Under congressional mandate, USIP has convened the bipartisan Task Force for Extremism in Fragile States to design a comprehensive new strategy for addressing the underlying causes of violent extremism in fragile states. In this excerpt from the Task Force's forthcoming report, we explore how extremism has evolved over the last 17 years and presented a new threat to U.S. security.

Read more on how fragile states fail their citizens and threaten global security.

A sign points the way to a centuries-old church in Mosul that the Islamic State turned into a religious police headquarters in Mosul, Iraq, Sept. 9, 2017. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
A sign points the way to a centuries-old church in Mosul that the Islamic State turned into a religious police headquarters in Mosul, Iraq, Sept. 9, 2017. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

Extremists have attempted to achieve their ideological objectives in different ways. Islamist militants in Algeria and Egypt waged bloody but unsuccessful insurgencies during the 1990s to overthrow those countries' regimes. Osama bin Laden blamed their failure on Western support for secular Middle Eastern states. He created al-Qaida to attack the United States and force it to withdraw from the region.

After al-Qaida was driven out of Afghanistan in 2001, a new strategic vision emerged. An influential 2004 strategic treatise, The Management of Savagery, called on al-Qaida to exploit "the weakness of the ruling regime" rather than try to overthrow entire states or attack the West. The treatise argued that extremists should concentrate on providing "food and medical treatment" in the areas they control, while preserving "security and justice, securing the borders," and "setting up defensive fortifications."

Fragile states, extremists realized, afforded a conducive environment for establishing experiments in governance and thereby demonstrating the validity of the extremist ideological agenda.

During the following decade, extremists began to execute this strategy. Al-Qaida imposed harsh versions of Islamic law in Fallujah in 2004. Extremists in Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Mali captured towns, established rudimentary governance structures, provided social services, and established makeshift Islamic courts, curtailing freedoms and imposing strict punishments.

The most dramatic project of extremist state building was the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The ISIS caliphate provided courts, religious schools, and social welfare services; maintained public order; and even collected hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes.

Although the United States and its partners have crushed ISIS's proto-state, a declaration of victory is premature. Rather than accept defeat, ISIS extremists have warned that they are still in the fight. Indeed, extremism is more widespread today than at any time before.

Extremist Attacks and Governance in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, 1996 - 2001 

Extremist Attacks and Governance in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, 1996 - 2001

Extremist Attacks and Governance in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, 2013-2018

Extremist Attacks and Governance in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, 2013-2018

ISIS is still present in Iraq and Syria and has established affiliates in 12 countries. And al-Qaida has grown in strength in recent years, with a presence in Syria, Yemen, and now the Sahel.

Moreover, the extremist focus on winning territory and establishing governance has blurred the line between terrorism, insurgency, civil war, and international conflict. Today, 77 percent of conflicts in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel have a violent extremist element, compared with 22 percent in 2001. Extremists instigated violent insurgencies in the Sinai and Nigeria. In countries with a preexisting conflict—in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen—violent extremist groups have exerted significant influence and sometimes gained territorial control.

Extremists are primed to attempt governing again. They only need another political crisis, breakdown of social order, or nascent civil conflict to make their comeback. Due to the persistence of state fragility across the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel, the risk of another extremist attempt to seize and govern territory remains high.

Related Publications

U.S., Iraqi Envoys Call for Continued Partnership 18 Years After Saddam’s Fall

U.S., Iraqi Envoys Call for Continued Partnership 18 Years After Saddam’s Fall

Thursday, March 25, 2021

By: Adam Gallagher

Eighteen years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still in the midst of a rocky transition, beset by governance, economic, social and security challenges. With the Biden administration setting its sights on sweeping portfolio of domestic and foreign policy issues, some fear the United States will lose focus on Iraq. But in remarks on Tuesday, the top American diplomat in Baghdad vowed continued American engagement. Ahead of a pivotal year for Iraq, “The United States is resolute in its commitment to supporting [a] stable, sovereign, democratic and prosperous Iraq,” said U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance; Fragility & Resilience

A New U.S. Approach to Help Fragile States Amid COVID-Driven Economic Crisis

A New U.S. Approach to Help Fragile States Amid COVID-Driven Economic Crisis

Friday, March 5, 2021

By: Tyler Beckelman; Amanda Long

The global economy is projected to rebound from the effects of COVID-19 in 2021, but the world’s most fragile states may not share in the upswing. Saddled with economic collapse and soaring debt, developing economies are likely to be left further behind after shrinking about 5 percent last year, according to World Bank estimates. As a result, over 55 million people could be plunged deeper into poverty, fueling social and political grievances and increasing the risks of instability.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Fragility & Resilience; Global Health

Could a National Dialogue Solve Ethiopia’s Political Crisis?

Could a National Dialogue Solve Ethiopia’s Political Crisis?

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

By: Emebet Getachew; Mehari Taddele Maru; Yohannes Gedamu

While the recent conflict in Tigray renewed international focus on Ethiopia, more challenges lie ahead, including elections now scheduled for June 5. The state of Ethiopia’s political transition is contested, and the country remains polarized. However, as Ethiopian scholars Emebet Getachew, Mehari Taddele Maru, and Yohannes Gedamu discuss, a national dialogue process may have the potential to address the country’s dilemmas.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Fragility & Resilience; Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

Global Fragility Act: A Chance to Reshape International Security Assistance?

Global Fragility Act: A Chance to Reshape International Security Assistance?

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

By: Calin Trenkov-Wermuth, Ph.D.; Paul M. Bisca

When the new U.S. administration gets to work, domestic priorities will be front and center on the agenda. Preventing state fragility and violent extremism abroad may seem less urgent. But implementing the Global Fragility Act (GFA)—which aims to fulfill those goals—should remain a top priority. Successfully advancing the GFA would directly benefit U.S. national security and help establish a more values-driven foreign policy. To this end, the United States should work with allies to create a global architecture for security sector assistance built on principles of aid effectiveness adapted from development financing. A U.S.-brokered international consensus on security assistance would help stabilize fragile states, prevent violence, and increase the value of dollars spent on the GFA.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Justice, Security & Rule of Law; Fragility & Resilience

View All Publications