war on the rocks

How the Islamic State’s Favorite Strategy Book Explains Recent Terrorist Attacks

November 24, 2015

The jihadist slaughter over the last three weeks seems senseless. The self-proclaimed Islamic State killed 224 on a Russian airliner, 43 in Beirut and over 120 in Paris. How could religious people in pursuit of paradise believe it’s acceptable to take innocent life? How could rational people in pursuit of power believe it is smart to create enemies on all sides?

Many of the answers are found in a strategy manual written by an al-Qaeda sympathizer over a decade ago called The Management of Savagery. The book is revered by al-Qaeda and Islamic State operatives, despite their antipathy for each other. It was one of the first jihadist texts I translated, in an effort to enlighten myself and others about the rationale behind the 9/11 attacks. I have turned to it often since then to help me make sense of violent events like those we have seen in recent weeks.

The author, the pseudonymous Abu Bakr Naji, does not spend much time religiously justifying violent revolution. The Prophet Mohammed, he observes, waged a war against the tribal powers of his day to establish a state. The more pressing questions are which kinds of violence are sanctioned by scripture and when are they effective.

Naji initially argues that Muslim revolutionaries cannot fight freely the way non-Muslim revolutionaries can because scripture restricts their actions. For example, Mohammed forbade attacks on noncombatants, which makes it tough to wage a terrorist campaign. But these restrictions are not insurmountable, Naji contends. They can be ignored on Islamic grounds if the situation is dire and the enemy is ruthless. In the end, Muslims can choose whatever tactics they like.

But what tactics should they choose? That depends on what they hope to achieve. Targets and tactics should serve larger political goals. The most pressing goals, Naji says, are the establishment of Islamic states and ensuring their survival.

Naji acknowledges that fighting in the open and taking territory makes jihadists extremely vulnerable to attack by powerful nations. But the jihadists are not powerless. They can carry out “vexation operations” against their enemies where they live. The attacks will compel their enemies to disperse their forces to deal with multiple attacks in multiple places, thus alleviating pressure on nascent jihadist states. Such attacks have additional benefits: They deplete the financial resources of one’s enemy, especially if it invades with a large ground force; they remove the enemy’s aura of invincibility that discourages Muslims from rising up; they stir Muslim anger in the aftermath of inevitable reprisals by the foreign powers; and they boost the morale of the jihadists and attract more recruits to their cause.

Terrorist attacks can also be used to punish powerful nations for attacking jihadist statelets. This is called “paying the price.” Such attacks should be carried out by allied jihadist groups outside of the statelets, which will make the enemy feel surrounded. As a consequence, the enemy will hesitate to carry out attacks against the jihadists on their home turf in the future.

Do jihadists really think this carefully about violence or is this just an attempt to rationalize the irrational? Consider the Islamic State communique justifying their recent Paris attack. It explained the attack was in reprisal for “strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets.” An Islamic State video released a few days later says France “will pay the price” if it increases its attacks on the Islamic State’s territory in Iraq and Syria.

Just because jihadists think carefully about the utility of violence does not mean they always use it wisely. But then again, neither do its enemies. Before the United States and its allies change their course of action in response to the latest wave of jihadist terrorism, they should first make sense of the senseless. Figure out what the jihadists hope to achieve with their attacks to avoid giving them what they want and think just as carefully about the goals of their own violence against the jihadists in the months and years to come.

 

William McCants is the director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.

Correction: The article originally attributed the attack at Bamako to the Islamic State. This was an editorial error, not the author’s error.