This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2017

GREECE-ATHENS – The first 15 years of the 21st century have been marred by a new political phenomenon: the ‘Islamic states’ or, in other words, the creation of state-like structures by jihadist movements. Jihadist power has proved extremely resistant in five instances, two in Asia and three in Africa.

The jihadists spread their activity across two continents, Asia and Africa. They took advantage of chronic problems in some specific areas and, in five cases, they seized territory.

Afghanistan was the first ‘Islamic state’ formed back in the 1990s. Taliban power lasted from 1996 to 2001 before being defeated by a US army operation. In 2004, however, they returned with a surprising capability to penetrate the Afghan population. Today, the Taliban movement, although divided by internal fighting, still represents a threat for the Kabul government.

In the case of Iraq, the country was devastated by Western intervention. The Shiite regime, which was installed with the help of the allies, implemented a policy of discrimination against the Sunni population. The Al-Qaeda nucleus, in alliance with old Baathist structures, took advantage of the situation creating the first structures of Islamic State. In Syria, the country fell into deep chaos after an unsuccessful ‘Arab Spring’. Once again, the Jihadist factor emerged as an alternative to the collapsing state structure.

Iraq’s western territories and Syria’s vast territories, with state structures already collapsed, easily fell into the hands of jihadists.

In both territories, a new state-like structure was installed by Islamic State under a pompous denomination of ‘Caliphate’. And, despite a huge military operation in the Middle East by Western countries (Russians, the Assad regime, the government of Baghdad, the Kurd fighters and Hezbollah), a total defeat of ISIS still seems impossible. 

In Africa, the jihadist movement controls territories and operates in three areas, ignoring borders and national governments.

In Somalia, the Al-Shabaab movement has its roots in the first years of this century. It controls a large territory in the south of the country and commits deadly terrorist operations against the capital Mogadishu. It also operates in Kenya, mostly among the large Somali population there, and in some cases in Uganda.

In Western Africa, jihadist movements, mainly Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), seized power in Northern Mali in 2012, but were pushed back by French military operations in January 2013. This did not last for long. Today, AQIM and other jihadist groups control half of Mali where they are involved in a lucrative business of drug trafficking, cigarette smuggling and human trafficking – undisturbed in areas of Niger, Algeria and southern Libya.

Last but no less deadly, the Nigerian Boko Haram, which emerged as a local Jihadist sect in 2002, was transformed into a powerful transnational military organisation that operates in Northern Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

None of the above mentioned cases have much in common. While Somalia is a loose state for more than 25 years, we cannot say the same for Nigeria, which has strong state structures. While Islamic State’s military success was facilitated by the chaos in both countries, Iraq and Syria, the chaos was provoked by different reasons.

The Taliban, during its short governance in Afghanistan, created many enemies among the local population. But after the 2004 insurgency, the atrocities committed by the Taliban regime, were quickly forgotten and their revolt met considerable support by the Afghan population. While the Afghan government enjoyed unprecedented support from the US, in terms of funding, military aid and technical advice, this proved insufficient.

What is the reason that despite the military operations and the different kinds of support to the local government and regimes, the jihadist movements continue to resist on a political and military level and can still recruit young people?

As factors, we can mention the endemic poverty, the lack of state structures or the existence of very weak ones, civil wars, discriminatory policies and practices based on religious beliefs, as well as corruption.

Although it would not be sound to blame one single factor, there is one that is common in all five cases. It is corruption.

In all the above mentioned cases, corruption played a decisive role in weakening states and alienating local populations from the state structures, empowering jihadist movements and in offering possibilities of funding for their activities.

In Afghanistan, the local political elites that opposed the Taliban, applied a system based on large-scale corruption and illegal trafficking that alienated the population and encouraged the re-emergence of the Taliban. Since the Taliban became an alternative force to the Kabul government and its leadership is controlled by new powerful elite, related as well with corruption methods, splits emerged and favoured more radical groups and Islamic state’s appearance in Afghan lands.

During the first fights against jihadists, Iraqi officers declared high numbers of soldiers under their command in order to put state funds in their pockets.

In Syria, corruption practices affected both government and the opposition. Even opposition forces were accused of dealing with Islamic State and in some cases of selling arms offered by Western powers to the jihadists.

In Somalia, in areas controlled by the national government, corruption of the army, police and state officers is endemic and bribes have hit heavily the life of average citizens. It is for this reason that the national security forces do not enjoy any support from local populations.

The high costs of salaries for al-Shabaab fighters, as well as the funds needed for the implementation of its social policies in controlled areas, were covered by funding activities strictly related to corruption, both local and international. Ivory trafficking was among the most lucrative activities and in 2010 represented the 40% of the funds raised in the Asian markets. The production and trafficking of valuable minerals was also a lucrative activity.

According to a 2015 report published by Journalists for Justice, a Kenyan advocacy group, the Kenyan military was accused of operating a side business with al-Shabaab related to the smuggling of sugar, vehicles, pasta, cooking oil, shoes, rice and some petroleum products.

In Nigeria, for years, politicians and army officers have been accused of stealing state funds and reducing considerably the country’s defensive capabilities. Such is the case of Sambo Dasuki, a national security advisor. According to the AFP, he was accused in 2015 of awarding fictitious contracts for fighter jets and other military equipment worth a whopping $2bn. It was clear that this case was not an exception but a reflection of the country’s habits.

Nigerian police and state employees are notorious for taking bribes on a daily basis. In addition, the Nigerian army was also responsible for war crimes according to a report of the International Criminal Court in 2015.

In many cases, Nigerian soldiers complained that jihadists were much better equipped. Last year, it was reported that army officers sold to Boko Haram artillery and arms.

The fight against corruption in all the above cases is a key factor in the war against jihadists. It must be intense, targeted and accompanied by concrete alternatives. A first step is for the West to stop aiding local political elite. Of course, this will be difficult since ‘taxing’ foreign aid is a common practice and condition posed by both national governments and jihadists in the above mentioned territories.