Understanding the Salafi-Jihadi Movement

Much of the Salafi-jihadi movement operates in a policy gray area. It poses no immediate threat to Americans, and most of its members are not actively plotting to harm the United States directly. Local groups, organizations, and individuals may speak out against the United States and propagate anti-American sentiments, even encouraging attacks against the US or the West, but not take action themselves. Members might even facilitate such actions against the US or the West, but not participate directly. These facts led the Obama Administration to define the threat down to only those groups and individuals actively planning attacks. That narrowing of the threat definition, however, obscures the critical relationship between the attack plotters and the mass of the Salafi-jihadi movement without which they cannot exist—and which can easily replace them when we have destroyed them.

The Salafi-jihadi movement manifests as a physical network of like-minded people‚ groups‚ and organizations operating in pursuit of shared overall goals. It draws strength from its ideology‚ which directs the efforts of the various groups and organizations in a common direction even without direct coordination among them. Local Salafi-jihadi groups‚ organizations‚ and individuals constitute an identifiable transnational network even when they try to obscure their roles in it. These component parts are not organized hierarchically and continuously interact in complex ways‚ but as a whole constitute a primary source of strength for the enemy groups the US already identifies: al Qaeda and ISIS. The US must expand its definition of the enemy to include this Salafi-jihadi base.

Islamic tradition contains the concept of a local base serving the greater global cause: the Ansar who welcomed the Prophet Mohammed to Medina. The Ansar is a collective name given to the local tribes that supported the Prophet Mohammed by welcoming the Prophet’s followers into their homes in Medina after the emigration (hijra) from Mecca. They accepted Islam and fought alongside the Muslims even after Mohammad’s death. The Salafi-jihadi movement preserves this concept and practice of a local base— nearly always referenced as the Ansar—supporting emigres (or foreign fighters) to this day.

Al Qaeda and ISIS draw their resilience from the Salafi-jihadi base‚ transnational by nature with hyper-local roots. They replenish their ranks from it. They also rely on the base to meet many of their operational requirements. It provides a point of entry into local conflicts‚1 and al Qaeda and ISIS are often first able to constitute themselves in new areas through the coercion or cooptation of a local group. For example‚ al Qaeda cultivated relations and supported local Somali Islamist groups for more than a decade before it had the beginnings of an affiliate in Somalia.2 ISIS also entered such theaters as Libya by gaining the allegiance of a few key leaders and co-opting an existing local network that it transformed into an external ISIS branch.3 The base plays a facilitating role by moving people and resources across terrain and a resourcing role by providing local supplies or capabilities. Most significantly‚ it is a ready recruiting pool from which both leaders and foot soldiers can be pulled. The ability to regenerate personnel is a critical capability for both al Qaeda and ISIS and explains why both groups remain vibrant after the US and its allies have killed so many of their fighters and leaders.

The local Salafi-jihadi base advances the objectives of both al Qaeda and ISIS. The successes of groups at the local level in transforming Muslim society into their vision of a just Islamic society achieve the objectives of the transnational groups‚ which seek to unite these pockets into polities governed by a single ruler. Al Qaeda and ISIS believe that only through a global agenda—attacking the West and other non-Muslim forces—can local objectives be achieved and sustained. Salafi-jihadis generally understand conflict with the non-Muslim world‚ especially the West‚ as inevitable. Some individuals or groups may eschew advocating for or conducting such attacks‚ but their creed itself defines the West as an enemy. Few would argue and even fewer act against attacks targeting the West. The refusal to support may be practical—such as fear of blowback—but not ideological. The local and global groups thus operate in tandem to further the goals of the Salafi-jihadi movement.

The marbling of the Salafi-jihadi movement— the intermixing of the “locally focused” groups with transnational groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS—is part of its strength. Transnational groups‚ especially al Qaeda‚ seek to intertwine their networks with the local networks‚ which root the groups in local conflicts and create openings for their entry and establishment. This rooting creates the appearance that local groups alternately join and reject the global vision and objectives as they break and reform relations with the transnational groups. Yet much of the shifting‚ realignment‚ and intergroup discord is organizational rather than ideological or methodological. Organizational tensions—personal power politics and operational-level disagreements—are normal in human groups. They do not indicate fundamental breaks from overarching objectives. The fluidity of individuals and groups to move from local to global objectives is inherent within Salafi-jihadi doctrine and captured in the world vision that doctrine espouses. Mistaking the fractures and shifting within the movement for weakness is a strategic error encouraged and compounded by efforts to distinguish between “globally focused” groups and individuals who can be targeted and “locally focused” ones who cannot.

Citation 1

Historical analysis has discussed al Qaeda’s use of local Salafi-jihadi groups and its mergers with these groups to gain access to the local infrastructure. This analysis focused on al Qaeda’s strength‚ not the global movement’s strength. See‚ for example‚ Combating Terrorism Center‚ “Al-Qa’ida’s Five Aspects of power‚” January 15‚ 2009.

Citation 2

Combating Terrorism Center‚ “ Al-Qaida’s (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa‚” US Military Academy‚ July 2‚ 2007.

Citation 3

Aaron Y. Zelin‚ “The Islamic State’s Burgeoning Capital in Sirte‚ Libya‚ ” Washington Institute‚ August 6‚ 2015.