Global Jihadism: A Changing Paradigm


Global Jihadism: A Changing Paradigm

12 Dec 2014

The landscape of global jihadism has changed immeasurably since 9/11. The landscape of global jihadism has changed immeasurably since 9/11. A new report from the BBC and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation unpacks a month of jihadi violence to explain this fast changing phenomenon.

In July 2011 Leon Panetta, US Defence Secretary, claimed to be "within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda". Whilst at the close of 2014 the group may well be at the weakest point since their inception, an array of global movements sharing their destructive ideology are stronger than ever before, representing a substantial and growing transnational threat, according to a new report from the BBC and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College, London.

The title of the report 'The New Jihadism' refers to the revitalising of violent jihadism in the last few years and warns about the policy dangers of complacency based on the misjudgment of historical trends, as well as underestimating the powerful sway of religious ideology. 

Challenging the ideology and beliefs driving this global phenomenon is essential.

The report demonstrates the considerable foreign policy trap of equating jihadism with al-Qaeda alone. For many policy makers there was a time when the terms 'jihadism' and 'al-Qaeda' were seen as inseparable and even synonymous, but current jihadi trends show this to be far from the case. Whilst many of its international franchises are featured on the list, the al-Qaeda (AQ) 'central' division operating across the Afghanistan and Pakistan border are not recorded as conducting a single attack in the month-long reporting period. Indeed, more than 60% of jihadi killings in November resulted from groups with no formal relationship with AQ. This shows the extent to which the centre of gravity of the global jihadi movement is changing.

Groups emerging since this era of al-Qaeda dominance include Boko Haram in Nigeria, the re-emergent  al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, and most notably ISIS, whose meteoric rise since their declaration of a Caliphate across Iraq and Syria is signified by the reported 2,206 deaths resulting from just over 300 attacks across the two countries last month. It is notable that the  Global Terrorism Index released last month and mapped in our interactive data section here, found the same groups to be responsible for the vast majority of global terror.

The findings of the report emphasise the urgent need to adopt a long-term strategy rather than a quick fix for this "generational challenge", and particularly the necessity of challenging the narrow religious ideology and beliefs driving this global phenomenon. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation was founded in 2008 based on the view that religious ideology and its impact would be the biggest challenge facing the 21st century, and has a number of programmes that work to counter religious prejudice, conflict and extremism.

Changing Trends
  • The report logs 664 lethal attacks over a month-long period from 16 jihadi groups, resulting in 5042 deaths, with attacks in Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Syria accounting for 80% of this total. 
  • The fatalities caused by ISIS account for 44 percent of the total, followed by Boko Haram (16 percent) and the Taliban (14 percent). Other significant contributors to the death toll include al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen (eight percent), al-Shabaab (five percent), Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria (five percent), as well as the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) (three percent) and its splinter Jamaat ul-Ahrar (one percent). 
  • Tactics are also fast shifting. The popular association of jihadism with terrorism, and of terrorism with bombing, is not reflected in the data. Jihadis are now involved in a wide range of tactics of which bomb attacks have become a minority, representing just over a third of the deadly attacks (36 percent). Shooting and ambushes account for 30 and 10 percent respectively, while another 10 percent are made up of executions. 
  • These changing trends show that jihadism is an increasingly global movement. Global movements don't just disappear, and ideas and ideologies cannot simply be eliminated through drone strikes, however effective those tactics may have been in decimating al-Qaeda's leadership.
Defining Jihadism
  • The report addresses the contentious term 'jihadism', drawing a clear distinction between jihad, a religiously inspired struggle, and jihadism, a violent revolutionary ideology, and remarking that the only two groups who consider the concepts to be the same are Islamophobes and jihadists themselves. 
  • Jihadism is closely tied to the doctrine of Salafism, which promotes an extremely narrow, puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam that claims to reject any form of interpretation or religious 'innovation' and hopes to imitate the 'perfect conditions' that existed during the era of the 'pious forefathers' (Salaf), the first generations that succeeded the Prophet Mohammed. This belief greatly informs their vision of society. 
  • Excluded from the report's definition of jihadism are Shia militant groups such as Hizbullah that justify fighting in the name of jihad but are located outside the Sunni tradition. Indeed, the jihadists of al-Qaeda, ISIS and like-minded groups regard Hizbullah as 'apostates' and have been among the most vociferous opponents of Shia militant groups in places like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen
  • In the current climate of sectarian tension, particularly in the Middle East, jihadi narratives often paint Shia as 'worse' than Christians or Jews due to their perception as 'apostates', failing to adhere to Islam's core principles. This approach to the 'other' is in contrast to al-Qaeda's tactics, which preferred targetting the 'far enemy'.
  • As such, the narrative of jihadism predominantly targeting non-Muslim religious groups needs to be challenged. Although the data does not take account of religious affiliation, only 16 percent of deaths took place in non-Muslim majority countries (Nigeria and the Philippines) and so the report speculates that the vast majority of victims (perhaps 80% or more) were Muslim, albeit it from different sects. An extreme example of this intra-Islamic violence was the horrific bombing of the central mosque in Kano at the end of November.

The report may be read in full here.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence