Recurring Definitional Issues Surrounding Salafism, or Why Analysts Are Too Quick to Equate Salafism with Early Islam

A quotation:

[Part of faith is] that the best of generations is the generation who saw the Messenger of God (SAW) and believed in him, then those who followed them, then those who followed them. The best of the Companions are the Orthodox, Rightly Guided Caliphs: Abu Bakr, then ‘Umar, then ‘Uthman, then ‘Ali, may God be pleased with them all. None of the Companions of the Messenger should be mentioned except in the best way, refraining [from mentioning] the [quarrels] that broke out between them…

[And another part of faith is] obedience to the imams of the Muslims among the people in charge, and their scholars, and the followers of al-salaf al-salih (the pious predecessors), imitating their traces and seeking forgiveness for them, and leaving off quarrel and controversy in religion, and leaving all that the innovators have innovated.

Salafism, right? Not in the way I define it. This is quotation from the Risala (Epistle) of ‘Abd Allah Ibn Abdi Zayd al-Qayrawani (d. 996). The Risala is one of the foundational texts of the Maliki school of Islamic law. From Mauritania to Nigeria and likely further, almost any classically trained scholar you meet (and not a few of the Salafis, I should add) has read this book. It belongs, at least in its usual context, to a tradition that blends the Maliki school with Sufism – and let us recall that Salafis often consider Sufis to be dubious Muslims at best, heretics at worst, and that many Salafis say that they do not follow any legal school, instead depending solely on the Qur’an and the Sunna.

I bring all this up because far too many analysts are quick to define Salafism as an effort to return to original Islam. Two recent examples:

  • A RAND analyst, discussing Libya: “Salafi-jihadis and traditionalist Madkhalis may share ultra-conservative views, such as strictly applying Shariՙa law in everyday life, morally policing the public sphere, and returning Islam to its purist [sic?] form, during and immediately following the life of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.”
  • CSIS’ big (and flawed) report on Salafi-jihadism (p. 4): “First, the group or individual emphasizes the importance of returning to a ‘pure’ Islam, that of the Salaf, the pious ancestors.” CSIS also counts the Taliban (Deobandi by orientation, rather than Salafis) as Salafis based on this minimal definition (p. 5): “Deobandism follows a Salafist model and seeks to emulate the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad It holds that a Muslim’s primary obligation and loyalty are to his religion, and loyalty to country is always secondary.”

Such analysts are way too quick to take Salafis’ claims at face value – and they also evidence little knowledge of how other kinds of Muslims talk about the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. Most Muslims are at least nominally committed to imitating the Prophet and his Companions and avoiding “blameworthy innovations” in the religion. The important question when defining Salafism is not whether Salafis are more committed to this project than are other Muslims, but rather how/what Salafis understand the early community to have been, and how that understanding furnishes a model for action in the present. Put differently, there are a lot of Sufi Malikis in northwest Africa today who “share ultra-conservative views, such as strictly applying Shariՙa law in everyday life, morally policing the public sphere, and returning Islam to its purist [again, sic?] form, during and immediately following the life of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.”

Now, some Salafis today are keen to reach into the past and claim figures such as al-Qayrawani as a Salafi of sorts. The Nigerian Salafi/proto-Salafi Abubakar Gumi (1924-1992) said that the Risala was one of his favorite books. But even if you, the analyst, said, “The Risala is Salafism” (I think you would be wrong, but nevermind), you would still have to confront the sociological fact that thousands of non-Salafis read, study, even memorize this book, and take what it says very seriously.

So take a little more time when you define Salafism, so that you don’t sound like you’re implicitly labeling them the most authentic Muslims.

