Islamist terrorism will never be fully eradicated, and the threat to the U.S. homeland is real: These are among the sobering conclusions of a new U.S. Institute of Peace study that traces the origins and evolution of Salafist jihadism, a phenomenon it says blindsided the U.S. in September 2001.
“The Jihad Threat: ISIS, Al Qaida and Beyond,” authored by 20 experts from across the political spectrum, traces the evolution of Sala since it first emerged in the 1970s, focusing on repressive regimes, to the 1990s, when it turned its attention to the West.
It argues that the only effective solution to Islamist terrorism will be one that addresses the factors that spawned it and continue to feed it.
Poverty, unemployment and social injustice are important drivers of terrorism, leading populations to increasingly turn to religion as a solution, the study authors said.
Factors in violence
Pre-existing political, military and sectarian violence, along with military intervention by non-Muslim foreign armies, have set the tone for the extreme violence making global headlines, the report says.
“There is a large and growing population of disenchanted, disenfranchised Sunnis who are increasingly deciding to turn to force of arms as a way to pursue their grievances, rather than trusting in and working through existing political systems,” said Jennifer Cafarella, lead intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War and one of the report’s co-authors.
As this population grows more angry, so, too, does the ability of Salafi jihadist groups to recruit and channel their anger through violence against both state structures and the West, Cafarella said.
The report focuses primarily on the Islamic State terrorist group and al-Qaida, whose ultimate goals are similar but whose methodologies differ significantly: IS is described as urgent and forceful, while al-Qaida is “strategic and deliberate.”
“Al-Qaida, like ISIS, seeks to establish a global caliphate,” said co-author Garrett Nada, a program specialist at USIP’s Center for Middle East & Africa. “But al-Qaida views this as more of a long-term goal. It is on track to continue its more gradualist approach by embedding locally and establishing credibility on the ground in multiple countries.”
The more it answers the needs of local populations, the deeper the partnership grows.
While al-Qaida has lost top leaders and appears to have been eclipsed by the new Islamic State “caliphate,” the report makes clear that it has not lost influence. IS’s brutality has enabled al-Qaida to sell itself to local populations as the “moderate” alternative.
“IS and al-Qaida enhance each other, not intentionally, but as a product of what they are doing, which is to champion the defensive Sunni narrative," Cafarella said.
The report predicts that both will continue to evolve ideologically and strategically.
The groups may not be able to sustain themselves at current levels, but they are highly adaptable, and the West should avoid complacency. IS could opt to retreat into the desert, only to emerge stronger than ever. And al-Qaida’s imagination “knows no limits.”
Terrorists have historically worked to bait their enemies into “costly, messy, deadly and, in the long term, ineffective military confrontations,” the report said. It cautions that “eliminating an extremist group physically does not defang its ideology or change the underlying circumstances that allowed the group to gain traction in the first place.”
The authors urge the U.S. to collaborate against terrorism with international partners and legitimate local political groups, being mindful of public opinion at home and abroad. And it recommends that whatever its response, U.S. counterterrorism policy should address the needs of local populations.
“The first and most effective strategy would be to provide a credible alternative to populations and fighters who are considering joining one of these groups,” Cafarella said. She cited the example of the IS stronghold of Raqqa, where the U.S. is working with the Syrian-Kurdish YPG, whom the mainly Arab local population may not trust.
“We have to get our partnerships right. We can’t just work with local actors on the ground just because they are effective militarily,” she said.
Extremism is also driven in part by sectarian tension, and the report says U.S. policy should balance Sunni and Shi'ite interests, so as not to make one sect feel more vulnerable.
Study authors also suggest the U.S. should re-examine its priorities.
“We focus on ISIS without tackling the other wars that are going on in the region," Cafarella said, using an acronym for Islamic State. "That hasn’t been working," she said, because many in the region are more concerned about the civil war pitting Syrian rebel groups against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
And, as USIP’s Nada points out, one of the biggest challenges ahead will be deciding the fate of captured fighters.
“For decades, prisons in the region have been known incubators of extremism,” said Nada, pointing out that some prominent terrorist leaders, including IS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are veterans of U.S. detention centers. “States need to think more strategically about who they detain and how former fighters should be reintegrated if they are to be released.”
The war against Salafist jihadists is going to be fought over decades, not just years, the study warns, and the fighters may end up always being one step ahead of the West.