THE GLOBAL WAR ON TERRORISM: A RELIGIOUS WAR?
Laurence Andrew Dobrot November 2007
January 17, 2008
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ANTULIO J. ECHEVARRIA II Director of Research Strategic Studies Institute
ABOUT THE AUTHOR LAURENCE ANDREW DOBROT is currently the Deputy Director for
the Missile Defense Agency’s Airborne Laser Program. He was commissioned into
the U.S. Air Force in 1 985 through Air Force ROTC. Colonel Dobrot has served
on the Air Staff in the Pentagon supporting Home Land Defense, the Joint Requirement
Oversight Council, and a tour of duty in Afghanistan. In addition, he is an
acquisition professional, having worked on a wide variety of Air Force space
and aircraft programs. Colonel Dobrot holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering
from Michigan Technological University, masters’ degrees from University of
Southern California and the Naval War College, and is a 2007 graduate of the
U.S. Army War College.
The United States has been actively engaged in prosecuting the Global War on
Terrorism (GWOT) since September 2001. However, after 5 years of national
effort that has included the loss of over 3,000 service members in combat
operations, many question whether the U.S. strategy is wo rking, and whether
the United States understands how to combat an enemy motivated by a radical
revolutionary religious ideology. The author reviews the pertinent cultural
history and background of Islam and then posits three root causes of this
conflict: the lack of wealth-sharing in Islamic countries, resentment of
Western exploitation of Islamic countries, and a U.S. credibility gap within
the Islamic community. Following this discussion of root causes, this analysis
compares the Ends, Ways and Means of the U.S. Strategy for Combating Terrorism
with that of terrorist organizations such as al-Qai’da. The author concludes
that the United States is not achieving its long-term strategic objectives in
the GWOT. He then recommends that U.S. strategy focus on the root causes of
Islamic hostility. Accordingly, the United States should combat radical Islam
from within the Islamic community by consistently supporting the efforts of
moderate Islamic nations to build democratic instit utions that are acceptable
in Islamic terms.
THE GLOBAL WAR ON TERRORISM: A RELIGIOUS WAR?
War was declared on the United States on August 23, 1996, in a fatwa (an
Islamic religious decree) issued by Osama bin Laden.1 This war, unlike any
previous U.S. conflict, is one in which our adversary’s motivation and
objectives are seemingly based on religion and divine predestination. On
February 22, 1998, bin Laden issued a second fatwa calling on every Muslim to
kill Americans and their allies whether they be civilian or military.2 In
August of the same year al-Qai’da operatives carried out two simultaneous
attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, leaving over 220 people dead
and scores injured.3 From al-Qai’da’s point of view, these attacks constitute a
campaign plan in a religious war to defend Islam. Further, al- Qai’da believes
that America started the war against Islam4 long before the hijacked airliners
slammed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001
The U.S. response to the 2001 attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center
was a declaration of war against terrorists and terrorism. In February 2003,
the Bush administration published the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism
which was updated in September 2006. But is terrorism truly the threat? Or is
the threat something different?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines terrorism as:
The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an
organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating
or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political
This definition indicates that terrorism is a tactic employed as a means to an
ends. Declaring war against a tactic may e xpediently yield some short-term
benefits. However, denying the enemy his primary tactic arguably does not
address the long-term root causes of the problem. Al-Qai’da and bin Laden are
using the tenets of Islam to justify a holy war, or jihad, against the United
States. Islamic religious ideology is motivating al-Qai’da’s terrorist
activities and uniting disparate Islamic groups in their shared belief that the
United States is their enemy. The tactics these groups have employed to date
are primarily terror-based. However, their terrorist activities are an
asymmetric adaptation to sustain hostilities despite their limited military
resources and capabilities. The 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism
addresses the security challenge posed by terrorism by specifying two
macro-strategic goals. The near-term goal is to destroy the larger al-Qai’da network.6
Indeed, the United States and its coalition partners have been relatively
successful at killing, capturing, and si gnificantly degrading the al-Qai’da
network.7 Unfortunately, al-Qai’da resembles the Hydra menace of Greek
mythology:8 For every al-Qai’da member removed from the network, two more take
his place. The second and long-term goal of the U.S. strategy is to create a
global environment inhospitable to violent extremists and all who support
them.9 The way to achieve this strategic goal is to build democratic
institutions within Islamic countries. These more enlightened governments will
provide hope for the future to millions of Muslims who currently do not support
the tactics of the violent extremists, but who nevertheless desire a better future
for themselves and their families. The success of our efforts in this quest
will be much harder to assess. But we must consider a key question that arises
relating to U.S. efforts to build democracies: “Do the average Muslims on the
street believe U.S. actions are legitimate and in their best interests?”
Arguably, U.S. efforts to communica te the values of democracy and freedom are
running headlong into 1,600 years of Islamic culture and the underlying Islamic
fear of reverting back to the conditions of pre-Islamic Arabia.10 To frame this
strategic issue properly, we must understand our strategy in the context of
Islamic culture. This background will provide some insight into how and why
militant Islamists view U.S. strategy and policy the way they do.
DEFINING THE ENEMY AND THE PROBLEM
First of all, we need to acknowledge that we are engaged in an ideological
conflict. Globally, some 1.3 billion people believe in Islam.11 Fundamental to
the Islamic faith is the belief that Islam is superior to all other religions;
God has chosen and provided Muslims with divine guidance for all of mankind.12
Within Islam, an undetermined number of believers see Islam as the one true
religion for the entire world; they believe that Islam should be spread by
force to bring peace to the world. But these statistics and Islamic tenets do
not, in themselves, seem to identify our current menace. The enemy can best be
identified through a description of the various levels of commitment among
believers to the ideological cause and then categorized into three separate—yet
At the “extreme violent” end of the spectrum are what U.S. Air Force Lieutenant
Colonel Stephen P. Lambert, in his book Y: The Sources of Islamic Revolutionary
Conduct, terms the Revolutionary Islamic Vanguard.13 He describes them as
relatively small groups of individuals who organize, train for, and carry out
violent acts with the objective of establishing a new unified Islamic state.
