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It’s a mistake to think some jihadis are only focused on the ‘local’

KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images
A Taliban fighter is pictured against the backdrop of Taliban flags installed at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Sept. 11, 2021.

Joe Biden seems to be hoping that the Taliban will sever ties with al Qaeda and deny the group a chance to again plan attacks on the U.S. Many have challenged this assumption. But there is another false assumption behind the administration’s decision to abandon counterterrorism: that jihadist groups with local ambitions (like ruling Afghanistan) do not also have international goals (like striking America). Relying on this false assumption blinds us to the growing threat in Afghanistan, but also to the danger of the other “Islamic Emirates” proliferating around the world.

As strange as it sounds, Salafi-jihadi groups’ primary goal is to govern — they want to destroy the Muslim world’s existing governments and build their own states that knit together into a global caliphate.

This ideology is inherently antagonistic to the West. But this does not mean that attacking the West is always their top priority.

They see themselves as moving between stages, sometimes focusing on building local strength and other times initiating the fight.

Al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri said as much in his latest statement, praising African al Qaeda affiliates for local successes while reiterating a call for attacks “beyond enemy lines” in the West.

Like Zawahiri, Salafi-jihadis view the local and global fights as components of a whole. This means that so-called “local” groups that have dangerous attack capabilities can rapidly repurpose them for transnational attacks — a shift in intent that is difficult to assess before it happens.

The continuum between “local” and “global” objectives also means that Salafi-jihadis can take advantage of unplanned opportunities to turn their capabilities outward.

Take the case of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, arguably the most lethal and U.S.-focused al Qaeda branch. What could have been AQAP’s most devastating attack occurred at the intersection of readiness (in this instance, sophisticated bomb-making skills) and opportunity. The bomber, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, traveled to Yemen and presented himself as a would-be attacker. AQAP’s chief bombmaker, who already developed concealed bombs for attacks in Saudi Arabia, modified his prototype to bypass airport security in Abdulmutallab’s underwear. Only a technical malfunction stopped Abdulmutallab from bringing down a passenger plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

AQAP’s haven in Yemen enabled this attack by allowing the group to experiment with bombs and develop the propaganda and training guides that have facilitated other attacks on U.S. soil, including the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Havens allow Salafi-jihadi groups to maintain an external threat node, including vetting, recruiting, and training potential attackers.

An Africa al Qaeda affiliate — al Shabaab in Somalia — has already begun to convert its local successes into international capability. Analysts have long argued over whether al Shabaab is a Somali nationalist organization in jihadist’s clothing, or if it truly seeks to wage global jihad. Al Shabaab’s leaders see no such contradiction and have begun to use their haven as a base for targeting international aviation. Al Shabaab put a bomb on a plane for the first time in 2016. More recently, senior al Shabaab trainers in Somalia vetted and selected a member to pursue pilot training and plan a 9/11-style attack. This plot was well-developed and the U.S. luckily “stumbled upon” the information needed to disrupt it.

Indeed, framing a group as inherently “local” is a dangerous mistake.

Capabilities developed for local use can be repurposed, as the AQAP and al Shabaab cases show. Participation in a local conflict also allows Salafi-jihadis to form cohorts capable of exporting jihad. See the case of the Islamic State’s Katibat al Battar, a unit that started out fighting in Syria before its multi-national members left to conduct the 2015 Paris attacks and help stand up the Islamic State’s Libyan branch. Finally, a Salafi-jihadi group’s participation in a local fight allows it to build credibility and claim successes — a key requirement for attracting prospective recruits from near and far.

Jihadist statelets are forming around the world, not just in Afghanistan.

The rapid growth of African Salafi-jihadi groups is one of the most alarming trends of the last decade. Al Shabaab is entrenched in Somalia and running a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise. Al Qaeda’s branch in Mali has not yet attacked beyond West Africa, but it is developing explosive attack capability, consolidating control over civilians, and spreading into coastal West Africa. Both groups are watching the Taliban’s example and betting that they too will outlast their opponents.  

Accommodating Salafi-jihadis will not stop them from attacking us.

The only long-term solution is to uproot and discredit them.

The responsibility falls on local governments and their international backers to outcompete Salafi-jihadis on their own terms by providing better governance and addressing the needs of aggrieved and vulnerable populations. Winning the governance fight also avoids consigning hundreds of thousands to live under brutal Salafi-jihadi governance, with all of the atrocities it entails.

Undermining the Salafi-jihadi state-building project will also deflate the ideology, dimming the shine of the false promises it makes to would-be martyrs around the world.

Or, we can do the opposite. And we know where that ends.

Emily Estelle is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the research manager of AEI’s Critical Threats Project.

Tags Afghanistan Al-Qaeda Al-Shabaab Biden foreign policy Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Islamist groups Jihad Joe Biden Salafi jihadism Terrorism

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