The Concept of Safe Havens in Salafi-Jihadi Strategy

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 27

A U.S. soldier finds the flag of the al-Qaeda-sponsored "Islamic State of Iraq" in Diyala province.

The search for a “safe haven” in the strategic planning of the Salafi-Jihadi movement is a central issue in the intended establishment of the “Islamic State.” The safe haven offers a set of strategic advantages, such as security, training camps, a certain degree of centralization and an easier flow of finances. Recently, al-Qaeda and the Salafi-Jihadi movement have sought to create several “safe havens” instead of relying on just one, as it did in the mid-1990s in Sudan or later in Afghanistan under the Taliban. This paper will examine the geopolitical vision of the safe haven as perceived by al-Qaeda and its importance for the organization.

Al-Qaeda’s Changing Strategies

The Salafi-Jihadi movement, with its al-Qaeda expression, has adopted two types of strategies since the mid-nineties. The first strategy was to gather in one safe haven. Sudan, under its military/Islamist regime, was chosen for this purpose in the 1990s, followed by Afghanistan under the Taliban movement. The camps established in these regions trained operatives who carried out the Riyadh bombings in the mid 1990s, the Mombasa and Dar al-Salaam bombings in 1998, and the 2001 bombing of U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in Yemen.

Since the day the United States started the “War on Terrorism” by targeting al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Afghanistan, dispersing its members and cutting off its funding, al-Qaeda has adapted by decentralizing.  Cells based on Salafi-Jihadi ideology were formed to operate according to the local conditions of their countries and upon the instructions of local leaders. This strategy produced confrontations with the Saudi authorities in the period 2003-2006, as well as bombings in Djerba, Bali, Casablanca, Madrid and London.

But in that period, Iraq was considered a safe haven and so emerged the al-Qaeda sponsored “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI).  The ideologues of the Salafi-Jihadi movement saw in Iraq not only a place where they could fight the Americans, but also a base from which they could  launch attacks on the “near enemy” (the apostate Arab regimes) and liberate Islamic soil.  In this regard, Osama bin Laden said, “Know that defending the Muslim countries, especially the Two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, begins by fighting the enemy in al-Rafidain land [i.e. Mesopotamia].” [1] There are also the famous words of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, words which became a popular slogan in Salafi- Jihadi forums, “We fight in Iraq but our eyes are focused on Jerusalem.” [2] For Yusuf al-Ayiri, the late leader of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia (killed by Saudi authorities in 2003), the safe haven meant “a center to attract fighters.”  Al-Ayiri wanted to bring fighters from countries bordering Iraq and he gave detailed instructions to fighters on how to go to Iraq and join the jihad. [3]

The Cell System and al-Qaeda’s Islamic State

Two theoretical points of view emerge among Salafi-Jihadist writings regarding the creation of safe havens, even if small in size. The first view is that of Abu Musab al-Suri (a.k.a. Mustafa Setmariam Nasar), one of the most prominent Salafi-Jihadi strategists and ideologues before his detention in 2005 (see Terrorism Monitor, August 15, 2005; September 21, 2006).  Al-Suri promoted the idea of a “system,” not an “organization,” meaning that jihadi movements should work according to a system; they should target the close enemy (local regimes) or the far one (United States Israel, India, etc.) in a way that reveals there is agreement over the general aims of the Salafi-Jihadi movements without the need for organizational orders.  In other words, these cells should not be part of the organization. [4] This appears to be the approach al-Qaeda adopted after September 11.

The second approach was the one advanced by Abu Bakr Naji, the pseudonym of a regular contributor to jihadi forums. In a book entitled Idarat al-Tawahush (Management of Savagery), Naji stressed the importance of establishing safe havens and said the Salafi-Jihadi movement should have a state or semi-state where they have dominance, or places where Salafi-Jihadis are “empowered” (a term often used by them). From these safe havens they can launch attacks against the Americans and their agents that will inevitably drag the Americans to battle.  Naji stressed the importance of launching attacks against the U.S. economy to weaken it. [5]

