ICSR & TRENDS Conference: Understanding Jihadist Insurgency
by Richard Burchill & Paul B Rich
Radical jihadist insurgency movements have gripped international attention and their exploits hit the news on almost a daily basis. Responses at both the national and international level seem inadequate in attempting to quell the violence or reversing the propaganda battle groups are waging with regard to the meaning of Islam in today’s world. At a recent conference hosted by TRENDS and ICSR the matter of jihadist insurgency was the subject of two days of discussion involving academics, policy makers, and government officials. The conference demonstrated the widespread interest and concerns that exist in relation to how jihadist insurgencies operate and the difficulties in formulating effective and coherent responses. The conference discussions highlighted there is much more to be done in understanding the strategies and tactics of jihadist insurgencies along with understanding how these movements continue to have a broad based appeal.
Jihadist insurgency movements vary in their composition, objectives and techniques but there is a common theme in that there is an appeal to “jihad”, based on Islamic principles, as a justification for their actions. While the term jihad has competing understandings, insurgent movements understand it as a battle for Islam, the need to prevent the destruction of Islam from non-believers as well as expand territories under Islamic control. This understanding of jihad is based on violence and a literal call to arms for all Muslims to resist the threat Islam is perceived to be under from a satanic west and its “apostate” allies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Many of the more recent examples of these radical jihadist movements such as Islamic State (IS), the Al-Nusra Front in Syria, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) as well as Boko Haram in West Africa have involved violent insurgent guerrilla warfare with a range of battlefield strategies and tactics. These and other organisations use continual references to ideas and beliefs expressed in the Islamic faith to support their actions. It is the rise of Daesh/Islamic State, with their gruesome activities and strident literalism in interpreting the tenets of Islam which has posed the most recent significant threat to global peace and security, as well as serving as a major conundrum in regard to an effective set of political responses from the powers of the international system.
The actions of Daesh/Islamic State and its various offshoots have certainly shocked international opinion, given the extreme violence and brutality with which they have conducted their operations. Nevertheless, these violent jihadist insurgencies appear to be gaining increasing support amongst groups of men and women throughout the world; those born Muslim as well as more recent converts. Many have attempted to join Daesh/Islamic State as volunteer partisans and it is estimated that in Syria and Iraq there are now some 30,000 such partisans with varying levels of military experience and skill. Insurgency movements of this type pose challenges to existing authorities. These challenges are based on a variety of factors, such as nationalism, discriminations, socio-economic marginalisation as well as a “radical” interpretation of Islamic belief. The message that is being disseminated is that there is a duty on all “true” Muslims to strike out against any and all non-believers. Such a call prevents any sort of compromise or dialogue: if unchecked, it offers a future of more or less constant conflict and holy war. The jihadist insurgency movements are thus challenging all authority structures deemed to be against “true” Islam for the purpose of creating a new authority structure centred on a new caliphate, formally announced in July 2014 from the city of Mosul.
Insurgency movements are not a new phenomenon on the global scene. The invocation of religious belief or ideology as a foundation for a movement’s cause is not new either. At the same time, there is an important question as to how jihadist insurgency movements have been gaining substantial support internationally. This mobilisation around the world of partisan volunteer poses major challenges to the international system, especially in the way it has been based on ostensibly Islamic religious principles. Typically an insurgency has a national context for its objectives and its support comes from a national or local constituency. Of course the objectives of the movement and its constituency will cross over established national borders but primarily to regional neighbours. Insurgency movements will attempt to extend their constituency support to a wider audience, but this is unlikely to generate active support beyond a particular national context.
There is one notable exception in the Marxist-Leninist international socialist movement which looked to the eventual creation of a global workers state from the early twentieth century. The objectives and constituencies for this movement ebbed and flowed over time in terms of their global impact and while variations in the ideology have had a large following, the pursuit of insurgency in support of this cause has been limited. The current approach of Daesh/Islamic State recalls some of the features of the Marxist-Leninist vanguard parties from the first half of the twentieth century; in this case with revolutionary jihadist elites seeking to develop movements globally with the eventual aim of overthrowing western “imperial” states and their “apostate” Middle Eastern allies. There is certainly a limit to the appeal of jihadist insurgency but both the physical and ideological battle appear to be spreading around the world.
The current strains of jihadist insurgency movements today are primarily directing their violence at the nation state in which they are mainly located. This is the main focus of any insurgency movement, but the jihadist justification transforms the localised movement into one overlaid with a global appeal to ideas grounded in the universal faith of Islam. Movements like Boko Haram demonstrate the link between the local and the global in this regard, where the stated purpose is to overcome the influence of the West, but locally it is more about settling scores and achieving local power. Daesh/Islamic State is, in rhetoric at least, attempting to be a vanguard for the global movement, it is clear, however, its main objective is the creation of a local state like system.
