Islamists span a broad spectrum in the Middle East. Some are political parties; others are militant groups. Some believe in democracy; others believe in establishing a global caliphate by force. They all seek to blend religion and politics, but often contrast sharply on how to achieve that goal.

Islamists in the Middle East differ in their use of violence. They break down in three broad categories: Militant groups that pursue radical change by force. Political parties that seek gradual change through existing political institutions; most Islamist political parties have denounced violence. A third set span strategies and tactics. Hezbollah and Hamas, for example, operate as both political parties and militant groups.

Political Parties and Militias

The Islamist spectrum has shifted significantly since 2011. Political parties--ranging from moderates to Salafi ideologues--faced unprecedented opportunities after the Arab Spring. After decades of being banished, Ennahda won enough votes to gain prominent leadership roles in a series of elections. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood won both parliament and presidential elections in 2012, but parliament was dismantled by a judicial decision and the president was ousted by a military coup in 2013.

Other parties in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, and Morocco have distanced themselves from their Islamist platforms in order to stay in power. But compromising their positions has cost them supporters and damaged their credibility.

By mid-2016, the proliferation of militant groups had narrowed the political space for nonviolent Islamist parties. After ISIS declared its caliphate in 2014, the “Islamist” label increasingly became a liability. Authorities in Egypt repressed a broad array of opposition groups – most notably the Muslim Brotherhood – and justified crackdowns as a response to extremism. Tunisia’s Ennahda party, one of the few Islamist parties in the region with a plurality of parliamentary seats, distanced itself from political Islam in 2016 over concerns of being affiliated with militants.

Islamist militants of disparate stripes have gained traction, especially in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. Some, like Libya Dawn, fight conventional wars to hold territory; it has partnered with secular groups when it fits their interests. Other groups – notably the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh – are indiscriminate in their use of force, attacking anyone who does not share their narrow worldview, including fellow jihadists.

Ideology and Identity

Islamists vary widely in ideology, political goals and sectarian identity. Some Islamists are Sunni; others are Shiite. Some advocate democracy, while others favor strict forms of governance modeled on seventh-century practices when the faith was founded.

Among Sunnis, the most wide-reaching Islamist movement is the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928 and has offshoots in dozens of countries. It is a socially conservative Sunni movement. Egypt’s Brotherhood renounced violence in 1969. It and associated political parties have generally accepted the basic principles and institutions of democracy, such as a multiparty parliament, the separation of powers, and judicial independence. But the names, structures, and agendas of Brotherhood-inspired parties vary significantly. So does the role they envision for Islam. A pivotal debate within the Brotherhood has been over which comes first-- religion or freedom. Does the individual gain freedom only after embracing Islam? Or is a person only a true Muslim if he is born with free choice and selects his faith? It is a central tension among many Islamist movements in the 21st century.

Salafi groups form another Islamist contingent among Sunnis in the Middle East. They advocate a return to the practices and principles of the Prophet Mohammed’s time fourteen centuries ago. They traditionally eschewed politics and neither voted nor ran for office to change their circumstances on earth; rewards were to come in heaven. They became political players only after the Arab Spring, forming parties and winning parliamentary seats in Egypt and Libya. But Salafis do not operate as a unified movement either within countries or across borders. Politicians coalesce around individual sheikhs who promote strict interpretations of Islam. Salafis generally hold conservative positions on women, minorities, and personal freedoms. ISIS and al Qaeda are inspired by Salafism, but not all Salafis believe in the use of violence to achieve their goals.

Shiite groups represent a separate Islamist ideology. Hezbollah, a Lebanese political and military movement with strong links to Iran, is one of the most significant Shiite groups in the region. It favors a state based on Islam and Sharia. But Hezbollah also believes that “consensual democracy” is an acceptable form of governance in Lebanon’s pluralistic society, which recognizes 19 diverse Muslim and Christian sects.

Far from representing a unified movement, Islamist groups are often rivals. In Egypt, the Salafi Nour Party supported the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, in 2013. Libya’s Salafis have accused the Brotherhood-linked Justice and Construction Party of compromising Islamic principles. Hezbollah has actively fought a range of Sunni opposition groups in Syria. And despite their similar ideologies, ISIS and al Qaeda have been battling for supremacy in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

The following is a rundown of Islamist groups by country, highlighting the diversity of Islamists across the region.



