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Members of the military and national security apparatus focused on combating terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State must understand the driving force behind the networks: the global Salafi-Jihadist ideology. From a grand strategy perspective, China, Russia, Iran, and a nuclear-capable North Korea can pose greater, long-term existential threats to the United States and its interests abroad. While it should never lose sight of these threats, the national security apparatus must also continue to address the current threat destabilizing most of the Middle East and North Africa, spilling over into Europe, and finding its way onto American soil. Its magnetic appeal stems from an inspirational and deeply resonant message which attracts a specific, yet substantial portion of the international Muslim population.
In December 2014, the Special Operations Command-Central (SOCCENT), published a report providing a threat assessment of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, ISIS, or DA’ISH. The report made a problematic claim in the preface that the U.S. had already started to solve the problem before it even understood what the problem was or where it came from. Despite being five years later, there are many in the military and intelligence community focused on counterterrorism who still do not understand the ideology behind the threat.
Joseph Nye, the creator of the term “soft power,” defines it as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.” America can measure the “tangible” capabilities and power of the Islamic State and other global Salafi-Jihadist organizations including manpower, finances, equipment, and territorial control. But the U.S. and its allies have yet to fully grasp and address the “intangible soft power” of the Islamic State, a demonstrably significant weakness and vulnerability in its strategy to confront this enemy.
Defining the ideology behind the threat is foundational to understanding its two primary modern, militant manifestations: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. While both seek the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate, their vision for the caliphate and the means through which it is realized vary. Al-Qaeda derives much of its inspiration from Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood and remains focused on the “far enemy” of the United States, arguably making it a more long-term threat to the homeland. The Islamic State derives its inspiration from Ibn Taymiyya and the Wahhabist tradition of the original 18th-century Saudi state based on the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792). It holds a stricter interpretation of religious texts and a deeper desire to emulate early Muslim ancestors, making their tactics and methods appear more medieval than Al-Qaeda. While maintaining an external attack network, their primary focus remains on the “near enemy” of Middle East regimes, targets proven vulnerable due to populations susceptible to its effective messaging, often taking place online. Though their methods and targets vary, their organizations are both rooted in Salafist ideology.
To counter the entire global Salafi-Jihad movement, one must understand the ideology guiding the organizations before deciding how to properly address the threat. The ideology provides long-term structure and justification for the global jihadi movement, something not easily countered with military action, especially when carried out by external, Western forces. The Salafi-Jihadist ideology is the intangible “soft power” of the adversary, which violently contests globalization and the international system, and fuels the continued expansion of the global jihadist movement through selective citation of Islamic texts, sensationally coercive methods of jihadist groups, and dissemination of ideas on the Internet.
Defining Salafism and Its Importance
Foundational to understanding the threat is knowing the meaning behind key terms associated with the global Salafi-Jihadist ideology. Salafism is often conflated or misinterpreted in texts and publications. Literally, the word Salafis means “pious forefathers,” which is most often understood to mean “the first three generations of Muslims.” The foundation for this statement can be found in Sahih al-Bukhari’s compilation, which quotes the Prophet Muhammad as saying, “The best of my community [i.e. Muslims] are my generation, then those who come after them and then whose who follow them.” Proximity to the Prophet Muhammad in the temporal sense matters in that the saying and actions of the early companions of Muhammad carry greater relevance and authority. Of course, the hadiths (a written collection of traditions based on the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), and principally the compilations of al-Bukhari and Muslim are held in highest regard. And how these hadiths were understood by the early community of Muslims and acted upon matters greatly. This is essential to understand because Muslims, including Salafis, do not derive their religious beliefs and practices exclusively from the Quran, but also from the hadith, making its contents just as important for Islamic theology and law. The hadiths are also the locus from which Salafi-Jihadists derive many of the violent scriptural references which they use as justification for their methodology and behavior.
Its religious backing is one of the main appeals of Salafism for its adherents, including the Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Their legitimacy is strictly reliant upon the “revealed texts” of the Quran and hadith. The highly canonical and textual foundations upon which Salafists define themselves makes the claims of those who argue that the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are “un-Islamic” both misleading and inaccurate. What principally defines Salafi-Jihadist groups is theology not politics. Salafis are “religious and social reformers who are engaged in creating and reproducing particular forms of authority and identity, both personal and communal . . . [and who] define [their] reformist project first and foremost through creedal tenets (i.e., a theology).” Professor Bernard Haykel, in a written testimony prepared for the U.S. Senate stated, “to ignore the Islamic background and content of the Islamic State’s ideology or the material factors that led to its rise is to fail in the scholarly enterprise and to fall short in providing the policy maker, the student, and the public with an adequate understanding of the global phenomenon of jihadism.” Their ideology undeniably affects the politics and the economy of a state or region they control, but for them, it is a positive externality tied to their primary, religious mission.
Salafis seek to purify their faith and bring back their idea of a true version of Islam which is both literal and strict. They claim to be part of an exclusive group mentioned in another hadith and which is referred to as al-ta’ifa al-mansura (the victorious group) and al-firqa al-najiya (the saved sect). The Salafist ideology upholds certain claims which drive their behavior and practices including: returning the faith to the image of the first generations of Muslims, a strong emphasis on tawhid (oneness of God), fighting shirk (polytheism) and kuffar (infidels), claiming the Quran and hadith as the only true sources of deriving authority, purifying the faith by eliminating bida` (reprehensible innovations), and advocating that the Quran and sunna (teachings, deeds, and behavior of the Prophet Muhammad who is deemed to be the perfect Muslim) are sufficient enough to guide the life of any Muslim, anywhere, anytime. By drawing literal guidance from religious text and the Prophet Muhammad’s example, Salafists attempt to proliferate a revivalist lifestyle through a redemptive philosophy of “progression through regression . . . based around an idealised version of Islam that enshrines both authenticity and purity.” While all Salafists believe in this philosophy, there are different manhaj (methods) to realize the vision, which vary greatly on the spectrum of action, from quietist non-violence to extreme medieval brutality.
 “Multi-Method Assessment of ISIL,” Social Science Assessment, December 2014, published December 2014, accessed 02 May 2017, http://socialscience.net/docs/SMA_SOCCENT_White.Paper_Final_Dec2014.pdf, 1.
 Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2004), x.
 “Multi-Method Assessment of ISIL,” 1.
 Graeme Wood, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, (New York, NY: Random House, 2017), 6.
 Bernard Haykel, “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action,” in Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, ed. Roel Meijer (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 34.
 Haykel, “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action,” 34.
 Ibid., 35.
 Haykel, “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action,” 34-35.
 Bernard Haykel, “The History and Ideology of the Islamic State,” prepared for U.S. Senate hearing titled “Inside the Mind of ISIS: Understanding Its Goals and Ideology to Better Protect the Homeland,” U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, January 20, 2016, accessed 03 May 2017, https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/hearings/inside-the-mind-of-isis-understanding-its-goals-and-ideology-to-better-protect-the-homeland.
 Haykel, “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action,” 34-35.
 Shiraz Maher, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 7.
 Haykel, “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action,” 38-39.
 Maher, Salafi-Jihadism, 7.
 Ibid., 8.
This article is part of the RED-Alert project, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation Programme under grant agreement No 740688.