Small Wars Journal

Religion and Insurgency

Sat, 05/12/2007 - 10:14am
A few commentators have panned the new counterinsurgency manual for insufficient emphasis on religion. There is a grain of truth in this criticism but, as a practitioner, the evidence I see does not really support it. Rather, field data suggest, some critics may misunderstand both current conflicts and the purpose of doctrine. Worse, they may be swallowing propaganda from munafiquun who pose as defenders of the faith while simultaneously perverting it. (Did I sound like a politician there? Never mind. I will show factual evidence for this assertion, so the resemblance is fleeting...I hope).

The theorists posit the existence of something called "religious insurgencies", which are allegedly defined by their religious (read: Islamic) dimension. They argue that the passion religion arouses, its stringent dogma, and its capacity to de-humanize the "other" makes religious insurgents uniquely violent and fanatical. This allegedly immunizes such insurgencies against efforts to address legitimate grievances, "hearts and minds", governance improvement, resource and population control, and minimum force — key techniques in the new doctrine. This, they argue, foredooms counterinsurgency to fail in current conflicts. For the serious version of this argument, read Frank Hoffman's analysis here at SWJ; for the populist variant, read anything recent by Ralph Peters or Edward Luttwak. Most critics (not all—the sublime Hoffman is an exception) argue that counterinsurgency is too "soft" for religious insurgents, that unbridled brutality — "out-terrorizing the terrorists" (Luttwak), "the value of ferocity" (Peters) is more appropriate.

Consider this elegant insight from David Morris in The Big Suck: "Ramadi is the Chernobyl of the insurgency, a place where the basic proteins of guerilla warfare have been irradiated by technology and radical Islam, producing seemingly endless cells of wide-eyed gunslingers, bomb gurus, and aspiring martyrs. Globalization wrought with guns and God. A place devoid of mercy, a place where any talk of winning hearts and minds would be met with a laugh, both sides seeming to have decided, This is where the killing will never stop, so give it your best shot." This, incidentally, is a far more nuanced view than that of the "Islam=Bad" polemicists, and comes from an extremely perceptive piece based on participant field observation, which is well worth repeated reading.

But there are three problems with this argument. First, there is solid field evidence that modern counterinsurgency methods, properly updated for the new environment, actually are effective against current insurgencies. Second, insurgents in both Afghanistan and Iraq are not actually particularly religious — certainly, they are no more religious than the societies they are attacking. Indeed, there is an empirical problem with the whole notion of a "religious" insurgency, since almost all historical insurgencies have included a strong religious dimension, so that it is not clear that discrete "religious insurgencies" actually exist as observable phenomena. And third, doctrinal publications are not templates, but generic expositions of principle; not cookbooks, but frameworks. Practitioners must populate these frameworks with current, locally accurate, deeply understood insights into the societies where they operate. There is simply no substitute for what we might call "conflict ethnography": a deep, situation-specific understanding of the human, social and cultural dimensions of a conflict, understood not by analogy with some other conflict, but in its own terms.

Take Ramadi. Eleven months ago, it was the blackest rat-hole in the dark insurgent sewer of the upper Euphrates valley. The war in Ramadi, as David Morris rightly notes, was fuelled by insurgent cells with a mastery of consumer electronics, grass-roots propaganda and a blood-lust driven by tribal identity, youthful lack of empathy and sense of invulnerability (a sense of invulnerability that turned out to be laughably unfounded, I'm delighted to say). The gangsters called themselves "mujahidin" but there was nothing holy about their war: it was Lord of the Flies with cell-phones, car bombs, video cameras, sniper head-shots, torture with electric drills and execution by chainsaw. Children tricked into becoming human bombs, religion as cynical cover for carnage.

Today, the town is transformed. Attacks are down from 100 a day to less than four. Tribal and community leaders have allied themselves with the government. Imams are preaching against the insurgents. Police recruits are up from 200 a few months ago, to around five thousand today. There is improved security, with children walking to school, markets and shops re-opening, citizens back on the streets. This week, throughout Anbar, a whole day went by without a single attack anywhere — this in a province that senior intelligence officers regarded as "lost" less than six months ago. Of course, there are still severe threats: al Qa'ida killed innocent civilians in a suicide bombing just last week. But overall, the picture is vastly better than last year. How did this happen? Not through brutality and terror, but by the consistent application of proven counterinsurgency techniques. Local units, partnering with the population, conducted careful, minimum-force sweeps of the town, painstakingly cleared out insurgent cells, established a permanent presence with U.S. and Iraqi police and military units permanently protecting the population, alienated and eliminated terrorist cells, dealt effectively with legitimate grievances, and applied minimum but effective force. Officers who understood the cultural and social make-up of the population crafted effective local alliances. Proven counterinsurgency techniques were applied against the mythically implacable "religious" insurgents. Result: success. And Ramadi is but one of many examples.

As I say, these were not really "religious" insurgents at all. In Afghanistan and Iraq the enemy invokes religious principle as a tool for manipulating the population. In both conflicts, to listen to the insurgents' propaganda, you would think they were God-fearing mujahidin engaged in a righteous struggle against unbelieving occupiers, the ihtilal of the salidi. In each case the insurgents set themselves up as a model of religious rectitude, but the facts contradict their claims. The Taliban are world leaders in opium production, whereas more than 70% of Afghans believe the production of narcotics is un-Islamic. Last year, Taliban leaders told their field commanders to constrain their more egregious instances of pedophilia, because their tendency to take and sodomize young boys was losing them popular support. Very moral of them. I have seen former Iraqi insurgents break down in bitter tears when they realized that guerrilla leaders they believed were true Muslims were actually tattooed habitual criminals with links to organized crime, murder-for-profit gangs and the old Ba'athist oligarchy. Righteous ghazis these are not.

Indeed, the whole notion of religious insurgency is somewhat problematic. In any conflict where there is a religious difference between the two sides, religion is likely to become an identity marker and political rallying-point. We observed this with Catholics in East Timor, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, Mau-Mau in Kenya, firqat in Dhofar, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and in Thailand where Islam became a surrogate marker for Malay ethnicity. Historically, most insurgencies involved at least some religious dimension. Even Communist insurgencies of the classical period invoked Marxist concepts in pseudo-religious fashion.

And in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa — the critics' favorite examples of "religious insurgency" — all the major players are Muslims. Islam is invoked by all sides as a rallying cry, not solely by the insurgents. And in fact the conflict is entirely political: it concerns power in human social structures, not theological disputation. As I wrote in response to Edward Luttwak a few weeks ago, "Dr Luttwak argues that 'the vast majority of Afghans and Iraqis, assiduous mosque-goers, illiterates or at best semi-illiterate, naturally believe their religious leaders' (who, Dr Luttwak suggests, incite violence with claims that America seeks to destroy Islam and control oil resources). Again, this is at variance with field observation. In fact, neither Iraqis nor Afghans are particularly assiduous mosque-goers. And religious figures are prominent on all sides of both conflicts, in moderate and extreme political groups; there is an extremely wide range of clerical opinion, ranging from quietism through support for democratic government, to extremism. More fundamentally, in these societies, religious faith is not a function of ignorance and credulity, as Dr Luttwak implies, but a widespread cultural norm that infuses all social classes, political orientations and education levels." The true identity difference in Afghanistan is ethnic — the Taliban are 100% Pakhtun — while in Iraq key identity drivers are tribal, economic and ethnic.

But I said there was a grain of truth in the criticism, and it is this: because insurgents like the Taliban or AQ subjectively believe they are fighting to uphold God's will, their strategic calculus and tactical thought-patterns differ significantly from those of more pragmatic, materialist groups that fight for "real-world" objectives. This doesn't make them any more religious than the societies against which they fight, but it does mean we have to take this strategic approach into account when designing approaches to defeat them. Also, when Western nations become involved in large-scale counterinsurgency operations in Muslim countries, religion becomes a unifying factor for factions who regard our intrusion as sacrilegious. This is an extremely strong argument for thinking twice before entering such conflicts, by the way. It is also an argument for working by, with or through local allies whenever possible, ruthlessly minimizing our involvement. But this is recognized in the new doctrine, and features in our approach to Iraq and Afghanistan. In both countries, we operate at the request of legitimate, Islamic, democratically-elected governments that have asked for help. As soon as that help is no longer needed, we will leave. There is zero religious justification for any call to war against infidel invaders. Those who invoke religion in these conflicts are, quite simply, hypocrites. And Western armchair theorists who concede the enemy's religious arguments are either unfamiliar with reality on the ground, or deceived by enemy propaganda.

The bottom line is that no handbook relieves a professional counterinsurgent from the personal obligation to study, internalize and interpret the physical, human, informational and ideological setting in which the conflict takes place. Conflict ethnography is key; to borrow a literary term, there is no substitute for a "close reading" of the environment. But it is a reading that resides in no book, but around you; in the terrain, the people, their social and cultural institutions, the way they act and think. You have to be a participant observer. And the key is to see beyond the surface differences between our societies and these environments (of which religious orientation is one key element) to the deeper social and cultural drivers of conflict, drivers that locals would understand on their own terms.

The notion of "religious insurgency", in short, is poorly supported by the evidence. And the related idea that out-terrorizing insurgents is the only way to win current conflicts is dangerous nonsense. The facts on the ground show that proven, humane counterinsurgency methods do work, and that these methods — constantly updated and adapted as the enemy and the environment evolve — are the most effective approach.

David Kilcullen is Senior Counter-Insurgency Advisor to the Commanding General, Multi-National Force—Iraq. These are his personal views only.


Dr. Robert J. Bunker (not verified)

Wed, 02/16/2011 - 6:59pm

I'm currently doing some basic research on spirituality/religion and insurgency. Has much been discussed on this topic since these 2007 exchanges/comments?

What I'm wondering is if in Islam church/state are still one (guessing a continuum of how linked they are exists still-- Iran and Egypt the extremes?)-- no Reformation ever took place like in the West-- how do we separate out the political from the religious intent/motivation in an insurgency or is religious always subordinate to the political?

Dear Troops:

You guys are doing the most amazing job. I am totally in awe of your professionalism, maturity, integrity, honor, respect, loyalty, faith, optimism, courage, restraint, power, and the ability to love like mother Theresa, and be the baddest mother f***ers on the battlefield in all of human history. I know you hear about the negative crap on tv, radio, newspapers, etc. from the surrender monkeys in DC. You persist without exception even though many of your countrymen have lost hope along with some of our allies. Despite the loss of your friends, the loss of your brothers and sisters in arms, and missing your loved ones, you risk it all and soldier on.

Despite the constant barrage of negativity and from the godless murderous thugs who pervert gods words and the words of his profits for their own evil deeds, you persist ever so diligently. These cowards manipulate many of gods devout followers into killing for "gods" sake when it is really for their own selfish perverted desires.

I never thought I would see a zombie right out of the "Night of the Living Dead" movie in real life, but he exists. You know who Im talking about. I talking about the corpse senator from Nevada (he needs to get laid, smoke a fat one, and have a beer).

You see and deal with things I can not imagine nor would I. I simply am totally grateful for all that you do despite all of the hostility towards you. I am so glad that you guys and gals do what you do. I can sit here in safety and comfort writing as tears roll down my face in gratitude for what I read about the great things you are doing for the Iraqi people, each other, and your country. Hearing and seeing your former enemies breaking bread, smoking Monte Cristos with you, and referring to you as "brothers" is a testament to your fine leadership. The Iraqis are a proud people and more and more of them every day are becoming proud to call you their friends. You are showing them the finest that America has to offer. Hearing about a sheik saying that "when any one points a gun at anyone of you, they are pointing a gun at a fellow Iraqi" is heartfelt. WOW!

It is totally breathtaking the heroic deeds you do that mostly do not get reported in the mainstream media. I know you are winning the war and bringing peace to Iraq. You guys area changing the world and bringing true love and brotherhood to the Middle East. Ten years after you complete your mission in Iraq the people there are going to love, respect and have gratitude for the prosperous nation you have given them. Mark my word on that!

You are going to bring this war to a close with a victory and I can taste it. I know you are seeing that too. Ramadi? Wow! Diayala? Bagdad? Yes General, I agree it is truly "breathtaking" progress from what I read in the mil blogs and other internet blogs and sites.

I know General Petraeus that you know what a putts the corpse senator from Nevada is but you have too much class, honor, dignity, duty, and self-respect to sink to his level. Just because you could crush him with your words like the cockroach that he acts like does not mean you would because you are a real man and he is a poser. You truly lead by example.

You even treat those with respect who would curse you, not believe in you, berate you, give up on you, and desert you because of one simple fact. You Sir are the greatest military leader in our history and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOUR SOLDIERS follows your exemplary example.

I am a free and proud American because of one force in the world, and that is the United States Military. I know you are risking it all for me and every other American. You do it gladly. Every day I wake up and one of the first things I do in the morning is think about the senator from Nevada and it makes me take my morning dump (I do it on purpose... you should all try it!... it works!... I promise!). Then I start my computer and get my morning fill of patriotism and optimism, for the day. Why? Because without you I would have no hope for the world, but because of you I know that one day there will be peace on earth and a brotherhood of man like John Lennon sang about.

