The Future of Jihadist Terrorism
May 25, 2011
Dr. Sebastian L. Gorka, Director, National Security Fellowship Program at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Contributing co-editor, Toward A Grand Strategy Against Terrorism.
I’ve been struggling with the- what I saw as the biggest difference between the last war and this war and that’s that the Soviet Union was a nation-state and we’re- we’re facing a non nation-state actor, but I think you’ve given us something to grasp onto with this sponsorship, so thank you. Thanks to the hosts. Thanks to our sponsors. I’m going to try and be very short so we have as much time as possible to address questions to any of the topics that have risen today.
The first thing I’d like to do is just to share a personal anecdote. Six years into the longest war America has ever fought, I was at a three-day conference sponsored by Special Operations Command. [There were] only four colonels in Special Operations Command so [they were] individuals who had just come from theater or were deploying back to the theater, who were in the thick of it and it was a discussion of counterinsurgency and the nature of Al-Qaida. I was speaking on the last day and as I got up to speak I deliberately tore up my speaking notes because I had to tell the
colonels in the room who were the people putting their lives on the line that I’ve just seen you 300 colonels debate for three days who the enemy is… and we’re six years into this war. We’re having arguments amongst the people who are putting their lives on the line as to whether the enemy is an organization, a network, a network of networks – whatever that means – or a movement. This is equivalent to us debating in- at the beginning of 1945 what the Third Reich is. And unfortunately things have not got better in the four years since that conference.
My task today is to talk about U.S. national security ten years on, a very brief overview of what’s happened in that decade, and a prediction for the future of this nation, facing this, a deadly binary threat. The first thing I have to do, because I do teach at government institutions, is the standard boilerplate: nothing I say necessarily – I mean I wish it would – nothing necessarily represents the views of any U.S. agency, especially the Department of Defense, but maybe it will sooner or later. As a qualified PowerPoint ranger I will do what is obligatory in DoD, the functions, and that is to tell you upfront what I wish to tell you, then tell you what I want to tell you, and remind you what I just told you. So if you’ve really had too much of the carrot cake, everything I want to say is on this one slide, okay? So this is this is the take home- a cheat sheet, okay?
So my message is the following: violent Islam is in the ascendancy. Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Al-Alawki, they are the Britney Spears of the Arab and Muslim world, not the moderates. If you go into the Fatah souqs, you will not be buying DVDs of moderate clerics, giving lectures. Next to the Rambo videos you will be seeing DVDs of beheadings and speeches by Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahri so the trend is not in our favor.
Secondly, and this is… I might be taking my life in my hands saying this in this city, but the fact is violent Islam is founded on rock-solid traditions within the broader Muslim context. That’s the fact. I agree with Patrick that most Muslims do not wish us ill, but those who do are not un-Islamic and that’s why, as Stephen pointed out, you cannot argue with them in their own textual context. You can’t quote peaceful verses of the Qur’an to defuse the enemy because the latter portions of the Quran are still in the Quran and are immutable. 9:29: “Kill them all or if they submit, allow them the second-class status of dhimmitude. That’s in the Quran whether we like it or not.
Thirdly, after almost a decade since September 11th, America and the West misunderstand the threat and often empower the radicals. We have exchange programs funded by the U.S. government, by you and me, that bring putative moderates to the United States and I’ve met with these individuals, who say they’re never coming back to the United States because the Muslims our government introduced them to here are scarier than the radicals they face back home and they’re not prepared to come back because of the people they were introduced to in this country by our government on our tax dime.
For- for the DoD types out there, I’ll unpack this in a little bit more detail. We are obsessed with the kinetic. We still think this is about stuff blowing up and people getting shot. This war has long, long passed the phase of being about things blowing up and people getting shot. It’s about the things John Lenczowski and Bob Reilly and John Moore were talking about. It’s about political warfare. It’s about economic warfare and psychological warfare. We can lose this war. We can lose this war on economic, political, and legal grounds long after Bin Laden is fish food and long after Al-Qaeda is kinetically defeated. There are other people out there who are far more dangerous than Al-Qaeda. Lastly, both the violent jihadists, the violent terrorists, and the nonviolent soft jihadists, have the same aim, destroying our country and its values. That’s what we have to realize. Yes, they’ll disagree on tactics and the Muslim Brotherhood will argue with our Al-Awlaki, yes, but they have the same strategic end-state in mind and that’s why we have a lot of enemies out there.
