After the Caliphate: Factors Shaping Continuing Violent Extremism and Conflicts in the MENA Region

By Anthony H. Cordesman


This is the third report in a three-part survey of metrics that address the fighting in Iraq and Syria, the ongoing challenge of extremism, and the trends in key causes of that extremism and regional instability. This series is titled After the “Caliphate”: The Metrics of Daesh and the Ongoing Challenge of Extremism.

Part Three: Factors Shaping Continuing Violent Extremism, and Conflicts in the MENA Region

This third part of the survey is entitled Factors Shaping Continuing Violent Extremism, and Conflicts in the MENA Region and is available on the CSIS web site at

It provides a series of metrics that measure the extent of civil unrest and instability by region and by country. The break-outs by country are critical to understanding the forces at work. The MENA region is often described as Arab – despite the existence of Israel – and as Muslim despite the presence of large Christian and other minorities in many states and the diverse nature of sects within Islam. As the maps in this section show, however, it consists of highly a diverse mix of nations with different neighbors, populations, political and economic conditions, and often major ethnic, regional, tribal, and sectarian differences. In practice, this makes national vulnerability to extremism and terrorism highly case specific, and involves intangibles that cannot be easily quantified, if at all.

At the same time, there are many problems and issues in the civil structure of MENA states and other heavily Islamic states that can lead to political upheavals, extremism and terrorism, and civil conflict. The UN’s Arab Development Reports have long warned about these problems, and so have a wide variety of outside intelligence reports, and academic and think tanks studies. As has been noted in Part One of this survey, these problems have been so serous in countries like Syria and Iraq that they qualify as “failed states.” Few analysts would argue that Libya and Yemen do not qualify as further examples – along with other largely Islamic states outside the MENA region like Afghanistan and Somalia.

The USCENTCOM Summary of the Civil Causes of Instability

These issues have led USCENTCOM to describe the MENA region and much of South and Central Asia as follows on its web site:

  • The region is among the least secure and stable places of the world . Adversarial relationships among neighboring states, widespread ethnic and sectarian struggles, malign influence and destabilizing activities, cyber-based threats, and growing arsenals of sophisticated conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction all combine to imperil enduring U.S. vital national interests, as well as those of our trusted partners and allies.
  • Multiple ethnic groups, speaking different languages with hundreds of dialects and confessing multiple religions which transect national borders. Demographics that create opportunities for tension and rivalry.
  • Geography consists of the intersection of three continents and globally vital commercial sea lanes, flight corridors, pipelines and overland routes . Nations which stretch from North Africa across the Middle East have forms of governance ranging across the political spectrum, including emerging democracies, hereditary monarchies, autocracies, and Islamist theocratic regimes.

The Choice Between Stability and “Failed State”

At the same time, a number of other states have long been relatively stable. It is clear that creating or maintaining a stable structure of governance, security, and economics can defeat extremism. Several factors seem to have been be particularly important in determining whether or not a given MENA state declines into “failed state” status:

  • Stable states with working social-economic contracts, and a proven or traditional civil order – normally monarchies – are less vulnerable.
  • Much of momentum behind Islamic militancy is a reaction to failed secularism – repression, political divisions, military rule, corruption, and failed economic development are all key factors.
  • Relative success in Creating jobs, income, housing and services that can deal with massive population growth and /or demographic shifts in the size and location of ethnic, sectarian, tribal and other factions within a given nation is critical. Failures plays a major role in shaping internal conflicts and state failures.

The Metrics of Stability and Instability

The level of instability in each state, and the extent to which it can be called a failed state is dependent on a wide range of variables. These include many variables where metrics are lacking or have limited value. Religious and ideological factors can sometimes be highlighted by polling data, but are highly intangible, and polling capabilities are often limited and do not cover extremists. Complex political interactions and issues are difficult to survey, and so are the many internal divisions within given countries –including the major regional and other internal differences that are often a key source of instability and conflict.

There are, however, many causes of instability where some metrics are available, and do seem to accurately reflect broad regional and national trends. These causes include

  • Sectarian, Ethnic, Tribal discrimination, and violence
  • Charismatic, competent violent opposition leader(s)/groups
  • Repression and failed authoritarian rule.
  • Dysfunctional democracy and civil political structures.
  • Excessive/clumsy/abusive use of force – state terrorism
  • Corrupt and ineffective structures of governance and government services.
  • Failed rule of law, justice system, basic law enforcement and social order.
  • Gross poverty, economic injustice, failure to develop and modernize, lack of reform. Near economic collapse, inflationary crisis.
  • Unemployment pressure, lack of stable career options, population pressure.
  • Alienation of youth, middle class.
  • Rising violence makes the most violent side the winner.
  • Urban instability, violence.

The Organization of Part Three

The metrics that are used in this survey are organized into four different groupings that highlight the key civil patterns involved:

This was done because the data available on MENA states lacked clear comparability, were too dated, and/or did not seem credible. The recent levels of conflict in some states also presented a major problem. Here, it should be noted that many data bases and metrics – such as the UN country data on human development and much of the poverty data – are presented in spite of rankings that raise serious conflict as to how a given ranking could be awarded given the present level of conflict in that country.It should be stressed that the choice of the metrics presented in each grouping metrics sometimes had to be made in ways that bypassed additional metrics that should have been highly useful, such as detailed patterns in poverty and unemployment, medical factors like infant mortality and life expectancy, and functional levels of education and government services.

The seriousness of the broad trends MENA regions’ stability problems does seem all too clear from the metrics that are included. However, as is the case in parts of this survey, key data are almost always uncertain, have serious gaps, and raise at least some credibility problems. Taking any one set of figures in any given metric for granted – or assuming it has statistical levels validity – requires in-depth probing of that particular data point.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy