Thaier Al Sudani / Reuters

True Believers

How ISIS Made Jihad Religious Again

In the last two decades, the story of global jihadism has had more plot reversals than a daytime soap. Moribund groups have sputtered to life, former brothers-in-arms have declared one another apostates, and erstwhile hunters of jihadists have joined their ranks. These twists have bewildered governments and analysts, and anyone who claims to have recognized them and their importance as they were happening is probably lying. 

The most important development is contained in two easy-to-remember numbers: 400 and 40,000. On September 11, 2001, al Qaeda commanded an army of 400. A decade and a half later, the Islamic State (or ISIS) had mobilized some 40,000 people to travel to Iraq and Syria, mostly from the Muslim-majority countries but also from Western countries with sizable Muslim communities and even from places with relatively few Muslims, such as Chile and Japan. The challenge for today’s terrorism experts is to explain how 400 grew into more than 40,000, despite the combined counterterrorism efforts of dozens of countries. 

If anything, the figure of 40,000 understates the proliferation of jihad. It does not include the thousands loyal to the Taliban, or the tens of thousands of violent extremists in North Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caucasus. Nor does it include people who would have traveled to Iraq or Syria to join ISIS if their home governments hadn’t made such trips illegal or impossible. Meanwhile, the 40,000 figure does include noncombatants—which actually makes it a more impressive indicator of the group’s appeal. Young men can be counted on to show up in large numbers for just about any war, but a violent cause that inspires elderly people and women—including some who are pregnant or caring for young children—must be doing something special.

The latest effort to explain this orders-of-magnitude increase in the number of jihadists is Ali Soufan’s Anatomy of Terror. Soufan had a short but successful career as an FBI counterterrorism agent and interrogator of jihadists. He was born in Lebanon and speaks Arabic, which is still

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