Ennahda was founded in 1981 by Rached al Ghannouchi. It was outlawed and repressed under President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali. But after the Arab Spring, it emerged as a powerful force in politics. It won 41 percent of the vote for the constitutional assembly in 2011. It came in second to the secular Nidaa Tounes party in 2014. But it became the largest party in parliament after several members of Nidaa Tounes resigned in early 2016.

The party does not call for Sharia or an Islamic state. Ennahda supports multiparty elections, and Ghannouchi has written extensively on Islam’s compatibility with democracy.

In May 2016, Ghannouchi announced that the group would move away from the label “political Islam.” In an interview with Le Monde, he said that “We are Muslim democrats who no longer claim political Islam." Ghannouchi said that the shift reflects Tunisia’s successful democratic transition, but he also cited the need to distance the party from extremist groups.

Ansar al Sharia (Tunisia)

Ansar al Sharia was founded in April 2011 by Sheikh Abu Ayyad al Tunisi, after he and other Islamist prisoners were freed following the 2011 uprising. The group was accused of inciting attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in September 2012. The Tunisian government has cracked down on the group since 2013, and many of its members are underground or have fled to Libya or Syria.

Ansar al Sharia claims to operate independently, but reportedly has links to al Qaeda. Members of the group have also publicly supported ISIS. The group has ties to influential Salafi cleric Sheikh Khattab Idris.

The group seeks an Islamic state governed by Sharia. They reject political parties and democratic elections, support gender segregation and public prayer on university campuses, and favor modest Islamic dress.

Islamic State

Despite being hailed as the region’s best bet for democracy, Tunisia has suffered from extremist attacks perpetrated by ISIS supporters. On March 18, 2015, militants attacked the Bardo museum in Tunis, killing 22 people. On June 26, 2015, gunmen attacked the beach resort town of Sousse and killed 39 tourists. And on Nov. 24, 2015, militants bombed a bus carrying members of the presidential guard, killing 12 people. ISIS supporters claimed responsibility for all three attacks.

By 2016, ISIS did not have a formal affiliate in Tunisia. But more than 6,000 Tunisians had reportedly flocked to Iraq and Syria by 2016 – more than from any other country.


Muslim Brotherhood

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood began participating in elections in 1947, but was banned in 1963. The Brotherhood regrouped after Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011, and it has five members in the 110-member Syrian National Coalition.

Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members reportedly returned to Syria in May 2015, hoping to revive the movement. But they struggled with finances and recruitment. The Brotherhood has little influence on the ground and has denied supporting any rebel groups.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood seeks to implement Sharia gradually, but within a civilian pluralist state. The movement renounced violence in 2001.

Ahrar al Sham

Ahrar al Sham, an Islamist militia formed in 2011, grew to become one of Syria’s largest rebel groups in 2015. It has collaborated with both Jabhat Fateh al Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front) and the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, and has reportedly received backing from Turkey.  It is part of the Army of Conquest, a rebel alliance of Islamist factions operating in northwest Syria.

In mid-December 2015, Ahrar al Sham participated in a meeting of Syrian opposition groups in Riyadh. But it withdrew after disagreements over the future of President Bashar al Assad's government. The group refused to accept any outcome that did not include "cleansing Syrian territories of the Russian-Iranian occupation and sectarian militia supporting them."

Ahrar al Sham’s leaders have praised al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, but the group reportedly does not share al Qaeda’s global visions. Its ambitions are limited to establishing an Islamic state in Syria. 

Jabhat Fateh al Sham (Formerly the Nusra Front)

Jabhat Fateh al Sham descended from al Qaeda in Iraq, which was later renamed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). In 2011, ISI dispatched fighters to Syria in 2011. They declared the formation of the Nusra Front in 2012, led by Abu Mohammad al Julani.

But the Nusra Front split from ISI in April 2013 over differences in strategy, and it reaffirmed its allegiance to al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan. ISI went on to rebrand itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Despite shared origins, ISIS and the Nusra Front became rivals in Syria.

The Nusra Front quickly became one of Syria’s most active rebel groups. By 2016, it was firmly rooted in its strongholds in the Idlib and Aleppo provinces. It attracted more foreign fighters – accounting for around 30 percent of its ranks – than any Syrian rebel group except ISIS.

On June 28, 2016, the Nusra Front changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al Sham – or Front for the Conquest of Syria – and split from al Qaeda. The group did not renounce its hardline ideology, and Julani noted that the name change occurred “without compromising or sacrificing our solid beliefs.” The split from al Qaeda may be intended to “create the image of being more moderate,” according to U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The Nusra Front espouses a militant Salafist ideology, much like al Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups. It pursues two primary goals: overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al Assad and establishing an Islamic state in Syria. It has at times downplayed its extremist worldview to form alliances with other Syrian rebel groups dedicated to overthrowing Assad. Unlike ISIS, the group generally avoids sectarian rhetoric and attacks on fellow Sunni Muslims to avoid alienating potential allies.

The Nusra Front has argued that an Islamic state in Syria should only be established with the consensus of other Islamist groups. In May 2016, however, its leaders were reportedly preparing to declare an Islamic emirate in Syria. The emirate, intended to rival ISIS’s so-called caliphate, would likely be concentrated in Idlib.

Islamic State

Like Jabhat Fateh al Sham, the Islamic State – also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh – emerged from the remnants of AQI, a local offshoot of al Qaeda founded by Abu Musab al Zarqawi in 2004. It faded into obscurity for several years after the surge of U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007. But it began to reemerge in 2011. Over the next few years, it took advantage of growing instability in Iraq and Syria to carry out attacks and bolster its ranks.

The group changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013. ISIS launched an offensive on Mosul and Tikrit in June 2014. On June 29, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced the formation of a caliphate stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq, and renamed the group the Islamic State.

A U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq on August 7, 2014, and expanded the campaign to Syria the following month. Over the next two years, the United States conducted more than 14,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. By 2016, ISIS had lost 20 percent of its territory in Syria and 45 percent of its territory in Iraq.

But ISIS also expanded into a network of affiliates in at least eight other countries, and cultivated supporters around the world. ISIS increasingly carried out attacks beyond the borders of its so-called caliphate. In November 2015, ISIS claimed responsibility for a series of coordinated attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured more than 300. In June 2016, a gunman who pledged support to ISIS killed at least four dozen people at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

ISIS draws on the same schools of thought as al Qaeda. Both are inspired by the works of medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya, 20th century Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb, and later scholars, such as Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, a Palestinian-Jordanian who taught former AQI leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi. ISIS claims that its hardline interpretation of Islam is reviving the purity of the faith when it was founded in the seventh century.


Justice and Construction Party (Muslim Brotherhood)

Libya’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1949. All political parties were banned under Muammar al Qaddafi, who was in power from 1969 to 2011. But in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood formed the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) to run in the 2012 elections. The party secured 34 seats. Its popularity dwindled over the next two years, and the JCP fared poorly in the 2014 elections. With a deteriorating security situation and mounting political divisions, Libya split into two rival parliaments in 2014. JCP politicians joined the parliament in Tripoli, backed by the Libya Dawn militia.

In December 2015, delegates from the two governments signed a U.N.-brokered agreement to form a unity government. Despite lacking formal approval from either government, a nine-member presidential council, led by Fayez al Sarraj, was tasked with appointing a cabinet. In late March 2016, Sarraj's government arrived in Tripoli, but still faced opposition from some members of the Tripoli government who refused to recognize the new government's authority. By July 2016, the unity government still lacked authority on the ground and remained mired in political deadlock.

Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood aims to establish a “civil state with Islamic references” and has encouraged women to participate in politics.

Salafi parties

Small Salafi parties and independents began participating in politics after the 2011 uprisings that ousted Qaddafi. They participated in Libya's 2012 parliamentary elections and picked up a total of 27 seats. Like the JCP, Salafis fared poorly in the 2014 polls.

One of the major Salafi groups that emerged after the Arab Spring was the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change. Led by Abdelhakim Belhaj, the group was established from the remnants of the outlawed Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which renounced violence and was disbanded in 2010. Belhadj was the military commander of the LIFG, which trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In 2012, Belhaj formed the Salafi Watan party to compete in parliamentary elections.

