By Emily Estelle
Great-power competition and the terrorist threat intersect and interact with one another in Africa and the Middle East.
Current Trends Lead to More Conflict
The trajectory is bleak if current trends hold and the US continues to withdraw from global leadership. Civil wars in which external forces fight each other by proxy will continue to emerge and expand.
These conflicts will spiral more widely, drawing in more players and merging more zones of instability as the US withdraws further and international coordination declines.
The current trajectory of several conflict zones, paired with the state of the Salafi-jihadi movement, creates opportunities for major expansions of mutually reinforcing geopolitical disasters and violent extremist attacks in the coming years.
Global and regional power competition will likely yield greater state-on-state conflict in the next five to 10 years. One likely theater is the increasingly contested Mediterranean Sea. This crisis may surprise Washington when it arrives, but it should not; the pieces of a Mediterranean war are already falling into place.
The Syrian and Libyan wars will continue to expand and merge, heightening all of their overlaying regional and international conflicts and drawing in more firepower. Both the Syrian and Libyan conflicts are already endangering NATO due to Turkey’s standoffs with Russia and its tensions with other NATO members in the eastern Mediterranean.
New conflicts will also emerge, creating opportunities for both proxy interventions and the Salafi-jihadi movement alike. Inter-state conflicts are possible. Another spike in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, like in fall 2019, could spill into a larger conflict; hostilities could spike between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed states, over the disputed Kashmir region.
India and China clashed over a disputed border in June 2020 and may be preparing for more operations. Which wars will break out remains unclear, but they will break out as the US-led world order declines and states seek to secure their interests in an uncertain environment.
State collapses may also open new battlegrounds for external actors to enter. Several linchpin African states that contain or neighbor Salafi-jihadi insurgencies are fundamentally unstable. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al Sisi’s regime faced a notable burst of dissent in 2019 and may struggle to maintain its chokehold on the country’s burgeoning population.
Ethiopia, another African powerhouse, faces instability, political uncertainty, and potential violence. An unresolved dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over a Nile dam could also destabilize northeastern Africa.
Algeria and Sudan remain fragile after mass popular movements ousted top leadership and, in Sudan’s case, enabled a military coup. But the potential for counterrevolution remains high, as does renewed and more violent unrest should the 2019 revolutions reverse or fail.
In the Middle East, Lebanon and Iraq face persistent anti-regime protests amid abysmal misgovernance. The leadership vacuum left by the US will limit the international community’s ability to address or prevent these crises.
The COVID-19 pandemic introduces significant uncertainty and raises the likelihood of previously extremely unlikely but game-changing scenarios. Analysts have argued that the pandemic could be either a catalyst to China’s global rise or its Chernobyl. The pandemic also compounds already serious challenges to the stability of the Iranian regime, though the most likely scenario is not regime collapse but the empowering of hard-liners.
There are alternatives to the above forecast. Potential counter- indicators to spreading conflict and its exploitation include instances of successful local conflict prevention and resolution, non-coerced reductions of foreign support for militias in conflict zones, and instances of effective resistance to Salafi-jihadi expansion in unstable and poor-governance environments.
These alternatives are sufficiently unlikely, and the aforementioned conflict and state collapse scenarios are sufficiently likely, that the most practical course requires preparation and a proactive approach. A policy based on sealing off conflicts from external meddling also prevents several of the worst escalation paths.
The US approach to great-power competition thus far risks encouraging or reinforcing proxy wars rather than deterring them. Initial US actions indicate a narrow view of asset and budget reprioritization, even though US strategy documents take a multifaceted view of great-power competition.
A notable case is the Department of Defense’s weighing of a drawdown in Africa to shift assets against China and Russia, even though the relatively low-cost American military footprint delivers greater relative value in Africa.
Removing US forces from counterterrorism missions—particularly those in which a light footprint is having a significant impact—disrupts not only the mission but also the counterterrorism partnership, itself a valuable tool in great-power competition.
Great-power competition is also reinforcing a problematic US unwillingness to shape the behavior of autocratic partner states, particularly those whose regional activities are fueling conflicts and state collapse, out of fear of losing these partners to others’ orbits.
The US risks repeating a Cold War error of backing autocratic partners that are themselves counterproductive out of a fear that they will turn to China or Russia instead. This fear is overstated and does not account for the scale of US economic, political, and security leverage over these partners, notably the Gulf states.
