Militant Islam is under global scrutiny for clues to conditions that foster its rise, and to strategies for reversing that growth. But the key is not in Islamic doctrine, US foreign policy or formal ties to various nations, as many analysts have asserted. It lies at the community level, with clan and local leaders.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, jihadists remain a minority in Muslim countries. Yet armed militants and suicide bombers continue to wreak havoc worldwide and militant recruitment shows no sign of abating. The reason is found where most recruitment occurs: ungoverned areas of failing or repressive states where public resources are stolen, wasted or otherwise not used for productive social ends.
For centuries, local clan and community leaders—for better or worse—have been the dominant authority in Middle Eastern cultures. Recently, however, central governments, fearing rival power centers or opposition, have eliminated many of these local leaders. In such restless neighborhoods, militant jihadists with international funding quietly fill the vacuum of authority. They establish informal financial services, welfare organizations, pharmacies, schools, clinics, unregulated banks and mosques. They declare religious war on black marketers, street crime, smugglers and overcharging merchants, offering material incentives to recruits, and executing rivals and women’s advocates along the way. Their services attract genuine, popular reformers.
By meeting people’s secular needs and capturing local heroes, the militants don a mantle of legitimacy. They preach against conspicuous consumption and establish sharia to resolve disputes. In Sudan, militants gradually took over the demoralized and low-paid civil service in the 1990s, dismissed non-Islamists and installed their own people. Areas under jihadi control became havens for operational planning and training.
Policymakers should not assume a tottering state automatically breeds militancy. Terrorists sometimes operate under government patronage, bullying local elites while central authority protects them from reprisal. But, in short, the weaker that traditional authorities are in providing leadership and services and maintaining order, the stronger the likelihood that militants will find recruits.
An effective strategy against them, therefore, should cooperate with and strengthen local elites and local economies in alleviating grievances and delivering social services. Rather than attacking informal banking networks such as Somalia’s hawwalat as funding sources for terrorism, US and international financial watchdogs should support them, encouraging transparency and gradually formalizing them. Policymakers should acknowledge that poverty does play a role in fostering militancy, even if indirect: Private financial networks keep scores of families and individuals from falling into poverty and desperation, undercutting any material gain that militants can offer recruits. It is not these networks that largely finance militancy, but wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
An effective approach would also encourage civic and religious diversity, because militant religious ideology is best neutralized by competing calls from other religious groups and clan or ethnic authorities. The fact that some militants are the educated and highly skilled has to do with screening and material incentives. The more competition there is for the allegiance of the disaffected, the better.
This strategy of supporting legitimate local leaders is a hard sell to weak and suspicious governments that view different perspectives as treason. It’s also difficult for international policymakers, who are used to dealing with central states or with the most familiar or noisiest local voices.
Many also seem not to have moved beyond a monolithic view of Islam and Muslims. In the short term, the most cost-effective approach is to keep an eye on anarchic areas, getting intelligence from and supporting legitimate local leaders, if only through diplomatic engagement. Over the longer term, central governments must be helped, or required, to restore public service and poverty relief programs with civil society and local leader participation.
Real research and analysis are required to spot local leaders with genuine grassroots support and to treat them as allies, but that will be the key to drying up the sea in which militant Islamist recruiters now swim. Nothing else has worked, and nothing else will.