From the Cambridge University Press blog
October 16, 2008
by Laurent Murawiec
"Most counterterrorism policies fail, not because of tactical problems, but because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates terrorists in the first place," begins a WIRED piece by Bruce Schneier entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists. In his article, Schneier rejects the "strategic model" interpretation of terrorism, an economic model of rational behavior used by some social scientists and experts in matters of terror; he bases his analysis on a paper by Max Abrahms, a predoctoral fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation: What Terrorists Really Want:
Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategies.
Abrahms tries to show that this model, often applied to the study of terrorism, is unworkable by outlining seven "puzzles," seven purportedly flawed assumptions about terrorism. He then proceeds to provide his own recipes to grasp and combat terrorism.
Both the author and his commentator unfortunately proceed and outline yet another radical misunderstanding of the matter at hand. Their unstated axioms vitiate the entire argument: they tacitly posit, though never state (or reflect upon), that terrorism is the operative concept and practice that needs to be analyzed that all terrorisms are equivalent and can be homogenously understood, inasmuch as they share fundamental and defining traits. Further, and even more damaging to analysis, the "terrorism" they analyze has nothing to do with the historical and theological breeding ground from which it sprang.
Thus, the word "jihad" does not appear even once in Abrahms' treatment.
Past the single-country, or single-object terrorist organizations, such as the Tamul Tigers' LTTE's claim on parts of Sri Lanka, ETA's demands regarding an independent Basque land of Euskadi, or the IRA's irredentist fight for the Six Countries of Ulster, it does not seem to have dawned upon either writer that the lion's share of modern terrorism is Muslim, inspired by and committed in the name of jihad.
Moreover, neither tries to look beyond the mere word of "terrorism" or "terror." Their not uncommon reduction of terror to the terrorist act, or a string of such acts, at the expense of the etiology and substance of modern terror, is particularly damaging: what if terror, the Terreur first undertaken in the modern world by Robespierre and the French Montagnards in 1793, is a system of rule rather than a number of bombings and killings? What about the consciously-claimed filiation posited by Vladimir Lenin regarding the Cheka's terror, from January 1918 onward? What of the Gestapo's reign of terror, just as the others a principal and fundamental means of terrorizing and cowing an entire society?
Can we apply this concept to contemporary, Islamic terror? Can we furthermore go past a study of the means to a study of the ends? Jihad then comes into play.
Abrahms' "puzzle #1" enunciates as a given that "scholars have questioned the rationality and motives" or terrorism because terrorist violence against civilians purportedly has failed to reach political goals. But the analysis blithely ignores two foundational cases where terror actually won the aims it had assigned itself: the Algerian FLN, which was a miserably ineffective military force, and one that was mopped up by the French military, won the Algerian War largely by dint of systematic slaughter of civilians, French and Muslim alike. The PLO gained control of the Gaza strip and the West Bank from Israel mostly by dint of a sustained campaign of terror. Bother were symbols of and models for innumerable terror groups – including the radical Islamist mujahideen gathered in Pakistan and Afhanistan.
Omission or blindness, the analysis breaks down. The "strategic model" may be flawed, Abrahms' no less. In both cases, the problem lies with the casual and slapdash application of various academic theories (rational choice, decision theory, Weberian categories, etc.) to the subject regardless of the substance of matter – the history, theology, law and sociology of the world of Islam.
Abrahms has found that "[p]eople turn to terrorism for social solidarity. He theorizes that people join terrorist organizations worldwide in order to be part of a community, much like the reason inner-city youths join gangs in the United States" (in Schneier's summary). There again, a little bit of history might have helped: people join organizations in general, from North to South Pole, for reasons of "social solidarity." The desire to be "part of a community" applies to people who join the bird-watchers' association, members of the local football team and union members: what does the striving for social solidarity teach us about terrorists that we did not know? More so, is it, as Abrahms suggests, the crucial contributing factor – and to what? The reason(s) individual join a group does not exhaust the nature and purpose of that group; it only sheds some light of the joiners' motivations.
The Mind of Jihad - was an unusual characteristic of all jihadi groups: the love of death, the lust for blood, the desire to kill and main, the joy in inflicting both. In the doctrine, in the practice and in the propaganda of jihadi groups the world over, it is a dominant and ubiquitous feature. Most other terror groups seem to look upon death, blood, killing and maiming, as instrumentalities. With very few exceptions, they did not make a cult of it. Only an Islamic terror master could have said, as Osama bin Laden did, and before him many jihadi theorists, "we love death more than you love life."
Bafflement led to exploring a number of different avenues to understand the dynamics of this bloodlust. It came as a surprise that the belief-structure (as distinct from the belief-content) of contemporary jihadis much resembled that of Europe's medieval Millenarians, whose insurgencies mobilized tens of thousands at a time the whole length and breadth of the continent: they were Gnostic believers, seeks of the Apocalypse, their doctrines were messianic. They believed themselves to be invested by God by a stupendous, cosmic mission that they alone knew, and rebuild society, and earth as a whole, along the lines of their Utopian venture of Kingdom come. They were above the common norms of mankind, they were The Law unto themselves, and God wanted these Elect to shed torrents of blood to realize His Plan.
Whoever has studied the writings of the leaders and doctrinaires of modern jihad – Hasan al-Banna, Abu Ala Maududi, Sayyid Qutb, Ruhollah Khomeiny, Ali Shariati - will easily recognized the kinship, beyond the difference in religious and cultural terms of reference. In huge numbers, rural and urban masses, their lives dislocated, their alienation extreme, their confidence in any institution shattered by social chaos, rose up behind messianic leaders.
