Jytte Klausen (POL), Professor of International Cooperation, discussed her newest work: “Western Jihadism: A Thirty Year History.” The book was published in October by Oxford University Press. Klausen described the main insights she gained from her research and responded to questions from Prof. Sabine von Mering (CGES) and the audience. 

Klausen explained that her book traces the development of Western jihadism from its origins with exiled Islamist revolutionaries in the 1990s. The book describes the circumstances surrounding three prominent terrorist attacks: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings, along with the aftermath and recruitment measures following these attacks. 

The main goal of her book, Klausen said, is to analyze the popularity of jihadism in the Western world, which she defined as encompassing Western Europe and North America, but also New Zealand and Australia — countries affected to a similar degree by jihadist influence. Klausen obtained her findings through painstaking interviews and other research methods to gain insight to the activity of 6,500 Western jihadist extremists and their networks. However, she noted that there were a significant number of Westerners who were killed or left these groups with little to no trace of their participation. 

First giving an overview of her subject, Klausen explained that Islamism is a fundamentalist ideology made up of an “extraordinary array of different groups.” Jihadist groups stand at the fringe of Islamist thought. She said that jihadist groups were defined by their interpretation of the Islamic concept of the jihad as a “nonnegotiable obligation” necessitating a violent struggle against nonbelievers. According to Klausen, the overarching goal of all of these groups is to take power in the Muslim world because they see the current regimes as illegitimate for not following Islam to its fullest extent. 

Per Klausen, her main finding from her research is that the recruitment of Western Al-Qaeda members usually does not come from “disaffected Muslims” with particular local grievances. Instead, the appeal of jihadism is largely due to the concerted recruiting efforts of jihadist leaders. Klausen said that former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was particularly interested in recruiting; according to phone data, a majority of his calls went to a recruiting office established in London. Supporting this argument, Klausen noted that when bin Laden began to draw international fame while in Jordan, there was an increase in identified Western jihadists coming to Jordan.

Western jihadist communications were a central element of Klausen’s research. Klausen presented the cover of her book, which displays a map of the activity and origins of the 6,500 Western jihadists. She pointed out the noticeable hotspots connecting the U.S. and Europe with the Middle East. 

Klausen observed that the popularity of jihadism for Westerners may appear strange at first, since its fundamental belief is primarily opposed to the West. Perhaps supporting this seeming paradox, she noted that according to her research, the first inclination of a Western terrorist is to go abroad. According to Klausen, Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev wanted to go to Chechnya, though he was rejected for his tendency to draw too much attention to himself.

However, she noted that “people have historically joined all sorts of radical movements.” She argued that the appeal of jihadist groups is not too different from the excitement drawn around communist movements in the 20th century because there is an appeal to groups that challenge systems of authority. 

A significant section of Western jihadists are women, Klausen said. She explained that their motivations were varied, but there was usually a mixture of idealism and passion to do something to fight for a cause and build a new society, as well as naive, romantic images of getting married. According to Klausen, many Western jihadist women came from strict households and used jihadist sites as dating sites.

Discussing terrorist activity today, Klausen noted that her book has missed the fact that it is no longer a question whether Al-Qaeda will move to Afghanistan and now “Al-Qaeda is the strongest it has ever been.” 

Klausen identified the next steps with her research. She plans to share her data with other groups and begin research exploring other fundamentalist organizations, such as the Incel online community. She observed that the Incels have a peculiar status in that they are “entirely existent online” and are at first glance a hate group targeting women, but their goal is to reestablish a patriarchal society, which falls into the category of a terrorist group.