On January 14, 2009, Osama bin Laden described the new Salafi-Jihadi strategy in managing the battle with the United States in an audiotape recording. Bin Laden adapted Naji’s approach to take advantage of the global financial crisis. The al-Qaeda leader wanted to stress that the movement is still able to keep the conflict going for a long time, saying, “To my nation I say – remembering Almighty God’s grace – rest assured, we feel that God has granted us enough patience to continue the path of jihad for another seven and seven years, if God wishes” (, January 14). Bin Laden believes that Barack Obama’s administration is in a crisis and thus revealed his movement’s intention to “open new fronts” to exhaust the U.S. economically.  In this regard bin Laden says: “Having inherited a heavy legacy [that of U.S. President George W. Bush] and only left with two choices, both are bitter, like someone who swallowed a double-edged dagger – no matter how he [President Obama] moves it will cause him pain.  It is most difficult for anyone to inherit a long guerrilla war financed by riba [usury] with a stubborn and patient opponent.  If you withdraw from the war you would suffer a military defeat and if you continue your economic crisis will become worse.  Obama has inherited not only one war but two and he is incapable of continuing these wars.  We are on our way to open other fronts, if God wishes” (, January 14).

Bin Laden did not specify where the future fronts would be opened but spoke about the existing fronts in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Waziristan, the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia. It is noted that Somalia and Yemen are among the key fronts where al-Qaeda and the Salafi-Jihadi movement want to establish solid grounds, particularly in light of their diminishing role in Iraq and the growing political role of the Awakening Councils (see Terrorism Monitor, November 7, 2006).

In his analysis, Bin Laden attempts to explain the importance of finding a safe haven for the Salafi-Jihadis. However, the movement as a whole tends to adopt a strategic choice of creating many safe havens, one to replace the other, in a way that would provide the movement’s fighters with places to move to and to continue their war. It should be noted that the areas where the Salafi-Jihadis want to create their safe havens are areas that have internal factors needed for the creation of such refuges (poverty, unemployment, the absence of a state, and poor distribution of resources).  These areas also have the needed external factors – the military and security presence of the United States. These factors are the main reason for the existence of the Salafi-Jihadi movement in Yemen, Somalia, the  Afghan – Pakistan border region, Central Asia, the refugee camps in Lebanon and, of course, Iraq, according to the changes in political conditions in these countries.

In a work entitled “The responsibility of the People of Yemen regarding the Sanctuary of Muslims,” Abu Musab al-Suri highlighted the geopolitical importance of Yemen as a safe haven from the viewpoint of al-Qaeda and the Salafi-Jihadis, a place from which fighters could launch attacks. [6] The book considered the demographic situation in Yemen as well as the Yemeni people’s strong will and poverty. Yemen’s landscape is characterized by fortified mountains that make Yemen the natural citadel for all the people of the Arab peninsula and the Middle East as a whole. With more than 3,000 kilometres of sea coast and a thousand more kilometres of border running through difficult desert and mountain terrain, Yemen is a potential stronghold for the mujahideen. In addition it has the strategic advantage of controlling one of the world’s most important marine straits, the Bab al-Mandab. Weapons are freely available, given that Yemen is governed by tribal traditions. Moreover, there is the religious factor, with Yemen being associated with a number of prophetic Hadiths and “promises.”


Currently, with the armed confrontations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the diminishing role of al-Qaeda in Iraq, areas like Somalia, Yemen, Central Asia and some African regions might grow in importance for the Salafi-Jihadis. In addition to seeking the creation of safe havens, the jihadis want to expand the number of fronts involving U.S. forces to exhaust America economically. Lastly, the jihadis desire the creation of a number of alternative safe havens in order not to repeat the experience of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.


1. Bin Laden’s letter, Ila Ahal al-Iraq, (To the people of Iraq), May 7, 2004.
2. Musab al-Zarqawi interview with the Media Section of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, 1427 A.H. The interview can read on:
3. Yusuf al-Ayiri, Sisilat al hurub al-salibiya (Series of Crusader Wars), Part One, 2003. Al-Ayiri’s writings can be downloaded from
4. See his book, Da’wat al-Moqawma al-Islamiya, (A Call for Islamic Resistance), 2005. Can be downloaded from
5. Abu Bakr Naji, Idarat al-Tawahush (Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through which the Umma Will Pass), Center for Islamic Studies and Research, 2005.  English translation available at:

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