Skip to content

Milestones To Militancy – Mubaraz Ahmed, Milo Comerford and Emman El-Badawy

May 2, 2016

M2MThis report analyses the biographies of 100 jihadists from across the Middle East and Africa.

For example, Abu Khalid al-Suri was involved with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in the 1970s and early ’80s when it was repressed by the regime of President Hafez al-Assad. Al-Suri (meaning “the Syrian”) later fought with the Mujahidin against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. After 2011, when the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad began, al-Suri returned to Syria to fight with groups linked to al-Qaeda.

Global jihadists, therefore, radicalised by the experience of the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood members in 1982, are back in their home country for revenge, and to continue their campaign to bring down the rule of the secular Baath Party.

Personal relationships dating as far back as the 1970s “directly influence the brutality we see in Syria, Libya, and Somalia” carried out by Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafi groups.

Prison provides a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists. Of the 100 individuals studied, 65 per cent spent time in prison, while only 25 per cent of those are known to have committed crimes or served sentences before becoming jihadists. In prison cells around the world, “future recruits were exposed to the ideology that later drew them to jihad.” Of the men profiled, about half had non-violent Islamist links before joining the jihadist movement. Given the important part played by personal contact in furthering the jihadist cause, the report recommends that governments should segregate senior members of the movement ansd religiously educate them.

While jihadists exploit to the full the latest developments in technology and social media to advance their cause, personal contact across international borders remains important. Abdullah Azzam (Palestinian), a founder of the Hamas movement in Gaza and later the chief ideologue in al-Qaeda, came into contact with Osama bin Laden (Saudi) and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri (Egyptian), as well as al-Suri and other prominent figures in the movement. Although Azzam was assassinated in Pakistan in 1989, his name is still associated with several groups advocating global jihad.

The “claim to Islamic scholarship of many leading jihadi ideologues” should be challenged because “neither Ayman al-Zawahiri nor Osama bin Laden were trained in Islamic jurisprudence. Despite this, Salafi-jihadi groups regularly claim to be true enforcers of Sharia.”

Blair foundationQuotations:

We selected the militants in our sample based on their eminence within the movement, the quality of data regarding their life, and their geographical spread. Our sample crossed generations, from the early Mujahidin fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s to those fighting in the Syrian civil war. The leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS today can be linked through personal contacts over generations to the forefathers of global jihad.

Allegiances and splits in jihadi ranks, and the groups that form as a result, give us insight into the global jihadi movement. Understanding individual motivations and journeys is key. While such insights tell us about the dynamics at play today, they also help us see where the movement may be headed in the future.

Our analysis has shown that there is no ‘typical’ jihadi. Prominent figures have diverse socio-economic backgrounds, religious upbringings, and a range of educational levels. But the research has yielded striking trends across the sample.

“tomorrow’s jihadi leaders are being shaped on the Syrian battlefield today.”

Too often, the international community has focused on the groups that make up this violent network. But it is individual journeys that have shaped this phenomenon.

The jihadi elite is globalised. Forty-nine per cent of our  sample had most recently been active in a foreign country. Meanwhile, 27 per cent of those operating in their home countries had returned from conflicts abroad, while 24 per cent of the total stayed in their home countries. For global jihadis, it’s who you know.

Personal networks are key to the development of the jihadi movement. Our data links the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS today to the forefathers of the movement through people they met in prison, at university, and on the battlefield.

Conflict hubs draw jihadis. Seventy-six per cent of prominent jihadis have fought in at least one of four major regional conflict zones. These are the Levant (Iraq/Syria), Sahel (Algeria/Mali/Mauritania/Niger), Khorasan (Afghanistan/Pakistan), and East Africa (Somalia/Kenya). Though the movement is global, these hubs serve as gathering points. Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan jihadis have broadly separate networks.

There is little cross-fertilisation between Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan African jihadi networks, despite groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda claiming to be global. However, a number of prominent militants from both continents spent time training and fighting in Afghanistan

The majority of jihadis move from group to group. Fifty-one per cent of our cross-section joined multiple militant groups over the course of their jihadi career. In fact, 49 different groups were represented in our sample of 100 jihadis.

Prominent jihadis are often well educated. Forty-six per cent of our sample went to university. Of these, 57 per cent graduated with STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) degrees. This was double the number of jihadis taking Islamic studies. (Because STEMM subjects are held in high regard and emphasised in the curricula of Middle-eastern and African countries)

Half of jihadis came from non-violent Islamist movements.  Fifty-one per cent of the jihadis profiled had non-violent Islamist links before joining violent movements. One in four had links to the Muslim Brotherhood or affiliated organisations.

Most jihadi careers include time in prison. Sixty-five per cent of our sample of jihadis spent time in prison during their careers, yet only 25 per cent of those are known to have committed crimes or served sentences before becoming jihadis. In prison cells across the globe, future recruits were exposed to the ideology that later drew them to jihad.

Twenty-five per cent of jihadis have links to government. A quarter of our sample had previously worked for the state or security services, or had immediate family members in government service. This demonstrates that it is not just peripheral figures or those ostracised by the state who are vulnerable to extremism.

Analysing contacts and shared networks reveals that rifts and allegiances between prominent jihadis since the 1980s have contributed to the ‘mushrooming’ of the global movement. Exploring the nature of these relationships further, it becomes clear that disputes and partnerships have been motivated by ideology and strategy, but they have always been personal.

Zarqawi’s brutal and ruthless approach is clear from his own words: “The killing of infidels by any method including martyrdom [suicide] operations has been sanctified by many scholars even if it means killing innocent Muslims…The shedding of Muslim blood…is allowed in order to avoid the greater evil of disrupting jihad.”

Analysing contacts and shared networks reveals that rifts and allegiances between prominent jihadis since the 1980s have contributed to the ‘mushrooming’ of the global movement. Exploring the nature of these relationships further, it becomes clear that disputes and partnerships have been motivated by ideology and strategy, but they have always been personal.”

The al-Qaeda chief warned that attacks on Shia would raise questions about the nature of the jihad and would do little to garner popular support: “The sharpness of this questioning increases when the attacks are on one of their mosques, and it increases more when the attacks are on the mausoleum of Imam Ali Bin Abi Talib, may God honour him. My opinion is that this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.”

The existence of major conflicts that attract jihadis from around the world such as Afghanistan in the 1980s or Syria today, creates conditions that can accelerate the radicalisation of individuals to violence. Meanwhile, localised conflicts can draw individuals caught up in the hostilities to violent extremism even if they have never been involved with Islamism or jihadism. This could go some way to explain why there was little evidence of Islamist engagement prior to jihad for individuals in our sample from Nigeria, Libya, and Iraq. This demonstrates that the decision to join a jihadi group is not always the result of a deep-rooted identification with Islamist ideas, but can also be driven by pragmatism, or some other motivation. Our sample suggests that while for some, engagement with jihad started as a steady process, for others it was initiated by a major conflict, either in their country of origin or in one that attracted global attention.

Boko Haram…..is unusual in the current ISIS network; its membership is driven through ethnic affiliation as well as ideological. This would help explain why most of the Nigerian jihadis in our sample are from ethnic Kanuri strongholds.

Structure, discipline, and hierarchy can be seen as integral components for all types of jihadi groups, given that they tend to be close-knit and under-equipped. The way these groups are organised mirrors similar structures seen in government, the military, and Islamist groups.

The report is online here

Return to the home page

Advertisements
Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: