This is the edited transcript of a talk given by Dr. Sebastian Gorka
At The Westminster Institute on February 2, 2012
What I am going to do tonight is share with you my understanding of the threat we face today and the evolution of its ideology.
In good PowerPoint tradition I am going to give you my key points up front on one slide. The first message is one that does not get mentioned here in Washington D.C too often. The truth is you cannot separate good political Islam from bad political Islam. In fact, the phrase political Islam is nonsense. If you understand that Islam, not just in its extreme forms, but in its mainstream version sees politics, economics, law and faith as integral to each other and as part of “Sharia” – the way of life, then you understand that even the phrase ‘political Islam’ is a case of the West using its terminology for something that does not reflect Western concepts and categories. Therefore it is absolutely pointless to use this phrase and the idea at the very highest level at the White House today that there are “good Islamists” and “bad Islamists” is absolutely fallacious if you understand the history of this religion. In fact, you cannot separate politically-motivated Islam from jihadi ideology, they feed upon each other and are based upon each other because they cannot be separated in their genetic code from the ideology that informed and shaped the founding of Islam. Remember, Mohammad did not simply call himself a prophet, but was at one and the same time a head of state and a military commander.
Secondly, we must understand that al Qaeda (AQ) and al Qaeda and its Associated Movements (AQAM) are a product of decades, if not centuries, of ideological evolution. I teach courses on this topic that last ten months and we could go back to the 6th century, but that is not my brief today. If you want to do that depth of analysis buy Robert Reilly’s incredible book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind. The former director of the Voice of America and amateur theologian has explained it all in 220 pages; what happened to Islam in the 10th and 11th century and how that produced a progressive ideological evolution that would lead to the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda and Salafist Jihad. AQ cannot be solely understood as something that had to do with the Afghan War of the 1980s and then the World Trade Center. AQ must be placed in the broader contexts of ideological evolution.
The third point is that one must understand that there are two jihadi camps. There is the kinetic or violent jihadi camp, exemplified by AQ, and there is the non-kinetic jihadi camp, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, that do not need to use violence to achieve their goals. The essential point here is that these two types of actor have the same strategic intent. These are not competitors or enemies; they are members of the same team. They will have disagreements among themselves, but the nature of these disagreements is almost exclusively tactical or has to do with matters of timing. For example, Sheik Qaradawi of Al Jazeera has clearly sent a message on his television show which is viewed by over 40 million Arabs in the Middle East and the West that the jihadis need to ‘put the brakes on,’ that the West is getting wise to what their ultimate goal is and that the jihadis must slow down. That is a tactical matter not a strategic one. These groups are in the same camp and are united by their ultimate goals.
Lastly, this isn’t just a matter of the evolution of Islam or whether Islam can have a Reformation. You can make the argument that Osama bin Laden was the Martin Luther of Islam. Martin Luther said what about Christianity? That it had lost its way, it had been corrupted, and that we need to get back to our roots. That was the essence of his thesis. What did bin Laden or his mentor, Abdullah Azzam, say? Exactly the same thing as Martin Luther, but for Islam: Islam has become corrupted and must be returned to its roots, to what the jihadis say is the age of the four righteous Caliphs. So there is an element to bin Laden himself being a reformer or a Martin Luther figure for Islam, but that is not what we are talking about. The question here is an issue of packaging. We have to understand this isn’t about a war with a religion; this isn’t about a war with 1.2 billion individuals. If you boil this down to its operational essence this is about anybody in that camp who wishes to undermine the U.S. Constitution, whether by killing 3,000 civilians in 102 minutes on a beautiful Tuesday morning in New York or by instigating Sharia-compliant mortgages in 26 states of this great nation. Both of those things are a form of attack. When a New Jersey federal judge brings a decision that an American Muslim man is authorized to beat his wife because that is part of his cultural inheritance that is an attack on the U.S. Constitution. Nobody got shot, nobody was blown up, but it is just as much an attack on this great nation. We have to understand that these two camps together are assaulting the United States.
