The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat: Current and Future Challenges from the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda

By Seth G. Jones Charles Vallee Danika Newlee Nicholas Harrington Clayton Sharb Hannah Byrne

Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington

With the collapse of the Islamic State’s socalled caliphate in Iraq and Syria, there is a critical need to assess the current state and future evolution of Salafi-jihadist groups. U.S. strategy documents like the National Security Strategy note that the United States has “crushed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, and will continue pursuing them until they are destroyed.” In addition, the unclassified portion of the National Defense Strategy outlined a move from counter terrorism measures against non-state actors like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to security and economic competition with states like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

 Some policymakers and scholars have argued that al-Qaeda is in significant decline. As one assessment of al-Qaeda’s efforts in Syria concluded, “al-Qa’ida’s prospects for success have faced existential challenges in recent years. Now, al-Qa’ida’s claim to command any Syrian affiliate stands on the thinnest of foundations, if any at all.”

Other experts argue that the terrorist threat is negligible. Robert Malley and Jon Finer argue that U.S. policymakers and Washington’s “militarized counterterrorism culture” have hyped the threat. The result is that “the United States has been engaged in a seemingly endless confrontation with a metastasizing set of militant groups” and the country “has become captive to a national security paradigm that ends up magnifying the very fears from which it was born.” Other skeptics, like John Mueller, have argued that the terrorist threat to the United States is overstated and that “almost no terrorists exist in the United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from abroad.” Mueller contends, for example, that the number of people killed by terrorists outside of war zones after 9/11 was lower than the number of people that drowned in bathtubs in the United States.

 Finally, a 2018 survey of foreign policy experts conducted by the magazine Foreign Affairs found that 57 percent of the respondents believed that U.S. foreign policy focused too much on counterterrorism over the past decade, with smaller percentages that were neutral (10 percent) or disagreed (33 percent). Those who believed that the United States had focused too much on counterterrorism made arguments such as:

“The United States has imposed upon itself countless opportunity costs in pursuing objectives that are unwinnable at the marginal cost it is willing to pay. This has undermined our security rather than bolstered it…Enough is enough,” C. Christine Fair, Georgetown University. “

The U.S. military has focused on counterterrorism operations, training and developing its force for a specific challenge along the conflict spectrum that is much more likely, albeit much less consequential, than the challenge posed by great power competitors such as China,” Mara Karlin, Johns Hopkins University. “

While there is certainly a terrorist threat, the severity of that threat is greatly overrated, which causes the United States to pursue policies that exacerbate the problem,” John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago. “

The U.S. focus on counter-terrorism has come at the expense of policy toward major powers, particularly Russia and China. There has been a modest doctrinal shift recently but there is still a very long way to go,” Thomas Wright, Brookings Institution.

On the other hand, some analysts contend that the Islamic State could resurge if it can effectively go underground, foster sectarianism, take advantage of local grievances, and wage an insurgency in countries like Iraq and Syria.9 Others argue that al-Qaeda has moderated its brand, attempted to hide its ties to its affiliates, limited violence against civilians, and established close relationships with local groups in order to appear more locally-focused and superficially unconcerned with a global jihadist agenda. One assessment concluded that “While the self-proclaimed Islamic State has dominated the headlines and preoccupied national security officials for the past four years, al-Qaeda has been quietly rebuilding.” With such differing views, how should we make sense of the evolving terrorist landscape?


This report examines past, present, and future trends of Salafi-jihadists. It asks three sets of questions. First, how should we characterize the global Salafi-jihadist movement today? What are the goals, organizational structures, strategies, tactics, size, capabilities, and geographic locations of key groups? Second, how might the Salafi-jihadist landscape evolve in the future in such areas as social media, artificial intelligence, drones, and encrypted communications? Third, based on answers to these questions, what are the most important policy implications for the United States? After all, the Trump Administration has shifted from a post-9/11 emphasis on counterterrorism against non-state groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to a focus on competition between state adversaries. As the National Defense Strategy notes, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”

This report utilized a mixture of qualitative and quantitative information, as well as trips to West Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. To answer the first set of questions, the research team compiled and analyzed thousands of primary source documents, including the writings, statements, and internal memorandums of Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other Salafi-jihadist leaders. The research team also examined primary source documents from such locations as the Harmony Database at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and the SITE Intelligence Group. In addition, the research team constructed a data set that included information on such variables as the number of Salafi-jihadist groups, number of fighters, number of attacks, and location of groups and fighters. It used data from multiple sources, such as the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, and Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).

