Islamist Extremism

ISD conducts research and delivers policy support to tackle the unique challenge of Islamist extremism

Despite the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the dismantling of the group’s propaganda machinery, rumours of Islamist extremism’s ideological demise are greatly exaggerated.

Islamist extremism is in a state of transition. And while far-right extremism has seen a precipitous rise across the West, Islamism still constitutes the greatest global terrorism threat. But this threat is not just one of terrorism – Islamist extremists deploy violence tactically as a means of achieving their broader supremacist political objectives. It is crucial that policy makers and practitioners alike are equipped with the knowledge and tools to stem the polarisation, hate and violence resulting from Islamist extremism around the world.

For over a decade, ISD’s research team has been on the forefront of mapping the evolving online and offline ecosystem of Islamist extremist texts, supporters, ideologues and groups attempting to dominate Muslim discourse with warped supremacist ideologies. This analysis has evidenced and driven strategic responses from governments, tech companies, and communities.

A spectrum of responses
Our work on Islamism mirrors the global nature of the threat, reflecting the distinct challenges this extremism poses in Muslim majority and Muslim minority contexts. Our approach goes beyond addressing Islamism purely through a security lens, instead situating this challenge in the context of broader societal issues, including dynamics of polarisation, reciprocal radicalisation with other forms of extremism, and the relationship between religion and politics.

Rather than simply stopping Islamist violence, our work is premised on the promotion of human rights, protection of minorities, challenging extremist ideology, and preventing the mainstreaming of extremist discourse. ISD’s programmes span the spectrum of hard edge to soft edge responses – from curbing prison radicalization to promoting responsible citizenship – addressing both the tactical considerations as well as strategic context required to sustainably tackle Islamist extremism.

In 2014, ISD pioneered the testing of counternarrative campaigns with Abdullah X, a fictional animated character created by a former Islamist extremist who uses his personal experiences and insights to dismantle extremist narratives. Later in 2016, ISD worked with groups like Average Mohamed to produce campaigns that successfully engaged with target audiences. The results were published in ISD’s report, “The Impact of Counternarratives” and led to a private briefing at the White House.

Our policy advisory work supports national and municipal level policy makers around the world, from Manchester to the Maldives, as well as those on the front lines of preventing Islamist extremist violence and mobilisation, through data insights, cutting edge programming and harnessing practitioner best practice.

Drawing on our unique digital research capabilities, we have advised tech companies and governments alike on blind spots in the proliferation of extremism in the online space, from the specific targeting of women by ISIS to the tactics used by jihadist networks to avoid online moderation. These are featured in the ISD reports “The Propaganda Pipeline: The ISIS Fuouaris Upload Network on Facebook,” “The Baghdadi Net: How A Network of ISIL-Supporting Accounts Spread Across Twitter,” and “The Management of Terrorist Content: How Al Qaeda Texts Continue to Evade Facebook and YouTube Detection.

Offline, we have mapped the resonance of Islamist extremist narratives in communities across a range of languages, and powered community-focused projects through ISD’s Online Civil Courage Initiative (with Facebook) and Innovation Fund projects (with Google.org), as well as global training workshops through ISD’s YouthCAN network that extend from Malaysia to India to Kenya and Europe.

Impact on Islamism
In its work on Islamist extremism over the past 15 years, ISD has:

  • Produced the first and largest database of women travelling to join ISIS, transforming assumptions by policy makers that the group was predominantly a male phenomenon.
  • Launched the Against Violent Extremism network of over 500 formers and survivors of violent extremism, leveraging the powerful lessons, experiences and connections of individuals who have dealt first-hand with extremism to challenge it effectively globally.
  • Uncovered the “Caliphate Cache,” one of the largest collections of online material belonging to ISIS, containing more than 90,000 items and has an estimated 10,000 unique visitors a month.
  • Pioneered intergovernmental exchanges in this emerging policy area through ISD chairing of international bodies such as the Global Counter Terrorism Forum and Policy Planners Network, bringing together over 500 policymakers to respond collectively to pressing transnational counter extremism challenges.
  • Built sustainable cross-sectoral networks for the prevention of extremism in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world, including the Balkans, Middle East and North Africa.
  • Produced practical tools including practitioner-focused toolkits and handbooks for interventions against Islamist extremism.
  • Supported the development of cutting edge education and awareness raising campaigns for governments and grass roots organisations, reaching hundreds of thousands in potentially vulnerable audiences.

Current projects include a partnership with West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center to analyse the largest known online repository of pro-ISIS content, as well as a large scale research project mapping the evolving online Salafi ecosystem across platforms in English, Arabic and German.

Abdullah X

Title card for an Abdullah X counternarrative
campaign against ISIS, 2014

Caliphate Cache

Excerpt from the “Caliphate Cache,” the largest
ISIS digital library. Discovered by ISD, 2020

Latest Islamist Extremism research publications

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ISD’s Islamist Extremism research team

Milo Comerford
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Milo Comerford

Head of Policy & Research, Counter-Extremism

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Milo Comerford
Milo Comerford

Head of Policy & Research, Counter-Extremism

Milo Comerford is Head of Policy & Research, Counter Extremism, leading ISD’s work developing innovative research approaches and policy responses to extremism. Milo regularly briefs senior decision makers around the world on the challenge posed by extremist ideologies, and advises governments and international agencies on building effective strategies for countering extremism. He was previously Senior Analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, where he led major research projects on Salafi-jihadi propaganda, international educational responses to extremism, and the transnational far right. His writing and research features frequently in international media and he has made recent broadcast appearances on BBC News, Sky News and Al Jazeera.
Rashad Ali
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Rashad Ali

Resident Senior Fellow

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Rashad Ali
Rashad Ali

Resident Senior Fellow

Rashad Ali is a Resident Senior Fellow at ISD. Rashad is a counter terrorism practitioner who works on deradicalisation initiatives alongside Prisons, Probation Services, Police and community groups. He was formerly a national leadership member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the revolutionary Islamist organisation and has been actively involved in undermining its extreme ideology and perversion of Muslim faith since his departure. As a researcher he has given testimony and contributed submissions to the Home Affairs Select Committee on Radicalisation, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Intelligence and has briefed the London Mayor's office on Counter Terrorism and has been consulted by think tanks and governments in Germany, Denmark, the EU and the US. He is an external lecturer for Derby University’s Master Class courses on Radicalisation and Counter Terrorism. He has written for The Observer, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Times, Dissent Magazine, Birlingske in Denmark, Conservative Home, and given commentary for Newsnight, BBC News. He is the author of Islam, Shariah and the Far Right published by Demoqratiya journal, A Guide to Refuting Jihadism published by HJS and EFD, and the author of the ISD report Blasphemy, Charlie Hebdo, and the Freedom of Belief and Expression. He is classically trained in Islamic theology and jurisprudence and Modern studies in Islam. He studied at al-Azhar University, Cairo, and the Markfield Institute.
Zahed Amanullah
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Zahed Amanullah

Resident Senior Fellow, Networks & Outreach

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Zahed Amanullah
Zahed Amanullah

Resident Senior Fellow, Networks & Outreach

Zahed Amanullah is a Resident Senior Fellow at ISD, leading on ISD’s civil society engagement, communications, and partnerships, coordinating the public and private sectors with activists, frontline workers, and relevant civil society networks. He has worked closely with Google.org to support British and European civil society organisations through the Innovation Fund, the Shared Endeavour Fund, and the Google Impact Challenge on Safety. He has given testimony to the UK and European parliaments and has been featured at the BBC, NPR, Channel 4, Sky News, the Guardian, CNN International, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Newsweek, among others. He has co-authored the ISD reports The Impact of Counternarratives, Between Two Extremes: Responding to Islamist and tribalist messaging online in Kenya during the 2017 elections, and The Innovation Fund to Counter Hate and Extremism in the UK. He holds a BS from the University of California, Berkeley and a Diploma in Management from the University of Bath.
Anisa Harrasy
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Anisa Harrasy

Manager, Young Cities and Sub Saharan Africa

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Anisa Harrasy
Anisa Harrasy

Manager, Young Cities and Sub Saharan Africa

Anisa Harrasy is a Young Cities and Sub Saharan Africa Manager at ISD, where she works across the Strong Cities Network and Young Cities Sub Saharan Africa programming. This work entails designing and delivering project activities with both youth and local government stakeholders. The activities range from capacity building workshops, grant management and supporting locally-led PVE initiatives. Anisa also helps lead ISD’s strategic development and networking in Sub Saharan Africa and specialises in promoting peace in East Africa. She is the co-author of the ISD reports Between Two Extremes: Responding to Islamist and tribalist messaging online in Kenya during the 2017 elections and No Platform for Old Men, Barriers to Online Youth Civic Engagement and P-CVE in Europe. Anisa holds an MA in International Security from the University of Sussex and a BA in International relations with Arabic. She is bilingual Swahili and English, with basic Arabic proficiency.
Jakob Guhl
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Jakob Guhl

Research Manager

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Jakob Guhl
Jakob Guhl

Research Manager

Jakob Guhl is a Manager at ISD, where he works within the Digital Research Unit and with ISD Germany. His research focuses on the far-right, Islamist extremism, hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories. He is a frequent commentator on German radio and broadcast, including Deutschlandfunk, Tagesthemen, NDR and Radio Eins. Jakob has been invited to present his research about online hate to the German Ministry of the Justice and provided evidence to the German Minister of the Interior and the German Family Minister on how to strengthen prevention against right-wing extremism and antisemitism. His research has been featured in Die Zeit, The Guardian, DW, The Telegraph, CNN, Euronews, Coda Story, Vice, Politico, New Republic and Die Welt, among others. Additionally, he has published articles in the “Journal for Deradicalisation”, “Demokratie gegen Menschenfeindlichkeit”, Taz, Der Standard, GNET and co-authored an essay for an edited volume of the Munich Residence Theatre about the origins of contemporary political anger. He is the co-author of ISD reports Crisis and Loss of Control: German-Language Digital Extremism in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Hosting the ‘Holohoax’: A Snapshot of Holocaust Denial Across Social Media, A Safe Space to Hate: White Supremacist Mobilisation on Telegram and The Online Ecosystem of the German Far-Right. Jakob holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London.
Farah Pandith
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Farah Pandith

Senior Advisor

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Farah Pandith
Farah Pandith

Senior Advisor

Farah Pandith is a Senior Advisor at ISD. She is a world-leading expert and pioneer on countering violent extremism, having served as a political appointee in the George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama administrations at the National Security Council, US Agency for International Development and US Department of State. Most recently she was the first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities (2009-2014). Farah is a senior fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She served on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council from 2015-2017 and is the author of "How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat."