The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadist Threat

Current and Future Challenges from the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and Other Groups

Despite nearly two decades of U.S.-led counterterrorism operations, there are nearly four times as many Sunni Islamic militants today as there were on September 11, 2001. Based on a CSIS data set of groups, fighters, and violence, the regions with the largest number of fighters are Syria (between 43,650 and 70,550 fighters), Afghanistan (between 27,000 and 64,060), Paki­stan (between 17,900 and 39,540), Iraq (between 10,000 and 15,000), Nigeria (between 3,450 and 6,900), and Somalia (between 3,095 and 7,240). Attack data indicates that there are still high lev­els of violence in Syria and Iraq from Salafi-jihad­ist groups, along with significant violence in such countries and regions as Yemen, the Sahel, Nigeria, Afghan­istan, and So­malia.

These findings suggest that there is still a large pool of Salafi-jihadist and allied fighters willing and able to use violence to achieve their goals. Every U.S. president since 9/11 has tried to move away from counterterrorism in some capacity, and it is no different today. Balancing national secu­rity priorities in today’s world needs to happen grad­ually. For the United States, the challenge is not that U.S. officials are devoting attention and resources to dealing 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 over ter­rorism too quickly and, as a result, shifting too many resources and too much attention away from terrorist groups when the threat remains significant.

Seth Jones holds the Harold Brown Chair, is director of the Transnational Threats Project, and is a senior  adviser  to  the  International  Security  Program  at  CSIS. Charles  Vallee was  a  research  assistant  and  program  coordinator  with  the  Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. Danika Newlee is a program manager and research associate for the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. Nicholas Harrington is a research assistant and program coordinator with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. Clayton Sharb is an intern with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. Hannah Byrne was an intern with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS.

This report is made possible by general support to CSIS. No direct sponsorship contributed to this report.

Seth G. Jones
Senior Vice President; Harold Brown Chair; and Director, International Security Program

Charles Vallee

Clayton Sharb

Hannah Byrne

Danika Newlee

Nicholas Harrington