September 18, 2017

Gray Zones in the Middle East

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and trans-Sahara regions are undergoing a period of instability and state collapse, with active civil wars raging in four of the most important countries in the region: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. As witnessed during the Arab uprisings of 2010–2011, the MENA region has begun to grapple with the once and future challenges of instability as the regional population grows and skews younger, economies stagnate and start to collapse, and resources become scarcer. U.S. national security policy toward the MENA and trans-Sahara regions is at a point of high uncertainty, with a new administration developing strategies to address the security threats to the United States and its partner nations being caused by the region’s civil wars.

Ongoing instability in the region from these civil wars, combined with the underlying social, economic, and political challenges, is providing opportunities for state and non-state actors alike to seek advantages in “gray zone” conflicts. The term “gray zone” is a new way to describe a condition of human conflict that goes back to antiquity: the state between war and peace, where actors (state and non-state) seek to defeat their opponents without extensive or sustained military activity. These actors are increasingly turning to gray zone strategies to avoid direct, expensive, and unsustainable military confrontations, with either state or non-state competitors. Gray zone activities include information operations, psychological operations, political destabilization operations, unconventional warfare such as supporting a partner state’s military capabilities through foreign internal defense and counterterrorism support, and mobilizing proxy forces.

In the MENA and trans-Sahara regions, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its expeditionary Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and the transnational network of Shia militias that is mobilizing – including Salafi-Jihadi and Sunni extremist organizations (EOs) such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as Lebanese Hezbollah – are the U.S. opponents that actively and consistently employ gray zone strategies. These actors are seeking to use this period of intense transition in the MENA and trans-Sahara regions, which has led to governance vacuums, to seek to create new social, political, and security realities that will benefit them at the expense of the United States and its partners. ISIS and al Qaeda, generally viewed as non-state actors, are now building sociopolitical power in areas where governance vacuums exist so as to enable themselves to regenerate when attacked and to operate at the seams of U.S. combatant commands; these EOs can thereby target and strike at the United States and its partners in Europe and in these regions.

This study analyzes the gray zone activities of Iran’s IRGC-QF and its proxy network, including the IRGC-QF’s partner force Lebanese Hezbollah, in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and the increasingly effective gray zone strategies of ISIS and al Qaeda. In the analysis of Iran, this study will examine the way that the country, working closely with Russia and the Assad regime, utilizes classic gray zone strategies such as unconventional warfare and information operations to advance Iranian national security goals in Syria. The analysis of EOs describes ways both ISIS and al Qaeda are similarly seeking to utilize gray zone activities in the governance vacuums in the greater MENA region to develop indefinite, state-like authority among local populations.

Iran’s Gray Zone Strategies

U.S. military leadership, strategic planners, and scholars of military affairs consider the Islamic Republic of Iran a textbook example of a state actor seeking dominance in the gray zone. Since 1979, the Islamic Republic has been highly effective in moving opportunistically and gradually into the security vacuums caused by regime-change efforts and civil wars in the nations of its near abroad, shaping sociopolitics of the human terrain wherever possible. In the three decades since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the IRGC-QF has arguably developed the most competent gray zone doctrine of any Middle Eastern actor.

The Islamic Republic has been highly effective in moving opportunistically and gradually into the security vacuums caused by regime-change efforts and civil wars in the nations of its near abroad.

Due to regional geopolitics, for the time being Iran is forced first to seek leadership over the politics of Shia-majority areas and then to focus on the larger mission of becoming the leader of the Islamic world. Iran is a complicated state actor with a millennia-old history as an empire; it is a nation that has generally had a coherent vision of how to engage pragmatically and to its own benefit in the affairs of the peoples in the areas surrounding it. Since 1979, Iran’s Islamic Republic government has inherited this vision, and it added an ideological, revolutionary component to Iranian national security decisionmaking, which is the prerogative of the nation’s supreme leader and the IRGC apparatus, which is charged with protecting and propagating the Islamic Revolution. Iran’s engagement in the current civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen is framed as part of a “sacred defense,” which is meant to protect the Iranian homeland – fundamentally a narrative of resistance that allows Iran to cooperate with a range of proxies and partners throughout the MENA region.

The Iranian government has been careful to reaffirm that its military activities in Syria and Iraq are legitimate and part of a mission that is justified under international law, at the request of and in support of the U.N.-recognized, sovereign governments in Damascus and Baghdad. Iran is playing in a careful game in Syria and Iraq, emphasizing that its role is that of a legitimate, above-board security partner of these nations that is building the capacity of Damascus and Baghdad to respond to threats presented by transnational Salafi-Jihadi organizations. In effect, the Islamic Republic is making the argument that it is performing a service for the international community and aggressively working to address a global security threat by actively combating ISIS, al Qaeda, and other Salafi-Jihadi organizations that have conducted strikes outside the Middle East.

At present, the United States and Iran are clear competitors in the Middle East, and the social, political, and security vacuums that have emerged in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen over the course of the civil wars is benefiting the IRGC-QF as it scales up its network of proxy militias. Iran is seeking to change the Middle East’s status quo by expanding the influence of the IRGC-QF, by increasing the number of fighters in its proxy network, and by opening new opportunities to apply pressure on key U.S. regional partners. The nature of the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen should further concern U.S. national security policymakers because competition with Iran in the gray zone carries the risk of gradual escalation that can result in a larger conflict.

Iran will selectively de-conflict with the United States in some situations – for example, in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq. However, whether triggered by a U.S.-Iran incident in Syria, Iraq, or the Persian Gulf, or by an incident between a close U.S. regional partner such as Israel or Saudi Arabia and Iran, escalation into an open conflict with Iran remains likely. Several analyses have highlighted the risk of war between the United States and Iran following an incident in Iraq or Syria, where U.S. forces could be targeted by the IRGC-QF and the proxy network; similar attention should be paid to the risk of escalation into conflict between the U.S. and Iran in Yemen.


Syria, another core national security interest for Iran, is a major site of its gray zone strategy to extend its influence in the Middle East and to apply pressure on one of its two major adversaries in the region, Israel. The commander of the IRGC-QF, General Qassim Solaimani, refers to Syria as the “main bone of contention” and describes a current conflict where “on the one side is the whole world on the other stands Iran.” Iranian national security policymakers view Iran’s participation in the conflict, primarily a foreign internal defense mission carried out by the IRGC in support of the Bashar al-Assad government, as a vital battle to protect Iran by combating Sunni extremist organizations inside of Syria. The Syrian civil war has also provided the IRGC-QF with the opportunity to scale up its multinational proxy network of predominately Shia militias, which include fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, India, and Syria.

Historically, states that engage in gray zone activities have sought to establish reliable clients to rule areas that provide geographic, natural resource, and trade benefits to them, and Iran is pursuing a similar line of effort in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the IRGC is in the process of turning the Assad regime into a client state, whereas prior to the uprisings in 2011 and subsequent civil war it functioned more as an ally, with occasional disagreements and sometimes differences in policy goals. The civil war in Syria has allowed Iran to influence and shape the functioning of the deep state that supports Bashar al-Assad’s rule, which includes the elite security and intelligence services that are primarily led by Assad’s extended family, his tribe, and members of the Alawi community. Iran also significantly influences Assad’s regime to work to Iran’s benefit and to support the regional activities of the IRGC-QF and its adjutant proxy network.

The expanded presence and activities of the IRGC within the intelligence and security apparatus of the Assad regime, and the vital role of the IRGC and its proxy network forces in conducting military campaigns on behalf of Assad in Syria, will likely result in the areas under Assad’s control in western Syrian becoming the major base for coordinating operations for the IRGC and its proxy network – that is, Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East – for the foreseeable future. Iran might also seek a "land bridge" to connect Tehran with Beirut and to facilitate the flow of its Shia militia proxy network fighters and potentially heavier military equipment to Lebanese Hezbollah. Yet the “air bridge” that the IRGC has already established to Lebanon via Assad’s areas of control in western Syria and the possibility that the IRGC-QF is supporting Lebanese Hezbollah’s domestic missile manufacturing capacity in the Lebanese-Syrian border regions (in the countryside between Damascus and Lebanon’s Biqa’ Valley), demonstrate that Assad’s area of control in western Syria is beginning to provide the strategic depth that Iran has long sought for Lebanese Hezbollah.

The challenge of Syria is that it is the site of the worst civil war in the modern history of the Middle East, with to date nearly 500,000 people killed and more than 111 million displaced by the fighting. Syria no longer has a cohesive central state government; it is a geographic space that is being fragmented into several zones of power controlled by local actors serving as proxies for foreign powers. The United States and its close partners, such as Turkey in the north and Jordan and Israel in the south, have established influence zones over significant parts of Syria. While these zones of influence are still not fully stabilized, stability operations are under way in the areas that are under the control of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition and in Turkey’s Euphrates Shield zone east of Aleppo and west of the Euphrates. In the Israeli- and Jordanian-backed zone in southwestern Syria, the first "de-confliction zone" agreed to between the United States and Russia is being established, ideally to serve as a model for future "interim zones of stability," as the Trump administration policy outlines, throughout the country.

As the U.S.-led counter-ISIS campaign working by, with, and through local Syrian partners continues to build momentum, the Trump administration will face a decision on whether it will continue to maintain a residual force in Syria to continue counterterrorism operations. The Assad regime and its allies are concerned with instituting an indefinite, long-term U.S. military presence on Syrian territory, a presence that would significantly constrain the complete reconstitution of a central state under Assad’s rule. In response to the growing deployment of U.S. forces in Syria, the Assad regime and its allies have devised an extensive gray zone strategy to contest the American role in the conflict.

The strategy of the Assad regime and allies is a particularly difficult threat to counter because of the tenuousness of political support for the U.S.-led coalition inside Syria within the U.S. Congress. There is a still-developing Trump administration Syria policy review, and there are reported disagreements within the administration about how much and how long to invest in the counterterrorism operations in Syria. At the heart of this debate is whether an indefinite residual U.S. military presence in Syria will be required to prevent the resurgence of ISIS. Congress is increasingly looking to develop a bipartisan authorization for the use of military force for the counter-ISIS campaign, and it is applying pressure on the Trump administration to provide a comprehensive roadmap for counter-ISIS and Syria strategy.

The questions about the extent to which the United States should be present in Syria as ISIS’s would-be caliphate shrinks, and whether the U.S. is on the path of “creeping incrementalism” in Syria that will result in another ambiguous, decades-long military commitment on the ground of a troubled or failing state, are important. Aware that the U.S. military presence in Syria does not have a blank check from either the Trump administration or the U.S. Congress, and concerned with the creation of an indefinite American zone of influence on the ground inside of Syria, the Assad regime and its allies are utilizing a range of military and non-military activities to undermine the U.S.-led coalition and to prevent the establishment of a U.S. military mandate in Syria.

The non-military activities of the Assad regime and its allies have focused on messaging that disputes the legality of the U.S.-led coalition’s counter-ISIS campaign. Previously careful to ignore U.S. forces conducting the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria because the American military operations relieved ISIS pressure on his regime and its partners, Bashar al-Assad has started to single out the U.S. military as “invaders” threatening to occupy Syrian land. Both the Russian and the Iranian governments have repeatedly and loudly protested the growing U.S. military presence in Syria and have devoted resources to repeat the message to the international community that only Assad’s government in Damascus can authorize American military operations on its sovereign territory. The Iraqi government has also started to make public announcements of its intent to surge IRGC-backed Shia militia fighters in support of the Assad regime’s counter-ISIS campaign in the Syrian-Iraqi border areas, a move that if realized could restrain U.S.-led coalition military operations in eastern Syria.

Simultaneous to this messaging, pro-Assad media outlets and social media accounts are significantly increasing their content depicting the Assad regime and its allied forces conducting counter-ISIS operations in central and eastern Syria. As part of these information operations, these sites and accounts are highlighting gains by Assad and his allies against ISIS, while also reporting on the enlargement of pro-Assad forces from the addition of local Syrian Sunni Arab tribes. These sites and accounts are also focusing increasing attention on purported divisions between Arabs and Kurds in the U.S.-backed SDF coalition and disseminating reports of civilian casualties caused by the coalition air campaign against ISIS. In addition, these sites and accounts are also actively amplifying statements by the Trump administration and the leadership of key coalition partner states, such as the recent comments by French President Emmanuel Macron, that reaffirm that Assad’s departure from power is no longer a precondition for future relations with Damascus.

With these non-military activities, the Assad regime and its allies are seeking to undermine the U.S.-led coalition in Syria in several important ways, all of which are consistent with the gray zone strategies of Russia and Iran. First, Assad and his allies are calling into question the legitimacy of the mission of U.S. forces operating in Syria, asserting that the American military is violating Syria’s sovereignty by operating without the permission of Damascus. Although there is little sympathy for Bashar al-Assad in the United States, or among its coalition partners, for the extensively well-documented human rights abuses and war crimes that his forces and his allies have committed against the Syrian people, the narrow legal argument that the U.S. military operation against ISIS is illegal under international law without the permission of the Assad government does resonate among U.N. Security Council members, such as China, and among other member states of the General Assembly, including some from the Arab and Muslim world, that are wary of American intentions in the Middle East. This messaging also has a growing and receptive audience among elites across party lines in the United States who want neither a Syrian version of the 2003 occupation of Iraq nor a multi-decade U.S. military commitment to counterterrorism operations in Syria such as exists in Afghanistan.

