Terror's Mask: Insurgency Within Islam
Updated Commentary, November 2003
by Dr. M. Vlahos

terror's mask image

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.

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.

Table of Contents


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
     Inter-/Intracultural Variation
     Openness to Adaptation
     Historical Expectations and Support
     Weaknesses and Strengths

Responses to Terrorism
     Dragnet (Incarceration)
     Fort Apache (Decimation)
     Apocalypse Soon (Annihilation)
     We Come in Peace (Occupation)
     Siren Song (Co-optation)
     Sealed Train (Legitimization)

Summary Judgments

Civilizational Counter-Insurgency?

References and Notes

Full Text of Terror's Mask: Insurgency Within Islam