Everyman’s Strategic Survey: Salafi-jihadism

Katherine Zimmerman, a research fellow at the generally conservative American Enterprise Institute, has written a good article for Foreign Affairs in which she explains that, while: “It may appear as if a global victory over the Islamic State is near, but it is not. What U.S. policymakers never seem to learn is that when it comes to global terrorism, the mission is not yet accomplished … [because] … The United States is failing to win its war on terrorism because al Qaeda and the Islamic State represent only a fraction of the real enemy: a global movement, unified by an ideology—Salafi jihadism—that exists outside of al Qaeda or the Islamic State. The tenets of this militaristic theology justify and demand the use of violence to bring about a narrow vision of Islam. These beliefs marry the Salafi current in Sunni Islam—which seeks to return religious practice to the Islam of early Muslims—with a belief that violent armed struggle in the name of Islam is incumbent on all Muslims.

Salafi-jihadism is a religious ideology that, as Ms Zimmerman says, seeks to bring medieval Islamic victories into the 21st century. Salafi-jihadist teachers and adherents are her, in Canadian mosques, today.

Although Salafi jihadism had been relegated to the fringes of society since the late 1980s, when the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan ended, by 2014, it had attained a global success that Osama bin Laden could have only imagined,” Ms Zimmerman says, and “By 2010, U.S. and Iraqi forces had physically reduced al Qaeda to a manageable security threat, but because the conditions that permitted the group to return were not addressed, the battered remains of al Qaeda in Iraq reconstituted and took control of Fallujah in January 2014. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other groups did not arise because their ideology had suddenly appealed to the masses. They expanded and strengthened because the chaos that was unleashed in the aftermath of the Arab Spring pushed local Sunni populations into trading their support for Salafi jihadist groups in exchange for security against a greater threat—whether that threat was a general rise in crime, instability in Libya, invading forces in Yemen, some combination thereof in Mali, or, most poignantly, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. The groups also offered goods and services that filled practical communal needs, and then followed through by introducing local populations to the Salafi jihadist ideology, often forcing them to comply with strict practices. Indeed, the conflicts that currently engulf much of Muslim Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia gave the Salafi jihadist movement the edge it needed to gain a foothold in these regions.

Ms Zimmerman has a three part prescription:

  • To reverse the tide, the United States must therefore orient its counterterrorism strategy on removing the conditions that enable the growth of the Salafi jihadist movement. This involves several tactics, some of which will break comfortable norms. To begin, Washington should shift its focus on militarily defeating specific groups and on seeking to counter the ideology to helping make Sunni communities more secure. As the experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere prove, military defeats of Salafi jihadist groups are only temporary. Both the Bush and Obama administrations rightly identified the ideology as a source of strength for terrorist groups. The Obama administration went a step further than the Bush administration’s efforts to win the “war of ideas” and made countering violent extremism, which included discrediting Salafi jihadist beliefs and improving socioeconomic conditions for Sunnis in at-risk communities, a core pillar of its counterterrorism strategy. But both leaders erred in assuming that attacking the ideology would weaken support for the groups. It was the conditions on the ground not the ideology that was driving the support;”
  • Another important element is for the United States to recognize the ongoing competition among extremists to gain the support of Sunni communities and that it must provide an alternative to the Salafi jihadist movement. Providing Sunni communities with the means to defend themselves from external threats or offering assistance to stabilize these communities will decrease their likelihood of turning to Salafi jihadist groups for help. Extremist groups have followers in all of the jihadist hotbeds, which enables them to react quickly to developments and capitalize on opportunities as they occur. It is not plausible, nor in many cases advisable, to place Americans on the ground in all of these locales, but Washington should be cultivating and enabling able partners that will work with it at the community level. These partners may not involve the state itself, especially when the state is the source of a community’s grievances, like in Syria. To identify potential partners, American diplomats should be meeting with key leaders outside of embassy walls, as this will yield a better understanding of local dynamics and foster relations with substate actors and local power brokers. Of course, the United States should only strengthen substate actors who also support the idea of a unified, central state;” and
  • Finally, the United States should press for the redress of local communities’ political and economic grievances, especially those that have been caused by the state. In Iraq and Syria, for example, the United States should shift from hunting down Islamic State members to focusing on Sunni grievances and assisting with improving governance. The feelings of injustice among Iraqi Sunni stem from their marginalization in Baghdad, a condition that is perpetuated by Iran’s use of Shiite proxy groups to consolidate influence within the Iraqi government. It is a trend that will be affected by the upcoming Iraqi elections. Efforts should be made to rebuild damaged Sunni communities, especially in Mosul, and, more important, to prevent the labeling of all Sunni as Islamic State conspirators. Likewise, U.S. policy has effectively ignored Sunni grievances against the Syrian regime. Instead, Assad became a de facto partner against the Islamic State. Under the guise of counterterrorism, he was able to regain control of parts of the Syrian countryside as his Kurdish partners expanded into historically Sunni areas. The United States still needs to find a Sunni partner in Syria. To do so, the United States must be prepared to defend the Sunni communities against the brutal attacks of the Assad regime—not just against the use of chemical weapons but also from barrel bombs and starvation as a weapon of war.

The “war of ideas” is, in my view, central. Sending money and dropping fewer bombs will help but the perceived grievances of many, many Muslims are deeply rooted in the past and I suspect that the spiritual motivations that drive many Muslims to hate the TOP-original-ART-Russia-LEADER-JOSEPH-STALIN-portrait-painting-hand-painted-oil-painting-on-canvas-24liberal, secular West are very nearly the same as those that drive many Russians to yearn for a return to the days of Stalin. Some Saladino-240x300Russians look for a new Stalin and some Muslims wish for a new Saladin: each to stand up to a liberal, Anglo-Saxon led West which, for centuries, has humiliated the Arabs, Asians and Slavs and, often literally, enslaved or eradicated Africans and native Americans. It’s a bit hard to blame the Arabs ~ after centuries of being a great and feared imperial power they were, indeed, humiliated by e.g. Balfour and  Sykes-Picot, which were, to many Arabs, worse than the impact of the Opium Wars on the Chinese.

Katherine Zimmerman’s strategy requires risk, and she admits that “Such strategies will inevitably require a greater acceptance of risk. Risk to personnel. Risk of bad partners. Risk of failure.” She asserts, and I agree that: “The United States has lost its ability to understand and shape environments given that its personnel have retreated. The spaces that they have left behind have now been filled by Salafi jihadist groups and other actors, including Iran and Russia, which are more willing to expose their personnel to danger. Shying away from imperfect partners, including substate actors, has also enabled U.S. adversaries to step in instead. A fear of misstep and of worsening the situation has paralyzed the United States from taking action where needed to shape conflicts, allowing others, including imperfect partners, to act. It is a reality that not all partners will be perfect—they are not perfect now and their interests will diverge at some point—but the United States can always choose to end bad partnerships. Failures should be taken as lessons rather than losses, so that like the enemy, the United States can adapt and improve.” Russia and Syria, for example, are winning ~ if that’s the right word ~ because they accept that neither is a good partner in anything like a “good” cause but, together, they can achieve something useful for themselves. In other circumstances i might even laud it as pragmatism.

The war on terrorism will not,” Ms Zimmerman says, and, again, I agree “be won by the U.S. military or other partnered military forces alone. Military actions need to support a larger effort to return security to Sunni communities and to thus open up a space to compete with the Salafi jihadist movement. American diplomats need to develop relationships with key stakeholders in order to understand their positions and negotiate conflict resolutions. Foreign assistance can play a critical role in countering the Salafi jihadist movement when applied smartly to foster legitimate, local governance or used as leverage to shape regime behavior.

Katherine Zimmerman looks at American foreign policy and what American can and cannot and should and should not do in the Middle East to “win” the “war on terror.” I think her focus is too narrow. I agree that the US led West has to change how it deals with the Muslim states but we must, simultaneously, work to integrate individual Muslims into our surpriseliberal, secular, enlightened and democratic social system. The battlefield is the school-room; the “warriors” are Canadian school teachers who teaching “values” … shades of Kellie Leitch!

I’m not so sure that we can bring the jihadis into the modern, peaceful, liberal world order any more than we could the Chinese … but what we can and must do, is, first:

  • “Defang” them here, inside Canada. Groups that e.g. threaten to “destroy your beaches from Toronto to North Bay … [because] … you reject Islam and follow the Great Satan. Infidels you allow your women to disgracefully, shamelessly parade around your beaches all but naked!”” must be found, their leaders and members rounded up, charged, tried and, if convicted jailed for long periods; and second
  • Counter their message that medieval Islam is, in some strange way, equal or even superior to our enlightened, liberal, secular, democratic culture … it isn’t and the theology of radical Islamist jihadism must be sternly denounced by all Canadian leaders, including the leaders of Muslim communities.

image(I fully accept that some of the young men and women who embrace the radical jihadi theology must be mentally ill and may not be able to be held responsible for their acts, but the people ~ often Muslim clerics ~ who indoctrinated the mentally vulnerable must be found and separated from society.)

In our quest to be oh so very “tolerant” we have, in fact, given credence to depraved quasi-religious ideologies that aim to destroy civilization as we understand it. Once again the (mostly) young (mostly) men who embrace this sick theology are led to it and indoctrinated in it by clever, very sane, men (they are almost all men, I think) and they and the hatred they teach need to be the target of a massive propaganda campaign … and the idea (the truth) that we need to propagate is that our 1,500 year old liberal, secular, enlightened, democratic culture is in every imaginable way superior to the medieval hodge-podge that some Muslim so-called clerics, including some here in Canada, want to impose upon the world. (That applies, also, to the myths that some First nations leaders are propagating about how wonderful their “pre-contact” social structures were ~ wonderful must mean the Hobbesian state in which like was often solitary and always “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”)

In my opinion the North African, Middle Eastern and West Asian Muslim nations, from Morocco to Pakistan are going to have to go through something analogous to our reformation and enlightenment before real ‘peace’ with us or with themselves, is possible … our reformation included, arguably needed, the bloody Thirty Years War to, eventually, cement a new, mutually acceptable religious structure into place; I would not be surprised if the Muslims need the same to settle their doctrinal disputes. While that is going on, and that’s a process that may require decades, even centuries to accomplish, we will not be able to do much useful in those regions; but we can and must win the “war on terror” here at home … or perish.

Those who make and execute foreign policy, in America, Britain and Canada, should take careful note of Ms Zimmerman’s ideas about how to deal with North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia ~ what she says makes sense to me; but those who make our social and internal security polices, nationally, provincially and at local levels should be more concerned with building a cohesive, liberal, secular, enlightened and democratic society: street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, city by city, and province by province. We should not allow out “tolerance” of others’ beliefs and behaviours to blind us to the very real, internal security, threat that Salafi-jihadism poses right here, in Canada’s cities and towns, right now, in 2018.


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