Second, the Assad regime and its allies are seeking to call into question the argument made by the United States and its coalition partners that coalition activities inside Syria are justified without Assad‘s permission because Assad’s forces are unwilling and unable to dismantle ISIS, which is a direct and imminent threat to coalition nations and the territorial integrity of Syria’s neighboring countries. This message is meant to counter the widespread, and likely accurate, perception among analysts of the Syrian conflict that Assad and his allies do not have the forces to reconquer all the territory that was once ruled from Damascus and that as a result a coalition zone of influence is required to stabilize areas retaken from ISIS in eastern Syria. Fundamentally, the Assad regime and its allies are seeking to undermine the foreign zones of influence on Syrian territory that are a threat, in the present and over the long term, to Assad’s ability to rule a unified Syria.

Third, the Assad regime and its allies are attempting to sow doubt about the true intentions of the United States in Syria, to draw a parallel between the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq – which stemmed from a policy of regime change and which many people in the region believe is the root cause of the region’s recent instability – and the expanding U.S. military zone of influence on the ground in Syria. The effect is to portray the United States as an aggressive power that is trying to use the excuse of ISIS to conquer the territory of one of the historically most important areas of the Muslim world. Following the release of news stories by prominent Turkish media outlets about the location of 10 U.S. military bases and outposts in SDF-controlled areas of Syria, which caused tensions between the United States and Turkey, the Assad regime and its allies, led by the Russian foreign ministry, quickly launched a social media campaign that amplified the story and used it as a hook for public messaging that the U.S. military was in the process of developing the infrastructure for an illegal, permanent occupation of Syrian land.

The military activities of the Assad regime and its allies against the U.S.-led coalition in Syria are similarly designed to undermine the legitimacy of American forces operating in the country. However, instead of directly assaulting the legitimacy of the American war effort against ISIS through information warfare, these activities directly target the local Syrian partners of the coalition. The Assad regime and its allies have correctly assessed that the key to the “by, with, and through” strategy that is being conducted by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria are local partners. As both the U.S.-led coalition and the forces of the Assad regime and its allies make gains against ISIS in Syria, tensions between the two sides continue to mount over who can move into which areas formerly held by ISIS. Since the start of 2016, there have been multiple incidents in which the forces of the Assad regime and its allies – both Russia and Assad’s Syrian Arab Army – have targeted the coalition’s local Syrian partners with air strikes or threatened advances with columns of military vehicles. The U.S. military has been forced to respond to these incidents with air strikes, shooting down a Syrian air force warplane and attacking a column of IRGC-QF proxy network militias on two separate occasions in June, and scrambling U.S. warplanes to head off attacks in earlier incidents over the course of 2016.

Although these incidents have not directly targeted U.S. or coalition state partner forces, because U.S. and coalition advisors have increasingly deployed with local Syrian partners, there is a high risk that U.S. forces will be killed or injured in future attacks on the coalition’s local Syrian partners, risking an escalation to direct conflict between the IRGC-QF and its proxy network and the U.S. military in Syria.


Iran’s national security policymakers view Iraq as a vital buffer state to protect the Iranian homeland. From the Iranian perspective, Iraq must have a strong central government in Baghdad that can maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity so that Iran can defend its borders from its enemies, such as ISIS. By this Iranian calculation, the central government in Baghdad must continue to be the friendliest Arab state to Iran, and because of the longstanding social, cultural, and economic bonds – and increasing political ties as well – between Iran’s and Iraq’s Shia communities, Iranian leaders prefer that the Shia, Iraq’s majority community, hold power in Baghdad. However, with the commencement of U.S.-led coalition counter-ISIS campaign in 2014, and the distinct possibility that a residual U.S. military force may be indefinitely garrisoned in Iraq to train, equip, and advise the Iraqi Security Forces, which would be viewed by the IRGC-QF as a potential threat to the stability of the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s national security policymakers view Iraq as a vital buffer state to protect the Iranian homeland.

The reality is that Iraq is again becoming a critical site of contention for influence between the United States and Iran as the U.S. government and its regional partners seek to confront Iranian destabilizing activities in the Middle East. Iraq provides an important recruitment pool for the IRGC-QF’s proxy network via the Hashd Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units– PMU) organization, which is a network of militias that are officially part of the Iraqi government’s security apparatus, under the authority of the prime minister’s office. However, the PMU organization is being shaped by the policy decisions made by its deputy commissioner, Jamal Ja’far Muhammad Ali Ibrahimi (a.k.a. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), an Iraqi who is one of the most important IRGC-QF operatives.

The PMU organization represents a contemporary growth opportunity for the IRGC-QF in Iraq, allowing it to identify and mobilize (and, as necessary, cultivate a future generation of) operatives for its proxy militia network. Qassim Solaimani, the leader of the IRGC-QF, minced few words in describing his and his organization’s view on the importance of their Hezbollah network to protect Iran from its enemies: “No force or country except for Iran is capable of leading the Muslim world today due to Iran’s support for revolutionary and Islamic movements and fighters as well as its defense of Muslims against aggressors.”

The PMU organization also provides the IRGC with an opportunity to prevent another security debacle such as the one that occurred in June 2014 in Mosul, which threatened the Iranian homeland. IRGC-QF influence over the PMUs can also provide the IRGC with the influence to shape the power dynamics of Iraqi Shia politics and thereby influence the sociopolitics of the largest ethnic-Arab Shia population.


Iran is becoming increasingly invested in the conflict in Yemen, although Yemen is not generally considered a core national security priority for it. As articulated by Iranian national security thinkers, Iran’s role in Yemen is to: (1) prevent Saudi Arabia from dissolving Yemen’s territorial integrity to divide it to Saudi Arabia’s benefit; and (2) build leverage in Yemen to reduce the suffering of the Yemeni people and to prevent Saudi Arabia from disenfranchising the Houthis, and more broadly the Zaydi Shia community, because “Iran is the protector of Shia everywhere.”

However, the Yemeni civil war also provides Iran with opportunity to build a “Yemeni Hezbollah” out of the Zaydi Shia Houthi movement to apply strategic pressure on Saudi Arabia on its vulnerable southwestern border region. According to Iranian national security thinkers, the IRGC-QF’s engagement with the Houthi movement is longstanding and has intensified over the course of the past decade. In particular, Saudi Arabia views Iran’s gray zone strategy to cultivate the Houthi movement as a threat to inspire, organize, and direct militant separatist movements in the southwestern Saudi provinces of Najran and ‘Asir, both of which have significant populations of Ismaili and Zaydi Shia. Iranian media outlets have portrayed these provinces as rightfully belonging to Yemen, arguing that they are a part of Saudi Arabia only as the result of past coercion and pressure upon the Zaydi Imamate in the 1930s.

