Cambridge, United Kingdom — Nearly ten years into the War on Terror, the argument that September 11th changed everything is practically axiomatic. Al-Qaeda’s attacks forced us to acknowledge the threat of transnational terrorism. They demonstrated how global networks allow militants to transcend national boundaries. Most significantly, they identified a new and particularly virulent strain of Islamic militancy. With foreign jihadis appearing in Chechnya, Kashmir, Somalia, and other crisis zones, local conflicts once deemed peripheral to Western interests have come to be seen as fronts in al-Qaeda’s global jihad.As British Prime Minister Tony Blair observed, local and global militants were simply ‘two sides of the same coin’.

Ascertaining the nature of these relationships presents a complex and often contentious challenge. For some, al-Qaeda was merely one point in a constellation of potential adversaries. The danger was not terrorism per se, but collusion between rogue states, weapons proliferators, and their terrorist clients. For others, al-Qaeda represents something akin to the Comintern. Driven by fears of ‘Islamofascism’, they perceived a coordinated conspiracy against the West. Both approaches appealed to historical analogies. Both presumed natural affinities between al-Qaeda and its indigenous interlocutors. And both proved fundamentally wrong.

Part of this problem stems from a failure to distinguish the militant from the devout. From Qur’an burning in Florida to legislation banning the veil in France, a growing number of American and Europeans view Islam as subversive value system. This fear informs research as well, with a recent report from one Washington think-tank describing Islam as ‘threat masquerading as a religion’ and warning against ‘U.S. leadership failures in the face of Shari’ah’. Some of this paranoia reflects nativist impulses, to be sure. Yet it also reveals a more fundamental problem. Despite a decade of foreign deployments and domestic surveillance, there is persistent uncertainty regarding who our adversaries are, how they interact, and how best to confront them.

Two errors contribute to this uncertainty. The first is conceptual. Most models of Islamic militancy treat religious belief as the primary driver for violent behaviour. By emphasising Islamic doctrine and Islamist ideology, scholars and policy makers minimise the social, political, and cultural differences that distinguish one movement from the next. More seriously, they presume an immutable and enduring connection between movements espousing superficially similar ideas. This reasoning reinforces chauvinistic and often misleading accounts of Islam’s inherent militarism. If faith mandates submission and jihad, the argument goes, then true believers will invariably embrace these ends.

The second error is analytical. Rather than evaluating the relationships between al-Qaeda and its indigenous interlocutors, many self-styled experts simply extrapolate alliances from the ‘links’ they share. Similar presumptions appear in the operational domain, where suicide bombing and other forms of mass-casualty violence are frequently regarded as prima facia evidence of al-Qaeda’s influence. These associations treat distinct and sometimes disparate groups as part of globalised, homogenised movement. They also cast unrelated incidents as part of a common conspiracy, thus contributing to a distorted and often speculative picture of global terrorist activities.

These follies conspire against rational policies. By associating religion with violent subversion, we reject the prospect of political accommodation. By collapsing the distinctions between threats, we undermine our ability to prioritize among them. And by emphasizing the factors that bring global and local militants together, we consistently neglect the dynamics that drive them apart. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than identifying and isolating discrete threats, our preoccupation with ‘global terror’ marginalizes moderates, empowers extremists, and rapidly consumes limited resources. Worse, it reinforces the same notions of civilisational warfare that help al-Qaeda colonise local conflicts.

Recent engagements suggest a better alternative. In Iraq, Coalition forces undermined al-Qaeda’s influence by exploiting infighting among Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters. In Mindanao, U.S. and Philippine troops quelled the Muslim rebellion by engaging the ethno-nationalist Moro Islamic Liberation Front in a political process while isolating salafi-jihadi movements like Jemmah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group. Similar strategies are now under consideration in Afghanistan, with NATO officials leveraging the ‘natural tensions’ between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. These observations belie notions of a unitary, undifferentiated threat. Rather than fighting a global war across several local theatres, the United States and Europe instead face a series of ‘small’ wars, each with their own unique causes, characteristics, and consequences.

Addressing these challenges demands greater emphasis on indigenous dynamics. Despite our preoccupation with al-Qaeda’s ‘links’, ‘networks’, and ‘nodes’, we still lack objective, uniform criteria for evaluating its relationships with local groups. It also requires different ways of conceiving and classifying our adversaries. Although discrimination has proven highly effective at the tactical level, policy makers have not elevated this insight to the level of strategy. The solution, therefore, is obvious. To overcome our past errors, we need a new framework for the war on terror.

That framework would have three dimensions: political, ideological, and operational. The first considers a movement’s objectives. Militants pursuing ethnic, nationalist, or revolutionary agendas tend to be tired to a discrete community or place. Their campaign targets the ‘near’ enemy, be it a corrupt regime or occupying power. Movements that define their objectives in global terms, however, are more like al-Qaeda. Focused on the ‘far’ enemy, they target Western states with the goal of liberating Muslim lands, isolating apostate regimes, and restoring the Caliphate. Hence the more globalised a group’s objectives become, the more influence al-Qaeda may wield. Conversely, the more local militants cling to local agendas, the more likely they are to resist al-Qaeda’s interference.

