Protesters carry Al-Qaeda flags during an anti-government protest after Friday prayers in the town of Marat Numan in Idlib province, Syria, March 11, 2016. REUTERS

February 19, 2019

Trump Doubles Down on Failed Counterterror Policy

Originally published in Wall Street Journal

President Trump’s counterterrorism strategy has amounted to doubling down on past failure. He has promised a full withdrawal of troops from Syria and a partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, the better to focus on directly attacking terror cells. That narrow definition of counterterrorism misses the real threat: the Salafi-jihadi movement, which continues to gain strength across the globe.

Salafi-jihadi groups—including al Qaeda, Islamic State, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab—are no longer the terror factions we recognize. While terrorism is a tactic they deploy effectively and consistently, no straightforward counterterrorism policy will defeat them. Their aim is first to rule the Sunni world, and then, in Osama bin Laden’s words, to “send a call to all the people of the world to . . . embrace Islam.”

They have used lessons from past failures to transform their strategy and tactics. Al Qaeda now avoids declaring an “emirate,” because the word triggers the West, provoking military interventions al Qaeda can’t win. The term also raises local expectations that the group will provide services as if it were a state.

By 2011 many Salafi-jihadi groups had learned to think locally. Local jihad—practiced in the Middle East and other parts of Africa and Asia—encompasses the community’s interests or grievances, with the added advantage that Western states, preoccupied with global jihad, ignore their activities. The Salafi-jihadists embed themselves in local Sunni communities, where they control resources and infrastructure and become integral to governance.

That’s what happened in northwestern Syria, where Salafi-jihadists first gained influence as the country collapsed into civil war. They defended local communities, fought against the Assad regime and established local courts to replace the broken Syrian system. The combination was powerful: “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra!” Syrian protesters chanted in December 2012, immediately after the U.S. designated it a foreign terrorist organization. Four months later, Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader declared his loyalty to al Qaeda . Another Syrian group, Ahrar al-Sham, followed a similar playbook and also developed strong popular support.

Today, the Syrian Salvation Government—the opposition government backed by Jabhat al-Nusra’s legacy organization—rules in areas liberated from Assad forces in northwest Syria. Ahrar al-Sham also has become part of local governance by providing resources and coordinating local councils. Yet neither group publicly or formally governs.

Across the Islamic world, the expansion of local conflicts and the rise of political, ethnic, sectarian and economic grievances provide fertile ground for extremists. In exchange for being accepted, they offer basic supplies and services, dispute resolution and security. Al Qaeda used ethnic struggles in Mali to spread turmoil and penetrate communities through local leaders. Somalis favor al-Shabaab’s courts for their incorruptible judges. A Salafi-jihadi militia is also now a power broker in Yemen’s third-largest city, Taiz (where al Qaeda had no previous presence) because of the civil war.

The U.S. failed to recognize the emergence of this threat. The Obama administration focused on radicalization and ideology as the roots of violent extremism. But ideology is not the reason terrorists succeed in infiltrating local societies, and appeals to moderation have no effect on desperate people who need the support that Salafi-jihadi groups offer.

Because of the misplaced Western focus and continued strife in the Islamic world, the scale and scope of the Salafi-jihadi problem is greater than ever. While the West shrugs at the integration of these extremists into local administrations and militias, and dismisses communities’ reliance on them to resolve local conflicts, Salafi-jihadis exploit these tactics to gain power and territory and “spread the light” of Islam. The first stage of their campaign is Sunni territory. The second is London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles.

This is a solvable problem, but U.S. and other Western leaders must recognize the need for a new approach. Even capable partners in the Islamic world who share the mission, such as the United Arab Emirates, will ultimately fail. Emirati operations have degraded and disrupted al Qaeda in Yemen more than ever, but the conditions that enabled al Qaeda’s growth in Yemen persist, and the threat will return as soon as the Emiratis declare victory and go home.

The challenge is to address poor governance and local complaints, not only terrorism. The U.S. and its allies must defeat the Salafi-jihadi groups at their own game and close the gaps they exploit. These points of entry are small and vary widely across populations. They range from hiring local teachers to ensuring protection and security for villages and towns. For the U.S., that means tailoring the approach to specific cases and installing personnel on the ground in insecure areas to understand local issues and develop a plan.

Winning against this adversary requires a new focus and new tolerance for risk. Rather than focusing on terrorists and terrain, the U.S. and its partners should focus on breaking the bonds between the Salafi-jihadi groups and local communities. Once those ties are broken, the Salafi-jihadis will lose their sanctuaries. Then the U.S. can fight them as the terrorists they are.