Jihadism May not Be Waning, but New Forms of Violent Extremism Are Emerging
Since 9/11, any mention of violent extremism usually referred to Salafi jihadism and the likes of al-Qaida and, more recently, the self-styled Islamic State. While not the only type of extremism plaguing the world, the sociopathic brutality and morbid self-publicity of these jihadist groups put them in the spotlight. There had never been anything like them, or so it seemed. In the minds of many people, al-Qaida and its offshoots were the paradigm of violent extremism.
Jihadism is far from defeated today, even if the Islamic State has been rolled back in Syria and Iraq. From Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Taliban in Afghanistan, jihadist groups continue to draw recruits and find new ways to kill. But jihadism’s ability to intimidate its enemies is waning. As an extremist movement, it will persist for many years, but only as a spent force fading away.
Unfortunately, though, this demise will not usher in peace. With ever-growing global connectivity that amplifies anger and links the angry, and tools of violence that are readily available, new forms of violent extremism will emerge. In fact, they are already emerging.
Legitimate, even mainstream belief systems or bodies of ideas are probably producing cancerous offshoots that could feed a new extremist ideology. While it is difficult to know exactly which types of extremism will thrive and which will wither away, odds are that at least one of them will endanger the world. So it’s important to scan the horizon, monitor budding extremist movements, understand them, and begin building defenses.[Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on the U.S.-China Rivalry in the Trump Era when you sign up for our free newsletter.]
Take the narco-violence currently plaguing Mexico and Central America. Fueled by drug money and with a steady supply of recruits, criminal gangs like Los Zetas in Mexico have developed a deadly ideology energizing the anger of the most extreme members of the marginalized and underserved parts of society. Gangs and cartels have provided a sense of meaning and purpose, particularly to alienated and potentially violent young men. Narcotraffickers in Mexico, including one group known as the Knights Templar, have justified brutal violence against the state, competing gangs and anyone deemed an enemy with a mix of criminal self-interest and pseudo-religious ideology.
These groups could expand in the region, and beyond it, as gangs in Mexico and Central America develop alliances and networks with other like-minded criminal organizations. Could transnational criminality overtake jihadist insurgency as a security risk?
As new forms of extremism take shape, governments must watch closely for emerging groups with violent propensities.
Or consider the rise of violent white nationalism in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, which already signals danger. Increasingly angry and alienated people from the fringe of society—again mostly young men—connect to each other on the internet, building a dark ideology that draws on distorted history and myth while borrowing from preexisting race-based ideologies like Nazism. They are helped by the mainstreaming of white nationalist politics across the West and, in the United States, by the fetishism of guns. The most extreme of them lionize sociopathic murderers like Anders Breivik and Dylann Roof. The risk is that these lone-wolf murderers evolve into something more organized and dangerous.
The next wave of violent extremism could also emerge from individuals and organizations threatened by technology and the coming age of automation and artificial intelligence. For all the promises of such new technology, this could also be a dangerous time, as machines replace more humans across industries. Work traditionally provides a framework for personal identity and dignity. The transition away from that will likely be difficult, even traumatic. The millions of people rendered economically superfluous by technology will be angry and vulnerable to ideologies that explain that they are not at fault for their misery and must fight back against the machines and those who profit from them. Individual acts of violence and resistance may merge into movements and organizations.
Along similar lines, the dislocations brought by climate change could fuel extremism. All violent ideologies begin with an explanation of who or what the threat is. In this case, the threat would be the individuals, corporations, organizations and nations rich enough to immunize themselves from rising sea levels, rising temperatures and other environmental impacts of climate change. A violent ideology sparked by climate change’s destructiveness might target the global elite not for their politics, but simply for their ability to avoid the suffering.
This list is certainly not complete. So long as the preconditions for violent extremism persist—anger, alienation, connectivity, resources, and access to the tools of destruction—ideologies will emerge that demonize existing power structures and authorities and seek to offer a roadmap to punish those considered responsible. Globalization may have brought great benefits, economically and socially, but it also created winners and losers, some of whom will choose to fight back.
As jihadism wanes and new forms of violent extremism take shape, governments and others tasked with protecting their societies must watch closely for coalescing ideologies and emerging groups with violent propensities. But in at least one area, the Trump administration is moving in the wrong direction, having cut the U.S. government’s budget for countering hate groups and domestic extremists. There is no way to know precisely what form of violent extremism will be the next big thing, but it is certain that there will be one.