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Jihadist Governance in Civil Wars  

Aisha Ahmad

Although many nonstate armed groups try to rule over citizens, of special concern are jihadist groups that take power in conflict-affected states. Not only do jihadists espouse an extreme political vision, but these religiously motivated rebels also have an uncanny ability to rout and even overthrow incumbent governments. Whenever possible, jihadists will try to seize control of the entire state and replace incumbents with a new regime. If decisive military victory is not possible, they will seek control over pockets of territory and will build rudimentary proto-states within official state boundaries. Jihadist insurgents are not only motivated to fight, but are also very keen to govern over territory and people. In their mission to build alternative forms of order, they therefore collect taxes, enforce laws, and even offer rudimentary public services. In many conflict zones, jihadists are able to build stronger social contracts with citizens than the official government. Because of this success, many scholars and practitioners have erroneously assumed that jihadists must be spreading their ideologies to local communities, and thus converting citizens to their extremist beliefs. This analysis fundamentally misdiagnoses why jihadists are able to establish parallel forms of order in civil wars. Jihadists do not succeed in areas where communities have converted to extremism; rather, they thrive in regions where the official government has catastrophically failed to provide citizens with security, order, justice, and other basic services. Evidence from multiple cases shows that government corruption, ineptitude, and abuse—not extremism or ideological radicalization—best explain the rise of jihadist governance in conflict zones. It is not that local communities are enamored with the idea of jihadist rule; rather, they are disgusted and outraged by their incumbent governments.