From Ideology to Movement
The Salafi-jihadi movement formed through shared experiences as much as it formed through shared ideology‚ theory‚ and doctrine. Like-minded individuals gathered on the training ground and battlefield in various theaters. These individuals joined local groups or received support from local groups. Common cause unified them as they mobilized and remobilized for jihad. Organizational networks built in theater to distribute and share resources‚ and relationships— new and established—crosscut groups to reinforce the movement. The experience of jihad‚ of fighting on the battlefield‚ became important to establishing credentials and in kindling the global movement. Ideology unifies and guides the global Salafi-jihadi movement‚ but the movement is constantly evolving how it expresses itself on the ground to adapt to and improve operations under new conditions.
A competitive-cooperative structure has characterized the ideology and the movement throughout the 20th century. A loose-knit leadership group that dispersed geographically and among different organizations shapes the overall movement by advancing thought‚ theory‚ and practice. The leadership group coordinates organizational efforts‚ including the sharing of critical resources to further the movement’s overall objectives. At the same time‚ however‚ the leaders are all competing to be the first to realize success.
The movement grew from the volume and geographic distribution of Muslims who answered the call to jihad. Afghanistan became a melting pot for ideas—dominated by the likes of Abdullah Azzam— and a source of inspiration for the mujahideen who returned home. These fighters founded Salafi-jihadi groups in their home countries‚ triggering a global surge for Salafi-jihadism and the diffusion of the movement into the corners of Muslim-majority lands. Their shared experiences and relationships developed in Afghanistan connected them‚ building an instant potential network that spanned Muslim lands. This network later formed the roots for the expansion of al Qaeda’s branches.
Returnees from Afghanistan caused a surge in the number of Salafi-jihadi groups in the Muslim world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The armed Islamist groups that had been active before the Afghanistan jihad were few and nationally organized. These included the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Algerian Armed Islamic Movement‚ among others. The mujahideen brought with them lessons learned in the field and connections to external funding‚ generating a pulse in the local groups that strengthened the global movement. By the early 1990s‚ Salafi-jihadi groups were active across North Africa‚ the Middle East‚ the Caucasus‚ South Asia‚ and Southeast Asia. Afghanistan showed that success was possible‚ and new leaders seized on growing popular dissatisfaction with authoritarian governments to recruit and mobilize against the states. Some individuals continued on to new battlefields—Bosnia and Chechnya—as international theaters for jihad. Yet not one fight succeeded in collapsing the state. Most lost soundly instead.
Nevertheless‚ fronts for jihad create touch points for foreign fighters to learn‚ trade experience‚ and improve their overall methodology. The dispersion of these foreign fighters when the wars end—after Afghanistan‚ Bosnia‚ Chechnya‚ Somalia‚ Iraq‚ and eventually Syria—lends itself to an iterative and adaptive approach among groups that share the same fundamental ideology but may not develop formal organizational affiliations. The fronts for jihad culled the means and ways for Salafi-jihadi groups through proof of success and were practical universities for students of the Salafi-jihadi ideology. Alumni then translated the experience and knowledge back to their homelands‚ bringing with them personal relationships that helped coalesce a global movement around the shared Salafi-jihadi ideology. Bin Laden’s al Qaeda became a force multiplier for many of the local Salafi-jihadi groups‚ meeting basic organizational requirements such as funding and‚ in the process‚ building a complex web of organizational and personal relationships that al Qaeda and other transnational Salafi-jihadi groups use.
The resounding defeats of Salafi-jihadi groups by the mid-1990s broadly cemented some lessons. First‚ the absence of a unified effort within a country undercuts progress. Groups’ local rivalries undermined overall success as groups sought to outdo or marginalize others and took unnecessary risks. Second‚ Western support for Muslim-majority governments was a key obstacle to success. The external support blocked the mujahideen’s effort to collapse these governments. Yet the West‚ particularly the US‚ was not willing to pay with its lives for these governments and therefore could be compelled to remove its support. The US retreated from both Somalia and Lebanon after taking casualties that seemed very limited by the standards of those who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan‚ killing more than 10‚000 Soviets in the process. Lastly‚ the efforts failed because the groups lost or never had popular support. The rising civilian death toll split the population from the Islamists‚ isolating them and enabling security services to round up the remaining supporters.
These lessons shone through clearly in the Algerian jihad during that country’s civil war. Algeria received support from France to crush the resistance. Multiple Salafi-jihadi groups were active in Algeria in the early 1990s. They competed against each other for leadership of the Algerian movement‚ which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had brought into being. Among these groups were the Armed Islamic Movement (MIA) and its splinter group‚ the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The MIA attacked the state and refrained from broadly targeting populations. The GIA took a more radical approach‚ expanding the definition of its enemy over time to include foreigners‚ civil servants‚ MIA members‚ and civilians disobeying its edicts. It escalated the level of violence to the point of terrorizing the population.40 A faction‚ primarily a group of Afghan Arabs (Arabs who had fought the Soviets)‚ split from the GIA over the treatment of civilians and formed a new group‚ the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC). The GSPC‚ as its name implies‚ focused on da’wa—religious outreach to the population—and combat against the Algerian state. The GSPC would later change its name to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)‚ after an Afghan-Arab assumed leadership.41 The GIA‚ which had continued its brutal attacks‚ lost popular support‚ and Algerian security forces arrested its remaining leadership in 2004.42
Ayman al Zawahiri‚ today’s leader of al Qaeda‚ experienced these lessons firsthand. His involvement in and observations of the jihadi movement in Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s shape his current decisions and guidance for al Qaeda. He was a prominent leader of the Egyptian movement and watched as his group‚ the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ)‚ among others became isolated through the loss of popular support and left Egypt in defeat by the mid-1990s. Zawahiri oversaw the EIJ’s turn to increasing violence‚including the first suicide attack by a Sunni group‚in the early 1990s as the group competed in Egypt with the Gama’a al Islamiyya in attacks against the Mubarak regime. The mounting civilian casualties‚particularly from a November 1993 bombing next to a girls’ school‚alienated the population. Imprisoned Gama’a al Islamiyya and EIJ members signed a nonviolence agreement with the Egyptian government that Zawahiri vehemently opposed.43 Zawahiri watched Egypt’s Islamist revolutions collapse as the Egyptian government co-opted groups that were imprisoned or on the run and without any popular support. He remains determined to prevent such a defeat from happening again.
Al Qaeda: Isolated in the Shadows. Al Qaeda focused on exporting the jihad to the Muslim world in the 1990s. Its leaders sought to replicate the success from Afghanistan by sharing resources and skills with local groups to help them become true insurgent forces against local governments. The vision was to lead multiple local revolutions to return true Islam to the Muslim world. In turn, al Qaeda itself would specialize in external attacks to compel Western nations, primarily the US, to disengage from Muslim lands. Yet al Qaeda was unable to reproduce what had happened in Afghanistan and remained a covert organization, operating on the periphery of society.
Al Qaeda dedicated its resources toward unifying the ranks of the local Salafi-jihadi groups and supporting them in their fights.44Osama bin Laden’s resources and the funds collected through the charity networks that Abdullah Azzam established fed finances to local groups. Senior veterans who had become members of al Qaeda were dispatched to the various states to advise and assist these groups. These operatives reported back to bin Laden on their efforts. Al Qaeda members in East Africa, for example, complained of the local clan politics and the lack of infrastructure, which made operations difficult.45 Al Qaeda did not have authority over local groups’ actions or decision-making since they remained independent from al Qaeda’s direct command. However, it did help to shape and guide the groups, further spreading its ideology. And the al Qaeda operatives’ reports back to bin Laden and al Qaeda leadership gave the al Qaeda organization good visibility on the challenges that local groups faced, enabling it to update continuously its understanding of what its strategy should be.