Okay, so what have we been doing for 10 years? This slide is from the last Ambassador for Counterterrorism in the State Department and what sounds strange on paper, legally in the United States for the last 25 years, it is the Ambassador for Counterterrorism at the State Department, who is the lead agency actor in the
United States to combat international terrorism. It’s not Special Operations Command. It’s not even DHS or DoD. There’s actually the State Department for various reasons. This is his slide from the week before he retired and was replaced by the Obama appointee. This is the official unclassified diagram of what America did for the first eight years of the Global War on Terror. It’s a pyramid without the top hard power tools, okay? At the bottom soft power tools and the pyramid denotes that for eight years, 15% of our assets, our money, our personnel were dedicated to the kill or capture of the enemy, the sexy stuff, the SEAL Team 6, the Jack Bauer stuff. As you move down the pyramid, 20% of what we did, what we spend money on, expended our personnel effort, was on disrupting the enemy’s infrastructure, how they recruited, how they established networks, safe houses, and financed themselves. And lastly, the biggest part of the pyramid, the foundation of the pyramid, 65% of what we’ve been doing for those years, is addressing, ameliorating the conditions, which are exploited by the jihadists; poverty, under-education, disenfranchisement, you name it, okay?
Now, maybe it was because he was just about to retire, the ambassador added a very important caveat to this official representation of what we’ve been doing strategically for eight years. He said this is what we’ve been doing, but there’s only one problem [with] this diagram. It’s completely upside-down. Let’s have a look at the enemy. How has the enemy evolved? Who is the enemy?
Just very briefly, I have three ways of understanding the enemy. The first one is based on a piece I did for Jamestown on the- looking at it as an organization, how it’s evolved over time. The essence here is Al-Qaeda has evolved in generations, in phases. There is a linkage in age groups of members and where they were deployed. So the first generation, generation one, Bin Laden-Zawahiri, our individuals who are in their 50s and are linked by the theater of operations that was Afghanistan in the 1980s. That’s the core link. The next are the 40-something individuals who after the Soviet withdrawal, were deployed by Bin Laden when he took over the Arab Service Bureau to the Balkans to fight for Muslim core causes in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans. The third generation are the 30-somethings who in the late 1990s were again linked by a theater of operations, but this time it was in Chechnya and Georgia of being deployed into the former Soviet Union to fight for Islamic causes there. So there’s an interesting evolution in age groups and theater of operations.
The question is today what is our kind of 4.0? We haven’t agreed on what it is. Is it a movement? Is it a network? Is it an ideology? It is no longer linked by theaters of operation. In fact, some of the work Tom [Joscelyn] and his colleagues do at the Long War Journal is very interesting in tracking the story of Al-Qaeda by individual biographies, looking at key players and where they have been and what they have done in the last five years. If you’re not familiar with it, then please do have a look at the Long War Journal because through the life of individual AQ actors you can learn a lot about the organization.
Another way of looking at Al-Qaeda is the way we rhetorically label it, our response to it. Here you can talk of numerous different variation. The first one is of course September the 12th, 2001 where that scary neocon Charles Krauthammer gives us the first label: Al-Qaeda is the “existential threat” to the United States after its capacity to kill 3,000 people in 102 minutes in downtown New York and Washington. It is the them-or-us enemy of the post-Cold War age. That’s one of the rhetorical label[s]. But then we have the government saying some other things. We have Colin Powell and members of the cabinet say, “Well, the enemy isn’t actually Al-Qaeda. The enemy’s terrorism. The enemy is a form of warfare. It’s equivalent to saying the enemy is main battle tanks anywhere, whether they belong to the French, the British, or- or the Egyptians. Its main battle tanks, a little bit of confusion, but just to add to the confusion the president himself gives another answer. It’s not Al-Qaeda. It’s not terrorism. It is Islamo-fascism, which he used once and then dropped as if it were a thousand-degree potato, not just a hot potato, and ran away from for various reasons. But a very interesting concept, exactly because of the thing Stephen pointed out, that we’re talking about a- what I call a ‘hybrid totalitarianism’, that’s the enemy’s ideological worldview, the hybrid form of totalitarianism because it injects transcendental truth on behalf of the putative actor into totalitarianism.
