By Katherine Zimmerman
June 6, 2019
Premature declarations of victory characterize the American fight against groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda. President Donald Trump announced that the Islamic State in Syria would be “gone by tonight,” pointing to the remaining speck of red on an assessment of Islamic State territory in March 2019, and President Barack Obama asserted that Osama bin Laden’s death was “the most significant achievement to date” against al Qaeda in May 2011.1 These declarations, politically motivated as they were, portray an understanding that the war on terror will end once the United States defeats certain groups. American efforts against certain groups or targeting of individuals, such as Osama bin Laden or now Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, affect only a fraction of the full threat, which is the Salafi-Jihadi movement.2 This movement has expanded rapidly since 2011 and persists beyond the rise and fall of groups or any imminent threat it poses to the United States.3 The relationships that the Salafi-Jihadi movement has built with local Sunni communities serve as its strength.
The Salafi-Jihadi movement is the collection of individuals, groups, and organizations operating in pursuit of shared overall goals. Salafi-Jihadi ideology coheres this movement and defines its objectives. This ideology combines the Salafi trend within Islam—the return of religious practices to the days of early Islam—and a Jihadi belief that the use of armed force is incumbent on Muslims to restore this practice within Muslim lands and then to spread it globally. The modern movement sprang from the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and has since evolved in form and practice. It has adapted to changing circumstances to better penetrate and eventually transform local Sunni communities under Salafi governance.4 These adaptations have enabled the Salafi-Jihadi movement to strengthen by better positioning it to build bridges to Sunni populations.
US counterterrorism operations have not had lasting effects. Groups that were defeated, such as al Qaeda in Iraq, have reconstituted in more dangerous forms. Al Qaeda seems able to emerge and threaten from new territory after the US has targeted it in other places. The US has not adopted an approach that applies pressure to the Salafi-Jihadi movement globally. Instead, it has gone after the nodes that seem most threatening at any given moment: al Qaeda in Afghanistan, then Iraq, then Yemen, then the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—all the while eliminating high-value individuals as they surfaced. Indeed, the US has played a global and unwinnable game of whack-a-mole.
American efforts focus on reducing the terrorism threat from the Salafi-jihadi movement. Yet the Salafi-Jihadi movement threatens not just violence, but a complete revolution in the international order if successful. It seeks to reorder the Muslim world under its vision of Islam and governance and then expand into the West. The vision was laughable 20 years ago, and it remains highly implausible today. Yet the convergence of efforts among bad global actors—including Russia, China, and even Iran— has weakened the international order as the US and Europe look inward. These conditions have created opportunities for the Salafi-Jihadi movement to advance its objectives in places where any success seemed impossible previously. The US must therefore transform its approach in face of the new reality.
Understanding the enemy is fundamental to crafting a strategy to counter it effectively. The deficiencies in America’s counterterrorism strategy stem from the characterization of the enemy as a terrorist group, which defines Salafi-Jihadi groups by only one of the activities that they undertake to achieve their objectives. The October 2018 National Counterterrorism Strategy outlines a strategy that “pursues terrorist threats to their source” using all available means.5 The efforts prescribed in this strategy target the terrorist capabilities of the Salafi-Jihadi movement through military, financial, and political pressure on individuals, groups, and threat networks. It also emphasizes the development of partners’ counterterrorism capabilities. Terrorism is a tactic that the Salafi-Jihadi movement uses to pursue its long-term objectives. Terrorism remains the Salafi-Jihadi movement’s primary threat to the West, but Salafi-Jihadi efforts to erase Western influence over the Muslim world and to break the current governments also challenge Western interests.
Center-of-gravity analysis, an analytical methodology drawn from the intelligence community, provides a framework to identify and evaluate the strengths and vulnerabilities of the Salafi-Jihadi movement as a whole. The enemy, the Salafi-Jihadi movement, is evaluated according to four key characteristics of any organization: critical capabilities, critical requirements, critical vulnerabilities, and center(s) of gravity. These characteristics and the analytical process for identifying them are described in more detail below. The center-of-gravity analysis assesses vulnerabilities of the Salafi-jihadi movement, which a successful strategy to counter the movement could attack or exploit.
The Salafi-Jihadi movement’s strategic center of gravity is its relationship with Sunni communities. This relationship is the means by which the Salafi-Jihadi movement intends to impose its version of Islamic governance on Muslims. The relationship, which varies extensively across different communities, is the source of the Salafi-Jihadi movement’s strength today.
1. Donald J. Trump, “Remarks by President Trump Before Marine One Departure,” White House, March 20, 2019; and Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on Osama Bin Laden,” White House, May 2, 2011.
2. Katherine Zimmerman, America’s Real Enemy: The Salafi-Jihadi Movement, Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, July 18, 2017.
3. Katherine Zimmerman, “The Salafi-Jihadist Movement Is Winning,” RealClearWorld, February 12, 2019, https://www.realclearworld.com/articles/2019/02/12/the_salafi-jihadist_movement_is_winning_112964.html.
4. Katherine Zimmerman, Terrorism, Tactics, and Transformation: The West vs the Salafi-Jihadi Movement, Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, November 15, 2018.
5. White House, National Strategy for Counterterrorism, October 2018.