Small Wars Journal

Mujahideen: The Strategic Tradition of Sunni Jihadism

Wed, 10/28/2015 - 11:46am

Mujahideen: The Strategic Tradition of Sunni Jihadism

Brett A. Friedman

The world is in the grips of the group known as ISIS. Unable to look away but equally unable to fathom the group’s extreme violence, the civilized world marvels at a terrorist threat that is seemingly al Qaeda cranked up to eleven.  Its media blitzkrieg has recently been described by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger and its apocalyptic vision by William McCants, but its military strategy too is an outgrowth of earlier trends in jihadi thought. The military strategy of the mujahideen can be traced back to a jail cell in Egypt in the early 1960s. 

Few have looked at jihadi groups in the context of classical military strategy but perhaps surprisingly the jihadis themselves view their ideas through exactly that lens. As Western national security experts deny the utility of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War in an age of jihadis, insurgents, and terrorists, the jihadis themselves seem not to have gotten the memo as his ideas appear repeatedly in their texts and he is even directly cited in jihadi instructional videos. Perhaps less surprisingly, the ideas of Mao Tse-Tung (another theorist who cited Clausewitz) are even more influential as his three stages of protracted warfare appear repeatedly in slightly modified form. Other names familiar to the student of strategic studies appear in their tracts on military issues, “Che” Guevara and Ho Chi Minh to name two. Other concepts are clear parallels to theorists like Hans Delbrück and J. C. Wylie although they go uncited.  If we better understood the terrorists’ theory of victory, perhaps we may better understand how to counter it- or at least how not to play into it.

The Sunni tradition of jihadi strategy exhibits three crests or waves of thought. The first began with the publication of Milestones by Sayyid Qutb from the depths of that Egyptian jail cell. The second is exemplified by al Qaeda, its visionaries like Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Suri, and the numerous jihadis who turned away from the Muslim Brotherhood after its failures in Egypt and Syria. The third wave is breaking on us right now as the Islamic State runs farther and faster with jihadi military strategy than their forebears ever have.

The First Wave

The first wave of modern jihad began with Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna and while it always wanted a society guided by Islamic principles, it was not initially as extremist as it later became. Al-Banna’s group did want to institute shariah, but a version of shariah modified for modern times. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, the organization was focused on social welfare but became a popular political force.[i] By the mid-1950s when Sayyid Qutb was a member, however, the organization took a violent turn. In 1954 members of the organization, including Qutb, attempted to assassination Gamel Abdul Nasser who would become the first President of Egypt. Nasser’s crackdown drove the organization underground and Qutb, among others, was imprisoned.[ii]  Qutb was born in 1906 and his family was able to provide a good education for him, including two years of studying abroad in the United States in 1949 and 1950.[iii] He was negatively affected by his view of the West and his religious conservatism, always strong, was deepened by the experienced.

In 1964 he while imprisoned for his participation in the assassination attempt, he published Milestones, his most influential work. In it, he attacked the idea of secular authority and any separation between Islam and politics. Qutb viewed such ideas as a tool for state leaders in the Middle East to “… use state structure and power to prevent their people from following God’s governance…”[iv] Since state power was inherently opposed to the people in this way, violence was, “necessary to break down this human-imposed order so that the people held under it would be free to serve God alone.”[v] In this vein violence, even offensive violence, was justified as self-defense and thus was incumbent for the faithful Muslim as part of jihad. He stated that jihad was, “the defense of man against all those elements that limit his freedom.” [vi] That freedom, however, was only the freedom to follow God as following other men was “enslavement.”[vii] His summation of these ideas is important: “It [Islam} has the right to destroy all obstacles in the form of institutions and traditions that limit man’s freedom of choice. It does not attack individuals, nor does it force them to accept its beliefs; it attacks institutions and traditions to release human beings from their poisonous influences, which distort human nature and curtail human freedom.”[viii] Qutb subsumes individuals in institutions, justifying their deaths as an attack on “obstacles” vice individuals. Like the communist thinkers of the 20th Century such as V. I. Lenin, Qutb believed that a vanguard of the faithful would perform such deeds in order to “free” the masses.[ix] His ideas on violence, politics, and religion have parallels in military theory. His belief in the use of violence for political ends is reminiscent of Carl von Clausewitz’s assertion that war is the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of violent means and Mao Tse Tung’s statement “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” For Clausewitz and Mao though, violence and war were controlled- and limited by- policy, politics, and party but for Qutb politics was dominated by Islam. “It [modern politics] transfers to man one of the Greatest (sic) attributes of God, namely, sovereignty, and makes some men lords over others.”[x] In other words, the only legitimate sovereignty is God’s. Qutb’s marriage of politics, violence, and religious jihad forms the base of the modern Sunni jihadi movement and greatly influenced the military strategy of early Islamic extremist military strategy.