The Houthis are frequently mentioned by Iranian-funded media in the context of their participation in a “popular revolution,” the 2011 demonstrations that were part of the sequence of events that led to the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, as well as their determination to confront Salafi-Jihadi movements in northern Yemen. Iranian-funded media also glorify the Houthi movement; an excerpt from a PressTV article in 2014, prior to the onset of the current civil war, is instructive of the information operations utilized by the IRGC to depict the Houthis:

Born in reaction to repression and oppression, the Houthis have fought for over two decades to assert their rights over Saudi Arabia’s illegitimate claims on Yemen. … Unlike how pro-Saudi media have portrayed the Houthis, the Shiite group has always abided to democratic principles and tolerance… [J]ust as the group has always passionately stood guard over its people, the group has denounced with utmost fervor all forms of imperialism and nihilism, hence their rejection of Zionism. … If the Houthis were to be summed up, two words would apply – the guardian of Islam Shiite tradition and liberty. … If the Houthis have returned in recent months to the offensive against Salafi militants and Al Islah – Yemen’s radical faction – it is essentially because they have seen through Saudi Arabia’s plan: turning Yemen into a terror hub, a giant training camp for its Takfiris militants.

At present, the IRGC-QF is also providing sophisticated weapons to the Houthis, which are being used to threaten the free flow of international shipping and trade in the Bab al-Mandab. Iran is also finding opportunities to present itself as a foreign actor critical to ending the conflict, seeking to increase its status as a regional power. Furthermore, the Iranians are conducting information operations to highlight the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Yemen, making the argument that U.S. support for the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition is equivalent to support for war crimes, further eroding the image of the United States in the region.

The IRGC-QF’s activities may also be hastening the fragmentation of Yemen, which provides opportunities for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS to move in. Iran is threatening key U.S. regional partners – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – that are operating in Yemen, therefore making it difficult for the United States to back away from involvement in the Yemen conflict and increasing the risk of escalation into direct conflict between the United States and Iran because of the IRGC-QF’s gray zone activities.

Salafi-Jihadi Extremist Organizations Gray Zone Activities

The governance vacuums caused by the region’s civil wars (which are taking on a sectarian tone in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen) will continue to foster insurgencies that can be influenced and co-opted by the Salafi-Jihadi EOs, ISIS and al Qaeda. Since 2011, in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Mali, and Nigeria, these EOs have sought to establish and govern proto-states, and have tailored their sociopolitical activities and information operations to promote their governing ability. However, ISIS and al Qaeda have approached this task from divergent perspectives, with ISIS seeking to institute a top-down (change behavior, then change hearts and minds) and al Qaeda a consultative (change hearts and minds, then change behavior) Islamic state system in the areas of the MENA and trans-Sahara regions where they operate.

Syria has been the key venue for the mobilization of a rising generation of Salafi-Jihadi fighters, and since 2011 tens of thousands of foreign fighters from North Africa and the trans-Sahara, particularly from Tunisia and Morocco, have traveled to Syria. These fighters have been joined by Sunni jihadists from other areas of the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia and the Caucasus, Europe, and (to a far lesser extent) Southeast Asia and North and South America, creating a truly global movement. Although many of the foreign fighters have returned home, thousands are believed to remain in al Qaeda–dominated areas of northwestern Syria and the remaining territories held by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.61

Syria has been the key venue for the mobilization of a rising generation of Salafi-Jihadi fighters.

In addition to the large numbers of Salafi-Jihadi fighters entering Syria, and to a lesser degree Iraq, there has been a long-running and consistent flow of foreign fighters internal to the trans-Sahara region. Trans-Sahara Salafi-Jihadi fighters have been active across several battle spaces in the region, beginning with their participation in the fight against the Gadhafi government in the Libyan civil war in 2011. After the defeat of the Gadhafi government in 2011, these Salafi-Jihadi fighters transferred to the al Qaeda–dominated proto-state in northern Mali in 2012–2013, some moving to Boko Haram’s emirate in northeastern Nigeria beginning in 2013, and others relocating to the Sinai starting in 2013. By the time that ISIS gained control over a proto-state in the central-western, Libyan coastal city of Sirte in 2015, the trans-Sahara region’s Salafi-Jihadi network was well positioned to survive military campaigns directed against it. This is demonstrated in the present with the resilience of this network throughout the trans-Sahara region after the capture of Sirte in late 2016 by local Libyan forces supported by the United States and key NATO partners. Both ISIS and al Qaeda recruit from the same pools of fighters as Iraq and Yemen in the trans-Sahara region, and both organizations have overlapping networks from which to recruit and mobilize, and, where there is the opportunity, to govern local areas.

The unique geographic conditions of the trans-Sahara region make policing borders difficult and provide opportunities for Salafi-Jihadi organizations both to mobilize and train recruits, and to run smuggling networks from remote areas that are not easily policed or attacked. Both al Qaeda and ISIS are starting to benefit from opportunities to establish and expand their networks of supply, reinforcement, and proselytizing throughout the region, in competition with each other. Just as they compete in Syria and Yemen, the two Salafi-Jihadi organizations will likely compete in Iraq at a future date. Both also utilize Libya as a wheel of their transnational networks in this region, with al Qaeda having a stronger presence on the Libyan coastal cities and ISIS better positioned in southern Libya’s Sahara regions. Both are working to create logistics lines from Libya across the Sahara, stretching from Mauritania and Morocco to the Sinai Peninsula, and down into the Lake Chad region and Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Sudan.

In the MENA and in the trans-Sahara regions, both ISIS and al Qaeda have increasingly adopted comprehensive strategies to further their end state goals, with ISIS developing a sophisticated and global branding and messaging campaign to attract both recruits for its army and civilians to help build its would-be caliphate. ISIS and al Qaeda share a common approach of seeking to co-opt local revolutionary movements and sociocultural and political structures so as to institute a sharia state and create the social conditions for the next generation of global jihadist operatives. This overarching objective is common to the ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates throughout the MENA and trans-Sahara regions, whether in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Mali, Libya, Tunisia, Nigeria, or elsewhere.

In the MENA and in the trans-Sahara regions, both ISIS and al Qaeda have increasingly adopted comprehensive strategies to further their end state goals.

In the MENA and in the trans-Sahara regions, both ISIS and al Qaeda have increasingly adopted comprehensive strategies to further their end state goals, with ISIS developing a sophisticated and global branding and messaging campaign to attract both recruits for its army and civilians to help build its would-be caliphate. ISIS and al Qaeda share a common approach of seeking to co-opt local revolutionary movements and sociocultural and political structures so as to institute a sharia state and create the social conditions for the next generation of global jihadist operatives. This overarching objective is common to the ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates throughout the MENA and trans-Sahara regions, whether in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Mali, Libya, Tunisia, Nigeria, or elsewhere.

Currently under significant pressure from a range of enemies, especially the United States and its partners, ISIS will likely continue to survive, particularly in the desert areas of Syria and Iraq and in the trans-Sahara regions, as well as in such areas of Southeast Asia as the Philippines. However, it is al Qaeda that is adopting the better strategy, slowly building support among local populations to mobilize, and then to shape, the sociopolitics of an area – examples include Idlib in northwestern Syria and Benghazi and Darnah in coastal eastern Libya – to forward its goal of creating an Islamic state from which global jihad can be planned and operationalized. Al Qaeda affiliates have also become smarter in their military strategy and more effective at building coalitions with other local partners, particularly revolutionary movements that come from culturally conservative Sunni areas. Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Mali operate much more frequently as power brokers in local political and military coalitions, exerting decisive force over their peers when necessary but generally seeking to convert the local population to their viewpoint through da’wa (proselytizing) and, when and where possible, through co-optation.

