Fall/Winter 2014
Number 27

An Islamist Civil War...and America's Response

By
Katharine Cornell Gorka

When Osama bin Laden appeared in propaganda films or photos, he typically wore an M-65 field jacket, the U.S. Army’s combat jacket throughout the Cold War, with an AK-74—the weapon of the elite Russian forces who fought in Afghanistan—leaning against the wall behind him. He presented himself as a military leader, one who was so successful that he was outfitted with the spoils of his enemies. By contrast, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi broadcast the creation of the Islamic State from the minbar, or pulpit, of Mosul’s largest mosque, wearing a black clerical robe and turban. He took out a mithwak, a twig, before he spoke and cleaned his teeth, as the prophet Mohammed is said to have done. He took the name Abu Bakr, referencing the father-in-law of Mohammed and the first Caliph after Mohammed’s death. And since Allah’s approval is signified by victory in battle, he based his claim to legitimacy on those victories.(1)

But al-Baghdadi is no mere commander, like bin Laden. He is not fighting for some small corner of Afghanistan, striking occasional blows against the far enemy. Rather, the Islamic State’s leader is the self-declared Caliph. He has reestablished that which had been lost to the Muslim world for nearly a century, since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1924: namely, the Islamic Caliphate. And he is putting his vision into practice.

Under al-Baghdadi’s direction, the Islamic State has conquered nearly half of Iraq and Syria in recent months, and done so in the face of Iraqi, Kurdish and even American armed opposition. Yet its vision is broader still; the group has tweeted out a map of the coming caliphate that stretches from Spain through the Middle East, through half of China, down to sub-Saharan Africa.

On the march

Since 9/11, the Islamist ascent has continued nearly unabated, in spite of extensive Western efforts to stop it. While “Al-Qaeda Central” may have been weakened in the more-than-thirteen years since the attacks on New York and Washington, its brand has grown exponentially across the globe, with offshoots and affiliates now active in numerous countries. The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has gone even further with its conquest of a vast swath of territory, its masterful exploitation of social media, and its extensive financial resources.

The operative question is why the United States, indeed all the forces for moderation, have failed to gain a definitive victory against the ever-growing strength of the global jihadist movement. America’s military superiority, after all, remains unchallenged. But our tactical successes, even at their most spectacular, are not bringing strategic victory. 

While many factors are involved, including several that are specific to a given country or locale, one can point to two overarching reasons which arguably trump all local circumstances: The enemy has been too narrowly defined, and the resulting strategy is therefore the wrong one.

The enemy, mistakenly, has been identified as only those Islamists who use force. President Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy identified the enemy simply as al-Qaeda and its affiliates.(2) The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review likewise defined the enemy in the very limited terms of “violent extremists and terrorist threats.”(3) The focus was and continues to be on those who use violence. America’s current approach focuses on the several thousand who take up arms or strap on suicide vests, but it ignores the tens of thousands who celebrate suicide martyrs as heroes, who send their tithes to the widows and orphans of those heroes, who encourage their sons and daughters to serve in the cause of jihad, and the many who offer what Osama bin Laden called “cooperation in piety.”(4)

The strategy that logically results is one based on force. It ignores those who actively use non-military methods to assault America and treats the threat as purely kinetic, one whose defeat can be achieved on the battlefield.

That represents a critical error. If the enemy is only those who populate the battlefield, then of course the battlefield should be the locus of operations. But it is not. Rather, the conflict is far broader, and both ideological and informational in nature. And because those actors and dimensions of the struggle remain unaddressed, the jihadist enterprise continues to grow. 

With the launch of U.S.-led military engagement against ISIS, particularly in light of the fact that victory is not coming easily, these shortcomings are starting to show. A growing number of experts have stated that military force alone will not win this fight. For example, General (USAF, ret.) Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and the NSA, has remarked that it will not be enough to focus solely on the “close fight”—those people who are already committed to killing us. Rather, according to him, we also have to think about the “deep fight”—those who will eventually join the war.(5) General Jonathan Shaw, the former Commander of British forces in Iraq, echoed that assessment when he said recently that the war against ISIS will not be won militarily.(6)

But the Obama administration is not engaging the Islamists in the ideological struggle. White House officials and advisors have refused to truly wade into the “battle of ideas” against jihadist groups, seeing themselves as constrained both politically and legally from doing so.(7)

That the United States is failing to engage in the war of ideas leaves us facing enemy forces that are ever replenishing. For every jihadist who falls, another ten will be ready to take his place, and another one hundred or even a thousand will be willing to celebrate them and support them.