The Muslim Brotherhood was so popular amongst Sunni Muslims that it spread beyond Egypt. In Syria in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Sunni opposition to the Alawitte-dominated regime of President Hafez al-Assad escalated despite harsh regime crackdowns.[xi] The opposition, spearheaded by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood amongst other Sunni and jihadi groups, seized the city of Hama in 1982. The Assad regime responded with extreme violence, virtually destroying the city and killing some 10,000 Syrians.[xii] Many members of the Muslim Brotherhood were also killed or were forced to flee the country, including one Abu Musab al-Suri.

The Second Wave

As time went on after Sayyid Qutb’s execution in 1966 and its failure in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood shifted again towards more peaceful methods to achieve their vision, working through political structures rather than attempting to overturn them. Although sidelined by the Musharraf regime in Egypt, they were still an influential force in jihadi circles. Some of its members would leave the organization due to its more moderate turns and would end up participants in the second wave of the Sunni jihad which took form in al Qaeda. Al Qaeda’s founder and leader Osama bin Laden was also its primary strategic visionary. Whereas Sayyid Qutb envisioned the ground swell of a vanguard from within a state, al Qaeda would take a more global view based on a conception of the “near enemy”- secular Arab states- and the “far enemy”- the United States, Israel, and the West.

Frequently portrayed as a cave-dwelling malcontent, Bin Laden had a sophisticated strategic vision for his jihad. Drawing on his significant business expertise, Bin Laden added economic warfare to Qutb’s cocktail of religious politics and violence. The son of a successful businessman, Bin Laden clearly saw an economic connection between the Soviet Union’s failure in Afghanistan and its subsequent collapse. Bin Laden’s strategic vision is clear from his own statements. In a letter to Mullah Omar, the late Taliban leader, dated 3 October, 2001, Bin Laden stated that the imminent US invasion of Afghanistan, “will impose great long-term economic burdens leading to further economic collapse, which will force America, God willing, to resort to the former Soviet Union’s only option: withdrawal from Afghanistan, disintegration, and contraction.”[xiii] In subsequent interviews Bin Laden talked at length about the damage done to the American economy, in each case comparing it to fall of the Soviet Union.[xiv] Thus, al Qaeda’s theory of strategic victory is that of cumulative strategy or a strategy of exhaustion. In Military Strategy, US Admiral J. C. Wylie described a cumulative strategy as “…a type of warfare in which the entire pattern is made up of a collection of lesser actions, but these lesser or individual actions are not sequentially interdependent.”[xv] Rather than seek large battles one after the other in a long campaign, the pursuant of a cumulative strategy counts on the ever-increasing effect of small but disparate defeats to eventually overcome the enemy’s will to continue. A strategy of exhaustion, Ermattungsstrategie, is a concept from German historian/theorist Hans Delbrück. When pursuing a strategy of exhaustion, the strategic will choose to fight only when it is advantageous but may also delay, avoid, or otherwise force the opponent to expend time and resources until his will to continue is depleted.[xvi]

The military aspects of al Qaeda’s strategy was captured by one of his protégés, Abu Musab al-Suri, sometimes referred to as “al Qaeda’s mastermind” or “the professor of jihad.” Al-Suri is the nom de guerre of Mustafa Setmariam Naser who was born in Aleppo around 1958. He became a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood before joining the jihad in Afghanistan. As a member of al Qaeda, Suri worked in the west writing and publishing jihadi tracks and establishing cells in Spain and England. Upon returning to Afghanistan prior to 9/11 as an instructor in its training camps, he began work on The Call to a Global Resistance. After al Qaeda was ejected from Afghanistan, Suri joined one of his students, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in Iraq. In October of 2005, he was captured in Pakistan. He was allegedly repatriated to Syria and al Qaeda figures claim he remains in prison there.