So let’s look at what the enemy is. The thing that really bothers me the most in all of the trainings I do is that we are now in our eleventh year of this war, which is now the longest war the U.S. has engaged in since 1776, extending further than the Vietnam, Korean, and World War II, yet we still remain unclear on who the enemy is. I go to all kinds of institutions where the audience is sitting there in uniform, sometimes junior officers, sometimes very senior officers and these individuals who really are risking their lives for America are debating among themselves what al Qaeda is. Is it an organization? Is it a network? Is it a network of networks? Or is it a movement? The mere fact that in the eleventh year of war the people who are risking their lives have not been given a strategic definition of the enemy is to me like a bad Monty Python sketch. It is really disturbing. Think of the analogy; in 1944 was anybody unsure about what the Third Reich was?
You can’t be unsure of who your enemy is because as Sun Tzu taught us, 50% of any conflict is understanding the enemy. One of the reasons we have this lack of understanding and strategic confusion is very simply because we are not allowed to objectively analyze the Enemy Threat Doctrine of al Qaeda. This phrase, enemy threat doctrine, simply means studying what the enemy wishes to achieve and how they wish to achieve it. This was the beginning of our understanding how to defeat the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In 1946 George Kennan, while his boss was on holiday, was sitting in the Moscow embassy and a cable arrives. The people in the U.S. at the State Department and the White House don’t understand what has happened to “Uncle Joe.” What is the occupied zone of Central and Eastern Europe? Why was Moscow openly breaking the promises of Yalta and Potsdam? This was the same Uncle Joe who had helped to defeat Fascism. What was he doing?
This request goes from Washington to Moscow, “Please explain to us what the Soviet Union is doing and how it thinks.” Kennan sees his moment of glory while the boss is out of the office. Kennan, who had been eating, drinking, and studying Russian history for the last twenty years, sits down and writes, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which would become the famous pseudonymous Mr. X article in Foreign Affairs in 1947. That lays the groundwork for a 5,000 word explanation of why the Soviet Union’s behavior is a product of centuries of imperial attitudes and expansionism and why Peter the Great is simply reflected in Josef Stalin. This explanation eventually helps America write then classified NSC-68 in 1950 which tells us that the enemy has an ideology that must be contained. Without that document, without Kennan explaining the nature of the enemy, without Paul Nitze writing NSC-68 which explained how to operationally contain communism, we probably wouldn’t have won in 1991.
So the first step in defeating an enemy is understanding his threat doctrine, why he behaves the way he does, what are the historic, cultural and conceptual explanations for his behavior. But we’re not allowed to do so today. Why? Well at first, we didn’t have the capacity to understand the threat. On September 11th, 2001 the CIA had two people who spoke Pashtun and one of them was a contractor. We knew where bin Laden was in Afghanistan, we knew the majority language was Pashtun. You could intercept every single email and satellite phone conversation in Afghanistan but if you can’t translate it what is that information? Just wastepaper. So we didn’t have the skill sets to deal with the contexts of the enemy and now it is not politically correct to discuss the enemy threat doctrine since religion is ‘verboten.’ So much so that the official description for the enemy we face today is “violent extremism,” despite the fact that from Osama bin Laden to Major Nidal Hasan, our enemies see themselves as holy warriors, recruiting their followers in mosques and quoting the Koran to justify their murderous acts.
So how do we begin to understand the enemy then? What can we do? I always tell my students that there are three ways to understand the enemy and to understand the nature of the ideology of al Qaeda. The first one is the most obvious–look at the organizational dynamic. How has AQ evolved over time? The first thing you must note is that AQ did not spring out of nowhere in 1993. AQ had a “pre-AQ,” or zero phase that was the Arab Services Bureau or the Afghans Services Bureau, also known as the MAK in Arabic. The MAK was created by bin Laden’s former mentor and boss, a Palestinian theologian named Abdullah Azzam. Azzam decided that when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan it was a classic case requiring jihad as its response. A secular Western nation invaded a Muslim country in 1979 and Azzam realized that there was no way that the Afghans by themselves could defeat the Soviet Red Army.
Azzam decides he has a holy mission to recruit other Muslims around the world to assist their coreligionists in Afghanistan. This is what the MAK was, an organization brought together to recruit, train, and deploy Arab Mujahedeen. Jordanians, Yemenis, Saudis – like bin Laden, Egyptians – like Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of AQ, to train them in Pakistan and to filter them into Soviet occupied Afghanistan. So that is the beginnings of AQ. After the Soviets withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989, Azzam is assassinated in Pakistan and the whole organization, 50,000 strong is taken over by bin Laden. So bin Laden created AQ out of this Afghanistan guerilla warfare organization.
Then we have an interesting dynamic we can identify through the biographies of key individuals in AQ that describes a generational evolution of the new organization that bin Laden leads. Generation One, which includes the founding members of AQ, is linked by two factors, these are people who would be in their fifties today, like al-Zawahiri and bin Laden who fought in the same theater of operations– Afghanistan in the 1980s. Generation One: fifty-somethings who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. Generation Two evolves from that cadre and is made up of the forty-somethings who after bin Laden took control of the organization and were looking for a new cause to fight for and realized Muslims were suffering in the Balkans, were deployed there to fight for the Muslims in Bosnia. The third generation is again linked by age and theater of operation. This generation is the thirty-something’s who at the end of the 1990s were sent to Chechnya or other former USSR territories to fight as mujahedeen. The big question today is; what is AQ 4.0? What is the next generation? Is it this fashionable concept of a network of networks? Is it the recent concept adopted by law enforcement in the United States of the lone wolf terrorist? We still are unsure or at least we don’t have consensus within the national security community of who the enemy is. So that is the organizational evolution of the threat.
The second way to look at the threat is to look at how we as a nation reacted to it. What labels did we use to define the challenge we were facing on September 12th, 2001? Here there have been many answers, both inside and outside of government. You could start with Charles Krauthammer, that “frightening” neoconservative who wrote an influential opinion piece on September 12th, 2001. In that piece Krauthammer said that we now understand the world. The new world order is shaped by the fact that we have a new existential threat, and that threat is an organization, not a state. So the Soviet Union was an existential threat from 1948 onwards with its 25,000 nuclear warheads. Now the Soviet Union is gone, Russia and Putin are our friends, and there is a new threat to our existence in America and the West coming in the form of al Qaeda. This influential article with its the idea of a new existential threat was built into our analysis and government following the events of 9/11. However, we had members of the cabinet who disagreed with Krauthammer. Colin Powell, the former General of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went on record again and again stating that al Qaeda was not the enemy; terrorism was the enemy. This is interesting because what is terrorism? Terrorism is a mode of irregular warfare. It would be akin to saying I am declaring war on air defense or I am declaring war on battle tanks. In the history of warfare we are usually more specific about the nature of the enemy we are facing. Powell’s boss himself, the President, then went on record and said something very different. President Bush said the enemy was not al Qaeda or a form of warfare; rather Bush went on record in a rather infamous speech from 2005 and said that the enemy is Islamofascism. This phrase is very interesting because it includes the term fascism which everyone in America automatically reacts to as being “bad” or “evil.” (What does Indiana Jones say in the movies? “Nazis, I hate these guys!”) However, Bush or his speechwriter then makes a retraction and says: This enemy is a totalitarian ideology like fascism, but it is using the cloak of a religion. This is a very compact concept; we have a totalitarian ideology that is exclusivist, absolutist, global in its ambitions, but it is using the veneer of Islam. The President was very open about this: We are not at war with Islam, but with the guys that are perverting Islam. Of course for diplomatic reasons this was dropped like a 1000-degree potato as soon as it was used, and President Bush never used it again.
