While many observers of the Arab world had believed for years that change was inevitable, the “Arab Spring” itself came as a complete surprise four years ago. The idea that a self-immolating fruit seller in Tunisia could shake the political foundations of the Arab world to their core would have been thought ludicrous even in early January 2011. By March of that year, as uprisings churned in Libya, Syria, Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen, and beyond, almost all held the view that the changes underway would prove transformational. After decades in which Arab authoritarian governments secured themselves by protecting secular liberals and religious conservatives from each other, secular and religious groups were uniting with one another and with an unprecedentedly entrepreneurial generation of young people to rise up against their rulers.

And yet, as the months passed, the old authoritarian systems proved surprisingly durable. Some sitting governments were able to co-opt their populations through material reward or the promise of political reform; others were able to rally their populations against the prospect of insurgency. Still others revived repression. Most importantly, governments were able to learn from each other’s mistakes. After an initial flurry of change, the process slowed. In some places, such as Bahrain, it seemed to be arrested. In Egypt, the process actually reversed.

While it was surprising to most observers that that Arab uprisings did not result in more-liberal political systems, what was more surprising was the way in which they revived radical movements. Indeed, almost four years after the fact, radical movements in the Arab world seem to have been even more invigorated by the Arab uprisings than liberal ones. This is in part because many of the radical movements embraced the idea of fighting, and the breakdown in order allowed more fighting to occur across the region.

But there was a more worrying aspect to the resurgence of radical movements. Many of the radical groups learned potent lessons from the revolutionary political movements of the Arab uprisings. Experiments with social media that began with the efforts of young revolutionaries in Egypt and Syria found their way into extremists’ tool kits. In the 2000s, websites and chat rooms were the somewhat static, one-to-many platforms for recruitment and communication. In the 2010s, private messages, Tweets, and videos dubbed into dozens of languages made jihad not only truly global but also infinitely customizable. Recruiters no longer needed to wonder how their messages were being received, because they were in constant and intimate contact with the recipients. 

In a way, the religious radicals always had an advantage over the political revolutionaries. The latter sought mass support, hoping to rally majorities to their cause. They needed millions in the streets, and they needed diverse audiences to join in common cause. The rainbow that poured into Egypt’s public squares in 2011—young and old, rich and poor, religious and secular—represented their dream. It quickly proved difficult to sustain. 

The religious radicals have always had a different model and were content to assemble a violent vanguard from among the disaffected. They need not fill any squares or draw a diverse set of adherents. Judged as a mass movement, the radicals have failed; they have attracted only a tiny percentage of their potential audience. But becoming a mass movement was never central to their ambition. As a vanguard and fighting force they have found at least limited success, winning battles and rallying tens of thousands to their cause.

What all of this means for the Middle East is a continuation of conflicts that many thought were coming to an end. The raging wars in Libya, Syria, and Iraq—all of which owe at least part of their origin to the Arab uprisings—have gathered existing religious, ethnic, and sectarian tensions into large and messy existential struggles.

Beyond the Middle East, the consequences are less clear. Syria has already attracted more than twice as many foreign fighters as the decade-long anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, and it seems possible that the raging conflicts in the Sahel and the Levant will spread new extremist techniques, reach new adherents, and connect new networks.

Yet many close observers of terrorism doubt that the West will be much affected by these foreign fighters. They suggest most foreign fighters will die on the battlefield, and those who survive can be managed through robust intelligence activities.

Whatever the numbers of jihadists, the Arab uprisings seem to have increased the innovation and entrepreneurship of radical groups in the Middle East, at the same time that it increased the opportunities for radicals to gain battlefield experience in ungoverned space. For those seeking to combat radicalism, the challenges will only grow more complex.

Most troubling for policymakers is the uncertainty about when the pitched battle against extremism will end. For the political revolutionaries of the Arab uprisings, it was relatively clear what “victory” would look like: the demise of the old order and a more pluralistic future for their countries. They sought to energize the streets. There would be little mystery about the outcomes. The battles would have to be fought, and victory would need to be found, in the relatively clear light of politics.

For radicals, victory is much more obscure. Some proclaim victory in their martyrdom-seeking operations, embracing their own deaths as an ennobling triumph. Some seek reward in a constant battle against mortal enemies. More recently, some have claimed victory in the establishment of their caliphate, a collection of impoverished dusty cities ruled under the stern glare of religious police. What unifies their vision is an acceptance of the idea of deadly conflict stretching far into the future, fought by irregular forces arrayed against better-armed foes. It is a logic that rewards asymmetrical warfare and accepts heavy casualties. For the rest of the world, it is a daunting prospect.

(This article was adapted from the introduction and conclusion of a new book I’ve edited, Religious Radicalism after the Arab Uprisings. More information about the book can be found here.)

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email on JAlterma@csis.org and phone on (202) 775 3295.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program