In the fight against jihadist ideology, win the people to win the war
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American and Western officials are poised to gloat over the recapture of Mosul and Raqqa from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But this latest in a string of nominal victories against Islamist terrorists will prove as hollow and ephemeral as all the others. Warnings that al Qaeda will rise in Syria and a new generation of ISIS will emerge in Iraq have already begun.

Re-establishing control of these two cities offers an opportunity to assess America’s counterterrorism strategy. As the United States seems set to celebrate the victory of a crumbling “Caliphate” and the fading of al Qaeda, all evidence indicates that the Trump administration will, like its predecessor, draw the wrong conclusions.

The Obama administration defined ISIS as enemy number one, and its control of Mosul and Raqqa as the pressing problem. Trump doubled-down by killing even more ISIS members and driving them from their captured lands. Meanwhile, both leaders gave a nod to occasional military raids and airstrikes against top al Qaeda leaders plotting attacks against the West.

But neither Obama nor Trump recognize the cardinal error of American policy since 9/11: Defining specific, named groups as the enemy. We are against ISIS. Al Qaeda. Jabhat al Nusra. But what about the others that mushroom in their wake? By focusing U.S. military, legal and policy tools on the destruction of particular named groups, policymakers miss the real enemy: The larger movement that existed before al Qaeda and ISIS formed and that will continue after they are destroyed.

The movement’s ideology is Salafi-jihadi. Salafi because its adherents believe they must return all Muslims to the beliefs and practices of the time of the Prophet Mohammad and the early generations of Muslims (the salaf). Jihadi because they claim that every individual Muslim has a religious obligation to wage violent war in pursuit of this aim. The overwhelming majority of Muslims reject these beliefs. Salafi-jihadis seek to impose them on all.

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This ideology binds together and unifies individuals, groups, and organizations into a movement. Al Qaeda and ISIS compete to be its vanguard. But the movement’s power is not uniquely tied to the fortunes of ISIS and al Qaeda. The Salafi-jihadi movement is in fact gaining strength and establishing deep and broad roots in Sunni communities across the world even as ISIS loses ground.

The movement draws strength from conditions in the Sunni world much more than from its ideology or capabilities. As governments and governance collapse in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali and Yemen, Salafi-jihadi groups have flourished by stepping into the vacuum. Al Shabaab (Somalia) and Ahrar al Sham (Syria) support local insurgencies with powerful military capabilities. In Egypt, where Islamists both violent and peaceful are under total siege, Salafi-jihadis are emerging as their only champions. In Libya where there are many governments or none depending on how one views it, they provide governance and security.

Salafi-jihadis focus on meeting the needs of the people to build support. They exploit grievances and take advantage of distressed populations to insinuate themselves into the community. They set their ideology aside and make common cause with people who reject it in hopes of establishing themselves deeply enough that they will ultimately be able to persuade or cajole. This seeming moderation, which al Qaeda uses explicitly to contrast itself with ISIS, combined with the dire circumstances in which many Sunni populations now find themselves, drive the expansion of the Salafi-jihadi base.

Consider the limited example of Syrians suffering under the Assad regime’s repeated chemical attacks. To survive these and like predations, Sunnis have learned to tolerate or even ally with Salafi-jihadi groups, who offer protection, stability, and assistance. After all, no one has done anything serious to defend them.

Western policy has ignored this dynamic almost completely. It focuses on the groups and individuals planning transnational attacks — those casting themselves as part of the global jihad. American and European leaders continue to explicitly reject “locally focused groups” as serious threats, which allows these factions to expand the Salafi-jihadi base. We still imagine we can kill our way to victory.

Remember: The U.S. only defeated al Qaeda in Iraq when it added a population-centric strategy to counter the insurgency. The Salafi-jihadi movement is waging a global insurgency, and for the most part, we are ignoring the populations they live among.

What must the U.S. do to break this cycle? First, stop allying with those like Assad, Iran, and Russia who oppress the Sunnis, commit war crimes against them, and present them with the prospect of limitless defeat, mass death, and sectarian cleansing.

Second, offer distressed populations an alternative — a meaningful alternative, not merely the right to participate in talks in Geneva or Astana that are rigged to ensure that a minoritarian dictatorship will end up running Syria.

Third, help defend them. The U.S. has conditioned support to opposition fighters in Syria on their commitment not to fight the Assad regime. Yet it is the Assad regime that is crushing them. The U.S. must instead position itself in Syria and in Iraq as an armed mediator that can protect and help speak for the Sunni who reject Salafi-jihadis.

Fourth, press for the redress of grievances. In Libya, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and every other country with a significant Salafi-jihadi movement the Sunni community that hosts it feels that it has no other way of demanding such redress. The U.S. has either ignored those grievances, backed quasi-governments that can't redress them, or supported dictators and would-be dictators who would add to them.

The only way for the United States and the West to defeat this enemy is to break its ties to communities. The Salafi-jihadi movement focuses on winning support from the people. So, too, must the United States.

Victory will come when the people of the Muslim world no longer seek the guardianship and support of Salafi-jihadis because they have better choices. As we have learned, few love to be led by extremists. We must give them a choice.

Katherine Zimmerman is a research fellow and the research manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow her on Twitter @KatieZimmerman.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.