Success in galvanizing mass support nevertheless eluded al Qaeda throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 East African embassy bombings, and the 2000 USS Cole bombing drew new recruits, but not the broad popular support al Qaeda sought. The September 11 attacks drove Muslim popular support toward the United States and cost al Qaeda its Afghanistan sanctuary. The US invasion of Afghanistan decimated al Qaeda’s leadership and scattered it, setting al Qaeda on course to adapt its organization into a network of affiliates directly responsive to bin Laden’s guidance and tasked with advancing al Qaeda’s objectives. Al Qaeda leadership tapped the leaders it knew from the Afghanistan front and began cultivating group relationships.46 However, these new al Qaeda affiliates still did not gain significant popular support outside of the Iraq war zone. Al Qaeda’s call for change to return to a true Islamic society fell on relatively deaf ears.
Al Qaeda leadership saw failure when it looked at the distance between its groups and the Sunni people. It had failed to galvanize support among the very population that it was trying to lead for two decades. The activities for which al Qaeda became known— terrorist attacks—were only a small part of al Qaeda’s struggle. Ayman al Zawahiri argued in his 2001 seminal work, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, that al Qaeda’s jihad47 would expose the “treason” of rulers before the umma and “demonstrate that their treason is a flaw in their faith.”48 Al Qaeda saw outreach, its da’wa, as a fundamental component of its grand strategy.49It had strived to build ties to and cultivate relationships within the Sunni population. Its focus remained on the securing the support of the umma. Zawahiri wrote:
The jihad movement must come closer to the masses, defend their honor, fend off injustice, and lead them to the path of guidance and victory. . . . [It] must dedicate one of its wings to work with the masses, preach, provide services for the Muslim people, and share their concerns through all available avenues for charity and educational work. . . . The people will not love us unless they felt that we love them, care about them, and are ready to defend them. In short, in waging the battle the jihad movement must be in the middle, or ahead, of the nation. It must be extremely careful not to get isolated from its nation or engage the government in the battle of the elite against its authority. (emphasis added)50
Yet the majority of Sunni Muslims rejected al Qaeda’s tenets and the ideas put forth by the Salafi-jihadi movement. Salafi-jihadi groups and ideologues were isolated from the majority of the Sunni people. The population tolerated Salafi-jihadism in as much as it existed and did not affect day-to-day activities, but the movement itself was effectively under quarantine, unable to infect the masses.
Al Qaeda’s Lessons Learned. The alienation of Muslims and subsequent lack of support for the global jihad was a problem for the Salafi-jihadi movement. The movement would never achieve its end state if it did not have a relationship with the Sunni population. Al Qaeda refocused its energy not on learning how to improve its warfighting approach, but on its approach to gaining popular support.
Al Qaeda’s strategy of attacking inside Muslim states in the early 2000s negatively affected support for the movement. A September 14, 2006, letter to Osama bin Laden from an unnamed individual openly critiqued bin Laden’s decisions to focus al Qaeda’s efforts on Saudi Arabia in 200351 instead of on Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US military had deployed, or Kuwait, from which the US military was operating to support its Iraq war efforts.52 The author writes, “Public opinion polls in the Muslim world prove that support to you [bin Laden] among the Arab and Muslim people has shrunk after you targeted the Peninsula.” The author added that Muslim states had also taken action to limit support for the mujahideen. He ends by suggesting bin Laden focus on attacking the US, the “head of the snake,” and supporting the jihad in Iraq and Afghanistan. He implored bin Laden to “stay away from operating inside Muslim countries in order to protect the reputation of the mujahidin, protect their acceptance within Muslim societies, prevent any harm to the mujahidin and supporters of jihad, prevent the secularists and liberals from exploiting these events, and direct the souls of the youth for the great battle against the head of the snake” (emphasis added). Al Qaeda in Iraq controlled Anbar province and the group was nearing the height of its power during the war.53 The author implied that winning in Iraq would galvanize the movement, as many had been hopeful to see the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban) secure the country just before the October 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.
