Expansion of the Salafi-Jihadi Base

The breakthrough moment for the Salafi-jihadi movement was exogenous to its own efforts. The popular dissatisfaction with poor governance in the Muslim world caused uprisings against the states that began to degrade and destroy societal order. As conflict spiraled and spread, Sunni populations came under real and perceived threats against their livelihoods and very lives. A broad contingent of the Sunni became willing to accept the presence of, cooperate with, or even coordinate with members of the Salafi-jihadi base in an effort to survive. Current conditions—not ideological agreement or acceptance of terrorism tactics—drive popular support to the Salafi-jihadi base. The strengthening of the base through this relationship with the population is why the Salafi-jihadi movement, including ISIS and al Qaeda, is demonstrably stronger today.

Global events and trends shaped conditions in such a way that the Sunni population is mobilized and under threat across multiple states. The level of change and conflict is unprecedented. Regional state and popular systems had previously contained and dampened the effects of local conflicts, keeping them separate and preserving the local order. That safety net failed. A sectarian war has engulfed the Middle East, and as it spread, it has ensnared power conflicts, such as that between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and ethnic conflicts, such as that between Turkey and the Kurds. Widespread popular resentment and disillusionment with national governments and the political processes are causing states to collapse and placing other states at real risk of collapse, leaving many populations vulnerable.

The Salafi-jihadi movement benefits from the ongoing conflicts in the Muslim-majority world that drive the unprecedented expansion of Sunni communities’ tolerance of and popular support for the Salafi-jihadi base. Actors from state-based to transnational to substate seek to mold the shape of governance and power dynamics in the region. Global trends also affect the region: the assault on international order, violations of international norms, erosion and collapse of states, and the emergence of power vacuums. The synergy of these trends creates opportunities for change which all actors have seized. Their attempts to reshape the region generate unintended effects and increasing entropy, however, further imperiling Sunni communities. Sunni populations living in fear of subjugation, starvation, or extermination are now willing to support, tacitly or actively, Salafi-jihadi groups that offer a chance at survival.

The base is growing exponentially. The number of local Salafi-jihadi groups has increased as has their membership since at least 2013.128 The growth is partially due to the massive mobilization of foreign fighters‚ especially from the West‚ to fight in Iraq and Syria. Yet it is also occurring at the local level where ideological motivations are much more muddied and local foot soldiers are more likely responding to environmental changes than to a sudden ideological resonance with Salafi-jihadism. The expansion of the base bolsters al Qaeda’s and ISIS’s strength‚ but the base itself has not delivered new capabilities to either group‚ and its growth alone does not explain their newfound momentum.

No fundamental shift in the Salafi-jihadi ideology occurred to make it more appealing to a broader popular base. Salafi-jihadi leaders have refined the ideology over time‚ but the call to violent jihad remains the same. The Salafi-jihadi base still represents only a small minority of Sunni Muslims‚ and its ideology remains on the fringe of the more prominent and mainstream interpretations of Sunni Islam. The ideology itself is not new and usually is not a main driver for membership in local groups.129

Al Qaeda and ISIS have refined their propaganda to better penetrate the West and non-Arab communities in particular. Technology facilitates the transmission of their message to a broader audience‚ as does the movement away from discourse in Arabic to vernaculars to make the theological arguments more accessible to would-be recruits. Al Qaeda began using such tactics in 2010‚ but was unable to mobilize mass recruits as foreign fighters or as fight-in-place attackers.130 ISIS weaponized social media and technology‚ exploiting easily available mass-distribution and encryption tools to create a global community. This approach certainly surged recruitment. But even the mass-market messaging from ISIS did not change the ideology. Further‚ ISIS’s social media strategy does not penetrate internet-poor communities‚ where the Salafi-jihadi base expanded most. The internet is not the reason why the movement has grown. The resonance of the Salafi-jihadi call came from global conditions and the threat to Sunni communities.

The foot soldiers that have joined Salafi-jihadi groups fight for the same reasons foot soldiers join other insurgencies. Local fighters sign up to be members of local Salafi-jihadi groups because these groups offer them something tangible in return. Some fight to earn money that in turn goes toward supporting families or dowry payments. Some fight to defend their homes‚ and the Salafi-jihadi groups seem to be best positioned to provide protection. Some fight to contest the government or another opposing force that is generating local grievances. Many of the Salafi-jihadi groups do not require ideological alignment for membership.131 However‚ ideological subscription to Salafi-jihadism is increasingly prevalent in the higher leadership echelons of these local groups. The base’s ability to recruit local fighters and deploy a sizeable force in support of the same short-term objectives buoys the strength of the Salafi-jihadi movement overall.

Some quietist and political Salafis have recalculated their position toward the use of violence and now see it as a requirement for their own defense. The shrinking space for Salafism in the political arena in many Arab states‚ notably Egypt‚ left them with the perceived choice of abandoning beliefs or taking up arms. For other Salafis‚ such as those in Libya or Yemen‚ the outcomes of the civil wars affect their futures. Libyan Salafis who had been quietist may act on the sense of threat that a leading powerbroker poses because of his close alignment with the Egyptian and Emirati governments. Yemen’s al Houthi movement attacked Salafis directly‚ detaining them or burning down their homes‚ and made it clear Salafism was not acceptable under the al Houthi regime. These Salafi fighters and clerics who may not necessarily believe in the use of armed conflict to establish a true Islamic polity but who justify violence in defense of themselves add another source of recruits for the Salafi-jihadi base. Some of these Salafis who mobilized in defense will almost certainly fight for the expansive vision of shaping the state to be a true Islamic government‚ aligning their actions with the Salafi-jihadi movement. Their mobilization alongside the base could increase its local legitimacy and further build local support for the Salafi-jihadi movement’s struggle.

The increase in the number of actual groups that are part of the base and the number of fighters that are members of the base does not account for the full strength of the movement today. A large number of groups were operating as part of the base in the 1990s‚ but the Salafi-jihadi movement was incredibly weak. The number of groups has also changed due to intentional strategies to unify groups organizationally and then to subdivide. The unification and fracturing of organizations without any change to their manifesto has not affected the overall strength of the Salafi-jihadi base. The number of fighters‚ likewise‚swells the ranks‚ but does not achieve the Salafi-jihadi objective of the umma’s willing subjugation to and acceptance of Salafi-jihadi Islam.

Citation 128

Seth G. Jones‚ “A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists‚” Rand Corporation‚ 2014‚ 27.

Citation 129

Local fighters report the appeal of a steady salary or community defense as reasons to join the groups initially. The ideological underpinnings influence high-level leadership and shape the strategic decision-making process.

Citation 130

AQAP issued a serial English-language magazine beginning in summer 2010 that focused on placing the religious justification for attacks and the tools for conducting attacks in the colloquial and available for a mass audience. It developed the theme of “open-source Jihad‚” which it has continued to date. Many of the ISIS-inspired attacks relied on AQAP’s propaganda in part. AQAP’s leadership continues to push for “inspired” attacks in the West‚ and al Qaeda’s Hamza bin Laden’s statements in 2016 and 2017 also called Muslims in the West to arms.

Citation 131

ISIS is an exception.