To answer the second set of questions, the research team analyzed commercial and other developments in such areas as drone technology, artificial intelligence, cryptography, virtual currencies, and offensive cyber capabilities with an eye toward what terrorists might be able to utilize.

To answer the third set of questions, the research team examined U.S. strategy and counterterrorism documents. The team gathered information from interviews conducted with current and former government officials from the United States and allied countries, Congressional members and staffers, and subject matter experts.


The report focuses on a particular strand of extremist Sunni Islam: Salafi-jihadist groups and individuals. It defines a group or individual as Salafi-jihadist based on two criteria. First, the group or individual emphasizes the importance of returning to a “pure” Islam, that of the Salaf, the pious ancestors. Second, the group or individual believes that violent jihad is fard ‘ayn (a personal religious duty). Fard ‘ayn includes tasks every Muslim is required to perform, such as zakat (almsgiving), hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), salat (daily prayers), sawm (fasting during Ramada), and the shahada (accepting Muhammad as God’s messenger). Jihad is not one of these five pillars. It is, instead, a collective duty (fard kifaya) under certain circumstances. A fard kifaya is an act that is obligatory for the Muslim community collectively. However, if it is sufficiently carried out by some members of the Muslim community, then other Muslims do not have to perform it (for example, the prayer performed at a Muslim burial). Still, most Salafi-jihadists consider violent jihad an individual duty, or fard ‘ayn. Ayman al-Zawahiri, among others, emphasized both Salafism and armed jihad.

This report focuses on Salafi-jihadist groups and individuals for several reasons. First, they represent a threat to the United States and its allies, since most Salafi-jihadist groups consider America an enemy. Second, many Salafi-jihadist groups are willing to kill civilians in ways that terrorist groups have historically eschewed. Brian Jenkins wrote in the 1970s that “terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead,” a statement he later amended with the rise of organizations like al-Qaeda that wanted a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead. Salafi-jihadists are willing to kill large numbers of civilians that they consider apostates, including Muslims, making the potential for wanton destruction particularly acute. Third, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are Salafi-jihadists. To be clear, most Salafi-jihadist groups are not members or affiliates of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda (that is, their leaders have not sworn bay’ah (allegiance) to Islamic State or al-Qaeda leaders). Nevertheless, many have been willing to cooperate with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, or their affiliates when it suits them—or have been inspired by their ideology.

Consequently, this analysis does not examine all Islamist groups (those organizations attempting to build an Islamic state). It does not analyze, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a pan-Islamic social movement established by the Islamic scholar and schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna. Nor does it focus on militant Shi’a groups, such as Hezbollah (though Chapter 4 does highlight Hezbollah’s use of technologies and systems like drones). Some of these groups pose a threat to the United States, its allies, and its interests abroad. But the religious views of these terrorist groups are different from—and often at odds with—Salafi-jihadists. Still, the policy implications outlined at the end of this report are broadly applicable to a wide range of terrorist and insurgent groups, not just Salafi-jihadists.

We did, however, make one exception. The report includes data on extremist Deobandi groups, particularly ones like the Afghan Taliban that developed a relationship with Salafi-jihadist groups. Deobandism is a school of thought whose name comes from the Dar ul Ulum madrassa (Islamic school) in 1867 in Deoband, India, north of Delhi. Deobandism follows a Salafist model and seeks to emulate the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad It holds that a Muslim’s primary obligation and loyalty are to his religion, and loyalty to country is always secondary. Some Deobandis also believe that they have a sacred right and obligation to wage jihad to protect the Muslims of any country. In addition, some Salafi-jihadist groups like al-Qaeda have established close relations with Deobandi groups like the Afghan Taliban. Al-Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have even sworn bay’ah to Taliban leaders, highlighting their bonds. In June 2016, for example, al-Zawahiri pledged his allegiance to newly-appointed Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada after the death of Akhunzada’s predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. “I as the Emir of the Qaedat al-Jihad,” Zawahiri remarked in an audio message, “give you our pledge of allegiance, renewing the method of Sheikh Usama, may Allah have mercy on him, in calling upon the Muslim Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] to support the Islamic Emirate and pledge allegiance to it.”


 The rest of this report is divided into four additional chapters. Chapter Two examines key trends in the global Salafi-jihadist landscape, such as the number of groups and fighters. Chapter Three assesses the state of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, allied groups, and inspired individuals and networks. Chapter Four analyzes several areas that Salafi-jihadists may leverage in the future, such as drones, social media, artificial intelligence, encrypted communications, virtual currencies, the Dark Web, offensive cyber capabilities, and weapons of mass destruction. Chapter Five outlines policy implications for the United States.

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