However, internal misgivings surfaced over how al Qaeda in Iraq skyrocketed to power even as the group neared success. A 2004–05 exchange between al Qaeda in Iraq emir Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Ayman al Zawahiri, then-deputy to Osama bin Laden, laid bare the disagreement over how to generate support within the Sunni population. Zarqawi denigrated the Iraqi Sunni in a 2004 report back to al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. The masses, he wrote, are the silent majority, the sheikhs and scholars are primarily Sufi and “doomed to perdition,” the Muslim Brotherhood “trad[e] in the blood of martyrs,” the mujahideen are unexperienced and afraid of death, and the foreign fighters’ numbers are negligible.54 Zarqawi’s plan was to mobilize the Sunni by stoking sectarian war through targeted attacks against the Shi’a. He believed that the Sunni would fight only when they faced an existential threat from the Shi’a and set about provoking that threat.
Zawahiri responded in 2005 by focusing on the issue of popular support—of the relationship with the umma.55 Zawahiri warned Zarqawi against “separating from the masses,” calling into question Zarqawi’s oversight of slaughter in Iraq. Zarqawi and his successors continued apace, however, and the Shi’a counterattacks against the Sunni community at large did, indeed, mobilize that community. Al Qaeda in Iraq managed to put itself at the head of that mobilization for a time, seeming to validate Zarqawi’s approach.
But Zarqawi led his group too far, validating Zawahiri’s concern. A popular uprising against al Qaeda in Iraq, the sahwa (Anbar Awakening), along with a US shift in strategy (the “surge”) defeated the group. The events reinforced Zawahiri’s opinion that the coercion of a population through violence and brutal tac- tics would isolate the movement.
The global movement learned from its experience in Iraq that it could not survive without popular support. Al Qaeda senior operative Atiyah Abdul Rahman expressed the fear in March 2007 that al Qaeda in Iraq leadership—specifically Abu Hamza al Muhajir and Abu Omar al Baghdadi (Zarqawi’s successor)—were alienating the people.56 Al Qaeda also learned that it could not survive on military force alone. A document found among al Qaeda correspondence discussing al Qaeda in Yemen reads: “We should not attempt to control just because we have the military power to do so, while we still do not have the power to sustain the people in their livelihood.”57 Al Qaeda’s focus turned to the people.
The effective defeats of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq and the elimination of al Qaeda operational cells in places such as Yemen only defeated the mili- tarized components of al Qaeda and the Salafi-jihadi movement. They did not remove the will of the remaining individuals to reconstitute or sufficiently set conditions to prevent their return.
Rather, al Qaeda senior leadership internalized the lessons it saw in those defeats. It reemphasized the requirement to focus on the relationship with the Sunni population. Al Shabaab’s success in Somalia derived from its ability to provide governance alongside its insurgent force.58 Much internal leadership correspondence from the late 2000s and early 2010s focused on the sanctity of Muslim blood—even of Shi’a—and called for careful planning to avoid spilling the blood of Muslim civilians.59 The Salafi-jihadi movement went to ground until it could rise up again as an insurgent force.
Salafi-jihadi leaders studied the movement’s failures and called for strategic and operational changes to build and then fortify the connection to the umma. Al Qaeda in particular adapted its operations and advised local associated groups to focus on building popular support. One method was mediation, a method that the Prophet Mohammed had used to gain strength in Medina. Mediation remains a primary way for the Salafi-jihadi base to gain initial legitimacy within populations. Al Qaeda leadership frequently discussed not better ways to kill Americans, but how to better capture and retain the support of the umma.
Al Qaeda and Salafi-jihadi leaders never ceased efforts to build a strong transnational movement in the Sunni Muslim population. They learned from failure, modified operations based on conditions, and remained viable, if weakened, into the 2000s. Those who remained on the battlefield had witnessed defeat. They had survived sustained US and partnered counterterrorism operations against them. And they had begun to understand how to convey their Salafi-jihadi message in such a way that the local populations did not immediately reject it. These al Qaeda and Salafi-jihadi leaders were further dispersed geographically and operating toward a common objective. The movement had become resilient, adaptive, and complex. Yet it remained weak and far from its goals and the people it sought to lead and rule.
