Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

The Ideological Hybridization of Jihadi Groups

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Director of Terrorism Research, Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), Oslo

There is broad consensus in the analytical literature on Islamism on the need to disaggregate the various sub-currents of Islamist ideology. And while there is considerable disagreement among observers about what constitutes the right typology for differentiating between these sub-currents, there is general agreement on a handful of key analytical distinctions. Of these, perhaps the most common is the so-called “near enemy-far enemy” divide, which is often used to distinguish between groups that target primarily local Muslim regimes, and groups that focus on Western targets.1

And yet, as anyone who has followed militant Islamism closely in recent years will testify, the distinction between near enemy and far enemy groups seems less and less relevant. Many jihadist groups are displaying ambiguous rhetoric and behavior with regard to who they consider as their main enemy. In the past five years, “far enemy groups” such as al-Qaeda Central2 have adopted a more hostile and explicitly takfiri rhetoric toward Muslim regimes. Conversely, “near enemy” activists such as the militants in Algeria have become more anti-Western in both words and deeds. A process of ideological hybridization has occurred, with the result that the enemy hierarchies of many jihadist groups are becoming more unclear or heterogeneous than they used to be.3

Why is this process of ideological hybridization occurring? The central argument of this paper is that this hybridization is a result of strain and a sign of weakness. When enemy hierarchies become unclear, undefined, or heterogeneous, then this is most often a sign of increasing radicalization and political isolation. Groups often adopt ambiguous enemy hierarchies because they are experiencing recruitment problems; by addressing a wider range of grievances they hope to widen their prospective recruitment base. Groups can also afford to have more enemies because they have fewer allies. For the jihadists, there are short-term advantages to having unclear enemy hierarchies, but the long-term liabilities are probably more serious.

Ideal Typologies

The term “hybrid” presupposes the existence of discrete ideal types. When we speak of ideological hybridization, we are assuming there was a time when ideologies were not hybridized. What were these ideal type ideologies? More importantly, did they ever exist in “pure” form?

Let us start by clarifying what we mean by “ideology” in this context. The term ideology has been used to describe belief-systems of very different sizes, from broad intellectual traditions to specific doctrines. In this article, ideology is defined narrowly as a set of principles that guides the political behavior of a subset of militant Islamist groups. A shorter term would be “rationale for Islamist violence.”

Implicit in this ad-hoc definition is the observation that militant Islamists fight for different things and in different ways. Islamist groups may share a number of long-term aims and political inclinations, but they differ in their short-term and mid-term priorities. This is a view shared by the vast majority of scholars since the early 1980s, when people realized that monolithic notions of Islamism did not help understand the ever more varied patterns of Islamist behavior observed on the ground. Islamism needed to be disaggregated; the question was how. Over the years, scholars have proposed a wide range of typologies to capture the differences between Islamist groups, without reaching a consensus. Broadly speaking there are two different approaches to disaggregating radical Islamism. The first looks for differences in theological orientation, the second for differences in political preferences.

A common theology-based distinction distinguishes between Ikhwanism and salafism, the former being associated with the political pragmatism of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and the latter with the puritanism and literalism of the Wahhabi religious tradition in Saudi Arabia. At the radical end of the spectrum, a related distinction is often drawn between Qutbism and jihadi-salafism, the latter representing a socially more conservative, doctrinally more rigid and politically less compromising ideology than the former.4

In this article I will not consider theology-based typologies since the categories they generate are notoriously difficult to apply systematically to the analysis of Islamist political behaviour.5 For example, while the label jihadi salafi has been applied to many contemporary militant groups, no clear definition of jihadi salafism has thus far been articulated, and few scholars have attempted to specify exactly which groups are jihadi salafi and which are not. Moreover, the universe of groups that have been called jihadi salafi is so large and politically heterogeneous that the label arguably blurs more distinctions than it elucidates. As employed in the current literature, the label jihadi salafi covers almost the entire landscape of militant Islamist groups, except irredentist ones such as Hamas.

