A rebel fighter secures a road as a Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy head towards the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province, Syria March 17, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

May 16, 2022

The Next Salafi-Jihadi Wave: Capabilities, Resources, and Opportunity

Key Points

  • US national security policy is locked in a crisis-response cycle that tends to react to threats after they have emerged and treats intertwined developments as separate and sequential. The US response to the Salafi-jihadi movement has often been reactive and disaggregated.
  • Counterterrorism efforts largely disrupted only the most visible parts of the Salafi-jihadi threat while masking the long-term danger: the growth of the Salafi-jihadi movement’s support base amid conflict and poor governance. As counterterrorism efforts fall away, the movement is gaining capabilities and resources that will shape regional security trends and raise the likelihood of more frequent and severe global terror attacks.
  • Defeating the Salafi-jihadi movement requires a fundamental shift toward a proactive approach that is not focused on military instruments and prioritizes reducing Salafi-jihadi groups’ overall capabilities and resources. The US should undertake this policy shift while taking steps to mitigate the most serious near-term Salafi-jihadi threats.

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A new jihadist wave is the last thing Western policymakers want to recognize or prepare for. The Russian and Chinese challenges are pressing. The unsatisfying ends to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq fuel a desire to significantly limit, if not eliminate, US involvement in the security of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. But Americans face a more serious terror threat than they realize. The global Salafi-jihadi movement, led by al Qaeda and the Islamic State, has not faded into irrelevancy but has grown greatly in manpower, wealth, capability, and geographical extent and is stronger by some measures than it has ever been.

Policymakers have gotten used to the Salafi-jihadi movement’s existence, so it is worth considering how they would react to learning about it for the first time. A determinedly anti-American global movement with an apocalyptic ideology and the stated aim of bringing war to American soil has been building networks and support bases across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia for over 40 years. This movement connects people, ideas, money, and expertise across continents. It has steadily spread to new regions while stubbornly persisting and even strengthening in its core terrain, despite constant if limited battering from the world’s most advanced militaries.

The movement’s flashiest endeavors—spectacular terror attacks and a border-crossing caliphate—are in a lull that the largely temporary effects of counterterrorism pressure only partly explain. Deliberate adaptation is also at play; Salafi-jihadi leaders have learned to eschew direct attacks on the US and European homelands, on the whole, to avoid drawing attention to their successes in putting down deep roots in many countries. But they have not given up their aim—toppling and replacing states across the Muslim world—or their willingness to use terror attacks to achieve their ends.

The Salafi-jihadi movement will benefit from the rise of great-power competition and conflict. Jihadists claim to provide a form of governance. Brutal and extreme though they are, they can deliver some order amid chaos, particularly in environments in which the state is inept or predatory, allowing jihadists to install themselves over vulnerable populations at the point of a gun. Jihadists will have plenty of opportunity amid the wave of disorder sweeping Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, which increasingly high-stakes geopolitical competition will exacerbate.

US disengagement from the Middle East and Africa has already opened competitive space for global and middle powers. Proxy competitions have already prolonged and worsened conflicts in which jihadists are active.1 Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will intensify these trends by raising global food and gas prices in already fragile or poorly governed states, encouraging foreign fighters’ mobilization,2 and making the cash-strapped Russian state more desperate to extract resources from other parts of the world. The Salafi-jihadi movement will not wither away as Western attention shifts to other concerns. It will continue to grow.

US policy has for many years been locked in a crisis-response cycle, reacting to threats once they have already emerged. Over the past two decades, the US government has disaggregated threats and sought to manage them sequentially: small or lone-wolf attacks in the United States; resurgent Salafi-jihadi groups across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia; government collapse in these regions; and mass migration refugee crises driven by conflict and climate change. These problems range from manageable to inconsequential in the establishment worldview. But this approach fails to recognize the cumulative weight of these interconnected developments and the major threat they represent in combination.

This compounding effect—intertwined crises fueling each other—will confront the US with an even more disordered and hostile geopolitical environment. Discussion of great-power and near-peer competition tends to paper over the environments in which this competition often unfolds: the strategically located or resource-rich weak states beset by other crises. The Salafi-jihadi movement will likely thrive as regional conditions shift in its favor, with weak states struggling and global powers focusing on each other. The jihadist threat is entwined with the trajectory of whole regions home to hundreds of millions. Whether these areas trend toward good governance or bad has far-reaching implications for global security and prosperity. And an empowered Salafi-jihadi movement will not spare the West. A renewed Salafi-jihadi global terror campaign—even if it does not reach the anomalous threshold set by the 9/11 attacks—would reshape Western foreign policy priorities again.

The coming years will more likely see the Salafi-jihadi movement’s renewal than its decline or vanquishing. Historians will view this period as a relative calm before a storm and a missed opportunity to act proactively against the next wave of a known danger.

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1. Emily Estelle, Vicious Cycles: How Disruptive States and Extremist Movements Fill Power Vacuums and Fuel Each Other, American Enterprise Institute, August 17, 2020, https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/vicious-cycles-how-disruptive-states-and-extremist-movements-fill-power-vacuums-and-fuel-each-other/.

2. Jennifer Cafarella, Ezgi Yazici, and Zach Coles, “Russia Mobilizes Reinforcements from Syria and Africa to Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, March 31, 2022, https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russia-mobilizes-reinforcements-syria-and-africa-ukraine.  

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