Thoughts on the 2019 AFRICOM Posture Statement

Last week, AFRICOM’s commander, General Thomas Waldhauser, presented the command’s posture statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Alexis Arieff and Jason Warner had good threads highlighting important points of the document:

I have a few points to add:

  1. I have no insight into how the document was put together, but it felt as though within the statement you could feel three voices wrestling with one another for control: one voice that sees terrorism as the main concern in Africa, another focused on Russia and China, and a third that looks ahead to a grim future of dense, restless, and disease-prone populations. In other words, the document’s zigging and zagging between “Violent Extremist Organizations,” “Great Power Competition,” and “stability” talk did not feel coherent to me, but rather seemed to reflect layers of editing and insertion by constituencies with different priorities and attitudes. The sections on “Great Power Competition” felt the most grafted-on; I wonder whether AFRICOM would have preferred to just talk about terrorism and (in)stability. It was interesting to note that sometimes “Great Power Competition” and mentions of Russia and China fell out of the document for pages at a time, especially in the middle of the statement. It was also interesting to see moments where “Great Power Competition” was conspicuously downplayed (see p. 12, for example, with the “five objectives”). Some of this, I think, must reflect an uncertainty within various U.S. government agencies and offices about whether all the talk of “Great Power Competition” is headed and what the relationship between that and the “War on Terror” (or whatever one is supposed to call it now) is going to be. In other words, some sections might be spliced in just to make various bosses happy.
  2. I was struck by the frequent moments when the document put forth ideological rather than clinical statements on jihadist groups’ histories, characters, and intentions. On p. 7, for example, the document says, “VEOs [Violent Extremist Organizations] cultivate and encourage an environment of distrust, despair, and hopelessness to undermine governments, allowing for the expansion of their radical ideology.” A sentence like this makes me throw up my hands. The persistent and sometimes explicit suggestion, in U.S. policy circles, that jihadists are essentially nihilists misses a lot about what they say, what they do, and what their strategies are or may be. This kind of language from AFRICOM is so crude as to verge on being plain wrong; I’ve tried to show, including in some recent writing, that there is a lot more *politics* going on with jihadists than just “let’s undermine the government.”
  3. The overall crudeness of the document is striking. Maybe this is just inevitable in policy documents, but I don’t think it has to be. Take this sentence from p. 10: “Despite the challenges on the continent, Africans are eager and receptive to work with the U.S. to advance common strategic interests.” Do U.S. policymakers and generals have to talk this way? It just sounds silly. There were also several more specific passages that seemed to me absurdly rosy, especially the brief mention of Burkina Faso on p. 28. The section on Cameroon (pp. 31-32) also reads a bit strangely given that this news broke the day after Waldhauser testified. Couldn’t AFRICOM be a bit more forthcoming and blunt about challenges, frictions, and things that are going badly?
  4. The names of many operations remain ridiculous. “Exercise Lightning Handshake” was my favorite.

Finally, it’s worth noting that some euphemisms – including “advise, assist, and accompany” may be wearing thin as the public gets more information:

 

A Flawed Estimate of Salafi-Jihadis, and Some of the Politics Surrounding It

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:

Post at Fellow Travelers on Left Foreign Policy

I have a post today at Fellow Travelers, a left foreign policy blog. My post there is different fare than what I usually post here. At Fellow Travelers I look at the question of how a leftist president would implement and conduct foreign policy in the United States, especially in terms of making sure that the executive branch actually carried out the left’s preferred policies (whatever those may be…this is an incipient and ongoing conversation). In my post, I take two recent books – Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace and Ben Rhodes’ The World As It Is – and use them as a starting point to think through how a leftist White House/National Security Council might function, at least in its broad outlines, and also how a leftist White House would relate to the career State Department and Foreign Service.

These themes are, again, very different than the ones that I usually discuss on Sahel Blog. But part of what underlies my analysis on this site, although I rarely spell it out, is a feeling that much of the way governments approach conflict and politics today is wrong and broken. Plainly stated, I see the left as the vehicle for a better United States – in both the domestic and foreign policy spheres – and for a better world. You mileage on that question may vary, but if these issues interest you then Fellow Travelers is an important space in an emerging and increasingly refined conversation about left foreign policy.