The Call to a Global Resistance is a unique document in that it is a relatively honest critique of jihadi military methods from an instructor in the craft. At 1,600 pages, it is a detailed window into the thinking of Sunni militants. Al-Suri builds on the ideas of Qutb, echoing that secular institutions- and those that support them- violate shariah and thus deaths of supporters are justified. Where al-Suri goes further is in the codification of al Qaeda’s global cellular structure that ensures the organization’s secrecy and durability in the face of attrition. His description of the decentralized nature is presented as a means to correct “errors” committed by previous jihadis and he criticized the Muslim Brotherhood of which he was a former member.[xvii] Al-Suri goes on a worldwide “tour” of Sunni terrorist and insurgent groups, describing their successes and failures. He blames the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts at moderation for the failure of the revolt the al-Assad regime in the early 1980’s, for which he was present.[xviii] While still referring to Sayyid Qutb in reverent tones, he accuses the Muslim Brotherhood of losing sight of jihad.

Another evolution from the Qutb era is his focus on the use of media, or information operations. Despite al-Suri’s justification of targeting civilians, his work reflects al Qaeda’s greater concern with the messaging of violence; civilians are not randomly targeted but violent acts are planned to both send a message and amplify that message. An entire chapter in Call is essentially a treatise on jihadi rhetoric and details how to craft various media efforts. He recommends to his audience that such messaging be rooted in “Islamic history”[xix] and “the history of the Crusade expeditions,” an oblique reference to jihad as self-defense.

The name “al Qaeda” means “the base” and this vision of al Qaeda as a foundation to a global revolution is evident throughout al-Suri’s book. He writes, “Therefore, the first lesson we must learn from these equations is that we must return the Muslim nation to the battlefield so that the battle becomes once again a battle of a nation and not just that of a few, as it has become these days. The first thing required in this matter is that these “few” must convince the rest that those who stand by the enemy become the enemy. They must be convinced that confronting the enemy is at the core of jihad and it is not something off the path of righteousness.”[xx]

Al-Suri’s vision of a global revolution catalyzed by a group of dedicated devotees is reminiscent of the foco concept, most widely associated with Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Guevara believed that guerrilla warfare, insurgency, or any type of revolution rested on the support of the population. A revolutionary vanguard would be necessary to provide focus- the foco- to a population which would then rise up in support. For Guevara, this support was necessary: “The guerilla band is an armed nucleus, the fighting vanguard of the people. It draws its great force from the mass of the people themselves… Guerrilla warfare is used by the side which is supported by a majority but which possesses a much smaller number of arms for use in defense against repression.”[xxi] Al Qaeda  would later adopt this belief in the sense that the “vanguard” most not move towards seizing political control until it had broad popular support; both Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri would recommend against moving too fast and condemn any jihadi group that moved without such popular support. While the United States adopted a theory that the support of the population was necessary for success, al Qaeda would too. As we shall see though, later jihadi movements would dispense with such gentility.  

Guevara is not the only communist guerrilla fighter to influence jihadi military strategy. Another al Qaeda theorist, Abd al-Aziz al Muqrin, wrote a more militarily-focused tract that shows the influence of Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-Tung especially. Al-Muqrin was a Said born in 1979. He was pious from an early age and grew up in a conservative neighborhood near Riyadh. [xxii] He joined the jihad in Afghanistan in 1990 against the wishes of his parents.[xxiii] There, he saw combat against the Soviets and then continued to travel and work in jihadi circles in Africa and Europe throughout the 1990’s. He returned to Afghanistan after 9/11 to participate in the fighting there but was dispatched back to Saudi Arabia by Osama bin Laden to establish an al Qaeda presence.[xxiv] As a founding member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), he was an instructor for other members in fighting and warfare and wrote for AQAP’s media efforts. At some point in 2003 or 2004 he became the organization’s leader until he was killed in a gunfight with Saud security forces in Riyadh in June of 2004.[xxv]

