Winter 2018

Jihadi Rebels in Civil War

Stathis N. Kalyvas
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In this essay, I decouple violent jihadism from both religion and terrorism and propose an alternative, nonexclusive understanding of jihadi groups as rebel groups engaged in civil wars. Arguing that jihadi groups can be profitably approached as the current species of revolutionary insurgents, I offer a comparison with an older species, the Marxist rebels of the Cold War. I point to a few significant similarities and differences between these two types of revolutionary rebels and draw some key implications, stressing the great challenges facing jihadi rebels in civil wars.

STATHIS N. KALYVAS, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2008, is the Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science and Director of the Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence at Yale University. He is the author of Modern Greece: What Everyone Needs to Know (2015) and The Logic of Violence in Civil War (2006).

The global spread of a militant or extremist strain of political Islam, often referred to as “jihadi” Islamism, ranks as one of the most important political developments in the post–Cold War world; it carries implications for our understanding of both the politics of global security and contemporary trends in political violence.1

Political Islam or Islamism, terms denoting the use of Islam's religious precepts for political mobilization, takes many forms, some of which can be violent. Transnational terror is a particular form of political violence in the name of Islam that has attracted obvious attention on account of its spectacular nature. Because violent Islamists have resorted to terrorist tactics, they are often referred to and thought of exclusively as terrorists.2 

However, radical Islamists have also taken an active part in insurgencies: that is, a rebellion or civil war. The persistent confusion around these terms (terrorism, civil war, insurgency, and so on) has fed a tendency to subsume jihadi rebellions under the general umbrella of terrorism, or even to conflate the two as somehow equivalent or interchangeable. ISIS, for example, is considered a terrorist organization at the same time as it is engaged in an insurgency or civil war, in both Syria and Iraq. A parallel, though distinct, trend has been the interpretation of the violence undertaken by jihadi militants as uniformly “religious violence.”3 However, while insurgent jihadi groups are clearly inspired by an ideology rooted in religion, they also act in ways that parallel those of nonreligious insurgent actors; their violence is often influenced by the context in which it unfolds and the influence of religion on it can be variable rather than constant.

In this essay, I decouple violent Islamism from both terrorism and religion. I am not arguing that Islamists cannot engage in terrorism or are not influenced by religion; rather, I contend that too much emphasis on terrorism and religion might conceal two critical aspects of contemporary violent jihadism: its emergence in the context of civil wars and its revolutionary dimension. Thus, I argue that jihadi groups can be approached as a particular species of insurgent actors in civil wars: namely, revolutionary insurgents. From this vantage point, they can be fruitfully compared with another well-known species of revolutionary actors, the Marxist rebels of the Cold War. .  .  .


  • 1Richard H. Shultz, “Global Insurgency Strategy and the Salafi Jihad Movement,” INSS Occasional Paper 66 (Colorado Springs, Colo.: United States Air Force Institute for National Security Studies, 2008); and Seth G. Jones, A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of Al Qa'ida and Other Salafi Jihadists (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2014).
  • 2See, for example, Martha Crenshaw, “Transnational Jihadism & Civil Wars,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017).
  • 3See, for example, Tanisha Fazal, “Religionist Rebels & the Sovereignty of the Divine,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018).