What explains the emergence of Islamist violence as a substantial security threat in such diverse contexts as Kenya, Mali and Nigeria? This article addresses this question through an exploration of the strategies of governance employed by states, and how these shape the emergence and mode of collective violence. Conflict research often emphasises the specificity of Islamist violence; but these conflicts can be understood as a form of political exclusion and grievance-based violence, comparable to other forms of political violence. Further, violent Islamist groups emerge from local conditions: the areas in which groups are established share similar local experiences of governance and political marginalisation; a history of violent conflict on which Islamist militants capitalise; and key triggering events expanding or reinforcing state exclusion. These findings challenge a narrative emphasising the global, interconnected nature of Islamist violence. This article pairs data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Dataset (ACLED) with Afrobarometer survey data and case study evidence to identify drivers of Islamist violence across three African countries.