Almanac 2021 Preface
Welcome to the 2021 edition of the American Foreign Policy Council’s World Almanac of Islamism.
The Almanac represents a unique scholarly compilation designed to examine the current state of the political phenomenon of Islamism worldwide. It is intended to provide a snapshot of contemporary Islamism, as well as of the movements and trends it inspires and the governments it impacts. For the purposes of this collection, the term Islamist is used to describe movements, groups, and individuals that harness religious values and ideals in the service of a political agenda aimed at spreading or imposing Islamic law locally, regionally, or internationally. However, while it showcases a broad spectrum of Islamist ideology, the Almanac does not—and is not meant to—provide a comprehensive chronicle of the full range of political thought prevalent in the Muslim World.
The past year has witnessed significant shifts in Islamist political currents worldwide. A major driver of these changes was the collapse, in the Spring of 2019, of the territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria of the Islamic State (ISIS) at the hands of the United States and the Global Coalition. That seminal event precipitated a significant shift in the tactics, operations and activities of the group and its ideological fellow travelers—as well as a change in their respective areas of operation, as both ISIS and its assorted affiliates shift to new and more hospitable global locales.
In the Middle East, the collapse of ISIS territorial control has had a number of concrete effects. It has significantly strengthened the hand of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who is now once again definitively in control of that country. Nevertheless, the Assad regime remains beset by insurgent forces, including Islamist ones, and is deeply dependent on both Russian and Iranian military support for internal stability. Notably, the retraction of ISIS has also created a power vacuum in Syria that external forces—including Russia and Iran, as well as neighboring Turkey—are attempting to fill, laying the groundwork for potential future geopolitical and sectarian conflict.
Significant, too, has been the impact of the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” against the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism: Iran. This approach—entailing a U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the imposition of sweeping economic penalties on the Iranian regime—was formally enacted in May of 2018. Since that time, Iran’s economic fortunes have deteriorated significantly, as has its ability to project power regionally. The corollary effects can be seen in a reduction of Iranian sponsorship of (though not of Iranian control over) organizations such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Notwithstanding the effects of “maximum pressure,” however, the Iranian regime remains deeply involved in attempting to influence the internal affairs of regional states such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen through its support of Islamist proxy forces in those places.
Finally, official policy toward Islamist currents on the part of regional governments appears to be hardening. This is not only the case in Egypt, where the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has pursued a broad campaign to isolate and marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood since taking power in 2013. It is also evident in places like Jordan, whose top court formally outlawed the Brotherhood in July 2020, and in the Persian Gulf, where regional governments are taking an increasingly assertive tack against the Brotherhood (as well as its regional patron, Qatar).
But if Islamist movements appear increasingly on the back foot in the Middle East, a very different situation prevails in Africa. The collapse of the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria has driven a surge of Islamist activity and religiously-motivated violence throughout the continent. Organizations such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s al-Shabaab remain active and potent threats to regional stability, while Mali and the Lake Chad region continued to be plagued by religiously-driven violence. Additionally, new hotspots of extremist activity—such as Mozambique and Ethiopia—signal an alarming expansion of Islamist activism, one with which local governments and, increasingly, the United States will be forced to contend in the years ahead.
In Europe, the subject of Middle Eastern and African migration remains a topic of considerable controversy, as well as an animating factor in the politics of a number of nations. At the same time, occasional attacks by ISIS-inspired elements throughout the continent demonstrate the continued appeal of the group’s radical ideology, in spite of the destruction of its physical caliphate. They also highlight the ongoing vulnerability of the Eurozone to terrorist penetration, as well as its ongoing attractiveness as a target for such actors.
In years past, the countries of Eurasia served as a major source of Islamist mobilization. This trend, however, appears to have become more muted in tandem with increasing political interaction among, and cooperation within, with the five nations of Central Asia. For these nations, however, the question of nearby Afghanistan remains an overriding one—and the Trump administration’s plans to withdraw forces from the country pursuant to its February 2020 truce with the Taliban has fostered worries over a potential resurgence of Islamist influence there and in the broader region. Islamism also appears on the wane in the Russian Federation, thanks to assertive (and repressive) counterterrorism measures taken by the government of Vladimir Putin in recent years. However, Islamist currents remain prevalent in the country’s restive Caucasus republics, as well as—to a lesser extent—in its Volga region.
Islamism continues to impact Asia as well. Indonesia remains a notable example of Islamic tolerance, thanks in large part to the extensive political and societal influence exerted by the country’s mass Muslim movements. However, other parts of the region, including Malaysia and the Philippines, have a more fraught relationship with Islamism. Islamism also finds expression in the long-simmering political and territorial conflict between regional rivals India and Pakistan, which has grown more acute over the past year. And in China, the PRC’s broad-based campaign of repression against the country’s Uyghur Muslim minority continues apace, as yet without a meaningful response from the international community.
Finally, the advent of the global coronavirus crisis has added a further layer of complexity to the evolving Islamist phenomenon in the Muslim World. In the early months of the pandemic, government responses (including national lockdowns, business closures and widespread social distancing measures) helped diminish the mobility of local populations, and made it more difficult for Islamist actors to organize and mobilize. Over the longer term, however, the impact of the virus on social cohesion and economic stability in a number of vulnerable nations has the very real potential to provide Islamist ideology with added appeal, and to give Islamist actors new avenues for recruitment and action.
By its nature, the Almanac represents a massive intellectual endeavor and a formidable administrative challenge. Its completion was made possible through the diligent work of a team of dedicated researchers, including Margot Van Loon, Cody Retherford, Ritika Bhat, Doug Dubrowski, Rachel Schaer, Ella Gagne, Isaac Schlager, Rebecca Van Burken, Delaney Amonino, Tilly Moross, Ethan Pann, Brendan Burtker, Lauren Szwarc, Jessie Kaplan, and Noah Garber. Each of them deserves our heartfelt thanks.
Ilan Berman, Executive Editor
Jacob McCarty, Managing Editor