The Strategy of Savagery: Explaining the Islamic State

Islamic State video

Last week saw the Obama Administration playing host to a summit on “Countering Violent Extremism,” held in the wake of the jihadist attacks in Paris and the rise of the brutal theocratic order of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) across parts of the Middle and East and North Africa. Speakers at the summit voiced understandable concern at the growing spread of Islamist extremism and revulsion toward the methods it endorses to extend its reach. Whether it be the mass kidnapping of Nigerian school children, the torture and enslavement of Yezidi women, the murder of Jews and journalists trying to carry on their daily lives, or the gruesome executions of hostages, the depths of depravity to which some are prepared to sink are seemingly bottomless.

The rhetoric of politicians and commentators when confronted with such outrages defaults to a few well-worn phrases: barbarity, savagery and medieval brutality. The immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasaesbeh in February 2015, according to Roger Boyes of The Times, took the “pinnacle of Islamic State’s barbarity” to new heights. Denunciation of what are undoubtedly heinous crimes is only natural, but it also spills over into a less admirable tendency to focus, almost exclusively, on the supposed motivations of individual jihadists.

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, and a possible future leader of the British Conservative Party, described those who went off to fight for Islamic State as porn-addicted, sexually frustrated, “wankers.” “They are tortured,” he told The Sun newspaper, “They will be very badly adjusted in their relations with women, and that is a symptom of their feeling of being failures and that the world is against them.”

The most disturbing element was not Johnson’s reductionism – he’s a grandstanding politician, that’s what he does (and in Johnson’s case, he often does it very well) – but that his analysis supposedly drew upon an MI5 report into the profiles of Islamist extremists. The MI5 report and Johnson’s colorful interpretation follow a now-established pattern of writing off jihadists as losers, dunces, and clowns who suffer from a variety of emotional inadequacies, have problems with their fathers, suffer low self-esteem, and can’t make it with girls.

Western Fallacies and Delusions

Attempting to identify what drives young men (and, we should add, women) along the path of jihad and the sanguinary embrace of the Islamic State is hardly the most relevant to understanding the true extent of the current threat. Which average 16-25 year old male hasn’t suffered status anxiety, problems with his father, or worried about his sexuality? The preoccupation with such second-order concerns reflects a Western pathology for rationalizing and typologizing anything that looks like aberrant behavior, and shows a reluctance to confront the ideology that underpins and motivates those who seek to throw in their lot with revolutionary movements like ISIL.

Moreover, liberal politicians and commentators who do address the ideology present Islamism merely as a front that masks quasi-legitimate grievances (usually against deprivation, Western foreign policy and/or Islamophobia). Further, even if it were possible to get at the roots of a generic terrorist persona, what would this really entail for any kind of policy practice? Can you screen large parts of the population – Muslim or otherwise – for psychological imbalances? Even if this were possible diagnostically, would it be feasible politically? Surely, this is a route to the totalitarian end of “pre-crime.”

Not only is such psychologizing of personal motivation unprovable it is a distraction that leaves Western states unprepared to confront an implacable enemy. Reducing jihadism to personality traits offers no form of defense. Despite the opprobrium directed towards jihadism, the jihadists don’t care because they perpetrate barbaric acts for a reason. They have anticipated, and even welcome, such decadent Western denunciation.

Ultra-Violence as Political Communication

Condemnation is not going to make the threat go away, nor is pseudo-psychology. Instead, an evaluation should begin from the first principle of strategic theory: that all violence is political communication. Or to use Carl von Clausewitz’s classic formulation: war is a continuation of politics by other means, where the act of violence is intended to compel the enemy to do our will. Rather than condemnatory rhetoric, analysis should focus on evaluating the intended purpose the acts of savagery are designed to serve. An examination of ISIL’s thinking suggests they have thought about the strategy of savagery very carefully.

That ISIL and its jihadist confreres beyond the Middle East adhere to a campaign of ultra-violence, often rotating around graphic displays of killing that shock and disrupt modern sensibilities is itself significant, because it displays how they have deduced what they perceive as the fundamental weakness in Western society: its attachment to life.

Jihadism counter-poses a belief in life with a cult of death. This is not a reversion to medieval cruelty. It has modern origins. Fascism, as Umberto Eco observed, possesses a taste for political necrophilia: elevating slaughter and martyrdom to theater, symbolism, and modus operandi. The Islamist version is similarly obsessed. As the slickly, if somewhat over-produced, video of Lieutenant al-Kasaesbeh’s killing on the Internet demonstrated, adoring and serving death provides the movement with its fundamental rationale.

Moreover, the Islamists’ celebration of death as the dividing line between a pluralist secular world order and their brand of apocalyptic millenarian Caliphism is hardly new. It was announced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks with the formula: “we love death as you love life.” This slogan has gone through several iterations since 2001, with phrases like “The Americans love Pepsi Cola, we love death.” In essence, however, this fetishizing of death defines itself against secular, Western, Enlightenment assertions of life.

