This month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Transnational Threats Project released a study entitled “The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat.” The study received an uncritical write-up in the New York Times, and the study’s high estimate of the number of “Salafi-jihadis” worldwide – 230,000 – began to make the rounds. As someone on the left, I was dismayed to see prominent leftist voices picking up the 230,000 figure. More on that below, but first let’s look at the problems with the figure.
The 230,000 figure is way too high. First of all, the authors (Seth Jones et al.) give both a low estimate (100,000) and a high estimate (230,000), but it is the latter that has gotten traction. Even without all the objections below, we should note that the high estimate is simply too high – credible estimates for the individual groups discussed in the report sometimes fall well short of the high estimates that the report tallies up.
Second, the authors determined both the low and the high estimates by adding up estimates for various armed movements around the world – and they counted some movements that I don’t think they should have. Most problematically, they included the Taliban, which is not even Salafi, theologically speaking, and whose basic political orientation and strategy is different from that of al-Qaida and/or the Islamic State. The authors attempt to gloss over this problem by staking out a minimal definition of Salafi-jihadism (p. 4) and then conflating some iterations of the Deobandi school (to which the Taliban belong) with Salafism (p. 5) while pointing to the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida. We should note that the figures given for Afghanistan alone (27,000 for the low estimate, and 64,060 for the high estimate – see p. 10) already represent over a quarter of the total, while the figures given for Pakistan (17,900 for the low estimate, and 39,540 for the high estimate – again, see p. 10) represent over a sixth of the total. If we carve out the Taliban from the world of Salafi-jihadism, the numbers start to look much, much different.
Third, the authors take an extremely broad view of who counts as a Salafi-jihadi in Syria. If South Asia is the largest single region in their estimate, Syria is the largest single country: 70,550 fighters in the high estimate, and 43,650 in the low estimate. From what I can tell, these figures involve counting every member of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham as well as Ahrar al-Sham as Salafi-jihadis. Syria expert Sam Heller (whose thread on this topic we will return to below) has argued that Ahrar al-Sham should not be counted, and I (although not a Syria expert) would add that counting all HTS members would seem to contradict common sense, given that HTS is a coalition of multiple groups. So once we interrogate the Syria figure, it seems that the estimate should drop again, and that subtracting the Taliban and adjusting the Syria figure might bring even the high estimate below 100,000.
Fourth, the authors define every single fighter in every single group as a Salafi-jihadi. Heller and others have pointed out that the nature of jihadist movements has changed dramatically since 2001 and especially since 2011, amid the rise of jihadist insurgencies and “porto-states” with a much wider social base than, say, al-Qaida in the 1990s. Should all members of that social base be understood as committed Salafi-jihadis? I would say not, given the contextual factors that might drive masses of fighters to Salafi-jihadi big tent coalitions in the midst of civil war and/or pervasive insecurity and central state weakness. If we start asking critical questions about who is truly committed to a Salafi-jihadi vision, at the local level or especially at the global level, the numbers might drop drastically.
Now for the politics of the report. The left (including me) is keen to make the case that the War on Terror is bad and counterproductive. But I do not think that using flawed and alarmist figures is ultimately helpful. Here, the left should take note that the report is not arguing for an abandonment of the War on Terror, nor is the report at all concerned with leftist critiques and alternatives; rather, the authors wish to argue with the Jim Mattis school that favors prioritizing “great power competition” over counterterrorism. The report argues for a maintenance of the counterterrorism status quo. Here is a flavor of that argument (p. 45):
While it is sensible for countries like the United States to rebalance its resources to compete with state adversaries like China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, the terrorism threat remains notable. Neither the Islamic State nor al-Qaeda have been defeated. More importantly, there are—and will likely continue to be—a large pool of Salafi-jihad- ists across the globe that present a threat to Western countries and their allies.
And here is more (p. 51):
The challenge is not that U.S. officials are devoting attention to deal with state adversaries like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. These countries present legitimate threats to the United States at home and abroad. Rather, the mistake would be declaring victory too quickly against terrorism—and then shifting too many resources and too much attention away when the threat remains significant. A significant withdrawal of U.S. special operations forces, intelligence operatives, intelligence resources, and development and diplomatic experts for counterterrorism in key areas of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia would be unnecessarily risky.
In other words, the report wants to be part of an intra-Washington conversation over which hyper-militarized global posture the United States should adopt, and not whether it should adopt such a posture at all.
For further context, the report fits in with a broader genre of “terrorology” that advocates a permanent, richly-resourced, highly militarized approach to counterterrorism. Typically, the terrorologists offer few concrete policy recommendations other than “don’t take your eye off the ball” – a refrain they repeat ad nauseam, even in times of relative peace and even in the wake of massive military operations against jihadist groups. The terrorologists are not friends of the left, even inadvertently, and in my view leftists should not lend credence to alarmist estimates. Or, at the very least, I would say the left needs to go beyond arguing that the War on Terror is counterproductive (even though it is, just not to the extent of generating a quarter of a million jihadis). The more damning criticisms, in my view, are that the War on Terror (a) breeds atrocities such as widespread torture, (b) distorts our incentives regarding alliances, and (c) distracts precious attention away from fighting climate change – the most serious threat to Americans’ lives and livelihoods.
Meanwhile, debates about counterterrorism that are couched primarily in terms of efficacy are a double-edged sword for the left. Although it is tempting to say “the numbers are rising so the policy is bad,” this argumentation can easily be flipped around by those who say “the numbers are rising so we need to double down on the policy – the rise comes from deviating from the policy and/or from events beyond our control.” Debating efficacy is important, but I think it’s more important to attack the very premises of the War on Terror and to show its core ugliness. After all, even if long-term occupations of foreign countries, widespread torture and detention, and prolonged assassination campaigns all somehow “worked,” I at least would still oppose them.
As I mentioned above, Sam Heller had a nice thread on the CSIS report, and so I leave you with that: