The United States can no longer afford to “react to threats after they have emerged,” argues Emily Estelle in a new report on the dangers posed by the violent strains of Salafism, the fundamentalist Islamic ideology espoused by Islamic State. Noting the growing power vacuum in the Middle East and the pressing challenges posed by Russia and China, Estelle outlines a path for the U.S. to “avert rather than mitigate [the] risk” of global Salafi-jihadist terror. Failure to do so, she contends, will exacerbate domestic tensions while accelerating wide-ranging threats to national security.
A new jihadist wave is the last thing Western policymakers want to recognize or prepare for. But Americans face a more serious terror threat than they realize. The global Salafi-jihadist movement, led by al-Qaeda and Islamic State, has not faded into irrelevancy but has grown greatly in manpower, wealth, capability, and geographical extent and is stronger by some measures than it has ever been.
The movement’s flashiest endeavors—spectacular terror attacks and a border-crossing caliphate—are in a lull that the largely temporary effects of counterterrorism pressure only partly explain. Deliberate adaptation is also at play; Salafi-jihadist leaders have learned to eschew direct attacks on the U.S. and European homelands, on the whole, to avoid drawing attention to their successes in putting down deep roots in many countries. But they have not given up their aim—toppling and replacing states across the Muslim world—or their willingness to use terror attacks to achieve their ends.
Over the past two decades, the U.S. government has disaggregated threats and sought to manage them sequentially: small or lone-wolf attacks in the United States; resurgent Salafi-jihadist groups across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia; government collapse in these regions; and mass-migration refugee crises driven by conflict and climate change. These problems range from manageable to inconsequential in the establishment worldview. But this approach fails to recognize the cumulative weight of these interconnected developments and the major threat they represent in combination.