Radical jihadist groups have retained their ideological appeal and remain a potent threat to fragile democracies and potential transitions, according to a new analysis.
“There are reasons to suspect that the al-Qaida vision, so widely believed to be in retreat, may actually be undergoing a transition to a different entity as part of a larger-scale renaissance. If this is the case, the implications could be considerable,” says Paul Rogers, author of Al-Qaida – The Potency of an Idea, a report from the Oxford Research Group.
“Radical Islamist movements do not yet have transcontinental coherence across northern Africa, yet they form part of a phenomenon that is essentially a post-9/11 development and is increasing in intensity and geographical distribution,” the report notes.
“There appear to be many informal linkages, made far easier by modern communications and new social media, and they therefore connect informally with developments across the Middle East and South West Asia. While it is wise to retain a degree of caution, we may be seeing the further evolution of the al-Qaida idea, even as it retrenches in North West Pakistan.”
The analysis will likely resonate with the most senior U.S. military commander for Africa.
General Carter Ham believes al-Qaida in the Maghreb is one of the best-funded and well-armed of the network’s affiliates, but the real challenge is countering al-Qaida’s ideology.
“The military is a – an essential but non-decisive component of countering that ideology,” the AFRICOM commander tells NPR. “It will be more successful when there’s good governance, when there’s economic development, when there’s medical care, when there’s hope and opportunity for people so that they foresee a better future and are not susceptible to a more extremist ideology which presently seems to be gaining traction.”
Jihadist groups are also well-placed to take advantage of the turmoil surrounding the Arab awakening, with aid from illiberal state and non-state actors that apparently outweighs democracy assistance to liberal forces.
In Syria, the ORG report notes:
[R]adical Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Mujaharin have continued to get external support, mainly from benefactors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. They also have links with opposition elements in neighboring Iraq. Together with further numbers of recruits entering Syria, these groups have become much more significant and effective in the fighting against the Assad regime. They combine adequate supplies of weapons with combat experience, some of it gained against US and other coalition forces in Iraq.
There are two significant policy implications that stem from this analysis, Rogers concludes:
- Repression of Islamist groups, whether in Nigeria, other western African states, Kenya or Tanzania, may prove to be deeply counterproductive, if underlying perceptions of marginalisation are not addressed.
- Military intervention in Mali should be avoided. It will inevitably involve western military units and this will enable Islamist propagandists to concentrate more on their message of repression of Islam by outside forces. The old concept of “the far enemy” of the early 2000s could well get a new and unifying lease of life.