The last concept is a very interesting one and has been rolling around for the last four years and has not yet become official but is very influential in Washington, especially because of its association with Gen. Petraeus and David Kilcullen, his advisor. The RAND Corporation, which is the federally funded research facility that is closest to the Department of Defense, has also fully bought onto this concept–that we are facing the world’s first global insurgency. They look at al Qaeda and they say, there is something unusual about it. In the 20th century the West faced numerous insurgencies; the VC in Vietnam, the Communists in Malaya, the insurgents in Algeria, the Maoists in China, and the observation has been made that in the history of insurgencies what we see is a pattern. All insurgents are focused on the prize of capturing their one particular country: the Vietnamese want to become one communist country in Vietnam, The Algerians want to capture Northern Algeria from the French, the Malayans want to become the government of that nation, and the ultimate insurgent Mao wanted to become the Premier of China. Petraeus and Kilcullen see Al Qaeda as completely different because it is not gunning for one country. AQ is not just about recapturing Afghanistan or Iraq. AQ wants Jordan, Yemen, Belgium, Spain, the US, it wants everything. So the conclusion they draw is that AQ is the world’s first global insurgency, and because of the success of the “Petraeus Manual,” FM-3-24 on Counterinsurgency, all we need to do is apply our doctrine of counterinsurgency globally. So GWOT, the Global War on Terror, is now replaced with GCOIN, Global Counterinsurgency. This is not official but it remains a very influential concept. I have written on this at length and it is all on the Internet about why this is a very problematic concept. The idea that you could take FM-3-24 on COIN, which isn’t a strategic text but rather a doctrinal field manual, and create a strategy is a mistake. Field manuals are “how to books,” similar to using your car manual to change a tire when you get a flat. FMs do not answer the “why” question and are not written to give a strategic response.
The last way we can look at the enemy, which is rarely talked about, is looking at al Qaeda in the historic contexts of Islamic and Arab history. We can go back centuries and centuries, but the most important thing is to place AQ in the last 100 years of Arab and Islamic history, to look at the evolution of the ideology that Patrick Sookhdeo, founder of the Westminster Institute, calls “global jihad.” I really think that is the best label for what we are facing. It is a global jihad, not a global insurgency, because the individuals involved are not politically motivated, they are religiously motivated. These are people who believe they have Allah on their side.
There have been five stepping stones in the last 100 years that are of core significance to understanding the threat of the ideology of global jihad. The first one is linked to the consequences of World War I. Many commentators have ridiculed bin Laden, Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaki for talking about creating a global Caliphate. Commentators have laughed at this concept and pointed to how absurd it would be to create a global religious empire based on the fundamentals of Islam. Those individuals should open a history book because the Caliphate is not some strange idea cooked up by violent Arabs in a cave in the FATA region of Pakistan. We should remember that the theocratic Islamic empire existed for centuries in different locations throughout the world; in places such as Persia, and Mesopotamia and Anatolia, and that the last iteration of the Caliphate existed only 100 years ago in the form of the Ottoman Empire.
For the Ottomans their problems began at the start of the 20th century, when they put their money on the wrong horse. In World War I they backed the losers. In 1918 they were looking at a very grim future. They saw the Austro-Hungarian Empire cut up into little parcels and gifted away to new nations like Yugoslavia. They saw the mighty Russian Empire collapsing into civil war and revolution. How would they survive being on the wrong side of World War I? A young and very able Turkish officer by the name of Kemal Ataturk has the answer: We will “out-West” the West and show them we are part of their political community. Ataturk decided that the Ottoman Empire would dissolve and become the secular Republic of Turkey. How did Ataturk convince the West not to parcel out the former Ottoman Empire? The first measure was by making Arab script illegal. This was a huge change for the Islamic population. Secondly, traditional Islamic and Turkish dress was made illegal. Essentially occurring overnight if you worked for the Turkish government you had to dress like a Westerner instead of in your normal attire. The third and most important act by Ataturk to change the Ottoman Empire to the Republic of Turkey was in declaring the country secular and officially separating religion from politics. The last measure was implemented by Ataturk in a way that made it a seismic psychological shock to the entire Muslim world. He dissolved the Caliphate in 1924. This ended the theocratic empire for Islam. The enormity of this step is a very difficult concept for non-Muslims to comprehend. It would be similar to the president of Italy dissolving the Vatican.
