The global Salafi jihad (from the Arabic word Salafiyyah referring to the companions of Muhammad) is part of an Islamic fundamentalist revival movement. Its origins can be traced back about forty years to an extremely influential Egyptian Islamist named Sayyid Qutb. As a member of a political organization called the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, he wrote several books which together have formed a main intellectual backbone of violent Salafist fundamentalism. The Salafi movement preaches a restoration of authentic Islam--Islam as lived in everyday life by Muhammad, his companions and their two succeeding generations. A primary tenet holds that only God has sovereignty over man. Therefore, any government that does not rule according to God's law, or Sharia, is illegitimate. As a result, Salafi jihadists seek to overthrow--violently where necessary--what they consider to be the corrupt secular governments of the Islamic world. The ultimate goal is to re-establish a true Islamic society as well as the lost political power and cultural glory of Islam by establishing a borderless caliphate extending from Andalusia in Spain in the West, across North Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia, all the way to the Philippines in the East. In their view, this violent jihad can also be rightfully extended to governments and societies who are viewed as supporting the corrupt secular governments of Islamic lands or who are viewed as working against the interests of the umma, or worldwide Islamic community.

Many distinct groups together form the vanguard of the global Salafi jihad. However, the number and composition of these groups is constantly in flux--groups merging together, others dying out, and new ones being formed. Some of the better known of these groups are the International Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders, aka Al Qaeda (Afghanistan/Pakistan), the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (Egypt), the Egyptian Islamic Group (Egypt), Islamic Armed Movement (Algeria), Armed Islamic Group (Algeria), Ansar al Islam (northern Iraq), Jemaah Islamiyah (Malaysia and Indonesia), Abu Sayyaf (Philippines) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Philippines). They, along with a number of other formal and informal groups form a small-worlds network of varying density depending on what types of links we wish to observe. Most obvious are the links based on ideology and strategy. Less clear are the links based on operations, logistical support, and/or financial assistance.

Network structure as projected by government and mass media
Mass media and western governments have generally painted a simplistic picture of the structure of the global Salafi jihad, often applying the name "Al Qaeda" to the whole movement. In a star topology Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are depicted as being at the top of a cohesive, hierarchical organization with direct tactical and operational control over a global network of terrorist "sleeper" cells (see Figure 1 below).

Perceived network structure

Figure 1. - The projected network structure of the global Salafi jihad commonly referred to as al Qaeda. The solid lines represent links between the core al Qaeda members (bin Laden, Zawahiri, and their inner circle) and a number of sleeper cells around the world. The links depicted are operational, logistical, and financial in nature.

Network structure supported by the evidence
There is little or no evidence to support the star network topology above. It's important to note that, in contrast to the model that depicts a number of sleeper cells of foreign agents under the direct control of a central command, the groups that perpetrate violence are most often long-standing members of the communities they attack, as evidenced by attacks in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Chechnya, Madrid and London.

Few people outside the violent Salafi movement, if any, know the nature of the ties between, for example, the core al Qaeda leadership (assuming that al Qaeda still exists as a viable and distinct organization) and other Salafist groups around the world. But the best evidence, as collected by intelligence services, scholars, and journalists, tells us that the overall movement is fragmented and disparate and best described as a small-worlds network.

Groups belonging to the Salafi jihad exist around the world in a variety of cities and countries, but the exact nature of the links between the groups, when they exist, is less clear. Moreover, the relationships between these groups are constantly in flux. It appears that an operational hierarchy does exist within the dense clusters of distinct groups, but in a great majority of cases does not appear to exist between the distinct groups themselves. There's evidence that many groups have some kind of communication link but there is little evidence as to the exact nature of those links. There is little or no evidence to support the notion that those links are operational or logistical in nature. Additionally, a significant portion of the Salafist movement is composed of small, localized groups with few or no ties to any formal organization at all--especially those groups existing in Europe and North America. These small, localized, non-affiliated groups are most often tied to a local ideologue, many times an imam at a local mosque. A group member or members may or may not have any direct link (communication, operational, financial, logistical, familial or otherwise) to any formal member of an established Salafi jihad organization (see Figure 2 below).

Actual network structure as supported by the evidence

Figure 2. - A model of the actual network structure of the global Salafi jihad as supported by the evidence. The dotted lines represent various kinds of links between distinct group that can be operational, logistical, and/or financial in nature.

The small-worlds network structure of the global Salafi jihad is not less threatening than the star topology that's been portrayed in mass media and by governments. It's more threatening since small-worlds networks can withstand the loss of a significant number of nodes and still function effectively. To weaken such networks, the nodes in each of the clusters that have a connection to one or more nodes in other clusters must be disabled. Generally, when the clusters are isolated, they are far less potent since Salafi jihadists are most dangerous when several clusters are able to cooperate and bring their collective resources to bear in a single, violent act.

To effectively confront and defeat this kind of violent religious fundamentalism, we must first understand the network structure of the movement and its constituent groups. Once we have that understanding, we can effectively employ tactics to minimize the threat they pose. However, it is just as important that we understand what compels individuals to join and to remain in these groups. Only then can we hope to address the issues that cause these groups to come into existence in the first place. And only then can we hope to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the aim of resolving our conflicts peacefully.


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© 2011 David Yates