In Syria, al Qaeda’s strategy is not limited to one group, such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Jabhat al-Nusra) or the coalition of which it is the foundation, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Al Qaeda is seeking to maintain connections with multiple Sunni organizations, some composed mainly of Syrians and others mainly of foreign fighters, so as to become the vanguard of the Syrian revolutionary movement. Al Qaeda is working hard to present itself as a Syrian movement that is a full participant in the revolution, and it is enacting a strategy whereby Salafism-Jihadism is a fluid and adaptable ideological current that blends revolutionary Islamism with traditional Islam, therefore making itself potentially more difficult to separate from the broader Syrian revolutionary movement.

The al Qaeda movement in Syria is seeking to build influence within the broader Syrian Sunni revolutionary society, to shape the sociopolitical norms of Sunni-majority opposition-controlled areas, and to institute a sharia state that will protect global Salafi-Jihadi operatives. If it succeeds in building a bastion of radical religious fundamentalism (through an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam) in Syria, it will have constructed a haven in the core Middle East that will be like what al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is building in Yemen and what the al Qaeda organization enjoyed in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

ISIS has begun a similar paradigm shift as it loses its core caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and already the Salafi-Jihadi organization’s information operations are refocusing away from calling for volunteers to immigrate to the caliphate, instead directing them to wage jihad in their local regions. Although al Qaeda is currently more successful at affixing itself to local regions through the process of co-optation, ISIS has established a larger external attack network both inside the MENA and trans-Sahara regions and in Europe. The large refugee flows from Syria between 2012 and 2016 and the ongoing migrant flows in the trans-Sahara region, combined with the networks that ISIS has formed in both Europe and the MENA and trans-Sahara regions, constitute an ongoing threat to the national security of the United States and its European allies and close regional partners.

The trans-Sahara region often receives less attention than Syria and Iraq – the core Middle East –however, in this area of Africa both ISIS and al Qaeda are positioned to realize large growth opportunities among the local populations. Both Libya and northern Mali remain safe havens for both Salafi-Jihadi organizations and their militant Salafi allies and partners, and the entire trans-Sahara region is a major international transit zone for global Salafi-Jihadi networks. Fighters, weapons, money-making narcotics, and luxury goods all travel relatively unhindered between the porous borders of a large area of the region, despite the efforts of the United States and key U.S. allies such as France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Germany to help Saharan African state partners police their borders more effectively.

This region is strategic, and more attention needs to be paid to it. The Mediterranean Sea is a highway, not a barrier, to Europe, and, as the May 22 Manchester, U.K., concert attack that killed 23 people and wounded 250 demonstrated, Salafi-Jihadi organizations based in the trans-Sahara region intend to strike key American allies in Europe. Organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda have been using and will continue to use the size and efficiency of trade and criminal networks in the trans-Sahara region to take advantage of migration flows to build additional networks inside of Europe to conduct attacks.


Although Iran and the Salafi-Jihadi organization represent different types of challenges in the MENA and trans-Sahara regions, there are some common approaches that the United States can take to ameliorate underlying conditions that led to the civil wars that empower these groups. In Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, the United States is positioned to be a powerful foreign actor, with the ability to affect events on the ground and potentially the leverage to achieve sustainable political solutions to these conflicts, which would reduce the necessity for a U.S. military presence in these areas.

U.S. national security policymakers will need to develop a comprehensive and proactive strategy to overcome the challenges presented by hostile and competing state and non-state actors that attempt to avoid American military power by using gray zone strategies. The strategy of working through international, regional, state, and local non-state actors (“by, with, and through”) in the MENA and trans-Sahara regions continues to have great merit. Fundamental to this strategy will be finding ways that the United States can balance mobilizing and working with these partners toward common security goals with retaining the capabilities to pursue unilateral action when the situation demands it.

This approach should combine both military and non-military activities, including: (1) increasing U.S. and partner support for acceptable militia groups and military forces on the ground, and giving them incentive to coalesce; (2) providing direct military engagement where appropriate to counter ISIS and al Qaeda and their allies; (3) increasing coordination with front-line states and actors that are external to these regions, such as the European Union, NATO, and, when and where appropriate, Russia and China; and (4) attempting to forge long-term, inclusive, and sustainable cessations of hostilities in these countries among the reconcilable communities, political actors, and armed organizations in order to return to diplomatic negotiations to achieve political solutions to the conflicts.

It is important for the United States to continue to engage in the trans-Sahara and North Africa regions, working by, with, and through allies, partners, and local actors to push back against radical extremist actors trying to take advantage of the instability and the broad spaces in this region to strike at U.S. partners in the Middle East and in the broader African continent, its allies in Europe, and its friends farther afield. The United States should continue to work with European allies, NATO, North and trans-Saharan African state partners, and, where possible, local actors in Libya and Mali, to actively contest the strengthening and expansion of Salafi-Jihadi networks in the trans-Sahara region. An important role the United States can play is to serve as a coordinating agent for these diverse and often fractious partners, particularly African partner states in the trans-Sahara that have a history of competition. The U.S. Department of State’s Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Fund and the French military’s Operation Barkhane, both of which the United States supports, are examples of ongoing efforts in these regions of Africa that can have great effect with U.S. commitment and investment.

Specific to Libya, the wheel that turns the movement of Salafi-Jihadi organizations in North Africa and the trans-Sahara regions, the United States should look to get the key external actors, including Tunisia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey on the same page. The Trump administration should seek to leverage its good working relationship with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt to win support for this effort, particularly to find creative ways to empower a unity government that is representative of all of Libya’s regional interests. U.S. military assistance targeted at counterterrorism and border security should be prioritized to support bordering states, such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria, against the efforts of Salafi-Jihadi organizations to operate their networks and destabilize these regions.


The author would like to thank Ilan Goldenberg, Shawn Brimley, and Gregory N. Hicks for their insightful and helpful comments on the drafts of this study, and Maura McCarthy and Melody Cook for their excellent support in the study’s publications process. This study was inspired by the Middle East Security Program’s participation in the annual Sovereign Challenge Conference, convened by the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), held March 7-9, 2017 in Raleigh, North Carolina. As part of its participation in the Sovereign Challenge Conference, the Middle East Security Program convened two panels, “Mosul and Iraq Are Not the End Game: The Iranian and Salafi-Jihadi Threats in the Core Middle East” and “Libya’s Civil War and the Salafi-Jihadi Threat in North Africa and the Sahel.” The author would like to acknowledge the participants in the CNAS-led panels, who provided valuable insights that have informed the analysis of this study: J. Matthew McInnis, Katherine Zimmerman, Nitin Chadda, Aaron Y. Zelin, Mokhtar Awad, and Jacob Zenn. The analysis found in this study is the author’s own and should not be construed to reflect the consensus of the participants in the Sovereign Challenge Conference or SOCOM.

