Check out my new piece at the Washington Post's 'Monkey Cage': "When jihadists learn how to help"


Within the academic literature on global jihadi organizations there has been a major lacuna on the issue of groups evolving to become more than just violent actors; many now act as social movements, too. While no one denies this change, little has been written about it, save for smaller non-academic pieces. Thus far, there have only been examples of localized dawa (calling people to the particular individual or group’s interpretation of Islam/proselytization), social services, and proto-governance efforts, even if the organizations profess a transnational ideology and goal. However, this trend is no longer true: New evidence suggests that Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL) is conducting these types of activities not just in Libya, but also abroad.

ASL has a number of identities as an organization: On the one hand, it’s a charity, a security service and a health services and religious education provider. On the other hand, it’s a militia, a terrorist organization, and it trains individuals for foreign jihads. While many jihadi organizations are involved in the latter within transnational networks and a smaller percentage are active in the former on a local level, ASL is the only global jihadi organization that has an international dawa campaign. ASL’s unprecedented reach belies the notion that the organization has only local aims, while it is in fact attempting to cultivate an international constituency based on aid and proselytization to its strict legal interpretations of Islam.

Theoretically speaking, there is now a spectrum of jihadi organizations that can be described as purely focused on violent jihad on a local or global level and that use dawa as their main organizing principle, yet still utilize violence on a local or global level. There are also mixed cases in which neither violent jihad nor dawa take precedence over the other. These categories are not necessarily static for organizations and can change depending on endogenous and exogenous factors.

Table 1. Types of Jihadi Organizations

Local Transnationally
Violent Jihad-First Gamaa al-Islamiyya, Abdullah Azzam Brigades Al Qaeda, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham
Mixed Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin No known cases
Dawa-First Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia Ansar al-Sharia in Libya

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