Partly to address these problems, scholars have articulated typologies that focus on more easily observable political and operational preferences, such as declared enemy hierarchies, or declared short-term objectives and targeting patterns.6 The most basic such distinction is the abovementioned ‘near enemy-far enemy’ divide.7 Another well-known typology distinguishes between irredentist or nationalist groups such as Hamas, revolutionary groups such as Algeria’s GIA, and global jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda.8 A slightly more elaborate but also more contested typology distinguishes between five types of militant Islamism: revolutionary, irredentist, pan-Islamist, vigilantist and sectarian.9 For the sake of simplicity, this paper focuses primarily on the near enemy - far enemy dichotomy, although I will also briefly test the hybridization hypothesis on the more elaborate typologies.

The near enemy-far enemy dichotomy is shorthand for an analytical distinction which is slightly different from the one evoked by Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj in the 1981 pamphlet the Forgotten Obligation (where the terms “near enemy” and “far enemy” first appeared in writing).10 The original terms are insufficient because they suggest that the difference is merely one of targeting, and because the notion of the far enemy is ambiguous (potentially referring to both the US and Israel) and may thus lead to the inclusion of Hamas as a far-enemy group. In the following, I shall refer instead to the distinction between revolutionary and global jihadist ideologies. Revolutionary Islamism advocates military confrontation with Muslim regimes in order to topple them and capture the state. Global jihadism promotes military confrontation with the United States and her allies, to avenge and deter non-Muslim oppression of Muslims.

These ideologies can be identified through observation of group actions and discourse. Revolutionary violence is directed against representatives and symbols of Muslim regimes, such as security forces and police stations, ministers and ministries, etc. Global jihadist violence is directed at representatives or symbols of non-Muslim oppression of Muslims, such as Western embassies, military bases, and tourists in the Muslim world, or the home capitals of the nations considered the most hostile to Muslims. Revolutionary discourse stresses the perceived or actual injustices of the Muslim ruler and tends to list a range of grievances including secular legislation, corruption, repression, and treason to the cause of Islam and the Muslim Nation. Global jihadist discourse emphasizes the suffering of Muslims at the hands of non-Muslims, and is recognizable by long enumerations of occupations, alleged massacres, prisoner humiliation and blasphemy by non-Muslims against Muslims.

Of course in practice, a group’s behavior and rhetoric will rarely be exclusively revolutionary or global jihadist, but rather a mixture of the two (in addition to other ideological influences, such as sectarianism). However, the relative influence of a given type of ideology varies between groups and may vary within one group over time. To measure the influence of a given ideology on a given group in a given period, we have two indicators. The first is quantifiable, namely the proportion of a group’s total number of premeditated attacks that can be seen as revolutionary (or global jihadist) violence. The second is the space and prominence given to revolutionary (or global jihadist) discursive themes in a group’s ideological statements. These indicators allow us to speak of groups displaying more or less revolutionary (or global jihadist) features.

A central part of the argument presented here is that until the early 2000s, individual militant Islamist groups displayed more homogenous behavioral and discursive features and thus had clearer enemy hierarchies than do current groups. In short, the distinction between revolutionary and global jihadist groups used to be clearer than it is today.

An Ideal Past?

To be sure, militant Islamists have always been hostile both to Muslim rulers and to the West. Overlapping motivations and ideological flexibility have been permanent features of Islamist activism.11 Early Islamist revolutionaries in Egypt, for example, were virtually always anti-American.12 Algerian jihadists in the 1990s were equally hostile to the French.13 In the 1990s, both Egyptian and Algerian militants attacked Western targets while they simultaneously confronted their respective regimes.14 Conversely, global jihadists were always hostile to regimes. Ayman al-Zawahiri spent thirty years fighting the Egyptian regime before merging his organization with al-Qaeda.15 Osama bin Laden funded attacks on South Yemen communists in the early 1990s, focused most of his statements in the early 1990s on criticizing the Saudi royal family, and said disparaging things about Arab rulers throughout the 1990s.16

Moreover, it might be argued that ideal typologies have been constructed entirely by Western analysts, and that at best, these categories of analysis only capture fleeting tactical variations within jihadism, which exist along a relatively fluid ideological and operational continuum. For example, al-Qaeda’s attack-America-first strategy could be seen merely as a short term means to a longer-term revolutionary aim of toppling Muslim regimes. In the writings of Ayman al-Zawahiri and other jihadi strategists, attacking America helps undermine regimes, because the latter are dependent on US support for their survival.17 To some extent, therefore, one might argue that global jihadists are actually revolutionaries in disguise.

