The Local Struggle against Extremism

The Islamic State has – at least for now – lost most of the territory it once controlled under its self-proclaimed “caliphate.” But it is more important than ever to examine long-term counterterrorism efforts against Salafi-jihadist groups, including against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Ali Soufan argues that policymakers need to understand the extremist ideology, worldview, and motivations of Salafi-jihadists in his essay, “How to Beat Salafi-Jihadi Terrorism.” He calls this “empathy” – seeing the world through the eyes of extremists – as the term is used by some psychologists.

The timing of Soufan’s essay is important. The recently released, unclassified portion of the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy downgrades the significance of terrorism, announcing that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Still, the strategy notes that terrorism remains a problem: “Despite the defeat of ISIS’s physical caliphate, threats to stability remain as terrorist groups with long reach continue to murder the innocent and threaten peace more broadly.”[1]

Since September 11, 2001, U.S. policymakers have frequently underestimated the ability of terrorist groups to resurge or establish a sanctuary. After the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush gave a triumphant speech on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln with a “Mission Accomplished” speech in the background. Yet Salafi-jihadists never received the message. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who later pledged bay’ah (loyalty) to Osama bin Laden and established al-Qaeda in Iraq, orchestrated a lethal campaign against the United States and its allies beginning in 2003. In 2010, President Barack Obama announced an end to the war in Iraq, promised that the “tide of war is receding” thanks to U.S. counterterrorism efforts, and pulled U.S. military forces out of the country by 2011. But Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had other ideas, orchestrating the 2014 Islamic State blitzkrieg into Iraqi cities like Mosul, Ramadi, and Fallujah.

Like it or not, the struggle against Salafi-jihadist groups, which has ebbed and flowed since at least the 1980s during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, is a generational one. Soufan rightly argues that the United States needs to better recognize that we are involved in a struggle of ideas. “Alongside intelligence gathering, Special Forces raids, drone strikes, and the training of local security services—all of them valuable tools in their own way—we must focus on degrading the terrorists’ most valuable asset: their extremist ideology.” U.S. efforts have been mixed at best. Instead, Soufan outlines several new strategies.

First, he argues that the United States and its allies need to create “an entirely new narrative – ideally one with even greater appeal, because it is based not lies and despair but on truth and hope.” It is debatable that the answer is to create “a new narrative” – but rather multiple narratives depending on the country and local context. The challenge for Salafi-jihadists is that the movement – or, perhaps, more appropriately, the movements – are so decentralized and fluid that there is no center of gravity. These movements can be divided into at least four categories:

  • Islamic State: Leadership in Iraq and Syria, along with their provinces (or wilayahs) in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, and other countries.
  • Al-Qaeda: Leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with their affiliates in Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and other countries.
  • Other Salafi-Jihadist Groups: Organizations that have not pledged bay’ah to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, but adhere to Salafism and violent jihad.
  • Inspired Networks and Individuals: Informal networks and individuals that are motivated by the ideology of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

These Salafi-jihadist groups, networks, and individuals cover such a broad area – from West and North Africa through the Middle East and into South Asia and the Asia-Pacific – that a strategy to beat them requires a nuanced approach. It is impossible to talk about one narrative. Nor, in many cases, will the narrative necessarily be “new.” Instead, an effective strategy will likely require supporting local narratives that are more powerful and legitimate among the population. During Operation Serval in Mali, for example, French and Malian government efforts severely weakened al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and allied forces using a combination of military, ideological, and other instruments. On the ideological side, Mali’s mostly tolerant, Sufi culture largely rejected al-Qaeda’s extremism. Numerous local communities in Mali bristled at efforts to impose a harsh, Salafi version of sharia (Islamic law) in AQIM-held areas, making it difficult for AQIM to sustain support.

Second, Soufan emphasizes the importance of inoculating populations against extremism by ending regional conflicts in the Middle East and beyond, confronting countries whose actions help fuel the extremist narrative, and giving people in the Muslim world the tools of critical thinking to resist false narratives and identify true ones. These are important points, though it is a bit idealistic to believe that the United States or its allies will be able to end regional conflicts. At the very least, an important near-term step should be helping local governments and communities deal more effectively with grievances and governance weakness that fuel extremism. In particular, U.S. policymakers need to better understand the specific ideological, political, economic, and other factors that have allowed Salafi-jihadist groups to establish a foothold, as well as to focus U.S. diplomatic and development efforts on better addressing them.