And lastly, in the last four years you’ve seen a new answer, percolating around the Beltway around people like General Petraeus and in the RAND Corporation that Al-Qaeda is, in fact, the world’s first global insurgency. Every other insurgency has been about taking control of power in one country, whether it was Mao in China, whether it was the the North Vietnamese in Vietnam. This is the first insurgency that has global ambitions and global capabilities. It’s not just about taking control of Afghanistan or Pakistan. It’s about a global Caliphate. [It’s an] interesting concept but there are some problems with the so-what answer to this observation. Because people say it’s the first global insurgency, they immediately jump to the answer. Aha, therefore, all we need to do is global counterinsurgency. Well, there is no such thing as global counterinsurgency because the metric for success in any counterinsurgency – doesn’t matter whether it’s Algeria or Vietnam – is one word: legitimacy. Who has legitimacy, the enemy insurgent or the counter-insurgent government fighting them? And I know what it means as a professor of irregular warfare, what it looks like if the Colombian government is legitimate in Colombia when it faces the FARC. I know how to measure British legitimacy in Northern Ireland in the face of the IRA. I have no idea what global legitimacy looks like, unless everybody wants to listen to Britney Spears and wear blue jeans, but- but I think that’s probably a weak definition of legitimacy, so there are some issues with this concept.
Anyway, the third way, which I think is the most important: in the last ten years [it] really has not been discussed except in places where Patrick and Steven and the ilk have been lecturing, is the following one, and that’s to understand the enemy we are facing as a result of 20th century Arab and Islamic history.
Now, of course if you have the time, you go back 1,100 years. You go back 1,300 years. You buy Bob’s book and you read about the theological debate that occurred in the 10th and 11th century, but at least the U.S. government, at least the threat assessment doctrine writers in Washington should understand Al-Qaeda as not something created in 1993 with the first World Trade Center bombing, but as a[n] ideological offshoot of key events in the 20th century.
The first one, of course, is the voluntary dissolution by the Muslim world of the last Caliphate. As a- as a result of World War I, Kemal Mustafa Atatürk, a very successful military leader, realizes the Ottoman Empire will not be allowed to survive as a religious theocracy in southern Europe. So what does he do? He secularizes the rump Ottoman Empire and in 1924, as a Muslim who secularized his country, who’s introduced- who’s banned the Arabic alphabet. He says, ‘I now dissolve the Caliphate’. That is the first 20th century slap in the face for a fundamentalist Muslim. You don’t have to be extreme. You just have to be a good Muslim. The fact that a Muslim dissolves the Caliphate is the first giant shock to the system. [The] second shock to the system is again after a global conflict in 1945 to 1948. What happens in the heart of the Middle East, in the middle of hundreds of millions of Arabs? The Arab elite of the Middle East not only fails to create a Palestinian state, which was on the table at the United Nations in 1945, not only do they fail to create a Palestinian homeland, Israel is created and they don’t block the creation of Israel in the midst of the Arab-Islamic world. [This was the] second slap in the face for the Islamic world view. The most important year is however, 1979, for two obvious reasons and two less obvious reasons. The first one, that Patrick pointed out to me several years ago, is a very important psychological one, that 1979 in the Arab calendar – and let’s remember, they don’t follow our calendar – was 1499 and I don’t have time to go into it, but the the turn of century or the millenarian expectation in the Arab world, in the Muslim world, is very important so the expectation of the beginning of a new century was a psychological pressure in the Arab and Muslim world in 1979.
