Fall 2017

Transnational Jihadism & Civil Wars

Author
Martha Crenshaw
Abstract

When rebels also employ terrorism, civil wars can become more intractable. Since the 1980s, jihadism, a form of violent transnational activism, has mobilized civil war rebels, outside entrepreneurs, foreign fighters, and organizers of transnational as well as domestic terrorism. These activities are integral to the jihadist trend, representing overlapping and conjoined strands of the same ideological current, which in turn reflects internal division and dissatisfaction within the Arab world and within Islam. Jihadism, however, is neither unitary nor monolithic. It contains competing power centers and divergent ideological orthodoxies. Different jihadist actors emphasize different priorities and strategies. They disagree, for example, on whether the “near” or the “far” enemy should take precedence. The relationship between jihadist terrorism and civil war is far from uniform or constant. This essay traces the trajectory of this evolution, beginning in the 1980s in the context of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

MARTHA CRENSHAW is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, and Professor of Government Emerita at Wesleyan University. Her recent publications include Countering Terrorism (with Gary LaFree, 2017) and Explaining Terrorism: Causes, Processes, and Consequences (2010).

Transnational violence in the name of jihadist ideology is intermingled with civil conflict in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Jihadists are civil war actors as well as transnational terrorists.1 According to James Fearon, in 1990, only 5 percent of civil conflicts featured jihadist rebels; by 2014, the proportion had increased to 40 percent.2 Since the 1980s, jihadism has incorporated a medley of civil war rebels, outside entrepreneurs, trainers, funders, recruiters of foreign fighters, and organizers of transnational as well as domestic terrorism. Transnational coalitions link distant local conflicts. These activities are integral to the jihadist trend that developed within Islam in the 1980s, representing overlapping and conjoined strands derived from the same general ideological current, which in turn reflects dissatisfaction within the Arab world and within Islam. Jihadists primarily seek power in Muslim-majority countries or areas, and terrorism against the West and neighboring states represents the spillover of that conflict.3 

Jihadism is a strain of violent, radical, and exclusivist Sunni Islamism. The central tenet of the ideology . . .

Endnotes

  • 1Stathis N. Kalyvas, “Jihadi Rebels in Civil War,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018).
  • 2James D. Fearon, “Civil War & the Current International System,” Dædalus 146 (4) (Fall 2017).
  • 3See Anthony H. Cordesman, Rethinking the Threat of Islamic Extremism: The Changes Needed in U.S. Strategy (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2016). Cordesman refers to a “clash within a civilization” as opposed to a “clash between civilizations.” See also Martha Crenshaw, “Why America? The Globalization of Civil War,” Current History 100 (650) (December 2001): 425–432.
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