Designing Jihad: How Ideological Concepts Influence the Strategy of Salafi-jihadist Groups

Terrorism in its many shapes and forms is a strategy which has been employed by a variety of different groups throughout history. From the early Anarchists to ethno-nationalist movements, left-wing extremists or religious groups, terrorism as a strategy to spread fear and weaken a militarily superior opponent has been used around the globe and in a variety of ideological contexts. However, while terrorists tend to employ similar methods, each group includes elements specific to their ideological, political and social beliefs and goals. It is of utmost importance to understand the ideological underpinnings of these specific elements in order to take effective counter-actions. In counter-terrorism, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach and it is not sufficient to group all extremist or terrorist action under one umbrella when considering counter-measures.

The current discourse and security efforts are mainly focused on the actions of Salafi-jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda (AQ) and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Salafism is a school of thought within Islam, which perceives only the first three generations of Muslims after the death of prophet Mohammed as true and perfect Muslims. It was ‘the golden age’ of Islam and today Muslims are far removed from this ideal state. Therefore, Salafism seeks to return to this perfect situation. However, there is much intra-Salafi competition on how to realize this return. It is by no means a homogenous, uniform movement. Salafism is not per se a violent interpretation of the Islamic faith. In fact, in the Middle East we see so-called “quietists”, who are Salafists but reject all political violence and seek to bring political leaders to the right path by advising them[i]. Salafi-jihadists, on the contrary, adhere to a violent interpretation of Salafism and while they should be considered as one of many shades of Salafism, they are currently the most dangerous. Even within Salafi-jihadism, there are considerable differences and schisms between different groups. This has become evident in the conflict between Al-Qaeda and ISIS revolving around the, from AQs point of view, premature declaration of the caliphate and excessive use of force, especially against civilian tribe members.[ii] While recognizing these differences, the following analysis will speak of Salafi-jihadists to refer exclusively to the most fundamentalist form of Salafism, which places the focus mostly on ISIS ideology as the group has enacted the least concern for worldly considerations.

There are specific elements within Salafi-jihadism, which influence the strategic considerations of the groups adhering to them. To be sure, the concepts discussed within this article appear in many writings and are not exclusively linked to Salafi-jihadism, but many are interpreted in a unique way to justify the violent actions and build an ideology not simply a school of thought within Islam.

Fighting a cosmic war

Because only the first three generations are believed to have lived as true Muslims, everything considered as progress or modern is rejected. Jahaliyyah, the term used for the time of ignorance before the introduction of Islam through Mohammed, is reinvigorated by Salafi-jihadists. Muslims, so their belief, have returned to the age of darkness and state of total ignorance about god’s truth. The dichotomy is clear for Salafi-jihadists: Their way is the total truth, God’s way and the only way to bring the light back into the Muslim community, whereas everything else is perceived as dark, evil and a symptom of absolute falsehood. No grey area exists in between the two poles of light and darkness. Strategically, this means that there is no chance to change the system peacefully. The only way to eradicate this state of darkness is a complete reset of Islam to the way the first three generations of Muslims lived and behaved. Salafi-jihadists aim for nothing less than a complete make-over, which is only possible by destroying everything that is associated with the age of darkness. This is one of the reasons ISIS has destroyed objects of Muslim heritage and culture.

Partially at fault for this renewed state of darkness are the preachers and authority figures, who allowed this to happen. This means that the ulama, the traditional clerical establishment, is not only rejected but despised by Salafi-jihadist. They are part of the reason that Muslims fail to behave like real Muslims and live in ignorance. The strategic implications are twofold. Firstly and rather intuitively, the despise of the establishment means that members of the ulama are legitimate and favorable targets for attacks. In 2005 more than one hundred of the world’s leading clerics came together in Amman, Jordan, to issue a declaration rejecting parts of Salafist-jihadist ideology, a retaliation from Al-Qaeda in Iraq soon followed.[iii] Secondly and maybe more importantly, this total rejection means that many Salafi-jihadists are practicing a self-taught Islam. Osama bin Laden, for example, never attended a religious school and neither did any of the Madrid attackers. Neither the Hamburg cell connected to the 9/11 attacks nor the 7/7 bombers were affiliated to or radicalized within mosques[iv]. Although some leaders such as ISIS ‘caliph’ Al-Baghdadi have extensive religious training, most recruits, especially so-called ‘homegrown’ extremists, generally possess very little knowledge of the traditional teachings and writings, which makes them susceptible to and ideological rather than religious interpretation of Islam brought forward by Salafi-jihadists. The rejection of the ulama broadens the pool of recruits for the terrorist groups to those without any knowledge of Islam and makes radicalization of those who did not receive religious education the norm rather than the exception. To be sure, in higher levels of leadership, there were members with a background in religious education. However, generally speaking ISIS the opposite of elitist in terms of religious knowledge and finds easy recruitment grounds in milieus where studying the scripture is not part of education.