Like other Salafis, the Watan party advocates Sharia law as the principal source of legislation. Salafi politicians have accused the JCP of compromising on Islamic principles.

Libya Dawn

Libya Dawn is a coalition of powerful militias that backed the Islamist-dominated government in Tripoli. It is primarily active in the western part of the country, and controls major coastal cities between Misrata and the Tunisian border. While a range of armed groups – including secular militias and tribal fighters – have joined the coalition, it is dominated by Islamist militias. Misratan militias and the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room are two major Islamist factions in the coalition. Some members have ties to Muslim Brotherhood politicians.

Libya Dawn has generally tried to distance itself from extremist groups. In August 2014, it issued a statement expressing support for democracy. But some members of the Islamist coalition reportedly have ties to Ansar al Sharia and other extremist militias in the east. By March 2016, the coalition had begun to fracture along political and geographic lines.

Ansar al Sharia (Libya)

Ansar al Sharia is a hardline group created in June 2012 by militants who fought in the 2011 uprising. It is widely suspected of having links to al Qaeda, but its leaders have denied these claims. The group has been battling secular militias since May 2014. It faced a setback after the death of its leader, Mohammad al Zahawi, in late 2014.

Ansar al Sharia is active in jihadist coalitions in Benghazi, Derna, and Ajdabiya. Its level of connection with Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia is unclear, though the two share similar goals and ideologies.

The group seeks to establish strict Islamic rule in Libya. Ansar al Sharia was linked to the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi and the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens on Sept. 11, 2012.

Islamic State

In 2014, ISIS fighters returning to Libya from Syria established an affiliate organization. The group seized the city of Sirte in 2015, forcing Islamist Misratan militias – who backed the Tripoli government – to retreat. ISIS also gained a strong foothold in Derna, and has carried out attacks in Tripoli, Benghazi, and the southern desert. Libya’s ISIS branch made headlines in 2015 for beheading 28 Egyptian Christians, setting off car bombs, and attacking foreign embassies. ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria reportedly has more control over its Libya branch than over any of its other affiliates.

But ISIS’s Libya branch has also faced losses. In 2015, it lost ground in Derna and Benghazi to competing rebel groups, including those with links to al Qaeda. On Nov. 14, 2015, a U.S. airstrike killed Wissam al Zubaydi, an Iraqi national and a top ISIS commander in Libya. In the summer of 2016, the U.S. military conducted airstrikes on ISIS positions in Sirte at the request of Libya’s unity government. U.S.-backed militias announced that they had fully seized control of Sirte in August.

Libya’s ISIS branch has reportedly forged alliances with jihadist groups such as the Tarek Ibn Zayad Brigade, an offshoot of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But it has clashed with other jihadist groups, including the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna.



Justice and Development Party (AKP)

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the largest Islamist party in Turkey. Founded in 2001, it has been the ruling party since 2002 – a marked contrast to other Islamist parties in the region who have struggled to gain influence in politics. By 2016, it was the only Islamist party that held a parliamentary majority in the Middle East.

Although the party pushed through democratic reforms in its early years, it has become increasingly authoritarian under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The government has suppressed dissent by restricting civil society and the press. Erdogan plans to consolidate his authority by amending the constitution to transform Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system.

Erdogan took further steps to eliminate rivals shortly after the attempted military coup on July 15, 2016. He accused U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers of orchestrating the plot. Gulen inspired a popular Islamic movement called Hizmet, which now has supporters in Turkey and some 140 countries on six continents. Gulen was once an ally of President Erdogan and the AKP, until a falling out in 2013 when Erdogan accused Gulen of being behind corruption allegations that were made against several senior ministers.

Gulen immediately denied that he was behind the plot. But after the coup, the Turkish government arrested or suspended more than 67,000 people, including members of the police, civil service, judiciary, and military, many of whom had suspected links to the Gulenists.

The AKP describes itself as a secular party with a socially conservative platform based on Muslim values. While it has generally taken a pragmatic approach, critics allege that the AKP seeks to “Islamize” Turkey.