  1. Isaiah Wilson III and Scott Smitson, “Solving America’s Gray-Zone Puzzle,” Parameters, 46, no. 4 (Winter 2016-2017), 57,
  2. The United States military, U.S. national security policymakers, and nongovernment analysts and academics have paid increasing attention to the gray zone, resulting in a relatively large body of literature on the topic. Recommended readings that define the challenges to the United States from actors utilizing gray zone activities are: U.S. Department of State, International Security Advisory Board, Report on Gray Zone Conflict (January 3, 2017),; Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin, “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone,” Joint Force Quarterly, 80 no. 1 (January 2016),; Michael J. Mazarr, Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict (Carlisle, PA: United States Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2015),; and U.S. Special Operations Command, “White Paper: The Gray Zone” (September 2015),
  3. Wilson and Smitson, “Solving America’s Gray Zone Puzzle,” 62.
  4. Melissa G. Dalton, Senior Fellow and Chief of Staff, International Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies,“Defeating the Iranian Threat Network: Options for Countering Iranian Proxies,” testimony to the Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Senate , November 29, 2016,; “The Gray Zone: Russia and Iran’s Hybrid Playbook,” YouTube, May 22, 2015,
  5. Ali Alfoneh, Iran Unveiled: How the Revolutionary Guards Is Turning Theocracy Into Military Dictatorship (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2013), 222; Robert Baer, The Devil We Know: Dealing With the New Iranian Superpower, (New York: Crown, 2008), 35.
  6. Scott Modell and David Asher, “Pushback: Countering the Iran Action Network,” (Center for a New American Security, September 2013), 5,; David Crist, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict With Iran (New York: Penguin, 2012), 123.
  7. Babak Rahimi, “Contentious Legacies of the Ayatollah,” in A Critical Introduction to Khomeini, ed. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 301; Maryam Panah, The Islamic Republic and the World: Global Dimensions of the Iranian Revolution, (London: Pluto Press, 2007), 1-70; and Ray Takeyh, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, (New York: Henry Holt, 2006), 34.
  8. “IRGC Commander Says Iran’s Sacred Defense Model for Resistance Forces,” Tasnim News Agency, October 3, 2016,; Karl Vick, “Iranian Commander Lets Slip That Revolutionary Guard Is Fighting in Syria,” Time, May 7, 2014,
  9. Sina Azodi, “Iran’s Durable Alliance with Assad’s Syria,” IranInsight, The Atlantic Council, March 29, 2017,; Arash Karami, “Iran defends its support for Syria, Iraq,” Al-Monitor, February 10, 2016,
  10. J. Matthew McInnis, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute, “Iranian Deterrence Strategy and Use of Proxies,” testimony to the Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Senate, December 6, 2016,
  11. J. Matthew McInnis, oral remarks at the SOCOM Sovereign Challenge conference, Raleigh, North Carolina, March 9, 2017.
  12. Ian Black and Saeed Kemali Dehghan, “Qassem Suleimani: commander of Quds force, puppeteer of the Middle East,” The Guardian, June 16, 2014,
  13. Hugh Naylor, “In Syria’s Aleppo, Shiite militias point to Iran’s unparalleled influence,” The Washington Post, November 20, 2016,; Nicholas Blanford, “Iran’s Influence is Tied to Assad’s Future,” MENASource, the Atlantic Council, May 12, 2015,
  14. Borzou Daragahi, “Inside Iran’s Mission To Dominate The Middle East,” Buzzfeed News, July 30, 2017,; Ali M. Latifi, “How Iran Recruited Afghan Refugees to Fight Assad’s War,” The New York Times, June 30, 2017,; and Phillip Smyth, “The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects,” Policy Focus 138 (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 2015),
  15. Joost Hiltermann, “Syria: The Hidden Power of Iran,” The New York Review of Books, April 13, 2017,; Christopher Kozak, “Iran’s Assad Regime” (Institute for the Study of War, March 2017),; and Ian Black, “How Iran’s shadowy role in Syria fuels paranoia and wariness,” The Guardian, September 21, 2015,
  16. Nicholas A. Heras, “The Potential for an Assad Statelet in Syria,” Policy Focus 132 (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 2013),
  17. “Syria’s multi-sided war escalates yet again,” The Economist, June 22, 2017,; Dexter Filkins, “Iran Extends Its Reach in Syria,” The New Yorker, June 9, 2017,; Hanin Ghaddar, “Iran May Be Using Iraq and Syria as a Bridge to Lebanon,” PolicyWatch 2729 (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 23, 2016),
  18. Barak Ravid, “Israel Has Warned Iran It Won’t Tolerate Arms Factories in Lebanon,” Haaretz, June 25, 2017,; Gili Cohen, “Iran Reportedly Built Weapons Factories in Lebanon for Hezbollah,” Haaretz, March 14, 2017,
  19. Angus McDowall, “Syrian war monitor says 465,000 killed in six years of fighting ,” Reuters, March 13, 2017,; “The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Its Repercussions for the EU,”, September 2016,
  20. Colin H. Kahl, Ilan Godlenberg, and Nicholas A. Heras, “A Strategy for Ending the Syrian Civil War,” (Center for a New American Security, June 2017),
  21. “Syria’s ‘de-escalation zones’ explained,” Al-Jazeera, July 4, 2017,; Lesley Wroughton and Yara Bayoumy, “U.S. to set up zones for refugees in fight against Islamic State: Tillerson ,” Reuters, March 22, 2017,
  22. Howard LaFranchi, “Marines sent to Syria. Can US withstand pull of expanded military conflict?” The Christian Science Monitor, March 13, 2017,; Jared Malsin, “The U.S. Troop Presence in Syria Is at Its Highest Ever. But How Long Are They on the Ground for and Why?” Time, March 12, 2017,
  23. Tom O’Connor, “Russian Military Could Force the U.S. Out of Syria, Army Official Says,” Newsweek, July 21, 2017,
  24. Sam Heller, “Washington’s Dead End in Syria,” Foreign Affairs, July 18, 2017,; Nicholas A. Heras, “Will the United States Be a Victim of Its Own Success in Syria?” The National Interest, March 23, 2017,
  25. Karoun Demirjian and Mike DeBonis, “House spending bill targets military authorization in rebuke to Trump on Syria, ISIS,” The Washington Post, June 29, 2017,; Susan Davis and Geoff Bennett, “Congressional Leaders Urge Trump Administration for Broader Syria Strategy,” All Things Considered, NPR, April 7, 2017,
  26. Anthony H. Cordesman, “Creeping Incrementalism: U.S. Forces and Strategy in Iraq and Syria from 2011 to 2016: An Update” (Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 1, 2016),