Staying out of the war of ideas has another price as well: it leaves us with a lack of clarity over whom we are in fact fighting. Implicit in such terms as “The War on Terror” or “Countering Violent Extremism” is the idea that we are only trying to defeat people who use terrorism. Or, to put it another way, we only target those whose extremism becomes violent. It keeps us away from the very important question of what it is about their extremism, aside from its violence, to which we object. Hence the profoundly contradictory policy of fighting ISIS and AQ in one place, but in another supporting similarly extreme groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. These groups are distinguished, above all, by their use of tactics. But if al-Qaeda’s and ISIS’s explicit hatred of the United States and Israel is objectionable, should not that of ostensibly non-violent groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood be as well?

Additionally, as General Shaw suggests, focusing only on those who use violence means we do not address the sources of the violence; we do not tackle the incubators of the violent mind-set, whether it be particular mosques, or preachers, or ideologues. Every jihadist undergoes a period of radicalization, during which the ideas that inspire him to fight take root. Groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood play a critical role in moving people from mere discontent to activism to violent jihad. Yet the West has hardly begun to acknowledge this fact.

Finally, the failure to engage in the war of ideas is self-defeating because we thereby deprive ourselves of the essential requirement to fully know the enemy. So much is to be learned from the details around bin Laden’s and Baghdadi’s public pronouncements, how they present themselves, what they say. All the evidence suggests that these events are not fully mined for their intelligence potential. Are there, for example, intellectual weaknesses that we can exploit, thereby saving ourselves the far more costly losses incurred in physical battle? And is anyone seriously seeking to identify these vulnerabilities? Such questions are not currently being explored, because belief is out of bounds and intelligence about our adversaries has become the domain of sociologists and anthropologists.

A “reset” for the war on terror

Engaging our adversaries in the arena of ideas over why they fight, not merely on the battlefield where they fight, starts with definitions. Our enemy is not, as the Bush and Obama administrations have tried to say, simply al-Qaeda, or violent extremists, or even the Islamic State. Nor is it anyone who simply opposes the ideas enshrined in the American Constitution. Rather, it is those who declare themselves our enemies and who are willing to take action against the national interest of the United States, its people, or its Constitution. From that perspective, the enemy we are discussing here is best described as the broad spectrum of groups and individuals that constitute the global jihadist movement. Al-Qaeda has long been the most conspicuous representative of that movement, but now it faces an ideological challenge from the Islamic State. Yet each is just one of hundreds of similarly minded organizations, all of which are driven by the idea of restoring glory and prominence to Muslim populations by returning to a pure form of Islam, which demands the casting off of man-made laws and constitutions and bringing their lands under the rule of sharia.(8)

The next imperative is to identify the ideas that animate and inform this enemy. According to Osama bin Laden himself, at its inception in 1979 al-Qaeda was initially driven by the twin motivations of self-defense and da’wa (proselytization).(9) Under this view, the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was claimed to be a jihad of self-defense. But its ideological foundation was in fact much broader, and contained all the elements that to this day shape global jihad. This ideological foundation was first laid out by a little-known ideologue named Abdullah Azzam.

Born into a Palestinian family who had to flee the West Bank after the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War, Azzam became a disciple of the Muslim Brotherhood, studying the works of Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb during his formative years. He studied in Syria and Egypt, and taught in Saudi Arabia. In each of these places, he was close to the leading Islamist movements of the day. As a result, he was able to bring their disparate intellectual threads together into a cohesive doctrine, which he published in 1984 under the title Defense of Muslim Lands. That book became the foundational work for the global jihad, because it contained the key elements at the heart of every jihadist enterprise: the humiliation of all Muslims at the hands of impure regimes and colonial powers, the threat that Islam would suffer ultimate defeat if Muslims did not take on jihad as a personal obligation, and the reestablishment of the Caliphate as the ultimate goal. 

Azzam thus created the ideological framework for global jihad. Osama bin Laden executed it. He was able to turn a theological construct into a military operation, in no small part because he was able to fund it. By his own reckoning, bin Laden’s support for various groups engaged in the “Islamic awakening” extended to 13 different countries.(10) Muslim fighters began to flock to the cause of the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Emboldened by success, bin Laden became more ambitious in his goals. By 1990, he had set his sights far beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. He derided the Saudi monarchy for having betrayed Islam and for serving their own interests. He identified 1990 as a pivotal year, when Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait brought American troops into what he termed the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, Mecca and Medina. He also identified the suffering of Muslims in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, for which he blamed Americans, as the source of his ire.(11)

Bin Laden’s declaration of jihad against the Americans, issued on September 2, 1996, elaborated further. It decried the “injustice, repression, and aggression that have befallen Muslims through the alliance of Jews, Christians, and their agents.”(12) In it, he listed at length the failings of the Saudi state, including corruption, failure to pay its debts, and overcrowded prisons, but ultimately he blamed the “Jewish-Crusade alliance” for “exhausting and aborting” any potential reform movements in Saudi Arabia. He indicted the Saudi monarchs for failing to reclaim for Islam the Al-Aqsa Mosque, located in Jerusalem. Importantly, with this fatwa, bin Laden called for the use of guerrilla tactics to expel the enemy from occupied lands because of the lack of parity in forces. Driving the Christians and Jews from the Arabian Peninsula and reclaiming Palestine thus became the primary concerns for bin Laden.

In January 2001, bin Laden’s ideology evolved one step further. He had started with defensive jihad of lands occupied by non-Muslims. It had matured into offensive jihad against the enemies of Islam. Now, he sought to make Islam victorious over all, with all Muslim countries of the world merged into one, “where men do not rule men.”(13) The result, bin Laden envisioned, would be called the Global Muslim State, with one currency, a common defense, and the Koran as its constitution.(14) But the time had not yet arrived. Bin Laden pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban and Emir of the Faithful. As bin Laden described it, Mullah Omar was the only man in the world leading an Islamic state.(15) Mullah Omar was not a Caliph, and the land he ruled was not a Caliphate, but one can clearly see planted there the idea that eventually bore fruit with ISIS’ declaration of the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

The roots of rage

Many Western analysts treat bin Laden’s litany of grievances as though they were grounded in both reality and reason, and therefore attribute al-Qaeda’s success to them. It is far more likely, however, that the organization’s success stemmed from two other factors: the millions of dollars that flowed in from bin Laden and others to support jihadists, and the personal experience many young Muslims had gained in fighting jihad in places such as Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere. One such acolyte was a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in late 1999. Bin Laden is said to have disliked Zarqawi intensely, but eventually agreed to give him the resources to set up a training camp in Herat, Afghanistan.

The roots of ISIS are here, and with them the major fault lines between ISIS and al-Qaeda, which were, and remain, two different styles of leadership, two different personalities. Bin Laden was more refined, educated, and elite, and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was cut from similar cloth. Zawahiri came from an upper-class Egyptian family of wealthy doctors and scholars. Indeed, his grandfather had been the grand imam of Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar University. 

Zarqawi, on the other hand, was a criminal and a thug. He is reported to have had 37 run-ins with police prior to his career as a terrorist.(16) Zarqawi and bin Laden clashed famously. Zarqawi called for the execution of all Shi’ites, in keeping with Salafist Islamic teachings.(17) Bin Laden, on the other hand, was more tolerant of the Shi’a because his own mother, Alia Hamida al-Attas, was an Alawite from Syria, and bin Laden had spent many of his summers as a boy in Latakia, an Alawite stronghold.