Take Iraq. Sunni Arab disenfranchisement has been among the most important sources of recruits and inspiration for the Islamic State. While U.S.-backed military efforts have been effective in undermining Islamic State control of territory, there has been limited success in ameliorating local grievances. Sunni, Shi’a, Kurdish, and other local actors are vying for control of liberated cities and villages, and regional powers like Iran are attempting to expand their influence through proxies like the Popular Mobilization Units. What’s more, the military campaign to defeat the Islamic State has caused over $45 billion in damage to Iraq’s education, health, and power infrastructure.[2] A failure to quickly rebuild will almost certainly create visceral anger among Sunni Arabs and other populations. Consequently, U.S. diplomats and development experts need to be proactive in helping the Iraqi government address local grievances and preventing yet another resurgence of extremism in the country.

Another example is Libya, which lacks a competent central government and is the center of gravity for Salafi-jihadism in Africa. The Obama Administration helped orchestrate the overthrow of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in 2011, but failed to devote sufficient resources or attention to establish a functioning government. The United States, its European allies, and regional powers need to coordinate efforts to help establish an effective national government, train and equip security forces, counter radicalization, strengthen border security, and target remaining Salafi-jihadist networks. Over the long run, more effective governance in Libya is critical to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State and other Salafi-jihadist groups.

In addition to these steps, there are others that are important to supplement Soufan’s recommendations. Among the most important is undermining the Salafi-jihadist use of the Internet and social media for propaganda, recruitment, financing, and other purposes. The United States and its allies need to redouble efforts to work with the private sector to shut down social media accounts and Internet sites that advocate terrorism. Several social media companies, like Twitter, have been more active in suspending Salafi-jihadist–linked accounts that have violated terms of service. The United States should continue to work with the private sector to develop trusted flagging mechanisms, algorithms, and robust hashing software that helps analyst identify extremist content online and flag it for removal.

There are other productive avenues of partnership between the government and companies. Google, Facebook, and other major companies thrive by tracking their users for advertising and revenue purposes. Some of the same techniques that enable targeted advertising to everyday users can be repurposed for identifying Internet-use patterns associated with potential Salafi-jihadist recruits and, once identified, serving them pinpointed counter-messages and information about off-ramp options. One example is the “redirect method,” which uses technology to direct would-be extremists that are on-line to more productive sites. Some of these efforts appear to be successful. YouTube reports that they now remove 98 percent of violent extremist videos using more aggressive policies and machine-learning technologies.[3] Facebook claims that it has removed 99 percent of al-Qaeda and Islamic State terror content before it is reported through artificial intelligence and other automation.[4] Through collaboration and trust-building, the United States can more effectively promote the notion that companies have an ethical and security responsibility to counter the extremist use of their services.

These and other steps are critical to undermining the ideology of Salafi-jihadist groups, an argument at the core of Ali Soufan’s “How to Beat Salafi-Jihadi Terrorism.” Perhaps the most significant challenge, however, will be continuing to weaken extremist groups in an environment where U.S. interest in counterterrorism appears to be declining.


[1] Summary of the 1018 National Defense Strategy of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2018), p. 1.

[2] Michael R. Gordon and Isabel Coles, “Defeat of ISIS in Iraq Caused $45.7 Billion in Damage to Infrastructure, Study Finds,” Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2018.

[3] Written Testimony by Juniper Downs, Director of Public Policy and Government Relations at YouTube, Senate Commerce Committee, Hearing on “Combating the Spread of Extremist Propaganda,” January 17, 2018. Available at:…

[4] Written Testimony by Monika Bickert, Head of Product Policy and Counterterrorism at Facebook, Senate Commerce Committee, Hearing on “Combating the Spread of Extremist Propaganda,” January 17, 2018. Available at:…

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Ali Soufan recommends dismantling the ideological appeal of groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. He argues for several measures he believes will help, including defusing regional conflict; pressuring the governments of Muslim allies, notably Saudi Arabia, to abandon extremist proselytizing; and replacing pro-terror messages in Islamic education with nonviolent ones that stress particularly those messages that local communities will find appealing. He laments that U.S. actions have done little to further these goals.

Response Essays

  • Seth G. Jones agrees that understanding terrorists’ recruiting tactics is important, as is the need to understand their worldview and motivations. He recommends several steps beyond Ali Soufan suggestions, including taking a much harder line against online jihadist content, which he recommends aggressively removing from social media.

  • Christopher Preble agrees that current U.S. antiterrorism strategy has failed. Yet he despairs of using better education to counter terrorist narratives: Not only does the United States commonly lack the credibility and nuance needed to deliver better messages, but many Americans also share all too much of the jihadists’ own beliefs: that Islam is violent, and that the West is correct to fight against all of it.