I know you wont ever consider giving up in Iraq or any other theatre of operations you are currently deployed in. Why? Because you are all leaders and our heroes (even if many in the world take you for granted). Do you know what the word "lead" means? The word "lead" means to go first! You are the ones showing us the way and setting the standard.

Do you know where all the negativity comes from in the world? It comes from people who are looking for leaders. Even those who attack you really want to love you. You prefer to give them the carrot but incase they refuse you and try to bite you; you also carry the biggest stick on the block! They are all starting to see that you really have been trying to help them all along.

At the end of the day what the corpse senator from Nevada is really looking to do no matter how many times he tries to attack you... is really trying to be a leader. Even though he has a long way to go, you are patiently showing this guy no matter how much he protests and tries to convince you to the contrary; you are winners. Why? Because he is a very unhappy, lonely, depressed, miserable, despicable, venomous, vengeful, hateful, selfish, self-centered, bitter, lethargic, mindless, thoughtless, sexually inept, incompetent, and boob of a leader. I said it because I would rather sink to his level then have any of you lower your standards (my sacrifice for you!). Yes he acts like a turd in the punchbowl but he cant help it. He just likes to be miserable and you giving him victories gives him less things to be miserable about.

You may already know this but I just wanted to remind you all of this truth. No one will ever do or say anything that is not a direct reflection of how they feel about themselves in a moment. So whenever he calls any of you one of those things or anyone else for that matter, that is what he and they are trying to do. They are trying to project their own crap on to you. Why? Because you remind them of everything they are not. They hate you because they dont feel like they are good enough to be like you. You set the bar so high in their eyes that they just feel like they could never be as good as you are.

However, every day you all stand up and say to them through your actions, "yes you can." "No matter what you do I am going to keep leading by example and believing in victory until you believe yourself." Why? Because "We are American Soldiers" and that is what we do." You further go on to add by your actions...

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

I know you are going to give us, the Iraqis, and the rest of the world a victory for Freedom and Democracy and all that is holy in Gods beautiful world. One day sooner than most people think, the guns of war will become silent and there will be a lasting peace in the world.

Irans government will cut their crap, Syrias government will do the same, and the rest of the extremists will disappear.

I know that is a tall order. But you know what? I believe you will do it. Why? Because I know you always finish the mission. Thats what you do. You give hope to those who do not have it.

As September gets here and "The Great" General Petraeus reports to Congress on the progress, they will be faced with what is starting to trickle thru in the mainstream media and that is... we are now on the shortening road to victory! We want victory... not what the unbelieving surrender monkeys are crying (remember, they are scared and many hate themselves).

During WWII we were winning the war, but the public was starting to lose interest in the war. War bond sales were falling and the country was months away from running out of money to fund the war. International banks were refusing to lend us more money (they had ulterior motives-some friends they were!). When the picture was taken of the Marines at Iwo Jima raising our flag, that picture united the country and war bond sales sky rocked. America won the war because an earlier generation of your kind united us and led us to victory. Its the Presidents and Congresses (Congress is not showing united leadership or support for you AND YOUR MISSION even though thats what they promised us all that they would do) job to rally the people behind you and its your job to deliver the victory. I apologize for the lack of leadership in Congress to unite us behind you. But please forgive them, you guys are setting such a high standard that they so far just cant touch. I mean, they are not perfect but at least when they stand next to you... they are standing close to perfect.

You know the mainstream media can provide you with something useful. You could make any prisoner talk and give up the other bad guys by making them watch continuous broadcasts of the evening network newscasts. They would either talk or commit suicide. Well, maybe thats not such a good idea. Why? That would be cruel and unusual punishment. That is why I do not own a tv anymore. Who wants to look at useless trash anyways? Besides, its too big to be a paperweight.

I digressed, sorry. Every day I wake up and see so many blatant signs of victory on the internet. As "The Great" General Petraeus said, "if you dont give them anything bad to report they will have to report the good news" (I think I got the spirit of what he said). Thats what we are seeing in Iraq now. More and more good news. But please be patient with them too. Al-Qaeda has more talent in their press corps then they do.

I know they will catch up... especially when they actually start embedding with you heavily again like in the beginning of the war.

Keep up the great work and keep the victories coming! I believe in you all!

I hope someday our leaders in DC will have enough class to offer you a victory parade when your mission is complete. Please forgive them in advance if they fall short of honoring you appropriately.

I would like to offer some final thoughts...

I want to share with you all what my life is about. You all are dedicating your lives for each other and your country which includes me personally. That is why I have dedicated my life to honoring your sacrifices and good works.

