By Emily Estelle

We now know that the attacker who mowed down cyclists and pedestrians on a bike path in Manhattan, was inspired, if not directly enabled, by ISIS.

The act of terror killed eight people and injured more than a dozen others, reminding us that whatever we are doing to fight ISIS, al Qaeda, and their ilk is not working. The recent spate of terror attacks in the United States and Europe are evidence enough, as is the constant stream of devastating attacks throughout the Muslim world.

Our gut reaction when any attack occurs is to fixate on the attacker’s country of origin and his affiliation with a particular group. U.S. counterterrorism policy is framed the same way, and it is missing the point. The real threat to the West is the Salafi jihadi movement, as my colleague Katherine Zimmerman writes.

ISIS and al Qaeda are manifestations of this fringe movement, whose adherents believe that they are obligated to use violence to establish a society governed by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. The groups themselves are not important. Their names will change. The movement itself, which includes a local support base, is what makes transnational organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda so resilient.

The Salafi jihadi movement grows strong when Sunni Muslim communities have nowhere else to turn. Conditions of state collapse, civil conflict, and sectarian violence force vulnerable communities to rely on, or at least tolerate, groups like ISIS and al Qaeda that provide rudimentary governance and defense. Libya is a good example of such a state. The problem is not a purely military one. The solution is not more bombs.

The United States needs to recalibrate its counterterrorism policy, and Libya is a good place to start. U.S. counterterrorism policy needs to focus on redressing the grievances that have allowed the Salafi jihadi movement to forge these connections and escape the margins of society. The attacker in New York was reportedly radicalized in America.

He does not yet have obvious connections to Salafi jihadi safe havens in Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan, but he is part of the global Salafi jihadi movement. “Inspired” attackers and so-called “lone wolves” respond to the perceived victories of groups like ISIS and al Qaeda around the world. They often receive guidance and encouragement from facilitators who do have ties to the leadership operating in safe havens.

ISIS and al Qaeda developed footholds in Libya in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, which toppled longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi and left a political and security vacuum. In the ensuing civil war, Salafi jihadi groups alternately partnered with, or overpowered, vulnerable populations. Today, the threat to the West is clear.

In May, ISIS in Libya facilitated the Manchester arena bombing. They are continuing to train and deploy militants for more attacks. In fact, Americans have been attacked several times by militants linked to al Qaeda based in Libya, for example, in 2013 during the Ain Amenas hostage crisis in Algeria and in 2012 during the attacks on U.S. government sites in Benghazi.

The current prognosis is grim. ISIS and al Qaeda are developing an increasingly permanent safe haven on Europe’s southern border. Such havens allow militant groups to become more lethal over time, as evidenced by the October ambush that killed four American servicemen in western Niger. Libya is not likely to stabilize any time soon.

The peace process led by the United Nations is stalled on the same issues that have prevented a resolution for the past several years. A would-be strongman is gaining power, but he is unlikely to stabilize Libya, and may ultimately strengthen extremists there. In addition, a regional proxy war is playing out in Libya, prolonging the conflict.

U.S. policy in Libya is failing. The current administration and its predecessor prioritized short-term defense over an actual solution, and we are now on track for an unending and expensive counterterrorism mission in Libya. This is all because the United States has tried to deal with the ISIS threat from Libya without addressing the full scope of the Salafi jihadi problem or the civil conflict to which it is inextricably tied.

The Trump administration has an opportunity to act. The Libya conflict is complicated, but it is not nearly as difficult to resolve as the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, or Iraq. A smart intervention now would be cheaper and more effective than the current policy in the long term and would strike a major blow against the global Salafi jihadi movement. We need to reshape both thought and action to defeat the Salafi jihadi movement. Doing so in Libya would set us on a winning course.


Emily Estelle is an analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, where her research focuses on Libya and the Salafi jihadi movement in Africa. She is the author of the forthcoming study “A Strategy for Success in Libya.”


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