This short-term calculation also does long-term strategic damage to both the global order and the fight against the Salafi-jihadi movement.
Under any of the above circumstances, disorder will increase on a level that will deliver unprecedented resources and opportunity to the Salafi-jihadi movement. The Salafi-jihadi movement’s growth requires exogenous events to imperil Sunni populations and turn them against their states.
The Arab Spring delivered one such shock wave. Global and regional competition may deliver the next. And this time, it will likely be worse because foreign involvement has made local conflicts more lethal and interconnected and has compounded the popular grievances that already existed in 2011.
What Comes Next for the Salafi-Jihadi Movement
Salafi-jihadi groups are well aware of global power and political dynamics and will seek to exploit them. They will likely take advantage of global focus being elsewhere to consolidate and expand their control of populations. Some Salafi-jihadi groups, particularly in the al Qaeda network, have learned to operate under the West’s policy radar by empowering local affiliates and prioritizing winning the local governance competition.
This adaptation reflects Western pressure but, more importantly, reflects lessons learned by Salafi-jihadi leaders in pursuit of the group’s ultimate goal of transforming governance in the Muslim world.
In a world where the West has either retreated, divided, or focused on a narrow definition of great-power competition, swathes of territory may be effectively ceded to the Salafi-jihadi movement. Salafi-jihadi groups are already quietly building statelets in eastern and western Africa, and Islamic State cells are beginning to reestablish social control in southeastern Syria.
Salafi-jihadi groups may already be reading the trajectory of US posture and seeking to hasten the US withdrawal from the Muslim world. A renewed emphasis by African al Qaeda affiliates on attacking US personnel in early 2020 signals a concerted effort to raise the costs of the US force presence at a time when the US is already extremely sensitive to overseas casualties and the Department of Defense is looking to move resources elsewhere.
Washington also cannot assume that Salafi-jihadi activity in the West will not surge. Some Salafi-jihadi groups have eschewed conducting major external attacks as a matter of strategy, but there is no ideological firebreak to prevent them from attacking as soon as they assess the moment is right.
Take al Qaeda, which has been emphasizing the local fight but now appears to be placing a renewed emphasis on attacking the West. Upcoming leadership changes and generational shifts in the Salafi-jihadi movement also make it difficult to assess how a new generation will act. 145 Disruptions to global counterterrorism infrastructure may open gaps that Salafi-jihadi groups, when under less pressure, find
Such a surge of attacks would have political effects in the West. Attacks in Europe are intended to cause polarization and heighten the alienation of European Muslims to the benefit of the Salafi-jihadi movement.
Localized Salafi-jihadi groups use this same strategy of inciting backlash against the populations that they in turn claim to defend. The Salafi-jihadi presence can also enflame conflicts and cause or heighten displacement, feeding into refugee flows at a level that the Western political system has not been able to absorb.
An uptick in Salafi-jihadi attacks would likely worsen dysfunction in the West to the benefit of revisionist adversaries.
The Salafi-jihadi movement’s greatest danger to the West is not physical destruction; no reasonable analyst forecasts the movement approaching its apocalyptic goal.
However, the Salafi-jihadi movement is an existential threat because it can cause “the peoples of the West to turn against one another, to fear and suspect their neighbors, to constrain their freedoms, and to disrupt their ordinary lives.”
Put differently, the Salafi-jihadi movement cannot destroy the United States, but it can help Americans destroy themselves. This danger is much greater when the world order is already declining, because of both the West’s own divisions and identity crisis and the efforts of revisionist powers. Salafi-jihadi attacks can reinforce Western countries’ current impulse to turn inward, undermining the global leadership, openness, and alliance-building that are required to sustain and strengthen the liberal international order.
The US Needs a New Policy Framework
America cannot engage with the world on only the terms it prefers. At minimum, the US government should develop a strategy for preventing and mitigating the transformation of conflict zones into expanding proxy conflicts.
Achieving this objective will require not only a new policy framework but also an analytical framework to identify and prioritize the developments that are most likely to spark inter-state conflict and catalyze extremist movements.
The US objective should be to seal off local conflicts from becoming larger conflagrations between external powers. The US has a greater chance of mobilizing allies and the international community to address crises if external actors that are more interested in fighting each other than solving the crisis are excluded.