I work to offer the world hopefully as much as 1/1000 of what you do in hopes of honoring your collective sacrifices. That is why I dedicated my book "How To Be A 3% Man, Winning The Heart Of The Woman Of Your Dreams" and all of my future works to you in my efforts of follow the great example and standard you set for us all...


This book is dedicated to the American soldier. No matter whether the cause is popular or not, I am in awe of the fact that when their country calls them, they go, and they go willingly. They take our place on the battlefield, risking everything they have, because it is part of who they are. They all are my heroes and I owe all of my success, happiness, and opportunities to past, present, and future generations of their kind. May god keep them safe and speed the day to us when their sacrifice is no longer required because humanity has learned that the real enemy is hatred itself and the way to real happiness is unconditional love. Until that day comes I take great pride and comfort in knowing they will continue to stand up and show us what real honor and integrity is. I dedicate my life to helping bring humanity closer together, and always giving my gifts to the world in hopes that I may honor all of their collective sacrifices so they are not in vain.

Humbly and truly in your debt now, daily, and forever!

Love in action

Corey Wayne

Hoooooooooo-raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, Hoooooooo-yaaaaaaaaa, Semper Fi, etc.
Proud American because of you!

Brian H (not verified)

Mon, 05/28/2007 - 2:27am

I forgot the big one, "why". Which is to rid the world of all those who disagree. That would be you and me.

Brian H (not verified)

Mon, 05/28/2007 - 2:23am

Your points on religion as a manipulation tool are well taken. But I think you need to take a deep breath and step the next step. Religions differ in how well suited they are to different kinds of manipulation. It's a bit of a stretch to bring NT Christianity around to militant, military anything. After you sing, "Onward Christian Soldiers", it gets a bit thin on the ground.

Not so for Islam. The Satanic Verses and Sharia are replete with direct, indirect, and even methodological suggestions about who, where, when, how. Much easier than trying to crank up, say, Buddhism into an inspiration for auto-homicidal bombing. Come to think of it, only Islam has come up with that one.

So bite the bullet and get specific. Please.

This is an interesting, well-conceived and well written commentary. There are certainly aspects of truth in it. But in the end, with all due respect, I disagree with its conclusions.

I have commented extensively on this article, but the comments are as long as this article and it would be unseemly to highjack the comment thread that way. For Smith's response to Kilcullen, see:…

Dan (not verified)

Sun, 05/13/2007 - 10:24am


What's a good e-mail address to get in touch with you? I was hoping we could stay in touch while we're both in Iraq.

-Dan G.

justsayno2islam (not verified)

Sat, 05/12/2007 - 9:24pm

It appears that Al Queda and similar groups use their most religiously inspired recruits, usually from outside the area, to carry out the suicide attacks. If word was to get out that the criminals running the insurgents were cynically exploiting the most sincere devotees of the Koran, etc., maybe their numbers would drop. It seems that, outside Arab Palestine, Ma and Pa are often not happy to see Jr. blow himself up in the murder of civilians. Maybe there's an angle to pursue in the info war. Time for a Muslim backlash against those who recruit these suckers.

Thank you for this. After listening to questions to John Nagl and others about how FM3-24 failed to consider the nuances between a Maoist insurgency and a Religious insurgency, I have considered both the same, just with different words. Both are, effectively, the same as the engine of nationalism one to two hundred years before, and all three push people to fight to the death. Pull back the layers like an onion and you have Gramcian distractions by a few elites who hide their real intentions. So many "religious" leaders of insurgencies and terrorist groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, PI, Indonesia, etc. are criminals. Zarqawri was one thug of many.
Again, good post.

Miles Kitts (not verified)

Sat, 05/12/2007 - 10:44am

Dear LTC Kilcullen,
My name is Miles Kitts. I am a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland at Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. I am making this post so I can contact you in regards to my PhD research. I have contacted Dave Dilegge and he says he has forwarded my email address on to you.

I intend to focus my PhD on assessing different approaches to counterinsurgency. Specifically, I am thinking of building my conceptual framework on your blog concerning the Two Schools of Classical Counterinsurgency. For this reason, I would like to ask you which authors you include in the different Schools? In particular, I have not been able to find any authors who could be labelled enemy-centric. If you could provide me with some authors' names for each school, that would be very much appreciated.

Also, I have contacted Col. H.R. McMaster, and he has agreed for me to interview him in regards to Operation Restoring Rights. I mention this so you have a clear idea of my research intentions.

Thank you,
Miles Kitts.