NOVEMBER 26 — The challenge of religiously driven terrorism is real.

A new study by the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes that nearly four times as many Sunni Islamic militants are operating around the world today as there were on September 11, 2001 (9/11), despite nearly two decades of American-led campaigns to combat al-Qaeda and the Islamic State/Daesh.

Highlights of the report

There are as many as 230,000 Salafi jihadist fighters in nearly 70 countries.

The countries with the most substantial numbers are Syria (43,650 – 70,550), Afghanistan (27,000 – 64,060), Pakistan (17,900 – 39,540), Iraq (10,000 – 15,000), Nigeria (3,450 – 6,900), and Somalia (3,095 – 7,240) in 2018.

The regions with the most significant number of fighters are the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia in 2018. Other regions, such as South-east Asia have fewer fighters.

There were 67 Salafi-jihadist groups across the globe in 2018.

There were approximately 44 groups other than the Islamic State/Daesh, al-Qaeda, and their direct affiliates. This total, which included organisations like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba, accounted for roughly 67 per cent of all groups in 2018.

These findings suggest that there is a large pool of Salafi jihadist and allied fighters willing and able to use violence to achieve their goals.

This report is naturally, a cause for concern for Malaysians, as not only have Malaysians been actively involved in supporting al-Qaeda and the Islamic State/Daesh, but the region, has several active groups that are supportive of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State/Daesh.

However, before proceeding, it is essential though to ask the basic question — what is terrorism, and more specifically what is religious-driven terrorism?

What is terrorism?

A cursory search for the definition of terrorism would give this definition: the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

The keywords are, “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.”

The Encyclopaedia of Political Science (Kurien et al., 2011) defines political terrorism as follows:

Terrorism involves calculated outrage.

It represents the power to hurt in its purest form, to use the classic description of Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling.

The concept generally refers to the use of violence or the threat of the use of violence to achieve political ends.

However, terrorism is meant not merely to destroy. It also communicates a message to a watching audience through the shock value of its transmission.

The individual victims and physical targets of terrorism are representatives or symbols of larger collectives – states, nations, communities, social classes, or other categories.

The victims are usually defenseless and caught by surprise.

They may be ordinary people in public places – shopping at a market, eating in a restaurant, riding a bus, or attending religious services – or they may be national or local leaders singled out for assassination by virtue of their positions.

Harming the victims warns all who can see themselves in the victims’ place.

The type of violence employed is deliberately shocking.

Terrorism is usually associated with non-state actors – small groups who oppose the authority of the state. 

Religious terrorism is terrorism that is motivated by an absolute belief that an other-worldly power has sanctioned – and commanded – the application of terrorist violence for the greater glory of the faith. Religious terrorism is usually conducted in defense of what believers consider to be the one true faith (Martin, 2016 cited in Dawson et al., 2017).

The two definition above provides a baseline understanding of terrorism and religious driven terrorism.

But why do people resort to terrorism?


Dawson, M., Kisku, D.R., Gupta, P. Sing, J.K. and Li, W. (eds), 2017. Developing next-generation countermeasures for homeland security threat prevention. IGI Global: Hershey

Kurian T.K., Alt, J.E., Chambers, S., Garret, G., Levi, M., and McClain, P.D. (eds)., 2011., The encyclopedia of political science, CQ Press: Washington DC

Jones, S.G., Vallee, C., Newlee, D., Harrington, N., Sharb, C., and Byrne, H., 2018. The evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist threat – Current and future challenges from the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other groups, CSIS: Washington DC

* Dr Kevin Fernandez (Universiti Malaysia Kelantan) and Dr Greg Lopez (Murdoch University, Perth) are involved in a research project to understand extremism and violent extremism in Malaysia, with the objective of developing measures to prevent and counter them.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.