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Research Report


Katherine Zimmerman
Copyright Date: Jul. 1, 2017
Pages: 51
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 3-5)

    America is losing the war on terror, yet many Americans think the United States is winning. The fact that there has been no attack on American soil on the scale of 9/11 has created a false sense of security. Dismissals of Orlando and San Bernardino as “lone-wolf” attacks further the inaccurate narrative that al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) are somehow “on the run.” According to senior American officials for at least seven years, those groups have been “on the run”—a “fact” that in itself demonstrates the falsity of US pretentions to success....

  2. (pp. 6-15)

    Much of the Salafi-jihadi movement operates in a policy gray area. It poses no immediate threat to Americans, and most of its members are not actively plotting to harm the United States directly. Local groups, organizations, and individuals may speak out against the United States and propagate anti-American sentiments, even encouraging attacks against the US or the West, but not take action themselves. Members might even facilitate such actions against the US or the West, but not participate directly. These facts led the Obama administration to define the threat down to only those groups and individuals actively planning attacks. That...

  3. (pp. 16-25)

    A series of exogenous events accomplished for al Qaeda what it had failed to do for decades: the mobilization of the Sunni population against the states. The popular uprisings that collapsed states across the Middle East and North Africa—Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia—brought the objectives of the masses into alignment with those of the Salafi-jihadi movement. Both mainstream Sunni Muslims, driven by anti-government grievances, and Salafi-jihadis sought to collapse the regimes. Thus began a period of resurgence for al Qaeda and an opportunity for Salafi-jihadis to apply their lessons learned to co-opt primarily secular and democratic movements....

  4. (pp. 26-29)

    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...

  5. (pp. 30-31)

    The US cannot kill its way out of its war with al Qaeda, ISIS, or even the global Salafi-jihadi movement. It also cannot win simply by going after the threat groups or countering the Salafi-jihadi ideology. The strength of the Salafi-jihadi movement is its relationship with the Sunni population—with the umma. The individual leaders, the groups and their safe havens, and the ability to conduct transnational terrorist attacks are all important components of the global movement, but eliminating these components without breaking the tie between the movement and the population is a losing game. The US counterterrorism strategy must...