Generalising about the deeper currents driving this fourth wave is risky, particularly mid-flow. Each movement is unique and, despite the transnational ties of some, mostly rooted in local conditions. Patterns of radicalisation vary from place to place.
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Its immediate causes, however, are clear enough and explain why this fourth wave is potentially the most destructive and hardest to reverse. First and foremost, there is the upheaval across much of the Arab world. The dramatic recent uptick in war and state collapse has opened up enormous opportunity for them. Enmity between states, meanwhile, in the Middle East at a level dwarfing that of previous waves, means regional powers worry less about extremists than about their rivals, or even quietly indulge such groups as proxies.
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 grievances that took Syrians to the streets in were much like those motivating other Arab revolts.
Most protesters did not initially call for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down but demanded that his increasingly sclerotic and repressive government reform, open politics and improve economic management. Over eighteen months, peaceful protests morphed into what has become, at least in parts of the north, a jihadist-dominated insurgency for very different reasons. Accounts of their religious origins vary; they are most likely an offshoot of the Twelver branch of Shia Islam. Sadr issued a fatwa religious ruling to that effect. At the same time, friction between Qatar and Turkey on one side, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates UAE on the other, meant that their support to the opposition was incoherent and often flowed, like that channelled by Gulf-based clerics, to extreme proxies.
Foreign fighters, who tended to be more radical, for a time entered freely through Turkey. Western officials admit that shutting down the border completely would be impossible and that Turkey, at least since March , has worked to stem the flow. Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Ankara, February As jihadists, many with Iraq combat experience, entered, some, notably Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, leader of the local al-Qaeda branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, proved effective commanders. Tactics like suicide bombing gave them an edge.
A lie in a similar mix. Equally important was failure of Baghdad and Washington to capitalise on the Awakening. Denial to the minority Sunnis of a sufficient stake in the state, then violence by mostly Shia security forces against largely peaceful protests in Sunni-majority cities in undermined non-jihadist Sunni leadership and resistance.
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This cleared the way for IS, which had regrouped, to eradicate rivals and seize the Iraqi Sunni heartlands in , with many Sunnis seeking its protection or seeing in it an opportunity to upset the status quo. It was dangerous to the West because of its bomb-making expertise but largely peripheral to Yemeni politics and isolated in the remote east.
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Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, is something of an outlier, in that it did not emerge in an existing war zone. Its resistance to the state hardened after quarrelling with a local governor, who, according to its then leader, Mohammed Yusuf, had broken promises made to it for help mobilising votes. Movements have gathered force as crises deepen and violence escalates. More often, jihadists have exploited existing conflicts, as they did in Algeria and Chechnya two decades ago, infiltrating, profiting and making them harder to resolve.
Their dramatic expansion in recent years owes more to the bloody genesis of crises, in other words, than to radicalisation beforehand. Escalating geopolitical rivalries have been another windfall for extremists. Mounting competition, particularly between Middle Eastern states, now drives and complicates efforts to end the crises jihadists feed off. It also means many leaders worry more about regional rivals than extremists. For months, AQAP-controlled areas were among the few Saudi-led coalition bombs avoided, strengthening the group relative to others. Regional politics present an even greater obstacle in Syria.
Even now, few of the diverse forces arrayed against IS treat it as the main enemy. The Assad regime, Iran, allied militias and Russia mostly attack other rebels, including those on the front lines against IS, believing them a graver threat to regime survival. The YPG receives U. Worse still, a common thread in the history of many movements is the support they have enjoyed from states hoping to use them as proxies against rivals.
Both were built decades earlier, largely with Saudi money to counter the increasing stridency of Shia militants backed by post-revolution Iran but also drawing from local resentment against wealthier Shia in Jhang. Numerous groups in the tribal areas had fought in Afghanistan.
The last fifteen years have seen these distinctions gradually become less relevant, as many militants rubbed shoulders with each other and with al-Qaeda while fighting alongside the Afghan Taliban and training in the Pakistani tribal areas. The principle dividing line now is between those groups that fight the Pakistani state and those that do not — though even that is blurred.
Groups that are military-sponsored and do not attack the state often provide training and infrastructure to those that do. A second dividing line is between those that attack Shia and other religious minorities and those that are less overtly sectarian. Hide Footnote ssad government funnelled jihadists into Iraq through the mids in an attempt to divert their attention and keep the U.
Some of the weapons and ammunition flowing from the Gulf and Turkey to components of the Jaish al-Fatah rebel coalition in Syria almost certainly reach Jabhat al-Nusra, one of its most powerful members. If wars, state collapse and geopolitics, particularly across the Arab world, are proximate causes of the fourth wave, other trends contribute.
They are too complex to treat comprehensively, particularly as the dynamics are so varied, but a few stand out. First, sectarianism has reached unprecedented levels across parts of the Middle East. As states fail, many, not just Sunnis, are turning to other kinds of social organisation — tribe, clan, religion, sect — for protection and representation.
CRS: Al Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology, July 9, - WikiLeaks
The ramifications are still uncertain, but clearly sectarian hatred plays into the hands of IS, which both drives and feeds off it. It also moulds a new generation of jihadists who cut their teeth against Iran-backed forces on Syrian and Iraqi battlefields. It risks deepening Sunni-Shia tension in South Asia, as the Saudis cajole Pakistan, whose Shia population is the second largest in the world and has close ideological links to neighbouring Iran, to join its anti-Iran front in Yemen.
Even where Sunnis have little contact with Shia world — like, for example, the Caucasus — sectarian solidarity helps drive local recruits to IS Crisis Group interviews, North Caucasus fighters, Turkey, January-February Crisis Group interview, Cairo, September Crisis Group interviews, security officials and politicians, Tunis and Rabat, Saudi Arabia has tried to fill the vacuum, but in part by escalating sectarian sentiment: dangerous terrain on which to compete with IS. 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.
In particular, the determination of Maliki Iraq and Assad Syria to consolidate or hold onto power largely provoked the wars that paved the way for IS; Assad deliberately radicalised the opposition as a regime-survival strategy. Gloomy prospects for reform in countries, especially in the Arab world, that have not yet succumbed to violence contribute to anti-establishment sentiment, particularly among young people, and lend credence to jihadist criticism of corrupt local regimes.
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. The precedents of Boko Haram and jihadists in Mali, the former morphing from isolated sect to violent insurgency, the latter seizing towns after lurking for years in the desert, are especially troubling.
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 revolutions has damaged liberal democracy and, particularly dangerously, peaceful political Islam.
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The spread of intolerant strands of Islam — often lumped together under a single label such as Wahhabism or Salafism — has clearly contributed. Practically, this meant eradicating all forms of popular Islam, including Sufism, saint worship and Shiism, and imposing ritual austerity on believers.
See also Roel Meijer ed. Nor do the vast majority of Salafis preach or practice violence. In many places they may prove useful allies against those who do. Polls consistently show much of what they promote resonates broadly: opposition to corrupt local regimes, U. But the strands distinguishing violent jihadists from political Islamists, inspire much less support. Their social vision tends to be too austere. Even for those to whom a caliphate might on some level be alluring, violent transnational revolt or drawing the West into an apocalyptic war to establish it is less so.
Killing Muslim civilians is deeply unpopular without the kind of hatred only sustained conflict generates. Institute of Peace, 17 March That jihadist tactics and ideology look unlikely to resonate widely is partly moot. Revolutions throughout history have relied less on majorities than on a dedicated core able to exploit opportunities in chaos. The reach and resources these movements now command mean that any further breakdown in the Muslim world, from West Africa to South Asia, risks empowering an extremist element, whether jihadists provoke the crisis or, more likely, profit from its violent evolution.
But it does suggest that countering their ideology should be but a small part of the response. In Pakistan, for example, unless radicalism through the brainwashing of youths in hundreds, if not thousands, of jihadist or sectarian madrasas ends, there will be no lack of foot soldiers for their causes. Although the pace at which the jihadist landscape is evolving means any description can offer only a snapshot, the main contours of the fourth wave are clear. It has not replicated elsewhere its dramatic success there, but it is expanding in Libya, the Sinai, Yemen and Afghanistan, winning recruits in other war zones and has coordinated or inspired attacks in the West.
Some affiliates, particularly in Syria and Yemen, are increasingly powerful. Exploiting opportunities opened by local conflicts, they have shifted emphasis from attacking Western interests to capturing territory, targeting local regimes, often obscuring their links to al-Qaeda and, in places, acting with some pragmatism.
Whether over time this will alter the identity of al-Qaeda or any local branch or help it recover ground lost to IS remains unclear. Since , more movements have seized territory, supplanting the state while prompting, in some cases, a shift in relations with populations in areas they control.
In a few weeks, it swept across the north and west of the country, linking up to strongholds in eastern Syria. IS forces destroyed part of the Iraqi-Syrian border, the first time a jihadist group had claimed supranational territorial authority. Tens of thousands of foreigners have joined, many lured by sophisticated online recruitment.
Its enslavement of women generates headlines, too, and serves to recruit young men whose socially conservative background makes access to women difficult. It aims to expand by capturing territory and winning recruits in other collapsed states; dividing societies through terrorist attacks; and, it says, provoking a battle with Western powers that paves the way for a new Islamic order.
Above all, though, IS is a movement rooted in the recent history of Iraq and Syria and with a now predominantly Iraqi leadership. The ouster of Saddam Hussein, a largely secular dictator ruling a country with a limited history of Salafi-jihadism, and the policies adopted afterwards by the U. Power shifted from Sunni urban to Shiite and Kurdish provincial classes. The new political system, which expressly apportioned power by sect and to which Sunnis struggled to adapt, also served their interests poorly.
To build the insurgent movement that became AQI and later IS, Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who arrived in Iraq after fleeing Afghanistan as the Taliban were ousted, could thus tap a rich vein of Sunni discontent, as well as networks of Levantine militants he had forged in South Asia. Drawing on a new generation of jihadist ideologues, he found fertile ground for polarising the country along sectarian lines, an approach based on his deep hatred of Shia but also cold strategic logic, given the reversal of Sunni fortunes.