The second milestone or psychological shock to the system of Islam was the consequence of another global conflict, World War II. Two things run into each other at the end of World War II. You’ve all seen the black and white newsreels of the GIs liberating the death camps and finding piles of bones, shoes, clothes. But they also find survivors. Hitler did not kill all the Jews, so therefore you had survivors of the holocaust who had lost their entire families and did not wish to return to their former homes in Germany, Austria or elsewhere in Central or Eastern Europe. This raised this issue of where to send the Jewish survivors of the holocaust. This is where history smiles upon the problem because we had Palestine. What was happening at exactly the same time in the British Mandate of Palestine? The British were under attack, losing control. The King David Hotel was bombed and there were calls to free this area from under British control. At this point the British decided they had neither the blood nor treasure to maintain Palestine after fighting the Nazis for six years and decided to withdraw from the area. Therefore the status of this territory, which had been historically Jewish as well as Arab since antiquity, was open. The suggestion was made to give the land to the Jews and of course what did the newly independent Arab nations say to the idea of creating a Jewish country? No thank you. (Let us recall that Jerusalem is not just important for Jews and Christians; it is also where Muhammad was supposed to have risen into heaven!) Despite the importance of Palestine to the Arab states and Islam they completely and utterly failed to block the creation of Israel. The Arab leaders lost Palestine and this was the second shock to the system.
The third milestone is the most important of all and occurs in 1979. One interesting fact about 1979 is that on the lunar calendar that Islam follows this year was actually 1499. There was great expectation for the entry into the 16th century and what changes it will bring for the Islamic world. Just as we in the Christian world have had millenarian cults, Islam was pregnant with the idea that something big was going to happen at the turn of the century. Three very big things did happen. First, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The Soviets were considered a secular, heathen, Western nation to Muslims and this invasion was an attack on the Muslim world. This brought about a classic call for jihad to protect fellow Muslims. This mobilized people like Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden, and Zawahiri. Secondly, we saw the Iranian revolution that was monumental in significance to the Muslim world despite it being in Persia and being conducted by Shi’a Muslims. Iran sent a message to the West in 1979 that they fully repudiated the Western model of a nation-state: The separation of church and state is haram; it is antithetical to Islam and we will reintegrate faith and politics. This is exactly what you are seeing now in the Arab Spring. From Tunisia to Libya and Egypt you are seeing the reintegration of faith into politics; Iran led the way in 1979 and they are still doing it today. They have been successful in rejecting what the West sees as one definitional aspect of modernity. The separation of faith and politics mandated by Ataturk has been undone by the events in Tehran.
The last event, which is more important than all of the other events combined, is the siege of Mecca. While the Soviets were becoming embroiled in Afghanistan and the U.S. was desperately trying to rescue its hostages in Tehran, Saudi Arabia witnessed a much more important event. Three hundred jihadists, mostly Saudi but also Yemeni, decide the King of Saudi Arabia was not a Muslim and that he had betrayed the faith and that Islam was being destroyed from inside by the House of Saud. The jihadists acquired the blessing of several Saudi clerics who agreed with them in saying the King is an apostate and must be removed from power. The jihadists then went to Mecca, captured the Grand Mosque and lay claim to the heart of Islam. For almost two weeks the Grand Mosque in Mecca belonged to jihadist terrorists.
Saudi Arabia in 1979 has no counterterrorism capacity, it has no special forces, and in fact it is eventually the French who will help out the Saudi King when a group of French commandos goes to Riyadh on a secret mission, are made Muslims so they may enter the Mecca, and eventually remove the jihadists. However, in the meantime, the Saudi King found out that this mission was sanctioned by Saudi clerics and finds out who they were. He then invited them to the Holy Palace and offered them positions as Court Clerics, promising them and their offspring jobs for life IF they would guarantee that Jihadi ideology would never again threaten the House of Saud or his government. Unfortunately for us and the Muslim world these clerics took the job offered by the King. More disturbingly, one of the footnotes to that arrangement was that violent jihadi ideology must never again threaten the House of Saud or Saudi Arabia; however its propagation overseas is not only permissible but is condoned by the House of Saud. How do we know this? One of the most heinous versions of the Koran in English, which has footnotes about Jews and Christians as pigs and donkeys and includes the requirement for good Muslims to acquire weapons of mass destruction to kill the infidel, entitled “The Noble Koran” was until recently the most widely available version of the Koran available in federal penitentiaries in the United States. This version of the Koran was printed by the government of Saudi Arabia and included the seal of the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. Fortunately six years ago someone in the FBI actually read this version of the Koran and it is no longer available in our prisons. So this is how we get to where we are today. This is why we have all the Saudi influence all over the United States and in universities like Georgetown and Harvard, because it is about ideology and the propagation of this ideology.
The last two milestones are the obvious success stories. In 1988 we have the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. If you are bin Laden sitting on a ridgeline watching the Red Army retreat through your binoculars to Uzbekistan who do you think won that war? “Me and my guys, not the two million Afghans that were slaughtered, but my 50,000 mujahedeen.” They believed they had defeated a superpower that three years later would collapse. “We have not just militarily defeated a superpower; we have destroyed a superpower because God is on our side.”
The last milestone on the evolution of jihadi ideology are the events of 1990 and 1991. This began with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which is located next to Saudi Arabia. In 1991 bin Laden is still a Saudi national, whose father, Mohammed bin Laden, ran the largest contracting company in Saudi Arabia and was contracted to repair the Grand Mosque following the 1979 siege. (Most of the highways built in Saudi Arabia were contracted out to the bin Laden Group and Mohammed bin Laden.) Because of this relationship Osama bin Laden had very close connections to the House of Saud. He sees his own country under threat from a secular, Arab, Stalinist dictator, Saddam Hussein, whom he considers just as much an enemy as the Soviet Union because Hussein is not a true Muslim. Osama bin Laden travels to the royal palace and asks for an audience and the king receives him. Bin Laden says to the king, “My Holy Warriors have just vanquished the Soviet Union. Allow me as a good Saudi national to protect my homeland from the apostate.” But in 1990 the Iraqi Army was the largest in the Middle East. It had over millions of men in uniform. So the king rejected the offer. How would bin Laden’s guerillas in sandals and Kalashnikovs defeat Saddam? Bin Laden was further insulted by the king’s refusal when the king then asked the U.S. to protect the two holy sites. Remember, if you are bin Laden, it is not America that is coming to help, it is the ‘Zionist Crusaders.’ The Zionist Crusaders, with the blessing of the King of Saudi Arabia, are going to deploy to the holiest country in the Muslim world. It is clear to me that this is the point when something snaps in bin Laden. He had been the head of a guerilla organization training to fight Russians, Serbs, Croats and this is when that changes. His own king rejecting him and relying on the Zionist crusaders instead pushes bin Laden to create al Qaeda as we know it today. It goes from being an international guerilla organization to being an international terrorist organization. Within months bin Laden is stripped of his Saudi citizenship for making statements against the king and within two years the first World Trade Center attack occurs in 1993. This is the progression of al Qaeda’s ideology and how it must be placed into a longer chain of Arab events.
What is that ideology today? How do we get inside the mind of the threat group we face across the world and inside our own country? Let me just summarize: if you want to understand the enemy today, you must know at least four jihadi ideologues. The first individual, Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian bureaucrat, is the key ideological, doctrinal and strategic master of the Muslim Brotherhood. His book, Milestones, is available in any Muslim cultural bookstore in Northern Virginia today. This is the “how to” manual for the Muslim Brotherhood on how to achieve global victory for Allah. This book is based upon Qutb’s two years in America on an exchange program in Colorado, California and Washington. During his stay Qutb decides that the United States is a Godless, sex-obsessed, materialistic, heretic nation that must be destroyed.
