A purely military approach to countering violent jihadist extremism risks entrenching the resentment and victimization of Sunnis and deepening chaos, according to a new report from the International Crisis Group (ICG).
The Islamic State (IS) group and al-Qaeda and its affiliates had “exploited wars, state collapse and geopolitical upheaval in the Middle East, gained new footholds in Africa and pose an evolving threat elsewhere,” adds the report, which also argues that Islamist militants are the principal beneficiaries of the 2011 Arab Spring.
“Today, the Middle East is at war, and the main winners so far are extremists,” the report notes. “Extremism in the Muslim world has ebbed and flowed over the past quarter century but has never looked as dangerous as today.”
Military campaigns run the risk of helping militants to recruit by exploiting grievances and leaving communities “caught between their harsh rule and indiscriminate operations against them,” adds the report, “Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.”
If wars, state collapse and geopolitics, particularly across the Arab world, are proximate causes of the fourth wave, other trends contribute, the report states:
- First, sectarianism has reached unprecedented levels across parts of the Middle East. Aggravated by Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, wars in Syria and Iraq and escalating Saudi-Iranian rivalry, it is more intense than any time since religion was conjoined with modern political identity. As states fail, many, not just Sunnis, are turning to other kinds of social organisation – tribe, clan, religion, sect – for protection and representation. …
- Secondly, though a catalyst for the fourth wave was the toppling of dictators, its roots lie partly in persistent authoritarianism. Leaders and regimes, backed by major powers, have for decades clung to power through violence and repression. Their regimes provided relative stability, but their misrule did much to rot institutions, erode state-society relations and pave the way for the turmoil that followed their overthrow. ….
- Thirdly, African leaders are for the most part more united against jihadists than their Middle Eastern counterparts, even if, in some cases, no less reluctant to let power go. Their challenge lies more in the weakness of states; their limited writ in neglected peripheries; and the inability of security forces, intelligence services and other institutions to respond with the required dexterity.
- Lastly, ideological space has opened up. In the Arab world in particular, but also in parts of Africa, other ideologies once used to frame political activity and resistance against repression have lost appeal. Students across the Muslim world who once rebelled by joining socialist movements now have few moderate avenues to express discontent. Arab nationalism has diminished as much as socialism; neo-liberal reform and global governance failed to fulfil their potential and often worsened living conditions; the collapse of the 2011 revolutions has damaged liberal democracy and, particularly dangerously, peaceful political Islam.
“The sectarianism and deep sense of Sunni victimisation that the Iraq and Syria wars and the perception of an ascendant Iran have helped spawn play into extremists’ hands,” the report adds:
So, too, do failed governance, authoritarian backlash and the elimination of legitimate and politically viable alternatives, all of which reinforce jihadists’ denunciation of corrupt local regimes and contribute to anti-establishment sentiment across the region. Weak states with limited writ across their hinterlands or borders have proven vulnerable, particularly in Africa. Aggressive proselytising over decades of intolerant strands of Islam and the dwindling appeal of ideologies that might be used to frame resistance have helped prepared the ground.
The report does not examine the Muslim Brotherhood and its branches, including Hamas, it notes:
Despite some shared roots, it has distanced itself over decades from the thinkers that inspire al-Qaeda and is perhaps jihadists’ main ideological competitor, though Cairo’s campaign against it has plunged it into disarray and left its future uncertain. IS and al-Qaeda attack many Brotherhood tenets and practices, including, on a political level, gradualism and participation in democratic politics. In terms of doctrine, the Brotherhood’s – and Hamas’s – relative flexibility and pragmatism sets them apart from the literalism of Salafis and the Taliban.
Nor does the report cover South East Asia, the Crisis Group adds:
Despite outreach from IS and AQ, mainstream militant groups remain staunchly wedded to ethno-religious nationalism not global jihadism. Moreover, the states in which they operate are strong, with functioning institutions; repressive, but not on the scale that opens space for jihadists. Democratic and economic progress in the region over three decades allows for peaceful dissent, greater social mobility and a paradigm of growth that most people believe in. Jihadist groups exist and will continue to attack domestic and foreign targets, particularly in Indonesia, but their tactics and ideology are a hard sell in current regional conditions, and they are unlikely to reach the critical mass that would threaten society or the state.
“The current strategy against IS, particularly in Iraq, involves destroying the cities and towns in which they are rooted, which risks increasing the suffering of Sunnis and deepening their dangerous sense of victimisation” , said Robert Blecher, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Program Director and the report’s co-author. Similarly, “military escalation against IS in Libya without a wider political settlement risks deepening the chaos”, said Claudia Gazzini, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Libya.