While the end goal of current jihadist insurgency movements may waver somewhere between local control or the creation of a new territorially defined state based on Islam, the inherent ideology associated with jihad does have a global dimension to it. By using what the insurgency movement claims is the definitive interpretation of Islam, they are able to justify their actions by reference to the core texts of the belief system. In turn these references strike a chord with many individuals in both the immediate constituency and on a global scale who are believers of Islam. What is slightly ironic is that unlike the future-orientated utopian ideology of Marxism-Leninism, many of the strands of jihadist ideological thought, for all their dependency upon cyberspace for disseminating propaganda and recruiting new followers, are largely backward looking in the sense of seeking to bring back a golden age of an Islamic state governed by a caliph. But it is not just the appeal to some golden past, it is the vehemence by which it is being articulated and pursued. The scholar Bernard Haykel has commented that it is not just the literalism of Islam that they are appealing to, but the seriousness to which they are putting things into practice. He explains “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”
A matter discussed at the recent conference was the contradiction between the global dimension of Islamic jihadist ideology has a global dimension and the more local and regional strategy of many jihadist insurgency groups. This paradox in some ways makes a coherent strategic response all the more difficult. Responses need to deal with two inter-related but, in many ways, separate concerns – the actual use of violence to seize territory and exercise social control at a local level, and the influence of the jihadist ideology across constituencies around the world which support further acts of violence. The struggle against jihadist insurgency requires a combination of local and global responses, responses that involve military and forceful measures as well as social and community building measures. For any insurgency movement there is a strong need and desire to gain support for the cause, to win the battle for hearts and minds. Responses to insurgency seek the same, to gain the constituency support through countering the narrative being invoked to show how the insurgency cause is not favourable. However, what has often happened in the recent past is the situation where states pursuing a “battle for hearts and minds” end up further alienating large sections of the target constituency. This has been the result of poor strategic planning and inadequate information and knowledge about the societies and cultures where the conflict is being waged: we have seen this all too easily from the recent history of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But how then to engage with the seemingly radical interpretations of Islam that are based on unacceptable forms of violence and living in a society based on practices almost two thousand years old? It appears contradictory to be seeking a future world that will bring back outdated practices and beliefs. At the same time the appeal of literal interpretations of Islam going back to the past have strong support from individuals and groups around the world. This is a further point discussed at length at the recent conference regarding what drives individuals to actively support and physically join jihadist insurgency movements. Again the matter is a complex overlap of local and global considerations.
The reasons why individuals join jihadist insurgency movements, either close to home or further afield, vary dramatically. There does appear though, to be common themes of individuals feeling disconnected, dispossessed, angry, disrupted family matters, disaffected in different ways, or seeking a way to improve their lives or to gain some degree of fame in any way they can. Factors such as coercion, material benefits, peer-pressure are prominent tactics used by insurgency movements to compel individuals to join. Despite all of the pictures and videos of violence, death and destruction, men and women are compelled to join and this trend does not appear to be abating.
Attempting to understand the factors and motivations which compel people to join and support jihadist insurgency is a key factor for governments. Responding to insurgency is not going to work through outright repression or strong military and policing measures. Such action might contain an immediate jihadist insurgent threat in the short term but often fails to win hearts and minds and has the opposite long-term effect of turning more people towards supporting jihadist insurgencies. As with many of the key matters discussed during the two days of the conference, responses need to be formulated through local and global cooperation. Any such responses need to be highly nuanced as well even within a particular society. It is clear we still do not have a decent grasp in understanding how the concept of jihad and appeals to understandings of Islam is having such a strong pull on men and women around the world.
The struggle against the current jihadist insurgency movements is, then, not just a military matter, but one where military and political solutions need to be organised and coordinated. The current conflicts we are experiencing cannot simply be explained away as wars between religions, or wars within a religion: they are not about a “clash of civilisations” and conflicts between cultures or a battle between the West and large sections of the rest of the world. They start primarily as matters of local concern, though ones that have the capacity to obtain a global interest through the way they are depicted in cyberspace. Responses to these insurgencies need to reflect this. What is needed is strong political and religious leadership from around the world. The counter narratives to win the hearts and minds away from the insurgency movements are available and being widely circulated, at the same time they need strong reinforcement and translation into concrete policies. Strong leadership from within the Middle East is necessary for discussions about jihad and what Islam does and does not justify. Globally strong leadership is also needed to further efforts to bring about real security and not allow intractable conflicts that are used as evidence of the threats to Islam to persist. There are many strategies for dealing with jihadist insurgencies, there is no one measure to solve all the problems. Cooperation between states and societies is needed and the one clear element to this strategy is that responses do not lead to further insurgency and violence.