However, I am not arguing that such ideal typologies were crystal clear in the past, only that they were relatively more clear than today. By the measures indicated above namely, an organization’s targeting patterns and dominant discursive themes there is little doubt that in the 1990s and early 2000s, jihadi groups were displaying more observably consistent behavior and rhetoric pertaining to enemy hierarchies than they have been doing in recent years.

This trend toward hybridization, and toward the breakdown of ideal typologies, is most obvious when we look at jihadist targeting patterns. For a start, Sunni Islamists virtually never attacked Western targets before the 1990s.18 In fact, between the late 1940s and the early 1980s, the vast majority of known instances of Sunni Islamist violence were directed against Muslim regime targets.19 In the 1980s, groups emerged that attacked non-Muslim non-Western targets, but these groups conducted operations in the context of local struggles of national liberation (notably in Palestine and Afghanistan) or in the context of local Muslim-Christian conflicts (for example, in Egypt). Individuals, to be sure, might have chosen over the course of their jihadist careers to engage in more than one type of jihadist activity. For example, many revolutionaries from the Middle East famously traveled to and fought for the liberation of Afghanistan. But organizations as a whole stuck to one targeting pattern.20 Ambiguous targeting was relatively rare.

Of course, given that global jihadi organizations such as al-Qaeda Central did not emerge until the early 1990s, the most relevant period for our analytical purposes ranges from the early 1990s to the early 2000s. In this period, jihadism came to reflect only slightly more ambiguous or heterogeneous targeting. Algerian and Egyptian militants, for instance, attacked westerners throughout the 1990s, but the number of such attacks was minuscule compared to the number of attacks perpetrated by these same militants against regime targets. In fact, while good data on violent incidents in 1990s Algeria and Egypt is hard to come by, a mere glance at the available datasets and chronologies is enough to confirm that anti-regime attacks outnumbered anti-western attacks by several orders of magnitude.21 Conversely, from the time al-Qaeda embraced the global jihad doctrine (internally around 1993, publicly in 1996), the organization focused virtually all its attacks against Western targets. While the total number of al-Qaeda operations during this period was much smaller than that of the Algerian and Egyptian groups the organization’s targeting pattern remained consistent and clear.

The same relatively homogenous targeting behavior may also be observed among groups that were neither revolutionary nor global jihadist. For instance, nationalist Islamist groups in Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya and elsewhere attacked almost exclusively their respective local non-Muslim enemies or occupiers.22 Sectarian Sunni groups in 1990s Pakistan also consistently targeted Shiites.23

The discourses and ideologies of jihadist groups during the 1990s similarly tended to remain consistent and clearly focused. While revolutionary groups did express anti-Western views, and global jihadists anti-regime views, this hostility was expressed with considerably less frequency and intensity than their hostility toward their respective principal enemies. While difficult to measure quantitatively, this general phenomenon may be observed in several ways.

First, many groups in the 1990s and early 2000s explicitly ranked their targets according to a hierarchy of enemies; these rankings accorded with their primary ideological orientation as revolutionary, nationalist, or global jihadist groups.24 Second, the number of texts or pronouncements issued by a group’s ideologues about that group’s primary declared enemy was much larger than the number of pronouncements denouncing the organization’s secondary enemies.25 Third, an organization’s criticism of its secondary enemies was less harsh than criticism it reserved for its primary enemies. For example, Osama bin Laden may have criticized the Saudi regime throughout the 1990s, but only from the mid-1990s did he begin to call for the monarchy’s overthrow and rarely, if ever, did he explicitly declare the Saudi royal family apostates or infidels. (This is not to say that he did not view the Saudi monarchy as infidels, only that there was little explicitly takfiri rhetoric in his public statements.) Fourth, and finally, global jihadist hostility toward Muslim regimes was not rationalized in quite the same way that revolutionary jihadists discussed and plotted their own struggle against regimes and vice versa. For instance, bin Laden’s primary accusation against the Saudi regime was one of treason, not of repression. While he did claim the monarchy was guilty of corruption and repression, his principal problem with the regime was the latter’s subservience to the United States.26 Conversely, Algerian and Egyptian Islamist revolutionaries rationalized their attacks against westerners in the 1990s with reference to the struggle against the regimes they were fighting. French targets were singled out for attack because France supported the Algerian generals politically, and tourists were attacked in Egypt because they helped the regime economically.27

