Rod Dreher:

On the other hand, it is also wrong to pretend that the Muslim religion had nothing to do with this massacre, that it is mere happenstance that this mass murderer’s crime was incidental to his Islamic faith. The US is in a war against Islamist terrorism. What Hasan did yesterday, on the evidence, was an act of Islamist terror. Period. When a devout Christian commits an act of violence against an abortion clinic, and does so pretty clearly in the name of his religion, it would be an act of stupidity, and possibly moral cowardice, to declare an investigation of his religious motive off-limits. And, in fact, we don’t do that, even as we are, or ought to be, aware that the overwhelming majority of Christians neither commit nor endorse such acts. Similarly, it is right and proper to have a critical discussion of the role Hasan’s religion played in this evil act, if only so we can identify Muslims like him in the future before they’re tempted to act on their convictions.                                 —(my emphasis)

Let’s look at that assertion I’ve highlighted.  The US is in a war against Islamist terrorism.

This, as the young people say, is the part where I break it down (word by word).

1) Terrorism

As has been said by many others, you can’t shouldn’t have a war against a tactic.  Terrorism is a tool and will horribly be deployed.  A country like the US particularly doesn’t want to declare itself in a war against a tactic whose technological and social trajectory is inevitably headed in the upward direction.  Otherwise you have definitionally set yourself up for failure.

Another reason I think the US (or any country for that matter) would not want to define itself in a war on terrorism is that it leads to the potential for ideological backlash.  e.g. I’ve never lived in a village where robotic aerial drones frequent and periodically drop bombs.  I assume however it is an act that would cause me to experience sheer terror.  If a country defines itself in a war on terror than it will admittedly set itself up for the charge of hypocrisy if it uses tactics that are seen to be (or really are to be fair) terror-inducing.

Also given Rod’s own analogy between the shooter and say a Christian abortion-doctor murderer, why is the US then at war against Islamist terrorism and not simply, as a civilized rule-based society, opposed to all criminal terrorist acts?  Does this individual’s despicable actions represent any real threat to the government of the United States?  Does any talk even of domestic home-grown Islamic extremism represent a substantially more serious threat to public order than say Salvadorean gangs, Mexican drug lords, and/or ultra ring-wing terrorist organizations?

I agree with Rod that when you have say anti-abortion terrorist activities by self-defined Christians claiming religion as their motivation, you should study their religion.  I agree with that proposition in the Ft. Hood case.  But why go from there to this act as part of some larger war?

Here’s terrorism expert Marc Sageman (h/t Yglesias) testifying before Congress this past October (p.2):

I excluded lone wolves, who were not physically or virtually connected to anyone in the global neo-jihad, for they often carry out their atrocities on the basis of delusion and mental disorder rather than for political reasons.

Sound relevant in the Ft. Hood case?

On to the other word I suppose to answer that one.

2) Islamist

Islamism is political view that seeks to create an Islamic state.  There are all kinds of problems with saying the US is in a war against Islamist terrorism.

A) al Qaeda attacked the US on 9/11.  Presumably everyone, on whatever side of the ledger, supports the view that the US should seek to destroy or at least thwart al Qaeda (though there would of course be disagreements concerning the best means whereby to achieve that goal).

Now look at Rod’s definition again:  Islamist terrorism.

al Qaeda is certainly a terrorist organization but they are not Islamist in nature.  So either Rod is suggesting that the US is not involved in any conflict with al-Qaeda (somehow I doubt this) or more likely, he is conflating al Qaeda with Islamism.  This isn’t a verbal tisk-tisk I’m administering like a schoolmarm, this makes an enormous difference as to how to interpret say the murders at Ft. Hood.

al Qaeda is not Islamist because AQ does not seek to create an Islamic state.  It believes the state, understood in the contemporary sense of nationally bounded and identified nation-states, is a heretical infidel construct of the West.   Rod in a followup post points to some possible links between the shooter (Hasan) and an American version of The Muslim Brotherhood.  This is a potentially very important piece of information that is worth investigation, but al Qaeda and The Muslim Brotherhood are enemies as the Muslim Brotherhood is Islamist and does therefore seek a state.  The MB has even gone so far as to participate in democratic elections in a number of countries.  Doesn’t mean The Muslim Brotherhood (or all aspects of that movement) are good guys, simply that you need to be clear on who exactly you are fighting and the idea in war is to divide your enemies and to use natural animosities between various groups against each not pile enemy upon enemy.