  27. Tom Perry, “Assad calls U.S. forces ‘invaders’, but still hopeful on Trump ,” Reuters, March 11, 2017,
  28. “U.S. does not disclose its ‘illegitimate’ bases in Syria, Russia’s Lavrov says,” Daily Sabah, July 21, 2017,; Tom O’Connor, “Syrian forces threaten to fight back after U.S. military strikes multiple times,” Newsweek, June 7, 2017,
  29. “Syria’s SDF warns Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi from crossing Syria-Iraqi borders,” Xinhua News, June 1, 2017,; Mustafa Saadoun, “Tehran, Washington set for proxy clash on Syrian-Iraqi border,” Al-Monitor, June 1, 2017,
  30. There is an active and well-established network of media and social media accounts providing coverage in support of the war effort of the Assad regime and its allies that have emerged over the course of the Syrian civil war. These outlets generally cover factual realities as they occur on the ground, in the context of military activities, through an editorial lens that supports the Assad regime and its allies’ narrative that the government of Bashar al-Assad is fighting a counter-insurgency campaign against foreign-backed Salafi-Jihadi organizations. Examples of these pro-Assad outlets include the Al-Mayadin news channel, which is based in Beirut, Al-Masdar News, which has bureaus in Beirut and Damascus, and social media accounts on Twitter such as “Ivan Sidorenko,” (@IvanSidorenko1), “Peto Lucem,” (@PetoLucem), “PartisanGirl,” (@Partisangirl), and “The’Nimr’Tiger,” (@TheNimrTiger or @Souria4Syrians). These media and social media outlets have increasingly focused on debunking international claims that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against opposition areas, portraying the armed opposition in an unflattering context, and, increasingly, drawing attention to the military gains of the Assad regime and its allies against ISIS. They have, for example, cited the mobilization of local populations by the regime to fight ISIS in order to undermine the argument that the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS is necessary because of inattention or inability of the forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad.
  31. Samuel Oakford, “The United States Is Bombing First, Asking Questions Later,” Foreign Policy, April 3, 2017,; Louisa Loveluck, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, and Missy Ryan, “Mounting claims of civilian deaths after U.S. targets al-Qaeda in Syria,” The Washington Post, March 17, 2017,
  32. John Irish, “France’s Macron says sees no legitimate successor to Syria’s Assad,” Reuters, June 21, 2017,
  33. “Iran ready to deal with ‘any misguided US step’: Ministry,” PressTV, July 10, 2017,; Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrew Osborn, “Syria calls U.S. air strike ‘terrorism’, Russia says ‘unacceptable ,’” Reuters, May 19, 2017,; and Thomas Grove, “Russia Says U.S. Buildup Violates Syrian Sovereignty,” The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2016,
  34. Ali Unal, “Chinese envoy stresses Syria’s territorial integrity, urges political solution,” Daily Sabah, July 24, 2017,; “Russia, China call for respecting Syria’s sovereignty, solving the crisis through political means,” Syrian Arab News Agency, July 4, 2017,
  35. Tess Bridgeman, “About that ‘Deconfliction Zone’ in Syria: Is the United States on Firm Domestic and International Legal Footing?” Just Security, June 15, 2017,; Lisa Mascaro, “Trump’s strike on Syria exposes growing GOP divide in Congress on foreign intervention and use of force,” The Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2017,; and Matt Ford, “Is the U.S. War Against ISIS Illegal?” The Atlantic, May 5, 2016,
  36. Somini Sengupta and Charlie Savage, “U.S. Invokes Iraq’s Defense in Legal Justification of Syria Strikes,” The New York Times, September 23, 2014,; Amanda Taub, “Experts: Obama’s legal justification for the war on ISIS is a ‘stretch,’” Vox, September 12, 2014,
  37. Tom O’Connor, “West needs Russia’s help to fight ISIS and Assad can stay, France’s Macron says,” Newsweek, June 21, 2017,; “Assad would ‘welcome’ U.S. troops to Syria, on his terms,” CBS News, February 10, 2017,
  38. Tom O’Connor, “U.S., Russia and Iran battle to build bases in Syria as ISIS falls,” Newsweek, July 18, 2017,
  39. Olivier Knox, "U.S. Strikes on Syrian Forces Completely Ilegal," Yahoo News, June 21, 2017,
  40. Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy), “Lavrov: Any US bases in Syria must be legal, i.e. authorized by the Syrian Govt through a bilateral treaty.” July 24, 2017, 12:41 p.m. Twitter.; Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Pentagon voices ‘concerns’ after Turkish news agency posts map of U.S. bases in Syria,” The Washington Post, July 19, 2017,
  41. Jim Lobe, “Arab Publics Prefer Light U.S. Footprint,” Lobe Log, June 3, 2014,
  42. Nicholas A. Heras, “Russia’s Escalation in Syria: Making It Tougher to Fight ISIS?” Syria Comment, April 8, 2017,
  43. Pamela Boykoff, “Russia: U.S. planes over western Syria now ‘air targets,’” CNN, June 20, 2017,; Eric Schmitt and Anne Barnard, “U.S. Warplanes in Syria Hit Pro-Government Militia Convoy,” The New York Times, May 18, 2017,; David E. Sanger and Anne Barnard, “Russia and the United States Reach New Agreement on Syria Conflict,” The New York Times, September 9, 2016,; and Idrees Ali, “Coalition Jets Scrambled to Defend U.S. Forces from Syrian Bombing,” Reuters, August 19, 2016,
  44. Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas A. Heras, “Is America Getting Sucked Into War In Syria?” The Atlantic, June 9, 2017,
  45. Author’s interviews in Europe with Iranian national security experts based in Tehran, July 9-12, 2017, and February 13-15, 2017.
  46. Omar Sattar, “How Iraq’s PMU law is disrupting national unity efforts,” Al-Monitor, December 14, 2016; Jean Aziz, “What are Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units doing in Beirut?” Al-Monitor, August 18, 2016; and “Al-‘Abadi min New York: Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi huwwa ahad tashkeelat al-dawlat al-rasmiyya [Al-‘Abadi from New York: The Hashd Shaabi are one of the official state formations],” Al-Qurat News, October 1, 2015.
  47. Salih Hamid, “Qa’id al-Hashd al-Shaabi: Afkhar Bikuni Jundiaan ladaa Solamani [Hashd Shaabi Leader: I am proud to be Solaimani’s soldier],” Al-Arabiyya, April 4, 2017; Joel Rayburn, Iraq After America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance (Palo Alto, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2014), 200; and “Abu Mahdi and Iran’s web in Iraq,” UPI, October 20, 2010.
  48. “Qassam Suleimani: Iran’s Near Invisible Quds Force Commander.” AFP. July 2, 2014,