Milestones has a very clear message which goes back to the pre-history of Islam. Qutb says the world is again in a state of jahiliyya, mirroring the state of pagan ignorance of Allah that Muhammad found in Mecca when the Koran was revealed to him. Mecca had been a site of pilgrimage for centuries before Muhammad was born, but it was primarily a site of pilgrimage for polytheist pagans to worship their multiple gods. That state of pagan ignorance and worshipping things that are not Allah is called jahiliyya. Qutb reaches back to the 7th century and uses this word and wrenches it into the 1950s and states that we are again in a state of jahiliyya and he must cleanse the world of its ignorance. The only way to do that according to Qutb is through jihad and holy war. In a direct quote, Qutb states, “Islam is not a religion, it is a revolutionary party.” It is no accident that this book lifts heavily from Marxist, Leninist and fascist doctrine. Qutb lifts whole concepts, such as the vanguard from Lenin and Marx which will later be used by Azzam and bin Laden years later. Qutb built a whole new theology of jihad in a context exploiting Western ideology. He is eventually arrested by Nasser’s regime, executed and becomes a martyr for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The second individual is Abdullah Azzam, who was the creator of the MAK or pre-al Qaeda, and served as bin Laden’s former mentor and boss. This man is special and unusual in the constellation of jihadi ideologues because he had a PhD in Islamic Jurisprudence from the most important university in Islam, Al Azhar. This is the university where President Obama gave his infamous Cairo speech in 2009. In Islam credentialing and reputation are even more important than they are in the West so that fact that Azzam had a PhD in Islamic jurisprudence meant that when he issued a fatwa it was a real fatwa. (Bin Laden spouted fatwas every other Tuesday but bin Laden was only a business major; so even in the Islamic world his background in business and engineering did not authorize him to issue fatwas. Azzam could issues fatwas.) Azzam wrote a book that was a seventy page fatwa titled In Defense of Muslim Lands. This book states argues that because Ataturk dissolved the Caliphate and there is no Caliph who can declare war, jihad is now fard’ayn, meaning jihad is now the individual obligation of every good Muslim. This obligation was not a collective obligation that would be initiated by the Caliph; instead Muslims must take it upon themselves to self-deploy to defend Muslim lands. Azzam went on to say that a Muslim did not need permission from anyone to declare jihad; not your parents, wife, or even husband, (the last idea being very radical in Arab culture.)
The third individual is now the head of al Qaeda since bin Laden’s death. His name is Ayman al Zawahiri, an Egyptian from a very influential Cairo family. He was not some kind of loser from the fringes of society. His one grandfather was the Secretary of the Arab League; the other was the Imam of the Al Azam Mosque. This is a man embedded in the elite of the elite of Egyptian society. Zawahiri is a medical doctor who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a founding member of the Islamic Egyptian Jihad or EIJ. He was considered a radical in Egypt, arrested, tortured, released from prison in 1982. He then went on jihad. He travelled to Pakistan and began to give medical assistance to the jihadis fighting the Soviets and that is where he met bin Laden. This is where we first see the puritanical Wahhabi jihadism of bin Laden meld with this other kind of Egyptian fundamentalism. The melding of these two strains of jihad is what gives us the al Qaeda we know today.
The last individual is the most important of all but very few people have ever heard of him, even in the intelligence community. He is Brigadier S. K. Malik. If you only read one person to understand the enemy, read S.K. Malik’s book, The Quranic Concept of Power. Malik was a General in the Pakistani Army and in 1979 he wrote a book unlike any book in the canon of Western literature. This man is the equivalent of a Thomist theologian mixed with a little Dan Brown, sprinkled with some von Clausewitz. For Malik was a man writing strategy of war but a theological strategy of war within the contexts of Islam.
Malik was far from being a fringe individual; just look at who sanctioned the writing of his book. The foreword was written by the equivalent of our acting Attorney General, who fully endorsed the text. The introduction of the book was written by General Zia al Haq, the commander of all Pakistani forces and after a friendly coup, the President of Pakistan. So this is like walking into a bookstore tomorrow and seeing a book on the table written by a US general with a foreword by AG Eric Holder and a preface by President Obama! Not a fringe text.
The book delivers three messages: First, it repudiates the Clausewitzian concept of war as the continuation of politics by other means (i.e. when other tools such as economics or diplomacy won’t protect your nation’s interests you must use violence or war to achieve those ends.) Malik completely rejects this concept by saying that not only does war have nothing to do with the national interest, in fact it has nothing to do with the nation-state because the nation-state is a heretical Western invention. Warfare only ever has one purpose and that is the realization of Allah’s sovereignty on this earth. It doesn’t matter who is fighting, where they are fighting, or when they are fighting because war only serves the realization of Allah’s sovereignty on this earth.