Taken as a whole, then, the distinction between revolutionary and global jihadist ideologies, while never quite absolute, was indeed operational in the world of pre-2003 Islamist militancy, and this was expressed in important and concrete ways. The majority of groups displayed relatively consistent behavior and discourse regarding enemy hierarchies over periods of several years. In other words, there was indeed a time when the universe of jihadi ideology was less complicated. But things have changed in the past five years.


Before going into empirical analysis, it will be useful to specify exactly what we mean by hybridization. The term “hybrid ideology” is relatively uncommon in the scholarly literature. Where it does appear, it is used to describe a wide range of different phenomena, from mixtures of very distinct cultural paradigms and ideological systems (tradition and modernity, for instance, or Islam and socialism) to amalgams of specific undercurrents of Islamism (such as Ikhwanism and Wahhabism.)28 The phenomenon I seek to describe is even more specific--namely, the mixing of ideal rationales for violence and the attendant blending of their associated enemy hierarchies.29

An ideologically hybridized group is one whose behavior and ideological discourse display influences of more than one type of ideal rationale in near equal measure. Put simply, they are groups that defy ideological classification--for example, as global jihadist or as revolutionary jihadist groups, simply--because their enemy hierarchies are unclear. Groups may be more or less hybridized; the more equal the influences of the various rationales, the more hybridized the groups. Ideological hybridization, in this sense, is not the same as organizational collaboration or affiliation. For instance, the Uighur “Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement” rubs shoulders with al-Qaeda Central in the Pakistani tribal areas, but the movement cannot be considered ideologically hybridized so long as most of its physical and verbal attacks are aimed at China.

Modern jihadist organizations have always been somewhat ideologically hybridized. What is unique about the contemporary era of jihadism is that since the early or mid-2000s, more groups are displaying a higher degree of ideological hybridization than ever before. It is not easy to date exactly when this trend toward hybridization as a collective phenomenon began to occur, since different groups began to hybridize at different times and have done so in different ways. As a general matter, the ideological hybridization of today’s main jihadist movements began accelerating at some point in the first half of the 2000s and was well under way by 2005. During the last half decade, we have seen several different types of hybridization processes at work. Three of these processes will be highlighted here (though by no means should this be regarded as a comprehensive or exhaustive list.)

The first type of hybridization process is one whereby global jihadist groups are becoming more revolutionary. One prominent example is al-Qaeda Central. Since approximately 2003, Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda spokesmen have spoken more often and more harshly about Arab regimes than they did between 1995 and 2002. Explicit takfiri rhetoric used to be rare in statements from al-Qaeda’s leaders; now it is much more common.30 Importantly, this shift in al-Qaeda’s enemy hierarchies and rhetoric is not complete, since the dominant theme of the movement’s statements remains the Western oppression of Muslims. Nor has this shift been matched by a change in targeting patterns, since most known attacks by al-Qaeda Central have continued to be directed at Western targets.31 As such, al-Qaeda Central still displays a relatively low degree of ideological hybridization. Yet an important shift has occurred, and it is significant because of al-Qaeda’s prominence and influence on other activists.

Another example is al-Qaeda’s Saudi branch, al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which launched a terrorism campaign within Saudi Arabia in May 2003.32 In the beginning of that campaign, AQAP displayed a clear orientation toward global jihad: its major operations targeted Westerners, its declared main enemy was the United States, and its dominant discursive theme was the suffering of Muslims at the hands of non-Muslims.33 Over time, as the group came under increasing pressure from the police, it became more revolutionary. Six months into the campaign, it began attacking individual police officers, and in April 2004 it attacked a police station with a suicide car bomb. AQAP’s rhetoric became markedly more hostile to the regime in the same period.34 By 2005, the group was almost fully hybridized, though also very weak operationally.