Islamic State

Turkey experienced a wave of ISIS attacks in 2015 and 2016, which helped the AKP gain support by promoting itself as a source of stability. One of the largest attacks occurred in June 2016, when three men killed more than 40 people at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. More than 200 were injured. No group immediately claimed credit for the attack, but Turkish officials said they had strong evidence that ISIS leadership was involved in planning the attack. The attackers were reportedly from Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.


Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood)

Egypt was the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s largest Islamist movement with more than 80 branches worldwide. The Brotherhood had little influence in politics until the Arab Spring in 2011, when it launched the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), led by Mohammad Morsi. The party won 43.4 percent of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary elections, and Morsi was elected president in 2012.

But public opposition mounted against Morsi, and in July 2013, the military removed Morsi as president following mass protests. In 2014, Egypt’s High Administrative Court banned the Brotherhood and declared it a terrorist organization.

Crackdowns on the Brotherhood have intensified since President Abdel Fattah al Sisi took office in June 2014. On May 30, 2016, a court sentenced Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and 35 others to life in prison for involvement in clashes with security forces in 2013 following Morsi’s ouster. In 2016, the government celebrated the anniversary of Morsi’s ouster with a new national holiday.

The FJP has supported Sharia as a source of legislation. But it advocated for a civil state as opposed to a theocracy. Its members hold conservative views on women, minorities, and personal freedoms, but the Brotherhood has historically accepted the basic tenets of democracy.

Nour Party

Although Salafis have not traditionally participated in Egyptian politics, they formed the Nour party in 2011 and participated in elections. The Nour Party won 27.8 percent of the vote in the 2011 elections, as part of a coalition with two smaller Islamist parties. By 2016, it had survived by backing President Sisi. But the strategy caused the party to lose support among its base. It was the only Islamist party to field candidates in the 2015 parliamentary elections. It won only 12 out of 596 seats, compared to 121 seats it had won in 2011.

The Nour Party is socially conservative and calls for the gradual implementation of Sharia. It officially supports democracy and calls for a civil state. Some of its leaders, however, have said that democracy is a form of apostasy.

Islamic State

Militant Islamist groups have operated in Sinai for years, but the violence has escalated since ISIS declared its caliphate in 2014. One of the strongest Sinai-based militant groups, Ansar Beit al Maqdis, became an affiliate of ISIS in November 2014, changing its name to Sinai Province. Since then, it has claimed responsibility for a slew of attacks that have spread to major Egyptian cities.

The decision to ally with ISIS caused a rift in the organization, causing some fighters to defect to al Qaeda-linked groups. Sinai Province leaders have declared these offshoots apostates, but has also occasionally collaborated with them.

Sinai Province receives funding and sophisticated weaponry from ISIS. It is reportedly one of the most effective affiliates.


Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform)

The Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) was founded in 1990. The party is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islah has been in and out of government since it was founded, sometimes allying with leftist opposition parties. After Yemen’s government was ousted by Houthi rebels in 2014, Islah backed Saudi airstrikes against the Houthis. It supports the restoration of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was driven out of Sanaa in 2014. By 2016, most of Islah’s senior leadership was in exile. 

Islah seeks social reform based on Islam. It allows women to participate in politics. Several prominent women, such as the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakol Karman, have held party leadership positions. But grassroots elements of the party would prefer women to remain in more traditional roles.


The Houthis are a large clan originating from Yemen’s northwestern Saada province. They practice the Zaydi form of Shiism. Houthi insurgents have clashed with Yemen’s Sunni government for more than a decade. Since 2011, the Houthi movement has expanded beyond Zaydis, becoming a wider movement opposed to President Hadi. The Houthis took over Sanaa in September 2014.

A Saudi-led air campaign against the Houthis began in March 2015, but after more than a year the efforts had failed to dislodge them. Hadi’s government and the Houthis entered peace talks in Kuwait, but as of August 2016 the parties had not reached an agreement.

