As the United Kingdom remembers 7/7, Jihadism will Continue to be a Threat

Future Foreign Policy


July 7th 2005, Terrorist Bombings across London Transport Network – James via Flickr

On July 7, 2005, ten years ago, a series of coordinated suicide attacks took place on the London underground network with a fourth explosive being detonated on the top of a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square. The attack was perpetrated by four Islamist terrorist affiliated with al-Qaeda and led by Mohammad Sidique Khan. The attack resulted in 56 fatalities and approximately 700 injuries. Conversely, on Friday 26th June in Sousse, Tunisia, 38 people — predominately tourist and British — were gunned down by Tunisian citizens Yassine Labidi and Saber Khachnaoui in which the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility. In light of these events, it is an important point of focus as to where we stand in relation to Salafi-Jihadism, how the threat has evolved and the likely future of this threat. What is the nature of the threat posed by Jihadism and has it increased since 7/7? I find the beginning of such questions must begin with exploring the structural forces at work which are easily surfaced geopolitically. The complex nature of this puzzle precludes this article as being a definitive answer to the themes addressed but rather serves as a generalised point of reference in our understanding of Jihadism and its derivations.


It is important to state that Jihadism is not a monolithic entity; the movement compromises of different groups operating in various regions with different political objectives. Moreover, the extreme nature of Jihadist organizations makes their organizations rigid — unable to facilitate ideological compromise, splits within the movement are prominent features. This has led to competition for wealth, resources, power and recruitment. This is best exemplified with the split between the Islamic State (or ISIL) and al-Qaeda Core/Prime.

There are common denominators between the various Jihadist movements, however. Firstly, a prominent feature of Jihadist organizations is their lack of distinction between religion, society and politics. Secondly, Jihadist organizations provide a claim for theological legitimacy in their employment of terrorism by citing the Prophet Muhammad’s insurgency after he left Mecca and established the first Islamic polity in Medina. Muhammad’s forces began to conduct asymmetrical warfare by declining their stronger adversaries on the battlefield and raising the political expenditure to continue fighting. Concurrently, Muhammad’s forces were using the spoils of their commercial raiding and hit-and-run attacks to supplement a greater force that would be able to engage the greater region, culminating in the domination of the Arabian Peninsula.

An imbalance of two worlds

It is a requirement to understand the relationship between the Islamic world and Europe before understanding the geopolitics of Jihadism. Christians and Muslims have long been enemies, exemplified by the struggle of control of the Iberia and the invasions by the Crusades. In 1453, the Ottoman Empire overthrew the Byzantine Empire with the Conquest of Constantinople which serves as the apex of this uneasy relationship found with Europe and the Islamic world. This was important for several reasons. Firstly, the Ottoman Empire was considered the de facto leaders of the Islamic world after the acquisition of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Secondly, the seizure of Constantinople allowed the Ottoman’s to secure vital lines of communication of land trade routes from Europe to Asia. Thirdly, from the mid-15th century to the late 16th century, the balance of power in Central and Eastern Europe was tipped in the Ottoman’s favour, meaning that Islam felt no threat from Europe.

Ottoman Empire Map

The Ottoman Empire – CIA via Flickr

An unintended consequence of Ottoman domination of the Mediterranean produced extra-incentive for Europe to find alternative routes to Asia, beginning with Christopher Columbus, Europeans sought to colonize and acquire wealth. Europe began undergoing social and political reform, beginning with the reformation, which began to dilute the monopolization of knowledge by religious authorities. Further, the changing relationship between the individual, state and religion produced the oxygen for the Enlightenment to breathe, championing values of secularism, democracy and liberalism.

Europe’s new found emphasis on the exploration of knowledge provided the environment for ideas to thrive which produced technological advancements and modernised approaches to science. These technology advancements began a swing in the balance of power in relation to the Ottoman Empire. Modernization and the industrial revolution in the 19th century began to produce a canyon of disparity between those who nations who had industrialised and who hadn’t.

Western dominance

The Ottoman Empire, lacking the natural geographical plains that facilitated infrastructure and an inefficient administrative system precluded it from industrialized in comparison to its Western and Central European contemporaries began its regression. The culmination of this demise was seen in the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire; territories in the Levant once administrated by the Ottomans were divided between the British and the French. Within that, the French and British exported European models of governance, overriding complex tribal coalitions. The most notable example of this was the formation of Saudi Arabia as it a state modelled after one of the tribes that occupied the Najd, the House of Saud.

The domination of the Europeans and later the United States in the international system and the exportation of European systems of governance, largely attributed to their ability to project power far beyond their immediate geographical integrities, invariably placed the Islamic world in a subsidiary position. The influence of Western ideas, predominately secularism, presented an existential crisis to religious ideologues in the Islamic world in the 20th century that feared the dilution of religious authority.

This polarization was invigorated by the Cold War strategic climate. The Islamic world, particularly the Middle East, was now characterized by two systems of governance — socialist secularism & absolute traditionalism. The secular & socialist model is typified by regimes such as General Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and Saddem Hussein’s Iraq, both of whom were supplemented and supported by the Soviet Union. Conversely and rather paradoxically, traditionalist and Islamist regimes such as the House of Saud monarchy aligned themselves to the West.

