Small Wars Journal

Addressing the Ideological Underpinnings of Salafi Jihadism

Fri, 05/25/2018 - 12:21am

Addressing the Ideological Underpinnings of Salafi Jihadism


Douglas A. Livermore




The United States Government (USG) must develop and implement an ideological campaign integrated within a broad whole-of-government strategy to reform the Salafi philosophical underpinnings of violent jihadist extremism. Currently, USG strategy addresses Salafi jihadists primarily as a terrorist threat and is predominantly reliant on military and law enforcement efforts to kill or capture combatants. As a result, the Salafi jihadist threat has only grown worse as jihadists now control more territory and have experienced an exponential growth in the number of devoted adherents. In actuality, the jihadists are a global insurgency with deep Salafi ideological roots that must be reformed by deliberate ideological countermeasures if the U.S. intends to check the spread of jihadist control, stem the tide of new converts, stop the flow of financial support, and reduce the threat to a manageable level.     




Since the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks against the U.S. on September 11, 2001, the U.S. has waged an aggressive but misguided counterterrorism campaign primarily focused on killing or capturing jihadist fighters through military action and thwarting terrorist attacks against American interests through law enforcement efforts.[i] However, this approach has largely ignored the extremist Salafi religious ideological underpinnings that increasingly create the psychological conditions necessary for jihadists to indoctrinate, recruit, and motivate vulnerable populations to support and/or join their cause.[ii] Sahwa Salafism is an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam from which jihadists draw much of their religious justification, recruits, and financial backing.[iii] The USG continues to focus myopically on treating the symptoms of violent extremist Salafism by killing and capturing jihadist fighters on the battlefield rather than addressing the underlying ideology that fuels the jihadist radicalization cycle. Repeatedly, the USG has boasted about the tens of thousands of Salafi jihadists killed on the battlefield without acknowledging that these numbers disconcertingly dwarf the original estimated size of the global jihadist threat initially present in 2001.[iv] Because of this failure to treat Salafi Jihadism more appropriately as a global insurgent movement, the last 17 years have seen both the broad expansion of Salafi Jihadist territorial control and the swelling of the ranks of active jihadists.[v]


While the USG has not entirely neglected the importance of extremist Salafi ideology to the fueling of the jihadist insurgent movement, the scant resources and inadequate strategic emphasis placed on these efforts clearly demonstrates the generally indifferent attitude held across the USG toward initiatives to moderate extremist ideology. Since 2001, funding for military-focused counterterrorism efforts have exceeded those committed to ideological “countering violent extremism” (CVE) initiatives by several orders of magnitude, all while failing to effectively degrade the threat posed by Salafi jihadists to the USG, its interests, its citizens, and its allies.[vi] At the same time, popular support for Salafist ideology throughout the Sunni Muslim world has grown considerably, thereby exacerbating the underlying conditions ripe for increased jihadist recruitment among the world’s most vulnerable populations.[vii][viii] To be clear, even with this growth, Salafi jihadists account for less than one percent of the world’s total Muslim population, demonstrating the potential to reverse the trend of increasing Salafi influence.[ix] The USG’s international CVE enterprise, which includes counter-messaging and other programs designed to interrupt the radicalization cycle, is the responsibility of the Department of State (DoS). The DoS’s CVE initiatives focus on advancing local, credible voices to counter extremist ideology, addressing societal and economic factors that contribute to community support for violent extremism, preventing donations and other financial support to jihadist groups, and promoting the rehabilitation and reintegration of former jihadists back into their communities.[x] However, President Trump’s recently advanced budget proposals seek to slash the DoS’s finances by nearly 30%, with many of the proposed cuts falling squarely on CVE initiatives.[xi][xii]  


As a loosely aligned global insurgency, Salafi jihadist groups are reliant upon extremist Salafi ideology to create sympathetic populations for the purposes of fundraising and recruitment. The spread of Salafi ideology, devoid of any indications of moderating reform, has been the single greatest contributor to the pronounced worldwide growth in the number of jihadist fighters and their ability to control physical territory.[xiii] The threat posed by violent Salafist ideology is particularly vexing given that countering it will be a generational competition for influence within the Muslim world. However, only by addressing the root ideological underpinnings of the global jihadist insurgency can the USG reduce the pool of impressionable Muslims vulnerable to recruitment as well as restrict the flow of finances that serve as the lifeblood of the movement.[xiv] In this way, the USG can achieve a measure of success and help reduce the threat of Salafi Jihadism to a level that is manageable by local governments and law enforcement agencies.    




