Salafi jihadi movements have become a major staple of modern day insurgencies waged in countries where Muslims are present. Some attribute this prominence to the ideological characteristics of these groups and their transnational revolutionary networks.
Others, however, point more convincingly to the strategic incentives for embracing extremist ideologies. The core assumption is that the adoption of a radical revolutionary identity provides a critical competitive advantage in attracting the most dedicated fighters necessary for a well-funded, robust network that can outcompete rival rebel groups and shape the dynamic and outcomes of conflict. In contexts of political uncertainty, rampant corruption, ethnic and sectarian competition, or shifts in economic distribution, the presence of a credible fighting force that promises physical protection and a transformative social and political project can capture the loyalty, sympathy, or acquiescence, of aggrieved local populations.
In other words, the adoption of Salafi jihadism by insurgent groups is a strategic choice aimed at gaining perceived competitive advantages.
The downside of adopting such extreme revolutionary identity, however, is that when taken to extremes it can provoke popular resentment and eventually mobilization by adversaries. Al-Qaeda experienced this in Iraq in 2008, when its excesses led the Sunni tribes that had once perceived the group as a protector to turn against and defeat it. A decade earlier, the jihadi insurgency in Algeria faced a similar fate, when the brutality of the Armed Islamic Group alienated its sympathizers and supporters.
Jihadis also tend to invite regional and foreign military interventions. The most notable of these is the international coalition that drove the so-called Islamic State out of Iraq and Syria starting in 2014, and the French-led military campaign in Mali in 2013 to remove jihadis from the territories they controlled. Ironically, the factors that contributed to the prominence of jihadi rebels as warriors, protectors, and purveyors of harsh justice eventually led to their defeat.
The major paradox of modern jihadi insurgencies is that Jihadi insurgents continue to thrive even when they have failed to translate their advantages into lasting positive outcomes for their followers. It is tempting to attribute this to Islam’s presumed core teachings and the natural inclination of the most pious for a violent reading of religious texts. However, in several conflict-affected areas, the adoption of jihadism as a tool of war continues to be viewed as a rational choice to violently contest the status quo.
Yes, jihadi groups are composed partly of a highly dedicated core and invest a great deal of time and energy into indoctrinating their recruits. But it is also not rare to see the occasional softening of ideological constraints or tweaks in ideological messages to fit the dictates of particular circumstances. In some contexts, religious ideology intermixes with ethnicity, opportunism, and shady criminal activities. Therefore, it makes more sense to analyze jihadi groups such as the Islamic State as revolutionary actors that happen to be religious.
Whatever the case, Salafi jihadism remains the only available form of radical revolt on the market. To borrow from the French scholar of Islam, Olivier Roy, this “Islamization of radicalism” forces us to rethink why the discontented, marginalized, and repressed have found in jihadi ideology the right path to guide their rebellion against the system. Roy asserts that contemporary jihadis are motivated only by the nihilistic destruction of the status quo. However, it makes more sense to argue that rebels adopt Salafi jihadism because it offers the promise of imagining alternatives to a deeply corrupt and unjust political and social system.
For instance, the regions of the Sahel and the Maghreb demonstrate that in environments pervaded by bad governance and intense inter- and intra-group tensions, individuals and communities tend to embrace any group offering assurances of survival, and when possible profit. In other words, people join groups and alliances based on relative power calculations.
Case studies have documented how in contexts of social and political instability, the temptation for aggrieved individuals and communities to join armed groups that can defend them is high. Surveys of young Fulani people in conflict-affected areas of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso reveal how for an appreciable number of young men jihadis appear as logical allies in environments with myriad armed groups, some of whom are believed to be supported by the abusive security services. More immediately, jihadi groups are appealing because they tend to possess enough fighting power to help Fulanis defend themselves as well as compete over access to natural resources with rival factions, such as the Bambara and Dogon farmers in central Mali and the Daoussakh herders in northwest Niger.
This does not mean that shared identity does not factor into individuals’ considerations. The fact that it does is one reason why jihadi ideology intersects with the ethnic, sectarian, and social status configuration of society. For example, both Ansar al-Dine and the Movement of Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) emphasize radical Islam as the main founding block of their groups, but when it suits their purposes they don’t hesitate to appeal to race and ethnicity to recruit. In the case of MUJAO, the group initially tried to distinguish itself from other armed groups whose sociological makeup is Arab by styling itself as a defender of Black African identity. When the group ended up being a constellation of mostly Arab tribes, it quickly repositioned itself as a capable protector against “untrustworthy ethnic others,” such the Tuareg.
The key is the emphasis on protection and capability, as MUJAO and other extremist groups know that alliances are not primarily driven by shared religious beliefs and community identification. A significant number of jihadi groups base their choice of alliances first and foremost on tactical necessities, driven by opportunism and security considerations, such as fear.