On Salafism, Tabligh, and Other “Conveyer Belts”

Over at Political Violence at a Glance, Michael Kenney has a post on the idea of “conveyer belt[s] to terrorism.” Kenney is discussing the hardline British group Al-Muhajiroun, whose leader Anjem Choudary is scheduled for release from prison, but Kenney’s observations apply more widely. Here is an excerpt from his post:

The conveyor belt [thesis] suggests that most people who participate in al-Muhajiroun will escalate to political violence, but this is not the case. In my forthcoming book, The Islamic State in Britain, I show that many people who are exposed to al-Muhajiroun’s message do not join, and most people who join do not escalate to violence. Participation in this controversial network, which specializes in high-risk activism, is neither necessary nor sufficient for mobilization to violence.

If what Kenney says goes for a hardline movement such as al-Muhajiroun, then it is even truer of wider trends and movements, particularly the Salafi current as a whole and the global missionary movement Jama’at al-Tabligh. In the Sahel, in West Africa, and around the world, these tendencies are often accused of incubating or even causing the rise of groups such as Ansar al-Din (now part of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin or JNIM) and Boko Haram. It is undeniable that the founders of these violent groups had direct connections to wider movements – JNIM’s top leader Iyad ag Ghali was deeply involved with Tabligh during the 1990s and early 2000s, and Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf was connected to the wider Salafi movement and the Izala organization in northern Nigeria during the same period. But it does not follow that involvement with Salafism or with Tabligh is inherently radicalizing or inherently conducive to violence, as one often hears. Jacob Olidort has put it best (p. 4, footnote 1): “While percentages are hard to measure, if most Salafists globally were involved in forming political parties or in direct violent activity, the world would look very different.” The growing scholarly literature on both Salafism and Tabligh, including in West Africa (for example, Marloes Janson’s book on Tabligh in Gambia), does not give the impression of increasing propensity to violence so much as it gives the impression of deep changes in conceptions of piety.

Not everyone agrees with Kenney about al-Muhijaroun, of course:

But we would do well to recall Kenney’s phrasing: “neither necessary nor sufficient.” The argument is not that a group can’t function as a gateway, the argument is rather that we need a multi-factor analysis to determine what makes someone willing to commit violence. I have no stake in the specific debate about al-Muhajiroun, but I do have a stake in the wider debate about “conveyer belts.” If certain ideological perspectives and affiliations are seen as the sole factor in predisposing someone to commit violence, then a great deal of other data can get screened out, and we risk demonizing large numbers of people – and, in the worst case, pushing people into violence who might not otherwise have leaned that way.

Amplifying and Extending Martha Crenshaw’s Recommendation for Peace Talks with al-Qaida and the Islamic State

In September, Stanford’s Martha Crenshaw – a longtime expert on terrorism – published an essay in Foreign Policy arguing that the time has come for peace talks with al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The idea of talks is not new, but it is important.

Here is a key excerpt:

Given jihadis’ adaptability and diffusion, options to combat them with force are limited. One alternative is to try to solve the root causes of the problem by removing the conditions that make jihad attractive. But even if the multiple political, economic, and social causes of violence could be identified, addressing them is a costly endeavor requiring a good deal of patience and persistence. The current U.S. administration seems to have little of either.

[…]

The bottom line is that a military defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and even in Iraq would not mean the end of terrorism and extremism. The Islamic State has vowed to continue its struggle and has called for attacks in the West. And al Qaeda and its network of allies stand to benefit from the downfall of their preeminent rival in the Middle East. Most of the underlying problems that led to the ascendance of jihadi organizations, meanwhile, persist. There is no simple answer to dealing with such a complex, expansive, and volatile threat. But it is worth considering all options, including negotiations with selected parties.

From what I can tell, the piece did not get much attention, but the comments it did get ran strongly in a negative/critical direction (these include comments on the article itself, although these comments are barely worth reading, and comments on Twitter). As someone in broad agreement with Crenshaw, I’d like to respond to some of the criticisms and then flesh out what talks might entail – because my own critique of Crenshaw’s piece is that it does not give enough detail about what talks would look like.

One kind of criticism was faux-shocked dismissiveness. That kind of criticism, I think, is barely worth engaging; seventeen years into the War on Terror, the burden should be on proponents of the status quo to defend it. Unorthodox ideas deserve, at the least, a fair hearing and a reasoned rebuttal.