The USG should develop and implement the robust, comprehensive ideological reform campaign called for in the recently-approved USG whole-of-government strategy for defeating the Islamic State and other Salafi jihadist groups (known as the “D-ISIS Strategy”).[xv][xvi][xvii] While Salafism is certainly a minority element within the broader Sunni Muslim community, its advocacy of violence serves as a gateway by which jihadists often gain an initial foothold for indoctrination and recruitment as well as fundraising within vulnerable Sunni Muslim populations. This ideological campaign should continue to be the responsibility of the DoS, though to effectively advance this effort the USG must ensure adequate funding and strategic emphasis. DoS should rely primarily on collaboration with and support to like-minded international partners designed to encourage organic religious reform within the global Sunni Muslim community. Unilateral ideological DoS efforts will likely have unintentional negative effects, as any overtly USG-led initiatives will face resistance from the intended Sunni Muslim audiences.[xviii] Instead, DoS should support Sunni Muslim religious and community leaders that encourage reform focused on peaceful coexistence with other religions and respect for human rights. This effort will most certainly require a generational commitment, as the Sunni Muslim reform movement will need to overcome deeply entrenched Salafi ideological influence.[xix]


End Notes

[i] David Rothkopf. “We Are Losing the War on Terror.” Foreign Policy. June 10, 2014. we-are-losing-the-war-on-terror/.

[ii] Jeff Seldin. “Is the U.S. Losing a Key Part of the War on Terror?” September 12, 2017.

[iii] Roel Meijer. Global Salafism: Islam's New Religious Movement. Columbia University Press, 2009.    

[iv] Christopher Woody. ”US Special Operations Command chief claims '60,000 to 70,000' ISIS fighters have been killed.” Business Insider, July 24, 2017,   

[v] Moorthy S. Muthuswamy. “Societal Factors behind the Explosive Growth of Salafi Jihadist Groups.” Political Violence at a Glance. November 19, 2017. 2017/11/29/societal-factors-behind-the-explosive-growth-of-salafi-jihadist-groups/.

[vi] Julia Edwards Ainsley. “White House budget slashes 'countering violent extremism' grants.” May 23, 2017.

[vii] “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society.” Pew Research. April 30, 2013. 11/2013/04/ worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-full-report.pdf.

[viii] Michael Lipka. “Muslims and Islam: Key findings in the U.S. and around the world.” Pew Research Center. August 9, 2017.

[ix] Bruce Livesey. “The Salafist Movement.” Public Broadcasting Service. January 25, 2005.

[x]  “Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.” Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Department of State.

[xi] “President’s Budget FY19.” Office of Management and Budget.

[xii] “What Trump proposed cutting in his 2019 budget,” Washington Post. February 16, 2018. 2018/politics/trump-budget-2019/?utm_term=.121130e29da1.

[xiii] “The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Beyond.” U.S. Institute of Peace Woodrow Wilson Center. December 2016/January 2017. https://www.

[xiv] Ed Husain. “Saudis Must Stop Exporting Extremism.” The New York Times. August 22, 2014.

[xv] “Presidential Memorandum Plan to Defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” The White House. January 28. 2017. presidential-actions/presidential-memorandum-plan-defeat-islamic-state-iraq-syria/.

[xvi] Rowan Scarborough. “McMaster supports Trump’s goal to defeat ISIS. no longer says group ‘can’t be contained’.” The Washington Times. March 5. 2017.  

[xvii] Idrees Ali. “Pentagon delivers draft plan to defeat Islamic State to White House.” Reuters. February 27. 2017. article/us-usa-trump-pentagon/pentagon-delivers-draft-plan-to-defeat-islamic-state-to-white-house-idUSKBN16620M.

[xviii] A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner. “Step Back: Lessons for U.S. Foreign Policy from the Failed War on Terror.” Cato Institute. June 26, 2017.

[xix] Seth Jones. “A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa'ida and Other Salafi Jihadists.” Rand Corporation. research_reports/RR637.html.

Categories: counterterrorism

About the Author(s)

Doug Livermore works as a contracted operational advisor to ASD SO/LIC while continuing his military service as a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army National Guard. Previously, Doug served for a decade on active duty as first an Infantry officer and later a Special Forces officer. He holds a Master of Arts degree in International Security Studies from Georgetown University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Military History from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Course. Doug is the National Director for External Communications for the Special Forces Association and the National Capital Region Ambassador for the Green Beret Foundation. He was also recently selected as a 2020-21 Fellow to West Point’s Modern War Institute.