A Washington think tank is hoping to map out the breadth and scope of radical Islamic groups with the same precision policymakers once used to monitor the spread of communism.
Last month, the American Foreign Policy Council unveiled the first installment of its World Almanac of Islamism, a continuously updated online database it hopes will become a key resource in helping policy-makers in the US and beyond address the global Islamist threat.
"We're talking about Islamism as a political manifestation of an often radical phenomenon," AFPC Vice President Ilan Berman said.
"There are violent groups like al- Qaida and participatory groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, and while a lot of their goals tend to be congruent, they express themselves in many different ways.
"The goal of the almanac is to try to provide a bit of granularity to what is essentially an amorphous concept," Berman told The Jerusalem Post last week on the sidelines of the World Summit on Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya.
A decade after the 9/11 attacks, he said, "there's not a lot of understanding about how pervasive Islamism is and what its driving dynamics are – whether it's ascendant or descendant in various places... and what the constituent governments are doing about it, if anything at all."
The World Almanac represents the most comprehensive attempt yet at mapping worldwide Islamist movements, Berman said.
"There have been other, earlier projects, but they tended to be either region-specific or isolated in a certain moment of time," he said. The almanac, he said, will monitor the spread of radical Islam "the way we used to track communism during the Cold War, and the way we today track the advance or decline of democracy."
The online resource covers 58 countries, but its editors hope to extend its reach as widely as necessary.
"There are certain places – Iceland, Greenland – where this isn't really an issue, but we do intend to expand this to areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, and to monitor trends evolving from the Arab Spring," Berman said.
The almanac website (http://almanac.afpc.org) features a clickable color-coded world map indicating whether a country shows a low, medium or high level of Islamist activity, as well as a drop-down list of non-state Islamist groups such as the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Chapters are written and updated by dozens of experts, including the Washington Institute's Matthew Levitt on Hezbollah, Shmuel Bar of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, on Jordan and the Middle East Forum's Raymond Ibrahim on the Palestinian Authority.
In her chapter on the Muslim Brotherhood, Myriam Benraad of Paris's Sciences Po notes that the group seems to have adopted a more radical discourse since electing Supreme Guide Muhammad Badi last year. Badi has singled out America and Israel as "the real enemies of Muslims" and described violent jihad as "a commandment of God which cannot be disregarded.'" Writing about Islamism in the United States, Ryan Evans of King's College London concludes that the American public remains "largely unaware of and/or uninterested in Islamist groups in the US unless they can somehow be linked to al-Qaida and/or terrorist attacks in the West. Nor are civil society, media institutions and the public at large generally informed about Islamist groups in the US and Islamism generally, beyond the occasional terrorist plots that are routinely disrupted every year."
One of the almanac's key objectives is to analyze Islamist movements outside the confines of the War on Terror, Berman said.
"We tend to view everything through an Iraq-centric or Afghanistan-centric view," he said.
"When we think about Islamism, we tend to think about it reactively, or as a moment in time. If there's a flare-up of Islamism in Thailand, everyone becomes an expert in Thai Islamism for two weeks and then goes about their business. We don't follow up, and we don't have an idea of whether the phenomenon is qualitatively better or worse than it was a year ago."
The Obama administration has all but dispensed with terminology linked to the War on Terror pursued by the George W. Bush White House, and references to radical Islam have been almost entirely removed from Washington's discourse. Still, Berman said he is convinced the almanac will find a ready audience among policy- makers in Washington and outside the US.
"The White House is not the only game in town," he said. "One of the key drivers of a more nimble, more proactive US counterterrorism strategy happens to be the Congress. In Congress, you have a remarkable appetite for really comprehensive information that informs good lawmaking. The chairmen of the respective committees dealing with terrorism desperately need to know whether the tactics they've endorsed and supported are working and whether the situation is getting better or worse – and if it's getting worse, what we can do in response.
"Our hope is that the administration starts to take a more holistic view of the War on Terror, the struggle against radical Islam. But even if it doesn't, the idea behind this, writ large, is that a greater understanding of radical Islam is needed across the board, and that this can help lead to more informed and better policy-making," Berman said.