The second message of the book again repudiates Clausewitzian theory and the idea of centers of gravity in warfare. In military academies around the world soldiers are taught to fight the enemy’s weaknesses and locate so-called centers of gravity, to attack those weaknesses since if you hit them hard enough the entire edifice of the enemy will crumble. Malik said that there is no such thing as multiple centers of gravity, or even a physical center of gravity in warfare. Malik said there is only one center of gravity in warfare and that is the soul of your enemy; the faith system of the enemy. That is what you must crush if you wish to win in warfare.
Thirdly, and linked to that point, Malik states that since the soul is the only center of gravity that counts, the best weapon in warfare is terror. A general in the Pakistani Army, endorsed by the President of Pakistan, is telling the world that 9/11 is the kind of thing you want to do if you want to win a war. This is not how the United States or any of her allies understands war. But it is how our enemy does.
The last topic I wish to discuss revolves around the kind of strategy being used by al Qaeda. Irregular warfare is waged much more often than conventional warfare and this has been the case throughout most of history and there are really only two complete theories on how to wage irregular warfare. The first one I will discuss was developed by Che Guevara. Guevara established what is called the focoist concept of insurgencies. To Guevara this meant you didn’t have to build a large movement, you just had to lead by example. All you had to do is go out into the jungles of Latin America and lead by your fearless, Marxist example and the people would be in awe of you, drop their pitchforks and join your revolution. Che Guevara’s top-down approach was wrong and that is why he died a young man. The focoist theory does not work.
The other school is the real school of irregular warfare, and that is the people’s war of Mao Zedong. Mao understood how to defeat powerful countries. In fact it is not an overstatement to say that Mao is the Clausewitz of irregular warfare. Mao said that if you wanted to beat a powerful country like the Nationalist Chinese government, the United States or another great nation you must build your movement from the ground up. You conduct a people’s war by going out into the country to motivate and recruit the disenfranchised to your cause; you appoint local agitators and you build a “counter-state” or an oppositional shadow government.
For the ideology we face today the fact was that back in 2001 bin Laden was a Guevarist. By hitting the most important economic, military, and political symbols of the United States bin Laden expected a groundswell and that the ummah, the world community of Islam, would rise up in holy war and vanquish the infidel. He did not understand that if you are fighting a powerful enemy you have to be a Maoist; you must use the indirect approach. Hamas and Hezbollah are Maoists. They understand that you need to build health clinics, open schools, provide services and build madrasas. These are all parts of the counter-state. What we have seen over the past 10 years on the jihadi web blogs is that the bad guys are learning and understand that it is not about frontal assaults and big symbolic acts of violence; it is about building a base, providing services, and providing Shari’a compliant mortgages in places like Northern Virginia, “cultural centers” in Minnesota. The enemy is learning.
To summarize, AQ must be understood as only a part of a much larger and broader movement. That movement plans to use all means, not just violent, to destroy our way of life. This includes political and economic warfare, and very sophisticated informational operations.
This war is potentially much more dangerous than the Cold War. Why did the system of mutually assured destruction (MAD) work during the Cold War? Both sides enjoyed life too much to press the button. If your enemy is convinced that not only will he go directly to heaven if he dies trying to kill you but he can also vouch entry into heaven for his best friends and family members why would he not press that button? Weapons of Mass Destruction as therefore very attractive to our current enemy, not as bargaining chips, but as keys to paradise.
Unfortunately the White House is currently taking measures to make it even more difficult to discuss the enemy threat doctrine we have been discussing today. There are two enemy groups out there that wish us dead or enslaved. The first one, the kinetic terrorists or violent jihadists, is the one that the media and the U.S. Government obsess over. The second group, which far outweighs the first group in their overall impact and numbers, is the nonviolent jihadists. The important thing to understand is that both of these groups are linked. Their strategic end state is exactly the same; a global Caliphate under Shari’a law. If we fail to understand this and focus all of our resources on the first group we are going to wake up one morning to realize that we have already lost the war.
Sebastian L. v. Gorka PhD, is Military Affairs Fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, adjunct professor with the Institute for World Politics and Georgetown University, and a regular instructor with US Special Forces and the FBI. Dr. Gorka welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.