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:


Nigeria: Options for Freeing Ibrahim al-Zakzaky?

I am in Kano this week for a conference, and last night I had an exchange (off the record, I believe, so I won’t mention my interlocutors’ names) about the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, or IMN, a Shi’i group. The IMN’s leader Ibrahim al-Zakzaky has been detained since 2015, following a clash between the IMN and the Nigerian military in Zaria. Al-Zakzaky’s detention has sparked numerous IMN protests.

My interlocutors mentioned two potential ways to resolve the problem: exiling al-Zakzaky to Iran, or placing him under house arrest. Each path would have pros and cons, of course. The voice favoring exile said that one benefit of that path would be clarifying the nature of al-Zakzaky’s relationship with the Iranian government; if Iran tried to use him for propaganda purposes, the speaker said, Nigeria could respond by asking for international diplomatic support.

For my part, the issue of due legal process is vital. He should get a fair trial. But in terms of the ultimate outcome, the Nigerian government has options beyond the binary choice of letting al-Zakzaky go completely free or detaining him until he dies. The government would be wise, in my view, to choose a path other than indefinite detention.

New Report: “Mali’s Tragic But Persistent Status Quo”

I have a new report out with Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. The report, “Mali’s Tragic But Persistent Status Quo,” looks at why some politicians – especially in Bamako and Kidal – have maintained power and influence for years, even amid Mali’s multi-faceted crisis. The report is based on field research trips I took to Bamako in January and March of this year.

Here’s an excerpt:

The report makes two, interrelated arguments. First, armed conflict in Mali benefits certain politicians and does not typically threaten manyother politicians’ survival or interests. The central state would almost certainly prefer to end the conflict, but its limited means prevent it from doing so. Thus the central authorities seek ways to manage and shape the endemic violence that they cannot eliminate. The management of violence in both northern and central Mali revolves around controlling regional capitals (or making deals with the de facto administrative authorities there) and accepting that state authority progressively diminishes as one leaves the regional capitals and moves into the surrounding areas.


The report’s second main argument is that the formal, externally- backed mechanisms intended to stabilize Mali and resolve its conflicts are implicated in perpetuating violence. The peace process envisioned by the 2015 Algiers Accord has been rocky and problematic. Alongside implementation problems, the design of the Accord unwittingly encourages ambitious politicians and violent entrepreneurs to create new militias as a means of seeking representation in the structures established through the Accord. Nevertheless, foreign powers appear comfortable with both the Bamako-based political class and the Tuareg hereditary elite in Kidal, occasionally contemplating sanctions against members of the latter but showing no appetite to displace either group. Moreover, as two experts put it, “In some ways, Bamako’s elites are more connected to the realities of cities outside Mali than to what is happening in the centre or north of the country.”

I welcome any feedback you have on the report.

Comment on the NYT Article on Post-Tongo Tongo Reprimands

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a report on the American military’s internal investigation and accountability efforts following the ambush of American soldiers in Tongo Tongo, Niger in October 2017. Commentators, and the NYT itself, have rightly called attention to the ways the punishments reflect hierarchy and protect senior officers:

To me, though, there is another criticism to make. The reprimands handed down all related to technical issues: training, approvals, oversight, etc. The implication becomes that had these technical issues been handled better, such disasters would not occur.

Maybe that’s true. But it seems to me that the problem is not just technical but political and conceptual. Why should villagers near the Niger-Mali border, under regular pressure from nearby jihadists and other militias and connected through social ties to some of the jihadists themselves, welcome intermittent government and foreign patrols with open arms and share vital intelligence with them? Why should American soldiers assume that conceptual frameworks focused on transnational jihadism will help them understand hyper-local complexities? Do – and here I am guessing a bit, although I would call it an educated guess – hackneyed and simplistic trainings about “local culture” truly prepare soldiers to win over local populations and move safely through their territory? Has the military really prioritized language training – what was the level of French proficiency of the American soldiers on this patrol, let alone their proficiency in Fulfulde or other languages that would have been crucial to their understanding of the environment they were in? How blunt are American military strategies with themselves and with the government of Niger about the fact that these two governments’ interests do not completely align, no matter how much good will there may be between them? How well do American soldiers understand villagers’ feelings toward the Nigerien state? To me, as an outside observer, it seems that the military has not grappled fully with these questions, preferring to use models transplanted from Afghanistan and Iraq (or, one might say, a semi-imagined Afghanistan and a semi-imagined Iraq) to the Sahel and other parts of Africa. All the intelligence, training, and oversight in the world might help prevent bad decisions and thus might have prevented this Tongo Tongo debacle, but technical fixes do not remove political problems. American soldiers operating in environments they do not seriously understand, on missions that blur the line between peace and war to the point where intentions become ambiguous to all involved, are at inherent risk of fatal miscalculation.



More on Mauritania’s New Cabinet and Succession Dynamics

As I’ve been writing about a bit recently, Mauritania has a new, technocratic prime minister (Mohamed Salem Ould Bechir), a new defense minister (longtime presidential right-hand man Mohamed Ould Ghazouani), and a new cabinet. Many observers, including me, have seen these changes in the context of the approaching end of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s second term in 2019 – although, to me at least, it is not at all clear what these changes portend in terms of succession.

The Arab Weekly (h/t Judd Devermont) has a fascinating, if speculative, piece that raises doubt about the view that Ould Abdel Aziz is positioning Ould Ghazouani as a successor – instead, the author suggests, new speaker of parliament Cheikh Ould Baya might be a contender. More on Ould Baya here. Not mentioned in the Arab Weekly piece is new presidential spokesman and former ruling party head Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham, whose name has also been floated as a presidential successor. And of course there is still the strong possibility that Ould Abdel Aziz will simply seek a third term.

Meanwhile, as Ould Ghazouani moves to the defense ministry, the military has a new Chief of Army Staff, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Lemine. This is an orderly transition – he was most recently Ould Ghazouani’s deputy, and he and the president attended the Military Academy of Atar together in the 1980s. So a lot of folks get promotions or make essentially lateral moves (the former PM has moved over to the presidency), but it’s unclear yet what it all means for the medium-term.

Islamic Movement in Nigeria Leaders Beyond Ibrahim al-Zakzaky

The Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), the country’s mass-based Shi’i organization, is back in the news amid a crackdown against it by Nigerian security forces. The current cycle of conflict between authorities and the IMN revolves around the imprisonment of the IMN’s founder and longtime leader Ibrahim al-Zakzaky. But with al-Zakzaky in detention since 2015, who leads the IMN?

In a sense, the IMN is so closely identified with al-Zakzaky that there is not room for another leader of his stature within the movement. If you go to the movement’s website, the only biography listed under the “biography” tab is al-Zakzaky’s, and his image is plastered across the website. The group’s Twitter account primarily foregrounds al-Zakzaky or ordinary followers who have died, rather than other group leaders.

I’ve made a preliminary effort to find names of other leaders. It’s surprisingly difficult, given the extent to which the press has associated the IMN almost exclusively with al-Zakzay. Here are a few names I found, though:

  • Ibrahim Musa, IMN spokesman and president of the Media Forum
  • Abdullahi Musa, secretary of the Academic Forum
  • Dauda Nalado, chairman of the Academic Forum, whose daughter was killed in 2017; he is also on the faculty of technology at Bayero University Kano
  • Sanusi Abdulkadir, Kano-based IMN leader
  • Kasimu Tawaye, Sokoto-based IMN leader who reportedly died earlier this year
  • Sidi Munir Sokoto, another Sokoto-based IMN leader
  • Adam Tsoho Jos, a Plateau-based IMN leader


Notes on the Carter Center’s Second Report on Mali’s Peace Process

The Carter Center is the independent observer designated to follow the implementation of Mali’s peace process as envisioned by the 2015 Algiers Accord. The selection of an independent observer is itself one part of the Accord’s implementation. The Carter Center released its first report in May 2018, and released its second report on 26 October.

Here are my notes on the latter. To me the most striking passages involved (a) the Carter Center’s concerns about the Accord Monitoring Committee (CSA) and (b) the report’s observations about the Operational Coordination Mechanism (MOC) and civilians’ negative perceptions of it in Gao. Here are some key excerpts:

  • The overall tone is mixed, leaning cautiously optimistic. From p. 3: “The observation period was marked by modest but real progress as well as by a significant pause in implementation caused by the presidential election. While progress has been made in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), other obstacles remain, particularly the establishment of the Interim Authorities and the Operational Coordination Mechanism (Mécanisme opérationnel de coordination – MOC) as fully operational. Despite their continued commitment to the agreement, this mixed record underlines the fact that the Malian parties (government of Mali, Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad [CMA]), and the Plateforme des mouvements du 14 juin d’Alger [Platform]) remain reluctant to advance quickly.”
  • After noting implementation challenges related to the structures created by the Accord and the signatories’ postures, the report goes on to note other challenges to peace. From p. 4: “Two challenges external to the agreement itself impede progress – the crisis in central Mali and criminal economic activity. The crisis in central Mali could overtax the resources initially earmarked for the execution of the agreement, while the ‘criminal economy’ – whose link with the implementation of the agreement has been sufficiently documented by the report of the group of experts established pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2374 (2017) – slows and discourages implementation.” For background on the crisis in central Mali, this report is a good place to start for Anglophones; for those who read French, I would add this report as well. The report of the UN group of experts can be found here, and my own notes on it are here. Finally, the Carter Center report discusses these two issues (central Mali and criminal economic activity) a bit more on p. 13.
  • The report makes numerous critiques of the Monitoring Committee/Comité de suivi de l’accord (CSA). From p. 6: “Normally scheduled monthly, only three CSA sessions were held during the five-month observation period, due in large part to the presidential election. These sessions lasted only a single day, and sometimes just a few hours. During these sessions, a blockage on a particular topic occasionally led to the suspension or end of a session. The CSA ratifies, often without discussion or formal decision, the actions or agreements made by the parties…The appointment of the minister of social cohesion [see here – AT] is a significant clarification of thegovernment’s presence in the CSA. At the same time, the Independent Observer notes that senior officials of the CMA, based in Kidal, regularly call into question the conclusions or decisions negotiated by representatives in Bamako. The Platform coalition is often marked by wide differences between its members, which impact and slow decision-making.”
  • The report also focuses in on the difference between the formal installation of the interim authorities in northern areas and their actual functioning. From p. 9: “At the regional level, Interim Authorities have been established officially in Kidal (February 2017), Gao and Ménaka (March 2017), and Timbuktu and Taoudéni (April 2017). However, none are in fact operational because they lack budgets to carry out their missions, including the provision of basic services…Over and above these specific obstacles, the Independent Observer expresses concern about the lack of initiative shown by the government to empower the Interim Authorities. Because of the absence of a budget and activities, the Interim Authorities are gradually being undermined and the government’s good faith called into question.”
  • The report has strong words about the MOC, writing that it is operation but deeply hamstrung in Gao, and “not operational” in Timbuktu and Kidal (p. 10). Significantly, the report notes that in Gao, “the population complains of growing insecurity and tends to attribute the increase in banditry and crime to the presence of MOC members.” In other words, the issue is not just about budgets and technical implementation but also about perceptions. The dynamic the report notes is a very dangerous one.