2018 Forecast: U.S. Faces Converging Threats
By Katherine Zimmerman and Emily Estelle
The United States faces significant threats from the global strengthening of the Salafi-jihadi movement, the collapse of states in Africa and the Middle East, and the convergence of local wars with regional and global conflicts. The combination of these trends could rapidly and seriously harm American interests abroad, especially in understudied areas in Africa, in 2018. The Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute provides forward-leaning insight into the complex threats from Iran and the Salafi-jihadi movement that confront the United States today.
The Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes both al Qaeda and ISIS, will survive ISIS’s territorial losses in Iraq and Syria and will continue insinuating itself in local conflicts to build a popular support base. Salafi-jihadi groups operate across the Muslim world but have notably reemerged in mainland Egypt and are establishing themselves in Bangladesh. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb developed the capability to conduct attacks from the Gulf of Guinea to the Mediterranean in 2016 and is focused on building its base in the Sahel, which will continue to grow in the next year. Salafi-jihadi groups will use Libya as a regional hub with an increasing focus on Egypt. A premature drawdown of UN-backed African Union peacekeeping troops in Somalia could enable al Shabaab’s reexpansion into southern and central Somalia. The continuation of civil wars in Syria and Yemen will enable al Qaeda to further enmesh itself within these populations, and al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban will exploit security gaps in Afghanistan. The Salafi-jihadi movement will also become more prominent in South Asia, where al Qaeda and ISIS compete for influence.
The collapse of states that began during the 2011 Arab Spring jeopardizes both weak states and their stronger neighbors, including several large states that could undergo destabilizing transitions in 2018. Current failed states—Yemen, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Syria, and Afghanistan—will remain unstable and in need of international support in the next year. In Africa, insecurity emanating from failed states pressures weak states like Tunisia, Niger, and now Kenya. These vulnerable states require ongoing international support to stave off collapse. Regional powerhouses like Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, and Ethiopia, which provide crucial security, are themselves at risk of government collapse due to succession crises or popular unrest. Similarly, the war in Yemen has become a cross-border war with Saudi Arabia and is now drawing in Oman, adding to the regional disorder already wrought by crises in Syria and Iraq. Ongoing humanitarian emergencies and local conflicts would magnify the impact of these worst-case scenarios. The consequences include the expansion of Salafi-jihadi groups, as well as mass migration or humanitarian crises that will further strain the international community.
Local conflicts are converging with regional and global struggles to the benefit of American enemies and adversaries, including Iran and Russia, and the Salafi-jihadi movement. This convergence will continue through the next year, especially as Iran and Russia consolidate their gains in Syria. The Saudi-Iranian regional conflict has overtaken the Yemen war, which began among Yemeni actors. Russia could seek to coopt international negotiations to resolve the Yemeni conflict, drawing on its Syria playbook, in order to secure positions near the Bab al Mandab Strait, a key maritime chokepoint. Russia is also negotiating a military agreement with Egypt and pressing for greater influence in Libya, heralding a significant leap toward reconstituting Russian influence in the Middle East lost at the end of the Cold War. A competition for influence between Gulf States in East Africa will add to instability in the region, as will a proxy fight between regional rivals in Libya. Regionalized conflicts like those in Syria, Yemen, and Libya are fertile environments for Salafi-jihadi groups, which capitalize on local grievances to gain popular support.
The Critical Threats Project warned of these trends over the course of the past year and will continue to produce prescient analysis of developments related to Iran and the Salafi-jihadi movement in 2018.
Additional takeaways from the week:
- The Iranian regime’s preparations for anti-regime protests and the absence of a centralized leadership of the unarmed protesters quelled the momentum of the popular protest movement. Protests could resume in the near future if people become discouraged with likely delays in addressing their economic and political grievances.
- Political fragmentation is prolonging the Yemen conflict in the wake of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death. The General People’s Congress (GPC), Saleh’s political party, broke into several factions that are now jockeying for power. This fragmentation will hinder the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to capitalize on the end of the al Houthi-Saleh partnership and achieve a military victory in northern Yemen.