Jihadism: Seven Assumptions Shaken by the Arab Spring

February 3, 2014

By Thomas Hegghammer, Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI)

* This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Islamist Politics” conference, January 24, 2014.  

The last three years have seen a number of significant and unexpected changes in the landscape of militant Islamist groups. These include the decline of al Qaeda central, the rise of Jabhat al‐Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria, the emergence of the Ansar al‐Sharia groups in North Africa, and the mini‐insurgency in the Egyptian Sinai, to mention just a few. Most of these developments have been described in reasonably good detail by observers of jihadism, but they have yet to be properly understood and intellectually digested by academics. What do these developments mean for our understanding of Islamist violence? This brief research note is an attempt to identify some of the assumptions, arguments, and hypotheses about militant Islamism that may need to be rethought in light of the events of the past three years. It is not intended as an exhaustive review, but rather as a thought‐provoking brainstorming effort. In the following, I describe seven assumptions or common claims that in my view are ripe for reconsideration. 

Jihadi groups have stable ideological doctrines that shape their political behavior in predictable ways.

One of the biggest lessons of the past few years is that jihadi political thought, which scholars like me have studied as “ideology” (implying something relatively rigid), is more fickle and malleable than (at least I) previously assumed. The most striking evidence of this is the involvement of many transnational jihadists in Syria and their adoption of a new enemy hierarchy with the Syrian regime and to some extent Shiites more broadly, at the top. This is quite a remarkable development, because in the past transnational jihadis showed relatively little interest in sectarian conflicts — Iraq only interested them when the Americans were there. In fact, between 2012 and 2013 we should have expected foreign fighters to go to Mali, not Syria, because after the French‐led invasion, Mali fit the jihadi “civilizational conflict narrative” much better than did Syria. Personally I would argue that nothing in transnational jihadi rhetoric prior to 2011 indicated that Syria would become the destination of choice for Islamist foreign fighters. There are many other examples from the last 10 years of such a mismatch between group declarations and behavior — witness for example the tendency for groups to declare allegiance to al Qaeda’s global jihad while continuing to attack local targets. Groups not only change views on strategic issues such as where or whom to fight, but also on tactical issues. Normative barriers on the use of certain methods can be broken, as has been the case with suicide bombings, or they can be reinstated, as has been the case with the issue of targeting of Muslim civilians. For all their apparent doctrinal rigidity, militant Islamists seem able to change their political views faster than we can say “Salafi jihadism.” It may still be that jihadis are rigid on questions of theological doctrine, but they have shown to be quite pragmatic in their military behavior. There are even signs that the pragmatism in some cases can extend to the temporary abandoning of violence and/or the adoption of non‐martial instruments of politics, as we shall see below. The lesson of all of this is that those of us who study jihadi thought should be more careful when trying to infer group objectives, preferences, and motivations from ideological documents.

Al Qaeda has a grand strategy that guides the transnational jihadi movement.

This view is less widespread among Islamism specialists than in the security field, but it is sufficiently influential with policymakers to merit treatment here. Over the past decade, a substantial number of studies have claimed to identify an al Qaeda master plan or at the very least a sense of common direction for the plethora of militant Islamist groups across the Middle East. This proposition was questionable in the 2000s, but it was shattered by the Arab Spring. In 2011 and 2012 the ideological bigwigs of the movement offered only vague and contradictory advice on how to handle the turmoil, while groups on the ground responded in a variety of different ways. The Arab Spring laid bare the deeply fragmented and regionally compartmentalized nature of what we, for lack of a better term, continue to refer to as “the jihadi movement.”

Al Qaeda-linked groups are vanguard organizations that don’t do rebel governance.

For a long time it was true that transnational jihadi groups generally did not engage in social service provision of the type that nationalist Islamist militias such as Hamas and Hezbollah have done for decades. This has changed since the late 2000s. Over the past few years several al Qaeda‐affiliated groups, especially in Yemen and Syria, have engaged in rebel governance and displayed a certain awareness of the fact that excessively harsh moral policing can alienate constituents. So far, however, they have not proved to be particularly good at it, but this may change with time.

Pro‐al Qaeda groups are necessarily violent all the time.