Only thirty years old at the time of his death, al-Muqrin nevertheless was steeped in military and jihadi theory. In his book, A Practical Course for Guerrilla War, al-Muqrin uses the teachings of Yusuf al-Ayyiri, another member of AQAP. Al-Ayyiri’s videotaped lectures, produced by AQAP, included lectures on the ideas of Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz and Mao Tse-Tung. They also mention guerrilla leaders like Ho Chi Minh, “Che” Guevara, and Fidel Castro. Al-Muqrin builds on those lectures in his book though, providing a synthesis of military theory relevant to the jihadi.

The book is filled with such influences, taking as its core the idea that organized violence is essentially political from Clausewitz and Mao. Al-Muqrin’s definition of war reflects this: “War is a state of conflict that erupts between two communities, factions, or states, or between two individuals and, in general terms, between two armed camps, with the purpose of achieving political, economic, or ideological gains or for expansionist goals.”[xxvi] Throughout the book, al-Muqrin discusses ways to break the enemy’s morale or will, another concept with Clausewitzian connections. Where he part with Clausewitz and leans more towards Mao is in his recommendations to court the support of the civilian population. Like Bin Laden and al-Suri, al-Muqrin believes that jihadis compete with opposing forces for the allegiance of civilians. This leads him to a similar focus on information operations and the use of terrorism as messaging. He writes: “Attacks within cities are considered diplomatic-military. This type of diplomacy is normally written in blood, decorated with corpses, and perfumed with gunpowder. It has a political meaning connected to the nature of the ideological struggle.”[xxvii]

The most obvious connection between al-Muqrin and Mao and Vietnamese guerrilla leaders like Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap is his practical plagiarism of Mao’s three stages of guerrilla warfare. Al-Muqrin names the phases Attrition, Relative Strategic Balance, and Military Decision but the differences end there.[xxviii] The first phase involves small-scale but widespread attack by “mujahidin” cells. These attacks are continued in the second phase but coexist with developing “conventional” forces which seize control where enemy forces are weak.[xxix] The third phase features victory over the enemy using conventional forces that are “completely familiar with conventional war and with an army’s order of battle and how it operates in the field.”[xxx] Like Giap, al-Muqrin believes that the phases may occur concurrently vice sequentially. He also connects each phase with political conditions that parallel the military efforts. He depicts a slowly-contracting ability on the part of the enemy forces to maintain political control in the region.

The significant contributions of this second wave of jihadi thought is the injection of more advanced strategic concepts without regard for their origin under the justifications put forth by Sayyid Qutb. Osama Bin Laden’s focus on economic warfare combined with the focus on persistent small-scale attacks shared by him, al-Suri, and al-Muqrin combine to form a cumulative strategy a la J. C. Wylie which they hope will deplete the United States’ wealth, will, and strength. They apply this same strategy to regional conflicts as per al-Muqrin, whose work focused on insurgencies against regional powers. The cellular structure first proposed by Qutb but used by Bin Laden and codified by al-Suri should not be discounted: it is this structure that provides al Qaeda and similar groups with a depth of resistance to strategies of decapitation that target their leadership. Although this structure was lifted from successful guerrilla movements, al Qaeda managed to institute it on an unprecedented global scale. It has made al Qaeda particularly resistant to the attrition of its leaders, including Osama Bin Laden himself. But al Qaeda has failed to transition from their base of dedicated fighters to a more formal political force with all the benefits of total mobilization that they hoped to gain. As Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger have described an example of al Qaeda’s media campaigns: “…the video’s simple problem/solution formulation did not off al Qaeda as a political force, only as a paramilitary force multiplier for the hypothetical Muslim silent majority waiting to be mobilized.”[xxxi] The creation of a true political force has been the major success of the third wave of jihadi military thought and its brutal avatar, the Islamic State.

The Third Wave

The history of the doctrinal dispute within al Qaeda that spawned the third wave of jihadi military strategy goes back to the foundation of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2002 and 2003. Al-Zarqawi was a Jordanian protégé of Abu Musab al-Suri whom we met above, but al-Zarqawi never adopted the concern for winning over the population that the mentor showed. His strategy was to provoke the Shia population of Iraq into a civil war, presumably to unite the Sunnis behind his banner. He succeeded in provoking the war, but was repeatedly upbraided by al Qaeda leadership including Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Bin Laden’s deputy and now leader of al Qaeda. His tactics also alienated the Sunni tribes of Iraq who eventually turned towards the United States and against AQI after al-Zarqawi’s death in 2005.

Subsequently, AQI leadership declared the existence of an Islamic State and renamed the group the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). This was done in direct violation of Bin Laden’s guidance to wait. Despite advice to the contrary, however, Bin Laden refused to cut ties with the group until his death. By that time the group was led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi former Islamic Studies student. Importantly, the group was also stiffened by an influx of Baathist military officers barred from joining the post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi Army.[xxxii]

The break with AQ came after al-Zawahiri ordered the group to expand its efforts in Syria as that country plummeted into civil war. The group sent to Syria by ISI called itself Jabhat al-Nusra. Simultaneously, ISI started to expand into Syria as well, attempting to seize political control of territory whereas Jabhat al-Nusra focused on defeating the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad alongside Syrian rebel groups.[xxxiii] The two groups were subsequently at odds regarding revenue sharing from captured oil fields.[xxxiv] Jabhat al-Nusra seceded from ISI (now renamed the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS) with al-Zawahiri’s blessing. After a blistering response to the al Qaeda leader from al-Baghdadi, al-Zawahiri cut ties with ISIS in February of 2014.

Beyond the bureaucratic spats that led to the schism, the major doctrinal dispute between al Qaeda in regards to military strategy is the intense targeting of civilians and rapid implementation of shariah exhibited by ISIS. Their methods bear the imprint of the book The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical State Through Which the Umma Will Pass by Abu Bakr Naji. The name is a nom d’guerre and the true author is unknown but the book appeared at roughly the same time as al-Suri’s Call. Whereas al Qaeda and its affiliates (including Jabhat al-Nusra) lean more towards al-Suri’s vision of local and global popular uprisings led by jihadis and a more phased imposition of shariah, Naji’s conception is different. Naji dispenses with any requirement to woo the population and instead recommends the exploitation or creation of regions engulfed in violent chaos and societal disarray- a state of “savagery.” Jihadis can then seize political control of such areas. A state of savagery is a prerequisite to the political control of jihadis since the population of the afflicted region will desire security over everything else. The brutality of harsh control becomes not a weakness as al-Suri believed but a strength; the population will welcome the strongest horse. In Management, Naji states: “The region of savagery will be in a situation resembling the situation of Afghanistan before the control of the Taliban, a region submitting to the law of the jungle, whose good people yearn for someone to manage this savagery. They even accept any organization, regardless of whether it is made up of good or evil people.”[xxxv]

Like Mao and al-Muqrin, Naji envisions three stages of warfare. The first is “[T]he stage of “the power of vexation and exhaustion.””[xxxvi] In this stage jihadis perform the typical small-scale attacks, recruit more followers, and generally displace existing political structures. In the second stage, that of “the administration of savagery,” Naji describes typical insurgent actions like the provision of services and increasing the ranks and “combat efficiency” of the fighting force. Interestingly, at this point Naji launches into a long description of drawing the United States into the conflict in order to place it, “in a state of war with the masses of the region.”[xxxvii] Naji never goes into depth regarding the third stage- “the establishment of power” but does state that it is “establishing the state.”[xxxviii] In some regions, Naji believes that only the first and third stages are necessary.