Zarqawi and bin Laden also differed on the nature of the enemy. Bin Laden, of course, was focused on the far enemy: Israel and the United States. Zarqawi’s first interest was to overthrow the Jordanian regime, but then he broadened his focus to include Al-Sham. Geographically, al-Sham, or the Levant, refers to an area that includes Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the territory of Palestine. Theologically it has great significance in Islamic eschatology: when the end times arrive, it is believed that Jesus will descend near a white minaret in Damascus and kill the anti-Christ, after which all Christians will convert to Islam.(18) Thus the final battle at the end of time will take place in al-Sham, which is why some call the Syrian conflict a “one-way ticket to jihad.” By going there, they will get to see Islam’s final victory—an idea that makes for a very powerful recruiting tool.

While still in Afghanistan, Zarqawi formed the organization Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Al-Sham) and he called himself the Emir of Sham.(19) In December 2001, Zarqawi left Afghanistan and moved his operations to Iran and Iraq. Eventually he found his way to Iraq, where he conducted countless terrorist attacks and bombings and helped fuel an insurgency. It is worth noting that it was Zarqawi who initiated the spectacle of beheading American hostages dressed in the orange jumpsuits of the Guantánamo Bay prison, the practice that has been so famously continued by ISIS.

Both bin Laden and Zarqawi were killed by the United States, but their organizations carry on. Zarqawi was killed on June 7, 2006, and nine days later, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made a public statement about Zarqawi’s death, claiming it “a great loss” and in so doing identifying himself as the heir apparent. While the subsequent U.S. “surge” managed to greatly weaken the insurgency and push its leaders underground, when U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011 the organization began to regain strength and found new life when it expanded into Syria in 2013. 

Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which had by then evolved into the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), was publicly disavowed by al-Qaeda in February 2013. But the latter had internally expressed concerns much earlier than that. Papers found in the 2011 raid of bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad contained warnings that AQI might have a negative impact on al-Qaeda.(20) But it was really a concern about control. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as the leader of al-Qaeda, famously ordered AQI to leave Syria alone and to focus on Iraq, but Baghdadi ignored him. So al-Qaeda kicked them out of the larger organization .This, however, did not have a weakening effect: on June 10, 2014, the new ISIS swept in and took control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. And on June 29, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the established of the Caliphate.

Regaining the offensive

This conflict has now been underway for thirteen years (or twenty-one years if one recognizes the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center as its opening salvo), and the United States is playing a constant game of catch-up. As a victory is achieved in one corner of the battlefield, the enemy pops up stronger than ever in another. U.S. strategy is reactive and defensive. We rush to wherever the enemy flares up, much as we did throughout the Cold War—at least until the Reagan era, when the United States moved from defense to offense.

In his day, President Jimmy Carter treated the Soviet Union as if it were too big to fail, and therefore could only be contained at best. By contrast, his successor, Ronald Reagan, would accept nothing less than its total defeat. President Carter focused largely on the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, much as we focus today on the enemy’s use of terrorist tactics. Reagan took a much deeper view. “While America’s military strength is important,” Reagan said on March 8, 1983, “… I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.”(21)

With that understanding of the nature of the threat, Reagan laid out a comprehensive strategy in National Security Decision Directive 75 (NSDD-75). As scholar John Lenczowski describes it, NSDD-75 “prescribed the necessity of ‘an ideological thrust which clearly affirms the superiority of U.S. and Western values of individual dignity and freedom, a free press, free trade unions, free enterprise, and political democracy over the repressive features of Soviet Communism.’”(22)

What might a similar strategy look like for today’s enemy? While vulnerabilities do indeed exist at the micro level of rivalries between groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, and these can be exploited to weaken one or both, this will only ever amount to skirmishes in the bigger fight against the global jihadist movement. The latter will never be defeated until the United States develops a comprehensive strategy to do so. Such an approach would, by necessity, include: explicitly and publicly identify the ideology of our enemies as evil and in contravention of the universal truths upon which our Republic was founded; supporting those within the Arab and Muslim world who are prepared to resist the global jihadist movement and reform their societies; engaging in the full range of information operations to counter jihadist propaganda and generating our own countervailing message; and disrupting the financial support networks which facilitate the propagation of these groups and their ideology.

American leaders have shied away from bearing moral witness to the truth in the face of the Islamist threat. Their silence, in turn, has paved the way for defeat upon defeat at the hands of the jihadists. Robert Reilly, who served both under Reagan and during the second Iraq War, frames the challenge this way:

War’s practical objective is to cause the enemy to give up the ideas that animate his struggle, either by demonstrating the illegitimacy of his ideas or crushing those who hold them—or more likely a combination of the two. It is also to convince the enemy that further pursuit of his ideas is futile, or just no longer worth the effort… It cannot be stressed enough that this is not a matter of messaging. It consists of putting into words what one really does live and die for.(23)

Once we fully understand the seriousness of this threat, and that moment is nearly upon us, the United States will have to engage in this war in an entirely new way. Only then will we be able to provide what Lenczowski has called the “contagious moral witness to truth.”

Katharine Cornell Gorka is the president of the Council on Global Security. Follow her on Twitter at @katharinegorka.


1.    Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “A Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan,” Al-Hayat Media Center, n.d., https://ia902501.us.archive.org/2/items/hym3_22aw/english.pdf.

2.    White House, National Security Strategy, May 2010, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/national_securi....

3.    U.S. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, March 2014, http://www.defense.gov/pubs/2014_Quadrennial_Defense_Review.pdf.

4.    Compilation of Usama bin Laden Statements, 1994—January 2004, FBIS Report, January 2004, http://fas.org/irp/world/para/ubl-fbis.pdf.

5.    General Michael V. Hayden, USAF (Ret.), “The Deep Fight,” in Norman Cigar and Stephanie E. Kramer, eds., Al-Qaida After Ten Years of War: A Global Perspective of Successes, Failures and Prospects (Quantico: Marine Corps University Press, 2011), 10.

6.    David Blair, “Qatar and Saudi Arabia ‘Have Ignited Time Bomb by Funding Global Spread of Radical Islam,’” Telegraph (London), October 4, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/11140860/Qatar....

7.    See Bill Gertz, “Surrender in the War of Ideas,” Washington Free Beacon, October 7, 2014, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/surrender-in-the-war-of-ideas/.

8.    See, for example, Seth G. Jones, A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al-Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists (Santa Monica: RAND, 2014), http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR600/RR637/R....

9.    Compilation of Usama bin Laden Statements, 1994—January 2004.

10.  Bin Laden said in an interview in 1996: “To put it simply, the Bin Laden Establishment’s aid covers 13 countries, including Albania, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Netherlands, Britain, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and some Gulf countries which there is no need to mention…this aid comes in particular from the Human Concern International Society, which was founded in Afghanistan in 1982.” Compilation of Usama bin Laden Statements, 1994—January 2004, 7.

11.  Robert Fisk, interview with Osama bin Laden, Independent (London), July 10, 1996, http://fas.org/irp/world/para/ubl-fbis.pdf.

12.  Compilation of Usama bin Laden Statements, 1994—January 2004.

13.  Ibid.

14.  “Islamic Group Says it Will Mint its Own Currency,” Breitbart, November 14, 2014, http://www.breitbart.com/system/wire/ap_493fa1646bc64c16964e92da4ae6fafb.

15.  Compilation of Usama bin Laden Statements, 1994—January 2004, p. 152.

16.  Peter Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 352.

17.  Mary Ann Weaver, “The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” The Atlantic, July/August 2006.

18.  “The Return (The Second Coming) of Jesus Christ,” Discovering Islam, n.d., http://www.discoveringislam.org/return_of_jesus.htm.

19.  Weaver, “The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.”

20.  Countering Terrorism Center at West Point, “Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined?” May 2012, 2, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/v2/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/CTC_LtrsFromAbott....

21.  Ronald Reagan, “The Evil Empire,” Speech before the National Association of Evangelicals, Orlando, Florida, March 8, 1983.

22.  John Lenczowski, “Political-Ideological Warfare in Integrated Strategy, and its Basis in an Assessment of Soviet Reality,” in Katharine C. Gorka and Patrick Sookhdeo, eds., Fighting the Ideological War: Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism (McLean, VA: Isaac Publishing, 2013), 110.

23. Robert R. Reilly, “Assessing the War of Ideas During War,” in Assessing War (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, forthcoming 2015).