This is the most dangerous group. Its members have interpreted the Quran in the
most literal and selective manner to institutionalize their legitimacy within
the rest of the Islamic world. As an Islamic “Vanguard,” they are the ones
willing to carry out the attacks on U.S. Embassies, the USS Cole, the World Trade
Center, the Pentagon, and numerous other targets throughout the world. Lambert
goes on to suggest that they have not hijacked Islam, they are, in fact,
religious purists who believe they are following examples set by Muhammad and
his companions.14 This Vanguard can be further subdivided into the two core
Islamic sects of Sunnis and Shiites. The most familiar of these violent
subgroups is the al-Qai’da network lead by Osama bin Laden. Al-Qai’da’s
ideology derives from the Sunni sect of the puritanical fundamentalist Salafist
teaching. This sect believes in the orthodoxy of Islam as taught through the
Saudi Arabian sponsored Wahhabi schools.15 Wahhabism was founded in Arabia by
the scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91 AD). This sect encourages a return
to the “fundamentals” of Islam, as revealed in the Quran and in the life of the
Prophet Muhammad.16 What is unique about al-Qai’da is that it advocates
Takfirism—a doctrine that requires elimination of nonbelievers, no matter their
background or religion.17 Al- Qai’da and its splinter groups are composed
mostly of Arabs who joined the Mujihideen fighters of Afghanistan,18 where they
contributed significantly to expelling the Soviet invaders in the 1980s. By way
of contrast, such Shiite groups as Hezbollah have focused primarily on the
local Middle East area, predominately on the Israeli and Palestinian
The second group is larger than the Vanguard and much harder to identify.
Unlike the Vanguard, they are not as committed to the ideological cause and
have not crossed the line into violent action. However, they are willing to
support, both financially and morally, the goals of the Vanguard. This group is
spread throughout the world, with large numbers living in western countries
where they are able to earn money to he lp provide financial support to the
Vanguard.20 This group could be described as individual “nonviolent
The third and last group that can be considered part of the enemy camp is made
up of nation-states and large organizations that either support the Vanguard or
its objectives. Once again, there is a distinct division between the Islamic
sects of the Sunnis and the Shiites. Saudi Arabia is the largest supporter of
Sunni groups. As a nation, however, it claims to no longer support al-Qai’da as
it did during the Afghan-Soviet conflict of the 1980s.21 Besides oil, Saudi
Arabia’s largest export is its Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam; Saudis have
contributed more than $70B22 to build mosques and provide fundamentalist teaching
materials. Many of the madrasses (religious schools)23 in Pakistan were built
with Saudi funds during the Afghan-Soviet conflict; they still provide training
to many who become part of the Vanguard. In addition, there appears to be a
split within the Saudi royal family on the issue of support for bin Laden.24
Some in the family still believe in the ideological goals pursued by bin Laden
and provide him financial support. On the other side, Iran is believed to be
the primary supporter of the Shiite groups, among which Hezbollah25 is the
better-known group. The Shiite groups have focused on expanding Shiite
influence in the region and continuing support for the Palestinians in their
struggle with Israel. Since the removal of Saddam, the Shiites, under the leadership
of the anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al Sadr have become principal players in the
sectarian violence within Iraq.
As described above, the enemy that the United States faces is not monolithic,
nor is it equally committed to defeating the United States. However, evidence
suggests that the remainder of the 1.3 billion followers of Islam who do not
fall into one of the above three groups should be considered not as the enemy,
but as the “ target audience” for our efforts to terminate this conflict. This
audience shares a common Islamic foundation with all Muslims, including the
Vanguard. It is this common foundation that the Vanguard exploits in its
attempt to move this group to the “violent extremist” end of the commitment
scale. To better understand this largest of all segments of the global Muslim
population and to get a better perspective of the current strategic
environment, we need a more detailed overview of Islamic history and culture.
The pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula was an ungoverned land bounded to the north
by the Byzantine Empire centered in Constantinople (modern day Turkey), and the
Sasanian Empire of Persia to the east (modern Iran).26 In order to secure
favorable trade routes and resources, both empires frequently waged war against
each other as well as with the surrounding neighbors. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a
violent and chaotic environment, but it also extended unprecedented individual
rights and freedoms to its people. Mecca was at the crossroads of these lucrative
regional trade routes and was home to many worshipers of Christianity, Judaism,
Zoroastrianism, and numerous pagan cults that demanded human sacrifices.27
Individuals were free to live their lives in any manner they saw fit; they even
enjoyed the freedom to choose and frequently change their deities.28 Violence
and oppression in the pursuit of wealth was widespread, and even pagan gods
were not free from the wrath of men.29 Within this environment, it was common
for local tribes to trade both allegiances and goods to maximize profits.
Around 570 AD, Muhammad was born into the Hashim clan, part of the Quraysh
tribe that dominated Mecca. Around 610, while meditating in caves outside of
Mecca,30 Muhammad began to re ceive revelations from God through the angel
Gabriel. These revelations eventually became the content of Islamic scripture
contained in the Quran. For Muslims, this scripture is the final word of God
and the foundation of Islam. Muhammad was intent on creating an egalitarian
society and bringing peace to Arabia through submission to Islam. He was
eventually able to bring order and peace to a chaotic Mecca through combat, by
forcing the inhabitants to submit to the will of his one true God.31 Following
Muhammad’s death in 632, Islam spread very quickly. Within the next 100 years
it penetrated through North Africa and into what is now Southern France. Islam
considers itself as the manifestation of the final unaltered word of God and
the one true religion of the entire world. As the continuation of both Judaism
and Christianity, it believes itself to be superior to both.32 Although Islam
holds in high regard all the prophets of both Judaism and Christianity, it
believes that t he “People of the Book” (a phrase used in the Quran for Jews
and Christians) have strayed from the original teachings of their prophets and
need to be brought back into line through Islam.33 Theologically, Islam is a
religion of deeds and works, not salvation through grace and faith. According
to Islam, man is neither good nor bad. But man will be judged by God based on
his actions on the Day of Judgment. Muslims believe Islam is predestined to be
the one true religion of the world because God told Muhammad this was so.34
Therefore, it is the sacred duty of all Muslims to spread this true religion to
the rest of the world. In this sense, Islam is undoubtedly expansionistic.