The beatification of violence is as telling as the politically religious commitment. To love death as jihadism does is to say that it is beautiful to receive it, to risk it, and that the most beautiful thing is to distribute it. The intention is not to desensitize youth to the idea of death (as newspaper opinion pages frequently assert) but to sanctify it. Such cruelty and the addictive craving it produces moreover, serve a broader ideological and strategic purpose that much Western commentary seems unable to comprehend.

The Fallacy of Lone Wolves and Stray Dogs

Following 9/11, some of the more interesting jihadist theorists like Abu Musab al-Suri and Abu Bakr Naji outlined a blueprint for what a global strategy of Islamist resistance would look like, proposing a more flexible campaign for action than that proffered by al-Qaeda’s ostensibly hierarchical and (prior to the Coalition’s invasion of Afghanistan) territorially based movement. Al-Suri’s and Naji’s third generation jihadism required an intensification of violence in the Middle East after the withdrawal of U.S. forces along with a more amorphous, but global, leaderless resistance.

Media commentary often dismisses attacks like those that have taken place in Boston, London, Ottawa, Sydney or Paris as the product of “lone wolves,” or “stray dogs.” Such terms play into ill-conceived notions that these are the actions of deranged lunatics. For example, writing in The Guardian, Yassir Morsi considered the perpetrator of the attack on the Lindt café in Sydney, Man Haron Monis, as no more than “a desperate man with a violent past,” while “terrorist experts” invariably disdain such incidents as “one-off home grown incidents” or pronounce on little evidentiary basis that they function in a dislocated manner with no higher direction from entities like Islamic State.

The complacency is not only self-evidently contradictory (for example, there have now been so many attacks that clearly they cannot be said to be “one-off”) but it overlooks another basic precept of strategic theory, as enunciated by Clausewitz, that war is never an isolated act. It is always an act of political will. Therefore, the very notion of a “lone wolf” functioning in complete isolation is a misnomer. They are not acting in isolation, but within a highly connected, transnational network that is fully plugged into a political agenda and promoted through social media and the wider cybersphere in which a community of like-minded believers operate. This sphere contains all the ideological stimuli to inspire, justify, and motivate specific actions.

Therefore, to speak of the actors who carry out these attacks as dislocated loners gives rise to the specious idea that policy prescriptions can be formulated upon the psychologizing of Islamist actions down to the personality of the individual. The actions of so-called lone wolves facilitate a wider strategic agenda that fully validates the thinking of the more important jihadist tacticians since 9/11, like al-Suri and Naji.

Fourth Generation Jihadism

After 9/11, al-Suri recognized that the global Islamist resistance movement required a more sophisticated strategy than the one al-Qaeda was pursuing. After 2003, al-Suri’s new third generation jihadism, therefore, turned to the concept of “leaderless” resistance. In 2005, al-Suri published online his Global Call to Islamic Resistance. This document asserted the need for self-radicalized actions “which will wear down the enemy and prepare the ground for waging war on open fronts… without confrontation in the field and seizing control of the land, we cannot establish an [Islamic] state, the strategic goal of the resistance.” The American Islamist Anwar al-Awlaki published five articles extracted from the Global Call for Inspire, the English online journal that made jihad hip. Al-Suri’s thinking now directly influences the transnational online strategy of the Islamic State and the Syrian al-Nusra front.

It is through an examination of al-Suri and Naji’s ideas that we can detect how leaderless resistance abroad complements the management of savagery within the protean Islamic State. In this context, it is Naji’s thought, as Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan have argued in their book ISIS: Inside an Army of Terror, that has most bearing on ISIL’s current strategy.

Of Egyptian background, Naji, like al-Suri, was an al-Qaeda insider with links to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq prior to the latter’s death in 2008. Ultimately, the purpose of violence, whether in the West or in Raqqa, as Naji explained, is to secure the borders of the Islamic State. As he analyzed in The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass, the chaos of savagery represents the intermediate stage of state breakdown, which the revolutionary cadre must manage en route to the purified Islamic realm. Naji declares: “If we succeed in the management of savagery, that stage will be a bridge to the Islamic state which has been awaited since the fall of the caliphate.” Here we can discern that in his thinking about how to conduct jihad, Naji has read, and is clearly influenced by, Mao Tse-tung’s thinking on protracted people’s war.

In his attachment to a “stages theory” of revolution, Naji, in the manner of a Marxist dialectician, distinguishes between: a) the stage of state breakdown characterized as one of “vexation and exhaustion” where the failing state’s power, as in the Palestinian Authority or contemporary Afghanistan, for example, remains contested and b) the subsequent stage of “savage chaos,” where the people “yearn for someone to manage the savagery.”

Managing Savagery

The management of the stage of savagery therefore requires securing the region’s borders, providing basic food and medical treatment, and establishing sharia justice, prior to transition to the final historical stage of the reformed Caliphate. Stages One and Two clearly conform to Mao’s understanding of the “Strategic Defensive” and “Strategic Equilibrium” phases of protracted people’s war, as enunciated in On Guerrilla Warfare (1936).

