Editor’s Note: The following piece is adapted from a report originally published by the American Enterprise Institute. It appears here with permission.
America is losing the war on terror, yet many Americans think the United States is winning. The fact that there has been no attack on American soil on the scale of 9/11 has created a false sense of security. Dismissals of Orlando and San Bernardino as “lone wolf” attacks further the inaccurate narrative that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are somehow “on the run.” According to senior American officials, for at least seven years, those groups have been “on the run” — a “fact” that in itself demonstrates the falsity of U.S. pretensions to success. Tactical successes on battlefields in Iraq, Syria, and Libya add further to the illusion of success. But if 16 years of war should have taught us anything, it is that we cannot kill our way out of this problem.
The need is urgent. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the global Salafi–jihadi movement together are stronger today than they have ever been. Salafi–jihadi groups are active in at least six failed states (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Mali) and four weak states (Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Nigeria). They provide governance by proxy or control territory in at least half of these states. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda pursue deadly attack capabilities to target the West, as the most recent terrorist attack in Manchester once again demonstrated. Europe and the American homeland face an unprecedented level of facilitated and inspired terrorist attacks. This situation is not success, stalemate, or slow winning, and still less does it reflect an enemy “on the run.” It is failure.
American counterterrorism strategy has not fundamentally changed since the U.S. attacks against Afghanistan after 9/11. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump have focused on militarily defeating groups through a combination of targeted strikes and operations to deprive them of particular terrain they control. Bush and Obama made limited efforts to counter Salafi–jihadi recruiting efforts, but with no effect. All these efforts have focused on attacking narrowly defined groups and the individuals associated with them. Apart from the limited experiments at serious counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, all three presidents have sought to kill their way out of the problem. None has recognized or addressed the global Salafi–jihadi movement as the real threat, and none, therefore, has taken any meaningful steps to confront it.
Salafi–jihadis believe that participation in armed conflict to create a true Islamic polity is obligatory for all true Muslims. The theological underpinnings of Salafi–jihadism have existed since at least the 13th century. The Islamist movement that began at the end of the 19th and carried into the 20th centuries resurfaced these arguments, which Muslims largely rejected as extremist or, in some cases, heretical.
Some point to these facts to argue that the problem is inherent in Islam — some even go so far as to say that Islam itself is the problem. Such arguments must ignore long periods of history during which Muslims concerned themselves with their own affairs, often more peacefully than their Christian brethren in Europe, and certainly without making serious efforts to attack the West.
Others now argue — also wrongly — that the movement’s current strength reflects some fundamental change in its character or manner of presentation. Today’s Salafi–jihadi movement is not a new phenomenon nor has its ideology fundamentally changed in recent years. Adaptions in the messaging of that ideology, its placement into colloquial language and distribution through new mediums, are only new means of distribution and not reasons for the expansion of the Salafi–jihadi movement. Al-Qaeda put the ideology on the Internet with the late cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and ISIS weaponized social media, but the global movement is also strong in areas without Internet penetration. The message itself and the groups propagating it have hardly changed in the past decade, yet its fortunes have risen dramatically since 2011. We must look elsewhere to understand why the movement is growing in strength today.
Part of the explanation is that the movement is learning from its failures and mistakes. The modern Salafi–jihadi movement formed during the Afghan jihad. This fight, and the ones that followed, provided experiential learning that refined the movement’s strategic thought. Salafi–jihadi groups coalesced repeatedly after Afghanistan — in Algeria, Bosnia, Tajikistan, Somalia, Egypt, Chechnya, again in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq — but each time remained isolated. The movement took those lessons to heart.
The elements of American power now operate against merely a fraction of the movement. They may destroy that fraction but will not destroy or even defeat the movement itself.
Salafi–jihadi leaders know that the movement’s strength derives from its relationship with the Muslim community. The movement seeks to conduct a global insurgency, a task that requires popular support — or at least toleration — to end its isolation in the Muslim world. Its leaders have focused on the relationship with that community for decades, but prior efforts to engage were either futile or short-lived. Local Sunni communities rejected Salafi–jihadi ideology repeatedly. The ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam ran afoul of local custom, of local Islam. The call to violent jihad lacked resonance. Coercive tactics backfired, and the introduction of new, alternative systems of governance proved reversible. The failed Salafi–jihadi leaders generally died. Those who have survived have learned lessons from all these encounters.
However, the real reason for the current success of the Salafi–jihadi movement is the transformation of conditions in the Muslim-majority world since 2011. Events outside the movement’s control removed a primary obstacle to its ability to build local support, by mobilizing Sunni communities in local, national, and regional conflicts that caused and resulted from the Arab Spring.
Dissatisfaction with governance across the Middle East and North Africa gave rise to popular uprisings that destabilized neighboring regions and spiraled rapidly into a Hobbesian state of nature in many places. Domestic conflict in many states shifted rapidly from a question of political rights to one of individual or communal survival.
The movement, whose leaders had studied prior setbacks for how to improve, was primed to offer help to communities that suddenly felt themselves facing existential threats. It gained acceptance at a basic level simply by providing limited amounts of governance and security in places where governments and security forces had either collapsed or become enemies of the people they ruled. The Salafi–jihadi movement thus brilliantly seized an unexpected opportunity and is now positioned where it has never been before in its decades of existence: at the cusp of widespread success.
American counterterrorism strategy has ignored these transformations almost completely. It remains focused on disrupting or destroying external attack nodes, reducing the military strength of select groups, and killing group leaders. American policymakers’ efforts to reduce the war to a targeting drill require misdefining the enemy: It is possible to target individuals or networks, but not a movement. The elements of American power now operate against merely a fraction of the movement. They may destroy that fraction but will not destroy or even defeat the movement itself.
The U.S. must develop a new strategy to counter the movement as a whole — not just al-Qaeda, ISIS, or even local groups that seemingly present the greatest threats. The strategic focus on only components of the movement — from al-Qaeda to ISIS to the ideology — has been misplaced. A strategy must be based on an understanding of the Salafi–jihadi movement from its ideology to its military strengths to its popular outreach and governance. It must proceed from an understanding of why the movement has gained strength recently after foundering for so many years. It must start by redefining the enemy at the most basic level.
— Katherine Zimmerman is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.