Another kind of criticism was the argument that talks “would bestow legitimacy on groups that the vast majority of locals abhor” and that it is “far better to address the deep grievances that drive people to join them in the first place.” But Crenshaw has already pointed out – and the evidence is firmly on her side – that “address[ing] deep grievances” is difficult in analytical terms, costly in financial and military terms, and requires patience in terms of timelines, policy continuity, and political will. Crenshaw is talking about policy options predicated on the obvious likelihood that “deep grievances” will not go away any time soon.

The idea of “legitimacy” is also backwards, on multiple levels. If one wants to be a gritty realist, then legitimacy does not matter – what matters is the advancement of core interests. At present, I would argue, the War on Terror is an unsustainable drain on resources and an unsuccessful venture with dim prospects for a turnaround. Severe conflicts around the world have not been remedied through the War on Terror framework, and that framework has in some cases caused and/or exacerbated conflict.

If one wants to talk about legitimacy, though, or about moral standing, then I would actually argue that the United States and other Western powers could increase their legitimacy by displaying a willingness to talk to jihadists. First of all, we would show that we are unafraid of hearing anyone’s perspective, including perspectives that are sharply critical of American/Western foreign policy. We would show that we are confident enough in our own moral stature that we will meet with anyone, any time, and see whether we have any common ground with them.

Second, an offer to talk would go a long ways toward undercutting jihadists’ self-presentation as a revolutionary, anti-systemic force in the contemporary world. Under current policy, by insisting that jihadists are and must be outside of all mainstream politics, the U.S. ends up inadvertently reinforcing jihadists’ image as revolutionary actors, and even inadvertently reinforcing their romantic appeal to some of their recruits. If, instead, we offered to negotiate with them, we could in effect say, “You are no different than other violent actors who have come before you. We see nothing special about you. Whenever you want to talk, we will talk, and until you are ready to make peace we will fight you, whether we are talking or not.”

Another line of criticism toward Crenshaw’s argument came from International Crisis Group’s Sam Heller. In a Twitter thread, Heller fixated on Crenshaw’s skepticism toward military solutions – but Heller ultimately didn’t take a clear position on whether to negotiate or not, and so he just ended up muddying the waters. He concluded, “Military force alone can’t deliver holistic, lasting solutions. But it seems incorrect to dismiss it totally.” Heller misrepresents Crenshaw’s position here; she does not “dismiss [military force] totally,” but rather says essentially what Heller says about it. Again, Heller’s phrasing is that “military force alone can’t deliver holistic, lasting solutions”; Crenshaw’s phrasing is that “more often than not, moreover, outside intervention ends an immediate crisis but leaves unresolved or even exacerbates the underlying problems that brought it about.” Heller is right, in his thread, to question the high number Crenshaw gives for the Islamic State’s remaining fighters in Iraq, but none of the issues he raises make much of a dent in her core argument.

My own take on Crenshaw’s piece is broad agreement, but also a desire for a more precise articulation of what negotiations might look like. So it’s worth disaggregating the idea of negotiations and offering a few possibilities:

  1. Direct negotiations between the United States and jihadists with the aim of forestalling further attacks on the United States.
  2. U.S. (or European, etc.) rhetorical and logistical support for negotiations between another government and that country’s jihadists.
  3. U.S. (or French, British, etc.) non-interference in efforts by another government to negotiate with that country’s jihadists.
  4. U.S. pressure on another government to turn that government’s secret deals with jihadists into public negotiations/agreements.

Once you disaggregate the proposal, it becomes easier to discuss, evaluate, and implement. So, in terms of #1, I think that it would be a good idea to appoint a U.S. Special Envoy for Non-State Actors (and to proclaim a willingness to talk with anyone, any time). But I actually think the most room for progress right now is with #2 and #3. There are voices out there who favor negotiations between their own governments and jihadists, but whose proposals have been essentially shot down by Western governments (this was the case when France publicly dismissed Malian civil society calls for the Malian government to negotiate with Malian jihadists).

