As we mark a decade since the attacks of 11 September 2001, I have been reflecting on what I consider to be among the most poignant lessons learned about the global jihadist trend that gave us al-Qa’ida, and our fight against it. My thoughts, in no particular order:
1. A narrative about grievance, justice, righteousness, self-defense and dominion, coupled with dinstinct attitudes, values and beliefs (a culture), makes the global jihadi movement the formidable foe that it is. Clusters like al-Qa’ida ‘Core’, AQAP, etc. that operate in defined geographic areas can be dismantled; core ideologues and jihadi ‘rock stars’ can be taken out. However, the confluence of social and individual precipitants, geopolitical trends and the resonance of collective frames that motivate this movement remains. Osama’s removal was undoubtedly a step in the right direction (not to mention a brilliant synthesis of analytic and operational tradecraft); however, I disagree with those who suggest that the jihadi trend has been strategically defeated. The persistence of its narrative and culture suggests otherwise.
2. A decade of research suggests that this ‘catalytic’ culture of jihad evidences the following attitudes, values, beliefs and objectives: 1) creating a ‘parity of suffering’ with Islam’s enemies; 2) defending the ummah wherever it is ‘under threat’; 3) understanding martyrdom as both an operational, communal, and personal boon; 4) internalizing one’s obligation to physical jihad to the degree that one supports it logistically or through direct action; 5) believing that the jihadi movement is the apocalyptic ‘saved sect’ (al-ta’ifa al-mansoura) whose constant fighting will usher in the end of time; 6) promoting the notion of ‘brotherhood’ to establish clear identity boundaries between both nominal Muslims (who fail in their obligation to support the mujahideen, or whose actions or statements are believed to take them outside of Islam) and kufaar (unbelievers); and 7) believing that God’s sovereignty has a direct impact on the success or failure of jihadi operations, and that he intervenes miraculously on behalf of the mujahideen when they display the requisite levels of belief (iman). This group culture is “catalytic” because it is constantly reinforced online and framed for movement activists and recruits by sources of perceived social and religious authority.
3. It is demonstrably impossible to reduce the enemy to one activist or operative ‘type’, though many still attempt to do so ten years on. Beyond male Arab jihadists, we have witnessed both black and white Western converts to hard-core Islamism operate in the service of al-Qa’ida—including women—much as we have seen doctors, engineers, taxi drivers and itinerate drug abusers rally to its causes. Again, we fight a story, a global culture and identity; a platform and method for violent collect action, not to mention a very modern foe (see John Gray’s excellent book) that understands how to compress the space between global events and local circumstances to push its ideas and gain adherents.
4. Belief matters to this foe, and it is in the West’s collective security interests to apprehend this point. Here I do not reference Islam per se; I mean a fundamental conviction that violent actions against enemies so defined by a belief-based worldview—however illogical this extreme rhetoric and behavior appears to the ‘enlightened’, overwhelmingly secular intelligentsia—are perceived to be of calculated, intrinsic and eternal value to hard-core jihadists. Sure, it is trendy to point to examples of lesser-committed individual insurgents willing to dime-out others; those hopped-up on stimulants; or even some who fight for money. However, these are not sparkplugs for this movement; nor are they like those who attacked precisely ten years ago this Sunday. Why does this matter? Because belief—again, not ‘orthodox’ expressions of Sunni Islam, which is exceedingly difficult to define within and without Muslim communities—directly impacts jihadists’ strategies, definitions of victory, and even behavior. Wiktorowicz and Kaltenthaler’s essential 2006 essay, “The Rationality of Radical Islam” (Political Science Quarterly), speaks to this point, as do Stout, Huckabey, Schindler and Lacey in The Terrorist Perspectives Project (U.S. Naval Institute, 2008), among others.
5. Building more sophisticated sensors, erecting impenetrable borders, and developing ‘smarter’ war-fighting applications will only take us so far against this multidimensional adversary. True, many of these advances are critical to protecting (and projecting) vital security interests, make no mistake; however, I remain concerned that the U.S. and her allies continue to perceive hard science and super-technologies as strategy rather than tactics against an ideas-based foe. No, not everyone thinks this way, especially in fresh-thinking corners of Western special operations communities. However, a tinge of what Christopher Coker so eruditely described in Waging War Without Warriors as "instrumental" and "utilitarian" war still hangs in the air of Western defense corridors. It is with great difficulty that I shake the analogy of eating soup with chopsticks.