Changing the Counterterrorism Approach

The US cannot kill its way out of its war with al Qaeda, ISIS, or even the global Salafi-jihadi movement. It also cannot win simply by going after the threat groups or countering the Salafi-jihadi ideology. The strength of the Salafi-jihadi movement is its relationship with the Sunni population—with the umma. The individual leaders, the groups and their safe havens, the ability to conduct transnational terrorist attacks are all important components of the global movement, but eliminating these components without breaking the tie between the movement and the population is a losing game. The US counterterrorism strategy must focus on destroying the relationship between the Salafi-jihadi movement and Sunni populations.

The belief that eliminating only a particular individual or group would neutralize the threat has misled the US to focus on degrading, defeating, and even destroying al Qaeda and ISIS groups. The US military has specialized in eliminating al Qaeda and ISIS leaders and cells and is incredibly successful at this task.135 The debate over who or what is al Qaeda or ISIS derives from a requirement to delineate clearly which targets are legitimate. The correct decision to not try to kill every individual connected to al Qaeda or ISIS led the US to define the enemy down for its own policy constraints.

But targeting individuals and groups has not led to lasting success. The threat adapted or seemingly appeared in a new place, proving its resilience to direct and indirect military pressure. American pressure on discrete parts of the Salafi-jihadi movement ignored its growing strength elsewhere. The US is making the same mistake with its focus on ISIS. The current fight against ISIS is a digression from the fight against the global movement and a diversion from the war that the United States should be fighting. The US can win against ISIS and lose the bigger fight.

The way to begin winning is to focus where the enemy focuses. The Salafi-jihadi movement is fighting for popular support. The US must, too. The Salafi-jihadi base delivers protection, stability, and assistance to a threatened and aggrieved population. The US and its partners instead bring guns to a governance fight. They focus on killing off segments of the Salafi-jihadi base, some of which are the very forces on which the population relies. Even where the focus is on returning governance, the American bias has been to rely on potential strongmen who promise stability. Stability—synonymous with authoritarianism here—drove the very grievances that enabled the Salafi-jihadi base to expand in the first instance. The stability that President Abdel Fatah el Sisi brings to Egypt, where terrorist attacks are now on the rise, is an example of the hollowness of this promise.

Reversing the conditions that facilitate the bond between the Salafi-jihadi base and local populations must be a priority for the US. The base has grown strongest in the context of multiple civil wars and live conflicts because the wars have mobilized Sunni populations and created requirements for their defense that the local population cannot meet alone. Local wars and conflicts that seemingly fall outside of US interests such as the contest for northern Mali have, in fact, strengthened the Salafi-jihadi base. Resolving these wars—no easy task—to demobilize the populations is a first step to constraining the base’s ability to insinuate itself into populations and generate support. This must be done in such a way as to not produce further grievances that instead drive the population to continue to resist.

Expedient solutions on the ground are not the answer. Local partners are appealing because they are already present and usually mobilized. They make themselves more appealing by casting themselves as the local force with which the US would want to partner. The US has convinced itself that working by, with, and through partners is always a better solution than working unilaterally. Such is not always the case. Relying on incapable or even bad partners creates more and worse problems than the partner sometimes solves. Such is the case with partnering with the Syrian Kurds against ISIS, which alienates Sunni Arabs who reject the Kurdish political vision, or even the Nigerian government under Goodluck Jonathan, whose actions strengthened Boko Haram’s insurgency. Bad partners may instead cohere the Salafi-jihadi base with the local population in such a way as to make separating the two more difficult. They may also increase conflict or grievances rather than reduce them, feeding the very conditions that facilitate the expansion of the Salafi-jihadi base by enabling it to build bridges to parts of the population or to intermix into society.

US policies must drive toward legitimate and response governance solutions in areas penetrated by or vulnerable to the Salafi-jihadi base. The absence of the state in many cases adds complexity to an already challenging problem because the mechanism by which policies have historically been implemented is nonexistent. In all but the most extreme cases there remain local administrations or governance structures that could serve as viable channels with the necessary caveats that these administrations accept the reestablishment of a national, state-based governance system and that they do not add to grievances. Such solutions permit the prosecution of a population-centric strategy that actively removes the conditions strengthening the Salafi-jihadi base and that helps inure the population to further penetration.

The global Salafi-jihadi movement is, at its core, a global insurgency. Its strength, its center of gravity, is its relationship with the umma, the Sunni populations. That relationship was deficient for decades because the means the Salafi-jihadi movement propounded to reestablish the Islamic Caliphate were unacceptable. The stresses on populations today—the threat to existence—have changed the population’s calculus to a short-term decision cycle for survival. These conditions enabled the Salafi-jihadi base to build popular support and thereby strengthen the global movement. The only path to victory is combatting these conditions, focusing on the population, and breaking the ties between the people and the Salafi-jihadi base. Anything less ensures another generation of Americans will be fighting the same war and losing.

Citation 135

General Stanley McChrystal discusses the development of a precision-killing machine within the US military in Iraq, for example, and how he realized that the enemy was still winning despite this machine. Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task: A Memoir (New York: Penguin Group, 2013).