of cultural innovations of the West–science, universities, open societies, dynamic economies–stopped the long string of Muslim successes. Starting with the siege of Vienna in 1683, European nations relentlessly encroached on the land of Allah, until the final humiliation came in 1924 when the caliphate was dissolved, the humiliation bin Laden referenced after 9/11. Moreover, Europeans had reshaped the Islamic heartland according to Western ideas, such as the nation-state and consensual secular government, alien to orthodox Islam. The question for many pious Muslims was, how did this happen?
The founders and theorists of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was created 4 years after the disappearance of the caliphate, most influentially formulated the answer. Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb argued that Muslims had fallen away from the doctrines of Islam that accounted for that earlier success. Yet in subsequent years alien ideologies kept being imposed on the faithful by their feckless leaders: fascism, democracy, socialism, nationalism in various guises could not reestablish Muslim dominance, or even provide social order and prosperity for their peoples.
Two events gave new impetus to the jihadist solution, and both took place in 1979. First, the Iranian revolution created an Islamic Republic in oil-rich Iran, one that defied with impunity and humiliated the American superpower. The other was the success of the jihadists in driving the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, and the eventual installation there of another Islamist regime, the Taliban. These successes fired up the global faithful, for what else could account for such triumphs over the two mighty global superpowers, if not the purity of Allah’s warriors and the truth of their faith?
Despite the setbacks in the years since 9/11, the global jihadist movement is still active and growing. The aims of the jihadists must be understood in spiritual, not temporal dimensions. From this perspective, as the Taliban have said, Westerners have the watches, but the faithful have the time. The Crusader Kingdoms lasted 200 years, but eventually were driven from the Middle East. We can drone to death any number of jihadist “leaders” and al-Qaeda “number twos,” but as al-Zawahiri said after the death of bin Laden, any one man is just one grape taken from a bunch. In a cosmic battle, what the jihadists want does not have to be achieved in the lifetime of those fighting today. All that matters is that they wage jihad, for in dying they will achieve a spiritual paradise. For as bin Laden once said, “this life, this world, is an illusory pleasure,” and “the rewards of this world are few and the next world is better and more permanent.”