To Our Great Detriment: Ignoring what Extremists say about Jihad

In comments made at the National Defense University on 1 December 2005, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace explained to his audience the importance of “understand[ing] the nature of the enemy” if we hope to defeat jihadi extremists.  Comparing our situation today, with that faced by an earlier generation who had to deal with the reality of the Nazi threat, General Pace suggested a simple solution to complying with his injunction: “read what our enemies have said.  Remember Hitler…He said in writing exactly what his plan was that we collectively ignored to our great detriment (emphasis added).”  Just as we ignored Hitler’s articulation of his strategic doctrine in Mein Kampf, so too are we on the verge of suffering a similar fate today, if we fail to seriously assess the extremist threat based on jihadi strategic doctrine.  

To address this challenge, I pose three fundamental questions:

  • Why have we failed to do a doctrine-based threat assessment?
  • What is the doctrinal basis of the jihadi threat?
  • How can we come to understand the jihadi threat?

From these three questions, the thesis concludes that Islamic law forms the doctrinal basis of the jihadi threat that can only be understood through an unconstrained review of the Islamic law of jihad.  The failure to undertake a doctrine-based assessment of the enemy reflects a decision not to do so.  Accepting assurances from moderate Muslims that Islam had nothing to do with the events of 11 September 2001, President Bush made policy statements holding Islam harmless for the actions done by “extremists” in Islam’s name.  To accommodate, threat analysis was replaced by an analytical process that focuses almost exclusively on the war’s imputed underlying causes.  For those questions relating to Islam, the approach has been to defer to moderates and cultural experts for the answers we rely on to make WOT (War on Terror) related decisions.  Because only the war’s underlying causes are the ones deemed relevant, the enemy’s stated doctrine is dismissed as irrelevant.  In the WOT, however, the enemy unambiguously states that he fights jihad in furtherance of Islamic causes.   Denial of an Islamic basis to a war that the enemy says is grounded in Islamic doctrines of jihad reflects the acceptance of enormous risk.        

As it turns out, the jihadis are able to find a doctrinal basis for their notions of jihad in Islamic law.  A review of Islamic law from modern treatments to the classical authorities reveals an interlocking, overlapping, seamless web of Islamic law on jihad that is uncommonly unified and consistent in defining jihad as warfare against non-Muslims to establish the religion.  This legal definition of jihad remains consistent through the 1400 year span that incorporates the contributions of the authorities relied on in the thesis.

Because our inability to understand the enemy stems from a decision not to know him, this thesis recommends the return to a threat analysis process as the methodology to analyze the enemy’s stated doctrine.  Because the enemy in the WOT states Islam as its doctrine, this means an unconstrained analysis of the Islamic law of jihad as found in the authoritative writings of recognized Islamic authorities.  When this is done, we will quickly realize what we have ignored “to our great detriment.”


View Maj. Coughlin’s full thesis here (PDF)

Appendix E – “Goals of Muslim Brotherhood Outreach to Clergy, Educators, and Leaders” (PDF)

About Stephen Coughlin

Over more than a decade following 9/11, Major Stephen Coughlin was one of the U.S. government’s most astute and objective analysts, and an expert on the connections between Islamic law, terrorism and the jihadist movement around the globe. Through knowledge of published Islamic law, Major Coughlin had a demonstrated ability to forecast events both in the Middle East and domestically and to accurately assess the future threat posture of jihadist entities before they happened. He has briefed at the Pentagon, for national and state law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and on Capitol Hill for Members of Congress. Today, he is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Policy. His book, Catastrophic Failure, will be released in late 2012.

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