Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Knowing the Enemy

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By Mary Habeck

Who is the enemy, and what is this thing called “jihadism” that everyone has been talking about? Jihadism is a modern word, not something from the Koran. Jihadis, or jihadists, call themselves salafi jihadi or salafiyya jihadiyya (-iyya in Arabic is equivalent to -ism). When I first saw the term in early 2002, I thought it perfectly described the people we’re fighting and that the ideal name for the conflict we’re involved in might be a war on jihadis, or war on jihadism. However, the root of jihadism is “jihad,” which is actually a good word within Islam.  

The Taliban: incarnation of the Caliphate that jihadists envisage


Jihadis are a small minority within the Islamist movement that believes violence must be used in order to create the perfect Islamic state. Within jihadism there are disagreements about at whom this violence should be aimed, how it should be carried out, what it will accomplish, and what the Islamic state’s law will look like when it is finally created. Here, I address those jihadis who agree with al-Qaeda and affiliated groups on several important issues.

Jihadist ideology can be reduced to unusual definitions of four Islamic words (tawhid, jihad, caliphate, and da’wa) and a few simple concepts. The jihadis believe, first, that they’re the only true Muslims in the world, the saved sect, the victorious party; that they’re the only ones going to Paradise. Second, they believe that hostile unbelievers control the world and have only one purpose in life, the destruction of Islam. In fact, according to several histories put together by jihadis, the entire purpose for the founding of America was to destroy Islam. Thus, thirdly, jihadis feel that war against the hostile unbelievers is permitted, because they’ve been attacked and aggressed against for at least ninety years, since the May 1916 Sykes- Picot Agreement (which divided the Middle East into areas of influence for France, Great Britain and others). Bin Laden frequently references that agreement. Other jihadis have a more expansive vision of this war, believing it began either with the Crusades or even with the creation of man. To them, history has been a constant fight between the believers and unbelievers, truth and falsehood. Thus, for jihadis, all their wars have been defensive.

Finally, jihadis want to create an Islamic state for all the reasons that Islamists do - so that Islam will be correctly practised, so that Sharia law will be imposed, etc - but also to carry on this eternal war. Eternal war is the only foreign policy they envision for the caliphate, or Islamic state. When the war ends, it will be Judgment Day, the end of time.

As noted, the jihadis have very specific views of the concepts of tawhid, jihad, the Islamic state, and da’wa.

• TAWHID (ONE GOD): Tawhid, the belief that there’s only one God and only He deserves to be worshipped, is as central a concept to Islam as the concept of the Trinity is to Christianity.

Most Muslims believe that, if one worships gods other than the true God, it is up to God to judge the unbeliever after death. God might have mercy on the unbeliever or he might not. The jihadis agree that one should only worship the true God, but they also believe that tawhid includes the idea that God is the only law giver, only he - not people, kings, or states - has sovereignty. Therefore, if anyone claims to have the right to make laws, he’s actually making a religious, not political, statement. He’s saying “I’m God. I know better than God. Here’s my vision for how humans should act.” In fact, they have committed Shirk [idolatry], the worst sin within Islam. The jihadi believes that he has the right to immediately judge that person and send him to hell.

This implies that democracy is a foreign religion, not a political system. The jihadis feel that attempts to impose it are in fact efforts to convert Muslims to a different religion. In Iraq before the elections I saw posters proclaiming that “Anyone who votes in these elections has declared themselves an enemy of God and is following a foreign religion. Election booths are the places of worship for the foreigners.” If this makes little sense to us, it didn’t make much sense to most Iraqis, either. This is a minority, Wahhabi view, not the widely accepted vision, of tawhid.

• JIHAD (STRUGGLE): Jihad is one of the most complex terms within Islam, with multiple definitions that seem to contradict one another. The term began as one thing and became something different within some hundred years of Muhammad’s death, and in the 19th and 20th centuries it evolved again.

Jihad means struggle or to strive hard for something. It doesn’t mean warfare. There’s a different word for war, and when Muhammad wanted to talk about war, he used that different word. There are two separate ways jihad is used in the Koran. One is striving to understand the Koran itself or to follow God more closely, the other is struggling or fighting against the unbelievers. After Muhammad’s death there was an outburst in Islamic fervour that led to the conquest of vast swaths of territory from Spain all the way to India within two hundred years. At the time it was viewed as a miracle, and therefore the term jihad began to change.

Success bred the idea that jihad was mostly about fighting. The Hadith, which were collected 100-150 years after Muhammad’s death, are all about fighting. The notion of internal struggle almost disappeared. One small group, the Sufis, did keep the idea of internal struggle alive, but none of their ideas were incorporated into the Hadith. Over the four or five hundred years that Islamic law was codified, the notion of jihad as fighting dominated and turned it into a “just-war theory.”

Two separate kinds of fighting were distinguished. One was an individual duty, that if Muslims were attacked, everyone in the community must join in the defence. The other was a communal duty, that if there were a certain number of Muslims out on the frontiers carrying out offensive raids, that was good enough for the community. So it has both offensive and defensive aspects.

The notion of an internal struggle remained within the Sufi community until about the 19th century, when Sufism began to spread widely and to influence and affect just about everybody’s thinking about the subject. The notion of the internal struggle became more and more important, and by the 20th century and certainly today, if you ask a Muslim what jihad is about, they will say ‘First, it’s about an internal struggle to follow God more closely, and only second is it an external struggle about defensive fighting if we’re attacked. Jihad as fighting is a matter for the state to decide.’

The jihadis hold that all this evolution over time is wrong, that there was only one true definition of jihad, and it was fighting right from the start. They attributed bad intentions to the Sufis (claiming they were afraid to fight), as they do to all their enemies. That’s actually purposeful, because within Islamic law, good intentions excuse almost everything. Thus to jihadis everyone has to have bad intentions. This is one of the reasons we may have trouble understanding them, and also explains why they have just as much trouble understanding us. If one has to read bad intentions into everything one’s enemy does, one will never understand what they are about.

Jihadis also believe that eventually they will repel all the people who have taken their lands, and that then they will have to go on the offensive, because the war cannot end until the entire world has been conquered for their version of Islam. This is the defining point of the ideology of jihadism. To them, jihad is a matter for each individual since there is no authentic Islamic state to declare war. If you decide not to join them, you’ve declared yourself an unbeliever.

• ISLAMIC STATE (CALIPHATE): There are a wide variety of views within Islamic society about what kind of governance is Islamic. That is because Muslims define an Islamic state as a majority Muslim state. If a majority Muslim state decides on a given form of governance, it must be Islamically correct. On Islamic law, most Muslims will say ‘I think my laws should be Islamically inspired.’ The Iraqi Constitution in fact states this, meaning moral laws, because for most Muslims the only sense of morality comes from within Islam. So non-Islamic laws means immoral laws. Certain specific matters like divorce or inheritance law are generally widely understood, but other matters are vague. There is no idea of a correct form of governance.

The jihadis have very specific and yet maddeningly vague ideas about the caliphate, which to them is the only correct form of governance for a Muslim. It will have a caliph, territory, and the jihadis’ version of Islamic law. As to institutions, it needs only two: an army and an institution to promote virtue and prevent vice. There is no vision of economic, social or foreign policy, or a legislature, just the caliph, territory, and Islamic law.

There are specific laws, rules, and regulations within Islam covering on which foot one should enter a room, how to brush your teeth, how long your beard should be, how often women should shave, and yet they do not know what the state will look like. That is because Muhammad didn’t create a state or institutions, just a community of believers. The jihadis refuse to recognise that and insist they must have a state.

What the Taliban created in Afghanistan is a good image of the kind of state the jihadists believe they need to create in the caliphate. In fact, bin Laden and Mullah Omar may have been within days of declaring Afghanistan the caliphate before 9/11.

• DA’WA (THE CALL): Within Islam itself, da’wa means the call to Islam given by Muhammad: a call to turn away from false gods and to the worship of the one true God. Most Muslims today also think of it as missionary work.

Jihadis have a very different view. Because they believe that the entire Islamic community has fallen away from God, their da’wa is aimed first and foremost at other Muslims, not the unbelieving world. Muslims who won’t answer that call must be killed. One group in Algeria actually calls itself the Salafist Group for Da’wa and Fighting. Ironically, then, many Muslims are giving money to charities the whole purpose of which is to turn them into jihadis. The money is not going off to convert the unbelievers, but is being aimed against them.  

Bin Laden: a strategy of attacking "the greater unbelief"


It is vital to understand that the jihadis’ war is first and foremost against other Muslims, who are the majority of the victims. This war has ideological, political, and military components.

Ideologically, the message is aimed almost entirely at other Muslims. In 1996, Bin Laden put out a “Declaration of War against the US” that was incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t spent several years reading Islamic theology, law, and history. That Declaration was aimed at other Muslims, to convince them to join up. The 1998 Declaration, with its short bullet points, was aimed at the West.

Politically, the jihadis are creating a caliphate on the backs of other Muslims, forcing them to follow their vision of Sharia. When the Taliban imposed its version of Sharia, the people of Afghanistan and Muslims generally were far from happy with it, seeing it as counter to what they understood Islam to be.

Militarily, most of the people who have been killed by jihadis have been Muslims. In Iraq, a few thousand Americans have been killed and tens of thousands of Muslim Iraqis. The jihadis don’t care if 50 Muslims are killed in a bombing that kills one American because to them, those Muslims aren’t Muslims.

The jihadis have been fighting a war with us, however. That’s the one we tend to take an interest in.  


