A new RAND Corporation study warns of a growing terrorist threat to the United States from a rising number of Salafi-jihadist groups overseas. Since 2010, there has been a 58 percent increase in the number of jihadist groups, a doubling of jihadist fighters and a tripling of attacks by al Qaeda affiliates. The most significant threat to the United States, the report concludes, comes from terrorist groups operating in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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“Based on these threats, the United States cannot afford to withdraw or remain disengaged from key parts of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia,” a news release quoted Seth Jones, author of the study and associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND, as saying. “After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it may be tempting for the U.S. to turn its attention elsewhere and scale back on counterterrorism efforts. But this research indicates that the struggle is far from over.”
For the RAND study, Jones examined thousands of unclassified and declassified primary source documents, including public statements and internal memorandums of al Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist leaders. The study also includes a database of information such as the number of Salafi-jihadist groups, their approximate size and their activity — attacks, fatalities and other casualties.
The RAND study focuses on Salafi-jihadist groups, a particular strand of Sunni militants. These groups, which include al Qaeda and its affiliates, emphasize the importance of returning to a “pure” Islam, that of the Salaf, the pious ancestors.” They also believe that violent jihad is a personal religious duty for every devout Muslim,” Jones said.
Research for the study was funded by and conducted within theInternational Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally-funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense intelligence community.
The study says one reason for the increase in groups, fighters and attacks is the weakness of governments across North Africa and the Middle East. Weak governments have difficulty establishing law and order, which allows militant groups and other sub-state actors to fill the vacuum.
These trends suggest that the United States needs to remain focused on countering the proliferation of Salafi-jihadist groups, despite the temptation to shift attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific or other regions and to significantly decrease counterterrorism budgets in an era of fiscal constraint, Jones said.
The report documents how the broader Salafi-jihadist movement has become more decentralized among four tiers: core al Qaeda in Pakistan; formal affiliates that have sworn allegiance to al Qaeda; Salafi-jihadist groups that have not sworn allegiance to al Qaeda, but are committed to establishing an extremist Islamic emirate; and inspired individuals and networks.
Jones says the threat posed by these diverse groups varies widely. Some are locally focused and have shown little interest in attacking Western targets. Others, like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, present an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, along with inspired individuals like the Tsarnaev brothers who perpetrated the April 2013 Boston bombings. Others threaten U.S. interests overseas, but not the homeland.
In addition to high-level threats from Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the RAND study concludes that there is a medium-level threat from terrorist groups operating in Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Nigeria and Algeria. And there is a low-level threat from Salafi-jihadist groups operating in such countries as Tunisia, Mali and Morocco.
“Libya represents the most active sanctuary for Salafi-jihadist groups in North Africa and Syria the most significant safe haven for groups in the Levant,” the report notes.
Syria has become a popular training ground for jihadists. Over 2,000 European jihadists alone have gone to Syria to fight, according to a recent European Union estimate. “The US’ weak attempts to vet, arm, and train purportedly moderate fighting groups have merely fueled an ongoing conflict that shows no signs of abating and is producing a new generation of well-connected foreign fighters who leave the Syrian killing fields to extend the Islamist fight into new battle zones,” writes Lisa Lundquist in an article published in The Long War Journal.
In response to these threats, Jones says, the U.S. should establish a more-adaptive counterterrorism strategy, pursuing engagement — the use of special operations, intelligence, diplomatic and other capacities to conduct precision targeting of these groups and their financial, logistical and political support networks — where there is a high threat to the U.S. and a low local government capacity.
“This framework and the analysis in this report highlight the need for a long-term engagement strategy — including direct U.S. involvement — in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and possibly Syria, where there are significant terrorism threats to the United States and limited government capacity. It also highlights the importance of developing a long-term forward partnering relationship with a small set of countries in Africa (Nigeria, Algeria, Somalia, Libya and Egypt) and the Middle East (Lebanon and Iraq) with the involvement of regional allies like Israel and Jordan,” the RAND study notes.
In other cases, the U.S. may adopt a “forward-partnering” strategy, Jones said. Forward partnering involves deploying small numbers of U.S. military forces, intelligence operatives, diplomats and other governmental personnel to train local security forces, collect intelligence and undermine terrorist financing. Unlike an engagement strategy, however, U.S. forces would not directly become involved in the war by conducting raids or drone strikes.
A third strategy, “offshore balancing,” should be used in cases where there is little or no direct threat to the United States. Offshore balancing involves relying on allies and local governments to counter terrorist groups, while avoiding direct engagement or forward partnering.
The report warns that a complete withdrawal of U.S military forces from Afghanistan by 2016 could seriously jeopardize U.S. security interest because of the continuing presence Salafi-jihadist and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “A growing civil war or successful Taliban-lead insurgency would likely allow al Qa’ida and other terrorist groups — such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba — to increase their presence in Afghanistan,” says the study. It notes that al Qa’ida and associated movements would likely view an American from Afghanistan — if it were to happen — as their most important victory since the departure of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989.
The study, “A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa’ida and Other Salafi-Jihadists,” can be found at www.rand.org.