The Houthis do not promote a coherent ideology, and their political platform is vague and contradictory. The Houthi emblem (right) only offers a broad view of the group’s views. It is made of up entirely of the following phrases: “God is great, Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews, victory to Islam.” The Houthis’ Zaydi roots do not necessarily dictate their approach to politics. Their leaders have claimed they are not attempting to revive the Zaydi imamate, but rather to seek greater political inclusion. Since 2011, they have used nationalist and populist language in their messaging rather than framing themselves as a strictly Zaydi movement. And they have cultivated a range of Sunni political allies.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has operated in Yemen since 2004, when it was forced out of Saudi Arabia during a security crackdown. It has been accused of links to the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the 2009 plot to blow up a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

In 2012, President Hadi ramped up efforts to expel AQAP from Abyan, Shabwa and Marib, but with limited success. In 2013 and 2014, AQAP gained support among Sunnis by appearing to counterbalance the Houthis, whom AQAP strongly opposes. By August 2016, AQAP was attacking government and military targets in southern Yemen, hoping to delegitimize Hadi and his supporters.

AQAP espouses a global jihadist ideology, in line with al Qaeda. It seeks to eject foreigners from the Arabian Peninsula and eventually establish a caliphate. But it rejects ISIS’s so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria. AQAP, which remains the dominant jihadist group in the country, has condemned ISIS’s attacks as indiscriminate and has criticized the group on social media.

Islamic State

ISIS first established a presence in Yemen in November 2014, when Baghdadi accepted a pledge of allegiance from Yemen’s ISIS supporters. In January 2015, ISIS supporters expanded their ranks and conducted their first attacks. ISIS operates in ten of Yemen’s 21 governorates. It has declared eight provinces in Yemen, naming them after existing governorates. None of the provinces has attempted to govern.

ISIS has attracted fighters from Yemen’s tribes and defectors from AQAP. It conducts regular attacks on government forces and Houthi rebels. It has also targeted Zaydi civilians in an attempt to ignite a sectarian conflict in Yemen. ISIS claimed credit for a series of suicide bombings in June 2016 that killed 42 people in Mukalla.



Hezbollah is a Shiite Islamist movement led by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. It was founded in 1982 with help from Iran. It acts as a religious, political, and military organization. It provides extensive social services, but is also the largest armed group in Lebanon after the army. It carried out several suicide bombings and kidnappings in the 1980s and 1990s and fought an open war with Israel in 2006. It is on the U.S. list of terrorist groups. Hezbollah has participated in elections since 1992 and joined the government in 2005.

Since 2012, Hezbollah has aided Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Syria's civil war and fought Sunni opposition groups. ISIS and the Nusra Front – both of which are vehemently anti-Shiite – have also clashed with Hezbollah in Syria.

Hezbollah favors an Islamic state but has also said that it recognizes the complications in Lebanon’s multisectarian setting. The group is allied with the largest Christian party. Women hold midlevel positions within the party, but it has not fielded any female candidates for parliament.

Islamic State

ISIS does not have a formal affiliate in Lebanon, but violence from Syria’s civil war has occasionally spilled over into the country. The most deadly attack occurred in November 2015, when a double suicide bombing killed 43 people and injured more than 230 in Beirut. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, which it said specifically targeted Shiites. Around 900 Lebanese citizens have joined ISIS.

                         Palestinian Territories


Hamas was founded in 1987 and is led by Khaled Mashaal. It grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood and is the most influential Palestinian Islamist group. It is a social movement, a militia, and a political party. It is on the U.S. list of terrorist groups for carrying out attacks and suicide bombings in Israel. After rejecting participation in elections for decades, Hamas ran in local elections in 2004 and won the 2006 parliamentary elections. 

After Hamas won the elections, it faced a cutoff of funds from the international community. A year after its victory at the polls, a brief civil war split the Palestinian Authority into two parts. Hamas controlled Gaza, but it was removed from power and driven partly back underground in the West Bank.

By 2016, Hamas was still engaged in a standoff the secular Fatah party that runs the Palestinian Authority from the West Bank. Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation deal in April 2014 and formed a transitional government to reconcile the political split between the West Bank and Gaza. In March 2016, Hamas and Fatah agreed to form a unity government and hold elections within six months. But deep political divisions remained.

Fatah has accused Hamas of trying to create an Islamic state in Gaza. Hamas has accused Fatah of refusing to hold elections out of fear that they will be defeated by Hamas.

Hamas defines itself as a centrist movement, which implies a moderate approach and a gradual application of Islamic principles. It has democratized internal procedures, holding leadership elections. It supports women’s participation in politics; six of its female candidates won seats in the 2006 election and women sit in the party’s ruling council. But many Hamas members favor gender segregation.