I think too that more explicit Western support for negotiations could help with #4. If we support third-party negotiations or at least don’t stand in the way, that would signal to governments who already deal with jihadists that it’s time to bring those deals out into the open. Openness, in turn, would allow publics to weigh in and would make geopolitics and local politics more transparent.

After all, it’s one thing for analysts to debate “whether we should negotiate with jihadists” – but it’s another thing to really grapple with the policy ramifications of something like the Associated Press article on Yemen from this August. That article asserted the existence of deals between the Saudi and Emirati governments on the one side, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula on the other. The same article asserted that “key participants in the pacts said the U.S. was aware of the arrangements and held off on any drone strikes.” So let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the United States and its entirely wholesome partners are locked in a battle of good and evil with jihadists. In the real world, politics is a mess and neither we nor are partners are as wholesome as one would like. In that world, do you prefer secret deals or public deals? I would take the latter.

A Critical Reading of the Interim Report of the USIP Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States

The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) recently released a report by its Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. The report (.pdf) is entitled “Beyond the Homeland: Protecting America from Extremism in Fragile States.”

The report is intended as a sequel to the 9/11 Commission Report, and had the same co-chairs (former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean and former Representative Lee Hamilton). But the USIP Task Force report, at roughly thirty page of text and notes, in no way compares, in either length or depth of research, to the 9/11 Commission Report (.pdf), a book-length document that clocks in at some 567 pages. (True, this is an “interim” report from the Task Force, with a final report to follow in 2019, but they’re the ones who advanced the comparison, not me.) And whereas the 9/11 Commission Report was the outcome of an in-depth inquiry that attempted to understand what happened in a critical event and why, the USIP Task Force report is – to be blunt – a short, superficial, ideologically-motivated document that aims less at explaining anything than at justifying the status quo in American foreign policy.

To start, there were many assumptions baked in to the writing of this report. Let’s quote the legislative language cited in the report:

Funds made available pursuant to subsection (a) shall be transferred to, and merged with, funds appropriated by this Act under the heading “United States Institute of Peace” for the purposes of developing a comprehensive plan (the Plan) to prevent the underlying causes of extremism in fragile states in the Sahel, Horn of Africa, and the Near East.

Before spelling out some of these assumptions, it is worth pointing out that the one member of Congress that USIP names and thanks is Senator Lindsay Graham, who is one of the most hawkish members of either party. As commentators such as Paul Staniland and Jason Lyall have pointed out, the USIP Task Force’s report reads as an effort to push back (and not always convincingly) on the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the contention that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” The USIP Task Force, in contrast, argues that “As long as extremism fuels instability, the United States cannot compete effectively against strategic rivals such as China, Russia, and Iran. Nor can the United States confront extremism without addressing the ways our rivals exploit and contribute to this threat” (p. 1). “Graham versus Mattis” would be a simplistic way to understand the debate, but there would be worse ways of understanding it. The Graham side of argument isn’t even persuasive, moreover: have all of the United States’ interventions in “fragile states” since 2001 made the country stronger, or weaker? The answer should be obvious.

Against the backdrop of what is, essentially, a debate between two different visions of hyper-aggressive U.S. foreign policy, I view with skepticism the following assertion from the USIP Task Force:

The time has come for a new U.S. strategy. We need not only to defeat individual terrorists but also to mitigate the conditions that enable extremist ideologies to take root, spread, and thrive. Going forward, the priority for U.S. policy should be to strengthen fragile states—to help them build resilience against the alarming growth of violent extremism within their own societies. (p. 1)

Why skepticism? Because this sounds a lot like the thrust of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11, especially since 2011 or so. What is the substantive difference between USIP’s language here and the language in this 2011 USAID paper? Or the language in the 2002 National Security Strategy, which argued the following:

We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world. The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.

The USIP Task Force, then, is not pushing for something new but is pushing a defense of a long-running status quo.

(By the way, both the “fragile states/counterterrorism” and the “great power competition” frameworks, in my view, are not just wrong but almost suicidal – future generations in a world wrecked and disrupted by climate change will surely curse everyone on both sides of this ridiculous debate.)

