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Atlantic Headline Blares ‘No Global Jihadist Movement,’ While Writer Asserts Otherwise

An online editor for TheAtlantic.com spoiled a perfectly good article Wednesday, by writing a headline claiming that there is no worldwide movement of violent Islamist terrorism.

The article’s author, Martha Crenshaw, clarifies that “the global jihadist ‘movement’ is actually extremely fractured. It’s united by a general set of shared ideological beliefs, but divided organizationally and sometimes doctrinally.” Crenshaw, a widely respected scholar who has spent decades studying terrorism, goes on to explain the historical rifts to that led to today’s rivalry between al-Qaida and Islamic State. (RELATED: Boko Haram’s ISIS Pledge Brings Jihadi Power Struggle To Africa)

But the headline, “There Is No Global Jihadist ‘Movement,’” obscures and downplays Crenshaw’s point: that jihadi groups’ common ideological roots don’t always stop them from infighting.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and another senior academic in the field of terrorism studies, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email that global jihad “is a collection of like minded elements unified in their hatred of the west.” Despite their lack of central organization and unity, Riedel wrote, “it is a movement just as fascism was a movement with many factions.”

Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, agreed, saying that the “title’s pretty silly” in an interview with TheDCNF. “It’s like saying there was no global Communism because Russia, China and Cuba all had different views.”

Other experts chimed in as well. The Heritage Foundation’s Jim Phillips called it “misleading,” since “while there is no monolithic Islamist threat,” its members “share a common ideology … and draw support from many of the same quarters.”

And Michael Ryan, a scholar with the Middle East Institute and the Jamestown Foundation, pointed out that jihadi groups are “networked together whenever possible even if there is not some great alliance among them,” and that the global movement is “organizationally fractured, but remarkably united ideologically.”

He thought the headline was “a way to get attention — regrettable but very normal.”

Reluctance to acknowledge the scope and internal ideological consistency of jihadi movements has become an epidemic in public policy circles. Critics have sensed this caution at the White House, in the State Department and in the media. And they have blamed everything from political correctness to worries over government entering theological debates — or, indeed, a genuine blind spot for religion’s ability to influence global movements. (RELATED: Obama Alone In Ignoring Roots Of Islamist Terror)

January article by the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin illustrated this problem in action, with the example of asking whether Islam, in its huge variety of interpretative traditions, condones suicide bombing. While it is clear that most Muslims abhor the practice, Rubin writes, “to dismiss the religious context of suicide bombing … is like a doctor who stubbornly rules out an ailment without ever examining the patient.”

But another factor may be at play here: the formal study of terrorism is much less favorable to catchy, concise conclusions than the media would like. A press representative at a major Washington think tank, when contacted for an expert to quote in this article, told TheDCNF that “headline writers and article writers aren’t necessarily on the same page anyway.”

The employee described a recent article by an analyst at the institution which a general-interest magazine published with a frustratingly sensational and misleading headline. The title on the think tank’s website, meanwhile, was far “more demure,” and also more accurate.

Follow Ivan Plis on Twitter

 

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