Why do some extremist groups, such as the one that attacked Egypt’s al-Rawda mosque, thrive in today’s civil wars in ways that moderate groups have not? In 2016, Salafi-jihadist groups accounted for most of the major militant groups in Syria, half of all such groups in Somalia and a third of Iraq’s militant groups.
Most people assume that Salafi-jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State emerged because the “average” Muslim has become more radical over time. But in new research, I show this is not necessarily the case. In times of civil war, moderate Muslims have very good reasons to support extremist groups, even if they don’t believe the radical ideologies behind them.
Citizens must decide which side to back in a civil war
Rebel groups that embrace an extreme ideology, especially those based on religion, solve two problems that every citizen faces during civil war.
The first has to do with whom to support. All else being equal, citizens would prefer to throw their support behind the group that eventually wins the war. Figure out who is likely to win, and you figure out how to shield yourself during highly unstable times — and from postwar reprisals.
The second problem relates to political reform. Citizens also would prefer to back the group that is most likely to institute real reform and not sell out once in office. This is true even if one’s ideology is not perfectly aligned with that group.
The chance of gaining some reform under a more extreme group is often better than no reform at all. This is especially true in countries with a history of bad governance and endemic corruption.
Extremist groups can appeal to zealots and moderate citizens alike
Ideologically extreme rebel groups can solve both of these problems — and in a way that makes these groups attractive to both zealots and non-zealots. True believers join because they genuinely support the goals of the group. More practical individuals join because they believe the group is better organized and more likely to win the war. Here’s why:
1) Faith-based groups have a recruitment advantage. Extremist groups can recruit soldiers more cheaply than moderate groups by offering priceless but deferred compensation — promises of rewards in the afterlife. These groups can also promise to inflict a potentially devastating type of personal punishment to those who resist them: eternal damnation in the case of Christianity, and excommunication in the case of Islam.
Spending less on recruitment lets these groups devote more resources to the war effort, increasing their chances of a military victory. These advantages, in turn, can give them an edge in the war.
2) Extremist groups can attract a higher proportion of zealots. Rebel groups with a cadre of highly committed, dogged fighters not only win battles, but also gain a reputation for disciplined, high-quality fighting units. This reputation then serves to attract more moderate citizens who are drawn to the group because of its dominance on the battlefield.
3) Ideologically extreme rebel groups may promise more far-reaching reform than moderate groups. Leaders of hard-line rebel groups are more likely to reject deals that more moderate leaders would accept, forcing governments to make better offers. Ideologically extreme groups also include true believers who could punish leaders who renege on promises to make real changes.
All of these points help explain why radical Islamist groups have proliferated in Muslim countries experiencing civil war, despite the fact that their goals are more radical than a majority of citizens in those countries. Salafi-jihadist groups in Syria and Somalia distinguished themselves as being particularly disciplined fighters in the field: They won more battles early in the wars, suggesting they could eventually win.
Ideology can also help bolster moderate support for extremist groups
These organizational and military advantages do not mean that ideology is unimportant. Groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State need true believers who are willing to join a movement in its infancy and fight especially hard.
These devotees then allow these groups to win early battles, making them more attractive to moderate citizens trying to figure out whom to support. Radical groups also benefit from choosing an ideology that taps into the desire of the population for a more just political system.
It’s no coincidence that an ideology that emphasized morality and justice emerged in a region that had been dominated by repressive and shockingly bad governments. The rise of these groups does not necessarily indicate an increase in support for Salafi-jihadist ideas as much as it reveals average Sunni Muslims behaving strategically during uncertain and difficult times.
Salafi-jihadist groups can go too far in their extremism and alienate moderate citizens. In an attempt to avoid this, the Islamic State has implemented its radical dictates and punishments inconsistently. When popular support wanes, the leadership often becomes more lenient toward the local population. According to Near Eastern scholar William McCants, “[B]eing so strict was good for impressing puritans, but it wasn’t terribly crowd pleasing.”
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has been grappling with how to dismantle the many Salafi-jihadist groups that have emerged. If these groups have proliferated because Muslim citizens are supporting them for practical reasons — because Salafi-jihadist groups are better able to fight or offer greater reassurances against corruption — then effective counterstrategies have to address the conditions that make support for these groups advantageous.
Eliminate the underlying conditions that make an extreme ideology beneficial to embrace, and you eliminate the incentives for elites and moderates to back it.
Barbara F. Walter is a professor at the University of California San Diego’s School of global Policy and Strategy. She is the author of “The Extremist’s Advantage in Civil Wars” and, with Andrew Kydd, “The Strategies of Terrorism,” and “Sabotaging the Peace: The Politics of Extremist Violence.”