The form taken by the millenarian utopia in Islam historically is Mahdism. Time and again, in both Sunni and Shia Islam, self-proclaimed Mahdis (the expected Deliverer, the Guided One) led insurgencies against established authorities, as harbingers of the Day of Judgment. Mahdism, always a banner for social upsurge and revolt, was politicized in the 19th century by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who has the distinction of being the originator of both pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism. Political Mahdism has been the underpinning of modern jihad. Terror has been one principal means for modern jihad to reach its aims.
Mahdist jihad, however, cannot be understood as a zweckrational organizational outlook: it occurs and flourishes in societies that are tribal, pre-modern, where family and clan play far more of a role than institutions of state, to which no loyalty is felt or due. This is the case from Pakistan to Egypt, from Iran to Algeria. It is far more tribe and clan that take over the state and use it to disguise their designs. The default organizational form taken by all rebellious, youth-oriented groups in the Middle East is, from time immemorial, the futuwwah, riotous young men's clubs that were now opposing, now allied to government, and operatde as semi-secret societies, with Sufi-based ideologies and a great deal of violence. Persia had equivalent in the form of the luti and similar organizations.
Islam upheld and transferred an enormous load of tribal mores, beliefs and practices into the new, rising religion. Bedouin customary law was sanctified by the new creed. Islam divided the world between the House of Islam (ka'aba, Mecca, Arabia and the such areas as are ruled under sharia) and the House of War (the rest of the world, the "Abode of Unbelief"), it merely replicating the tribal division of the world into "us" and "them." Family, clan, tribe and sect are the "us," the Others are "them." Different laws rule in either: sharia in the former, the laws of jihad in the other. There is an inextricable overlay of Islam with the tribal nature of Middle Eastern and West Asian societies.
Islam, however, has been "hybridized" by the modern world, and so has contemporary jihad. The disappearance of the Caliphate abolished by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk deprived the world of Islam of the only authority legitimately entitled to declare jihad. Theological-legal authority, once the preserve of the caliph's clerics, has since been "privatized." Political authority, once impossible to challenge in Islam, has so discredited itself since the Muslim world ceased to be occupied by Infidels, that it opened itself to challenge, whether it was "secular-nationalist" or monarchical. Smaller and smaller groups, led by individuals of no special qualification as scholars of Islam, arrogated themselves the "legitimacy" to declare jihad, and, for some of them, takfir, the anathema against other Muslims, which allows one to kill anyone so fingered.
Contemporary jihad is a hybrid. Surprisingly, Russia's Bolsheviks played a singular role in its evolution. In short, the jihadis acquired most of their political technologies from the Soviets. As early as he came to power, Lenin made a pitch to recruit Russia's Muslims; a quarter million Muslim soldiers with their own officers and political commissars saved the Bolsheviks from defeat in the Russian Civil War. Lenin and the Communist International called and organized for jihad against "British Imperialism." Part of the leadership of the fundamentalist Deobandi School in India joined the Bolsheviks. What the Muslim cadres learned from the Bolsheviks – often before returning to Islam – was that terror was a system of rule and of overnment. The lesson was not lost. It returned to haunt the modern world, in the form of the KGB's creation and steering of Arab terrorism, the PLO, the PFLP, the PDFLP and other terror groups; in the form of the Algerian FLN, and others.
The "Coranic Conception of War" was expounded more recently by Pakistan's Brigadier S.K. Malik, in a book prefaced by the Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq. Fundamentally, jihad consists in "striking terror in the hearts of the unbelievers." Terror is the armed wing of jihad.
There is no simple explanation of contemporary terror. Simple explanations are liable to be simplistic, and always are. Various authors have propounded their single-cause views of terror – reaction to "occupation," yearning for group solidarity, the "grievances" of poverty, revulsion at U.S. policies, "root causes" caused by "imperialism' such as the presence of U.S. troops at various points in Saudi Arabia and the Iraq war, Israel's "usurping" of "Arab lands," and so on. Single-cause explanations give birth to simplistic recipes to solve the problem so misconstrued. They also are completely oblivious to the Islamic contents, consciousness, program and theology of the jihadi groups. In the 1930s, disgruntled people became Communists or Nazis; in the 1960s they became radicals; in the world of Islam since the 1980s, they become jihadis.
The analysis under review concludes with the need to "weaken the social bonds within terrorist organizations," "driving a wedge between group members," notably by "planting more double agents within terrorist groups" – easier said than done: how do you plant outside agents in a family-based group? The least the analyst should do is outline the ways and means of doing just that. But there is more: "We also need to pay more attention to the socially marginalized than to the politically downtrodden, like unassimilated communities in Western countries." Why they are "unassimilated" and whether they are "politically downtrodden" at all is at the very least open to question and debate, rather than a self-evident given. But the worst is still to come: "And finally, we need to minimize collateral damage in our counterterrorism operations, as well as clamping down on bigotry and hate crimes, which just creates more dislocation and social isolation, and the inevitable calls for revenge." In other words, it's our fault.
They hate us because we've wreaked evil. We should shut ourselves up, abandon the First Amendment, cozy up for the poor downtrodden – under the "hearts and minds" argument lurks political correctness and the intellectual surrender to sharia. All in the name of bright new insights into the nature of terrorism: to fight terror, be nice to them. And never, ever talk of "Islam." It might offend.
It is often stated that a one-degree error in situational analysis results in a 90 degree divergence from path after many miles. If the analysis takes the part for the whole, the arrival point will have little bearing on the problem one set out to work on. The root-cause of terror is jihad. Don't only study jihad, please, study the mind of jihad, and the mind powering the mind. That might be a useful starting point.
Laurent Murawiec was a senior fellow with Hudson Institute.
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