Throughout history it has expanded by conquest, peaceful conversion, and
migration. In growing as a faith as well as geographically, Islam acquired the
characteristics of a community, a nation, and eventually an empire. The
community of Islam is known as the umma. It constitutes a borderless nation of
bel ievers and considers itself separate from the non-Islamic world. From a
practical standpoint, the umma includes all the 1.3 billion Muslims throughout
the world. Any place Muslims live and practice their faith freely is considered
part of the Nation of Islam, or dar-al-Islam. Muhammad was the sole leader of
this fledgling religion and empire. All decisions, whether spiritual or
earthly, were referred to him and were made by means of his connection with the
divine. Upon his death in 632, the umma was at a loss concerning who should
replace their leader. They realized that no one could be the prophet, but that
someone needed to lead the community of believers. The initial followers, known
as the Companions, selected Muhammad’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, as the first
caliph, from the Arabic khalifa meaning “successor.”35 After Muhammad’s death,
many of the tribes that had submitted to him began to waiver in their support
and patronage; they no longer wanted to pay the taxes that had been imposed on
them. Abu Bakr responded by sending armed groups on campaigns to force the
tribes to pay their taxes and remain part of the faithful. As during Muhammad’s
early conquests, these Muslim warriors were motivated by several things. First,
they believed that Allah had already determined their death. If they died in a
conflict for Allah, they would have instant access to paradise.36 Second,
should they survive; they would receive both the spiritual merits of deeds
accomplished for Allah and the spoils of war.37 During these campaigns, the
Muslims acquired additional allies from the nomadic tribes. Abu Bakr was able
to bring the entire Arabian Peninsula under his control before he died in
634.38 Abu Bakr and his successor, Umar ibn al-Khattab, were generally
supported by the growing Muslim community. However, controversy arose over the
behavior of third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan.
Uthman was perceived as showing favoritism in decisions regarding the umma and
was assassinated in 656 by a group of militant Islamic priests known as the
Kharijites.39 Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was then
selected over Muawiyah, a relative of Uthman, to be the fourth caliph. This
decision greatly divided the community and led to the first Islamic Civil War.
The followers of Ali were known as shait Ali in Arabic, or more commonly as the
Shia or Shiites. The remainder and majority of the umma became known as Sunnis,
meaning “followers of [the Prophet’s] customs.”40 The Kharijites believed that
the only way to end the strife of the Civil War was to assassinate both Ali and
Muawiyah. Ali was assassinated in 661, but Muawiyah survived. Consequently,
Muawiyah became the fifth caliph.41 Ali’s followers continued to challenge the
legitimacy of the caliph. So upon Muawiyah’s death in 680, the second Islamic
Civil War picked up where the first left off. Muawiyah’s son succeeded him and
ordered his troops to kill Ali’s remainin g family members. This violent act
permanently separated the Shiites and the Sunnis.42
The caliphate embodied the combined power of both church and state as it
acquired and administrated new lands. The conquered lands were ruled according
to Islamic law, but the inhabitants for the most part were not compelled to
convert. However, they were forced to pay special taxes to worship and conduct
business until they became Muslims. The conversion of conquered peoples to
Islam took many years; it was not until 850 that Muslims were the majority in
the empire they had created.43 The reign of the Arab caliphs lasted until 1258,
when the Mongols captured Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph. But by
then the unity and power of the caliphate had already receded.44 After this,
the caliphate was contested by numerous competing groups, and the caliph was
never able to create the unified and egalitarian society that Muhammad had
envisioned. The last formal caliphate en ded with the dissolution of the
Ottoman Empire in 1924.
Pre-Islamic Arabia had been an ungoverned polytheistic region of competing
nomadic tribes and prosperous merchant cities. Muhammad and the Companions,
however, had succeeded in consolidating these violent tribes and cities under
Islam. During the Middle Ages, Islamic culture led the world in mathematics,
science, and astronomy. Its empire stretched across three continents. Today
there is a growing undercurrent of longing for this idealized distant past.
Many Muslims believe that their current troubles are a result of being led
astray by disunity, Western influences, and a lack of adherence to their pure
Islamic teachings.45 There is a substantial body of evidence to indicate that
today’s Muslims fear that the United States and its agenda of democracy and
freedom of religion are taking them back to the chaos and violence that
Muhammad had quelled.46
Root Causes of this Conflict
Terrorism is a tactic to coerce behavioral change in an adversary. But the
salient strategic issue is to identify the root causes of terrorism. We are
well aware of what terrorists can do, but do we know why they do it? Arguably,
there are three root causes. First, the unifying theological doctrine of Islam
prescribes that true believers, having submitted to Islam, will receive their
portion of the spoils of war and a generous sustenance.47 Militant Islam is
fueling its war against the United States and the West by exploiting the
disenfranchisement and hopelessness of a large portion of the Muslim world
based on its prevalent belief that Muslims are being oppressed and deprived of
their just benefits from the wealth generated by the Muslim countries’ natural
resources, principally crude oil. Second, a small but very determined group,
the revol utionary Islamic Vanguard, is using the umma’s general perception of
exploitation by the West to create an ideologically- based global insurgency.
Third, U.S. policy and strategy have created a credibility gap between words
and actions within the Muslim world.
Spoils of War and Generous Sustenance. It is overly simplistic to assert that
poverty alone is the root cause of the terrorism that is plaguing the world. It
is true that a majority of the world’s Muslims live in some of the poorest
countries as measured by per capita income, however these countries are also
home to some of the world’s wealthiest elite. Within the community of Islam
(the umma), Muhammad set the example of sharing all the resources of the
community so that no one would go without. It is a matter of faith to Muslims
that the umma will take care of all believers. Under Muhammad and his
successors, as new lands were conquered the spoils were first divided among
those partaking in the conquest and then a portion was distributed to the rest
of the umma. According to the Quran:
And know that out of all the booty that ye may acquire [in war], a fifth share
is assigned to Allah and to the Messenger, and to near relatives, orphans, the
needy, and the wayfarer . . . (8:41)48
Muslims today believe that the wealthy oil countries such as Saudi Arabia and
Kuwait are not using their wealth in accordance with the teachings of Islam.
Based on these teachings, they believe that even the lowly shoemaker in Rabat,
Morocco, is entitled to his fair portion of the wealth derived from the oil
under all Muslims lands.49 This borderless community feels betrayed by those
who presume to be Islamic leaders yet who constitute—in Muslim eyes—an
exclusive ruling elite which hoards all wealth and power unto itself.
Such in truth are the Believers: they have grades of dignity with their Lord,
and forgiveness, and generous sustenance. (8:4) 50
The tradition of the umma dictates that the entire community is entitled to
their fair portion of the umma’s wealth. This sense of betrayal has in recent
years been focused on the West, the United States in particular, by portraying
it as dictating internal policy to Muslim countries. To deflect attention from
internal and external security challenges, these countries have not been quick
to dispel those perceptions.
Resentment, Exploitation, and Ideology. This sense of betrayal by Muslim
governments has contributed significantly to the general resentment and hatred
towards the West—the United States specifically. There is also an underlying
feeling within the global Muslim community that it is being targeted and kept
from uniting in a recreation of the caliphate as it was romantically envisioned
prior to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1924.51 Since the Muslims
have been unable to establish a pan-Islamic government ruled under the divine
law of the sh aria, they tend to believe that the West is seeking to control,
oppress, and exploit their people and resources. There is indeed some truth in
their perception of a U.S. attempt to prevent the establishment of a caliphate.
At a press conference on September 13, 2006, White House Press Secretary Tony
. . . yes, you [the United States] want to fight the efforts of bin Laden and
others to establish a caliphate. The history of the caliphate was that you had
centralized leadership at that time. It had control over the impressive
landmass that was controlled by Muslims during that period. And they want to
establish that sort of thing. So the President’s notion is absolutely right,
you want to preempt that.52
According to the Quran, God has already predetermined that Islam is the one
true religion destined to rule the world, so it is up to the followers of
Muhammad to bring that about or die trying.53 This obligation creates an
enormous pool of potential radical followers from within the umma, especially
when they truly believe that God is on their side. However, there might be a
seam within Islam that could be leveraged to a U.S. advantage.
Although in recent years there has been an increase in financial as well as
ideological support to promote the reestablishment of the caliphate, these
efforts come in the face of historical reality that Islam has traditionally
been fragmented and hard to mobilize. However, current support has enabled
small groups such as al-Qai’da to become the self-appointed revolutionary
Islamic Vanguard. As the Vanguard, it is their task to take the fight to what
they consider the source of the Islamic World’s problems—the United States.
Al-Qai’da’s success in defeating the Soviet military in Afghanistan emboldened
bin Laden, convincing him that he had found the path to liberating the umma
from Western oppression and exploitation. By combining a convenient
interpretation of Islamic history through selective and literal use of the
Quran with large sums of money from supportive Muslims, bin Laden has mobilized
a decentralized group of combatants fully committed to their belief in divine
Islamic predestination. Bin Laden’s vision was to further use his Mujihideen
fighters who had forced the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan to engage in a
holy war or jihad against their oppressors. Having experienced only limited
success in areas of Chechnya and Kashmir, Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of
Kuwait presented a golden opportunity.
In August 1990, Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. Bin Laden, a Saudi, offered
the King of Saudi Arabia the use of his Mujihideen to defend Saudi Arabia and
defeat Saddam Hussein.54 The King’s precise reasons for not accepting bin
Laden’s offer are not fully known, but evidently his decision upset bin Laden
greatly. When the King brought in U.S. forces to defend Saudi Arabia, bin Laden
concluded that he had to remove the Royal family from power. Some believe that
even at this early date, bin Laden contemplated recreating the Islamic
caliphate in Iraq after defeating Saddam. During the first Gulf War, the Muslim
masses tended to support Iraq. They saw the United States coming to the defense
of Kuwaiti’s and Saudi Arabia’s leaders, who were regarded as illegitimate
because they were perceived as hoarding for themselves the resources that
belonged to all Muslims.55 As events played out, bin Laden would return to
Afghanistan and establish an Islamic sharia government under the Taliban.
From Afghanistan, he was able to organize and carry out attacks against U.S.
facilities, culminating in the 9/11 attack. Bin Laden was able to use these
attacks as a key component of a recruiting campaign to build support for the
attainment of his ultimate goal: reestablishment of the Caliphate. The attacks
demonstrated to the umma that a few true believers could, in fact, change the
worl d. In a sense, he was able to give the oppressed masses hope that there
was someone who was listening to their pleas and was willing to die for their
interests. That terrorist tactics were used made no difference. The Quran has
numerous passages that call for inflicting terror into the hearts of not just
the enemy forces but also civilian populations:56 “Soon shall we cast terror
into the hearts of the unbelievers . . .” (3:151).57 The Vanguard was standing
up in a meaningful and effective way to liberate the umma from Western
oppression and exploitation.
U.S. Credibility Gap
U.S. foreign policy has created a credibility gap in the Middle East and
globally, especially in Muslim populated countries. This gap has been created
by the perceived hypocrisy of America’s words compared to its deeds. The U.S.
Government talks a bout promoting democratic principles, yet the Muslim
countries in the Middle East with which the United States has positive
relations are either monarchies or dictatorships.