Nevertheless, the ideological foundation of Salafi-jihadism is religious in nature and global jihad can be conceptualized as a form of ‘cosmic war’ with a clear spiritual dimension. Tawhid does not only describe the unity of God, but also the fact that God is everything and everything is God. This means that anything secular, whether politically or socially, is rejected. For Salafi-jihadists, not ruling according to their interpretation of sharia law is considered disbelief and every secular element in society needs to be eradicated. A necessary condition to realize the unity of God is hakimiyya, God’s sovereignty in the political system. The state is the worldly implementation of God’s sovereignty over earth and therefore no secular element can be allowed as it would compromise God himself. Salafi-jihadists, in their own eyes, are fighting a cosmic war for nothing less than God’s sovereignty on earth. The strategic implications are twofold. Firstly, there cannot be a negotiation or compromise within the political system. Everything short of an absolute application of religious law would mean negotiating God’s truth itself. Negotiation or inclusion into the political system is close to impossible with Salafi-jihadists, because to them there is nothing to negotiate about and no compromise would satisfy them. Everything is political and everything is religious, the dichotomy Westerners perceive does not exist for Salafi-jihadists. This is the reason political concessions will never be enough to appease these groups in the long-term.

Secondly, it is of strategic importance to aim for an Islamic state (not necessarily a larger ‘caliphate’). Many jihadist movements, even without global aspirations and without ties to the large Salafi-jihadist players such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS, aim to overturn their local government and establish a theocracy based on hakimiyya. Here politics and religious beliefs become inextricably linked and justify classifying jihadist violence as political violence. A utopian vision of a perfect society submissive to the one and only God, is created and draws idealist recruits towards Salafi-jihadist groups just as much as those with grievances against local or state governments. Local authority figures and national governments, albeit being Muslim, become legitimate targets, because they do not adhere to and even block the implementation of the Salafist-jihadist standards of God’s sovereignty in the political system.

However, Al-Qaeda and ISIS went a step further than overturning local governments, their wish is to establish (or rather to re-establish) the khalifa, the caliphate. While the establishment of a caliphate is a long-term strategic goal for Al-Qaeda, ISIS leaders established one directly, which is an important source of disagreement between the groups. In the long-term, however, both groups seek the establishment of a territory ruled by God’s representatives on earth according to his will. The caliphate is not only a utopian vision, it is a tangible goal and necessary strategic consequence of the ideological components of Salafi-jihadism. This means that although ISIS has currently been physically defeated, Salafi-jihadist groups will continue to strive for territorial gains in fragile and failed states. Salafi-jihadism is an idea and movement rather than an ideology specifically tied to as specific group, but as long as hakimiyya exists as an ideological pillar, a physical dimension will always have to be part of strategic considerations of these groups, even if only in the very long-term considerations.

Whom to fight? And how?

For Salafi-jihadists the concept al-wala wa-l-bara, to love and hate for Allah, is the foundation of their world view. It is the idea of an ultimate struggle between truth and falsehood, a truly Manichean worldview. In traditional scripture this concept was used to remind Muslims to refrain from alliances with non-Muslims as they could not be trusted. Today Salafi-jihadists turned this caution into an obligation to confront everything and everyone they consider to be non-Muslim. The enemy, or rather everyone not adhering to Salafi-jihadist practices, is not only un-Islamic, he or she is the opposite of God’s truth. Strategically, there are two large benefits besides invigorating the dichotomy of us versus them with a religious dimension. Firstly, it is a tool of in-group control. By not only warning against friendly interaction or contact with non-Muslims but making it an act of apostasy, those adhering to Salafi-jihadism become isolated towards the outside and more close-knit towards the inside of the group. It makes it very difficult to reach those on the inside of the groups and therefore less likely that their worldview is challenged. Secondly, it is an effort to unite all Muslims. According to the Salafi-jihadist worldview, everyone who considers himself/herself a true Muslim must demonstrate loyalty to their group even if they were to disagree with the Salafi-jihadist behavior. Simply because God demands to stand with other Muslims against their enemy.

But who is the enemy? The answer is twofold. A rather clear group of enemies is everyone the Salafi-jihadists consider kafir, an unbeliever. Everyone, who is not a Muslim, is a legitimate target, regardless of whether one may be considered a civilian or a combatant. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, in a cosmic war, nobody is a civilian. We are choosing sides, or we are made to choose sides by our religious affiliation, therefore, in a cosmic dimension, the concept of civilians is obsolete. It needs to be noted, however, that groups such as ISIS welcome everyone regardless of their previous lives (including religious affiliation) if the person is willing to become a Muslim as Salafi-jihadist understand the term. Paradoxically, kafir is a term to reinforce a stark dichotomy, but at the same time, it is fluid and changeable. The contrast of enforcing the notion of us versus them and at the same time transcending this notion does not seem to be a strategic problem for Salafi-jihadists but exists simultaneously in their narrative. Secondly, Salafi-jihadists consider the electorate of democracies legitimate targets, because they vote for their governments and are therefore responsible for the actions of the governments. For instance, because the Bush administration allowed torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, every single American is a legitimate target. Modern liberal democracy is turned into collective liability by Salafi-jihadists and is part of the justification to perpetrate attacks with women and children as victims.

The second group of enemies are Muslims, who are not ‘true Muslims’ (and therefore apostates) according to the judgment of Salafi-jihadists. Takfir, a concept best translated as excommunication, does not exist in traditional scripture, because there is no single authority with the power to declare someone a non-Muslim. Salafi-jihadists group anyone under this term, who is not living according to Salafi-jihadist beliefs, especially Shia Muslims. Takfir is in essence a license for intra-Muslim violence and a further tool to form a distinct and ‘elitist’ group identity among Salafi-jihadists. Only they are the true believers and have God’s mandate to fight anyone they consider an unbeliever or kafir. Only with reference to this concept can we understand the strategic as well as ideological necessity to perpetrate most attacks in the MENA region despite the fact that the vast majority of victims are Muslims. Inter-sectarian violence has existed in Islam’s history for a long time, but Salafi-jihadists deny the existence of different interpretations of the Qur’an and therefore different ideological groups. Everyone who does not live according to Salafi-jihadists standards is a legitimate target, whether they are Muslims or not.

We should, however, not assume that Salafi-jihadists are simply motivated by hate. While hate, anger, rage, frustration etc are powerful emotions that can play a part in radicalization processes, research has shown that love and compassion for the in-group is an equally important factor. The ummah, the global community of Muslims is perceived as one large entity. This is the reason conflicts far away from the lifeworld of certain recruits, taking place thousands of kilometers away, can become pull factors towards Salafi-jihadist groups. If one part of the community is under attack, each individual has the obligation to act, so the narrative. In the cosmic war framework, each Muslim becoming a victim anywhere is evidence of the evil nature of the opponent. Love and concern for fellow brothers and sisters is just as important in motivating violence and terrorist action than the despise for the unbelievers.

The term for the actual fighting on behalf of the ummah is probably the most well-known term of Salafi-jihadist ideology: Jihad. While the Qur’an knows ‘greater jihad’ as the struggle against one’s own doubts, ‘lesser jihad’ refers to physical struggle against an opponent. Here the distinction is made between defensive jihad, which is the fight against an immediate threat to protect one’s land and family and can be fought without being officially sanctioned by an authority, and offensive jihad, which includes an expansion of territory and can only be fought when a ruler calls to arms. Since official Islamic authorities and governments are rejected by Salafi-jihadists as un-Islamic, offensive jihad is not an option. Congruent with the ideological component of self-taught Islam, Salafi-jihadists encourage a self-starter jihad. No official authority is needed, everyone can fight his or her own jihad. This is considered a defensive jihad, because Salafi-jihadists perceive the ummah to be directly threatened and therefore perceive themselves to be acting in self-defense, which is explicitly allowed in the Qur’an. However, in contrast to traditional scripture, Salafi-jihadists have a global perception of jihad. In a cosmic war, boundaries of territory, time or nationality are blurred or rather non-existent. It is a struggle between truth and falsehood to be fought on earth as a whole instead of specific territories. Jihad becomes the highest form of worship in Salafi-jihadist thought and takes precedent even over the five pillars of Islam.

Generally, a distinction is made between jihad against the near enemy and jihad against the far enemy. The near enemy are mostly governments within the MENA region, which the Salafi-jihadists consider to be un-Islamic and not properly governed by sharia law. Many jihadist groups first and foremost have local aspirations of toppling national leaders and do not engage in global jihad. One needs to be careful in distinguishing these groups from those with global aspirations such as ISIS as their strategic outlook differs. Only those groups, which believe in attacking the far enemy engage in a truly global struggle and take jihad directly to the West. Strategically, the whole world is a territory to be defended by Salafi-jihadists fighting the far enemy. To them, the attack is not in France, Germany or the UK, but is closely connected to all other parts of their political aspirations. In a cosmic war, no territorial boundaries exist, only those of truth and falsehood. In addition, major attacks such as 9/11 serve the strategic purpose of awakening the ‘Islamic Nation’ or global ummah. By imposing confrontation upon Western countries and forcing violence as a reaction, the narrative of an absolute us versus them dichotomy is reinforced by Salafi-jihadists. In a similar manner, national counter-terrorism strategies, which Muslims perceive as targeted at them and their community exclusively, are a wanted side-effect of jihad. Everything that reinforces the notion of a war against Islam is welcomed by jihadists.

Albeit not the only mode of attack used by Salafi-jihadists, suicide attacks have gained the most attention. Suicide attacks have not been a beacon of religious terrorism. In fact, as Pape showed, about 1/3 of suicide attacks perpetrated between 1980 and 2003 can be attributed to non-religious groups, especially the Tamil Tigers.[v] However, the last twenty years have shifted the balance and now suicide attacks are almost exclusively attributed to jihadists. The Qur’an actually forbids suicide and shahid, the martyr, is traditionally believed to be someone killed in battle not someone willingly taking his/her own life. However, in Salafi-jihadist thought, jihad can include suicide tactics and in fact treats the perpetration of suicide attacks as one of the highest honors. The use of suicide attacks has important strategic reasons. It is an effective way of circumventing security measures for target hardening and the easiest mode of attack for very soft targets such as large crowds. It is also congruent with self-taught Islam. There is no need to receive formal training and the attacks can be carried out by anyone anywhere in the world to fulfill the notion of global jihad. Salafi-jihadist groups trade control over the choice of targets and modes of attack for the strategic advantage of recruiting self-starters and so-called homegrown terrorists. Strategically, suicide terrorism is a guarantee for attention, coverage and an emotional reaction on the side of the opponent and a low-cost, effective way of waging a global war for the perpetrators.

How can we counter Salafi-jihadist strategy?

Reza Aslan presents a very clear opinion on how to counter a Manichean worldview his 2009 book How to win a cosmic war: By refusing to fight a cosmic war. This might seem simple but is indeed a very difficult endeavor. Shortly after 9/11 George W. Bush gave a speech in which he referred to the following war on terror as a “crusade”. While the rhetoric of Western leaders and societies has rarely been this explicit in reinforcing the narrative of a religious war and fight between good and evil, more subtle ways of suggesting connections between Islam and terrorism generally are dangerous as well. Fueling the Manichean outlook on the world, whether by accident or not, has a backlash not only ideologically but strategically. In addition, new counter-terrorism laws and controversies about the banning of veils or whether to serve Muslim students halal food in school canteens have played into the belief that this is a war on Islam, not a war on terrorism. We need to evaluate whether or not we are, explicitly or implicitly, playing into the Manichean worldview propagated by Salafi-jihadists. Terrorists and extremists read our newspapers, watch our TV programs and listen to the speeches of our politicians. We should seek to avoid giving the ideologues anything to nurture their narrative of us versus them. This must include measures against growing polarization in Western societies and the rise of right-wing or anti-Muslim parties and movements. It is extremely difficult not to become trapped in the stark dichotomy of us versus them facilitated by Salafi-jihadists, but by being aware of the implications and evaluating our behavior, we can minimize our contribution to the cosmic war tale.

We need to understand that both Salafi-jihadism and jihadism itself is not only a terrorist ideology. It’s different manifestations are social movements containing much more than a call for violence and the ideological foundations underpinning these movements are believed by many more than followers of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Because it is a social movement, albeit a violent one, we need to consider more than the security aspect of the problem and understand the psychological, social and political circumstances under which it arose. As members of a social movement, Salafi-jihadists are not simply motivated by hate, but by in-group love. As social-psychologist Scott Atran writes “people don’t kill and die for a cause, they kill and die for each other”[vi]. We see terrorists as individuals with a lot of hate and rage. While this may be part of it, the stronger motivational factor is love and the wish to change the world to protect the ummah. If we fail to understand the social dimension of this global movement, we will be unable to find effective counter-strategies.