  49. Farea al-Muslimi, “Iran’s Role in Yemen Exaggerated, but Destructive” (The Century Foundation, May 19, 2017),; Mareike Transfeld, “Iran’s Small Hand in Yemen” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 14, 2017),
  50. Author’s interviews in Europe with Iranian national security experts based in Tehran, July 9-12, 2017, and February 13-15, 2017.
  51. Iranian national security experts based in Tehran confirmed that the IRGC-QF is building a Yemeni Hezbollah. Author’s interviews with Iranian national security experts based in Tehran, in Europe, July 9-12, 2017, and February 13-15, 2017; Joshua Koontz, “Iran’s Growing Casualty Count in Yemen,” War on the Rocks, June 1, 2017,; Maher Farrukh, Tyler Nocita, and Emily Estelle, “Iran’s Hybrid Warfare in Yemen” (American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project, March 26, 2017),; and “After a year of boldness, Saudi Arabia is in retreat,” The Economist, December 10, 2016,
  52. James Brandon and Nicholas A. Heras, “Saudi Arabia’s Yemen Intervention: A High Risk Gamble ?” Terrorism Monitor,13, no. 20 ( October 2, 2015),; Frederic Wehrey, Theodore W. Karasik, Alireza Nader, Jeremy Ghez, Lydia Hansell, Robert A. Guffey, Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy. (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2009), 33,; and Mai Yamani, “Saudi Arabia Goes to War,” The Guardian, November 23, 2009,
  53. “Yemen’s Houthis standing ground against Saudi Arabia.” PressTV, February 7, 2014,
  54. For examples see: “Houthi fighters capture city near Yemeni capital.” Al Alam News Network. July 9, 2014; “Yemen’s Houthis standing ground against Saudi Arabia.” PressTV, February 7, 2014.
  55. “Yemen’s Houthis standing ground against Saudi Arabia.” PressTV, February 7, 2014.
  56. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Houthi forces appear to be using Iranian-made drones to ram Saudi air defense in Yemen, report says,” The Washington Post, March 22, 2017,; Jonathan Saul, Parisa Hafezi, and Michael Georgy, “Iran steps up support for Houthis in Yemen’s war—sources,” Reuters, March 21, 2017,; and Yara Bayoumy and Phil Stewart, “Iran steps up weapons supply to Yemen’s Houthis via Oman—officials,” Reuters, October 20, 2016,
  57. Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Simeon Kerr, “Iran calls for truce in Yemen,” The Financial Times, February 15, 2017,
  58. “UN, US, Britain Complicit in Saudi War Crimes in Yemen: Canadian Analyst,” Tasnim News Agency, March 24, 2017,; “UN Complicit in Saudi War Crimes in Yemen: British Analyst,” Tasnim News Agency, March 13, 2017,; and “Saudi Arabia commits systematic war crimes in Yemen: analyst,” PressTV, February 26, 2017,
  59. The analysis in this section draws from material provided during the presentations of Katherine Zimmerman, Aaron Y. Zelin, Jacob Zenn, and Mokhtar Awad at the SOCOM Sovereign Challenge Conference, Raleigh, North Carolina, March 9, 2017. Katherine Zimmerman’s presentation focused on al Qaeda’s strategy in the greater “core” Middle East, from the eastern Mediterranean to Afghanistan; the presentations of Aaron Y. Zelin, Jacob Zenn, and Mokhtar Awad focused on the strategies of Salafi-Jihadi organizations in the North Africa and trans-Sahara region. Additional citations in this section are also provided for specific points in the section’s discussion.
  60. Katherine Zimmerman, “AQAP Post-Arab Spring and the Islamic State,” in How Al-Qaeda Survived Drones, Uprisings, and the Islamic State, ed. Aaron Y. Zelin, Policy Focus 153 (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2017) 44-55,; Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Islamic State’s model,” The Washington Post, January 28, 2015,
  61. Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Jihadist group cements control of Syria’s Idlib province: rebels,” Reuters, July 23, 2017,; Ian Bremmer, “The Top 5 Countries Where ISIS Gets Its Foreign Recruits,” Time, April 13, 2017,; and Colin P. Clarke and Amarnath Amarasingam, “Where Do ISIS Fighters Go When the Caliphate Falls?” The Atlantic, March 6, 2017,
  62. Jacob Zenn and Abdou Cisse, “How al-Qaeda Will Benefit From Islamic State’s ‘Greater Sahara Province’” Terrorism Monitor, 15 no. 1 (January 13, 2017),
  63. Jacob Zenn, “AQIM’s Alliance in Mali: Prospects for Jihadist Preeminence in West Africa,” Terrorism Monitor, 15 no. 8 (April 21, 2017),
  64. Hassan Hassan, “Is the Islamic State Unstoppable?” The New York Times, July 9, 2016,; Michael R. Gordon, “ISIS Leaders Are Fleeing Raqqa, U.S. Military Says,” The New York Times, March 8, 2017,
  65. Aaron Y. Zelin, “Introduction,” in How Al-Qaeda Survived Drones, Uprisings, and the Islamic State, ed. Aaron Y. Zelin, Policy Focus 153, (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2017), 2-3,
  66. Khilal Bakur, “Hudu’ bi-Idlib ba’d istibikaat been Ahar al-Sham wa Tahrir al-Sham [Calm in Idlib after clashes between the Free Ones of the Levant and the Liberation of the Levant Association],” Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, March 7, 2017,; Khalid Walid, “Madha ba’d tashkeel ‘Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’? [What happens after the formation of the Liberation of the Levant Association?],” Baladi News, January 31, 2017,; and Jennifer Cafarella, Nicholas A. Heras, and Genevieve Casagrande, “Al Qaeda Is Gaining Strength in Syria,” Foreign Policy, September 1, 2016,
  67. Jenan Moussa, “Muhimmat Sirri fi Idlib [Undercover mission in Idlib],” Al-Akhbar, posted on YouTube by Hisham Sukkar, May 15, 2017,
  68. Yasmine El-Sabawi, “Experts pessimistic on Syria, warn of Al-Qaeda growth,” Kuwait News Agency, April 27, 2017,
  69. Charles Lister, “Al Qaeda Is Starting to Swallow the Syrian Opposition,” Foreign Policy, March 15, 2017,; Medyan Dairieh, “Inside the Battle: Al Nusra-Al Qaeda in Syria,” Vice News, November 11, 2015,
  70. Katherine Zimmerman, “The Manchester bombing is a wake up call for America and Europe,” The Hill, May 23, 2017,
  71. Andrew Lebovich, “AQIM’s Formalized Flexibility,” in How Al-Qaeda Survived Drones, Uprisings, and the Islamic State, ed. Aaron Y. Zelin, Policy Focus 153 (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2017), 56-58,
  72. Aaron Y. Zelin, “Manchester Attack Highlights Foreign Fighters in Libya,” Policy Watch 2810 (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 24, 2017),


  • Nicholas Heras

    Former Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Nicholas A. Heras is a former Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program. His work focused on the analysis of complex...

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