The USIP Task Force report is, moreover, structured around a set of clichés and buzzwords rather than around fresh thinking into the problem of jihadism. “Violent extremism,” “fragile states,” “arc of instability,” “safe havens,” “governance,” “underlying causes,” “partners,” “interagency approaches” – these terms are so familiar to Washington that a report like this is basically just painting by the numbers. That’s how you get bolded, supposedly groundbreaking assertions like this, scattered throughout the report: “Extremism emerges through the confluence of poor and undemocratic governance in fragile states and extremist ideology and organization” (p. 2) or “The gap between government failures and citizens’ aspirations, above all else, is what facilitates the spread of violent extremism” (p. 3). Again, these ideas are the opposite of new – they are the same ideas pounded into all of our heads at every single conference, meeting, speech, and workshop on jihadism that I’ve ever attended. None of the buzzwords, moreover, are ever subjected to any critical scrutiny, even though critics are easy to find – for example, Micah Zenko and Amelia Mae Wolf have questioned the idea of “safe havens.” The Task Force, moreover, seems to have a weak grasp of the histories of individual jihadist organizations and individual conflicts, opting for strangely one-dimensional explanations of complex phenomena. Thus we read that “analysts have attributed Algeria’s paroxysms of extremist violence in the 1990s to the influx, three decades earlier, of foreign teachers, many of whom held extreme religious views” and also that “in Yemen, the arrival of Saudi fighters in 2009 led to the formation of AQAP” (p. 16). The report is also highly repetitive, perennially restating the same two points (extremism+fragility=extremism; and extremism+fragility+non-US powers=really bad for the US) and punctuating them with sometimes misleading examples.

There are flashes of a more critical awareness scattered throughout the report, but these flashes are few. There is no acknowledgment, that I could find, of any American mistakes since 9/11, only an acknowledgment that “the political and strategic costs of seventeen years of ever-expanding war remain high” and that “the length and growing scope of the fight are driving Americans and their leaders to question the value of foreign military engagement” (p. 13). One even gets the sense of a kind of veiled contempt for voters or anyone concerned about costs – as always with such reports, there is the assertion that “we cannot solve the problem of extremism within the term of a single presidential administration” (p. 19). This is a document addressed, above all, to a permanent government, development, and think tank elite anticipating another several decades of the “War on Terror,” or whatever one is supposed to call it now.

The report is so repetitive that I’m afraid of this blog post becoming repetitive as I move through the document – so perhaps it’s best to cut this short here. The back half of the report, on strategies for preventing extremism and fragility, is just as predictable as the first half – micro-success stories plucked out of their contexts, disavowals of a nation-building agenda amid calls for massive expenditures overseas, etc. And of course, the obligatory warning that the Islamic State will soon re-emerge, which you think might lead to some soul-searching about how we got into this mess in the first place, rather than a kind of shell game where we just shuffle all the old ideas around and then present them as new.

I should end on a constructive note, I suppose. So here are my suggestions for the final report:

  1. Take to heart one key finding of the 9/11 Commission Report, namely that the 9/11 attacks were planned not just in one fragile state (Afghanistan) but in various states, including some in Europe. Think through what this really means about whether fragile states and “safe havens” are a threat to the U.S. or not.
  2. Probe more deeply into issues of politicians’ and states’ collusion with jihadist organizations. It’s not just about people’s grievances going unaddressed, it’s often about active collusion too.
  3. Defend your ideas not just against the “great power competition” folks, but also against the critics from the anti-imperialist left who see the War on Terror as a destructive and counterproductive exercise. You shouldn’t just write us off, because (a) we have a lot of strong arguments and (b) we’re getting louder now. U.S. foreign policy should be bigger than a debate between Lindsay Graham and Jim Mattis. It’s ironic that this report came out in time for the anniversary of 9/11, because this is the anniversary where I’ve seen the biggest range of views expressed since 9/11 itself (see, for example, here). The conversation is changing, and this report does not keep up.

[Disclosure: I was invited to one early meeting by Task Force staff. I revealed my dirty hippie leanings, sparred a bit with a right-wing think tanker, and did not contribute further after that one occasion. The criticisms here are all ones I previewed for the Task Force staff when they spoke to me.]