Defeating ISIS and Al-Qaeda on the Ideological Battlefield: A Jamestown Foundation Workshop


In June, the Jamestown Foundation hosted a workshop of four experts led by Senior Fellow Michael W.S. Ryan to provide a starting point for an informed discussion concerning how the United States and its partners could defeat the ISIS group’s and al-Qaeda’s ideology. Hassan Hassan began the workshop by describing the origins and hybrid development of jihadist ideology, often referred to as Jihadi Salafism. Aaron Zelin then discussed the competition (at the leadership level) between ISIS and al-Qaeda in North Africa and the adaptation of ISIS ideology to the regional context. Next, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross described the ISIS group’s virtual plotter model and the nexus between technological developments and virtual jihadist networks’ ability to mount significant terrorist attacks. Finally, Michael W. S. Ryan proposed an approach to defeating jihadist ideology through its recruitment efforts by creating a new American effort at the federal level inside the U.S., coupled to a parallel international collaboration.

A consensus formed around the likely prospect of the ISIS phenomenon’s continuing serious threat to the United States and its partners after the loss of the ISIS caliphate’s main territory in the Levant. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda is quietly building its organization into an ever-greater global threat. Workshop participants also agreed that not enough attention is being paid to jihadist ideology despite its importance to the resilience of the movement. Although Jihadi Salafism is a modern hybrid ideology that provides the solid base for jihadist operations and organization, this ideology varies in practice and has taken on aspects of the cultures and nationalities of its various practitioners. For example, the principles of Jihadi Salafism are applied differently in North Africa than in Syria or Iraq. This flexibility on occasion allows al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters to cooperate locally regardless of the competition by its leaders on theworld stage. Despite the continuing loss of safe havens, the Jihadist threat in the future will likely be enhanced by the adoption of new technologies and the growth of the Internet over time, which will allow new recruits to carry out attacks plotted, if not planned in detail, in the new safe haven of the dark spaces of the Internet. Finally, the workshop discussed one possible model to counter these ideological trends for the United States. As conceived, this model could involve a new independent entity at the federal level to counter any violent ideologies aiming to recruit and inspire individuals, small cells, or networks of like-minded individuals to attack the United States and its allies.

Hassan Hassan: “The Sectarianism of the Islamic State: Ideological Roots and Political Context”

A Hybrid Ideology

The Islamic State presents itself as the representative of authentic Islam as practiced by the early generations of Muslims—Salafism—and it draws on an especially strict brand of Salafism in particular, Wahhabism.

It is overly simplistic, however, to blame only one ideology for the Islamic State’s extremism. Its extremism is the product of a hybridization of doctrinaire Salafism and other Islamist currents.

The Islamic State relies on the jihadi literature of ideologues who support its stance as well as clerics who may not formally belong to or support the group. These clerics adhere to a set of ideas that significantly deviate from mainstream Islam, and many are direct heirs of the Sahwa, an intellectual religious movement that began in earnest in the 1970s in Saudi Arabia.

The Sahwa blended Salafi concepts with revolutionary ideas from political Islam in a broad sense, but primarily currents influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. The intermarriage polarized and produced new and unpredictable religious currents.

Politically submissive Salafism gave way to political takfirism—excommunication after one Muslim declares another to be an infidel or apostate. This ideology carries the banner of caliphate, jihad, and rebellion.

The Islamic State is part of a legacy of takfiri schools and ideas that emerged from al-Qaeda. But the Islamic State’s ideological rigidity stands out. Its refusal to bend creates a culture of extreme takfirism within takfirism.

The Ideology in Practice

The Islamic State promotes a political ideology and a worldview that actively classifies and excommunicates fellow Muslims.

The group is adept at cultivating and exploiting preexisting sectarian and tribal fissures in the Greater Middle East. The Islamic State taps into communal hatred and religious concepts to recruit and justify its acts, or to foster sympathy and neutralize forces that would otherwise
actively reject it. It has proven particularly powerful in outbidding al-Qaeda for recruits.

It uses clerics’ material to justify the takfir of the Saudi state and Muslim rulers across the Middle East, and to support the rejection of official institutions and forces.

For the Islamic State, clerics offer justifications for its savagery, especially against fellow Muslims. And the group cites stories from early Islamic history to justify its brutal practices to new recruits.

The ISIS group’s greatest strengths have been using the concept of the defense of the contemporary caliphate to draw foreign fighters to its ranks and to monetize its ideology to generate an unprecedented level of funding to pursue its goals.

Aaron Zelin: “Jihadism in North Africa After the Degradation of State Territory”

Context is different in North Africa from that in the Levant. There is no sectarian animosity and North African members of ISIS and AQ are less overtly hostile.

You don’t see open conflict between the two groups as in Syria. Each group more or less does its own thing.

I am referring to North Africa, not the Sahel region, which has a much different outlook and forecast right now.

Jihadist activities and operations within North Africa are the lowest since the Arab uprisings.

This is not to say jihadis are not operating or planning. They are, and definitely more than prior to the uprisings, but such activities are not as acute as they were from 2011 to 2016.

Why is that?

Change in operating environment in Tunisia, full crackdown since 2014 and even more afterSousse attack in 2015 – for example 15 different arrests just in the first week of June.

Fall of IS territory in Sirte in December 2016 plus the fall of IS territory in Iraq and Syria, which was helping finance a lot of IS activities in Libya.

Therefore, while individuals are still interested, recruitment is a lot more difficult.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: “Islamic State’s Virtual Plotter Model”

Virtual plotter model and what it means:

  • Represents trends beyond just one area
  • Broadly applicable to technological trends

Virtual Plotter Model (VPM): The intersection of social media and end-to-end encryption has made it possible for jihadists to create networks in the non-physical sense to provide all of the functions and services that transnational physical networks used to provide.

Social media makes terrorists’ message more accessible, and it allows for micro-targeting of potential recruits (no need for broad message videos).

End-to-end encryption is key because otherwise operatives just get arrested.

Steps to VPM:

  • Find recruits/target recruits on social media
  • Disguise conversation by communicating on encrypted messaging

Guidance a recruiter provides to recruits after radicalization under VPM:

  • Target/timing selection
  • Type of attack to execute
  • Method of attack / technical assistance

Debate around the importance of the Virtual Plotter’s Model:

Not important: VPM is not significant because most attackers radicalized through it fail (many references to Junaid Hussain failure).

Pro: encrypted communications make it impossible to have all evidence of what attacks are tied to VPM, thus cases are undercounted.

Also: Junaid Hussain references are misplaced because failures were caused by poor operational security and we should not expect his mistakes to be repeated.

Three conclusions about VPM impact:

  1. Pace of attacks is faster now
  2. Several tactical evolutions come from virtual plotters (Example: Ramming attacks –there are video instructions on how to do this)
  3. VPM is dynamic not static: we need to look at evolution. i.e., process should be viewed as a trajectory and whether the trajectory is toward increased VPM.

Future of VPM:

  • Can they move their operators around from Iraq and Syria?
  • We’ve seen a decrease in pace of attacks, but it is still alive.

Two things happening:

  1. Terrorist innovations are often linked to rapid consumption of a new innovation. End-to-end encryption (early use was problematic, but quickly improved). Drone use (at first amateurish – later much more effective)
  2. Converging tech trends: terrorists often take advantage of intersecting tech trends and use the intersections effectively. Possible future area for this is terrorists using a drone swarm: this will combine artificial intelligence, drones, and miniaturization of weapons. Growth of Internet: Only 50% of world population currently online, but many areas set to come online soon are very important to US security and the more people online, the larger network VPM could build.

Michael W. S. Ryan: “Ten points about defeating jihadist ideology”

  1. Jihadist ideology cannot be defeated with kinetic operations – bombs cannot kill ideas; however, the United States and its partners cannot defeat ISIS or al-Qaeda without defeating their common ideology, Jihadi Salafism.
  2. The mixed results of de-radicalization programs in the Middle East and Europe indicate that trying to persuade radicalized jihadists to abandon their radical belief structure is a doubtful enterprise. A better approach is to starve terrorist groups of recruits before they become indoctrinated by the ideology.
  3. Al-Qaeda and ISIS have both a shotgun and a rifle approach to recruitment, i.e., they use broad propaganda via social media and also engage in individual recruitment. Individual recruitment is based on a personal grooming process similar to any other cult group whether it be right wing, left wing, another religion or even a criminal gang; broad based recruitment efforts are generally calibrated to an audience.
  4. Logical fact-centered arguments against Jihadi Salafism are not the key to defeating the ISIS group’s or al-Qaeda’s recruitment process. A counter-narrative against jihadist ideology is necessary but not dispositive because ideology is not the motivation to join a jihadist group. Ideological indoctrination comes after radicalization. Ideology cements group solidarity, creates a framework for governance, and a system of apologetics for the recruit.
  5. Current research does not yet provide reliable indicators of when or whether an individual will radicalize, de-radicalize — turn to — or away from violence (joining a jihadist group means choosing violence).
  6. Radicalization profiles describe the process. However, they do not predict when violence might occur.
  7. Law enforcement has a useful behavioral model, “the path to violence,” in six observable stages: 1. ideation, 2. decision to act, 3. research and planning, 4. active preparation, 5. dry run or surveillance, 6. violence. “Violence occurs at the intersection of a “personal trajectory and an enabling environment.” (Fernando Reinares). [1]
  8. To defeat violent jihadist ideology inside the U.S., we must interrupt recruitment at an early stage on the path to violence using non-enforcement techniques at the local level. Strategies for thwarting recruitment must vary from person to person at the micro level and from country to country at the macro level — just as recruitment strategies vary from person to person and country to country.
  9. U.S. needs new capabilities to counter ideologically-inspired recruitment and augment current enforcement efforts, such as the creation of a federal entity to promote public-private collaboration inside the United States and network with allies and partners internationally.
  • The new federal entity would house a national information hotline for concerned communities and families, support NGO networks to provide counseling services at the local level, fund research on ideologically inspired violence, and create a new data warehouse containing research results and experience-based best practices to counter ideologically-based violent threats. [2]


Both ISIS and al-Qaeda, and spin-off jihadist groups, continue to represent serious threats to the United States and its interests. We should expect a significant terrorist attack whenever any of these groups is able to mount one. History has demonstrated that al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their predecessor groups are able to plan and wait for years before mounting a major attack or a guerrilla campaign against superior forces. As the United States turns its attention to other national security priorities, Russia and China, we do so without having completed the war against either ISIS or al-Qaeda. Both groups and spin-off organizations are held together and sustained ideologically despite diverging goals and tactics at the leadership level. We should  expect cooperation at the fighter level whenever such cooperation advances the general goals of Jihadi Salafism, the hybrid ideology all significant Sunni jihadist groups currently espouse. The Jamestown workshop demonstrated that this ideology can take on regional and national symbols and goals while maintaining its long term global focus. The loss of the physical caliphate does not mean this ancient concept has lost its power to inspire current and future jihadists. We should expect the goal of resurrecting the caliphate as a physical reality to remain an inspiration for jihadists everywhere, and a motivating factor in recruitment of lone wolves even where no physical jihadist network exists. In the meantime, we should expect the virtual plotter model, which has shown success in Europe (along with some failures), to continue and to improve. We should also expect jihadists to take advantage of emerging technology and the spread of Internet access to create new avenues to jihadist recruitment and more sophisticated and potentially more deadly terrorist attacks.

To reduce the risk of future terrorist attacks, the workshop discussed one possible innovative initiative at the federal level, the creation of an independent federal entity whose only goal would be to thwart recruitment by groups espousing a violent ideology, regardless of the groups’ political or religious orientation. This entity, as presented, would be a public-private partnership based on an existing organizational precedent (albeit with different goals) to create a non-enforcement approach to reducing the risk of ideologically motivated terrorist attacks by aiming at their recruitment efforts.

This model, like the rest of the workshop, is intended to begin a sustained discussion about how the United States could defeat the ISIS group’s and al-Qaeda’s ideology both within its borders and beyond its borders in collaboration with international allies and partners. The  workshop was not intended to be a comprehensive discussion but an opportunity to share ideas on an issue that could create a strategic surprise for the United States if it is not addressed in a comprehensive fashion. Two commentators at the workshop, Rafid Jabouri and Alex Vatanka, pointed out that on the international level we would need to address more regional and sectarian issues to answer the fundamental question of how we could work with allies and partners to defeat jihadist ideology. For example, the situation in Iraq is markedly different from that in Syria and elsewhere, and the Iranian government poses an international terrorist challenge and is engaged in widespread proselytizing, using a completely different ideology based on revolutionary Shi‘ism and unique set of national imperatives. The discussants agreed with these comments generally, and Aaron Zelin’s presentation pointed out that the situation in North Africa was different from the neighboring Sahel and the Levant.

  1. See Daniel Koehler, Understanding Deradicalization: Methods, tools and programs for countering violent extremism, (London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2017) (Kindle edition) 76. Koehler is quoting from Fernando Reinares et al., Radicalisation processes leading to acts of terrorism: A concise Report prepared by the European Commission’s Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation (May 15, 2008).
  2. For details of this model see, Michael W. S. Ryan “Defeating ISIS and Al-Qaeda on the Ideological Battlefield: The Case for the Corporation Against Ideological Violence,” U.S. Naval War College, Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups.” (