Salafi-jihadi groups – (De)escalation trajectories and dialogue options

The project aims to advance knowledge on the patterns, critical junctures and factors of conflict (de)escalation of Salafi-jihadi armed groups. It also seeks to explore the role of 'soft power' dialogue engagement by third-parties (such as local bridge-builders, humanitarian actors or international mediators) with their leaders, members or ‘proxies’, in order to reduce violence or to create a momentum for a peace process. We also seek to compare Salafi-jihadi armed groups with other non-state armed groups to determine if there are significant differences and what that means for conflict transformation. Accordingly, we will undertake in-depth research on the nature of three contemporary Salafi-jihadi armed groups in Mali, Somalia and Syria, and examine the factors influencing their behavioural (de)escalation trajectories, with a particular emphasis on the role of third-party engagement.


November 2017 – December 2019

According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme, ISIS, Al Qaida and their affiliates represented 25 out of 45 armed groups active in state-based armed conflicts and more than half of all deaths caused by organised violence in 2015. These groups are characterised by their radical religious ideology, rooted in Salafi-based Islamism. Attempts to defeat such insurgencies through military means have largely proved ineffective so far, inducing Western governments to explore alternative options to the ‘war on terror’, primarily through approaches aimed to prevent violent extremism (PVE) or to ‘rehabilitate’ former jihadists. However, there is an acute lack of research on policy options for engaging violent extremist groups through dialogue or negotiation.


The existing literature on negotiations with non-state armed groups highlights key factors that are conducive to effective third-party engagement towards a peace process, such as the nature of these groups’ political claims, the pragmatism and internal legitimacy of their leadership, the degree of their social acceptance, as well as their self-limited use of violence. At first glance, the stakes for third-party engagement with Salafi-jihadi groups do not seem high, as these tend to hold maximalist and non-negotiable goals, to be viewed as a predatory or despotic force by the populations under their control, to employ ruthless violence, and to have little interest in political governance. However, so far there have only been very few attempts to put such assumptions to the test.


We will undertake a comprehensive analysis of the behavioural, ideological and organisational (de)escalation dynamics of Salafi-jihadi groups through three cases studies of radical Islamist armed groups in Syria, Somalia and Mali. Mapping and analysing past attempts at humanitarian or political dialogue with these actors, and their impact on the group’s behaviour, ideology and organisational dynamics, we seek to identify the factors that may support or hinder potential future engagements and influence their impact. To do so, we will use the methodologies of process tracing to record past trajectories and critical junctures, and scenario building to anticipate future windows of opportunity for de-escalation and engagement.

Aims and outcomes

The aim of the project is to uncover original empirical data and to identify new options and entry points for direct or indirect dialogue channels with Salafi-jihadi groups. These will serve as guidance for practitioners and policy-makers, as well as contributing to emerging academic debates on the opportunities offered by soft power approaches to transform violent extremism.


The empirical research will focus on three case studies in Mali, Somalia and Syria.

The project is funded by the German Foundation for Peace Research (Deutsche Stiftung Friedensforschung).

Forthcoming report launch and expert roundtable

At the end of November 2019 we will launch the comparative report on Salafi-jihadi armed groups de-escalation trajectories and options for dialogue engagement. We will also discuss the findings in an expert roundtable. The report and the case studies will be published on our website. A report on the launch and expert roundtable will also be published.

Second advisory board meeting

In January 2019 the second Advisory Board meeting took place in Berlin to discuss the project’s preliminary findings. The external and internal thematic and regional experts provided feedback and functioned as a sounding board for the three case studies (Ahrar al-Sham in Syria, al-Shabaab in Somali and Ansar Dine in Mali). They also contributed their expertise when we discussed our preliminary findings from a comparative perspective and the particular challenges of SJAG de-escalation and dialogue engagement.

Advisory board meeting

On 19 January 2018 the first Advisory Board meeting took place in Berlin to discuss the project’s research framework. The Advisory Board consists of external and internal thematic and regional experts.