Secondly, of course, obviously, the Iranian Revolution. Yes, yes, they’re Persians. Yes, they’re Shia, but what does the Iranian Revolution prove to the West? That Muslims do not need to follow the Westphalian nation-state model they can create a successful theocratic regime. They can thumb the nose at Western international relations theory and say we’re going to do it different: no separation of church and state and, of course, the invasion of Afghanistan, which for bin Laden’s former boss Abdullah Azzam becomes a rallying call for guerrilla jihadism in Central Asia. The last event, which we really don’t talk about, I’m very glad Patrick mentioned it this morning, and I think it’s more important than all of those events combined, is the siege of Mecca. I can’t tell you how many intelligence analysts I’ve, you know, been in a room with. We have no idea what happened in Saudi Arabia as- as President Carter was having kittens and as we were, you know, obsessing about what’s going on in Afghanistan. The fact is 300 jihadists with automatic weapons walked into the Grand Mosque in Mecca and took control for almost two weeks of the holiest site in Islam. This is like the Branch-Dravidians, this is like David Koresh, that- that completely crazy Christian sect leader, walking into downtown Rome into the Vatican City with his mates, with some M16s, and taking control of Saint Peter’s Basilica for two weeks and saying, “I am Christ-come back.”
Now, it’s not the shock to the system of of the site being taken control of. It is the response of the Saudi King that is why we are, in part, where we are today. One of the side products of that crisis, before the French commandos were secretly converted to Islam and allowed into the mosque to kill those guerrillas, was the fact that the king – this is in a superb book by The Wall Street Journal, a journalist, the Siege of Mecca – the king of Saudi Arabia located the Imams who had blessed this jihadi action and he said to them never again can jihadist Salafi ideology be allowed to threaten my family or my power in this country. I know who you are and I know what you did in approving of this action because you think I’m an apostate, but I want to cut a deal with you. If you make sure that my regime is never threatened again by Salafi jihadism on the soil
of Saudi Arabia, you will become the court clerics and you, your sons, and your grandsons will be set up for life. Badly, for us the clerics took that offer and that is why until three years ago the most heinous, heinous English language version of the Qur’an distributed in federal penitentiaries in the United States, which actually had footnotes about Christians and Jews as pigs and donkeys and the need for Muslims to acquire weapons of mass destruction and to use them against the kufar of the infidel, why that Qur’an was published by the Saudi government until the FBI banned it from federal penitentiaries.
And then we have, of course, 1988. Why is that important? Bin Laden and Zawahiri
think they beat a superpower. The Soviet Union leaves Afghanistan and it’s not
because of the Afghans not because of the CIA. It’s because of me, because of my
jihadi 50,000, who actually beat the superpower. 1990-1991: not only did we beat a superpower for jihadists, your enemy ceases to exist. You destroy them. Best Christmas present I ever had, Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet Union dissolves itself and if you’re Bin Laden, you say, ‘well I did that’. And who’s left? We are. The United States is the next superpower and now it’s our turn and when did- when does it become our turn? When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, bin Laden goes home. Let’s remember, Bin Laden’s father was best buddies with the king of Saudi Arabia and he says to the king, “Let me and my jihadists protect you from this apostate, Saddam Hussein.” Not only does the king laugh in his face, it chooses us, the Zionist Crusaders, to protect
Saudi Arabia and that’s when bin Laden goes from being a guerrilla jihadist to
being a global terrorist, so I think we have to understand Al-Qaeda is a product of those events.
And just a few more descriptions. The first one is from Patrick from his book and I like it very much. Al-Qaeda is a peripheral organization, was the peripheral organization, in the war against the Soviets, that has redefined the meaning of jihad. Jihad is no longer guerrilla warfare in the mountains of Afghanistan against the Soviets, which is what bin Laden’s boss sold it as. It is killing office workers in downtown Manhattan. That’s what jihad is. Secondly, just clearly a measure of metrics, the deadliest terror group in modern history. I was in a reserve unit that had dealings with the IRA. The IRA, one of the most successful terrorist groups of the 20th century from 1968 to 1998, 30 years, kills less than two and a half thousand people. In 30 years. Al-Qaeda kills more
people in a morning, so it’s just pure empirical evidence.
And then lastly, from French analyst François Heisbourg we have the label that al Qaeda are the first-ever hyper terrorists, meaning these are the first terrorists who not only wish to acquire weapons of mass destruction, but they wish to use them. They’re not going to keep them as some kind of bargaining chip like North Korea
does. We get them, we use them. That is a novelty.
