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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Jihadist Strategies In The War On Terrorism

The following is a transcript of a talk given by Mary R. Habeck, Ph.D., an associate professor of history at Yale University, reprinted with permission from the Heritage Foundation. The talk was originally published in Heritage Foundation's Policy Research and Analysis.

I AM GOING TO BE TALKING about a group of people who are generally known as fundamentalists, extremists, or (as I have grown to call them) "jihadis." The term jihad suggests what they believe their lives are about — holy war that is directed against people they believe are their enemies and the enemies of their way of life.

Yet there is more to what they are doing than simple warfare. In fact, I believe they are involved in a war that has a definite strategy behind it, not simply the sort of random attacks that people talk about all the time. However, if you watch the news it is really hard to see that. You look at the news and you see Muslims being killed, you see churches being attacked, you see Jews being killed. You see all sorts of people being targeted and attacked, and in some cases those attacks seem to be counterproductive. After all, it does not make sense to kill the Muslims that you are trying to win over to your side of the argument. It does not make sense to target churches or other places of worship when all this does is win sympathy for the victims of these attacks.

There are also things like the Madrid attack, which, while it seemed to attain their ends, was accompanied by a second plan for a second attack on April 2 — an attack that, if it had been carried out, would have had nothing to do with the elections, or with Spanish participation in Iraq. In fact, it could not have been sold as anything except an apparently random attack — a counterproductive attack on the Spanish. It might have convinced the Spanish themselves to get re-involved in Iraq, or at least (in some way) with the war on terrorism.

However, I am going to argue that, in fact, this is not true. These are not random attacks; they are not entirely counterproductive. They do have strategies that are rational, systematic, and followed rigorously. Unlike other groups — such as the Anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th century (which really did seem to carry out pretty random attacks), or the Communists (whose pragmatism allowed them to pretty much get away with anything as long as they could make some sort of argument that it was helping the cause) — these new terrorists believe that they have an ideology that is so important that it must be followed rigorously. There are many different groups and each one of them is carrying out its own rational systematic strategy.

To understand each attack, therefore, you have to get into the mindset of the group that carried out that attack and not try to make broad generalizations about jihadis, extremists, or fundamentalists. These are very different people and very different groups with very different arguments about how they should be carrying out their warfare. To understand their arguments and attacks you have to understand their ideology, and in some cases understand theological arguments that they are having with the rest of the Islamic world.


Levels of Strategy

I am going to differentiate in this talk between four different levels of strategy or tactics. First, there are grand strategies; then there are military strategies; operations (or operational art, as some people call it); and then there are tactics. I am only going to be talking about the first two levels here, that is, grand strategies and military strategies.

Grand strategy is basically the same for almost every jihadi group. This is, I think, the only place where you can say that there is something unifying these groups and holding them together. The objective is, almost across the board, the same. They want to restore the greatness of their vision of Islam by defeating every rival to its power. The means by which they are going to attempt this are also the same and fit into this grand strategic vision. They are hoping to create an Islamic state. They all argue about what that means and how it is going to be created, but somewhere they want to create an Islamic state. They also want to defeat all of their rivals through military means — that is, through violence of some sort. Additionally, they hope to win over the rest of the Islamic world to their vision of what Islam is about and how to restore Islam to greatness.

Those three things are the same across the board. If you take a look at these extremist groups, they all agree, at least on those basic principles. The result of this grand strategic vision is that they must take on an immense number of enemies. They must take on, in fact, what they call "The West" (or as some of them say, "the Jewish crusaders"); "the agent rulers" (that is, the rulers in almost every single one of the Muslim states); "the apostates and the heretics," (which means any Muslim that doesn't agree with them as well as the Shi'a groups — because most of the groups I'll be talking about are Sunni). They also have to take on what they call "oppressors," but this is a term that they use in a very specific way and has little to do with the socialist or leftist use of this term. For instance, "oppressors" include all the Hindus in the world.

The military strategies, unlike this grand strategic vision, seem more random. However, the extremists do not attack all of these groups simultaneously. They have, in fact, prioritized which one of these groups has to be attacked first, second, and third; which is the most important; which is the most dangerous; how they are going to carry out these attacks. In other words, they have definite strategies, but differing definite strategies, even about how to carry out these military attacks. Behind the seeming randomness then, even of the military strategies, there are a few basic principles which will help you to understand, when you see on the news that this or that group has carried out an attack on X, Y, or Z, why they might have chosen them and why they might be choosing another group next.

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