Georgetown University Press

A lmost eight years after the death of Osama bin Laden, and despite ongoing military and intelligence efforts as part of the Global War on Terror, the West has defeated neither the organization bin Laden founded nor the wider Salafijihadist movement of which it forms an integral part. On the contrary, al-Qaeda's fighting strength today is an order of magnitude larger than it was on the day bin Laden died—and that does not count the tens of thousands more who have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda's breakaway rival, the Islamic State group. One major factor in this remarkable survival and growth has been the ability of Salafi-jihadi groups to use conflict throughout the Arab and Islamic world simultaneously as both a shield against scrutiny and a recruitment tool.

This article examines Salafi-jihadist grand strategy and shows how the movement's shift in emphasis from global terror to local insurgency constitutes not a departure from that strategy but rather its fulfilment. It then examines the successes the movement has wrung from conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, before moving on to outline what the future may hold for al-Qaeda and groups of its ilk.

Geopolitics and the Salafi-Jihadist Project

All significant Salafi-jihadi groups follow essentially the same grand strategy, and out of necessity, that strategy has always entailed certain geopolitical elements. It was codified at length in The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through Which the Umma [Islamic People] Will Pass, a 2004 treatise published in the online al-Qaeda magazine Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad) under the nom-de-plume Abu Bakr Naji.1 The Management of Savagery enumerates a tripartite strategy closely aligned with official al-Qaeda doctrine. The first stage, Naji claims, is the use of violence—the phenomenon we call terrorism—to create "regions of savagery," chaotic zones in which the writ of traditional nation-states does not apply. The next stage is "justifying [Salafi-jihadist rule] rationally and through the Sharia," not to the West, nor to any pre-existing governmental authority, but directly to Muslims themselves, in a way that makes the cause seem right, even inevitable, and that draws in more and more recruits. One of the keys to this process of justification, Naji tells readers, is to provide people with fair and efficient governance, albeit based on the precepts of Sharia law as Salafi-jihadists understand it. Only once public support is assured can the movement enter phase three: the establishment [End Page 94] of permanent governmental structures toward an Islamic state.

Osama bin Laden had firm views on how to prosecute this plan. He often distinguished among his enemies by analogizing them to a tree with a sturdy trunk and many thin branches. The trunk was the United States; the branches were its allies. To bring down a tree, bin Laden reasoned, one needed to concentrate on sawing through the trunk.2 Therefore, al-Qaeda should focus on attacking the United States and ignore other enemies, whether local regimes in the Muslim world or US allies in the West.3 This was the essence of the "near enemy" versus "far enemy" debate. Thus, in bin Laden's fatwas of 1996 and 1998—issued before the East Africa embassy bombings that began the organization's career of anti-American violence—al-Qaeda expressly (and at great length) singled out the United States for a declaration of war.

Bin Laden insisted on this strategy even in situations where modifying it might have produced greater short-term gains.4 Thus, when the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) wrote to advise bin Laden that the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, was ripe for al-Qaeda's taking in 2010, amid the chaos of Yemen's civil war, bin Laden rejected his counsel, suggesting instead that AQAP try to reach "a truce with the apostate government."5 Bin Laden provided similar instructions with regard to al-Qaeda's heartland of northern Pakistan.6 He also ordered the group's West African franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to negotiate cease-fires with local forces. "[W]e want the maximum number of entities to take to the sidelines," he told AQIM's leaders, "as we fight our greatest enemy, the US."7

With the advent of the Arab Spring in early 2011, bin Laden's thinking on these matters underwent a dramatic reversal.8 To his mind, the sudden upheavals across the Arab world had catapulted the Salafi-jihadist movement into what we may recognize as phase two of The Management of Savagery. In the countries undergoing revolts, the chaos of phase one had been accomplished; now, Salafi-jihadis had to move quickly to exploit it and bend it to their will. "Though the mujahideen have several duties to perform," bin Laden wrote to his right-hand man, Atiyah Ab-dal-Rahman, "their main duty now is to support the revolutions taking place." This historic task, bin Laden directed, should take precedence even over the sacred struggle against the Americans in Afghanistan. "My words contradict what I said in previous letters," bin Laden wrote. "But the magnitude of the events dictates that we implement a full mobilization."9

Less than six months later, bin Laden was killed in a US Special Forces raid but al-Qaeda's franchises proceeded to carry out his orders and refocus on local struggles. In doing so, they experienced varying degrees of success, with some managing to carve out territory for themselves. Shortly after bin Laden's death, AQAP moved to establish itself as the effective government of a swath of southern Yemen, including the strategic port city of Zinjibar.10 Shortly thereafter, AQIM exploited the chaos in neighboring Libya to seize an area of southern Mali roughly the size of Texas.11 In both cases, the al-Qaeda affiliates acted under the cover of a pre-existing local insurgency, a blueprint that al-Qaeda continues to follow today, including through its affiliate in Syria, among other places.

This, however, was still only phase two, in which the goal, as described in The Management of Savagery, was simply "justifying [Salafi-jihadist rule] rationally and through the Sharia." There was, as yet, no Islamic state per se, so holding onto land for its own sake was not of prime importance. If a stronger enemy arose, there need [End Page 95] be no shame in withdrawing and preserving strength to fight another day. Thus, following the French intervention, AQIM melted away, only to re-establish itself as a terrorist group, embed itself further in the local Tuareg insurgency, and continue carrying out deadly attacks to the present day.12 AQAP also beat a strategic retreat; indeed, it has since captured—and subsequently retreated from—several more Yemeni cities. At the end of April 2016, it pulled out of the city of Mukalla in the face of advances by Yemeni and allied troops. In a public statement, AQAP said that it withdrew in order to save civilians from further violence and "to fight our enemy as we want, not as they want."13 Al-Qaeda's priorities might have shifted but, following the example of its founder, strategic patience was still the order of the day.14

One franchise felt differently: the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an unholy alliance of Salafi-jihadis and Saddam-era military commanders. Even during bin Laden's lifetime, al-Qaeda Central had struggled to control its Iraqi offshoot.15 Now, ISI's leaders were moving through Naji's playbook far more rapidly than al-Qaeda's leaders thought prudent. ISI had little time for justifying itself rationally to its subject populations; instead, it would simply impose its rule by brute force, using foreign fighters as needed. Ayman al-Zawahiri and his immediate lieutenants thought this unwise. In February 2014, these disagreements helped precipitate the Iraqi group's break with al-Qaeda (nominally the result of an arcane dispute over oaths and supremacy within the organization). On June 29, ISI declared itself simply the Islamic State and proclaimed its leader the caliph. For a time, it seemed capable of making good on this claim. By the beginning of 2015, the Islamic State was governing one-third of Syria and one-third of Iraq, an area with a combined population of 10 million. It possessed both central and local governing structures, police, courts, public health care, a school system—even municipal sanitation departments. For the Islamic State's leadership, the third and final stage of The Management of Savagery had been accomplished: the caliphate was reborn.

From Terrorism to Insurgency

More recent events have vindicated the path of patience and localism—being closely aligned with local elements and never holding on to territory if doing so threatens the survival of the group. The Islamic State's insistence on holding territory—and the shocking brutality visited on the population therein—made the group a vast, immobile target, and its "caliphate" eventually succumbed to Kurdish and Iranian-controlled forces operating under American and Russian air cover. Although by no means defeated, today's Islamic State is a husk of its former self, with no territory and at most one-third of its peak fighting strength.16 We will discuss below what the future may hold for the Islamic State.

Al-Qaeda's loyal affiliates, on the other [End Page 96] hand, have continued to prosper by taking a more gradualist and grassroots approach—and, crucially, one more closely aligned with local conflicts. In Yemen, AQAP has exploited a ferocious conflict, prolonged and sectarianized by Saudi Arabia's heavyhanded intervention, to expand from 1,000 fighters at the beginning of the conflict to between 6,000 and 7,000 today—fifteen to seventeen times the size of al-Qaeda as a whole on 9/11.17 AQAP has embedded itself in the complexities of the conflict, strengthening its ties with Yemen's Sunni tribes and militias to the point where it has become difficult to distinguish AQAP's forces from other, more legitimate elements in the country's ongoing civil war.18 Furthermore, al-Qaeda has masterfully tapped into locals' grievances, positioning itself in an almost parasitical manner.

AQAP maintains particularly close ties with its sister group in Somalia, al-Shabaab, whose fighting strength is on the same order as that of the Yemeni franchise—up to 6,000 fighters.19 Despite years of heavy fighting with peacekeeping forces from neighboring countries, al-Shabaab remains the dominant militant group in Somalia, especially in rural areas in the south, where it retains the ability to govern the territory it holds.20 The group's January 15, 2019, attack on a hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, was a shocking reminder of its continuing capacity to wreak havoc and destruction.21

In the Sahel region of West Africa, AQIM has merged with three other groups to form Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), an al-Qaeda franchise boasting as many as 2,000 fighters as of September 2018.22 Significantly, the emir of JNIM, a member of the ethnic Tuareg insurgency against the Malian government, is the leader of the only one of its three constituent groups that was not previously an al-Qaeda affiliate.23 JNIM has continued to carry out attacks on French, UN, and local government interests throughout the region, including the coordinated assaults in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on March 2, 2018.24

The picture in Syria is more complicated, as described in greater detail below, but there, too, the local al-Qaeda affiliate, now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), has successfully embedded itself in the wider insurgency, bringing in more recruits and making it a more difficult target in the process.25 As of January 2019, HTS—the largest insurgent faction in Syria, with as many as 20,000 fighters—stood at the head of a coalition of rebel groups that have undisputed control over Idlib governorate and parts of the neighboring governorates of Aleppo and Hama, making HTS and its partners the de facto government over some 3 million people.26

Accounting for its franchises together (but excluding the Islamic State and its satellites), al-Qaeda's manpower has grown by an order of magnitude over the past decade: from around 4,000 members on the day of bin Laden's death to around 40,000 today.27 Bin Laden's shift in focus from a macro outlook to a micro focus played a major role in bringing about this exponential growth; evidently, the lure of history-shaping adventure in a specific, active warzone is a better recruiting driver than the promise of potential "martyrdom" against the West. The shift to more tangible and parochial concerns has paid dividends. However, there is evidence that some elements within the Salafi-jihadist movement may be contemplating a return to global terrorism.

The Future: A Return to Terrorism?

The regional chaos and conflict on which al-Qaeda has thrived for the past nine years is [End Page 97] likely to continue for the foreseeable future. In Syria, where HTS has moved to consolidate its hold on Idlib (as of early 2019) despite heavy rebel losses elsewhere in the country, and in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia's proxy struggle for hegemony with Iran has created an intractable sectarian civil war, al-Qaeda has been particularly able to leverage local conflicts for its own benefit. Middle Eastern geopolitics, thus, remain favorable to the Salafi-jihadist movement; wherever an insurgency exists, Salafi-jihadis are likely to exploit it.

Nevertheless, al-Qaeda may now be returning to its roots in global terror. One indication is a marked return to the virulent anti-American rhetoric that was a bin Laden hallmark before the Arab Spring. Bin Laden's son, Hamza, an increasingly prominent figure in the organization, exemplifies this shift. In his public messages, Hamza calls on followers not to travel to theaters of jihad in the Muslim world, but instead to "[t]ake the battlefield from Kabul, Baghdad, and Gaza to Washington, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv."28 Indeed, Hamza often repeats, almost word for word, anti-American phrases used by his father as early as the 1990s.29

The Islamic State is currently in a position similar to that of al-Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the latter group was ejected from Afghanistan: beaten down and scattered. The principal difference is that the Islamic State is better positioned to quickly rebuild its network and capabilities and morph from a proto-state into a lethal underground terrorist organization. The group's tech savvy will help it maintain, grow, nurture, and coordinate a global, dispersed network of members. The organization also still has access to funds, having secured around $400 million from its treasury alongside ongoing revenue streams from kidnapping, protection rackets, corruption, and otherwise-legitimate businesses in which the group has invested its money.30

Some Islamic State fighters will commit to rebuilding the "caliphate," in its original heartland or elsewhere; the organization already has multiple regional Wilayats (international provinces) ranging from Libya to Afghanistan to the Philippines. Foreign terrorist fighters who answered the call to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq will be well placed to act as operatives beyond the group's core region. Some will smuggle their way back into Europe to build new networks and commit acts of terror; others will travel to the provinces. And the message of the Islamic State will continue to inspire "lone wolves" to violence against the West and its allies.

Still others—those perhaps disillusioned by the fall of the "caliphate"—will seek to join other Salafi-jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda. In particular, once the "caliph," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is killed, Hamza bin Laden will be uniquely positioned to once again unite the global Salafi-jihadist movement under one banner. Even at the height of the Islamic State's power, it was by no means unusual to see its followers professing (via Twitter and other outlets) to be a continuation of "bin Laden's al-Qaeda"—as opposed to "Zawahiri's al-Qaeda," which they viewed as misguided. With their oaths to Baghdadi moot and a bin Laden once again at or near the top of al-Qaeda, these fighters may be tempted back. Indeed, AQAP has been trumpeting defections of Islamic State fighters into its ranks since at least November 2017, a trend that would appear to be accelerating.31

The fate of al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, HTS, may provide another window into al-Qaeda's possible future evolution. One faction, under the group's founder, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, has broken with al-Qaeda Central in order to refocus locally [End Page 98] and possibly attract international support for its struggle against Assad. Al-Qaeda's overall emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, criticized Julani's approach, arguing that the break-away faction, however it chooses to organize itself, will never fool the West into thinking it is a "moderate" insurgency. More tellingly for present purposes, he added that efforts to "nationalize" the activities of al-Qaeda branches are counterproductive.32 A separate faction within the Syrian offshoot, smaller but still sizable, has expressed its support for Zawahiri's views.

This dispute between Zawahiri and Julani is telling. With Assad grinding ever closer to victory, one of the main conflicts that prompted bin Laden's 2011 change of direction is coming to a close. In light of this, al-Qaeda's central command expects its members in Syria to turn back toward globalism. This should not come as a surprise, for two reasons. First, it is in the interests of the leadership to keep their network unified, and the best way to do that is to rally every constituent group against a common foe. Second, bin Laden's newfound focus on local conflict was only ever a means toward an end. The ultimate goal, as always, was global: the establishment of an Islamic state capable of dominating international relations the way the original caliphate had done in the century and a half after the Prophet's death. Bin Laden's emphasis on exploiting the developing conflicts in the Arab world was only a temporary expedient in service of this goal. As the Arab Spring conflicts are resolved, whether through victory or defeat, al-Qaeda will naturally gravitate back toward the worldwide operations it was founded to pursue. Some factions, like Julani's, will want to keep fighting locally; as such groups peel away, they will leave behind an al-Qaeda much more focused on globalism, and far stronger than it was on the eve of 9/11.


As The Management of Savagery attests, the establishment of an Islamic state centered in the Middle East has always been the Salafi-jihadist project's end goal; fomenting chaos in the region has long served as a means toward that end. The reason Osama bin Laden insisted on fighting the United States was because he saw American power as a road-block to the kind of "savagery" his organization needed to thrive. In this regard, bin Laden's response to the Arab Spring may be among his most important, yet least understood legacies. By giving local leaders the flexibility to leverage conditions on the ground in their own respective regions, bin Laden bequeathed his movement a structure that has allowed it to expand its fighting strength tenfold since his death and to embed itself in complex conflicts, giving it further staying power.

Notably, however, localism has permitted divisions to emerge, demonstrated most prominently through the recent split within al-Qaeda's Syrian branch. For al-Qaeda's central command, a shift back toward globalism would seem to be in the cards. The future, therefore, may see the Salafi-jihadist movement attempt to follow two paths at once. Some factions will continue to operate largely locally, fighting conflicts alongside more secular forces while others will follow al-Qaeda's lead and turn their sights back toward global terrorism—both paths that pose direct threats to regional and global security. [End Page 99]

Ali Soufan

Ali Soufan is the Chief executive Officer of the Soufan Group and Founder of the Soufan Center. Mr. Soufan is a Former FBI Supervisory Special Agent Who Investigated and Supervised highly sensitive and complex international terrorism cases, including the East Africa embassy bombings, the attack on the USS Cole, and the Events Surrounding 9/11. Mr. Soufan also serves as a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. He is the author of the newly released Anatomy Of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State and the New York Times Top 10 Best-Seller, The Black Banners: The Inside Story Of 9/11 and the War Against al Qaeda, winner of the 2012 Ridenhour Book Prize.


1. Abu Bakr Naji, The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through Which the Umma Will Pass, trans. William McCants, (Cambridge, MA: John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, 2006),

2. "Letter to Abu Basir," Office of the Director of National Intelligence [document captured during the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad residence],

3. "Letter Addressed to Atiyah," Office of the Director of National Intelligence [document captured during the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad residence],

4. For a fuller discussion, see Ali Soufan, Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State (New York: Norton, 2017), 19–23.

5. "Letter dtd 18 JUL 2010" [sic], Office of the Director of National Intelligence [document captured during the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad residence], trans. Ali Soufan,

6. "Letter dtd 07 August 2010," Office of the Director of National Intelligence [document captured during the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad residence],

7. "Letter dtd 07 August 2010," Office of the Director of National Intelligence [document captured during the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad residence],

8. For a fuller discussion, see Soufan, Anatomy of Terror, 26–29.

9. "Letter to Shaykh Mahmud," Office of the Director of National Intelligence [document captured during the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad residence],

10. Michael Horton, "Fighting the Long War: The Evolution of Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point 20, no. 1 (January 23, 2017): 17–18.

11. Bruce Riedel, "The Al Qaeda Menace in Africa," Brookings Institution, January 21, 2013.

12. Danika Newlee, "Jama'at Nasr Al-Islam Wal Muslimin (JNIM)," TNT Terrorism Backgrounder, Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 25, 2018,

13. Thomas Joscelyn, "AQAP Says It Withdrew from Mukalla to Protect Residents," FFD's Long War Journal, May 1, 2016,

14. Bruce Hoffman, "Al Qaeda: Quietly and Patiently Rebuilding," Cipher Brief, December 30, 2016,

15. The details in this paragraph have been condensed from Soufan, Anatomy of Terror.

17. "Foreign Terrorist Organizations," Bureau of Counterterrorism, US Department of State, 2013,; Kairat Umarov, "Letter Dated 16 July 2018 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) Concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da'esh), Al-Qaida and Associated Individuals, Groups, Undertakings and Entities Addressed to the President of the Security Council," July 16, 2018,

18. Maggie Michael, Trish Wilson, and Lee Keath, "AP Investigation: US Allies, Al-Qaida Battle Rebels in Yemen," AP News, August 7, 2018,

19. Ryan Browne, "US Warns of Growing African Terror Threat," CNN, April 19, 2018,

20. "IntelBrief: Hotel Attack in Nairobi Demonstrates Regional Threat Posed by Al-Shabab," Soufan Center, January 17, 2019,

21. "IntelBrief.".

22. Newlee, "Jama'at Nasr Al-Islam Wal Musli-min."

23. Newlee.

24. Thiam Ndiaga, "Al Qaeda Affiliate Claims Responsibility for Burkina Faso Attacks," Reuters, March 3, 2018,

25. Danika Newlee, "Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS)," TNT Terrorism Backgrounder, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2018,

26. "Syria: Who's in Control of Idlib?," BBC, September 7, 2018,; "IntelBrief: From Bad to Worse in Syria's Idlib Province," Soufan Center, January 14, 2019,

27. Bruce Hoffman, "Al-Qaeda's Resurrection," Council on Foreign Relations, March 6, 2018,

28. Thomas Joscelyn, "Analysis: Osama bin Laden's Son Praises al Qaeda's Branches in New Message," Long War Journal, August 17, 2015,

29. Ali Soufan, "Hamza Bin Ladin: From Steadfast Son to Al-Qa`ida's Leader in Waiting," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point 10, no. 8 (September 7, 2017): 1–8,

30. Joby Warrick, "Retreating ISIS Army Smuggled a Fortune in Cash and Gold out of Iraq and Syria," Washington Post, December 21, 2018,

31. Elizabeth Kendall, "The Failing Islamic State Within the Failed State of Yemen," Perspectives on Terrorism 13, no. 1 (February 2019): 80–81,

32. Charles Lister, "How Al-Qa'ida Lost Control of Its Syrian Affiliate: The Inside Story," Combating Terrorism Center at West Point 11, no. 2 (February 15, 2018): 1–10.

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