It is hard to know exactly when it happened, but, at some point over the last three years, the word “jihad” vanished from the news. Did anyone notice? There was a time, not so long ago, when jihadists seemed to be everywhere, seizing territory abroad and sowing terror at home. We were even on first-name terms with them: “Jihadi John”, “Jihadi Jane”, “Jihadi Jack”.

Journalists wrote alarmed pieces about nice boys and girls being transformed into jihadist monsters. Politicians made speeches about the “disease of Islamic extremism”. Academics constructed entire theses on the etymology and evolution of Jihad. Former Islamist radical Maajid Nawaz even seemed relevant. This all now seems a distant memory. How did this happen? Did the jihadists go away, or did we just get bored of them?

Unfortunately, the jihadists haven’t disappeared; Isis, for example, is reportedly resurgent in sub-Saharan Africa, as are its rivals, al-Qaeda. But global jihadism as a movement is in grave disarray . The Isis caliphate is gone, and doesn’t look set to return anytime soon. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Isis leader, is dead: he blew himself up in October 2019 when US Special Operations forces raided his compound in Idlib, Syria. His replacement, Abu Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi, is also dead, biting the Syrian dust earlier this year. But few Western journalists took much notice, and nobody was writing op-eds on a posthumous “martyrdom bump” for Isis, or how they would come back stronger after his demise.

Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, is arguably in better shape, maintaining footholds and some measure of success in ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel. But its capacity to stage attacks against the West is greatly diminished, thanks to a sustained and successful counter-terrorism operations by the US and its allies, and a shift in the group’s strategic vision, which now prioritises local grievances over global contention. The killing of leader Ayman al-Zawahiri last year in a US drone strike has further weakened its internal solidarity and outward prestige.

According to terrorism scholar Daniel Byman, the last significant jihadist attack in the US was four years ago when a Saudi Air Force trainee working with al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate shot and killed three sailors at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, Florida. We have to go back even further to locate the last jihadist attack in the US that resulted in mass-casualties: that was in 2016, when Omar Mateen, inspired by Isis, went on a shooting rampage at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people.

The last deadly Isis-inspired attack in America — Florida again — was in March 2018, when a 17-year old stabbed to death a 13-year old at a sleepover. And while several individuals, including a teenager, have recently plotted in the name of Isis, none have been able to successfully convert inspiration into competent lethal violence. It certainly doesn’t compare to the 2014-2016 period, when Isis-inspired individuals were responsible for more than three-quarters of all deaths (107 in total) caused by jihadist terrorism in America since September 11, 2001.

A similar downward trajectory can be seen in Europe, although the threat there remains far greater than in the US. According to a recent report by Scenor, there were 105 jihadi attacks in Europe between 2014 and 2022, involving 133 perpetrators and resulting in 405 deaths, far exceeding the death toll of all deadly jihadist attacks in the US since 9/11. The vast majority (90%) were carried out by so-called lone-wolves and most were Isis-related. But the tempo and lethality of attacks has changed. The deadliest (Paris, Nice, Brussels, Manchester) were carried out by Isis attackers, both directed and inspired, between 2015 and 2017, resulting in a collective death toll of 270 victims. But since losing its caliphate, Isis has neither been able to coordinate attacks in Europe nor inspire attackers there in any great number. And when those attacks do happen, they are often amateurish and of limited lethality.

As the threat of jihadist terrorism has receded in the West, so too has media interest in it. And it is hard to exaggerate what a sea-change this represents. “We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” Zawahiri wrote in a letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the spiritual founder of Isis, in 2005. A decade later, the consensus was that Isis had conclusively won that war. “They’re using the internet better than we use the internet,” as Trump put it in November 2015, simplifying a widely held view that Isis propaganda was far more sophisticated and “slick” than anything the US State Department could come up with.

