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Research Report


Robin Wright
J. M. Berger
William Braniff
Cole Bunzel
Daniel Byman
Jennifer Cafarella
Harleen Gambhir
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Hassan Hassan
Charles Lister
William McCants
Garrett Nada
Jacob Olidort
Alexander Thurston
Clinton Watts
Frederic Wehrey
Craig Whiteside
Graeme Wood
Aaron Y. Zelin
Katherine Zimmerman
Copyright Date: Dec. 12, 2016
Published by: US Institute of Peace
Pages: 48
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 5-6)

    Jihadism has evolved dramatically and traumatically since the 9/11 attacks. Movements, leaders, targets, tactics, and arenas of operation have all proliferated in ways unimagined in 2001. The international community has mobilized unprecedented force against an array of jihadis, with mixed results. The United States alone has spent trillions of dollars—in military campaigns, intelligence, law enforcement, homeland security, and diplomacy—to counter jihadism. Progress has been made; fewer than a hundred people were killed inside the United States between 2001 and late 2016—in stark contrast to the death toll on 9/11. Yet the threat endures.

    The emergence of the...

  2. (pp. 6-8)

    Jihadism initially focused on overthrowing local regimes; agendas gradually expanded to include transnational or transcontinental goals. For some, the short-term focus has again moved towards local goals and strategies. Local jihadist groups have also multiplied. Jihadism now has multiple models. But ISIS and al-Qaeda remain the two major global brands.

    Since 2013, al-Qaeda and ISIS have varied little in core ideology but have adopted divergent strategies and tactics. Al-Qaeda has sometimes capitalized on ISIS tactics—and made gains in unexpected ways.

    ISIS’s priority has been to destabilize regimes in order to control territory as quickly as possible. Its strategy is...

  3. (pp. 8-10)

    Jihadism has evolved through multiple phases since it emerged in the late 1970s. The first phase—the inception—featured ideologues, such as Sayyid Qutb and his protégés in the Egyptian prison system, who were not all Salafi. But they all promoted the exclusivist and violent rhetoric of “takfirism,” or excommunication of fellow Muslims.

    A second phase—of cross-pollination— featured twin phenomena: the expulsion of Muslim Brothers from Arab states and their employment or education in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, a process that married the theological rigor of Salafism with the political activism of the Brotherhood’s Islamism. The leadership of the...

  4. (pp. 10-17)

    In the twenty-first century, the most stunning development in radical Islamist ideology was the creation of the Islamic State in 2014. ISIS is a descendent of al-Qaeda, but it has propagated an interpretation of jihadism both more urgent and aggressive than any previous group’s.

    ISIS emerged out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was founded (under a different name) in 1999 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant. His movement gained momentum after the U.S. intervention in 2003. He was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. Even in its early days, al-Qaeda in Iraq engaged in brutal sectarian killings that...

  5. (pp. 17-21)

    Once the uncontested leader of global jihadism, al-Qaeda has been dealt two blows since 2011: its charismatic leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed by the United States in May 2011; and in mid-2014, it was eclipsed by ISIS and a new “caliphate.” Al-Qaeda’s shift away from public view may be strategic and deliberate. It has shaped global jihadism in subtle and shadowy ways in recent years, even as it faded from public view.

    Al-Qaeda has evolved significantly since its formation in the 1980s. Osama bin Laden launched a formal organization, based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, out of jihadist contingents, notably...

  6. (pp. 21-24)

    By 2016, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Syria (originally known as the Nusra Front) was al-Qaeda’s most successful franchise. Its name means Front for the Conquest of Sham (an area that covers more than Syria). It was formally announced in 2012, but it had roots in earlier incarnations as both al-Qaeda in Iraq (2004–06) and the Islamic State of Iraq (2006–13). It grew out of the Islamic State of Iraq’s decision, in mid-2011, to send seven fighters to Syria to provide logistical support for jihadists moving from Syria to Iraq.31 The Nusra Front was established in secret in October...

  7. (pp. 24-34)

    Jihadism has always been produced by a confluence of factors. Some individuals are motivated to join jihadist movements by ideology, the desire for meaning and belonging, anger at the West, even wanderlust. Other conditions enable jihadism to flourish. They include the volatile mix of shifting demographics, notably a surge of youth, higher literacy, and greater social aspirations intersecting with economic woes, growing unemployment, and deepening political malaise or disillusionment. The mix of personal motives and enabling conditions has become even more combustible since the Arab uprisings of 2011. These drivers of extremism are rampant in the Middle East. They differ...

  8. (pp. 34-39)

    The Muslim world is in a deep state of flux. A confluence of trends—ideological, geostrategic, sectarian, demographic, economic, and social—will shape the future of jihadism. In crafting policies to deal with jihadi movements, the United States and its allies face complex challenges. They cannot fight terrorism by simply “fighting” terrorism. Military means can disrupt, but they can’t permanently dismantle or reverse a trend initially spawned by deep political discontent.

    The policy options involve choices that may contradict one another, allies who have conflicting priorities, and the potential for unintended, unforeseen, and costly consequences. The course charted will involve...