The second type of hybridization process operative in the contemporary era is the inverse of the above, namely revolutionaries becoming more global jihadist. One of the best examples of this is the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC), whose rationale for violence remained almost purely revolutionary from its founding in 1998 to the mid-2000s. With a handful of exceptions, the group had focused all its operations against the regime in this period.35 But following a leadership change in 2003, the group’s rhetoric became gradually more anti-Western.36 In 2006 the GSPC formally pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda Central and later changed its name to “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM.) From 2007 onward it began conducting systematic attacks against Western targets in addition to its regular anti-regime operations.37 As of 2009, AQIM may be described as a moderately though not yet fully hybridized group, since the majority of its operations strike regime targets and its discourse and pronouncements arguably display an emphasis on the “near enemy,” or the Algerian regime.

Another example is the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which emerged in the mid-1990s with a clear agenda to topple the Libyan regime. Despite being based mostly in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the group’s statements and operations focused almost exclusively on the Libyan government.38 However, after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the group’s discourse became markedly more anti-Western. Several LIFG leaders continued to be based in Pakistan and Afghanistan together with al-Qaeda Central, and in 2007, the organization formally joined al-Qaeda.39 However, given that we know very little about the group’s independent operations in the 2000s, it is hard to assess the extent of its shift toward global jihadism.

A third manifestation of ideological hybridity includes what might be described as “born hybrids”--that is, new organizations whose enemy hierarchies were ambiguous from the start. These organizations all had deep roots in preexisting jihadi communities, but only emerged as clear and active organizational entities in the mid-2000s. They include several of the most active and prominent groups in the world of jihadism today. These groups are also among the most hybridized in the current landscape of jihadi actors; their enemy hierarchies are so unclear it is almost impossible to tell what they are fighting for.

A good example is the Lebanese group Fatah al-Islam, which emerged in late 2006 in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.40 Since its creation, the group displayed a pattern of behavior and discourse which suggested almost equally strong influences of both revolutionary and global jihadist ideology, and even elements of sectarian and nationalist motivations, too. On the operational side, the group has been involved in extensive fighting with the Lebanese army (revolutionary violence), has attacked a UNIFIL convoy (global jihadist violence), and has tried to enter Palestine to fight Israel (nationalist violence). Its discourse has proven to be equally ambiguous, oscillating between revolutionary, global jihadist and sectarian (specifically, anti-Shiite) themes.

Another prominent example of the born hybrid is the current Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, which emerged following a February 2006 jailbreak by 23 jihadists. This core rebuilt a Yemeni al-Qaeda network after the first generation had been crushed in 2002-2003.41 From 2006 to 2008 the new network operated under two names: “al-Qaeda on the South of the Arabian Peninsula” and “al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula Soldier’s Brigades of Yemen”; in early 2009 the network merged with the remnants of Saudi al-Qaeda under the name “al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.”42 Al-Qaeda in Yemen is ideologically almost fully hybridized. Since 2006 it has launched numerous operations against both regime targets and western targets.43 The group’s discourse, as conveyed in the magazine Sada al-Malahim (established in early 2008), combines revolutionary and global jihadist themes in nearly equal measure. Its rhetoric is notably much more revolutionary and explicitly takfiri than that of its Saudi sister organization was in 2003-2004. On balance, the global jihadist rationale seems to be slightly more important than the revolutionary one, but al-Qaeda in Yemen now has one of the most ambiguous enemy hierarchies in contemporary jihadism.

A third example of a born hybrid is the Somali militia known as Shabab al-Mujahidin, which rose to prominence in late 2006 as a splinter group from the Islamic Courts Union following the latter’s loss of power to the Ethiopia-and US-backed Transitional Federal Government.44 Shabab al-Mujahidin has been waging a revolutionary struggle against the non-Islamist regime in Mogadishu, while displaying strong global jihadist (anti-American) as well as nationalist (anti-Ethiopian) motivations. While the bulk of the group’s operations are directed against the incumbent regime, it has also targeted Westerners and UN-sponsored African Union peacekeepers within Somalia. The group has yet to operate internationally, though a recent terrorist plot in Australia may have involved Shabaab.45 In its rhetoric, the group combines revolutionary, global jihadist and nationalist themes.46 The Shabab has also sought to portray itself as an international group, expressing admiration for al-Qaeda Central and actively recruiting foreign volunteer fighters from the Arab world and the West.47 The Shabab remains slightly more revolutionary than global jihadist or nationalist, and thus represents somewhat less hybridized group than Fatah al-Islam and al-Qaeda in Yemen.