Most of the ideas I’ve been discussing have to do with the jihadists that have signed up or began with bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The main difference between them and the rest of the jihadis is this first point on prioritising who the enemies are going to be. Ninety percent of jihadis believe, based on a Koranic verse, in taking on the local enemies before any far enemy. In the early 1990s, when bin Laden began to change his mind about who he should be focusing his attack on and became convinced that it was the US, he had no Koranic justification. So he had to go back to a 13th-century theologian named ibn Tamiyya who argued for taking on the greater unbelief first. With ibn Tamiyya as the justification, bin Laden called the US the greater unbelief, the bigger enemy. Without US support, all those lesser enemies or near enemies, whether it’s Israel or the Saudi government, would collapse. Bin Laden did not win this argument with the rest of jihadis: hardly anyone signed up with him in his global jihad against the US. Otherwise, he was marginalised and still is today within the jihadi community.

The basic ideas of jihadism come from three main sources. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th-century preacher, revived the definition of tawhid discussed earlier. He also believed that there were no believers left except for him. Accordingly, he would try to win people over by preaching, and if they wouldn’t listen, he was allowed to kill them. This encompasses most of what you need to know about jihadism. Notice that his jihad was not against unbelievers, but against other Muslims.

Hassan al-Banna (1906-49) had a very different notion of where this jihad should be focused. He agreed that one has to practice Islam correctly in order to truly worship God and that most of the world had fallen away from true Islam. But he believed in preaching to win over other Muslims, reserving violence for the occupiers. He founded the Muslim Brotherhood, which immediately began to take on the British occupation of Egypt. Unfortunately or fortunately, the British left peacefully before al-Banna could carry out his violence. But they put in place rulers who to the jihadis were agent rulers for the British Empire. Al-Banna turned to violence against these agent rulers. They assassinated him, but not before this notion had caught on. Off and on throughout the 1950s and 1960s Gamel Abdul Nasser and others had to suppress these militants, who would flee to other countries like Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and start new organisations. Maintaining this notion of fighting the occupation is their main purpose in life.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt maintained this until 1966, when some thousand of their leaders were rounded up and executed and the group renounced violence. But every such movement has its splinter groups, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s disagreed with this renunciation of violence.

Sayyid Qutb, the most famous Muslim Brotherhood member, went to the US in 1948 to study in Greeley, Colorado, where he was so disgusted by the decadence and repulsed by the lives of Americans that he became a radical. Returning to Egypt, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood and was imprisoned. While in prison he wrote a 30-volume commentary on the Koran, later condensed to a short manifesto called Milestones Along the Way, in which he reiterates that the main enemy is liberalism. Liberalism and democracy, he argued, are a direct challenge to Islam as a way of life and the belief that God should be the only law-giver. Qutb was among those executed in 1966, but his brother Muhammad Qutb fled to Saudi Arabia and became a teacher; among his pupils was bin Laden.

Let’s look briefly at some of the jihadist groups that evolved from these concepts. Notice how these groups evolve over time. They begin by attacking soldiers, government officials, and when that doesn’t achieve any results, they find justification to begin killing men, women, and children.

Al-Jihad was one of these [Egyptian] splinter groups that didn’t agree with the Muslim Brotherhood’s renunciation of violence. They killed Anwar Sadat in 1981, and nothing changed. Who next - what about the tourists, who, they reasoned, were supporting the apostate ruler? So al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and Jihad Talaat al-Fath carried out a spectacular attack in Luxor in 1997, after which ten thousand members were rounded up and imprisoned. But seven years later they renounce violence, are let out of prison, and splinter groups immediately carried out attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh and the Sinai. One part of Gama’a al-Islamiyya argued that killing tourists doesn’t work, however, and they need to wipe out the real support for the Egyptian government: the US. This explains the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

Al-Qaeda really began with this notion of the US as occupiers. After all, the US had left Beirut, Aden, and Somalia. They thought that jihadis everywhere and the Islamic community would join them, and with an energised community, nobody would be able to stand in their way. But none of those things transpired. It took them about two years to adjust to that and try to devise another plan, which was to recreate Afghanistan in northern Pakistan and start over. They’ve now recreated their Islamic state in northern Pakistan, where they have 22 camps at last count. They’re turning out jihadis just like they did during the 1990s, and they’ve gotten a peace treaty signed with the Musharraf Government, the likely duration of which may be measurable in months. Destroying this new Islamic proto-state will be a problem, since no one wants to invade the difficult terrain of ungoverned northern Pakistan. Al-Qaeda has been trying to take over chaotic places like Somalia, Darfur, and Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, and this is a very frightening proposition.

There is one ray of hope. Atlanta writer Lee Harris has written about what he calls fantasy ideologies, such as Nazism, fascism, and communism. These are ideas and even states in some cases that are based on fantasies. When people try to put these fantasies into action, to create states based on them, those states may last for a while, but eventually they will collapse under their own contradictions, or when they are challenged. They’re based on a false reading of human nature, of how the world works. The Taliban state could only survive as long as nobody took it on. So while in the short term I’m pessimistic about some of these issues, in the very long term I’m very optimistic about our chances for victory.


Mary Habeck is associate professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Her most recent book is Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (Yale University Press, 2006). © Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. The above is based on a talk given at FPRI on Oct. 30, 2006.