This credibility gap is also a product of cultural differences. Freedom and
democracy do not hold the same meaning in Islamic culture as they do in Western
culture. In Islamic culture, freedom and democracy invoke the cultural memory
of the chaos of pre-Islamic Arabia with its violence and multiple religions and
deities—the very things that Muhammad sought to rid from the land. These terms
also bring forth images of unchecked individualism and human sacrifices made to
pagan gods.58 Islam specifically demands the undivided submission of the
individual; it promises peace in exchange for the surrender of individualism in
order to build an egalitarian community.59 The United States has not been able
to effectively communicate an understanding of these Western concepts to Muslim
mass culture in a way that would have positive value and meaning.60 A recent
editorial in the Arab News commenting on the Palestinian elections highlights
the difficulty the United States faces in trying to promote democracy and
support its national interests in the region:
Now at least Bush’s perverse vision of the democratic process is patently
clear. A democratic election must produce a government that is acceptable to
the White House. Anything else will be rejected. The democratic voice of the
people will be ignored unless it is singing the song that Washington wants to
hear. This astounding hypocrisy undermines everything America says it is trying
to achieve in the region and everything that America once stood for.61
This perception of U.S. hypocrisy is compounded by U.S. efforts and rhetoric to
enhance the “rule of law” in the region. For the average Muslim, there is only
one law and that is sharia law, the divine law of God. Muslims do not
understand how the United States can claim that it supports the rule of law and
then support supposed Muslim governments that do not uphold sharia law.62 The
essential complementary component to law is its application, and Muslims want
justice to be applied consistently.63 They expect governments and leaders to be
“just” and do not understand how the United States can support actions by
Israel, yet condemn Hamas and Hezbollah for similar actions. One of the key
causal factors of terrorism has been described as a deeply-held sense of
injustice.64 In a legal context, the term “freedom” means “not being subject to
a condition of slavery.” Until recently, it was not used as a descriptor of
“good” or “bad” government.65 The traditional ideal of good government was one
based on “justice”66 and the consistent and fair application of laws.
RADICAL ISLAMIC STRATEGY
After identifying the enemy, reviewing Islamic cultural background, and
discussing the root causes of the conflict as well as problems posed by an
arguable “credibility gap” in U.S. foreign policy, it is now worthwhile to
examine both the strategy of radical Islam and the U.S. strategy designed to
counter it, using the classic ‘End, Ways and Means’ methodology. This
comparison will enable us to assess the effectiveness of the U.S. strategy in
the global war on terror (GWOT). As discussed earlier, the extremist Muslim
threat to the United States is not monolithic in nature. However, it can
reasonably be divided into two components. The first component is the most
violent and visible; it is the threat from the Sunni-based revolutionary
Islamic Vanguard lead by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qai’da network. The second
component comes from the Shiite-based groups such as Hezbollah, with state
support from Iran. Both groups seek to reduce the power and influen ce of the
West, specifically the United States, in the Middle East. At times, both groups
seem to show a unity of effort, but there is little evidence that indicates
they are, in fact, working together.67 This analysis will focus on bin Laden’s
fatwas, letters, and interviews to gain a clearer picture of his Islamic
Ends: Goals and Objectives
In August 1996, bin Laden issued a fatwa that specified three near-term
objectives. The first was the need to remove U.S. and Western influence from
the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia. He states “Clearly after Belief
(imaan) there is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of
the holy land.”68 Bin Laden went on to explain that he believed that the Saudi
King had betrayed the umma by allowing the United States to base military
forces in Sa udi Arabia. As a result of this betrayal, the King gave up his
right to govern the land. Bin Laden then called for his removal as the second
objective. The third objective was the removal of Israel from Jerusalem.69 The
ultimate goal of Islam can best be described as the eventual establishment of a
single nation or community of Islam governed by the rule of sharia law—in
essence, the reestablishment of the caliphate. It is important to note that, by
definition, the caliphate is a theocratic entity in which the state is fused
with religion. The 1979 Iranian revolution was the first step in the Shiite
fulfillment of this objective; however, the Iranian sharia government has not
been described in caliphic terms and its authority has not been recognized by
Ways: Concepts and Implementation
In order to accomplish the ends that the revolutionary Islamic Vanguard has
identified, the Islamic extremists must match their ways with the available
means. The ways used by al-Qai’da and similar organizations can be looked at
through the lens of the traditional “DIME” approach, that is, their application
of Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic (DIME) elements of power to
achieve their strategic goals.
They have used very little diplomacy. The issuing of fatwas and bin Laden’s
repeated calls for the United States to leave the Middle East illustrate the
extent to which al-Qai’da has used the diplomatic element of power. Indirectly,
al-Qai’da has been able to create diplomatic fissures between the United States
and its allies. The Madrid bombings that effectively resulted in Spain
withdrawing its troops from Iraq are one example.70 The use of the Information
element of power has been extensively and effectively used by the Vanguard.
With only limited military means, this en emy has adopted ways that maximize
its effects. So bin Laden has effectively leveraged the media as a key weapon
in this war. As early as bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa, he called for information
operations “to spread rumours, fear, and discouragement among the members of
the enemy forces.”71 The fatwas themselves can be considered a form of
information operations with the primary intent of rallying the umma to the
cause. The use of the internet and the growth of extremist websites from dozens
in 1998 to 4,000-6,000 in 200372 demonstrate the effectiveness of the
Vanguard’s use of the information element of power. In addition, U.S. and
Western media—in their watch dog role—have tended to side with, if not
unwittingly support, many of the Vanguard’s aims. The Vanguard’s exercise of
information power is not solely directed at the United States, but also at
moderate Muslims in an attempt to provoke them to take up arms and join the
cause. A key element of the Vanguard’s information oper ations has been the
development of an ideological message that combines direct quotes from the
Quran with the implication that the United States and the West are the cause of
all of Islam’s “problems.” To this end, these messages attempt to legitimize
the actions taken in the name of Islam and create a tangible scapegoat against
which to focus action. It is important to recognize however, that not all of
these information effects are coming from the Vanguard. A large portion is also
coming from states such as Saudi Arabia in the form of the teachings at madrasses
and the mosques they finance, build, and support around the world.73
Bin Laden understood even before his 1996 fatwa that he had very limited
military power available to him. During the Afghanistan campaign against the
Soviets, he depended on the funding and weapons supplied by the United States
and Saudi Arabia. Taking a page from Mao and the Chinese revolution, bin Laden
called upon all Muslims in hi s 1996 fatwa to “initiate a guerrilla warfare”74
to force the United States out of the Middle East. He further explained that
“due to the imbalance of power between our armed forces and the enemy forces, a
suitable means of fighting must be adopted, i.e., using fast moving light
forces that work under complete secrecy.”75 Two years later, bin Laden issued
his second fatwa to remind Muslims of their duty to God. He specified the duty:
“to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual
duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to
do it.”76 To this end, the attacks on the United States and its allies have
increased in intensity from the Khobar Towers in June 1996, to the African
Embassy bombings in August 1998, to bombing the USS Cole in October 2000, and
finally to the attacks of 9/11.77 In a message attributed to al- Qai’da
military commander Sayf Al Adl in May 2005, he claims the “ultimate objective
[of the 9/11 a ttacks] was to prompt the United States to come out of its hole
and to provoke the United States into attacking areas of the Islamic world.”78
The concept was to provoke a disproportionate U.S. military response that would
have the strategic effect of waking up the “slumbering nation of Islam,”
rallying it to the cause of attacking the United States and the West.79 The
objective of killing U.S. forces was to create unacceptable U.S. losses, in
terms of both dollars and lives, in an attempt to break the will of the
American people and force the removal of U.S. forces and influence from the
Middle East. This appears to be part of what is currently happening in Iraq.
Bin Laden had a solid understanding of how to use the various types of power
available to him. As a nonstate actor, his ability to apply economic power was
limited, but not wholly neglected. In his 1996 fatwa, he called for all Muslims
to boycott American goods,80 thereby creating economic sanctions a gainst the
United States. This indicates that he clearly understood the potential of
economic power when coordinated with the other elements of power.
The resources available to the Vanguard in this conflict can be grouped into
four categories: a large Muslim population, a unifying religious ideology,
global communications and the support of nation-states that have an interest in
a weaker United States. Although the revolutionary Islamic Vanguard has very
limited military means, it does have is a vast population of 1.3 billion
Muslims who could be potential participants in, or at least supporters in, its
fight to reestablish the caliphate. Even if it could only recruit one percent
of that population, that number would constitute 1.3 million people, a large
army with which to wage an asymmetric Islami c revolutionary war. Within the
umma, the persistent underlying feeling of resentment, frustration, and
hopelessness is a potential “gold mine” for the Vanguard to exploit and focus
the umma’s energy on their “common enemy.” Adolph Hitler and his Nazi Party met
“with great success” by claiming all the ills of the German people were the
fault of the Jews. Hitler’s ability to focus the attention of the population on
a scapegoat allowed him to concentrate national power within himself and the
Nazi Party to dominate Europe. Al-Qai’da is attempting to tap into the vast
potential of the Muslim population in much the same way. Just as Hitler used
nationalism and the rhetoric of a master race, the Vanguard is using Islam and
ideology as the unifying force to achieve its ends. This ideology has the
potential to inspire intensely misguided dedication in individuals who truly believe
that if they die doing Allah’s work, they will go straight to heaven, no matter
what else they may have done or not done in their lives.81 The historical
implications of Muhammad’s legacy are not lost on al-Qai’da or the rest of the
Global communications have been a tremendous resource for all of these radical
groups. The internet has given them the ability to reach out and touch Muslims
in any nation. As stated by Aymen al-Zawahiri, an al-Qai’da leader, “In the
absence of popular support, the Islamic mujahed movement would be crushed in
the shadows, far from the masses who are distracted or fearful.”82 The internet
has given these groups the means to raise money, communicate with
geographically separated units, and promulgate their message to the world.
Indeed, charity is a key Islamic obligation; it provides a means to generate
and collect money that is then used to conduct military operations. The final
resources that are available to these radical groups are the nation-states that
have similar objectives. Nations such as China, Russia, Iran, N orth Korea,
Saudi Arabia, and possibly even some European nations may find benefit from the
removal, or at least weakening, of U.S. presence and power in the Middle East.
Also, it must be considered that as the economic face of the world changes,
even some countries that had previously been U.S. allies may desire a weakened
United States. There should be no doubt that these radical Islamic groups have
the Ways and Means to achieve their desired Ends.
The United States articulated its strategy for this conflict in February 2003
(and updated it in September 2006), entitled The National Strategy for
Combating Terrorism. Prior to the events of 9/11, transnational terrorism was
considered a law enforcement problem. Following the 9/11 attacks, al-Qai’da and
other like-minded groups have been redefined as radical id eological movements
with revolutionary ambitions.83 That there was no overall coherent U.S.
strategy for dealing with this type of threat prior to 9/11 delayed the unified
national effort to deal with an enemy that had declared war on the United
States 3 years before and that had already carried out several attacks against
the United States and its global interests.
Ends: Goals and Objectives
The current U.S. strategy describes two macro-level strategic visions. The
first and short-term goal is to kill or capture those individuals who have
irrevocably crossed the line into violent extremism. The second and long-term
goal is to create a global environment that is inhospitable to these and future
violent extremists.84 This vision thus identifies the ends that the United
States would like to achieve with this strategy. The lo ng-term goal requires
“winning the battle of ideas”85 by creating the conditions that give people
hope for the future. This “ideological battle” is vital to eliminating—or at a
minimum severely curtailing—the pool of potential recruits available to the
radical groups at war with the United States and the West.
Ways: Concepts and Implementation
The current U.S. strategy has identified six key actions necessary to achieve
the ends identified. These six actions employ all the DIME instruments of
1. Prevent attacks by terrorist networks.
2. Deny weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to rogue states and terrorist allies
who seek to use them.
3. Deny terrorists the support and sanctuary of rogue states.
4. Deny terrorists control of any nation they would use as a base and launchi
ng pad for terror.
5. Advance effective democracies as the long-term antidote to the ideology of
6. Lay the foundations and build the institutions and structures we need to
carry the fight forward against terror and help ensure our ultimate success.86
The first four actions support the short-term objective and have largely been
pursued through kinetic means. U.S. strategy has arguably been successful in
capturing and killing members of al-Qai’da and preventing further attacks
within the United States. However, the kinetic execution of this strategy has
resulted in the deaths of thousands of Muslim civilians who were probably not
committed to the extremists’ jihad. The United Nations (UN) estimates that over
34,000 Iraqis died in 2006 alone.87 The last two actions directly support the
long-term goal of creating an environment that will be inhospitable to the
extremists. The initial steps toward this end have been taken by establishing
and maintaining international standards of accountability for national governments.
Under the auspices of the 12 UN conventions, protocols have been developed that
obligate governments to stem terrorist activities and to share information of
value to winning the GWOT.88 The United States has also acted to strengthen
coalitions and partnerships to help maintain a united front against
terrorism.89 As the United States builds partnerships with many nations, the
terrorists will find themselves more and more isolated from the rest of the
world, theoretically depriving them of the resources they need to carry out
their extremist agenda.
The resources available to the United States for this conflict are vast
compared to the enemy’s—and to most of our allies. For comparison, the total
gross domestic product for Saudi Arabia in 2005 was $346B; but for the United
States, it was $12.3T.90 Between September 2001 and October 1, 2006, Congress
appropriated an estimated $432 billion for the GWOT.91 The Department of
Defense (DoD) received the majority of these appropriations, over $390 billion
(90.7 percent), while the State Department (DoS) received around $40 billion
(9.3 percent). With the majority of the funding, DoD has focused on the
short-term objectives, while the DoS has worked toward the long-term efforts
needed in the region. Another key resource that is much harder to estimate—and
appropriate—is the will of the U.S. population. While the will of the people
does not change quickly, once it does, the country as a democracy will also
change policies in accordaance with the people’s will.
The GWOT is an ideologica l battle. Our enemy is a group of violent religious
extremists who are trying to unify Islam under their banner. The nature and
circumstances of this war make it one that the United States cannot win
militarily. Two objectives are identified in the National Strategy for
Combating Terrorism: defeat violent extremism and create a global environment
inhospitable to violent extremists. These are the correct ends. However, the
United States may be failing to apply appropriate ways and means to achieve
these goals. It has clearly demonstrated the capability to find and eliminate
the most violent of terrorists, but does it have the capability to create a
future global environment that will be inhospitable to violent extremism? The
nation’s current policies and actions may, in fact, be creating more, not fewer
The culture and history of Islam are very important for understanding how to
establish a global environment that will be inhospitable to these groups . A
clear understanding of this culture and history is essential to the informed
crafting of a long-term strategy to shape the future of U.S. and Western
interactions with Muslims and Muslim governments. A principal focus of this strategy
must be to establish among the umma the credibility of the United States and
its policy. Two recommendations are proposed to help shape that future: First,
the United States must be seen as “just” to reestablish its credibility and
legitimacy in the Islamic world. Second, the United States must communicate and
promote democracy in terms that the Islamic world understands and respects.
The United States has been losing credibility with the Islamic world slowly and
steadily; its credibility has hit a low point as the insurgency in Iraq has
intensified. The absence of WMD in Iraq, the principal justification for the
invasion, was a major contributor to this decline in credibility. In addition,
our support for governments that are seen as tyrants and oppressors of the umma
is further reducing U.S. credibility and impeding achievement of our strategic
ends in this conflict. To achieve its long-term objective of creating an
inhospitable environment for violent extremists through the creation of
democratic institutions in nation-states, the United States must consistently
focus its reform efforts on those predominately Islamic nations with which it
already has relationships. While the terms democracy and freedom are currently
problematic for Muslims, they do arguably have a universal understanding of
justice. In essence, in “packaging” its objective of spreading democratic
institutions as a means of reducing or interdicting the manpower flow to the
“Vanguard,” the United States must shape its policies and relationships with
Middle Eastern governments in a way that focuses on the just and equitable
application of those policies. To repair its credibility, the United States
must focus on applying just pra ctices. The United States must hold the
Israelis, the Saudis, the Egyptians, and itself accountable to standards and
policies perceived among mainstream Muslims as being consistent. Specifically,
the United States must recognize democratically-elected governments such as
Hamas and actively engage them in public diplomacy, even if it disagrees with
them. It has been noted that the government and the constitution of Iran
contains some of the most progressive democratic institutions in the Islamic
world, with no precedent in Islamic history.92 In Islamic eyes, here is a
democratic Muslim nation that the United States considers part of the “Axis of
U.S. policies must find common ground with Iran to engage in positive,
constructive dialogue. To reestablish its credibility in the Islamic world, the
United States must actively and forcefully broker a resolution to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without a resolution there, this protracted
dispute will continua lly be the flame that ignites the region. The difficulty
and precariousness of these tasks does not make their accomplishment any less
To bring about effective strategic ideological change, the United States must
bring the democratic experience down to the common shopkeeper in the market—and
more importantly to school-age Muslim children of future generations. The
challenge will be to penetrate a largely xenophobic society without further
alienating it. Freedom and democracy do not have the same understanding to most
Muslims as they do for most Westerners. Muslims’ fear of returning to pre-Islamic
chaos must be taken into account as the United States crafts and advances its
policies. This will be a significant challenge that will require the United
States to overcome its cultural bias against combining religion with policy.
For the vast majority of Muslims, there is no understanding of or tolerance for
the separation of Church and State; yet for the majority of Americans there is
no appreciation of how the two can be combined.
The United States needs to engage in a focused effort to work with the existing
Middle East governments to educate their populations in the roles and
responsibilities that come with having a voice in the government. Ideally this
should start in grade school and with the establishment of local
democratically-run civic and government organizations. The United States must
realize that positive change will not come overnight. However, as individuals
learn how democracy works at the local level, they will be able to build a
sufficient constituency to support the foundation of a national democratic
government. Culturally as well as historically, Muslims have selected leaders
by consensus; Islamic democracy will surely account for these tribal sheiks and
their historic role in governance. Al-Qai’da and other radical groups claim that
democracy and Islam are incompatible, but a democracy can be formed to take
into account both divine law and popular sovereignty.93 The United States must
enable nations to tailor their development of democracy to fit their local
needs. They may not develop a democracy that the United States is used to, but
downtown Kabul does not look like Peoria.
U.S. foreign policies must support our vision of the future. Further
relationships will determine how the United States deals with Islam and Muslim
nations, but the groundwork for productive relationships can be laid now.
Islamic web sites claim Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.
