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

Project Image Image: © Till Göldner

The research project examined (de-)escalation trajectories of Salafi-jihadi armed groups and explored options and challenges for conflict resolution.

Timeframe: 2017 - 2019

The project aimed to advance knowledge on the patterns, critical junctures and factors of conflict (de)escalation of Salafi-jihadi armed groups. It sought 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 compared Salafi-jihadi armed groups with other non-state armed groups to determine if there were significant differences – and what that means for conflict transformation. Accordingly, we undertook in-depth research on the nature of three contemporary Salafi-jihadi armed groups in Mali, Somalia and Syria, and examined the factors influencing their behavioural (de)escalation trajectories, with a particular emphasis on the role of third-party engagement.


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 completed 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 identified the factors that may support or hinder potential future engagements and influence their impact. To do so, we recorded past trajectories and critical junctures, and used scenario building to anticipate future windows of opportunity for de-escalation and engagement.

Aims and outcomes

The aim of the project was to uncover original empirical data and to identify new options and entry points for direct or indirect dialogue channels with Salafi-jihadi groups. These 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 focused on three case studies in Mali, Somalia and Syria.


In December 2019, we launched the Research Report ‘Dialogue with Salafi jihadi armed groups: Challenges and opportunities for conflict de-escalation’. We also discussed the findings in an expert roundtable. The research report, the report on the expert roundtable and the case studies are published on our website.


Publications from this project:



Project lead

Véronique Dudouet
Senior Advisor
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Team members

Karin Göldner-Ebenthal


Media contact

Florian Lüdtke
Media and Communications Manager
+49 (0) 177 7052758
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