Muslim extremism after two decades of the ‘Global War on Terror’

Academic Views / Friday, September 10th, 2021

Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, an independent researcher who writes on religious reform, multiculturalism and interreligious relations, considers the effect of the US ‘Global War on Terror’ on Muslim extremism.

The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on America, a global superpower, radically changed the world. Two hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre (WTC) in New York City, killing nearly 3,000 people, including 19 hijackers affiliated with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. That a terrorist group managed to demolish an iconic American symbol—on American soil—makes it the most dramatic act of terrorism in modern history. Twenty years on, images of the burned and crumbling towers are etched in our global memories.

Ramifications of the attack were deep and lasting. Most notable was the ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT), a vague objective that led to the American (mis)adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, exacting high costs both in terms of money and lives. According to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute of International Affairs at Brown University, the GWOT has incurred $8 trillion since the invasion of Afghanistan. Civilians make up some 400,000 of the 900,000 deaths.

While the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan may have temporarily crippled the Al-Qaeda network, historian Fawaz Gerges has argued that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave a new lease of life to jihadists who regrouped and subsequently gave rise to ISIS.[1] Since the dramatic declaration of the Caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014, ISIS has recruited foreign terrorist fighters from among disgruntled and alienated youths and inspired a new generation of “lone wolf” attackers. The continued “moral outrage” towards Western nations’ domination over Muslim territories radicalised segments of the Muslim youth population, who latched onto the ideology offered by ISIS, causing them to engage in self-directed, “leaderless jihad”.[2]

A memorial for victims of a 2016 shooting that took place in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, USA—one of many attacks by ‘lone wolves’ who claimed affinity with ISIS. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The overwhelming sense is that the world today is not any safer than before. State surveillance, invasions of privacy and restrictions on liberty have risen since 2001, with many countries adopting authoritarian measures to securitise their populations in the name of counterterrorism.[3] Within the US, for example, Muslims were systemically profiled, surveilled and discriminated against by state institutions like the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), as documented by whistleblower Terry Albury and leaked classified documents.[4] 

Such victimisation led to further resentment and made Muslim youths more susceptible to extremism. Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist who worked with the CIA, proposed a ‘blob’ theory: “terrorists emerged from this loose, fluid, and amorphous political protest community”. The GWOT had proposed the “worst case scenario” and reacted to this imagined situation without objectively assessing the real threat, leading to Sageman’s claim that much of counterterrorism efforts had misunderstood terrorism itself.[5] Jenkin’s report in 2010, for example, indicates that the Muslim American population remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations and violence, with a few more than 100 (out of more than 3 million) having joined jihadist movements. Instead of working to build trust with this population and dissuading vulnerable individuals, some state agents became provocateurs, “subtly coaxing radicalized but hesitant individuals into actions”, therefore validating the informats’ suspicion.[6] Abroad, military operations were legitimised as “pre-emptive strikes” against terrorists. The thousands of civilian deaths were then dismissed as “collateral damage”, leading to further resentment against the US and its GWOT.

The result is greater insecurity, forming Muslim countercultures—particularly among alienated youths—that felt aggrieved by the profiling, assumptions and fearmongering towards “Islam/Muslims”, and utter disregard of civilian deaths in military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular. In other words, it’s a vicious cycle where the GWOT-inspired state suspicion of innocent Muslims and military operations fostered a climate that made some Muslims vulnerable to extremist narratives. 

The “Islam(ophobia) industry”

Despite the intricate link between US foreign military involvements and the globalisation of terrorism, the discursive space took an inward turn by focusing on the threats coming from “Islam”. This took the form of “blaming Islam/Muslims”: the view that there is an inherent backwardness and poverty of Islamic values and culture, that led to the failure of Muslims to integrate with modern, Western societies.[7] This orientalist view is reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations thesis”, an adaptation of Bernard Lewis’ work. According to Stephen Sheehi, Lewis was a mentor to Dick Cheney (deputy secretary of defense) and Paul Wolfowitz (chairman of Defense Policy Board), who subsequently developed strategies responding to 9/11, including the war on Iraq.[8] Arguably, the very roots of the GWOT are planted in the prejudiced soil of orientalism.