Islamic State

ISIS does not have a formal affiliate in the Palestinian territories. But in July 2015, ISIS supporters in Gaza pledged to overthrow Hamas. They have also claimed attacks on Hamas military targets. Hamas has generally refused to acknowledge ISIS presence in Gaza, but allegedly cracked down on suspected ISIS sympathizers in 2015.


Movement of the Society for Peace (MSP)

The Movement of Society for Peace was founded in 1988 and is led by Aboujerra Soltani. It originated as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It previously backed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime, but split from the ruling coalition in 2012 to form the Green Algeria Coalition with two smaller Islamist groups, Ennahda and Islah. The coalition fared poorly in the 2012 elections – winning only 48 of 462 seats – and failed to field a presidential candidate to challenge Bouteflika in 2014. In 2015, it resumed its pragmatic approach of working with the ruling secular National Liberation Front.

The MSP’s 2007 platform proposed that a grand mufti serve as the chief legal authority, but the party does not call for Sharia or an Islamic state. The party supports women’s rights to education and work, but it does not advocate changing the conservative Family Code. It supports Islamic banking, social welfare, and state control of certain sectors.

Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)

The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was founded in 1989 by Abbasi Madani and Sheikh Ali Belhadj. It won the first round of parliamentary elections in 1991. In 1992, a military coup aborted the election and outlawed the FIS, which sparked a decade-long insurgency. The FIS renounced violence in 1999. In 2011, parliament sustained the ban on the FIS. The organization is currently led from exile by Madani.

Madani Mezrag, who led an armed wing of the FIS during the civil war, attempted to reenter politics in 2015. He intended to form a party based on FIS principles, while working within Algeria’s existing political system. Technically, Mezrag is forbidden to join politics under the terms of the 1997 ceasefire. By 2016, the government had not approved his request to form a new party.

The FIS calls for an Islamic state but accepts multiparty elections. It emerged as a Salafi movement with strict interpretation of Sharia and gender segregation.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emerged from the Armed Islamic Group, one of the Islamist factions that opposed the regime during the civil war in the 1990s. In 1998 it rebranded itself as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). By the early 2000s, Algeria’s security services had driven the group into the eastern Kabylie mountains and south into Mali. With dwindling support in Algeria, the group began taking on a more international focus and declared allegiance to al Qaeda in 2007, taking the name Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

AQIM has largely engaged in guerrilla style attacks and kidnappings. But in 2012, aided by the influx of weapons and fighters from Libya’s civil war, it allied with Tuareg rebels and seized territory in northern Mali. It attempted to establish governance based on Sharia in Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. In January 2013, French military operations drove out AQIM and its allies. Since 2013, the group has been weakened by internal fracturing.

AQIM adheres to a global jihadist ideology in line with al Qaeda. But in practice, it has focused on local and regional government targets in North Africa rather than attacking in Europe or the United States.

Islamic State

On Sept. 14, 2014, a jihadist group known as Jund al Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate) split from AQIM and pledged allegiance to ISIS. The same month, the group conducted its first attack by kidnapping and beheading French citizen Herve Gourdel in retaliation for France’s intervention in Iraq.

In November 2014, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi accepted the pledge of allegiance. But the group experienced a severe setback in December 2014, when its leader, Abd al Malik Guri, was killed by Algerian military forces. In May 2015, the military killed at least 22 ISIS militants in a surprise attack in Bouira, east of Algiers.

In July 2015, ISIS leaders in Iraq and Syria issued a statement calling for expanded activities in Algeria. But as of February 2016, the group had not claimed any attacks other than Gourdel’s beheading. In June, authorities reportedly foiled an ISIS-linked group’s plan to attack a shopping mall in the city of Setif.


Justice and Development Party (PJD)

The Justice and Development Party (PJD) was founded in 1997 and is led by Abdelilah Benkirane. The party won 27 percent of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary election. By 2015, the PJD still held a plurality in parliament and was one of the few Islamist parties still in power in the Middle East. It fared well in the 2015 municipal elections. It tripled its number of seats to 5,021, up from around 1,600 it had secured in 2009. But its political influence remained limited because the king still held religious and political supremacy.

