Is 2023 the Year of Jihad’s Resurgence? (2023)

Confetti flies around the countdown clock during the first public New Year’s event since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, at Times Square, in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., January 1, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

A machete attack in New York’s Times Square. A stabbing at the Gare du Nord in Paris. A foiled plot in Germany. A shooting in Spain. It’s still only January, but 2023 has already made it clear: the jihadist threat is far from over.

With so much media focus on white supremacist violence these past few years, some might wonder if Islamist violence continues to endanger Western cultures, or whether the fall of the Islamic State signaled a slow but inevitable end. But while Islamist attacks have decreased significantly in the post-ISIS era, several experts caution this is not a time to grow complacent.

Is 2023 the Year of Jihad’s Resurgence? (1)

Indeed, jihadism scholar Gilles Kepel points to an emerging “post-IS generation” in Europe that “combines two dimensions: terrorist attacks by individuals influenced by online ‘entrepreneurs of hatred’ who vilify specific targets, and the flourishing of a separatism culture on social networks that aims at a clear break with ‘kuffar’ (infidels) in the name of Salafism, and prepares the ground to seed further violence.”

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Others, including Shiraz Maher, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, warn that ISIS may well see a resurgence in the next year, with the possibility that thousands of foreign fighters now in Syrian detention camps could escape — creating what he called the “single greatest security threat to the West.”

Is 2023 the Year of Jihad’s Resurgence? (2)

Added to this is the number of European ISIS fighters repatriated in recent years whose prison sentences are coming to an end, even as counter-terrorism agencies face the growing threat from the far right, taxing their already-stretched resources. All of which may be why Colin P. Clarke, a Senior Fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute, recently declared that “for terrorism and counterterrorism analysts, 2023 will be among the most unpredictable years in recent memory.”

Is 2023 the Year of Jihad’s Resurgence? (3)

Certainly, the NYPD were not expecting a young Muslim convert to go on a rampage against them as they stood guard over the New Year’s Eve Times Square festivities, an international landmark event celebrated even across time zones and oceans. But Trevor Bickford was there, having traveled from Maine with that one purpose. “I wanted to kill an officer in uniform,” he later told investigators.

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Almost as if it had been a signal, the event spearheaded a string of attacks, threats, and other jihadist activity to get the New Year started: on Jan. 8, thanks to a tip from US intelligence, German authorities arrested two Iranian brothers on suspicions that they planned to acquire significant amounts of ricin and cyanide to kill “an unspecified number of people,” according to Deutsche Welle.

Three days later, an Algerian man living illegally in France went on a stabbing spree at Paris’ main international train station, the Gare du Nord. Using a homemade weapon fashioned from a sharpened metal hook, the assailant injured seven people before being shot by police and taken into custody.

Is 2023 the Year of Jihad’s Resurgence? (4)

It didn’t stop there. On Jan. 14, another man, identified only as a “thirty-one-year-old Kosovar refugee,” attacked random passersby on a sidewalk in Strasbourg, including a woman walking with her two young children, and an off-duty policeman, who quickly managed to restrain him. According to media reports, the suspect chanted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) while being arrested, and advised the officers that “you will burn in hell for what you have done in Palestine.”

Two additional attacks shook European communities last week. On Jan. 25, a “man of Palestinian origin” stabbed nine passengers on a train traveling between Hamburg and Kiel, Germany, killing two teenagers. German authorities later stated the suspect did not seem to have a terrorist background, but did not rule out terrorism as a motive.

A day later, a Moroccan man due to be deported from Spain entered two churches in Algeciras carrying a machete, which he used to stab the priest of one church, injuring him severely, and to kill the sexton of another. The attacker also had no apparent history of terrorist convictions, but unlike their German counterparts, Spanish authorities nonetheless determined to charge him with terrorism for the killings, according to police.

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Meantime, in the UK, Paul Stott of the Centre for Radicalization and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society who, like Maher, has cautioned against a “possible resurgence” of ISIS, believes that the focus of efforts on extremism from the far right may cause authorities to miss signals of an imminent jihadist attack.

Is 2023 the Year of Jihad’s Resurgence? (5)

Other European counter-terrorism experts further warn that European Islamists who returned after fighting with ISIS are finishing out their prison sentences. Not only are they a danger, but, according to a report from Dutch intelligence agency AIVD, many are believed to have recruited others to their cause while in prison, expanding the reach of local terror cells. Others, the AIVD says, have banded together to form new networks after their release.

What’s more, the AIVD notes that many have learned to hide their extremism from de-radicalization workers and law enforcement, making it a point to exhibit more “socially acceptable” behavior in order to manipulate reduced sentences. Women, according to the agency, are especially likely to play such games in order to be allowed to reunite with their children after their release. Yet many returnees, having successfully duped the authorities during their detention, have gone on to take part in terrorist attacks after their release. That was the case, for instance, with several of the jihadists who took part in the multiple Nov. 13, 2015, Paris attacks.

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Notably, weeks after the Paris and Strasbourg attacks, authorities have yet to pronounce either an act of terrorism. Both assailants have been diagnosed since their arrests as being “psychologically unstable.” That tendency to conflate “mental illness” with terrorism, ascribing violent, religiously motivated attacks to “mental illness,” regardless of actual intent, has created a growing dilemma for counter-terrorism officials and experts. In truth, the line between mental illness and terrorism isn’t always clear: as former director of the NYPD intelligence department Mitch Silber told The New York Times in 2018, a terrorist attack “can be a bit of both.”