Counter-intuitively more religious education and not less may be part of the solution. Salafi-jihadists twist and turn traditional Islamic concepts and act according to their very own interpretation of them. A robust religious knowledge may safeguard individuals from seeing the religious justifications employed by these groups as true and genuine. An effort needs to be made to empower non-violent imams in mosques in the West and counter-measures against ‘backyard preaching’ is necessary to counter the recruitment of religiously uneducated young males. Generally, the contradictions in Salafi-jihadist group behavior and their non-Islamic actions need to be exposed. For instance, the concept of Takfir has no basis in Islamic scripture but is an integral part of the ideological justifications for intra-Muslim violence. Exposing these contradictions may help reduce the appeal of Salafi-jihadism. In an ICSR report on ISIS defectors, a common theme was the disappointment that the group was fighting fellow Sunni Muslims and the brutality against villagers believed to be Sunnis as well.[vii] This may mean that defectors need a larger stage to present their experiences than was previously allowed. Instead of simply putting returnees on trial, carefully selected returnees should be able to voice their criticisms of the groups actions to deter further recruitment. Efforts to deradicalized identified Salafi-jihadists can and should include a religious dimension. Here, again, we are in need of highly educated imams preaching a non-violent interpretation of the Qur’an. Empowering non-violent Islam may be the most effective counter-measure to the cosmic war narrative than any other Western-constructed counter-narrative praising democracy and freedom.


Strategic implications overview

Ideological componentMeaningStrategic implication(s)
JahaliyyahCurrent time of ignorance, no real Islam practiced-Aim for total reset of society
(Rejection of) UlamaRejection of traditional clerical establishment-Islamic authority figures as legitimate targets

-Self-taught Islam and the recruitment of those without formal religious education

Tawhid and HakimiyyaUnity of God and God’s sovereignty in the political system-Establishment of a physical caliphate

-Total rejection of negotiations or participation in secular politics

-National and local governments as legitimate targets

-Utopian vision of perfect society (recruitment incentive)

Al-wala wa-l-baraLoyalty and Disavowal (To love and hate for Allah)-Manichean worldview of us versus them

-tool of in-group control (everyone who has friendly interactions with unbelievers is disobeying God)

-active confrontation instead of refraining from alliances

-failure to demonstrate loyalty to Salafi-jihadists is automatic apostasy

TakfirExcommunication-Justification for targeting other Muslims, especially Shia (those considered takfir are seen as even worse than unbelievers)

-Creates ideological in-group for Salafi-jihadists (if you are not with us, you are against us)

KafirUnbeliever-Unbelievers as legitimate targets

-No distinction between civilian and combatant in a cosmic war

UmmahGlobal community of Muslims-Ummah under threat/War against Islam = justification for defensive global jihad

-De-localization of conflicts (i.e. the fate of the Palestinians is an existential crisis for all Muslims)

-In-group love as motivational incentive for violence

Jihad (near enemy)Fight-Justification to fight/remove local governments and authorities in the MENA region

-Necessary step to create state in accordance with hakimiyya

-Local aspirations

Jihad (far enemy)Fight-Justification to fight Western governments (even outside of the MENA region)

-Necessary step, because it drives Western countries out of MENA

-Aim to awaken ummah

-Global aspirations

Shahid/IstishhadiMartyr/Martyrdom; today especially suicide attackers-History has shown this to be a very effective tactic (access to soft targets, shocking, high coverage)

-Recruitment incentive (special treatment of Shahid families, promised benefits in paradise)

-Fits cosmic war narrative (afterlife more important than worldly considerations)

-Link to self-taught Islam (No need to be trained, self-starter attacks possible and encouraged)



[i] Maher, S. (2016). Salafi-jihadism: The History of an Idea. Oxford University Press

[ii] McCants, W. (2015). The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. St. Martin’s Press: New York

[iii] Aslan, R. (2010). How to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting Radical Religions. Arrow Publications, pp. 107-108

[iv] Aslan, R. (2010). How to Win a Cosmic War: Confronting Radical Religions. Arrow Publications

[v] Pape, R. (2006). Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Random House

[vi] Atran, S. (2010). Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to Be Human. Penguin Publising

[vii] Neumann, P. (2015). Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narratives of Islamic State Defectors. ICSR Report. Retrieved from:

Image: Jwslubbock [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.

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