The PJD has taken a pragmatic approach, cooperating with the monarchy and focusing on gradual change. It has made little progress pushing forward its Islamist agenda. It is socially conservative, but it does not seek to establish an Islamic state. Its positions on democracy, women’s rights, and religious freedom are ambiguous and often contradicted by members’ statements. Overall, the party has gradually adopted a secular discourse.

Justice and Charity

Justice and Charity (Adl wa Ihssan) was founded in 1987 by Sheikh Abdessalam Yassin, a Sufi leader. It has been banned by the government since 1990. The movement has a strong grassroots presence in universities and Islamic charities. But its influence has waned since Yassin's death in December 2012. By 2015, the group reportedly still had around 200,000 followers, but its coherence as an organization was severely diminished.

Justice and Charity is socially conservative and does not recognize the legitimacy of the monarchy. It seeks radical change of the political system and advocates a democratic state with Sharia as the main source of legislation.

Islamic State

Extremist groups have long been active in Morocco. Members of the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group (MICG) – formed in 1998 by Moroccans who trained in Afghanistan – were linked to the Casablanca attacks in 2003 and the Madrid attacks in 2004. By 2015, the MICG was largely defunct. But AQIM has attempted to forge links with small jihadist groups operating in Morocco.

ISIS has not established a formal affiliate in Morocco, but thousands of Moroccans have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the group. In a July 2014 video, Moroccan ISIS fighters threatened to launch an attack on Moroccan soil. Morocco’s ISIS supporters have criticized other Islamists, including the PJD and Justice and Charity.

In 2015, Moroccan officials dismantled ISIS cells across the country, who were attempting to recruit and dispatch fighters to Iraq and Syria. In June 2016, the interior ministry said it had dismantled a suspected militant cell inspired by ISIS. The 10 men, including one Algerian, were allegedly planning attacks in the kingdom.


Islamic Action Front (Muslim Brotherhood)

Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1945 and fielded its first candidates in 1989 as independents. The Brotherhood has worked within the political system, but its relations with the regime have often been tense. Its political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), was founded in 1992, led by Hamzeh Mansour. The IAF boycotted the 2013 parliamentary elections. By 2015, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood was struggling with internal fracturing, and a reformist branch of the group broke off to form its own organization. The Jordanian government approved the new group, leading to accusations that the government was weakening the Brotherhood by playing up internal divisions.

The Brotherhood also came under fire for its strong opposition to Jordan’s involvement in the U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS. The IAF issued a statement in December 2014 warning against “alliances with the West against Islamic nations.” The ISIS killing of Jordanian pilot Moaz al Kasasbeh in February 2015 increased public support for Jordan’s involvement, and put the Brotherhood on the defensive.

In June 2016, the IAF announced that it would participate in the September parliamentary elections, after boycotting the previous two cycles.

The IAF does not seek an Islamic state or oppose the monarchy, and it supports multiparty elections. As recently as 2007, the IAF called for implementing Sharia and segregating classrooms, mandatory veiling for women, and a ban on alcohol. Women have held seats on the IAF consultative council, but the IAF does not support gender equality through legal reform.

Wasat party

The Wasat Party is a small, centrist party of independent Islamists who left the Islamic Action Front over disagreements with the Brotherhood. It was founded in 2003 and is led by Haitham Amayreh. It cooperates with several secular parties and holds three seats in Jordan’s lower house of representatives. 

Wasat is more moderate than the Islamic Action Front. It views Sharia’s role in legislation as flexible and supports democratic principles. Female members of the party have participated in elections and hold leadership positions in the party.

Islamic State

Jordan’s government grew increasingly concerned about extremist groups after the Arab Spring, as the Syrian uprising deteriorated into a civil war and Islamist militants from around the world poured into a neighboring state. In late 2012, the government arrested 11 Jordanian al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists for their role in planning a series of attacks inside the kingdom. In 2014, it detained dozens of Brotherhood members and arrested its leader, Zaki Bani Rashid, an outspoken voice from the group’s hawkish wing.

As of September 2015, an estimated 2,000 Jordanians had joined ISIS and the Nusra Front in Syria. ISIS had not established an affiliate in Jordan by 2016, despite its proximity to Syria.