Like other jihadi military thinkers, Naji describes a military strategy of overextending and exhausting the enemy and a coordinated information strategy using media to attract recruits and project legitimacy. Where Naji differs is in a section entitled “Using Violence.” In it, he takes other jihadis to task for “softness”: “Those who study theoretical jihad will never grasp this point well… One who previously engaged in jihad knows it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening (others), and massacring…”[xxxix] Naji believed that modern Muslims are not like the Arabs who fought with the Prophet who “used to fight and know the nature of wars”[xl]; they must be trained to be violent. Internet videos depicting ISIS fighters having children present for and even performing executions underscores this point. He uses historical examples to explain that extreme violence is a necessary ingredient of success. He specifically cited examples of the immolation of victims and said it was used by early Muslims, “…because they knew the effect of rough violence in times of need.”[xli] Such violence can only be decreased when acceptance of their version of Islam is achieved, but never against “the enemy,” referring to apostates and the West. He describes a concept called “paying the price”[xlii] which is essentially achieving deterrence by responding to any attack with brutal violence. (Not really that different from our own conception of deterrence.) The execution of hostages is also described as a way to “send fear into the hearts of the enemy and his supporters.”[xliii]

The use of violence is directly connected to the next section titled “Achieving “Power””:  “The great “power” and that which causes the enemy to reflect one thousand times are a result of the “powers” of the groups [jihadi fighters], whether they are groups of “vexation” [the first stage] or groups of administration in the regions of savagery [the second stage]. The tie of religious loyalty between all of these is embodied in a covenant written in blood. The most important clause (of this covenant) is: “Blood for blood and destruction for destruction.” Attaining a great “power” makes the enemy unable to oppose it.”[xliv]

What Naji is describing as “power” is the devotion and moral cohesion exhibited by the Islamic States fighting units in both Iraq and Syria. It is a bloody mix of unbridled violent urges and religious fervor that provides the fighters with a will and capability that Syrian rebel groups and Iraqi Army units cannot match, as shown in the rapid expansion of ISIS and even more rapid collapse of heavily-armed and American backed Iraqi Army units. It is, in short, the Islamic States’ center of gravity. Carl von Clausewitz described the strategic center of gravity as, “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends.”[xlv] It could be a capital city, a particular army, or an influential leader but in any case it is-like in physics- the point which gives a strategic actor its cohesion as a singular unit. Napoleon, for example, was a center of gravity because of the force of his personality and military reputation for victory. For the Islamic State, it is their ideology of ultraviolence mixed with an aura of religious credibility projected by their communications strategy.

The ideas of Naji appeared again in a document written by ISI militants in late 2009 when the group was at its nadir. That document, “The Strategic Plan for Reinforcing the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq,” was a comprehensive strategy for the group to assert itself once US troops were withdrawn from the country.[xlvi] It included plans for coopting the Sunni tribes, fighting Iraqi security forces, a media campaign, and even quoted Sun Tzu.[xlvii] It is essentially a practical application of Naji’s theories, and ISIS has followed it faithfully.

Thus, the ultraviolence of the Islamic State is not blind barbarism but a calculated component of their military strategy. The violence interacts in a feedback loop with their media strategy: slick videos depicting such acts demonstrates their strength to and intimidates local audiences and appeals to potential recruits, thereby increasing their military power. Fear and terror is another component: Iraqi troops tasked with defending Mosul fled rather than face the Islamic State’s fighters. Lastly, it is a premeditated means to drawing the United States into the conflict which expends American resources and lends legitimacy to the group as defenders of Islam while depleting the credibility of the United States so long as the group continues to operate despite its best efforts. This lofty goal has already been accomplished.

Total War

The three waves of jihadi military strategy have been ever increasing in their totality. Qutb envisioned a small group of jihadi cells that would seize control from regional Arab government leaders. Bin Laden and al-Suri envisioned more popular revolutions, both regional and global, led by a jihadi vanguard. Naji and ISIS leadership envisions a movement: the mobilization of the entire population towards the singular goal of establishing and expanding the Islamic State. This is demonstrated by repeated calls from ISIS to Muslims of any kind, including administrators, engineers, and doctors as well as fighters to join their banners.[xlviii] This vision is no less than a repetition of the French Revolution’s somewhat successful attempt to mobilize the entire nation of France to further the goals of the Revolution and thus is a significant change in the stream of jihadi military thinking. For Clausewitz, the total mobilization of French society was the political change that spurred an advancement in warfare towards his theoretical concept of absolute war which Napoleon came the closest to reaching. Like the revolutionary cockades of France, the Islamic State fastens its black flags to anything it can: police cars, ambulances, traffic cops, bureaucrats, even in its nursing homes.[xlix] The Revolutionaries rewrote history, designing a new calendar and outlawing legacy institutions like the Church. The Islamic State recently destroyed a local, older version of France’s arc de triomphe, rewriting history with bombs rather than laws. ISIS is not a vanguard of eventual societal revolution as is al Qaeda. It is the revolution.

This trend towards an attempted application of absolute war along with the apocalyptic vision of the Islamic State (a vision shared by, among others, Abu Musab al-Suri) is a worrying development. ISIS has taken jihadi military strategy the along the spectrum towards absolute war. They have adopted ideas of their predecessors and rejected others while learning from their mistakes and failures. Whether the Islamic State ultimately succeeds or fails, they have pushed the envelope of jihadi military strategy to heretofore unprecedented heights and those that come after them will go even further. The overriding concern for policymakers then must be that the Islamic State and similar groups do not under any circumstances acquire weapons of mass destruction as their rationality after such an acquisition is unpredictable. Furthermore, a simplistic strategy of attrition- whether of Islamic State fighting cadres or their leadership- will be ineffective due to both the decentralized nature of their organization inherited from al Qaeda and the obvious fervor of their adherents, exemplified by their self-professed “love of death.” Lastly, it is no mystery that a central pillar of jihadi strategy is their goal of drawing the United States into intractable conflicts that expend its blood and treasure. Why the United States has walked into this trap is the only mystery.

End Notes

[i] Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East: Second Edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Books, 2000. Pages 196-197.

[ii] Ibid, 298.

[iii] Lacey, Jim ed. The Canons of Jihad: Terrorists’ Strategy For Defeating America. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008. Page 11.

[iv] Zabel, 4.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones in Lacey, Jim ed. The Canons of Jihad: Terrorists’ Strategy For Defeating America. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008. Page 22.

[vii] Ibid, 20.

[viii] Ibid, 25.

[ix] Ibid, 14.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Cleveland, 394.

[xii] Ibid, 394-395.

[xiii] Gartenstein-Ross, Daveed. Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. Page 37.

[xiv] Ibid, page 38.

[xv] Wylie, J. C. Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014.

[xvi] Craig, Gordan A. “Delbrück” in Paret, Peter ed. Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

[xvii] Al-Suri, Abu Musab. The Call to a Global Resistance. In Lacey, Jim ed. A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab Al-Suri’s Islamic Jihad Manifesto. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008. Page 15.

[xviii] Ibid, 59.

[xix] Ibid, 193.

[xx] Ibid, 59.

[xxi] Guevara, Ernesto. Guerrilla Warfare. Trans. J. P. Morray. Lexington, KY: BN Publishing, 2012. Page 4.

[xxii] Cigar, Norman ed. Al-Qaida’s Doctrine for Insurgency: Abd Al-Aziz Al-Muqrin’s Practical Course for Guerrilla War. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2009. Page 6.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid, 7.

[xxv] Ibid, 10-11.

[xxvi] Al-Muqrin, Abd Al-Aziz. A Practical Course for Guerrilla War in Cigar, Norman ed. Al-Qaida’s Doctrine for Insurgency: Abd Al-Aziz Al-Muqrin’s Practical Course for Guerrilla War. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2009. Page 89.

[xxvii] Ibid, 127.

[xxviii] Ibid, 94.

[xxix] Ibid, 99.

[xxx] Ibid, 101.

[xxxi] Stern, Jessica and J. M. Berger. ISIS: The State of Terror. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Page 56.

[xxxii] McCants, William. The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 2015. Page 79.

[xxxiii] Ibid, 85

[xxxiv] Ibid, 90.

[xxxv] Naji, Abu Bakr. The Management of Savagery: The Most Important Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass in Lacey, Jim ed. The Canons of Jihad: Terrorists’ Strategy For Defeating America. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008. Page 52.

[xxxvi] Ibid, 54.

