Our "war on terrorism" is a narrowly focused effort to
roust out and round up a "network" of criminal gangs
and to punish states that harbor them. But these gangs should more
properly be identified as military subcultures. Moreover they are
not only interlinked through informal relationships with each other
but also interwoven into a much larger movement—an insurgency
within Islam. This insurgency cannot be seen simply as a "radical" Islamist
movement. It draws heavily on Saudi Wahhabist support, but many
other Islamist groups share the greater cause. And the cause also
shares wide, if passive, support among ordinary Muslims.
The greater goals of the insurgency are the
defense of Islam under attack and its renewal after generations
of corruption. The struggle, therefore, requires support. Military
subcultures like Al Qaeda are understood to be fighters and not
ultimately leaders, so their severe agenda is not necessarily anticipated
as the practical outcome of the struggle. Furthermore, the insurgency
is supported broadly because it has full authority under Islamic
law and tradition. Indeed, the movement's power can only be understood
within Islam's mystical, all-encompassing cultural context.
The historical implications are straightforward.
If the insurgency represents a period of renewal, then it presages
political-religious revolution according to the sanctions and expectations
of Islam, especially for Arabic-speaking societies. But the U.S. response in the form of its war on terrorism refuses to confront
This report, therefore, has three parts. The
first is a deconstruction of America's strategic language so that
we can think in terms of an insurgency within Islamic civilization
instead of groups of "terrorists" that are culturally marginal
to that civilization.
The second part analyzes the insurgency. Here,
however, analysis will not take the form of a traditional "intelligence" snapshot:
toting up militant groups, listing their financial backers, etc.
That has already been done many times. The "intel" approach creates, in effect, a material manifest of the insurgency. Intelligence
analysis focuses on people, tools, and patterns of activity. It
encourages us to view terrorism in isolation from its larger context.
Instead, this report will explore the cultural context of the insurgency
by showing how the ethos of terrorist subcultures relates to and
works within the larger orbit of Islamic civilization.
The third part suggests a range of U.S. responses,
once we have deconstructed our strategic language and revised our
understanding of the enemy.
About the Author
Dr. M. Vlahos is a member of APL's Senior Staff. He previously directed the Security Studies program at The Johns Hopkins University
School of Advanced International Studies and was Director of
the State Department's Center for the Study of Foreign Affairs.
What is "Terrorism?"
Continuum of Conflict
How Insurgencies Win
A Cultural Anatomy of Terrorism
The Terrorist's Symbolic Framework
The Symbolic Framework in Islamic Civilization
Openness to Adaptation
Historical Expectations and Support
Weaknesses and Strengths
Responses to Terrorism
Fort Apache (Decimation)
Apocalypse Soon (Annihilation)
We Come in Peace (Occupation)
Siren Song (Co-optation)
Sealed Train (Legitimization)
References and Notes
Text of Terror's Mask: Insurgency Within Islam