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Moreover, ISIS and other groups specifically target people who show signs of psychological problems for recruitment. As The New York Times reported, “some of the best-known attacks linked to [ISIS] have been carried out by assailants, who, at a minimum, displayed symptoms of mental distress.”

But according to a 2016 study by the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, mental illness is rarely, if ever, behind the motivation for Islamist attacks. “The fact is that confirmed diagnoses in recent cases remain few and far between,” wrote study authors Emily Corner and Paul Gill. “… Just because a factor (such as mental disorder) was present, does not make it causal. Nor does it necessarily make it facilitative. It may be completely irrelevant.”

Yet, they report, in many instances, “when confirmed diagnoses were present, there was a tendency to try dismiss the possibility of terrorism altogether.” Whether this is the case in the two recent attacks in France remains to be seen. But what is clear, both in those cases and others, is that the growing trend of dismissing terrorist activity as “mental illness” may be giving us a skewed picture of the number of attacks that are actually taking place, and the number of “lone actors” in our midst.

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True, as we watch the new year unfold with a wave of Islamist violence across the globe — consider the Palestinian attacks on Israel over the weekend — it may make us feel better about the threat. But it doesn’t make it go away.

Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) Senior Fellow Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Her new book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, was published by Potomac Books in October 2020. Follow her at @abigailesman. A version of this article was originally published by IPT.

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Why is jihad important to Muslims? ›

The importance of jihad is rooted in the Quran's command to “struggle or exert” (the literal meaning of the word jihad) oneself in the path of God. The Quranic teachings have been of essential significance to Muslim self- understanding, piety, mobilization, expansion and defense.

What are the 3 types of jihad? ›

Muslims use the word Jihad to describe three different kinds of struggle:
  • A believer's internal struggle to live out the Muslim faith as well as possible.
  • The struggle to build a good Muslim society.
  • Holy war: the struggle to defend Islam, with force if necessary.
Aug 3, 2009

What is the true meaning of jihad? ›

The Arabic word is often translated as "holy war," but its true meaning is actually "holy struggle." In a religious sense, as described by the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, jihad means striving for the benefit of the community or the restraint of personal sins.

Is jihad holy or unholy war? ›

Many Muslims and non-Muslims render jihad as holy war. However, when used in the Qur'an, jihad means a “striving” or “struggle,” and not war – much less a holy war – defined by propagating and/or enforcing religious beliefs.

What is the best jihad in Islam? ›

He said: "The best jihad is the one in which your horse is slain and your blood is spilled." Ibn Nuhaas also cited a hadith from Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, where Muhammad states that the highest kind of jihad is "The person who is killed whilst spilling the last of his blood" (Ahmed 4/144).

Why was the jihad successful? ›

The jihad movements of the 19th century were largely successful in their aims of founding their new societies. Strong economies were formed both in Sokoto and Masina, as were reasonably strong armed forces. The leaders and teachings off the Caliphates were largely supported and enjoyed legitimacy in their rule.

Who is the godfather of jihad? ›

The godfather of jihad. As the Lenin of international jihad, Abdullah Azzam didn't invent his movement's ideas, but he furthered them and put them into practice around the world.

Which type of jihad is more important? ›

Many Muslims believe that greater jihad is the most important of the two types and that the Prophet Muhammad shared this view. Lesser Jihad is the struggle with the outside world to protect the Islamic faith. Its aim is to improve the world and build a good Muslim society.

What are the rules of jihad in Islam? ›

Instead, he has a narrower definition of acceptable jihad: “Islam has only justified fighting those who fight them, or aggress against their honor, or seek to disrupt and divide them in religion, or repel them from their homes, or block the path of the Islamic mission (da'wa) and violate their right to spread Islam ...

Who are the enemies of Islam? ›

There were five staunch enemies of Islam — Abu Jehal, Abu Lahab, Hind bint Utba, Wahshi slave and Abu Sufyan of Makkah. The Holy Prophet (S.A.W.)

What are the two types of jihad in Islam? ›

There are two forms of jihad. The greater jihad is the daily struggle and inner spiritual striving to live as a Muslim. The lesser jihad is a physical struggle or 'holy war' in defence of Islam.

What are the four types of jihad? ›

Anas there are four types of jihad: jihad with one's heart (bil-qalb), with one's tongue (bil-lisan), with one's hand (bil-yad), and with a sword (bil-sayf).

What are the objectives of jihad? ›

Islamists aim to reorder government and society in accordance with Islamic law, or Sharia. Jihadists see violent struggle as necessary to eradicate obstacles to restoring God's rule on Earth and defending the Muslim community, or umma, against infidels and apostates.

What are the beliefs of jihad? ›

Within Islam, there are two basic theological understandings of the word: The “Greater Jihad” is the struggle against the lower self – the struggle to purify one's heart, do good, avoid evil and make oneself a better person. The “Lesser Jihad” is an outward struggle.

What are the principles of jihad in Islam? ›

Thus Jihad in Islam is not an act of violence directed indiscriminately against the non-Muslims; it is the name given to an all-round struggle which a Muslim should launch against evil in whatever form or shape it appears. Qital fi sabilillah (fighting in the way of Allah) is only one aspect of Jihad.


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