Small Wars Journal

Book Review: Militant Islamist Ideology

Understanding Al Qaeda's True Center of Gravity

A Book Review of:

Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat, by Commander Youssef H. Aboul-Enein, USN

Reviewed by: Malcolm Nance

What steels the heart of educated men to slaughter innocent passengers and fly

a jetliner full of people into a skyscraper?  What power does a few minutes

internet chat with a dissident cleric hold that can make an officer of the United

States Army abandon his professional and military oath and gun down his fellow soldiers

in cold blood?  What desire makes other terrorists physically ill with jealousy

that they themselves were not chosen to die in a suicide attack?  Pondering

these questions gives one a glimpse of the dark heart and evil commitment of our

enemy, Al Qaeda.

The level of moral corruption necessary to abandon one's entire upbringing and

commit an overt act of murderous treachery as a form of worship is often beyond

comprehension of the common man. The question, Why Do They Fight? is often

asked but rarely answered with clarity. From soldier to flag officer, responses

range from measured to the dangerously xenophobic. Unfortunately, many of our warrior's

beliefs about the terrorists are misguided, ill-informed and too often openly racist.

Many of our citizens and soldiers alike, succumb to the habit of making assertions

about our enemy with no basis in fact or reality.

A new book from the US Naval Institute, Militant Islamist Ideology:

Understanding the Global Threat written

by Cdr. Youssef H. Aboul-Enein, USN has the answers necessary to recalibrate our

misperceptions of the present terrorist opposition.  It is an excellent compendium

of historical, religious and ideological insights that reveals the terrific corruption

of Islam that makes up the Islamic militant worldview.  It is a book well suited

to giving our warriors a grounded understanding of not only who we are fighting

but what belief system make them so desperate to engage in asymmetric combat at

the cost of their own lives.

Sun Tzu' trusted maxim applies neatly to our struggle against Al-Qaeda: If

you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred

battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will

also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb

in every battle. 

As American war-fighters, we know ourselves.  After 20 years of being punished

by the terrorists' asymmetric hand, we have become masters of understanding How

They Fight. I know corporals with a near encyclopedic knowledge in the techniques

of IED placement, the difference between the explosive capability of Russian and

Chinese made RPG-7 rocket rounds and how many warning pigeons sent into the air

by insurgent sympathizers will signal of an impending ambush..  When it comes

to Terrorist Tactics, Techniques, Procedures, we now stand second to none.

It is with regret that the terrorist enemy has painfully shown us the cost of

our cultural arrogance and ignorance of their willingness to fight hard and to the

death; the butcher's bill thus far is a brigade's worth of dead and a divisions'

number in wounded.  It has taken America a decade of daily losses to finally

feel somewhat comfortable with the newly rediscovered warcraft of counter-insurgency. 

However, our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines still do not seem to know virtually

anything factual about the motivation and goals of our enemy. Our military leadership

appears to not care greatly about the drive behind our enemy's heart or even how

to exploit their ideological vulnerabilities. As a nation we increasingly ignore

the terrorist mindset until it shows up on CNN.  This indifference to Al Qaeda's

love of their game, (a Kill-Humiliate-Punish-Inspire strategy) quite often leads

to dramatic and lethal surprises when confronted with their stealth, inventiveness

and adaptability.  

Militant Islamist Ideology contends that militants who call themselves

Muslims globally have used deliberate corruptions of Islam, particularly in the

ways they interpret and parse the Qur'an, to justify their terrorism and mass murder. 

Although the militants refer to themselves as performing "jihad," or armed struggle,

and call themselves "jihadists," the author makes it clear in precise religious

detail that the exact traditional definitions within the Qur'an and the Hadiths

reveal these militants to be engaged in illegal terrorism and war on society. 

Militant Islamist Ideology also provides an excellent primer on the ideologs

of the past and present that impact the philosophy of many modern era militants,

particularly Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam and Osama Bin Laden.  More importantly

he shows how they developed their corrupt worldviews.  He takes great pains

to show that the terrorists' religious rebellion is heretical to traditional Muslims

and has absolutely no religious, spiritual or political standing in Islam. 

The book is very well written and uses a clear, crisp style that masterfully

balances detail with readability.  It reveals the inner dynamics of the myriad

of religious justifications that both Sunnah and to a lesser extent, Shiite militant

groups use to qualify their choice of terrorism.  Additionally, the author

forges a new pathway to understand the transition of groups from the generally peacefully

Islamic to the more oratorical/socially active radical Islamists to the radical

armed Militant Islamist and back.  He writes: "It is important to begin by

defining the differences between "Islam," "Islamist" and "Militant Islamist." 

Disaggregating these three terms will begin the process of understanding the nuances

needed to pursue this long-term campaign." 

Militant Islamist Ideology is an outstanding work that joins a growing

rank of books in the field of defining and helping us understand the heart of the

enemy and to forming a framework needed to counter militant ideologies.  These

include West Point's Combating Terrorism Center's

Militant Ideology Atlas,

Jarret Brachman's

Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, Brynjar Lia's

Architect of the Global Jihad and my own

An End to Al Qaeda.

The only point of contention is that Cdr Aboul-Enein's work contains a slight

contradiction by labeling armed militants who he asserts have invalidated their

claim to Islam and as Muslims as "Islamic militants."  They do not deserve

the title. I agree with the author and majority of the Muslim world that armed terrorists

should be stripped in toto of any validation the word "Islamist" entitles

them. This takes away nothing from the book, as it is well in synch with the new

National Security Strategy of the United States. He does offer some starting points

to challenge them; most based on the militants own stated vulnerabilities. 

When Cdr. Aboul-Enein says that, "Militant Islamist Ideology can only be fought

only by using Islamic argumentation and exposing Militant Islamist views as narrow

and doing a disservice to Islam," he is right on the mark.

Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat is a must read for all war-fighters, academics

and citizens who seek a greater understanding of the motivation of militant extremists.

Malcolm Nance is a contributor to the SWJ Blog (bio)

and the author of, most recently, An End to al-Qaeda: Destroying Bin Laden's Jihad and Restoring America's Honor.

He is a retired US Navy intelligence specialist, an Arabic speaking interrogator

and a master Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) instructor.  He

now works as a counter-terrorism and terrorism intelligence consultant.