In addition to the aforementioned amalgams of revolutionary Islamism and global jihadism, we can also note the recent emergence of hybrids involving other types of ideologies. For example, al-Qaeda in Iraq (in its three successive manifestations: al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and the Islamic State of Iraq) has displayed strong influences of both global jihadist and sectarian motivations, combining physical and verbal attacks against both US soldiers and Iraqi Shiites.48 In Afghanistan, the Taliban combines nationalist and global jihadi rhetoric and attacks Western targets locally.49 In Pakistan, the nationalist (Kashmir-focused) Lashkar-e Taiba has displayed more anti-Western rhetoric and behavior, while the Pakistani Taliban seems to display both nationalist and revolutionary behavior and rhetoric.50

Finally, it is worth noting that not all militant Islamist groups have become hybridized or yet appear to be moving in that direction. Many nationalist groups such as Hamas, the Chechen mujahidin (now called the Caucasus Emirate) and the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement seem to have maintained a relatively clear rationale for violence and clear enemy hierarchies. Some nationalist groups such as the Taliban have adopted more anti-Western rhetoric, but this remains a partial hybridization which must be seen in the light of the Western military presence in Afghanistan.

Despite these exceptions, and although this overview is not comprehensive, it appears that ambiguous or heterogeneous enemy hierarchies are becoming a prevalent feature of contemporary militant Islamism. As a consequence, it is becoming more and more difficult to determine what exactly jihadists are fighting for. Why is this happening?


As the previous section suggests, hybridization happens in different ways. Moreover, our measure for hybridization--namely inconsistencies in targeting and discourse--is a rather superficial one that does not capture micro-level processes behind military operations and ideological production. In fact, we may well be dealing with several different phenomena, each of which may have different explanations. Moreover, when analyzing ideological change, it is often difficult to distinguish between tactical choices and fundamental changes in preferences. For instance, when a group declares more enemies, is it merely adapting its rhetoric to a new situation or is it genuinely convinced that more enemies deserve confrontation?

Needless to say, these are difficult questions, with answers that vary from group to group. To fully explain hybridization, we would need to conduct detailed case studies of a wide range of different groups--an undertaking that obviously exceeds the scope of this article. What we will do here is identify four sets of factors that have played a role in facilitating hybridization. The precise workings and relative importance of each set of factors are subjects for further research.

The first explanation is that hybridization reflects changes in the political environment of jihadist groups. Put simply, international political developments since 9/11 may have given jihadists more reasons to hate both the near and the far enemy. For a start, the years since 9/11 saw a substantial increase in the depth and range of Western military involvement in the Muslim world, while the situation in Palestine has worsened. These factors, combined with the numerous other coercive measures taken in the name of the war on terror, helped fuel a surge in Muslim anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism during the first half of the 2000s. These same factors may have influenced certain revolutionary groups to embrace some, if not all, of the global jihadist perspective, either by making them fundamentally more anti-American or by prompting them to exploit the rising anti-Americanism in their respective constituencies for mobilization purposes.

In addition to generating more anti-Americanism, increased western military involvement in the Muslim world also produced new political constellations within which previously distinct enemy types overlap. In Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, the United States was no longer just the far enemy but also the local occupier. This effectively blurred the past operative distinction between nationalist and global jihadist ideologies. In post-Saddam Iraq, the Baghdad government was not just the near enemy, but also a Shiite-dominated and heavily US-supported entity. This made it hard to distinguish between revolutionary, sectarian, nationalist and global jihadist motivations.

Also, there are many reasons why Islamist hostility toward Muslim regimes may have increased since 9/11, making global jihadist groups more revolutionary in their targeting patterns. In many, though not all, Muslim countries, structural economic problems have persisted if not worsened, and repression, especially of Islamist parties, has increased.51 Thanks to western pressures among other things, there are also fewer jihad-friendly regimes willing to support or turn a blind eye to Islamist militancy. Saudi Arabia, for instance, completely changed its policy toward militancy in 2003, while the Pakistani and Yemeni governments have become gradually less complacent toward militant activism. The War on Terror has also dramatically increased intelligence collaboration between Western governments and most governments of Muslim-majority countries. While jihadist movements may have once easily distinguished between near and far enemies, the two collaborate so closely nowadays that, for many militants, they’ve become one and the same, and there are thus fewer incentives for groups to avoid antagonizing either of them.