GIA leaders called fighting an obligation for Algerians and quickly expanded the definition of its enemy to include journalists‚ the families of soldiers‚ and civil servants. The GIA continued to add enemies to its lists‚ including MIA members‚ intellectuals‚ foreigners‚ and civilians who did not abide by the GIA’s Islamic edicts. It also extended its battlefront to include France‚ which was supporting the Algerian government.
Abdelmalek Droukdel‚ the current emir of AQIM‚ was in Afghanistan before returning to fight in the Algerian civil war. For more on AQIM‚ see Andreas Hagen‚ “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Leaders and Their Networks‚” American Enterprise Institute‚ Critical Threats Project‚ March 27‚ 2014.
BBC News‚ “Algeria Reveals Rebel Crackdown‚” January 4‚ 2005.
See Laura Mansfield‚ trans.His Own Words: A Translation of the Writings of Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri (US: TLG Publishers‚ 2006)‚ 136–76.
The group also organized attacks against the United States for its “occupation” of Muslim holy lands during the First Gulf War, striking American targets in the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and New York. Al Qaeda worked with local groups, such as the Afghan Arabs in Yemen, who helped facilitate the 1992 attack on US marines transiting Aden en route to Somalia.
For more on al Qaeda operations in East Africa in the 1990s, see Clint Watts, Jacob Shapiro, and Vahid Brown,“Al-Qaida’s(Mis) adventures in the Horn of Africa,” Combating Terrorism Center, July 2, 2007.
For more on how the al Qaeda network operates, see Katherine Zimmerman, “The al Qaeda Network: A New Framework for Defining the Enemy,” American Enterprise Institute, Critical Threats Project, September 10, 2013.
Al Qaeda’s leadership’s discussion of jihad focuses on the “greater” jihad: the violent struggle in the way of Allah. See Mary Habeck, “Attacking America: Al Qaeda’s Grand Strategy in Its War with World,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 18, 2014.
Mansfield, His Own Words, 212.
Mansfield, His Own Words, 208–9.
Al Qaeda conducted a series of attacks in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s, conducting mass-casualty attacks in 2003 and the Khobar massacre in 2004. For a chronology of al Qaeda–linked attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003, see Reuters, “Bombings and Arrests in Saudi Arabia,” November 9, 2003. See also Abdul Hamid Bakier, “Lessons from al-Qaeda’s Attack on the Khobar Compound,” Terrorism Monitor, August 11, 2006.
See “Letter of Advice to UBL,” Combating Terrorism Center, September 14, 2006.
Thomas E. Ricks, “Situation Called Dire in West Iraq,” Washington Post, September 11, 2006.
Musab al Zarqawi, letter translated by Coalition Provisional Authority, US Department of State, February 2004.
Ayman al Zawahiri, “Zawahiri’s Letter to Zarqawi,” Combating Terrorism Center, July 9, 2005.
“Letter from [sic] Hafiz Sultan,” Combating Terrorism Center; and SITE Intelligence Group, “Zawahiri Details Relationship with ISIL, Repeats Call to Return to Iraq,” May 2, 2014 (subscription required).
Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Three Stages Letter.”
An excellent survey of al Shabaab’s rise in Somalia is Stig Jarle Hansen’s Al-Shabaab in Somalia, London: Hurst, 2013.
The adherence to this guidance varies among groups. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in the late 2000s targeted mosques and Shi’a, eliciting reprimands from al Qaeda’s Adam Gadahn in January 2011 and Mahmud al-Hasan and Abu Yahya al-Libi in December 2010. See Adam Gadahn, “Letter from Adam Gadahn,” Combating Terrorism Center, SOCOM-2012-0000004; and Mahmud al-Hasan and Abu Yahya al-Libi, “Letter to Hakimullah Mahsud,” SOCOM-2012-0000007, Combating Terrorism Center. Al Qaeda also holds that it is acceptable to kill Muslim civilians (as human shields) in cases where it is unavoidable. For al Qaeda on human shields, see Abdullah Warius and Jarret Brachman, “Abu Yahya al-Libi’s ‘Human Shields in Modern Jihad,” CTC Sentinel, May 15, 2008.