October 08, 2019
Beyond Counterterrorism: Defeating the Salafi-Jihadi Movement
The United States has misdefined and misunderstood the nature of the enemy in the fight against terrorism. Washington has consistently fixated on specific groups and individuals that appeared most threatening to American interests: first with al Qaeda “core” in Afghanistan and Pakistan under Osama bin Laden, then al Qaeda in Iraq under Abu Musab al Zarqawi, then al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and Anwar al Awlaki, and now the Islamic State under Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. American efforts have largely focused on retaking territory from these groups, denying them the sanctuary from which to plot terror attacks, and eliminating leadership and others involved in attack planning. The result has been a series of military victories on the battlefield that have not generated a decisive and lasting effect in reducing the threat of terrorism.
The real enemy is the Salafi-jihadi movement of which al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other such groups are part. This movement includes the collection of individuals, groups, and organizations that adhere to the Salafi-jihadi ideology. They believe that the practice of Islam must return to that of the early days of Islam and that armed force is an individual obligation to achieve this, first within Muslim lands and then globally. The Salafi-jihadi ideology serves as a source of resilience and strength for the movement, enabling groups to reconstitute even after suffering terrible military defeats and unifying the efforts of adherents under a shared purpose. The ideology also defines the set of expansive strategic objectives that extends beyond the terror attacks that threaten US national security.
The Salafi-jihadi ideology itself cannot be destroyed, however. A strategy focused on attacking and discrediting this ideology to weaken the movement assumes it has mass appeal, which history proves false. Muslims have rejected Salafi-jihadism for centuries and relegated the modern Salafi-jihadi movement to the fringes of society until the past decade. It also assumes that the US and its partners could eliminate all or most adherents, which has been impossible even in specific theaters such as Iraq. The ideology instead pulls together a self-defined Salafi-jihadi vanguard—a collection of core believers—that leads the broader movement’s efforts to impose its vision on the world. This vanguard understands that it cannot achieve its goals alone and therefore has sought to build popular support among Sunni Muslims.
The Salafi-jihadi movement has transformed over the past decade, adapting to conditions and cultivating relationships with local Sunni communities to strengthen on the ground. Exogenous factors such as the collapse of governance and the breakdown of security after the 2011 Arab Spring created opportunities for the movement to exploit. Salafi-jihadi groups have rebranded and reorganized to retain local support and obscure their connections to groups targeted by US counterterrorism actions. In doing so, they separated their global jihad effort from their local efforts, making the group more acceptable to communities and protecting the local vanguard from global counterterrorism efforts. Local conflicts in places such as Mali, Somalia, and Syria provided the opportunity for the Salafi-jihadi vanguard to insinuate itself into insurgencies and intermix, generating local support as it fights on behalf of local communities.
Finally, the vanguard has penetrated local governance and institutions in some communities by backfilling gaps. The Salafi-jihadi problem set in northwestern Syria, a confusing assortment of groups that includes al Qaeda members, epitomizes these transformations. In these ways, the Salafi-jihadi vanguard has strengthened ties to local communities and expanded significantly across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
The vanguard has identified its relationships with Sunni Muslim communities as its source of strength.
These relationships and its influence within local communities enable the Salafi-jihadi movement to achieve its strategic objectives of transforming the Muslim world through imposing its governance. The Salafi-jihadi vanguard has built these relationships through delivering basic goods or services, including defending the community.
Al Qaeda fixed sewers and delivered water and fuel in Yemen. Its courts in Somalia and Mali offer the fair resolution of local disputes. Its operatives dispatched to Syria to organize against the Assad regime. The Salafi-jihadi vanguard then uses its local ties to communities to start shaping them in its image and to strengthen itself by securing resources and sanctuary and building a position from which to eventually overthrow Muslim governments. The vanguard does not require that the community share its ideological conviction but seeks to expand its adherents over time.
The point of attack for a successful strategy against the Salafi-jihadi movement is its relationships with local communities. The Salafi-jihadi movement is vulnerable to the community’s own decision to accept it. Conditions have weakened communities and made them vulnerable to the Salafi-jihadi vanguard’s predatory efforts. The requirement is not to resolve all local conflicts or strengthen governance globally but to target the approach where the Salafi-jihadi vanguard is operating. Competing with the Salafi-jihadi movement by offering communities a viable alternative to the vanguard empowers the community to reject them. The US should attack the means by which the vanguard has built its relationships with communities, which will weaken the movement and relegate it again to the fringes of society.