[xxxvii] Naji, Abu Bakr. The Management of Savagery: The Most Important Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass translated by William McCants for the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, 23 May 2006. Page 45.

[xxxviii] Naji, Abu Bakr. The Management of Savagery: The Most Important Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass in Lacey, Jim ed. The Canons of Jihad: Terrorists’ Strategy For Defeating America. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008. Page 54.

[xxxix] Naji, Abu Bakr. The Management of Savagery: The Most Important Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass translated by William McCants for the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, 23 May 2006. Page 72.

[xl] Ibid, 73.

[xli] Ibid, 74.

[xlii] Ibid, 76.

[xliii] Ibid, 78.

[xliv] Ibid, 79.

[xlv] Clausewitz, Carl von. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans. On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989. Page 595-596.

[xlvi] McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, page 79.

[xlvii] Ibid, 81.

[xlviii] Stern, Jessica and J. M. Berger. ISIS: The State of Terror. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Page 86.

[xlix] Ibid, page 114.


About the Author(s)

Captain Brett A. Friedman is a field artillery officer in the United States Marine Corps and editor of the book 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era from Naval Institute Press. Views expressed herein do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or the United States Marine Corps.


Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/29/2015 - 3:45am

In reply to by Dumb_Murican

DM--from the world of interrogation in Iraq especially the phase 2005/2006--a large number of insurgents from IAI had in fact been recruited by former Iraqi intelligence officers. The Islamic Army in Iraq was the natural home for former Baathists and ISI officers.

What is not largely known in the US even now--there had been an ongoing Salafist insurgency against Saddam starting in 1991 and the ISI had been used to monitor them, identify the members, gain their confidence and then eliminate them via hanging at Abu Ghraib--a large number of these very same ISI officers actually quietly sided with the Salafists so when we arrived in Baghdad in 2003 they simply changed sides.

Second example---you are a Baathist, an Iraqi COL with say 15-20 years of service--then you are suddenly fired with no pension and no work to support an extended family of say 15 to feed and house AND an insurgent group makes you an offer of X amount of money per month---what would you do?

Easy answer.

But to go on with this particular COL.--we raided his home multiple times due to reporting on him but every time it came up dry so he was released out.

On the last raid the raid team found a buried box of documents--filled two large boxes worth. I asked several times had they gone through the documents with an interpreter --they stated they had---the documents were largely personnel ie former military service documents, property contracts, purchases, ration cards from the oil for food program etc. BUT in the second box and at the bottom of it was two folded sheets of carbon paper.

Buried documents in itself was not unusual as many Iraqi's kept their personal documents buried for protection if their house/apartment was damaged or destroyed.

Having not seen carbon paper in years I unfolded them and held them up to the light---there was literally over 100 cell phone numbers and names against the numbers--a check of the numbers confirmed their insurgency use.

After two years of watching him it was two folded sheets of carbon paper that gave us a reason to hold him.

Moral of the story--the US troops in 2005/2006 were not trained at all in battlefield searches and document exploitation.

BTW---I have a high respect for this article as it is in my opinion the first time I have seen an attempt to understand the jihadi and what drives him from an historical perspective.

Salafists and or Takfiri jihadi's were and still are the drivers behind first QJBR--AQ in the Land of Two Rivers which then morphed into AQI which then morphed again into IS.

Historically we urgently need to fully understand the development of QJBR/AQI in the phase 2003 through 2010 in order to understand the phase 2011 to now.

Why--- AQI then now IS has developed far differently than the mothership AQ has.

IMHO we also need to fully understand the complete intelligence failures for the entire period reference Corp level intelligence gathering at Abu Ghraib and Bucca and the total disconnect between Corp and BCTs in the intelligence process.

But that is another story.......


Thu, 10/29/2015 - 2:42am

In reply to by Dumb_Murican

Have a look at Joel Wing's blogsite and his posts here. If anyone has covered it on SWJ it will be him.


Wed, 10/28/2015 - 10:23pm

What is the extent that former Baathist officers lead the military operations of IS? I've read that before, but I haven't seen a lot of evidence. It makes sense after Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army that the Baathist's would turn to AQI for a paycheck. Do they actually believe in that ideology?