JIHAD: A Double-Edged Sword?



What causes Islamist terrorism?

Is it fabricated? Right-wing terrorism is more prevalent in the US than jihadism. In the ME, Islamic jihadism is the main motive. But is it fueled by money, or genuine grievance?

Large civilian populations in the Middle East and Central Asia flirt with the conspiracy theories that suggest US financing for Islamic militants to destabilize the region; and furthermore, Israeli Mossad complicity. They can’t be blamed – much of the conspiracies proved historically true, such as the 1952 coup against democratically elected PM Mossadegh of Iran (Kinzer 52).

Is there a difference between violent Jihad and military resistance? Can we really lump al Qaeda, ISIS and Hezbollah into the same category? Are their motives the same?

Or is genuinely result of occupation?

There are arbitrary cases (lone-wolves), but without US presence, and the lost of Palestinian territory, would Islamic terrorism exist? Those who think it is religiously or ideologically motivated, might argue yes. I don’t think so, given that terrorism increased sharply, and unprecedentedly during US invasions in 2003 and so forth (Moghadam 40).

Below is a further analysis of Islamic jihad and political violence in the Islamic and Arab worlds.

Research & Review 

Islamic terrorism is a relatively new phenomenon. It was not until the early start of the millennium in which large swaths of Islamic terrorist attacks occurred (Moghadam 70). Furthermore, religion has often been a force against violence within the most fundamentalist strains of Islam: Salafism. For this reason, it a seeming relationship between the events surrounding the early second millennium, that is, the 9/11 attacks and ensuing invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the surge of violent jihad (Moghadam 71).

One of the first themes offered in the literature is the important divide between Islamic jihadi groups, primarily in the Salafi mold. The literature presents a Salafi explanation for indiscriminate attacks that result in civilian deaths. Faulting the enemy for “mixing among them”, which is taken from hadiths. This echoes the justification of modern warfare, particularly the state of Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2014, which is argued to have been executed in disproportionate force. Israeli leaders claim civilian casualties are the fault of violent terrorists who also, “mix among them” – them being civilian Palestinians. This raises further doubt regarding the legitimacy and reasoning of hadiths, particularly in their application to contemporary times. That these authorities are not drawn of the Qur’an, raises skepticism about the legitimacy of rejecting flexibility within interpretations of Islam. It underscores the need for openness for the sake of preserving Islam in the modern world. Furthermore, the literature offers numerous examples of forgeries and discrepancies in the hadith collections (Wiktorowicz 218). Not to mention, it would almost seem contradictory that members of the Muslim community would openly identify with practices of the state of Israel, which often uses the same justification against Palestinians, most of whom, are Muslim.

Furthermore, the literature suggests that Salafi movement advocates for offensive, militaristic means of spreading Islam, based on the Salafi interpretation of hadiths, the Sunnah, and the Qur’an, but contradictory accounts from these sources offer a challenge to this perspective by portraying Islam as practiced by the Prophet himself as peaceful, rhetorical, and defensive (Wiktorowicz 216)..

With regards to the differences between Salafis, the literature does well to cover the spectrum of opinions and interpretations. It carefully dissects the differences as well as the similarities within the Salafi camp. An example is the hadith commonly invoked to justify indiscriminate offensives. The literature furthermore emphasizes two “dangerous” characteristics of Salafism that are made evident, which is firstly, its inherent self-righteous “certitude”, or dogma rather; and secondly, its lack of legitimacy and cohesion within its sources of authority, particularly in the validity of hadiths (often forged), accounts of the Prophet, and interpretations of the Qur’an. The emphasis on objectivity within Salafism underlines the almost intrinsic tensions within Islam, and perhaps all religions, between preservation (tradition), tolerance (moderation) and modernization (development). 

Some of the research methods within the literature are historical case studies of Salafism, with sources being more anecdotal. An empirical study, perhaps through survey data, could help gauge modern Salafi movements and trends, one that is comprehensive and does not focus solely on suicide attacks. This could provide a more insightful analysis of place of Salafism today, and whether or not the movement has grown more or less unified. Furthermore, surveys from non-Salafi movements could help gauge opinions within the larger ummah towards Salafism, and whether its legitimacy has gained or suffered. Also, gathering information from databases like the Global Terrorism Index or the Political Stability Index, provided by the Institute for Economics and Peace, might help gauge the trend of violence in Salafism, and whether or not the purists are gaining or losing ground in the resistance towards violence.