Even if it is not, it still has a large following and an expansive future. The
basic tenets of Islam foster the spread of the religion, either by conquest or
migration. Sooner or later, the United States is going to have to decide if it
can live with Islamic expansion or not. This will largely depend on whether
that expansion can be shaped into a benign event.
< tr bgcolor="#EBE9FE">
1. Osama bin Laden’s 1996 Fatwa,
2. Osama bin Laden’s 1998 Fatwa,
www.pbs.org/newshour/terrorism/international/fatwa_1998.html, 16 Internet.
3. BBC Report on al-Qai’da Operations,
4. Christopher M. Blanchard, Al-Qai’da: Statements and Evolving Ideology,
Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, updated
June 20, 2005, www.history.navy.mil/library/online/al-queda%20 evolve.htm#fn1;
5. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Ed., New
York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004,
6. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, Washington, DC: The White House,
Septem ber 2006, p. 1.
7. Ibid., p. 3.
8. “Hercules (mythology),” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2006,
9. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, September 2006, p. 7.
10. Fatema Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, Mary Jo
Lakeland, trans., Cambridge MA: Perseus Publishing, 2002, p. 92.
11. The Central Intelligence Agency Factbook, available from
www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ xx.html#People; Internet.
12. Stephen P. Lambert, Y: The Sources of Islamic Revolutionary Conduct,
Washington DC: Joint Military Intelligence College, 2005, p. 91.
13. Ibid., p. 159.
14. Ibid., p. 131.
15. Christopher M. Blanchard, Islam: Sunnis and Shiites, Washington, DC: CRS
Report for Congress, Updated December 11, 2006,
17. Joint Staff in Brief with notes to Lieutenant General John F. Sattler,
USMC, “The Global War on Terrorism The Long War,” updated June 21, 2006, Slide
18. Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin
Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, New York: Penguin Press,
2004, p. 85.
19. Christopher D. Hamilton, Hezbollah’s Global Reach, Hearing of the House
Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on International Terrorism
and Nonproliferation, September 28, 2006, available at
20. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, The 9/11 Commission Report,
Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, August 21, 2004, p. 115.
21. Coll, p. 571.
22. Lambert, p. 160
23. Ambassador Francis X. Taylor, A Global Perspective on Terrorism and
Organized Crime, Keynote Speech to the International Conference on Asian
Organized Crime and Terrorism, Honolulu, Hawaii, April 12, 2004,
www.state.gov/m/ ds/rls/rm/31861.htm, Internet.
24. Coll, p. 277.
25. The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 240.
26. John L. Esposito, ed., The Oxford History of Islam, New York: Oxford Press,
1999, p. 1.
27. Ibid., p. 4.
28. Mernissi, p. 85.
29. Ibid., p. 88.
30. Esposito, p. 6. The life and times of the Prophet Muhammad can be examined
in much more detail in this reference as well as others. Only a few points will
be examined as they relate to the background of this conflict.
31. Mernissi, p. 110.
32. Lambert, p. 91.
33. The Meaning of The Holy Quran, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, trans., Brentwood, MD:
Amana Corporation, 1993, pp. 4:153-176.
34. Ibid., pp. 21:47
35. Esposito, p. 11.
36. Lambert, p. 60.
37. T. P. Schwartz-Barcott, War, Terror & Peace in the Quarn and in Islam:
Insights for Military & Government Leaders, Carlisle, PA: The Army War
College Foundation Press, 2004, p. 75.
38. Esposito, p. 1 1.
39. Ibid., p. 15.
40. Blanchard, Islam: Sunnis and Shiites.
41. Esposito, p. 16.
42. Ibid., p. 17.
43. Ibid., p. 22.
44. Ibid., p. 60.
45. Ibid., p. 683.
46. Mernissi, p. 120
47. The Meaning of The Holy Quran, pp. 8:1, 8:4.
48. Ibid., p. 8:41.
49. Mernissi, p. 112.
50. The Meaning of The Holy Quran, p. 8:4.
51. Lambert, p. 110.
52. Tony Snow, September 13, 2006, Press Briefing, available at
www.whitehouse.gov/news/ releases/2006/09/20060913-3.html, Internet.
53. The Meaning of The Holy Quran, p. 4:74.
54. Coll, p. 222.
55. Mernissi, p. 165.
56. Schwartz-Barcott, p. 60.
57. The Meaning of The Holy Quran, p. 3:151
58. Mernissi, p. 120.
59. Ibid., p. 110.
60. Ibid., p. 107.
61. “Editorial: Astounding Hypocrisy,” Arab News, February 2, 2006, [newspaper
online]; available at www.arabnews.com/?page=7§ion=0&article=77
62. Mernissi, p. 165.
63. Bernard Lewis, “Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East,” Foreign
Affairs, May/June 2005,[journal online}
64. David E. Long, The Anatomy of Terrorism, New York: The Free Press, 1990, p.
67. The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 240.
68. Bin Laden’s 1996 Fatwa.
70. BBC Report on al-Qai’da Operations.
71. Bin Laden’s 1996 Fatwa
72. Joint Staff in Brief with notes to Lieutenant General Sattler, p. 7.
74. Bin Laden’s 1996 Fatwa.
76. Bin Laden’s 1998 Fatwa.
77. Story from BBC NEWS, news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/3618762.stm.
78. Blanchard, Al-Qai’da: Statements and Evolving Ideology.
80. Bin Laden’s 1996 Fatwa.
81. Lambert, p. 60.
82. Joint Staff in Brief with notes to Lieutenant General Sattler, p. 7.
83. Lambert, p. 131.
84. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, September 2006, p. 7.
86. Ibid., p. 1.
87. UNAMI Human Rights Report on Iraq appeals for respect of the rule of law.
Root causes of violence affecting civilians: lack of accountability and
impunity. January 16, 2007, www.uniraq.org/get_article.
88. Strategy for Combating Terrorism, September 2006, p. 19.
90. The Central Intelligence Agency Factbook, available from
www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ sa.html#Econ, Internet.
91. CBO Testimony, “Issues in Estimating the Cost of Operations in Iraq and the
War on Terrorism,” www.cbo.gov/showdoc.cfm?index=7408&sequence=0, Internet
92. Esposito, p. 681.
93. Ibid., p. 676