So the last part of my presentation is following some very sage advice from a long-dead Asian scholar, Sun Tzu. In every conflict there are two things you must begin with. The- the- the conventional wisdom is that you must know your enemy. Well, that’s not what Sun Tzu said. Sun Tzu said you must know yourself and know your enemy if you
wish to guarantee success. My argument is that not only do we not know the enemy,
we don’t even know ourselves. In the last 20 years, we’ve forgotten what it is that this country stands for and who threatens it, so let’s just for a moment look at what the enemy believes, the names you’ve heard before are some of them, and I’ll just hit them as- as notes before- before we go to Q&A.
What is it about this ideology? What are its core arguments? Let me just quote four of, who I believe are the most important writers in Salafi jihadist strategy. Sayyid Qutb, Muslim Brotherhood, what does he say? In his book Milestones, he says Islam is not a religion. Try getting away with saying that at any other conference in Washington.
Sayyid Qutb says Islam, as a Muslim, is not a religion. It is a Revolutionary Party
and it only has one object: the realization of Allah’s sovereignty
everywhere. Democracy is a pagan religion and as a result it must be destroyed
through jihad. Very, very click up. It’s not a religion, it’s a political party,
and it’s no accident that he uses Marxist and Leninist verbiage in many, many parts of his writing. The phrase ‘Vanguard’ that bin Laden loved to use so often is lifted from Qutb and, of course, who did Qutb lift the word Vanguard from? Lenin. These are not coincidences.
Secondly, bin Laden’s former boss, the Palestinian Abdullah Azzam, and of all the strategists out there, he’s the most important one in one- one metric. He actually has a PhD from Al-Azhar University in Islamic jurisprudence, so as Stephen pointed out this is an authentic source. When this man writes a fatwa, it’s a fatwa, unlike bin Laden. And what did this man do? Well, this man in the 1980s, he made jihad a global brand. This is the Steve Jobs of Islamic terrorism. When you see that Apple brand, well, this is the guy who- who made the jihad famous for the jihadists in the 1980s. His 70-page “In Defense of Muslim Lands,” a 70-page fatwa, is very clear and also very radical. In it, he states, “jihad is the responsibility of all Muslims, meaning holy war, not striving. Holy war is a responsibility of all Muslims and not only is it the responsibility, but you don’t need anybody’s permission because Kemal Atatürk dissolved the caliphate, there is no caliph to declare holy war. Therefore, you must self-deploy. He actually says quote unquote, “You don’t need your mother’s permission, your father’s permission, your husband’s permission – that’s really interesting – you don’t even need your husband’s permission. You must become a jihadi.
This individual we all know. I think he’s going to be the the next bin Laden and his book, prepared in advance very candidly for our invasion of Afghanistan, published in a Arab newspaper in London, not as elegant as the previous writings, but again very clear. His screed, his memoir, states, “We defeated one superpower. Now, it’s the turn of the Zionist Crusaders and we’re going to defeat them as well. All Muslims must fight. Last person, this is the one who I think is- is the most frightening of all and he’s rarely ever mentioned or heard of in intelligence circles in Washington. I- I’ve met one person who’s heard of him, who works for the government in doing threat doctrine analysis. This is Brigadier S.K. Malik of the Pakistani Army. I have all these works in English. If you’re interested, I could provide them to you as electronic files. 1979, as the mosque is burning in Mecca, the serving officer in the Pakistani Army writes a book called, “The Qur’anic Concept of War” or “The Qur’anic Concept of Power.” Interestingly, the only people who still publish it are the Indians. They think it’s quite important. This Qur’anic Concept of War has a foreword by the equivalent of the Attorney General of Pakistan, the Survey Attorney General of Pakistan, and a[n] introduction by a certain General Zia Haq. Think about that for a second. That’s like this afternoon any of us walking into a bookstore downtown, walking into the entrance and seeing on a table a book by General Petraeus with a foreword by Eric Holder and an introduction by Barack Obama. That- that’s the analogy, alright? The Pakistani President, the Attorney General, and then a serving General writes the book. Now, why is this an interesting book? It’s the only book we have that is equivalent to Clausewitz’s On War for the Muslim world. It combines eschatology, theology, and strategy. It’s very hard for us to get our heads around this because we don’t usually combine eschatology with strategy. We take religion out of our Clausewitz-ian cost-benefit analysis of the world. Let me just share two conclusions of the book with you. The first one is – this is- this is tough for anybody who’s been to a war college – Malik says war has nothing to do with the interests of the nation-state. It’s a complete negation of everything we teach at our war colleges. It’s a negation of Clausewitz. Clausewitz said war is a continuation of politics by other means. It serves the interests of the state. It’s just a tool, a violent tool, but a tool. Malik says no, war has nothing to do with the nation-state. War has only one purpose and can only have one purpose to realize the sovereignty of Allah, period. Secondly, there is only one center of gravity in warfare. We love- military officers love
this concept, center of gravity, that one thing in the enemy that if you hit it
hard enough, they crumble; the Kremlin, supply routes, whatever it is. Malik says
there aren’t many types of centers of gravity, there’s one center of gravity,
and it is the faith system of the enemy. It is the soul of the enemy. It’s a
serving general, saying that the center of gravity in warfare is the faith
system of your enemy.
