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One of the key questions on analysts’ lips since the near-territorial defeat of the self-declared ‘caliphate’ across Iraq and Syria has been ‘Who will be the next ISIS?’. Prognosis has ranged from an exodus of cornered foreign fighters to far flung theatres, to a resurgent al-Qaeda retaking the reins of global jihad. However, new research from the Tony Blair Institute’s Global Extremism Monitor demonstrates there is already a broader movement ready to carry on the group’s objectives in different global theatres, with a total of 121 different violent Islamist groups active across 2017.
The Global Extremism Monitor (GEM) tracks incidents of violent Islamist extremism and state efforts to counter it, painting a picture of a global problem affecting over 60 countries and leading to the loss of over 84,000 lives in the year, with 7,841 separate violent attacks recorded. The geographical spread of this problem remains vast, with over half of the violent groups operating outside major conflict zones, and Islamist violence permeating the borders of 18 of the world’s most developed countries to devastating effect.
But as well as capturing the scale of the threat, the monitor also focuses on its ideological character, shedding light on the warped theopolitics underpinning violent Islamist groups’ actions and narratives. Understanding the ideological nuances of extremist violence is often neglected in the policy debate. Building an evidence base will be central to informing long-term strategies to contain the violence.
While ISIS, and to a lesser extent al-Qaeda, might represent the face of global Islamist violence, the dataset paints a picture of a long tail of militant groups with similar aims that receive little attention from the international community.
Groups like the predominantly Uzbek Imam Bukhari Jamaat, fighting for an Islamic state in Syria’s Idlib province before bringing the Caliphate home to the “homeland of Turkestan”. And Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, a new alliance of jihadi factions in the Sahel, which carried out numerous attacks in four different countries across the region. Or the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf, founded in 1991 by a returnee from the Afghan jihad, which in 2017 focused a higher percentage of its activity on civilians than al-Shabaab, and carried out more beheadings than ISIS in Libya.
Many of these smaller violent groups, highly localised and conflict specific, have evolved from separatist insurgencies against local governments, towards ideological convergence with a broader global Islamist cause.
Such factions are not part of a coordinated jihadi network, but a closer analysis of some of the 25 most prominent violent Islamist groups operating today in five regions across the world reveals an alignment of interests and objectives across diverse geographies. Many of these groups are not Salafi-jihadi like ISIS and al-Qaeda, who call for a literalistic return to the perceived Islam of the Prophet’s followers. For example, the Ahrar al-Sham does not advocate for an expansionist Islamic state, while Hamas avoids explicit sectarianism.
But all of these have two key ideological positions in common, a belief in the restoration of Islamic governance as a religious obligation, and violent opposition to perceived enemies of Islam. Comparative research on a range of groups’ propaganda has shown that rival Islamist extremist outfits agree on considerably more than they disagree.2 As the Global Extremism Monitor says, “violent Islamists all seek a restoration of Muslim dignity through a return to the caliphate, and they believe that violence and intimidation are legitimate methods to overcome perceived enemies of Islam that restrict the success of this project.”
By monitoring and disaggregating the activities of each group, the GEM is able to highlight distinct strategic, and ideological, priorities within this shared world view. While ideology is a unifying thread between groups that vary in size, lethality and location, militants have utilised local grievances and politics to develop their own brands of violent Islamism and priorities vary depending on their environments and context.
Even within the borders of Afghanistan, there are distinctions between the ideas and strategies of the country’s most violent Islamist groups. For decades, the Taliban has been focused on the establishment of an Islamic emirate, a religiously mandated and ordered nationalist governance system free from foreign unbelievers. Last year, 79 per cent of the group’s attacks targeted security actors – symptomatic of a group that prioritises ousting the current regime and practising governance.
ISIS-Khorasan wages very different violence from the more established Taliban, despite their shared genealogical roots in the Afghan jihad of the 1980s (indeed a large proportion of ISIS fighters in the region have splintered from the Pakistani Taliban). ISIS-Khorasan has more recently emerged in the country, bringing with it a desire for global jihad aimed at killing all non-believers and enemies. The group has imported from its Levantine playbook a determination to eradicate the Shia population, a sectarian ‘innovation’ in the Salafi-jihadi movement that even al-Qaeda opposed, and which has been largely absent from the Afghan conflict up to this point. Twenty-six per cent of all ISIS’ activity in the country was sectarian in 2017. The Afghan Taliban has resisted explicitly engaging in anti-Shia violence, rather presenting itself as a viable and natural leader of all the country’s Muslims.