Security Studies Program Seminar

Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror

Mary Habeck
Associate Professor of Strategic Studies, Johns Hopkins University

February 15, 2006


I'm not going to talk about Islam generally. Instead I'll talk about Islamism and Jihadism today.

The Islamic world initially tried to adopt Western ideas to achieve modernization, but a small minority wanted a native solution; these are the Islamists. The wars of 1967 and 1973 provided impetus for Islamism. Today it has the support of 15-20% of Muslims, as opposed to 2-4% decades ago. Islamism is not waning. A minority of Islamists believe that Islam and democracy are compatible. The majority believe, however, that political power must be based solely on Islam.

Jihadism is an extreme version of Islamism. Less than one percent of Islamists are jihadists. The jihadist ideology holds that they are the only true believers. The rest of world is made up of hostile unbelievers whose sole purpose is the destruction of Islam. These people are thus worthy of attack.

The jihadists agree with fact that Islam requires political power and should run the state, but they believe that the faithful cannot wait for ideological change, but must use violence to create the Caliphate, which will maintain the struggle against unbelievers.

It is important to understand how jihadists subvert the tenets of Islam, specifically tawhid, jihad, da'wa, and ideas about governance.

In traditional Islam, tawhid is the three main tenets of Islam: There is only one God; he has no partners; anyone who worships another god is sinning and will be judged by God.

Jihadists take the idea that God has no partners to mean that any secular ruler is taking God's role by making laws and is therefore an idolater who must be killed. This idea makes liberalism a false religion.

In traditional Islam, jihad generally refers to fighting, both internal and external. It is similar to the Western concept of just war. Jihad is both an individual and communal duty, and in the latter sense, a matter of state. The idea originally was that at least once a year Muslims had to serve communally to spread just laws around the world. But by the 19 th century, the idea of jihad as war was lost, and the idea of jihad as fighting survived only in the sense of self-defense.

Jihadists define jihad as an individual duty for all Muslims. Because Islam is under attack, all must respond. Jihad cannot be a communal duty, a matter of state, until a legitimate Islamist state exists. First, believers must fight off attackers and then they can switch to offense.

Traditional Islam allows many correct forms of governance, but holds that laws in a Muslim country should be inspired by Islam. This can be loosely interpreted, however, to mean that laws are moral. Private and family law should be inspired by Islam, but modern Islam sees private life and government as separate matters. Most Muslims do not want a return of the Caliphate.

Jihadists claim that the only correct form of governance is the Caliphate, led by a Caliph. No one is clear on who the caliph should be or how one gains the title. The Caliphate is ruled by shari'a law, in both public and private life, with no popular elections or legislature. The land governed by this Caliphate includes any area that has ever been subjected Islamic law, which includes all of Russia, China, parts of France, Spain, plus all of the Middle East. The Caliphate's foreign policy is eternal jihad.

In traditional Islam, da'wa means the original call to Islam from Muhammad. Today, it means to engage in missionary work to convert unbelievers or simply to lead a pious life and hope that this attracts converts.

Jihadists believe that da'wa must be given anew to convince other Muslims to become jihadists against the apostate rulers, the occupiers, and the unbelieving world. If you do not answer the call, you can be justly killed.

Jihadism's main war is with other Muslims. Ideologically, it says that da'wa is used to convert other Muslims. Politically, it aims to create a Caliphate and implement Islamic law. This requires overthrowing apostate regimes. Militarily, it says that true believers must fight Muslims who actively oppose jihadism or support the unbelievers. This means attacking liberal and secular Muslims, Sufis, Shi'a and others.

There is then a war being fought over what is authentic Islam. The moderates are losing. The Jihadists proselytize and moderates do not, so they are being shouted and intimidated off the stage.

The problem jihadists have is how to prioritize enemies. There is an argument over whether to focus on the near or far enemy, and who the near enemy is. Most jihadist groups focus on the near enemy. Al-Qaeda was unique in its idea that one should target the “greater unbelief” first, meaning the far enemy and particularly the United States and Britain, the centers of liberalism. They take this idea from Ibn Tamiyya and Sayyid Qutb.

Most jihadists do not buy into this and continue to focus on their near enemy. Their war plans mirror the Sira, the life of Muhammad. First is Mecca: the creation of a vanguard of true believers. Second is Hijra: migration to safety and securing the land. Third is Medina: creating an Islamic state, jihad in the form of both defense and offense, conquest, and winning allies.

Jihadism has three major ideologues, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Hassan al-Banna, and Sayyid Qutb.

Al-Wahhab lived during eighteenth century in what is now Saudi Arabia and Iraq. A theologian, he blamed the fraying of the Ottoman Empire on retreat from true Islam. He redefined tawhid, saying it allowed Muslims to kill non-believers – holding that judgment of nonbelievers need not be left to God.

Al-Banna, an Egyptian, founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 as an ideological party to struggle against the British occupation. He preached jihad as violent struggle against the occupiers, but targeted the new apostate Egyptian regime once the British left.

Qutb became the Brotherhood's main ideologue after Banna's assassination in 1949. He was radicalized by a trip to the United States, which he found revolting. He merged the teaching of Wahhab and Banna and identified the United States and Britain as the main enemies.

Today the progeny of these beliefs focus on various enemies. Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood of Palestine, like the jihadists in Chechnya , attacks the occupiers. Egyptian Islamic Jihad killed the apostate leader Sadat, but little changed. This failure affected tactics. Egypt's Jamaat al Islamiya targets tourists, as does Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia . Al Qaeda focused on the United States, at least until September 11.

Why the United States? Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda's leadership thought that landing a stunning blow against the United States would cause it to retreat from Muslim lands. The original goal, despite what some terrorists say today, was not to suck United States into a war of attrition. Since 9/11, Al-Qaeda has struggled to come up with a new grand strategy.

The loss of Afghanistan was unexpected. Nor was the invasion of Iraq expected, except perhaps by Zarqawi. Iraq is seen as danger if democracy succeeds, but also an opportunity if it fails.

If Al Qaeda could hit the United States today, they would. They are not waiting.

Mary Habeck is Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University . A historian, Habeck has written on Soviet and German armor doctrine after World War I, the Spanish Civil War, and Islamic ideology. This talk is drawn from her book: Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror.


Rapporteur: Benjamin Friedman

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