A Persistent Threat

The Evolution of al Qa'ida and Other Salafi Jihadists

by Seth G. Jones

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Research Questions

  1. What is the present status of al Qa'ida and other Salafi-jihadist groups?
  2. How has the broader Salafi-jihadist movement evolved over time, especially since 9/11?

Abstract

This report examines the status and evolution of al Qa'ida and other Salafi-jihadist groups, a subject of intense debate in the West. Based on an analysis of thousands of primary source documents, the report concludes that there has been an increase in the number of Salafi-jihadist groups, fighters, and attacks over the past several years. The author uses this analysis to build a framework for addressing the varying levels of threat in different countries, from engagement in high-threat, low government capacity countries; to forward partnering in medium-threat, limited government capacity environments; to offshore balancing in countries with low levels of threat and sufficient government capacity to counter Salafi-jihadist groups.

Key Findings

The number of Salafi-jihadist groups and fighters increased after 2010, as well as the number of attacks perpetrated by al Qa'ida and its affiliates.

  • Examples include groups operating in Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Libya, Egypt (including the Sinai Peninsula), Lebanon, and Syria.
  • These trends suggest that the United States needs to remain focused on countering the proliferation of Salafi-jihadist groups, which have started to resurge in North Africa and the Middle East, despite the temptations to shift attention and resources to the strategic "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific region and to significantly decrease counterterrorism budgets in an era of fiscal constraint.

The broader Salafi-jihadist movement has become more decentralized.

  • Control is diffused among four tiers: (1) core al Qa'ida in Pakistan, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri; (2) formal affiliates that have sworn allegiance to core al Qa'ida, located in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and North Africa; (3) a panoply of Salafi-jihadist groups that have not sworn allegiance to al Qa'ida but are committed to establishing an extremist Islamic emirate; and (4) inspired individuals and networks.

The threat posed by the diverse set of Salafi-jihadist groups varies widely.

  • Some are locally focused and have shown little interest in attacking Western targets. Others, like al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula, present an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, along with inspired individuals like the Tsarnaev brothers — the perpetrators of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. In addition, several Salafi-jihadist groups pose a medium-level threat because of their desire and ability to target U.S. citizens and facilities overseas, including U.S. embassies.

Recommendations

  • The United States should establish a more adaptive counterterrorism strategy that involves a combination of engagement, forward partnering, and offshore balancing.
  • The United States should consider a more aggressive strategy to target Salafi-jihadist groups in Syria, which in 2013 had more than half of Salafi-jihadists worldwide, either clandestinely or with regional and local allies.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    A Decentralized Movement

  • Chapter Three

    Growing Capabilities

  • Chapter Four

    Strategic Options

  • Appendix

    List of Salafi-Jihadist Groups

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by OSD, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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