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“Something wicked this way comes”: background to the new extremist challenge in the Middle East and North Africa

George Joffé, 20 April 2015

The radically transformed picture of Middle Eastern and North African affairs from that of a year ago is testament to the powerful dynamics that have been unleashed by the political crises in Iraq, Syria and Libya. They have resulted in the emergence of a new variant of political and religious extremism that has successfully challenged al-Qa’ida’s ideological hegemony and has demonstrated an organisational and military potential that is quite novel and immensely powerful compared to the confrontations that have developed in the region since the Arab Spring. This has been paralleled by the marginalisation of moderate Islamist movements and the states that support them in a new ideological divide that seems likely to replace the Sunni-Shia confrontation of the recent past. External players, too, have been dragged into these new confrontations as the implications of multipolarity slowly unfold, with the U.S. attempting to cement a new coalition of forces to crush extremism in the knowledge that it will therefore not be able to delay finding a modus vivendi with its regional and global antagonists, Russia and Iran. These developments, moreover, must be set against an economic environment that is increasingly adverse, as unconventional sources of oil and gas and the growth in regional energy demand threaten the main economic driver in the Middle East and North Africa – hydrocarbon resources.

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