In some places—especially Syria and Libya—many players are already deeply emb ability to prolong and deepen the conflict through both military action and information operations.
This engagement should coincide with efforts to slow down the erosion and collapse of local structures that are trying to keep society functioning and resisting Salafi-jihadi infiltration.
These efforts must be paired. Washington has tried to strengthen local governance without taking serious steps to end the war responsible for degrading it.
The US Agency for International Development has had some success shoring up municipal governance in Libya, for example, mitigating some of the effects of the long war and helping inoculate communities against Salafi-jihadi groups. But this work is only a delaying tactic when the war, stoked and fueled by foreign money and arms, has continued to tear those structures apart.
Such a strategy would require a fundamental reframing of US policy that subordinates short-term objectives to long-term goals and seeks to prevent crises rather than react to them. Earlier lower-cost foreign assistance interventions—as have already been proposed in a strategy to defeat the Salafi-jihadi movement —should preempt the need for later large-scale military interventions like the multiyear campaign to destroy the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate.
First, Washington must choose its partners carefully and be willing to use its leverage to shape the behavior of states that worsen conflicts and fuel the Salafi-jihadi movement.
This requirement complicates the US government preference for partnering with host countries to fight insurgencies because the host countries’ actions and interests may fuel the conditions conducive to insurgency.
The US and its allies likely need to apply more pressure and offer more support to counterterrorism partners whose security forces are contributing to radicalization.
The partnership challenge extends to the regional and international levels. Washington should be more aggressive in shaping the behavior of partners that worsen and prolong conflicts. A clearer and more consistent American commitment to global stability should also limit partner states’ motivation to participate in regional conflicts in a bid to secure themselves.
Second, the US needs a way to analyze the most likely and most dangerous threats and prioritize responses. The Salafi-jihadi movement succeeds in a fairly narrow set of conditions—most importantly when local conflict or other exogenous effects have weakened communities—and defeating the movement does not require a global campaign to solve poverty and state fragility.
Katherine Zimmerman proposes developing baseline assessments and indicators to measure communities’ resilience or vulnerability to the Salafi-jihadi movement and the movement’s relative strength. This model should be synthesized with another: assessments and forecasts of conflict trajectories and their effects.
The synthesis of these two analytic models will enable policymakers to rank and prioritize overlapping threats to US national security interests to inform early action: strategic-level nexus targeting.
Such a forecasting exercise would almost certainly rank Syria and Libya as urgent and worsening threats, and the US should take immediate action to prevent the further fraying of the world order and stem the expansion of the Salafi-jihadi movement through these conflicts.
These recommendations, and the overarching strategy, advance US objectives in the great-power competition with Russia and China. The conditions that could invalidate this recommended strategy include a significant conventional military escalation with either state.
In Syria, the US should broaden its diplomatic effort to constrain Assad and his backers. The war is not won, and the Syrian people need not be consigned to choose governance by either Assad or Salafi-jihadi groups.
The US can lead an effort to stop the worst of the current fighting and create time and space and support the development of an alternative source of governance, recognizing that the situation has deteriorated badly enough that there is no current path to force Assad to end the violence quickly. Sustaining the effective, light-footprint US military presence in eastern Syria is key to this effort, but not sufficient.
In Libya, the US should fill the leadership vacuum and rally international support for the enforcement of the UN arms embargo. The US administration must therefore clarify its policy and define and enforce penalties for states—including partners—that violate the embargo to fuel the Libyan war, including using existing sanctioning authorities.
American and European policymakers should also overcome their unwillingness to consider a limited international security mission in Libya. Historical precedent indicates that the civil war is unlikely to end without external security assistance.
Today’s world was growing chaotic and frightening before a pandemic swept the globe. Shouldering the mantle of global leadership is more daunting now than ever, and Americans are frustrated with the failings of the post-9/11 wars that have left them with a sense of impotence and inevitable failure abroad.
But the lessons Americans should take away are not that there is nothing to be done and that they should retreat behind their moat. America’s leaders and the public must recognize that the liberal democratic world order is more fragile than they hoped and that they have both a requirement and a responsibility to uphold it.
The best way for the United States to face this reality is to change the course of disasters while they are still over the horizon.
Emily Estelle is the research manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. She specializes in the Libya conflict and the Sahel. Ms. Estelle has appeared on MSNBC and published for numerous news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, National Interest, The Hill, and FoxNews.com.