As with Mao, so it is with Naji, the control of the people and the support of the masses in achieving both unity and power are secured “through armed struggle.” The only difference is that Naji’s strategy is intended to facilitate not the liberation of the poor and tabula rasa peasantry, but the implementation of sharia justice. To achieve this, Naji points out, “violence is crucial.” Any backsliding or “softness” will “be a major factor in the loss of the element of strength.” Again, this has strong parallels with Maoist thought, which held that demonstrative acts of terror would be necessary to enforce conformity to the goals of revolution.

Even if the Caliphate is not achieved in the short-term, it is not the end of the matter. Naji continues chillingly, “the more abominable the level of savagery is,” it is still less abominable than enduring stability under “the order of unbelief, nizam al kufir by several degrees.” Indeed, here one can note a further general tendency in Western commentary to discount – often in its totality – the strategic debate that takes place within the Islamist/jihadist domain.

Islamism is – to adapt another Maoist aphorism – a sea in which many fish swim and there is a continuous and often little remarked-upon self-critique that goes on within its ranks about the best means to attain its goals. One of better-known examples of this was the 2005 letter sent by Osama bin Laden’s key lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, censuring the harshness of his methods in leading Iraq down the path of sectarian war. The criticism was not one of morality, it was one of instrumentality: the killing of unbelievers and apostates is not in itself ethically wrong, but is a process that needs to be properly managed.

Any actor that seeks to use force, or threat of force, to attain its ends does so by trying to control the escalation process, either upping the ante, or easing off, to send political messages in a process of violent communication. Without careful thought, it is possible to damage the cause through acts of ill-considered violence, which either alienates important political constituencies or else, more terminally, calls down a massive act of retaliatory counter-escalation that destroys the political movement.

Misunderstanding Escalation

In this respect, some commentators argue that the gruesome killing of the Jordanian pilot indicated that Islamic State might have “over-reached itself,” evincing a “revolution out of control.” According to Joana Cook, the “glorification of brutality is further detracting from any suggestion that they provide an attractive state system. Like many terrorist groups before them, they have limited vision for meaningful change. Their long-term goals and present actions are falling out of sync.” The increasing pressures on the group, she added, “make them more desperate and likely to carry out barbaric acts to keep attention to their message.”

The comforting narrative that ISIL is desperate and has over-escalated lends itself to another distorting lens through which much Western commentary misreads the ideology of Islamism, failing to understand the death-cult’s post-modern appeal and the considerable attention that Islamists pay to their strategic “messaging.” Those like Naji are sensitized to the power of the media; and, in particular, the manner in which the West believes its own media delusions. Naji and his ilk believe that while the mujahid and the rightly guided are driven by political religion, the West is vitiated by self-interest.

Naji, in this respect, even quotes Lord Palmerston’s maxim that there are no permanent enemies or permanent friends, only permanent interests. The “jahaliya” world [realm of pagan ignorance] is thus fragile, lacking cohesion, and easily divided. The purpose of the strategy of savagery is to draw the United States and its allies into a real war and not a proxy war. Islamists, according to Naji, therefore have a doctrine of “paying the price,” that is: you bomb us and we’ll bomb you, especially in your heartlands where we know you are weak. In this understanding, they are acutely aware that they are engaged in a “political game” where “coarseness” and “rough violence in times of need” is all part of the policy of “paying the price.”

Significantly, then, far from being desperate or over-extended, Islamist strategic thinking reveals a rigorous design from first principles that discerns the weaknesses in Western society (beginning with the attachment to life), and the manner in which to exploit them to achieve long-term goals. The salutary fact is that these theorists have thought about how to manage the escalation process, thereby controlling the strategy of savagery: doubtlessly, and probably accurately, concluding that the West lacks the collective will to counter-escalate in any coherent way.


What we have learned in this short essay, therefore, is that extending from its political-religious creed, the Islamic State derives its strategy from both anti-democratic Western and non-Western sources. While the Islamist death-cult draws upon twentieth-century totalitarian ideologies for its sanctification of violence, the management of savagery derives its logic from the Maoist theory of protracted people’s war.

Those like al-Suri and the Islamic State have considered both the strategic goal and the tactics with which to achieve it: the management of savagery. In their response, Western governments and large parts of the media all too often merely engage in rhetoric and a discourse of denial. There has in consequence arisen a disjuncture between what Islamists openly say, and have said for years, and what the media and politicians understand really motivates Islamists (personality defects and grievances), and what Islamists actually do.

And this brings us back to the “strange and woolly affair” that constituted the Countering Violent Extremism summit, where such self-delusion appeared on full display with President Obama, interestingly, undercutting the conference when he stated: “We all know there is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist, so there’s no way to predict who will become radicalized.” As a few skeptical voices noted, despite all the rhetoric, “where was the hard-hitting analysis and frank admission regarding the international appeal of Salafist holy warriors?” Nowhere in sight, as usual.


David Martin Jones is Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. M.L.R. Smith is Chair in Strategic Theory, Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Their book, Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age was published in 2014 by Palgrave-Macmillan; their next book, The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles and Paradoxes, will be published by Columbia University Press in May 2015.