This intuitive claim has been challenged by the emergence, in North Africa and Europe, of a puzzling new class of actors whose rhetoric is very radical but whose methods are largely nonviolent. I am referring here to the Ansar al‐Sharia phenomenon in North Africa and the “Sharia4‐” phenomenon in Europe (Sharia4Belgium, Sharia4Denmark, al‐Muhajiroun in the U.K., the Prophet’s Umma in Norway, and similar groups). The two phenomena are not organizationally linked and they may have different causes, but they resemble each other in that they are pro‐al Qaeda in word but not in deed.

The root cause of jihadism is a combination of indigenous malgovernance and U.S. bullying in the Muslim World, and addressing these grievances will undermine its appeal.

This assumption underpinned the argument, popular in 2011, that the Arab Spring would weaken the jihadi movement. As we know, the opposite has happened. To be sure, the Arab Spring never materialized in the way envisaged back then, so one might conceivably argue that the first of the two grievances has not really been addressed. However, the second has been addressed to some extent, for the U.S. posture in the region has changed markedly since the George W. Bush presidency. The United States withdrew its forces from Saudi Arabia in 2003, from Iraq in 2007, and will do so from Afghanistan in 2014. Moreover, it supported the Arab revolutions, by helping remove Muammar al-Qaddafi, recognizing the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, and backing, however weakly, the Syrian rebels. The “America deserves al Qaeda” argument now hinges on two issues: drones and Guantanamo Bay. As serious as these human rights violations are, they can hardly explain the growth of jihadism in the past three years. Clearly, the ebbs and flows of militant activity are governed by factors much more complex than a few macro‐level grievances. I do not claim to know exactly what does explain the recent growth, but reduced constraints, stemming from the weakening of the coercive apparatuses in the Arab republics, seem to be a major part of the story. The lesson here is that a narrow focus on rebel motivations — as opposed to capabilities and constraints — may produce flawed predictions about movement strength and behavior.

David Rapoport’s “waves of terrorism” theory applies to Islamism and spells the decline of Islamist militancy in the foreseeable future.

Rapoport’s “religious wave,” having started in the late 1970s, is now in its fourth decade and should thus be ripe for replacement by some other zeitgeist, as were the anarchist, anticolonial, and leftist waves before it. Nothing suggests that this will happen for at least another decade. The Syrian war is currently forging a whole new generation of militants who look set to make their mark on the region for some time to come. The region is littered with jihadi groups of various sizes, many of which show few signs of imminent collapse.

Extremist varieties of Islamism attract adherents by offering a persuasive theological or political message.

Most of the literature on Islamism and jihadism conceives of recruitment as a cognitive process in which the recruit rationally assesses the theological doctrine or political program on offer, finds it persuasive or appealing, and joins. Some scholars emphasize the theological dimension of the message, others the political one, but the implicit mechanism in both strands of scholarship is some sort of alignment between the recruit’s long‐term aspirations (e.g., salvation or national liberation) and the action plan proposed by the recruiter. By this logic, jihadism has persisted for so long because it has been able to offer more persuasive programs than its competitors. However, a growing number of micro‐level studies of jihadi recruitment downplays the role of doctrine and emphasizes proximate incentives involving emotions: the pleasure of agency, the thrill of adventurism, the joy of camaraderie, and the sense of living an “authentic Islamic life.” In other words, there is much to suggest that jihadi recruitment is not just a cognitive process, but also an emotional one. Could it be that jihadism has persisted less because of its persuasive program and more because of the emotional rewards it offers adherents? Could it be that jihadi groups, by self‐identifying as traditional, dispose of a larger battery of “emotion‐inducing cultural products” (such as rituals, music, poetry etc.) than do competing ideological movements of more recent vintage and that this helps explain part of the movement’s relative longevity? The idea of jihadism as way of life offering short‐term emotional rewards is consistent with the ideological flexibility noted earlier; to some extent, the particular political path leaders set for the group matters less when the foot soldiers are mainly in it for the ride. This is of course an oversimplification, as cognitive persuasion clearly matters. However, the cultural‐emotional dimension of jihadi activism remains largely unstudied and offers a promising line of inquiry as we search for the answer to the question why jihadism has thrived for so long.

Thomas Hegghammer is director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI). He is the author of Jihad in Saudi Arabia (2010) and co-author of The Meccan Rebellion (2001) and al-Qaida in its Own Words (2008). 

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