islamic extremism


The Roots of this Form of Extremism: Jihad

Jihad is an Arabic word which literally means “to struggle for something” or “to strive in the path of God.”

In the Islamic faith, the Quran is the central religious text. The Quran uses the word jihad in the context of encouraging Muslims to struggle to live a good life by doing good things like praying regularly and giving to charity. For example, some Muslims say their jihad is ‘to find friends from other cultures,’ or ‘to be a good parent.’ However, a very small few have interpreted the text differently, that it means to propose violent actions to defend Muslim countries against non-Muslims or to establish Muslim rule in non-Muslim countries.

Since the two meanings of the word jihad are so different, many people specify which form of jihad they are referring to when talking about the jihad.

Inner Jihad

Internal struggle inside every Muslim

Outer Jihad

Violent jihad, the fight to protect or expand Islam

The inner jihad (some people prefer the word greater jihad) is the struggle every Muslim has inside of him or her. This struggle could be deciding whether or not to financially support an orphanage or to instead spend that money on unnecessary expenses for oneself.

The outer jihad is also called violent jihad or Holy War. Only a minor fraction of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide supports the outer jihad.

To learn more about Jihad, and its relationship to modern day Islamic extremism, please see the Op250 Reading on Jihad.

Modern Violent Jihad: Also Known as Islamic Extremism[1] 

Some Muslims perceive their religion to be threatened by non-Muslims or they believe the Islamic political rule is threatened by non-Muslims. Some even believe that there is a conspiracy by Christians and Jews to end Islam once and for all. These people are very much in the minority of Muslims. Those who support violent jihad perceive that some non-Muslim countries, such as the United States, want to eliminate these Islamic countries (many are in the Middle East).

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Many Islamic extremist groups are based in the Middle East or Western Africa, and today they are waging outer jihad by committing terrorist attacks throughout the world to promote their messages of hate.

Different Islamic extremist terrorist groups are explained below.


ISIS: Who are they?

ISIS is an Islamic extremist group located in Syria and Iraq. They have a strong hatred for the western world (the United States, France, UK, etc.),  and wish to create an Islamic Caliphate, or a land governed by Islam. The group began in 2004 as al-Qaeda in Iraq, but have since changed their name to the Islamic State. There are several other names for the group: Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIL), or Daesh (Arabic term). Many believe they were the most well-funded terrorist group in history and they received a lot of media attention for their brutality, their occupancy of territory in Syria and Iraq, and for their deadly attacks abroad. Several terrorist groups all over the world have declared their support for ISIS. For more information on how ISIS recruits people from around the world, please see our page ISIS and Social Media.

According to reports by the BBC, in its peak, 10 million people lived within the ISIS-controlled territory. 


Al Qaeda

The group was founded by Osama bin Laden and his fellow Saudi partners in Pakistan, 1988.  It originally was more of a logistical network that attracted Islamists from around the world to fight in the Afghan war against the Russians.

Al-Qaeda is against western governments (particularly the United States), and their goal is to remove the western powers from the ‘Muslim world’ or the Middle East. The group was responsible for the 1993 world trade center bombings which killed six people, and the 9/11 attacks which killed 2,996 people in 2001.

The group used the internet prior to 9/11 to spread its message and continues to do so today (but not on the same scale as ISIS). The group’s attack and propaganda strategy differs to that of the Islamic State, as they actually denounced the brutality of ISIS..


Boko Haram

Much like ISIS, the main objective of Boko Haram is to overthrow existing governments in their region so they can establish a Muslim caliphate. A caliphate is an area ruled by Islamic law or Sharia law. Sharia law is considered to be a version of Islamic law that can be found in the Quran, and it is often applied in extreme ways.

The group was founded in the 1990’s in their home country of Nigeria which is in central Africa. Boko Haram was originally founded because local Muslims did not like the ‘western’ version of schools offered by their British influenced government. In fact, the term ‘Boko Haram’ means ‘Western education is forbidden.’ Boko Haram set up a religious complex that included an Islamic school, following this the group then set out to create an Islamic state.

They began their military operations in 2009. One of the group’s most well-known attacks occurred in 2014 when they kidnapped 276 school girls from the Borno state in Nigeria. Like most terrorist groups, they use fear and violence to intimidate the local population, assert power, and they hope that through these tactics, they will accomplish their political and ideological goals.

It is estimated that the group has killed over 20,000 individuals and displaced over 2 million people.

A sleeper cell is a group of spies or terrorists who are technically inactive until they are ordered to act.    There are ISIS/ al Qaeda supporters in many other African countries. The countries shown above are known to have active sleeper cells. Other countries act more as feeders, meaning that fighters leave their home countries to go fight in other African countries with their terrorist group.

A sleeper cell is a group of spies or terrorists who are technically inactive until they are ordered to act.

There are ISIS/ al Qaeda supporters in many other African countries. The countries shown above are known to have active sleeper cells. Other countries act more as feeders, meaning that fighters leave their home countries to go fight in other African countries with their terrorist group.


Al Shabaab

Much like other Islamist militant organizations, al-Shabaab is seeking to create an Islamic state (caliphate) in their home country of Somalia, which is a small country on the eastern coast of Africa. 

In order to accomplish this, they are seeking to overthrow their country’s official government. The group officially became an organization in 2006, and they have been using violent force, and military-style attacks on civilian populations to try and gain legitimacy and power. Overall, they want the local population to fear them and submit to their authority. Around 2008, al Shabaab pledged their support for al Qaeda, and together they have been working to promote global Jihad.

Their deadliest attack was at a Kenyan University where they killed 147 non-Muslim people. As of right now, al Shabaab has the most power in the rural areas of Somalia. They have mostly been pushed out of cities and the highly populated areas that they once controlled. The group has been weakened financially since leaving the cities, but their members still carry out suicide attacks. 


Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011, and ISIS is losing a lot of their territory in Iraq and Syria, is violent jihad over or losing steam?


Violent jihad is still a real imminent threat to international security.  Although ISIS has lost most of their territory that does not mean that the threat they pose to the Western world is going away.

Some experts believe that ISIS may soon begin to evolve and become less of a governing body. Instead, they will become smaller cells that are scattered throughout Iraq and Syria. The group will likely also continue to direct attacks against the West virtually (by directing their followers in North America and Europe over the internet). It is also likely that  ISIS will continue to have a strong presence online where they put out propaganda that inspires lone wolf attackers.