Lastly, and this drives us straight to September the 11th, 30 years later. Since the faith of your enemy is his center of gravity, the most effective tool in warfare is terror. This is a book with a preface by the President of Pakistan. It says the most effective tool in war is terror such as September the 11th. Yeah. So the power of words; that’s the strategic, ideological, and religious worldview of the enemy. To summarize Al-Qaeda is just a small part of a much larger and older movement that movement is a plan to destroy our system, using all means, not just violence. This is- this includes political and economic warfare and very, very sophisticated intel information operations. At the height of the Iraqi insurgency, they did a case study of how long it took for an IED to explode against an American target and for the jihadi video of that attack to get onto YouTube. At the height of the insurgency, from bang to video on the internet was 40 minutes. The DoD can’t even approve a press release in 40 minutes, okay, so very sophisticated information operations.
Additionally, political and economic warfare; I’m not sure if you come to the Westminster Institute’s events regularly, you’ll know this, but if you don’t, as of today – and this is in a paper my wife Katherine wrote – as of today there are 26 states in this great nation where you can acquire a Sharia-compliant mortgage. 26 states and that’s not that’s not a letterhead, that means an imam is certifying a private financial transaction in an American bank. That’s what it means. That’s economic and political warfare. This war, unfortunately, is potentially more dangerous than even the Cold War. Why? Because Khrushchev never pressed that button. He may have shouted at us that he wanted to bury us, but why didn’t he press the button? Because he was greedy, because he didn’t believe in God, because he wanted to survive. Our enemy doesn’t want to survive. Why? Because if he dies fighting us, he goes straight to heaven.
Unfortunately, we seem to be going backwards. Tom quoted the 9/11 Commission. I’m just going to give you two quotes. This is seven years ago, “Our enemy is sophisticated, patient, disciplined and lethal. The institution’s charged with protecting our national
security did not understand how grave this threat could be, and did not adjust
their policies, plans, and practices to deter or defeated it. In short, the United
States has to help defeat an ideology, not just a group of people.” Contrast this
to the official U.S. army report of the Fort Hood shooting, which at 70 pages
never mentions the word Islam, jihad, or jihadism or Islamic terrorism, not once,
despite the fact that when Major Nidal Hasan opened fire, the only thing he said
was Allah Akbar. Our threat analysis is getting worse.
Lastly, this is the visualization of what I’ve- what I’ve been trying to say. The fact is there are two groups out there. There are violent jihadists and non-violent jihadists. There’s Al-Qaeda and Al Shabaab and there’s the Muslim Brotherhood and there’s the OIC. It’s two different groups, but they’re not inimical to each other, why? Because they have the same goal, Sharia law globally and a Caliphate. We need to understand the connection and probably, the fact that the non-violent jihadists are our biggest problem today. The unpleasant truth is my last slide. This is the Muslim population of the world. The Islamic terrorists [are a] tiny, tiny fraction. Whoever you want to agree with, .001%, .0001%, okay, [it] doesn’t matter exactly what world. The Islamic terrorists [are a] tiny, tiny fraction. Whoever you want to agree with, the percentage is. [The] bottom line is that the murderous violence of the minority is not fundamentally un-Islamic. That is why it is not rejected by the majority of Muslims. Therefore, empowering quote-unquote moderates is not going to help us. Thank you.