But the victory was jettisoned as rapidly as it was acquired. By July 2017, the Isis horror show was almost over: in that month, it lost Mosul, its de facto capital in Iraq, and three months later it was to lose Raqqa, its de facto capital in Syria. At the same time, new horror-shows were vying for our attention, much closer to the nascent obsessions that now polarise the political landscape in the West. In April 2018, Alek Minassian drove a truck into a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto, killing 10. It had all the hallmarks of an Isis attack, except that before his attack, instead of proclaiming to be a “soldier of the caliphate”, Minassian had declared the arrival of an “incel rebellion” on Facebook. All of a sudden, incels seemed to be everywhere. Then, in March 2019, just as Isis was losing its last sliver of territory in Syria, Brenton Tarrant, an Australian white supremacist, murdered 51 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

All of a sudden, white supremacists seemed to be everywhere too. And then something strange happened: journalists and extremism experts who had once made careers out of covering jihadists started to cover the far-Right in almost exactly the same way. Just as Isis had been a transnational, “networked” threat, so too were the white supremacists. And just as Isis had been radicalising children in their bedrooms over the internet, so too has the far-Right. Almost overnight, Brenton Tarrant became the new “Jihad John”, Andrew Tate became the new “charismatic” jihadist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, and 8Chan became the new radical mosque, incubating hate and inciting violence.

The broader context for such a dramatic transposition was the culture war and its insatiable demand for new folk devils with which to wage symbolic battle. For one side in this war, a malevolent progressive ideology, promoted by Left-wing activists, is taking over cherished institutions and perilously endangering our democratic way of life. For the other, a no less toxic ideology of white male supremacy is taking over cherished institutions and perilously endangering our democratic way of life.

Correspondingly, the chief bête noire of anti-progressives are radicals who embrace gender non-conformity and who want to abolish the patriarchy, prisons and much else, while for progressives, the root of all evil lies in the figure of the toxic white male. Jihadists, however, resist assimilation into this classificatory scheme for the obvious reason that they’re Muslims and (mostly) from minority backgrounds. Indeed, in some respects they serve to threaten this scheme, because they’re both anti-LGBTQ and militantly opposed to classical liberalism.

Hence jihadist violence has become a symbolic cul-de-sac for both sides in the culture war, affording neither the opportunity to bring attention to or amplify the concerns — pre-eminently around race and gender — that so preoccupy them. This new hermeneutic regime was sharply in evidence in the lethargy which marked the response of both progressives and conservatives to the murder of the Conservative MP David Amess two years ago by a British Isis supporter. The very day after his killing, the Metropolitan Police declared it an act of terrorism with “a potential motivation linked to Islamist extremism”. But among British elites there was little appetite for exploring that link; instead they chose to focus on the proliferation of online hate speech aimed at MPs.

Two months prior to Amess’s murder, a 22-year-old British man from Plymouth went on a shooting rampage, killing five, including his mother, before fatally shooting himself. Devon and Cornwall Police did not categorise this rampage as a terrorist incident. But that didn’t prevent many British journalists and commentators from trying to turn it into one. This was because the perpetrator, Jake Davison, supposedly had links to the incel subculture: he was a self-confessed virgin; he believed that women are biologically hardwired to select men based on appearance; he had made references to the “blackpill”; and he had ranted that “women are arrogant and entitled beyond belief”.

Within 24 hours of the attack, The Guardian had described Davison as “a hate-filled misogynist and ‘incel’”, and speculated that “Plymouth shootings may be a sign ‘incel’ culture is spreading.” A day after the murder of Amess, an editorial in The Observer sternly reprimanded anyone who was in mind to “politicise this tragedy” on the basis of “scant details”. No such reprimand was issued by that paper in the days after Davison’s killing spree, despite the considerable uncertainty surrounding his motives. They were too busy politicising it, because they could. By contrast, Ali Harbi Ali, the British-born man who murdered Amess, couldn’t be so readily marshalled for symbolic service in the culture war over race and gender.

It was proof that, in some ways, we have become jaded by jihadists, desensitised to their threat and moral squalor by over-exposure to a media discourse and entertainment industry that, for over a decade and a half, couldn’t get enough of them. If they were once exotic and possessed a certain “jihadi cool“, they now resemble some ageing crooner trading on past glories. We just know too much about them and their shabby pasts as failed rappers, drug-dealers, potheads and porn enthusiasts. Jihadi terror has transmogrified into jihadi triviality.

Yet as Emile Durkheim, the founding father of sociology, once observed, society needs its criminals. We just don’t need jihadists anymore, since new and seemingly more forbidding folk have displaced them. And they have done so not because they are objectively more threatening or murderous (they’re not), but because they reflect the shifting existential anxieties of Western elites in a moment of great and rapid change. These anxieties were once focused on the threat of Islamism to democratic norms. Now, they are entangled in fears and loathing around gender and race. And when these moral panics eventually burn out, no doubt a new breed of devils will emerge, too.

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