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World Overview

Islamist organizations have experienced significant systemic changes in both strategy and ideological thought over the past several years. In the Islamist heartland stretching from North Africa through the Middle East to South Asia, these shifts have been prompted to a significant degree by four main international events: the “Arab Spring,” the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, and the impending Coalition departure from Afghanistan.

The outbreak of the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia in December 2010 began a chain reaction that opened the door to the political ascendance of Islamist forces throughout the Middle East and North Africa when mass street protests threatened to unseat several entrenched dictatorships. Ironically, it was often secular youth movements – not Islamists– that were at the forefront of the Arab Spring protest movements. However, thanks to decades of severe political repression, Islamist movements often proved the only socio-political force with the organization, mass appeal, and entrenched patronage networks to capitalize during hasty transitions to democracy.

In some of these countries, most prominently in Egypt, these movements succeeded in overthrowing and/or transforming the nature of government, assuming leadership roles in new governing structures. In others, including Jordan and Morocco, Islamist forces gained in both prominence and political power, but continued to work within the parameters of the existing political system.

However, in Egypt and elsewhere, Islamist elements more recently have begun to experience a reversal of fortune. The July 2013 fall of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government of Mohammed Morsi resulted in a diminution of influence for its affiliates elsewhere in the region. This reversal has the potential to be both significant and lasting in nature, and may depress identification with Islamist organizations in the years ahead. The Brotherhood itself now finds itself at an inflection point, with much of its leadership imprisoned and organization neutered by the new military-led government. There is today a significant internal debate over whether to adopt a participatory role in Egyptian politics or to move wholesale into the opposition and pose a serious insurgent challenge to the state. 

The withdrawal of the United States from Iraq in late 2012 has been followed by an uptick in violence and Islamist activity in the former Ba’athist state. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has attempted to combat the influence of both Shi’a militias and Sunni insurgents. However, the security situation in Iraq has steadily deteriorated, while the influence of al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran have steadily risen, to the point that Western officials now assess instability in the country to be at the same level as in the mid-2000s. As important has been the perception in the region that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq represents part of a larger American retraction from the region.

Significant, and at least somewhat related, is the current conflict in Syria. Since March of 2011, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has waged a violent, bloody civil war against his own people. Syria’s opposition remains fragmented and incredibly diverse, but has steadily assumed an increasingly Islamist character with the intrusion of al-Qaeda and affiliated jihadists onto the Syrian battlefield. Significantly, the Syrian “front” appears to have become a focal point for global jihad, drawing militants from North Africa, Europe, and elsewhere into the fighting. These trends, and the overall reluctance of the West to assume an active role in the war, has helped to overshadow the conflict as a whole—depressing a deeper understanding of, and sympathy for—the country’s various opposition political parties. Recent developments (chief among them a Russian proposal for the dismantlement of Syrian chemical weapons) appear to have ensured the survival of the Assad regime, at least for the near future. A perpetuation of the conflict, and the participation of Islamist forces in it, is therefore likely as well, with radical Islamist forces already carving out independent fiefdoms in ungoverned spaces and imposing sharia law.

The spillover effects of the war have had profound consequences for Syria’s neighbors, most directly Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. All three countries have, in different ways, contributed to conflict: Sunni jihadists opposed to the Assad regime and linked to al-Qaeda have poured into Syria from Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. So too have Shi’ite militias working to protect the Assad regime, as Iranian proxies in both Lebanon and Iraq have joined the fighting on behalf of the Syrian army.

Finally, U.S. plans to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014 represent a major upcoming milestone—one that will have a profound impact on Islamist activities and regional security in South and Central Asia. Regional governments (including the “stans” of Central Asia) have made progress in their efforts to reduce the influence and appeal of Islamist organizations in recent years. However, they are united in the concern that a post-Coalition Afghanistan will revert to its traditional role as a safe haven for global jihadism—and that the Taliban, now returning to prominence there, will exert a destabilizing influence throughout the region following the departure of Western forces. These concerns are shared in Russia, as well as in India, which continues to confront significant Islamist-related violence (particularly in the disputed region of Kashmir).

In neighboring Pakistan, a violent campaign by the Pakistani Taliban and affiliated militants continues to take a heavy toll on the state and its people. Despite the prospect of peace talks with the government, the Pakistani Taliban have engaged in numerous targeted assassinations, suicide bombings, and attacks on government buildings in recent years. Meanwhile, the Pakistani state continues to differentiate between “bad” Islamist militants like the Pakistani Taliban and “good” Islamist militants like the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar e Taiba, and various sectarian militias. The latter have accelerated a bloody campaign against Pakistan’s Shi’ites, Ahmadis, and other sects considered by their fundamentalist creed to be heretical. 

Outside of the core Islamist heartland, Islamist groups and ideologies have found less success. In Southeast Asia, where Muslim populations have traditionally favored more personal, mystical, and cultural variations of Islam, radical ideologies continue to face stiff resistance. That has not, however, prevented small but potent Islamist forces from waging terrorist or separatist campaigns in select countries. In many of them, such as Thailand and the Philippines, opposition forces with ethnic, political, or separatist grievances have increasingly assumed Islamist overtones or allied themselves with Islamist movements. China continues to face low-level violence from Uighur separatists operating in Xinjiang, but forces continue to make progress in select countries, as in Indonesia where they have carved out small outposts where sharia law rules the land.

In Europe, halting progress has been made by some countries (such as the UK) in formulating a countervailing strategy intended to identify and defuse Islamist identification. In the main, however, countries on the Continent remain challenged by large-scale migration from the Middle East and North Africa—and the subsequent radicalization of immigrant populations due to active proselytization by Islamist groups and endemic failures to adequately assimilate and integrate those arriving communities. This is particularly true in Russia, which now faces a growing and radicalizing Muslim underclass that increasingly identifies with Islamist sentiments rather than the Russian state. 

In Africa, al Shabaab, the militant jihadi movement that nearly controlled all of Somalia in the late 2000s, has struggled to sustain public support and suffered from factional infighting, losing ground in and around the Somali capital of Mogadishu. However, it is still capable of launching terrorist attacks inside Somalia and in neighboring Ethiopia, where militants killed 67 in a terrorist massacre in a Nairobi mall in September. In Mali, militant Islamist forces seized control of nearly all of the country’s north in 2012, prompting an international intervention by France in January 2013 that successfully reversed many of the militant’s gains.

In South America, recent years have seen a strengthening of efforts by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its affiliated groups to establish a base of operations, often aided and abetted in this regard by sympathetic regional governments aligned with the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). The 2013 death of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has at least temporarily removed ideological leadership for this bloc and reduced its dynamism, but the regional presence and activities of Iran and its proxies—as well as groups such as al-Qaeda—remains an ongoing concern.