U.S. President Donald Trump crowed victory over the so-called Islamic State in his State of the Union Address. Like so many before it, his claim was premature. The United States and its partners have indeed reduced the Islamic State’s control of territory to about 20 square miles in Syria, down from the more than 35,000 square miles the group controlled at the peak of its expansion. The Islamic State’s black flag no longer flies over land it governs. Meanwhile here in America, homegrown terrorist attacks seem to be tapering off, and neither al Qaeda nor the Islamic State has pulled off another 9/11-style attack. Many observers, including the president, look at these outcomes and deem the terrorist threat finished -- but our enemies take a different view. They think they’re winning, and they are right.
Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and many similar groups define success as being accepted or at least tolerated by Sunni populations. These groups are part of the global Salafi-jihadist movement and believe they must impose a form of Islam, Salafism, upon the Muslim world, and eventually the entire world, through jihad. The number of Sunni under their governance has always been their principal metric of success.
Eliminating the territorial Caliphate matters in this regard. But the Salafi-jihadist movement pursues a phased and adaptive strategy. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, it has focused on insinuating itself into the fabric of Sunni populations rather than ruling directly. For instance, al Qaeda governed parts of Yemen through local proxies after the 2015 civil war broke out, taking lessons Salafists learned from Syria and Mali. This movement presents itself as a defender and advocate, temporarily setting aside ideology and religious principles. Ultimately, it will use its access to impose its will directly or through proxies.
Terrorism is but a tactic, and many groups have de-emphasized its use because it alienated them from the communities they sought to infiltrate. The reduction in terrorist attacks over the past three years and the halving of the number of people killed by the Islamic State are thus bad metrics of the Salafi-jihadist movement’s strength. The movement itself measures success by the depth and breadth of its infiltration, and by that measure it is winning. In Africa, al Qaeda-linked groups expanded from Mali into neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso, and from Somalia into Kenya, exploiting local grievances to gain entry.
U.S. counterterrorism strategy under George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump has been defensive and narrowly focused on groups and individuals rather than on the whole Salafi-jihadist movement. It seeks to protect Americans by disrupting plots and eliminating plotters. Since 9/11, U.S. authorities and institutions have specialized in this sort of approach. The strategy has been remarkably effective in thwarting attacks, but it has let the movement’s infiltration spread unchecked.
Think of it this way: It is as if the United States focused solely on arresting mob hitmen or protection racket toughs and leaders, but let the mafia organization embed itself in vulnerable communities, waiting only for the moment to take over. That is the current state of U.S counterterrorism policy; and the enemy is prospering as a result.
The Salafi-jihadist movement has transformed. To minimize the effects of drone strikes and other counterterrorism tactics, Salafi-jihadist leaders restructured the organization and decentralized decision-making. Most important, they adapted their interactions with Sunni communities and implemented learned lessons to expand a popular support base. The post-Arab Spring collapse of governance and stability let Salafi-jihadist groups infiltrate desperate Sunni communities by defending them from attacks or offering basic services or goods. Rather than attacking the West, Salafi-jihadist leaders are primarily focusing on local struggles.
U.S. counterterrorism policies have not kept pace. The rapid reconfigurations of these groups in places like Syria, where mergers, reorganizations, and rebrands occur regularly, tests America’s ability to keep counterterrorism labels updated. Salafi-jihadists have filtered into local insurgencies, which makes it difficult to distinguish between legitimate counterterrorism targets and fighters in the local war. Worse, no overarching policy exists to contest Salafi-jihadist influence over legitimate governance structures, such as Syrian local councils, whose control and reformation is a key objective for any Salafi-jihadist group.
America’s counterterrorism strategy will not defeat al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or even terrorism, no matter how many successive presidents promise that it will. It might not even keep Americans safe. Even now, al Qaeda has renewed calls for attacks after lying dormant and building its strength. Sunni communities tolerate the presence of Salafi-jihadist groups today as a lesser evil in the face of what they see as existential threats. Local conflicts and popular grievances create openings for the movement to grow its influence. Working to resolve these conflicts will block its efforts to infiltrate communities. Reducing the movement’s ability to interact with populations is the only way to weaken it. America’s strategy must change to reflect this reality. We have won many battles, but we are still losing the war.
Katherine Zimmerman is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Terrorism, Tactics, and Transformation: the West vs the Salafi-Jihadi Movement. The views expressed are the author's own.