The Mujahideen - RV1864 via Flickr

The Mujahideen – RV1864 via Flickr

The formation of an ideology: Qubtism & al-Qaeda


The Cold War climate, characterized as a battle between secularism and Western aligned governments produced a reactionary ideological movement largely spearheaded by Sayyid Qutb, often cited as the ideological father of al-Qaeda and the proponent of contemporary Jihadism. Qutb’s vision was the revival of Islam through making the Islam the source of jurisprudence and removing the boundaries between the individual, religion and the state.[1]

In 1973, three events that invoked geopolitical change expedited the formulation of the contemporary Jihadist movement we witness today:

Firstly, the 1973 oil embargo which raised oil prices and was a response by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) for the U.S.’s involvement as it sided with the Israeli’s in the Yom Kippur War. The implications of this embargo allowed nations such as Saudi Arabia to have a disproportionate amount of influence on global affairs and drove the U.S. to follow a foreign policy that cooperated more with these Arab governments.

Secondly, the Islamic Iranian revolution in 1979 was the locomotive of Islamic revivalism as it served as an expression of scepticism towards the virtues of modernization and liberalism. While the demographic of Iran are predominately Shi’a, the event nevertheless served as a point of reference that an Islamic state could be crafted through revolution and presented a direct geopolitical challenge to Sunni, notably Salafist and Wahhabi, theological interpretations of Islam.

Thirdly, the victory of the mujahedeen against the Soviet Union which lasted from 1979-89 which gave credence to contemporary Jihadist ideologues who saw Islam’s prevail over a superpower as a turning point in Islamic history. Indeed, the mujahideen is an umbrella term given to the Afghan and foreign fighters who participated in the war against the Soviets. Within the movement, an element of it — led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri — would form a vanguard organization motivated by the ideas of Qubtism, and the geopolitical revival of Islam.[2]

The political objectives of al-Qaeda are as ambitious as they are simple. Firstly, al-Qaeda seeks to be the global vanguard of raising a popular uprising in the Islamic world to overthrow the “near enemy”, i.e. secular, socialist as well as traditionalist and royal absolutist governments that have cooperated with Western governments. This is referred to as the “near-enemy.” The acquisition and establishment of a state in the Middle East will be used as a platform for further conquest of the greater Islamic world, reminiscent of the caliphate of the Umayyad caliphate of the 8th century. As a result, the newly acquired territory, resources and manpower will be used as a platform to submitting the world into a global Islamic theocracy.[3][4]

The use of terrorism

The event that produced the largest shift in the international system since 1991 was 9/11. 9/11, conducted by al-Qaeda, had the strategic intention of provoking the United States into an uncalculated and disproportionate attack on the Islamic world. The intention of 9/11 was for three things to happen: Firstly, the attack on 9/11 was designed to polarize and supplement a narrative of the West vs. the Islamic world, aiming to look like the two worlds were natural enemies as it engaged militarily in the Islamic world. Secondly, the attack was designed to expose the complicity of Arabian and Islamic governments complicity in interacting the West and facilitating a popular uprising. Thirdly, it wished to kill the political will and pressure its ability to project power financially by protracting conflict; denying the U.S. the battlefield to exploit its advantages by using both regional and globalized insurgency models.

Al-Qaeda’s miscalculation was its ability to adapt to Western pressure in destroying its sanctuaries which were integral for the financing, planning and execution of deadly attacks against the West. The removal of the Taliban government in Afghanistan dealt a heavy blow to al-Qaeda’s operational capability. This led to al-Qaeda re-adopting a leaderless & sponsored resistance model by exporting propaganda using strategic communications in order to have native individuals to a target country using relatively simple methods of causing damage and causalities. This was ultimately expressed with the 7/7 bombings.


Ten years on, the Core of al-Qaeda stands in the shadows of the ISIL It is important to note that the Jihadist ideology, despite its fractures, discord and rivalry, predates these organizations and is likely to exist after them. Despite al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have operational as well as ideological differences, a unifying principle between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda is that the West represents a direct challenge, philosophically as well as geopolitically, to the implementation of their vision of society and governance.

In the appeal of its ideology, it is the efforts by groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL to illustrate a polarizing picture between the West and Islam that provides oxygen to the Jihadist movement. Such polarization aims to provide a catalyst to radicalization; exposing and conflating grievances such as Western foreign policy and the appeal to marginalized Sunni Muslims and individuals of society, as the vehicle to turn individuals violent and into combatants.

In the post 9/11 security environment, the importance of ideology for groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL grows in importance in order to turn natives against their nation of origin. It is easier for Jihadists to use already local and settled residents, train them directly or indirectly, to commit attacks than to send an expedition of “professional” militants into a target country.[5]

As a result, the threat of Jihadist terrorism will continue to persist. With no signals of the Jihadist ideology losing appeal at this moment in time, individuals and organizations will be motivated to attack the West.

These attacks will most likely be against soft-targets who are more vulnerable than hard, security targets and will lack sophistication and complexity due to the denial of Jihadist organizations having sanctuaries and platforms to conduct sophisticated attacks. This has been exemplified by the use of small-armed attacks in Paris, Brussels & Tunisia as well the Fort Hood shootings but also limited attacks in fatalities such as the Boston Marathon bombings, the Glasgow airport attack or the Woolwich Lee Rigby attack. As a consequence, the threat of Jihadism will be limited at the tactical level in this regard, failing to invoke mass casualties or producing a strategic shift in Western policy.

[1] Rabasa, A. & Chalk, P. et al. (2006) Beyond al-Qaeda: The Global Jihadist Movement, Santa Monica: RAND Corporation .

[2] Eikmeier, D. Qutbism: An Ideology of Islamic-Fascism, Available at: 7th July, 2015 ).

[3] Hegghammer, T. (2011) ‘The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad’, International Security , 35(3), pp. 53-94.

[4] al-Zawahiri, A. (2001) Knights under the Prophet’s Banner, : Al-Sharq al-Awsat.

[5] Jones, G.S. (2014) A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists, Santa Monica: RAND Corporation .


This article was written by FFP Contributor Bradley Cole.

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