“Islamists at war”. Processes of transnationalization, institutionalization, and militarization of Islamist actors from the 1970s to the present.

The postdoctoral project investigates the transformation of Islamist groups from domestic, contentious political actors into global warfighting organizations and its consequences from the late 1970s until today. Since their emergence in the early 20th century, Islamists had been preoccupied with domestic contentious politics. While they participated in the violent anti-colonial struggles of their home countries, they did that mostly as individuals in association with other activists, and not as distinct entities. However, this changed in the late 1970s in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the following decades, Islamist and jihadist warrior groups have emerged in conflict zones worldwide. Why have parts of the Islamist movement gone to war and how has the involvement in armed conflict changed Islamists?Taking these developments into account, three inter-linked transformations of the Islamist movement and their consequences are in the center of this project: First, its increasing transnationalization since the late 1970s (Hegghammer 2020). Second, its increasing institutionalization, and third, the increasing militarization of parts of the Islamist movement, which became manifest in the participation of pre-existing Islamist groups and individuals in wars such as in Afghanistan and Algeria, and the foundation of more explicitly jihadist groups participating in armed conflicts around the globe.

The three processes of transnationalization, institutionalization, and militarization have had a profound impact on the actors involved, leading to the emergence of ‘professionalized’ full-time Islamist and jihadist military experts (Lia and Hegghammer 2004) and warrior organizations. These processes have also contributed to the transformation of the military tactics used that had been condoned by Muslim clerics until then. This transformation was sparked by and embedded in larger ideological innovations and debates. Finally, these transformations also changed how states and non-state actors fight wars, which has had global impacts far beyond the countries concerned, epitomized in such phrases as ‘the global war on terror’.     

These observations inform further crucial questions for this project: How have these transformations changed the Islamist movement regarding its ideological, organizational, as well as strategic and tactical dimensions? What impact did they have on other (armed) opposition groups, states, populations and the international system, and how did the interaction with these actors influence Islamist and jihadist groups? How are these transformations linked to broader domestic and international political, social, and economic changes? What have Islamists learned along the way? What has changed, what has remained the same?

The project makes use of a mixed methods approach, relying on archival research, interviews, and quantitative analyses. After a global assessment of the phenomenon, several case studies will be examined individually and in a comparative manner, including Egypt, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, and Syria.


Hegghammer, Thomas. 2020. The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. www.cambridge.org/core/books/caravan/F92B16194E70D55E6ABF362A06271E71 (December 11, 2020).

Lia, Brynjar, and Thomas Hegghammer. 2004. “Jihadi Strategic Studies: The Alleged Al Qaida Policy Study Preceding the Madrid Bombings.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 27(5): 355–75.