June 06, 2019
Road to the Caliphate: the Salafi-jihadi Movement's Strengths
The US and its military partners in Iraq and Syria have stamped out the last remnants of the Islamic State’s so-called Caliphate. Warnings already echo that the Islamic State remains a threat both to Syrians and Iraqis and to Westerners. The Taliban remains powerful in Afghanistan, where it hosts and enables al Qaeda—and where the Islamic State has also established a foothold. Al Qaeda’s network globally has expanded, especially in western Africa and northwestern Syria. America’s failure to defeat the Salafi-jihadi movement, of which al Qaeda and the Islamic State are only two parts, despite 18 years of concerted effort results from its misdefinition of the threat, failure to identify the correct center of gravity, and failure to focus efforts on the proper critical vulnerability over the long term.
The enemy is the Salafi-jihadi movement itself, not the specific elements of it threatening attacks against the US and Europe at any given moment. US policy and the American legal framework have defined the enemy as those specific individuals and groups engaged in enabling and directing terror attacks against American or Western interests. This narrowing of the definition of the enemy misses the broader ideological movement of which the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other such named groups are a part—a movement that shares a unified objective in violently imposing its vision for Islam on Muslims and then, eventually, worldwide.
The Salafi-jihadi movement’s grand strategic center of gravity is its ideology. The ideology is the source of resilience that allows the movement to recover from defeats and reconstitute time and again. It has existed in its current form since at least the 1960s and in some form since the early days of Islam. The Salafi-jihadi ideology draws on the Salafi trend in Islam, which is the belief that Muslims should return to the practice of Islam in the early years of the religion, and a jihadi conviction that it is obligatory on all Muslims to use armed force to achieve this.
However, the US cannot successfully attack or defeat this ideology. The vast majority of Muslims have rejected the ideology and do so repeatedly, demonstrated whenever the vanguard seeks to enter new areas. Circumstances drive them to tolerate the ideology over the short term for survival. Further empowering mainstream voices will not affect the calculations of communities that perceive the vanguard’s support as the only way to protect their future.
A self-defined vanguard leads the Salafi-jihadi movement. This vanguard is more expansive than the list of senior leaders and other high-value individuals that US counterterrorism policy targets. A mass of actual and potential recruits and fellow travelers constitutes the broader movement. The members of the vanguard adhere to the Salafi-jihadi ideology. They are both internally oriented to ensure that they remain on the true path of Islam and externally oriented to spread Islam and reunify the Muslim community. They understand that they must inspire and lead a broader movement, which includes those who have not yet accepted their message, in order to overthrow the current regimes and eventually reinstate the Caliphate. The vanguard’s ability to lead a movement larger than the number of ideological adherents is critical to its success.
This vanguard is the proper target of American efforts because it propagates the Salafi-jihadi ideology, which acts as the movement’s grand strategic center of gravity. However, the vanguard itself is too large and dispersed for US direct-action operations to destroy or even meaningfully disrupt it over the long term. External counterarguments to the Salafi-jihadi ideology will not influence members of the vanguard, and so it is impossible to reduce the vanguard by seeking to change minds. Eliminating the vanguard is likewise impossible. The US has not sought to do this globally and has not been able to do it locally, even in theaters such as Iraq or Afghanistan where the US sustained a high tempo of operations to degrade the local vanguard. The center of gravity at the grand strategic level is therefore not vulnerable to attack. The US must find a new point of attack.
The center of gravity at the strategic level is the vanguard’s connection with local populations that transforms it from an isolated and ineffective elite into the leadership of a large and dangerous movement. The vanguard builds this relationship with Sunni communities by providing them with security, justice, basic goods, or services or through other means. “Healthy” communities have rejected the vanguard’s attempts develop ties repeatedly—even within fragile states. Yet these communities fall prey to the vanguard’s efforts when they come under stress due to exogenous conditions. The vanguard thus requires a local presence within the communities and the ability to respond to local dynamics in order to exploit the opportunities that arise as a community weakens.
The US can successfully attack the Salafi-jihadi movement’s connection to a community indirectly because the requirement to retain the connection forms critical vulnerabilities within the Salafi-jihadi movement that are dependent on community’s own conditions and decisions. Local conditions, particularly in the security collapse and governance breakdown that followed the 2011 Arab Spring, created entry points for the Salafi-jihadi vanguard to penetrate communities. The current round of state weakening (and possible collapse) in Algeria and Sudan may create new opportunities for the vanguard. The absence of other viable alternatives for communities as they seek to defend themselves or protect their futures has made these communities more likely to tolerate the presence of Salafi-jihadis. These vulnerabilities are where American counterterrorism strategy should focus.
US and partner efforts to attack the vanguard’s relationship with communities have succeeded in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia until focus shifts away from these efforts. Those efforts required a large American military force in Iraq, a smaller one in Afghanistan, and a very limited US footprint in Yemen. Progress against the vanguard in Somalia, although more limited, occurred with virtually no US boots on the ground. Identifying the movement’s connection to the population as the critical vulnerability around which to build American counterterrorism strategy is thus not a call for the massive deployment of American military power everywhere.
Successful American counterterrorism strategy requires a constant, long-term focus on breaking the connection between the Salafi-jihadi vanguard and the population. The specific implementations of this strategy will vary widely in approach and in the required resources from area to area. But a sound strategy with the correct focus will not require or benefit from deploying large numbers of American troops or vast amounts of aid dollars. It is a sustainable strategy and the only one that might lead to success where the current approach falls short.