Jihadism is the belief in the need to employ jihad to pursue Islamist objectives. While Muslims have historically used the Islamic term “jihad” to refer to internal personal struggles, jihadists rely on the interpretation of jihad as holy war, and employ a variety of rhetorical tools in order to defend their claims that violent conflict with non-believers is not only permissible, but incumbent upon every Muslim.
The modern jihadist movement finds its ideological roots in the mid-20th century, when Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb and others asserted that Muslims are religiously obligated to take up jihad in order to replace man-made governments with sharia-based systems. The 1980s saw the first major foreign fighter jihadist campaign, after Islamist cleric Abdullah Azzam issued a fatwa (religious ruling) asserting that Muslims were religiously obligated to take up arms against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Muslim fighters in the Soviet-Afghan War accordingly referred to themselves as mujahideen (jihadists).
Qutb’s followers have since taken up jihadist campaigns around the world, targeting regional governments, foreign invaders, and civilians alike. While organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood have worked by and large to implement sharia from within countries’ preexisting political processes, groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS have openly embraced terrorist violence as a means to overthrowing local governments. Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias have also relied on rhetoric centered on violent jihad in an effort to justify and glamorize terrorist violence.