Support for the Salafi-Jihadi Base
The start of widespread popular support for the Salafi-jihadi base is the single most significant change that strengthened the Salafi-jihadi movement. The Salafi-jihadi base had been isolated from society (and repressed by governments) for the decades that it had existed. Sunni communities began to tolerate the presence of Salafi-jihadi groups and in some cases accepted draconian forms of Salafi-jihadi governance. This change in popular support drew the base out from its position of separation from society. It occurred only because of the living conditions of the Sunni populations changed.
Sunni populations live under conditions threatening individuals daily survival or prospects for a better future. Sunni Arab states many consumed with their own domestic policy concerns or focused on the growing threat from Iran were unable to fill governance vacuums or when they did intervene did so in such a way as to worsen the plight of the very populations they sought to help. Nearly all of the regional states from the Sahel through South Asia lack the capacity to address adequately the complex threats now challenging the international order. Western states specifically the US and France sought quick fixes to secure their short-term national security interests that left untouched the hard problems the grievances driving multiple insurgencies today. Governance vacuums and direct military threats to local Sunni populations made them particularly exposed.
The Salafi-jihadi base is uniquely positioned to gain from these conditions and to capture the popular support of the Sunni. It frames itself as the defender of the Sunni against the Shia Iran the West Russia and others. US policy decisions particularly those regarding Syria made to prevent the US from becoming entangled in local conflict have fed a ground truth narrative that the US does not care about the Sunni or worse is actively supporting the aggressors against the Sunni. Salafi-jihadi groups flourish in power vacuums with active insurgencies now found in Iraq Syria Yemen Libya Somalia Mali Nigeria Afghanistan and parts of South Asia. Al Qaeda and ISIS likewise grow stronger as local groups that are part of their transnational networks become empowered.
Ideological alignment within local communities is rarely a preexisting condition before the Salafi-jihadi base offers support. Salafi-jihadi groups gain entry into populations by co-opting grievances shared among populations to increase the resonance of their Salafi-jihadi ideology. Disillusionment with the political processes and perceived grievances create parallels between the efforts of Salafi-jihadi groups and local insurgent groups. Dawa (proselytizing) remains a key component of Salafi-jihadi groups activities. They deliver sermons or teachings alongside other resources such as humanitarian assistance and military training. This practice is critical for the local component groups of the Salafi-jihadi base to cultivate their local acceptance. Al Qaeda in particular operates this way which has enabled it to build local networks into communities otherwise external to the organization.
Salafi-jihadi groups are embedding themselves in the local insurgency in order to hijack it and establish themselves as the leaders of the revolution. Their prior battlefield experiences and existent military capabilities from asymmetrical attack capabilities to small-unit maneuvers help establish these groups as a valuable partner. The willingness of Salafi-jihadis to die for their cause—a willingness not always shared by other insurgents—adds to their formidability.132 Salafi-jihadi groups run military training camps improving basic soldier skills and widen coordination on the battlefield. They also deploy to the frontline regardless of its location since their fight is not tied to terrain unlike those of local or tribal militias.
The ability of the local Salafi-jihadi base to respond rapidly to local developments couch its actions in local terms and meet the immediate needs of the very population it seeks to win over helps build popular support. The Salafi-jihadi groups identify the requirements of the people and then act to meet them receiving support from the broader base. Transnational groups or even more established regional groups provide the means for the Salafi-jihadi base to meet the populations needs effectively resourcing a grassroots effort to build popular support. Salafi-jihadi groups provide governance security and social services in power vacuums providing the day-to-day stability many populations seek. The trade however is that the Salafi-jihadi groups use governance and legal frameworks derived from a conservative understanding of sharia. These groups use their position of power to transform governance structures from the educational system to the court system. The Salafi-jihadi groups provide local security seeking to monopolize force and positioning themselves to be able to control the population in the future.
The pragmatic and gradualist approach of the Salafi-jihadi base133 to create and then foster a relationship with a popular support base has been effective. The tolerance that the Syrian armed opposition now shows for Salafi-jihadi groups is the preeminent example of how the Salafi-jihadi base builds its relationship with the population.134 The transformation
of the Syrian opposition occurred slowly over multiple years and could not have occurred without at least tacit popular support for the Salafi-jihadi groups. Anti-government grievances a population under threat sectarianism and polarization of the population were all conditions present that helped the Salafi-jihadi base accomplish this goal.
The Salafi-jihadi base still has a massive task in front of it even given the conditions that facilitate the bases expansion and drive populations to tolerate the bases ideological extremism. Salafi-jihadi ideology and the global movements objectives run counter to the beliefs and ideas of most Sunni. The acceptance of Salafi-jihadi groups within Sunni populations today and the mainstreaming of groups that societies had hitherto marginalized and isolated are reversible. However al Qaedas relationship with the Salafi-jihadi base and strategy to transform Muslim societies will add to the challenge. Al Qaeda is poised as a global movement to capitalize on the strength of the Salafi-jihadi base and embed itself fully in some segments of Sunni populations.
The tenacity of Salafi-jihadi fighters is widely documented across insurgencies. These individuals believe that dying while fighting for Allah guarantees them entry to heaven.
ISIS remains an exception.
The Syrian armed opposition was highly secular when the civil war began. Al Qaeda intentionally insinuated itself into the opposition and over time changed the nature of the groups.
For more on the 2012 Syrian armed opposition read Joe Holliday Syrias Armed Opposition Institute for the Study of War March 2012.
For a 2015 laydown of the Syrian armed opposition see Jennifer Cafarella Syrian Opposition Guide Institute for the Study of War October 7 2015.
For how Jabhat al Nusra worked through the opposition see Jennifer Cafarella Harleen Gambhir and Katherine Zimmerman Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project and Institute for the Study of War February 11 2016.