al Qaeda desires to create some worldwide Islamic caliphate, some worldwide revived Islamic empire that will control the world.  They have no actual real plan for such an endeavor since there is no way such a thing is ever going to take place.  al Qaeda are ultimately apocalyptic utopians in their vision and consequently nihilistic in their practice.  Now as nihilists hell-bent on destruction, then can kill and maim life and are therefore a serious threat, but they are not an existential threat to the US.  Unless of course the US were to say play right into their strategy.

B) But you might say we are certainly in a war against The Taliban and they are Islamist.  This one is a little more complicated.  The Taliban when they ruled in Afghanistan during the 1990s were actually a neo-fundamentalist group not Islamist.  That is they didn’t actually do much of running a state but rather tried to impose their insane puritanical moral and social vision on the country.  And they would (presumably) still be doing such a thing were it not for their hosting al-Qaeda who then later attacked the United States.

The Taliban were then of course routed from power in Afghanistan.  The occupation of the country of Afghanistan by US/NATO has certainly led to insurgent violence (and terrorism) against Western forces as well as Afghan civilians.  The insurgency is comprised of a number of groups including Gulbuddin’s Hezb-i-Islami, a group that could legitimately be called a jihadi Islamist organization.  So they meet Rod’s criteria of some group the US is in a war against.  This war however is somewhat belied by the fact that the US (along with Pakistan) funded Gulbuddin.  He used to be our ally and if the US left Afghanistan his group would not be in a fight against the US.  His is a nationalist Islamist undertaking.  So is the US in a war against all Islamist insurgent groups, even locally motivated, locally focused ones?  Does talking about a worldwide war against Islamist terrorism not in some manner end up uniting on the ideological battlefield groups that are fairly autonomous of one another….does it thereby end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if it guides policy decision making?

It’s not clear whether The Taliban will come back to power in Afghanistan and if they did whether they would be considered Islamist.  And if they did whether they would automatically have a sanctuary relationship with al Qaeda.  Various factions of the newer Afghan Taliban are creating something like law courts in various parts of Afghanistan lacking a state function.

But what has begun to occur is the narco-ization or essentially mafia-ization of terrorist networks, including jihadi ones the planet over.  There is even some evidence that al-Qaeda is basically becoming merged with the fortunes of localized Western/Southeast Asian insurgent groups as it has become seriously debilitated in ways of reaching out to attack the West.

Not to mention that the “war” phase of the war in Afghanistan has been over for years and the cleanup or “peace/stablization” phase continues.  (A peace phase does involve military battles btw).  So again war is a pretty unhelpful term in this context.

C) Other Islamists groups (potentially/probably having had their own form of terrorism):

–The ruling regime in Iraq (Shia Islamist group), along with other US allies like The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.  They participated in the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad. Somewhat difficult to be in a war against your own allies.  So it must not be all kinds of Islamist ‘terrorism’ and certainly not all forms of Islamism (see the ruling regime in Turkey) that the US is opposed to.  But only certain kinds.

–The ruling Iranian regime.



All of whom the US apparently is at war with by this definition.  Wars that would be hard to win in the case of say a Hezbollah or Hamas since they are social movements that have legitimacy amongst their population.  Also one of which (Hezbollah) accepted democratic electoral consequences and is (however tenuously) participating in a coalitional government.

3) What is the actual fight/threat?

As Sageman’s testimony to the Senate makes clear:

The dramatic increase in global neo-jihadi terrorism in the first decade of the 21st Century has come from al Qaeda inspired autonomous groups with no link to formal transnational terrorist groups. This is especially true since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which has inspired local young Muslims to strike out against the West. It seems clear that this invasion has created more terrorists in the West, refuting the thesis that “we are fighting them there, so we don?t have to fight them here.” (p.7)


The above statistics are crystal clear: 78% of all global neo-jihadi terrorist plots in the West in the past five years came from autonomous homegrown groups without any connection, direction or control from al Qaeda Core or its allies. The „resurgent al Qaeda? in the West argument has no empirical foundation. The paucity of actual al Qaeda and other transnational terrorist organization plots compared to the number of autonomous plots refutes the claims by some heads of the Intelligence Community (Hayden, 2008) that all Islamist plots in the West can be traced back to the Afghan Pakistani border. Far from being the “epicenter of terrorism,” this Pakistani region is more like the finishing school of global neo-jihadi terrorism, where a few amateur wannabes are transformed into dangerous terrorists.

Now if you read Sageman’s testimony (and I highly recommend you do, it’s quite illuminating), you will see that there were very few real terrorist plots (and even less attacks) in the West in the last number of years. And where there was, as Sageman notes it had to do with locals opposed to US foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Like said Nidal Hassan.

Sageman calls these autonomous neo-jihadi groups and I think that’s a decent definition (since I’m such a stickler for frames & definitions).  Jihadism as a political movement has failed.  Look at the ruling regime of Iran or Sudan or the Afghan Taliban of the 90s—hardly what anyone would call a success.  So these autonomous neo-jihadi groups represent potential for destruction, mayhem, and murder (i.e. just like criminal gangs of all kinds do in our society), but they don’t represent a threat or a unified army to which would be fighting a war.

What I’ve never understood about all these Huntington-inspired right-wing takes on Islamo-fascism, Islamo-terrorism, Islamo-communism, Islamist terrorism, whatever the term, is that they really want us to take the motivation of the actors themselves seriously.  They believe liberal PC culture has blinded us from speaking the truth.  Fine.

Let’s take their motivations seriously and by their motivations I mean not just some generic terms like “infidels”, “jihad” but real political goals. Do they have any?  Not really–not when the imam who apparently was some influence on Hassan was talking about a worldwide Islamic state.  It’s not going to happen.  Their motivations make clear that they represent (at this juncture and seemingly into the future unless merged with other groups) no real political threat to the West.  Their motivations in other words push an intelligent observer I believe in precisely the opposite direction from this notion of a Clash of Civilizations or some War or whatever.  It means that it is a threat, a domestic threat not ultimately that more substantial than other criminally-minded, anti-government groups.

No country in Europe is headed towards some Islamic state status.  Non-Muslims Europeans are not headed for a neo-dhimmitude.

The danger is the same danger that is represented by any number of violent groups, Islamic, (any kind of) religious or otherwise:  technological increases allowing for smaller numbers of individuals to perpetrate increasingly lethal attacks.

But I realize I had to write all that to clarify and it isn’t covered in a fancy emotional term like “We are War with Terrorists!!!”  Cue the Team America theme (NSFW).

Update I: Sorry I missed this earlier, but Jamelle’s post on the same subject is definitely also worth a read.

Update II: News coming out that Hassan tried to contact al Qaeda.  All this does is continue to prove Sageman’s point that the neo-jihadi movement is leaderless and consists of small numbers (or in this case one guy) who take up their own attacks and al Qaeda is only someone they contact in order for legitimacy and potentially some helpful terrorism tips.  al Qaeda is reduced to waiting to be contacted by guys like Hassan.  Remember that in the inevitable right-wing overreaction to all of this and the fear mongering that will go on.   (See Katherine’s comment, comment #1 on the analogy of anarchist terrorism of the late 1800s/early 1900s.)

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14 thoughts on “Hoodwinked

  1. The Taliban when they ruled in Afghanistan during the 1990s were actually a neo-fundamentalist group not Islamist. That is they didn’t actually do much of running a state but rather tried to impose their insane puritanical moral and social vision on the country.

    I’m not understanding the distinction here. The Taliban were the government; their main goal was to impose Islamic values, as they percieved them, on the population. That’s the basic agenda of an Islamist movement.

    Your point about being able to distinguish who the enemy is is an excellent one. Islamism as a political movement is, by and large, not a threat to the security of United States (though possibly a threat to its global interests). Most Islamists are non-violent; those that are violent are concerned with removing dictatorships and preventing US meddling in their countries’ policies, not aggression against the US. The vast majority of Islamists condemned 9/11 less for moral reasons than because they felt provoking the US to come after then and support government clampdowns on them was exactly what they didn’t need.

