Islamic Warfighting Doctrine and Jihadi Behavior

There is a well-worn rut of thinking which holds that Islamic doctrines of warfare determine Jihadis’ violent behavior. The doctrine functions like software on a computer: if you can identify the doctrines/software, you can predict behavior.

Raymond Ibrahim has posted a version of this argument at the MESH blog. Ibrahim is right to say that Jihadis of the Salafi stripe take the medieval Islamic teachings on warfare seriously (sometimes to their detriment, as Brynjar Lia has argued in a recent article).  But he is wrong to argue that studying these doctrines helps us understand, much less anticipate, the actions of Jihadis. I say this for five reasons:

1. The classical tradition Jihadis draw on is very contradictory. (I see that Bernard Haykel has already made this point in a comment on Ibrahim’s post.)  Which of the contradictory rulings is operative?

2. Cost-benefit analysis is an integral part of medieval Islamic thinking about warfare. For example, in medieval discussions of suicidal attacks, the majority says that although they are permissible, they may not be wise in a given circumstance (e.g. they will hurt the Muslim community, they will not result in any benefit to the Muslim armies). If this analysis is built in, then any doctrine of warfare is subject to curtailment.

3. Contemporary Jihadis disagree on tactics. For example, Zarqawi used to reject suicide ops against noncombatants until a mentor in Afghanistan changed his mind. If all Jihadis are running on the same software, why isn’t there consensus on this issue?

4. Academics who have studied specific instances of Jihadi violence have found that organizational imperatives, local politics, etc. strongly shape violent behavior (see, for example, Hafez’s Suicide Bombers in Iraq, or Hegghammer’s dissertation).

5. Most Jihadis accept the idea of “do unto your enemy as he does unto you,” so everything is on the table. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t matter whether the classical tradition sanctions an act or not.

6. Even if we say the tradition puts constraints on mujahids (which I think it does), its hard to see where these constraints are for Jihadis. They have maximally defined the scope of warfare, all the way out to WMD. With such wide latitude, why would learning the finer points of suicidal attacks help us understand their behavior?

All of this is not to say that doctrine doesn’t matter. Doctrine does play a great role in dehumanizing outsiders (which Ibrahim rightly alludes to), defining end goals (Islamic states), and prolonging violence (see Mike Horowitz’s work). I’m just arguing that it is not determinative in tactical or strategic matters.

Studying medieval Islamic doctrines of warfare does have one massive payoff:  If we can identify the rulings that contradict what the Jihadis are saying or doing, we can use them in information operations to paint Jihadis as illegitimate and outside of mainstream Islam. Of course, the Qur’an-is-software types will argue that the Jihadis are behaving like perfectly good Muslims.  But this opinion (which I sometimes share) does not help us discredit the Jihadis, which is one of the keys to destroying Jihadism; rather it makes their argument for them and alienates Muslims who might otherwise be well wishers.

One final point:  Ibrahim is outraged that deceit and an acceptance of collateral damage are acceptable in medieval Islamic doctrines of warfare.  Why is this outrageous?

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4 Responses

  1. I agree with your analysis that the study of Islamic warfighting doctrine does not help us anticipate the actions of terrorists, because pretty much anything and everything is on the table. I also agree that the main benefit from such a study is to learn how to effectively contradict terrorist tactics, we have a lot to learn from Dr. Fadl and other prominent Islamic thinkers questioning al-Qaeda’s tactics. However, I do not think that the classical tradition is all that contradictory. As Ibrahim pointed out in his response to Haykel, many of the contradictions about killing non-combatants or the proportionality of conducting an attack are discussions about certain interpretations of the Sunna and the Quran, not doctrine.

    A few hours of research in the Hadith and the Quran allowed me to fairly easily justify killing women and children in the Islamic tradition. Ibrahim points some of these verses out in his reply to Haykel.

    Additionally, the cost-benefit analysis you touch on is also extremely subjective. During the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, I asked a professor at the Abu Nour mosque in Syria about how Hezbollah could possibly justify its war with Israel when the damage against Lebanon was so disproportional. I even mentioned that Muhammad sent Muslims to Ethiopia partly to ensure they were not all killed. He said that unless every Muslim in the world faced annihilation this argument is not applicable. Thus, the damage in Lebanon is acceptable. I am sure others have far different opinions and that this professor would have had a different opinion if it was Syria instead of Lebanon being leveled by Israeli bombs, but it makes my point about the subjectivity of the matter.

    But I guess my ramblings kind of prove your point as well. Since everything is so subjective, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to use past Islamic warfighting doctrine as a guide to how terrorists will act in the future. The same subjectivity also makes it easy to Islamicly contradict what the terrorists are doing and saying, sometimes with the same Islamic verses they are using.

    In my opinion, if we want to understand how terrorists in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere are going to act and react, we should study the same military training manuals as they do. From what I can tell, US Army manuals are very popular on terrorist websites today. Additionally, while al-Qaeda types may take every chance they get to discredit Hamas and Hezbollah, they also take notice of their tactics. We should too.

  2. Hi Muq, I addressed some of your points over at the MESH blog. Michael Horowitz also has some insightful comments. I particularly liked his discussion of the Sun Tzu literature and his distinction between religion shaping behavior and religion determining behavior.

  3. What if. . .
    Mexican troops invade the USA looking for weapons of mass destruction. They can’t find any but they set up bases in the US anyway.
    On a daily basis, US Citizens are harassed, have their front doors kicked down and their young sons zip-tied and taken to torture factories.
    I agree that Iraq is better off without Sadam Housein.
    Although I believe there are Al-Queda elements in Iraq, I feel stronger that most of the attacks are pissed-off, Iraqi citizens tired of all the mierda de toro.

  4. Disagree with the idea of unpredictability. Brigadier S. K. Khan’s book ‘The Quranic Concept of War’ should be re-read by all jihad researchers: ‘We must aim at creating a wholesome respect for our Cause and our will and determination to attain it, in the minds of the enemy. So spirited, zealous, complete and thorough should be our preparation for war that we should enter upon the ‘war of muscles’ having already won the ‘war of will’.

    The terror war against civilian transporation targets aims at weakening the will of civilians to support war against terror. However, attacking civilian targets in the US and Europe no doubt inspires both Americans and Europeans to support the war against jihad.

    Until the jihadists figure out they are actually strengthening opposition by targeting civilians, we should expect continued attacks on civilian transportation. They will also continue to target liberalizing politicians in Islamic countries (e.g. Bhutto), thus alienating large numbers in those countries who increasingly desire democratization (60%).

    Analysis is, naturally, on-going and never complete, but only so many options are open to jihadists.

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