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Dr. Shireen Hunter
CSIS Islam Program

New trends in Islamic Extremism

September 12, 2001

The tragic events of September 11, 2001, point to a disturbing trend in the evolution of Islamic extremism and its regional and international networks.

First, the new brand of extremists is both ideologically less sophisticated, more inflexible and more dogmatic. The core of their ideology is a distorted version of the concept of Jihad (Holy War), hence their identification as Jihadists.

Second, this particular brand of Islamic extremists has its roots in the Afghan conflicts, the Russo-Afghan War and the Afghan Civil War. In addition, many members and/or sympathizers of this brand have been hardened by doing battle elsewhere, including recent conflicts such as Bosnia, Chechnya and in the Tajik Civil War (1992-1997).

This type of engagement in warlike situations has provided the new breed of extremists with military training skills, hitherto unavailable to them, including flying sophisticated aircraft.

Third, the Afghan War and other conflicts, notably those in Bosnia and Chechnya, have given rise to a geographically widespread network of extremists who have common experiences.

Fourth, the "Jihadist" trend has found sympathizers among Muslims who have not had direct involvement in any of the above-mentioned conflicts, including a very small section of the Muslim Diaspora in Europe and the United States. Such sympathizers could potentially be very important links in the chain of extremist networks and their ability to perpetrate terrorists acts.

Policy Implications

Dealing with the new breed of extremists and the network they have created requires new policies on the part of the United States beyond the immediate retaliatory measures against the perpetrators once they have been identified. The following components of a long-term strategy especially stand out:

  1. Building a more cohesive multilateral strategy to deal with international terrorism - especially involving U.S. allies but also other countries who face problems of terrorism;
  2. A more active policy of peace-making in trouble spots, notably Afghanistan;
  3. A more stringent policy vis-à-vis countries who in one form or another help terrorist groups, including countries, such as Pakistan, which do not have an openly hostile attitude towards the United States;
  4. Insistence that countries - including some U.S. allies - who help Diaspora organizations with Jihadist tendencies stop such assistance and dissuade their private citizens and/or organizations from doing so;
  5. Discouraging Muslim and other governments from using extremists groups - even if they are not exactly part of terrorist networks - from the advancement of their immediate goals without concern for long-term consequence. Afghanistan should serve as a sobering example of such an approach.

Memo by Dr. John Hamre
Analysis by Dr. Simon Serfaty
Analysis by Dr. Shireen Hunter
Analysis by Mr. Daniel Benjamin
Analysis by Ms. Michèle Flournoy
Analysis by Dr. Anthony Cordesman

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