The ideological dimension is also crucial, though not in the way many analysts believe. Here the question is whether local militants are Islamic, or even Islamist, but whether they adopt al-Qaeda’s radical Salafi-Jihadi doctrine. Identity is also a crucial part of this calculus. Groups with strong ethnic or national roots are more likely to identify with their own community and thus less likely to embrace al-Qaeda’ pan-Islamic idealism. Finally, we must consider the role of indigenous institutions. Militants fighting to protect their traditional way of life tend to reject foreign encroachment, including by other Muslims. Yet when these institutions grow weak, societies become increasingly vulnerable to al-Qaeda’s strategy of colonization, radicalization, and subversion.

Finally, we must define what it means to be an ‘al-Qaeda linked’ group. Are these links based on occasional contact or sustained cooperation? Are the relationships defined by temporary expediency or established partnerships? Most significantly, does al-Qaeda enter into hierarchical relationships with indigenous subordinates? This degree of specificity is essential. While many militants mimic al-Qaeda’s message and methods, such emulation does not necessarily constitute collaboration.

These attributes reveal a spectrum of different adversaries. Ethno-nationalist movements possess local agendas, local identities, and no significant operational ties to al-Qaeda. Hamas is a notable example. Though radical and Islamist, it does not share al-Qaeda’s globalized Salafi-Jihadi ideology. Nor does it pursue global jihad. Immersed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is grounded in Palestine and its Palestinian identity. Salafist movements, by comparison, share al-Qaeda’s ideology. Militants in Chechnya and the North Caucasus are a case in point. Though grounded in a post-colonial conflict with Russia, rebel leaders now view their struggle as part of a global war between Islam and the West.

Jihadist groups like the Taliban combine this global outlook with sustained collaboration. Though grounded in Pashtun society and culture, factions like the Quetta Shura and Haqqani network now see themselves as part of a transnational movement. The same is true for many younger Taliban commanders, who are less nationalistic and more globalized than their predecessors. Unlike their al-Qaeda allies, however, the Taliban retains its local ambitions. Despite recent attempt to retaliate against NATO countries, its objectives and operations are intimately tied to the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre.

Salafi-Jihadists and Global Jihadists occupy the far end of this spectrum. Both categories embrace global objectives. Both espouse al-Qaeda’s ideology. Yet the former emphasise collaboration, with groups like Jemmah Islamiyah and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan pursuing autonomous yet complementary agendas. The latter, by comparison, exhibit subordination. Whether franchises like al-Qaeda in Iraq or subsidiaries like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, these movements recognize—and generally respond to—Osama bin Laden’s authority.

These distinctions do not diminish the al-Qaeda threat. Despite its reduced size and increased vulnerability, the syndicate’s capacity to radicalise Islamic discourse, mobilise disaffected Muslims, and colonise local conflicts still presents a clear and present danger. Nor does it minimise the challenges posed by lower-tier movements. As witnessed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, indigenous movements can undermine international stability without assistance from transnational terrorist syndicates. Instead, this system of classification exposes the risks of reducing complex phenomena to facile, sterile rhetoric. When policy depends on unfounded presumptions, our strategy and security bear the burden.

Scholars and policy makers ignore these distinctions at their peril. Associating Islam with violence perpetuates binary notions of civilisational conflict. Ignoring indigenous dynamics distorts our perspective and limits our options. Overreacting to terrorist provocations helps catalyze and consolidate different strains of Islamic militancy. Each of these errors reinforces al-Qaeda’s reach and relevance. Far from defeating the movement, our folly helps it survive and, in some regions, even thrive.

The task before us is three fold. First, we must limit the military interventions that foster alliances among disparate movements. Although some foreign operations are necessary, nuance and proportionality will be vital to their success. Second, we must separate indigenous insurgents from the transnational syndicates that pose the greatest peril. While it is useful to recognize the similarities between groups, exhausted forces and growing resource constraints now render discrimination and prioritization essential.

Finally, we must begin to align the instruments of national power to the challenges posed by each strain of Islamic militancy. In some cases this will require a willingness to engage unsavoury adversaries in a political dialogue. In others, isolation and containment may be the most viable option. The ultimate object is the same, however: By acknowledging the diversity within Islamic militancy, we will begin to undermine al-Qaeda’s global insurgency.

Dr. Christopher Swift was previously an advisor to the US Government on counter terrorism and armed conflict in the Middle East. A recent doctoral graduate from Polis, Cambridge, he is the author of the forthcoming book The Fighting Vanguard: Local Insurgencies in the Global Jihad.