The differences between Salafis is mainly its application to the temporal world, and not in religious beliefs. The lack of empirics to support this claim make it difficult to assess. It is however difficult to collect these forms of data from regions where Salafism is prevalent, for reasons of security and instability. But the Salafis are split on their interpretation of apostasy, which highlights the religious division. Differences within the Islamic community in interpretation of scripture and tradition run deep. That religious purism is often a mechanism for suppressing violent incursions, is perhaps another reason for growing tensions between the Islamic community, and the political leaders therein. The inconsistencies in practice, as well as the contradictory understandings of Islamic duty, whether the source if Qur’anic or from hadiths, is perhaps evidence of emerging contentions in interpreting Islam, not only in its applicability, but in its definition of submission.

If indeed the primary differences among Salafis is in the application of their creed to modern times, then perhaps it is wiser for US foreign policy to focus less on the religious creeds since they often challenge violent jihad, and more on applicability, thereby reducing the security threats. Since much of the literature was conducted before the rise of the Islamic State, it would appear that the claim of distinctions between violent and non-violent Salafis has less legitimacy, considering the large influx of Salafi fighters in both Iraq and Syria since 2011.

Salafism is the primary ideological motive for Islamic terrorism. The fact that suicide attacks have been at a low constant until the early 2000s, where they rose beyond dramatically even to unprecedented levels, suggests a connection between growing anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East, and terrorism (Moghadam 48).

The motivations of Islamic jidahist movements are complex. That jihadists prefer foreign fighting, and are seemingly more effective as a result, underscores this notion. Who are the jihadists targeting and why?

The data gathered to measure the differences in brutality and effectiveness between domestic terrorists and foreign fighters is rather vague, and the method is questionable, which reflects the difficulty in retrieving data on this particular issue (Hegghammer 13). A variety of variables can influence a terrorist’s propensity towards domestic or international terrorism. The motives can range from fearing less reprisals abroad due to less political development; but it can also be because the targets of foreign fighters are often authoritarian governments, which exist outside the West.


The literature on terrorism is vast by no means. Increased terrorism over the past two decades however has raised interest in the field. While research has been offered, increased interest suggests a glimmer of hope in the thickening of the literature, and the improvement of research methods, however deteriorating circumstances in areas where terrorists are most active have only narrowed these hopes. The primary goal of most research in this field is to analyze the motives of Islamic jihadism, how they are expressed, and their consequence. While the literature often suggests little theological divergence, increased violence and radicalization signifies the potential rise more contention in the Islamic community over both the applicability of Islam but also of its core tenants and traditions, often invoked as justifications for violence or decadence.

Because the Middle East and other regions of the world where Islam is prominent are insecure, it limits the scope of research in this area. Furthermore, the cultural and historical intricacies of these regions highlight the need for more qualitative research that more recognizes the complexity of Islamic civilization. Survey research would help gauge public opinion on a more intimate level. From a quantitative angle, perhaps a study measuring the differences in motives for violent jihadism, or rather, a study of the frequency of violent jihadism across different states with different customs, might help paint a more vivid picture of the Islamic jihadism as it exists today, and its unprecedented rise.

That violent jihadism has increased dramatically following the post 9/11 US interventions in the Middle East is reminiscent of the guerilla tactics employed by communist forces resisting US interventionism in the Cold War, particular during the Vietnam War (Atran et. al). To restate a common theme in the literature, realizing the relentlessness of the jihadist cause might shift US focus from containing Islamism to reducing interventionism. But how could US interventionism be measured in relation to the rise of violent jihadism? Perhaps a measure between the level of foreign direct investment by the US in various predominantly Islamic countries and the frequency of terrorist attacks might be one method of gauging the relationship. Various perspectives have been offered on the causes of violent jihadism in the world. Some emphasize the violent nature of Islamic scripture, which is contested by the literature on purist Salafis as well as the relatively stable societies of Indonesia and Malaysia. Others point to the prevalence of natural resource wealth, or the oil curse as it is called. And finally, certain research has focused on the relationship between authoritarianism and violence. But there are many cases where non-oil rich states exhibit high rates of violent jihad, such as Uzbekistan (Kleveman). Furthermore, countries with lower rates of authoritarianism like Tunisia and Lebanon exhibit the highest rates of terrorism in the entire Middle East. Little research has been done on the relationship between foreign interventionism and violent jihad. Judging by the data offered in the literature, such research might prove critical in assessing the place of Islamist jihad in today’s world.


Assaf Moghadam, “Motives for Martyrdom: Al-Qaida, Salafi Jihad, and the Spread of Suicide Attacks,” International Security 33 (2009): 46-78.

Scott Atran, Hammad Sheikh, and Angel Gomez, “Devoted actors sacrifice for close comrades and sacred cause,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (2014): 17702- 17703.

Kinzer S. “All the Shah’s men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror”. John Wiley & Sons; 2003.

Kleveman, Lutz. “The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia”. Grove Press (2004).

Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” American Political Science Review 107 (2013): 1-15.

Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi movement,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29 (2006): 207-239.


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