Ongoing civil wars in Syria, Mali, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Uganda illustrate the need to better understand religious dimensions of armed conflicts. In a recent article published in Journal of Conflict Resolution, we provide new data on religion and conflict worldwide – during the time period 1975-2015 – which can help inform our understanding of the religious dimensions of armed conflicts. Drawing on the data and findings presented in that article, we shed light on three widely held beliefs concerning religious conflicts.
On 25 May 2018, the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, together with the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (oiip) and the University of Lucerne, hosted a conference on “Jihadi Networks in Switzerland: Regional Clusters and Transnational Links”. Experts from academia and politics discussed the similarities, differences and connections of jihadist networks in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France, Belgium, Italy and the Balkans.
On June 28, three suicide bombers entered the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, where they killed 45 people and injured 229. Although only one of the terrorist was from Russia (the other two were Uzbek and Kyrgyz), it is almost certain that that their last words to one another were in Russian. It is estimated that between 5,000 to 7,000 Russian-speaking jihadists have made Russian the second most popular language of ISIL, after Arabic.
The Changing Demographics
That Russian should be the lingua franca of jihadists from the former Soviet territory is surprising. Many, perhaps most, younger Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Uzbeks (judging by the gastarbeiters from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan) do not know Russian well or even at all. That Russia is becoming widely-spoken is indicative of the explosive internationalization and the vastly expanded recruitment patterns of what might be called the Russian Jihad based in Russia and former Soviet Central Asia.
With an estimated 2,400 of its citizens fighting with ISIL, Russia is surpassed only by Tunisia and Saudi Arabia in the number of its nationals in the extremist group’s ranks. It is far ahead of the top four European suppliers of ISIL soldiers: France with 1,800 fighters, Britain and Germany with 760 each, and Belgium with 470. Russian language graffiti has been spotted in Darayya, Syria (“We will pray in your palace, Putin! Tatars and Chechens, rise up!”), and there is an Univermag grocery store in the “Russian” district of ISIL’s de-facto capital of Raqqa, alongside Russian-language schools and kindergartens.
On July 1, militants attacked a restaurant in one of the Bangladeshi capital’s affluent neighborhoods, taking dozens hostage. Twenty-nine people died, including the five gunmen and eighteen foreign victims. This incident was the most deadly in a recent rise in violence linked to Islamist extremists and occurs amid a polarizing political debate over Bangladesh’s identity and what the role of Islam should be, says CFR senior fellow Alyssa Ayres. “The July 1 attack suddenly pitches Bangladesh into the larger battleground of international terrorism,” Ayres says, emphasizing the decision of the militants to affiliate themselves with a global terrorist movement at the time of the attack. “The Islamic State dimension comes on top of an already tense political climate,” she says.
There has been a recent rise in extremist violence in Bangladesh. Why?
The rise of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh has been noticeable in the last year and a half. But the July 1 attack was different because of the overt desire by those terrorists to affiliate themselves with global terrorism as the attack was unfolding. Prior attacks in Bangladesh were harder to link explicitly to international groups. Though responsibility was sometimes claimed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, these claims were widely disputed in Bangladesh, where the government tended to blame domestic groups. The July attack was different, not only in terms of scale but also in terms of communication. Islamic State-affiliated media tweeted scenes from the attack as it was underway, and later posted photos of the attackers with an [Islamic State] flag, making it hard to deny a connection. The July 1 attack suddenly pitches Bangladesh into the larger battleground of international terrorism.
Judging from the Islamic State’s propaganda, it would appear the group is rapidly overtaking the Muslim world. The Islamic State has declared wilayats (provinces) in ten countries spanning from Nigeria to the Caucasus region. It has executed high-profile attacks in several otherwise stable countries, including Tunisia, Turkey, Kuwait, France, and the United States. The group has championed its victories and downplayed its defeats at every turn, portraying itself as a military behemoth destined to restore the caliphate to its former glory. In short, the Islamic State would like the world — and especially prospective recruits — to believe it is “remaining and expanding” (baqiya wa tatamaddad), a slogan that defines the group’s propaganda.
Yet in reality, between state security forces and rival jihadist groups, the Islamic State has encountered one serious obstacle after another as it has tried to expand its presence beyond Syria and Iraq. Several of its nascent affiliates met decisive defeat. In some places, the Islamic State has been its own worst enemy, as personality clashes and disagreements over strategy created deep cleavages.