The jihadist terror attack in Orlando that killed 49 people relaunched two major policy debates regarding the U.S. response to the challenge of Islamic State. The first was represented by President Obama’s claims of the successful prosecution of the war against an increasingly weakened Islamic State, a position seemingly contradicted by Director of National Intelligence John Brennan.
The second was the ongoing debate over the Obama Administration’s marked refusal to describe terror attacks using the Islamic terminology. This debate reached a fever pitch as the Department of Justice went so far as to censor a transcript of the Orlando shooter’s 911 call only to be forced to reverse themselves after widespread condemnation.
Interesting insight into both these policy questions can be gained through an examination of a recent statement by Islamic State Spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani.
Adanai issued a public declaration in late May of this year entitled, “That They Live By Proof”, issuing a call for attacks against the West, a call evidently answered by Orlando shooter Omar Mateen.
Adnani used the declaration to examine claims that the western-backed coalition is defeating the Islamic State. After a discussion of early Western declarations of victory in battle against Islamic State’s predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq only for the group to revive itself as the Islamic State, Adnani notes:
True defeat is the loss of willpower and desire to fight. America will be victorious and the mujahidin will be defeated in only one situation. We would be defeated and you victorious only if you were able to re-move the Quran from the Muslims’ hearts [emphasis added].
Adnani’s comments are not mere gusto, and they are not simply attempts to justify perceived failures, as was widely assumed at the time.
Adnani is revealing where the Islamic State’s “center of gravity” is. The Department of Defense’s Joint Publication 1-02 Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines center of gravity as “The source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act.”
U.S. Army Counterinsurgency doctrine notes that understanding the enemy’s center of gravity is a crucial step to achieving victory.
For Adnani, this center of gravity is a faith that necessitates fighting until Islamic law is implemented and nonbelievers and hypocrites (that is, Muslims who do not adhere to Islamic law) are defeated, and he includes multiple quranic citations for evidence of his position.
If the enemy expresses its center of gravity in faith terms, and military success relies on understanding the enemy’s center of gravity and appropriately targeting it, then the question of whether the U.S. is defeating Islamic State, and the question of whether the U.S. should utilize the doctrinal terms used by the enemy are not in fact two policy questions at all, but rather a singular question.
In the 2006/2007 edition of the U.S. Army War College strategy journal Parameters, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Myers authored a book review of The Quranic Concept of War by Pakistani Brigadier General S.K Malik. Written in 1979, The Quranic Concept of War is a military strategy tract endorsed by Pakistan’s former President Zia al-Haq. Myer notes that Malik locates the center of gravity:
[I]n war as the “human heart, [man’s] soul, spirit, and Faith.” Note that Faith is capitalized, meaning more than simple moral courage or fortitude. Faith in this sense is in the domain of religious and spiritual faith; this is the center of gravity in war.
Malik’s views, from 1979, can be seen as essentially analogous to those expressed by Adnani. Malik sees the Quranic model of warfare in the preparation, execution and consolidation of terror in order to dislocate enemy faith, to achieve victory:
“The quranic military strategy thus enjoins us to prepare ourselves for war to the utmost in order to strike terror into the enemies, known or hidden, while guarding ourselves from being terror-stricken by the enemy…in war, our main objective is the opponent’s heart or soul, or our main weapon of offence against this objective is the strength of our own souls, and to launch such an attack, we have to keep terror away from our own hearts [emphasis in the original].
This view appears consistent among jihadist organizations and is reflected in Abu Bakr Naji’s Management of Savagery, an Al Qaeda strategy manual from 2004 held in high esteem by Islamic State. Regarding waging jihad, Naji writes:
If we are not violent in our jihad and if softness seizes us, that will be a major factor in the loss of the element of strength… the Umma which is able to protect the positions it has won and it is the Umma which boldly faces horrors and has the firmness of mountains.
Naji proposed the careful and deliberate use of “savagery” in order to best undermine the enemy, which in turn strengthens the jihadist side.
Malik’s concept of war as being principally spiritual cum ideological warfare is reflected also in the writings of the Muslim Brotherhood jurist, Yusuf Al Qaradawi who notes, in Islamic Education and Hassan Al Banna:
They know well that the basic strength is the force of faith and belief, followed by the strength of unity and collectiveness and after both these, comes military strength [emphasis added].
Qaradawi himself noted that Islamic State Caliph AbuBakr Al Baghdadi was a former Muslim Brother, and so it comes as no surprise the two organizations share similar views in this regard.
Another Muslim Brotherhood thinker, Louay Safi, confirmed the centrality of faith as the principle focus of Islamic warfighting in his work, Peace and the Limits of War in 2001:
But when their organization and equipment are weak, and their morale falls short of the optimal situation, they are obligated to tackle no more than odds of two to one [emphasis added].
Interestingly, Safi served as a Department of Defense advisor where he argued against an understanding of the enemy in Islamic warfare terms.
Given the importance jihad theorists place on questions of faith and terror, one might hope U.S. national security officials would study these views carefully. But while Malik’s work on Quranic warfare has been discussed by a select group of counterterrorism thinkers since 2005, it has been largely ignored by decision-makers.
As a result, U.S. Special Envoy for the Islamic State campaign Brett McGurk took the opportunity to treat the Adnani declaration as a sign U.S. strategy was winning.
But if one was to examine the question from the Malik perspective however, there is no reasonable way to conclude that the U.S. and its western allies are winning.
Following the Islamic State-inspired San Bernardino shootings, a New York Times/CBS News Poll found that Americans were more fearful of terrorism than any time since 9/11. A Washington Post/ABC News Poll following the Paris attacks found similar results.
While terror is rising, faith is down. A 2012 Gallup poll noted that just 44% have “a lot of faith” in the church or “organized religion”, an all-time low. Faith is dropping in other American institutions as well. In November 2015 a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found an eleven percent increase in those who said America’s “best days are behind us”. A 2015 Gallup poll noted remarkable drops in American faith for every sizeable societal institution except the U.S. military.
While we are militarily capable of ousting Islamic State from territory, until we are prepared to understand the enemy’s center of gravity, the realm of faith, we will continue to have policy makers debate how to talk about the enemy and how to define victory, while the jihadist threat metastasizes.
Kyle Shideler is the Director of The Threat Information Office at the Center for Security Policy.