The cover of Samuel Huntington’s influential The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order—an example of orientalist views towards Muslims shaping post-9/11 discourse. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Those who deny GWOT’s prejudiced roots often refer to George W. Bush’s address to Congress and the American people soon after September 11. Bush had tried to distinguish between terrorists and Muslims in general, stating that “the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends”. But, as Mahmood Mamdani pointed out,[9] the binary language of “them” and “us” forced a distinction between Muslims (“good Muslims”) who supported the US-led GWOT, and those who were critical of it (“bad Muslims”); as if to oppose the GWOT is to support terrorists, when there were legitimate reasons for opposition, based on humanitarian grounds for instance. In any case, Bush’s attempt to distinguish terrorists from innocent Muslims fell flat in domestic institutions like the FBI which (according to Terry Albury) emphasised in its post-9/11 agent training that “Islam itself was the enemy”.[10] As highlighted by Todd H. Green, not much effort is devoted to “reflecting critically on the history of Western involvement in the Muslim world” and no serious consideration was made on “whether the particular economic and political grievances towards the West articulated by many Muslims, not just the small minority of terrorists, might require a significant rethinking of foreign policy to minimize the chance of future attacks”.[11]

Additionally, this false rhetoric was further entrenched by Bush’s rhetoric about establishing democracy and human rights (akin to the colonial narrative of the West’s civilising mission) as a motivating factor to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. According to this view, “good Muslims” are pro-GWOT and pro-human rights. Laura Bush’s famous remark that “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women“ is a case in point. The decades of internal push for reform by Muslim feminists became entangled with the GWOT’s agenda.[12] The endogenous Muslim progressive reform movement, that could have strengthened the democratic impulse and human rights protection in Muslim societies, was left open to co-optation by Western interests. This threw these movements into disarray and left them open to accusations of being “stooges of the West”, while some—in the harsh criticism of Farid Esack—made themselves “depend on the empire to financially and politically support their reformist agenda to civilize their lesser co-religionists…”[13] Given the general resentment against Western neo-imperialism with the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in particular, anti-West sentiments were bolstered in the post 9/11 era. This provided fertile ground for the recruitment of extremists willing to “fight the enemies of Islam”, as well as fueling a climate of Muslim sectarianism that turned towards theologising the roots of extremism.

Impact on Muslim Southeast Asia

The threat from Muslim extremism is real. However, the GWOT created an “Islam/Islamophobia industry” that framed this threat as a theological contestation, between “right Islam” and “wrong Islam”. The connection between theology and the social, economic and political conditions of society—including the role of military interventions by global powers—was often ignored.

Southeast Asia provides an interesting case study on how localised Muslim extremism took a global turn as a result of the US military involvement in Afghanistan and the GWOT. In an earlier period, the violent manifestations of Muslim extremism in Southeast Asia had largely taken the form of insurgency movements that can be traced to anti-colonial struggles and the contestations over the boundaries of nation-states and resources, all squarely located within local history and politics.[14] For example, prior to the founding of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Abdullah Sungkar and Abubakar Ba’asyir were affiliated with the Darul Islam (DI) movement that sought to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia and inspired by a local rebel, Kartosuwiryo.[15]

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided a reason for Muslim extremists from Southeast Asia, once isolated and contained, to re-emerge and fight on behalf of the “ummah” in a new theatre of war, giving a transnational character to Muslim militancy. During the Cold War, the United States encouraged resistance to the Soviets and supported the “call to jihad” in Afghanistan. While arms were supplied to the Mujahideen fighters by the CIA, the Saudis financed the resistance movement in exchange for ideological conformity to the hardline Salafist doctrines. This confluence of factors led to the rise of the Taliban[16] in the post-Soviet-Afghan War. This included the emergence of Al-Qaeda, which began to target the US and its military bases in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, which increased during the First Gulf War. “Up until Al Qaeda,” wrote Mohamedou, “all terrorism was local. Regardless of their ideology or context, previous waves of terrorism had all focused on visiting violent on a local authority (usually the state, colonial or national) with a view to advancing a political perspective that was linked immediately and directly to a domestic scene.” [17] 

The author with Nasir Abas, who was born in Singapore but grew up in Malaysia before joining the Afghan Mujahideen in 1987. Upon his return from Afghanistan, he fought with the Moro State Freedom Fighters in Mindanao, and later on, opened a training camp called Camp Hudaybiyah to train members of JI. After the Bali bombing, Indonesian authorities tracked him and he was arrested in 2003 and sentenced to 10 months imprisonment. (Photo: author)

Afghanistan, therefore, was key to globalising Muslim militancy, including the rise of global terrorism. One former JI member, Nasir Abas, documents in his memoir how he was drawn to fight with the Mujahideen and brought his expertise in arms to the insurgent movements in Southern Philippines.[18] The network formed in Afghanistan, including the formation of jihadist-Salafi thought, was a direct result of US Cold War foreign policies. It sets the backdrop to 9/11, which eventually propelled a cycle of militarised responses with the GWOT. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq, securitising the entire Muslim community and focusing on the theological factors affecting terrorism, the GWOT fueled the rise of Islamophobia, which also fed into the cycle of religious extremism dominated by Muslim jihadists and the Christian Far Right—a “clash of two fundamentalisms”, to borrow the phrase by Tariq Ali.[19]