A second possible explanation is that hybridization is the result of changes in the media and communications environment of jihadist groups. The Internet revolution in the 2000s has, of course, greatly facilitated the production and distribution of jihadi propaganda, and this has made it easier for groups to borrow talking points and operational ideas from each other. As such, new communications technologies may have had a homogenizing influence on jihadist groups. For example, the increasing global jihadist influence on revolutionary groups since 9/11 reflected, at least partly, the realization by local groups of the formidable propaganda value of the al-Qaeda brand name. The Internet also produced fierce competition between jihadist groups for the attentions of prospective recruits and supporters, as well as for the attention of the world’s mainstream media. Thus, in an effort to extend their reach and influence, groups may have sought to opportunistically escalate their rhetoric on issues where they used to be relatively moderate. Global jihadist groups would have had more room for rhetorical escalation on matters pertaining to Muslim regimes, while revolutionary groups would have had more room for escalation on issues relating to the West.

A third possible explanation is that hybridization is the result of organizational changes within the world of militant Islamism. Two organizational dynamics in particular may have been at play, namely factionalization and alliance-building. In some cases, what we see as inconsistent targeting or rhetoric by one group may in fact be relatively consistent behavior by two or more factions within an organization, each with a different ideological orientation. Often, ideological splits hide deeper divisions within the movement along social, ethnic or geographical lines, or over local disputes with deep historical roots. The precise reasons for group factionalization most likely vary from case to case, but it is reasonable to assume that a general cause is organizational strain caused by, for example, resource scarcity and pressure from law enforcement.

Another organizational dynamic that may have facilitated hybridization are the many coalitions and mergers that have taken place between disparate elements of the jihadist movement since 9/11. Hybridization might be the result of alliance compromises. The 2000s have seen many alliances and mergers, in particular between al-Qaeda Central and various regional groups. These mergers may have been motivated more by organizational considerations than ideological ones. The eviction from Afghanistan in 2001 made al-Qaeda Central more dependent on franchises to maintain operational reach, while local groups were attracted by the strength of the al-Qaeda brand name.

A fourth possible explanation is that hybridization is the result of increased radicalization and/or increasing political isolation. A well known characteristic of groups and movements in late stages of radicalization is the tendency to see enemies everywhere. In her study of leftist extremists in Europe, Donatella Della Porta showed how groups became increasingly conspiratorial as they went “deeper and deeper underground.”52 Many of the groups that have undergone hybridization in recent years are composed of veteran militants in late stages of radicalization. Moreover, many of the same groups are relatively smaller and less embedded in their respective populations than nationalist groups such as Hamas. This suggests that hybridization may be correlated with political isolation. If this is the case, hybridization might reflect a strategic hedging of bets by groups facing recruitment challenges. Ideological ambiguity or heterogeneity may be seen by some groups as a way to appeal to a broadest possible constituency. By addressing a wider range of grievances global as well as local they hope to widen their prospective recruitment base.

A sign of strength or weakness?

What does ideological hybridization mean for the future of jihadism? More specifically, does it constitute an advantage or a disadvantage for the jihadist movement? On the one hand, it might be argued that hybrid ideologies carry certain advantages. For a start, an unclear or heterogeneous enemy hierarchy makes it harder to predict the direction of a group’s future operations. For example, in 1990s Algeria, one could be fairly certain that the GIA’s next operation would strike a regime-related target, while today it is almost impossible to predict the likely target of the AQIM’s next attack.53 The same is true for al-Qaeda in Yemen and several other groups.

In addition to operational flexibility, ideological ambiguity offers jihadist ideologues a certain degree of rhetorical agility. The more declared enemies a group has, then the wider the range of available rhetorical points for justifying a movement’s struggle. This creates a certain redundancy vis-à-vis contemporary political developments: While a global jihadist group reaps PR benefits primarily from new examples of non-Muslim aggression against Muslims, and revolutionary group primarily from new examples of regime repression, a hybrid group can benefit from both.

