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Islamist and Jihadist Non- State Actor Governance in the Arab World

Islamist and Jihadist Non-State Actor Governance in the Arab World

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is currently undergoing the most rapid and dramatic phase of political development since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The political, economic and civic institutions that underpin the modern nation-state are finding their authority severely eroded, as the contours of power are recast by Islamist actors across the region.

The spectrum of actors is diverse: from constitutional movements such as Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to violent-rejectionist movements such as Islamic State, al-Qaeda and al- Shabaab. This expansive project has been designed to trace and describe the challenges to power, politics, and governance posed by these key Islamist groups, particularly since 2011. Focusing on actors and areas generally overlooked in the academic literature, it aims to do the following:

  • Examine how Islamist movements attempt to govern. In particular, we are exploring how they interact with both local populations and the global system of international politics;
  • Explain how proto-states and governance structures develop over time, measuring their response to political crises, war, and resistance from civil society;
  • Investigate how intra- and inter-group tensions between “progressive”, “traditionalist” and “reactionary” elements will evolve and manifest themselves (this has particular relevance in Syria);
  • Understand limitations of Westphalian- inspired conceptions of statehood; and
  • Explore opportunities for dialogue with traditionally hostile partners.

More information on each of the specific country studies follows below. All make use of extensive primary source materials, derived from on-the-ground fieldwork and interviews.


The collapse of the regime and widespread decline of public services in certain corners of Syria has led to the emergence of a governance void, something that non-state actors have been attempting to fill in recent years. Most notably, the al-Qaeda affiliate turned ‘independent actor,’ Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (HTS), has emerged as a potent and pragmatic force in northern Syria. In a matter of years, it has managed to go from being at the margins of the insurgency to becoming the principal governing actor in Idlib and its surrounding countryside. To better understand how it was able to achieve this, this sub-project focuses on how HTS governs its areas of operation, and the impact this has on both its legitimacy and local support.

This topic is being explored from two perspectives: first, the various governance models employed by HTS are identified and examined; and second, the different engagement models used to interact with other state and non-state governing bodies are investigated.

Given that HTS’s approach towards insurgent governance appears to be paying off better than that of Islamic State— largely a result of its reacting to, and actually addressing, public concerns—it is reasonable to expect that the group will emerge as one of the more serious, and longer-term, challenges in the region. Thus, with an eye to the future, this sub-project seeks to better understand and contextualise the group within the broader framework of the Syrian conflict.


The Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) have come to dominate Iraq’s response to the ongoing security crisis in the country, but research on them remains piecemeal at best. This sub-project systematically explores conflicting convictions and allegiances within the PMU, and assesses their impact on the state’s role as the guarantor of security in Iraq.

Despite being framed as part of the Iraqi armed forces, ambiguity within existing legislation means that many PMU factions operate as proxies for Tehran, something that creates tensions with Baghdad and stokes fears of Iranian influence and reach in the region. In addition to this, there are fears that, once Iraq has re-stabilised, the PMUs will devolve into criminal groups loyal to local warlords rather than the sovereign state.

There is, consequently, a need to better understand the PMU phenomenon, as well as the United States-led efforts to transition them from their current structure into one that can better integrate into Iraq’s national army and government.


The Libya sub-project traces the formal and informal proto-state institutions that emerged across parts of Tripoli Province during Islamic State’s takeover of Sirte.

Contrary to common misconceptions, takeovers by violent actors rarely occur without some regard to local conditions. In recognition of this, this sub-project focuses on understanding the local factors that led to the rise of Islamic State in Libya, a place in which it implemented a highly sophisticated agenda of socialisation and governance, attempting to co-opt and seduce local communities into accepting its agenda. Noting that its efforts were only partially successful because of its eventual rejection by local tribes, this subsection examines the often-fractious relationship between non-state actors and the tribes and other non-governmental stakeholders that “host” them.

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