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Article

Fighting Salafi-Jihadist Insurgencies: How Much Does Religion Really Matter?

Daniel L. Byman

Abstract:

How do jihadist insurgencies differ from non-jihadist ones? Jihadist insurgents, like all insurgents, seek to control the government, need money and weapons, and thrive where government is weak. Yet their cause—jihad at local, regional, and global levels—gives them instant friends and resources, but also built-in enemies and burdens. Jihadist insurgents often organize, recruit, and fund-raise differently than traditional insurgent groups. The agendas of these militant groups often go against the local residents’ sense of nationalism and anger these communities with their extreme interpretations of Islam. To take advantage of this, the United States can amplify local voices that are best able to discredit these insurgents and press allied regimes to disrupt the mosques, schools, and fund-raising networks that help support them. However, Washington should also recognize that weakening these groups at the local level may make them more likely to embrace international terrorism. Allied efforts to co-opt jihadists may make area societies and governments less favorable to other U.S. policies. Finally, failed democratization—a particularly salient issue given the Arab Spring—risks playing into the jihadist narrative.

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