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We Can’t Beat Jihadists Unless We’re Real About Their Motivations


March 22: suicide bombings at Brussels airport and on the city’s metro. March 27: a suicide bombing at a crowded park in Lahore, Pakistan. The differences between these attacks are considerable, and a mainstream perspective would have us focus on that data narrowly. But to understand these attacks — and assess the jihadist menace — we need to give serious attention to their underlying commonality.

Look at the particulars in each case, and you find umpteen points of difference. Behind each attack, a different group. The Islamic State (ISIS) mounted the Brussels attack; the Pakistani Taliban deployed one of its fighters to the park in Lahore. The capabilities of these groups differ. Clearly ISIS has a reach surpassing the Pakistani Taliban. To this you can add that jihadist groups engage in ferocious infighting. Many factions have different state sponsors that despise each other. The more you dig into these groups, the more dissimilar, the more disconnected, they can appear.

But such a concrete-bound perspective subverts our understanding. It opens the way for pseudo-explanations that have hampered our ability to combat this menace. George W. Bush relied on evasive definitions that whipsawed from the nebulous (“terrorists,” “evildoers”) to the ultra-narrow (it’s al-Qaeda!). The Obama administration reprised the generic label “terrorists” and emphasized “al-Qaeda” until the rise of ISIS (supposedly the JV team) made that risible; now we’re supposed to combat “violent extremism,” born of economic privation and lack of political voice.

Say It With Me: Jihadists Share an Ideology

What this betrays is much more than linguistic confusion. It reveals an underlying conceptual failure: the failure properly to understand and define the nature of the enemy. That’s a necessary condition for combatting it effectively, a point Bush and Obama’s policy failures confirm.

Instead we need to recognize what’s distinctive — and so dangerous — about the jihadists. No, it’s not primarily their use of terrorist means; nor any political or economic hardships. What unites them is their ideological goal. Despite their differences, they do in fact constitute an ideological movement — a movement long inspired and funded by patrons such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states.

Despite their differences, they do in fact constitute an ideological movement.

Fundamentally, the diverse jihadist factions are united by a common end. They fight to create a society subjugated to religious law (sharia), wherever they can. They seek Islamic totalitarianism. Hearing that, some people balk: Can we really put in one category the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Boko Haram, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian regime, and many others — despite their sectarian, ethnic, regional, and language differences?

Yes, because what they strive for is essentially the same. How they seek to realize that goal — strategically and tactically — certainly differs: outright war, terrorism, indoctrination and ballot boxes, some combination of these. But these varied means are geared to the same ultimate end.

Of course they fight against one another for dominance, turf, doctrinal reasons (recall how al-Qaeda disowned ISIS). Such infighting is a feature of ideological movements. For example, there are many varieties of socialists. The British Fabians emphasized education; Vladimir Lenin was committed to revolution. There were also notorious intra-movement fights: for example, Joseph Stalin sent a hit squad to liquidate one rival, Leon Trotsky. The Soviets in Moscow were at odds with the communist rulers in China. The broad common aim, however, was to rid the world of capitalism in the name of imposing state control of the means of production.

If We Don’t Understand Them, We Can’t Fight Them

With the jihadists, their common theocratic aim is reflected in how they identify their enemies. Their doctrine holds that the path to political supremacy entails returning to piety and imposing the “Truth” far and wide, putting to death whoever stands in the way. An enemy is anyone who fails to submit to their religious dogma, including (but not limited to) apostates, heretics (e.g., Muslims of the wrong sect), atheists, and assorted unbelievers.

We need to grasp that while Islamic totalitarianism is a multiform movement, it is fundamentally united by its religious doctrine and vicious goal.

For the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a progenitor of the Islamic totalitarian movement, a major focus was on Arab regimes deemed impious. The Islamic State — like al-Qaeda, like the Iranian regime — emphasizes the West, with its secular society, man-made laws, and infidel population.

The Lahore bombing underlines just how wrong the prevailing view of the jihadists really is. It’s common today to hear how jihadists are moved primarily by economic and political grievances. That would mean that those families lining up for the bumper cars at the fairground in Lahore were slaughtered because they had somehow thwarted the Pakistani Taliban from getting decent jobs and the vote. But in reality the Taliban has it in for Pakistan’s Christian minority (who are deemed unbelievers). Many people in the thronged park that day were Christians celebrating Easter.

Moreover, we’ve heard a great deal about the (relative) poverty of the Maelbeek neighborhood in Belgium, and how some of the “martyrs” who carried out the Paris attacks last November had been petty criminals. Relevant, perhaps; causally fundamental, no. In a “martyrdom video” ISIS released in January, what do the Paris jihadists themselves tell us? They’re at war with us because we’re “unbelievers”; they’re angry that we oppose the Islamic State in its quest to entrench a totalitarian Islamic society.

Over the last 15 years, we’ve witnessed two U.S. administrations evade the responsibility of understanding the Islamic totalitarian movement. And we’ve witnessed those two administrations fail to defeat it. If we are to succeed at that goal, a crucial first step is to understand the enemy we face.

We need to grasp that while Islamic totalitarianism is a multiform movement, it is fundamentally united by its religious doctrine and vicious goal. Only then can we fully understand Brussels and Lahore and Paris and Ankara and San Bernardino and Beirut, and the long, bloody trail of jihad. Only then can we grasp the scope of the Islamist menace and effectively combat it, bringing into focus the need to confront the states that inspire and sponsor it.