The Caravan

Notes On Methodology In The Study Of Jihad

Thursday, December 3, 2015

For the purposes of this piece, the term ‘jihadist’ refers to the movement begun by Abu Musa’ab al-Zarqawi that led to the creation of al-Dawla al-Islamiyya (The Islamic State); the caliphate; ISIS; ISIL

Three Western academic disciplines have risen to the challenge of interpreting the jihadist enemy: political science, military science and history. It would seem natural for political and military scientists to discern form and pattern in the revolutionary movement that is seizing many of the headlines of the 21st century. On the other hand, historians would be ill at ease explaining the significance of current events and discerning trends within them, but feel compelled to do so because the jihadists infer their actions from Islamic historical precedent. Political scientists place varying stresses on which set of motivations instruct those actions, whether it is state building or ‘constant revolution’. Military scientists must contend whether the jihad’s form of war is that of an insurgency, or whether it hews closer to the manner by which a modern state would fight. Historians must juggle the relative significance of the individuals involved in the jihad or the conditions that led to it.

The convergence of these three disciplines is critical in understanding the jihadists. This led a band of young political and military scholars and historians, aided by ground breaking and in-depth journalism, to construct a new niche academic discipline: jihadist studies, or jihadism. The nascent field of jihadism is experiencing growing pains. Like the phenomenon the young scholars are studying, the new discipline is revolutionary. But they have succeeded in focusing policy-making minds on the question of “Who is the enemy?”

They are now tasked with answering the question “What is the enemy going to do next?”

The late Fouad Ajami commissioned me to write a study in 2009 to answer the question “After Iraq and Afghanistan, where are the jihadists going to go?” He asked me to challenge the mainstream convention that the jihadists are a spent force. Previously, I have written papers on the ‘Zarqawi exception’ (why Zarqawi was different from the previous generations of jihadists, such as Al-Qaeda). Ajami discerned that bold and historically unique form of revolutionary exception in a 2008 paper that I had written under the title “The Caliphate Attempted” that made the case that Zarqawi’s heirs had tried to jump-start the caliphal project in late 2006 under the guise of the Islamic State of Iraq. He sensed that more focus should be placed on what makes the Zarqawists different. The resulting monograph he inspired me to write foretold that the jihadists would eventually flock to Syria.

I was well-served in my task by imagining the existence of a ‘jihadist strategist’. Here was a new type of individual who had found meaning in the uniqueness of the Zarqawist cause, as opposed to that of Osama Bin Laden’s. I imagined this strategist to be of a certain age, of a certain background, and endowed with a talent and an inclination to be in the service of an imperial project, the caliphate. Understanding how this jihadist strategist thinks may help us extrapolate where the jihadist project is going.

-How do the jihadists fight? What do they fight for in terms of military objectives?

-How do they understand governance? Do they use governance to meet popular expectations for a functioning state or to further the objectives of warfare?

-How do jihadists understand time?

-How do jihadists interpret and use historical precedent?

Supposition 1: The jihadists fight as if they were pirates, with the desert being their sea. Apart from the outlier battle of Kobani, the jihadists do not fight pitched battles. According to an Iraqi security source, only 97 bodies of jihadists were found when Iraqi forces retook Tikrit. More recently, the Kurdish Peshmerga counted less than 300 jihadist corpses in newly-liberated Sinjar. Jihadists swarmed in from the desert when they took Fallujah, Mosul, Ramadi and Palmyra. They mistrust urban and rural populations after the experience of the Tribal Awakenings. From 2009 until 2012, the jihadists had to adapt to the desert as their strategic depth. They had to adapt to hostile skies too. They were largely driven out of major urban centers in 2004, and beyond that, they were driven out of the date groves and orchards of Mesopotamia. Nowadays, they field various types of forces, but their elite and most successful ones, not to mention their best-equipped ones, are small, disparate mobile desert units that converge on a target when needed. They treat the cities and towns they have captured as ports of call, for booty and resupply. When challenged by superior forces attempting to retake these ports, the jihadists dissolve away into the desert, leaving small and determined bands of fighters to deflect and bleed-out the invading force. Their best fighters are not garrisoned in those cities; they live in the skiffs that carry them around the desert, such as the ubiquitous Toyota pick-up trucks they favor. There may be several mother ships in the desert that steam towards a target around which the skiffs gather. They exercise strict force conservation, especially after the military debacle at Kobani. They have to do this either because the numbers of fighting men they have are too few (far less than intelligence estimates) or because they are holding them in reserve for big strategic pushes when the time is right. The instinctual individualism of piracy is mitigated by having a cohesive ideology. One may understand the perplexing nature of the Paris targets as that of a jihadist skiff sailing further afield.

Supposition 2: The decentralized manner by which the caliphate governs suggests that governance is secondary to the pursuit of war. They are less interested in having a vibrant economy than in having a war economy. They ameliorate popular gripe by providing some public services, but they place far more resources into subjugating those forms of dissent through intimidation and fear. Their willingness to give up real estate demonstrates that they do not see themselves, in this current phase, as a state in the proper sense. Not all territory holds the same value. They invite more enemies to come at them, rather than managing and containing conflict. They seek to grow their writ farther— the second speech by Al-Baghdadi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, sets Saudi Arabia as the next station of jihadist expansion—before turning to the business of managing empire.

Supposition 3: Western policy makers describe the war against ISIS in terms of a decades-long time frame. The jihadists have shorter time frames in mind. They understand their current status as the first phase of a multi-phase expansion. Raw footage of the caliph’s subjects celebrating the declaration of the caliphate showed two individuals—one younger, in Raqqa, the other older, near Mosul—describing the significance of the declaration in eschatological terms and imagery. The jihadists seek to employ eschatology towards strategic purposes, forcing significant minorities of sympathetic fence sitters across the Middle East to pick a side, quickly. Just as the Middle East was primed for anti-Shi’ite narrative, its populace is primed for reading eschatological significance into world events. The jihadists seek to use that energy to propel them towards future phases of chaos and expansion. The jarring violence they project to Middle Eastern audiences serves to affirm the apocalyptic drama of these events.

Supposition 4: When declaring their caliphal project in October 2006, the jihadists issued a book that was largely ignored in the West that explained their actions by citing the historical precedent of Muhammad in Medina. The jihadists may now describe and validate the current phase they are in by citing historical precedent.. The audiences of the Middle East are primed to understand the early Islamic conquests as the jihadists do. These audiences studied the same schoolbooks and imbibed the same foundational myths about their religion and its early glories as the ‘jihadist strategist’ had done.


Nibras Kazimi is author of Syria Through Jihadist Eyes: A Perfect Enemy (Hoover Institution Press, 2010).