Going beyond the GWOT narrative

Two decades after 9/11, the world is not any safer than it was before. It is time we take a critical look at how violent Muslim extremism is aggravated by the US GWOT. It is not a simple issue of wrestling “Islam” from distorted interpretations while framing it as a battle of the “moderates” versus the “radicals”, which Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman has termed the “culturalist approach”.[20] The focus on discursive debates within Islam, framed by the dominant narrative of the GWOT makes it difficult for Muslim societies to focus on developmental issues beyond terrorism, such as economic deprivation, social ills, environmental destruction, political authoritarianism and corruption. 

Muslims globally and in Southeast Asia have a long tradition of reformism—propelled by their encounters with modernity.[21] The concerns of Muslims are no different from those of their counterparts. But all too often, reformism has been subjected to and channeled through Western interests. A case in point is how reformist and moderate Islamic thought—which had made gains prior to the GWOT—faced accusations of carrying the “Western agenda”, particularly after the RAND Corporation reports on Civil Democratic Islam (2004) and Building Moderate Muslim Networks (2007).[22]     

Ultimately, the GWOT was, to Muslims in Southeast Asia, a war fought for the security of the West, at the expense of innocent Muslims. In the process, the GWOT made the region more insecure, by delegitimising progressive Muslim voices, leaving Muslim communities too weak to counter rising conservatism and a more muscular state authoritarianism in their societies. Twenty years after the collapse of the WTC’s twin towers, it is time we reassess how the GWOT narrative has provided oxygen to extremists in Muslim societies.


[1] Gerges, F. ISIS: A History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. See also, Ahmed S. Hashim, From Al-Qaida Affiliate to the Rise of the Islamic Caliphate: The Evolution of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. RSIS Policy Report, Dec. 2014.

[2] Sageman, M. Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

[3] Lyon, D. Surveillance After September 11. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003.

[4] Reitman, J. “I helped destroy people” The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 1 (2021).

[5] Sageman, M. Misunderstanding Terrorism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

[6] Jenkins, B.M. Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2011. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010. Accessible here:. See also, Aaronson, T. The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism. Brooklyn, New York: IG Publishing, 2013.

[7] Bowen, J.R. Blaming Islam. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.

[8] Sheehi, S. Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaigns Against Muslims. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 2011.

[9] Mamdani, M. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.

[10] Reitman, J. “I helped destroy people” The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 1 (2021).

[11] Abu-Lughod, L. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

[12] Green, T.H. The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

[13] Esack, F. “Progressive Islam – A Rose By Any Name? American Soft Power in the War for the Hearts and Minds of Muslims.” ReOrient, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Autumn, 2018), pp. 78-106.

[14] See for example, the nuanced account of religious violence in Indonesia in Sidel, J.T. Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2006.

[15] Solahudin, The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia: From Darul Islam to Jema’ah Islamiyah. Singapore: NUS Press, 2013.

[16] Mohamedou, M-M.O. A Theory of Isis: Political Violence and the Transformation of the Global Order. London: Pluto Press, 2018.

[17] Rashid, A. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

[18] Nasir Abas, Inside Jamaah Islamiyah: A Former Member’s True Story. Jakarta: Grafindo Khazanah Ilmu, 2011.

[19] Ali, T. The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity. London: Verso, 2002.

[20] Noor Aisha A.R. “The Dominant Perspective on Terrorism and Its Implication for Social Cohesion: The Case of Singapore.” The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 27(2), 2009, pp. 109-128.

[21] For overview, see Hunter, S.T. (ed.) Reformist Voices of Islam: Mediating Islam and Modernity. New York; London: M.E. Sharpe, 2009.

[22] The Malaysian Federal Territory Mufti’s Office, for example, highlighted the RAND report as Western attempt to undermine Islam through promoting “liberal and progressive” ideas. See, Mohammad Arifin B.I. Cabaran Akidah: Pemikiran Islam Liberal. Kuala Lumpur: Pejabat Mufti Wilayah Persekutuan, Jabatan Perdana Menteri, n.d. The theme of ”Western agenda” is a consistent theme in conservative criticisms against Muslim reformers, without making a distinction between those who are working within the Islamic tradition and those who sought to impose reforms from the outside. See, Nurul Fadiah J. Fearing the Enemy Within: A Study of Intra-Muslim Prejudice Among Singaporean Muslims. MA Thesis, Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore, 2016.

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