By the same logic, the wider the range of grievances a movement seeks to address, the wider the range of that movement’s prospective audiences and recruitment pools. Certain parts of a given population care more about domestic issues than international issues, and vice versa. While global jihadi rhetoric appeals primarily to people inclined to act on international developments, ambiguous rhetoric might appeal to several constituencies at once. Some sociologists studying non-violent social movements have argued that “the larger the range of problems covered by a (discursive) frame, the larger the range of social groups that can be addressed within the frame and the greater the mobilization capacity of the frame.”54

However, the disadvantages of ideological hybridization for a jihadist group seem, on balance, more significant than its advantages. After all, if heterogeneous enemy hierarchies and ambiguous aims were always good for mobilization, then all groups would be hybrids. Instead, historical experience suggests that groups with clear limited objectives mobilize more people and are more likely to achieve their strategic objectives.55 Thus, there are several reasons why ideological hybridization might be a long-term liability for jihadist groups. First, there is a fine line between ambiguity and inconsistency, and between flexibility and opportunism. The literature on framing in social movement theory suggests the resonance, or mobilizing potency, of a given frame depends in part on the frame’s consistency. Inconsistencies between claims or between a claims and actions limit resonance.56 Groups with many enemies and without clear political projects might expose themselves to ideological attacks by critics while facing problems in convincing significant numbers of recruits to join. Blurring enemy hierarchies may increase mobilization to non-violent protest, but not necessarily to high-risk activism. Most people who risk their lives want to know what it is for.

Second, hybridization produces or enhances latent ideological divisions within a movement. Ideal type ideologies may become temporarily less relevant but they are unlikely to be forgotten, given the history of disputes over them within the jihadi movement. A hybrid group or movement faces a substantial risk of factionalizing along ideological lines in the future.

Third, hybridization may provoke unnecessary enemies or inadvertently create alliances of enemies. One of the main reasons why revolutionaries refrained from confronting America before the late 1990s was the fear that the U.S. would wield its influence to further frustrate their struggle for regime change. Conversely, Osama Bin Laden refrained from launching operations in Saudi Arabia in the late 1990s in order to avoid regime crackdowns on al-Qaeda’s essential support networks. Hybrid groups have to face the ire of both local regimes and western security services, which combined can bring significant pressure to bear on the organization.


This article has highlighted a previously unidentified but very significant ideological development in the post-9/11 world of militant Islamism, namely the ideological hybridization of jihadi groups. Some might argue that this trend reflects natural adaptations of inherently malleable ideologies to shifting political circumstances. More likely, however, it is a sign of weakness. The fact that hybridization in many individual cases has coincided with operational setbacks, and that it seems more common among small organizations than larger ones, suggests that it is most often, though not always, a response to strain. If the hybridization trend continues, it is likely to further weaken the jihadist movement as a whole. Unclear or heterogeneous enemy hierarchies have a number of tactical advantages, including lower attack predictability and higher rhetorical flexibility, but in the long run they are likely to limit mass mobilization, foment internal divisions and attract repression. The trend does seem likely to continue in the short term, because of the self-perpetuating dynamic whereby the actions of hybrid groups promote counterterrorism cooperation between the near and the far enemy, which in turn fuels hybridization. However, we cannot preclude within the movement a future reaction to the practical problems caused by ideological ambiguity.

More research is needed on the drivers of ideological change in general and on the blurring of enemy hierarchies in particular. The link between a lack of ideological clarity and group weakness, while yet to be firmly established, is a potentially important contribution to the nascent theoretical literature on militant group decline.57

If ideological hybridization is indeed a response to strain, it represents another indicator that the jihadi movement as a whole is weaker today than it was in the first half of the 2000s. Other symptoms of weakening highlighted by observers include the decrease in the number of large attacks by al-Qaeda Central, the weakening of its branches in key regions such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the decrease in the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and other battlefronts, and the emergence of dissident and revisionist voices. Nobody is suggesting that al-Qaeda is dead or that the war on terror is over. The security situation in certain regions may well deteriorate and there will be more attacks in Western capitals. But the evidence of a slow structural weakening of the jihadi movement is compelling.

Keywords: Al-Qaeda, Counterterrorism, Muslim Brotherhood, Jihadism, Terrorism