    The other good point is that jihadism has failed. Al-Qaeda actually lost support, substantially, after 9/11; there isn’t much of a cohesive organization left. The closest thing I can think of to compare most neo-jihadist violence to is anarchist violence in the late 1800s/early 1900s: random, frightening, but not moving towards any achievable political goal, and counterproductive in that the violence turns people more strongly against them. (Actually, anarchists were a lot more dangerous in terms of political violence, taking down a US President, a French President, and a Russian Tsar, as well as throwing a bomb into the French legislative chamber.) It’s the same tactic of “propaganda by the deed”: if you’re violent enough, the government will be sufficiently repressive that people will turn against it. Except that doesn’t work because 1. the government hasn’t become extremely repressive and 2. the government is at least predictable, so people tend to prefer it over random violence in the service of an ideology that doesn’t seem remotely credible.

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    • K,

      Excellent analogy with anarchists. The Red Brigade and the Baader-Meinhof also come to mind. Also as I mentioned the Mafia, given jihadi funding through drug selling.

      As to the Taliban point, they were in charge of the government but they didn’t do “state” things. They weren’t really interested in collecting taxes for example. Rory Stewart jokes that during the 90s the Taliban financial ministry was some cash stuffed under some Talib’s pillow in his house that he would just dole out whenever necessary.

      They sort of did this law/tribal court type things, but it was very ad hoc. It wasn’t in a sense a modern state in the Weberian sense. They had a kind of police function but it was mostly morality policing.

      They had no vision for future economic and political integration, I think they only had official diplomacy with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It was just a complete nightmarish mess.

      But out of that I have no sense that Afghanistan can have a strong state functioning made via the US/NATO yelling at Karzai to not be corrupt or threatening to pull their troops out unless he changes his ways. Just stupid the whole thing. All it does is continue to erode whatever sliver of legitimacy the guy has left in the country.

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  2. I’ve long thought that Islamo-fascism, Islamo-terrorism, Islamo-communism, and Islamist terrorism would be defeated the same way that Communism (it wasn’t *REAL* Communism, it was just Soviet Socialism!) was defeated.

    Red lipstick. White Castle. Blue Jeans.

    Okay, that didn’t work as well as I wanted. Let’s rephrase.

    Cultural Weapons of Mass Destruction. It involves rock and roll, McDonald’s, rebellious teenagery, prolonged adolescence, and dramatic re-interpretation of tradition. We need Islamic Theologians explaining that the Angel Gabriel was a metaphor and how what The Prophet means is so much more important that who The Prophet might have actually have been. We need a Muslim Jay and Silent Bob road trip movie similar to Dogma in which Allah turns out to be Nicollette Sheridan.

    We need a Buddy Mohammed.

    And the military cannot provide us any of that.

    Rock and roll, by contrast, might be able to get its foot in the door.

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      • Absolutely. We should be trading food and medicine (despite their 100% free healthcare for 100% of the population, I suspect that they’d still benefit from more access to medicine) for cigars, if nothing else.

        Economic sanctions target civilians far more effectively than any smart bomb ever could dream of doing.

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        • Yeah totally agree with you there, oh and sugar! Cheap real sugar!! The embargo has done more than anything else to prop up the regime in Havana. I dare say a few crates of voluntarily imported Mickey Mouse ears would upset Castro than anything our state department could cook up short of invasion.

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        • I agree on ditching the embargo. I see it as a wager: if you think communism is the worse system, then expose it to capitalism and see if it collapses. If you think Cuban communism is a good system, then it should survive. Either way – if you think you’re right, what have you got to lose?

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        • Damn right. Of course I have personal involvement with this issue.
          Someday I’d actually like to meet my girlfriend’s half-sister and niece. I’d like to visit her father’s hometown.

          The sugar thing isn’t going to happen though. We’ve still got tariffs on Brazilian sugar after all. Then again I suppose if the embargo is taken down that would significantly reduce the Fanjuls’ power, so maybe it could be phased in later.

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        • Despite their free medical care, there is no medicine for anyone without paying for it in dollars/Euros. When I was there, the jineteros (“riders” in English, i.e., informal tourist guides “riding” you for your money) will ask you first if you want a girl, then if you want cigars, then if you want a place to stay, then if you want medicines. To sustain their free health care, they must prostitute their daughters and sisters, otherwise there’s no money for medicine, shoes, food, etc etc.

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      • The embargo is counter producive at this point, although it isn’t all that simple. I agree on exposing Cubans to Capitalism as the most effective tactic to bring down the regime. Unfortunately, property rights are involved: the Cuban government expropriated US property (and everyone else’s) without compensation. This cannot go unanswered if the US wants to maintain property rights.

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  3. Does this individual’s despicable actions represent any real threat to the government of the United States?

    Of course they do, unless we do something about it. Hassan is a traitor in wartime. Unless we treat him as such, there will be more. Unless we raise our guard against this kind of thing, there will be more, and not just more mass murderers. There will be more traitors in the government itself, if they can infiltrate the Army.

    Al Qaeda is an ideology and an organizing principle. It’s a network, not a state or an NGO. They finance and provide organizational skills to other jihadist groups. A Muslim does not need to receive direct orders from bin Laden to be considered an al Qaeda convert.

    I agree with Rod that when you have say anti-abortion terrorist activities by self-defined Christians claiming religion as their motivation, you should study their religion. I agree with that proposition in the Ft. Hood case. But why go from there to this act as part of some larger war?

    Because we are at war with jihadist Muslims, who have declared war on us (1996 and 1998) and have attacked us repeatedly. They conceive their war in “Clash of Civilizations” terms as “defensive jihad.” In other words, they think we are attacking their religion. Therefore, according to the jihadists, all Muslims are enjoined to jihad by law. Islamic religious authorities have issued fatwas saying that Muslims cannot legitimately serve in the US military and fight against their own religion and therefore must fight against it. This fact alone makes Hassan’s act “part of a larger war” in the same way as the treason of the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, et al were “part of a larger war,” i.e., the Cold War. They worked for the other side. It doesn’t matter for this line of argument that the Cold War traitors, like the Rosenbergs, were responsible for many more deaths of Americans than Hassan.

    As for the “lone wolf” line, anyone who perpetrates mass murder is crazy on some level. But what organized Hassan’s madness (if that’s what it was) and ensured its fulfillment was his religion: Islam. You simply can’t understand his acts without knowing about his religious beliefs. For example, he told his neighbor, “I’m going to do God’s work” just hours before his massacre. Do you want to ignore this along with all the other facts that point to Islam in his life?

    al Qaeda is not Islamist because AQ does not seek to create an Islamic state. It believes the state, understood in the contemporary sense of nationally bounded and identified nation-states, is a heretical infidel construct of the West.

    What are they trying to create, chopped liver? The opposition to the Western nation-state is common to all Islamic groups. They believe that the world should be under Islamic law. What entity would then administer this law? Call it a state or call it chopped liver, it’s still Islamic.

    al Qaeda and The Muslim Brotherhood are enemies as the Muslim Brotherhood is Islamist and does therefore seek a state.

    They both want a world under Islamic law (the Caliphate) because that’s Islam. It does not depend on this or that group. Islamic doctrine is clear on this: the world must submit or die. You call them nihilists, but that fails to take them at their word. It’s just your ethnocentrism rearing it’s nasty head. They don’t consider themselves nihilists, it goes without saying. If they must destroy the old order to achieve this, then so be it. It’s the same so-called destructive mentality that the Bolsheviks had, not because they wanted to destroy, but because the destruction was necessary for creation.

    The Taliban is “neo fundamentalist” and therefore not Islamist? You’re quoting Oliver Roy again. Why not expand your reading a bit? Roy has been wrong too many times to take him seriously. If you like the French historians (and who doesn’t) read Gilles Kepel. He’s an expert on Islamicism and does not traffic in the gobbledygook that Roy does. His (and your) fine distinctions escape me and probably everyone else as well. There’s just no way you can define away the Taliban ideology. They are completely integrated with al Qaeda. In fact, that’s the reason we invaded Afghanistan in the first place.

    there were very few real terrorist plots (and even less attacks) in the West in the last number of years.

    The fact that we have been fighting them, by any means necessary (as they used to say), is the reason that this is true. Do we stop fighting them now because they have been beaten back into the caves of Pakistan? Do we let them, once again, take control of Afghanistan and give them a safe haven from which once again they can regroup and reconstruct and re attack?

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