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A Hundred Osamas: Islamist Threats and the Future of Counterinsurgency

Authored by Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur. | January 2006

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If America?s pursuit of a Global War on Terror is strategically and politically well-grounded, then why are Islamist insurgencies and extremist movements continuing to operate, generating parallel cells that terrify the world with violent attacks from Iraq to London? While analysts debate the intensity and longevity of the latest round of terrorist attacks,1 we would do well to consider whether U.S. long-term goals in the war on terror?namely diminishing their presence and denying terrorists the ability to operate, while also altering conditions that terrorists exploit?are being met. If we are not pursuing the proper strategy or its implementation is not decreasing support for terrorists, then we should adapt accordingly. This monograph addresses these questions and examines the efficacy of proposed or operative strategies in light of the evolution of Islamist jihadist leaders, ideas, and foot-soldiers. Jihadist strategy has emerged in a polymorphous pattern over the last 30 years, but many Americans only became aware of the intensity of this problem post-September 11, 2001 (9/11), and through observation of the 2003- 05 insurgency in Iraq.

The author proposes that extremist (jihadist) Islamist groups are not identical to any other terrorist group. Islamist discourse, and extremist discourse within it, must be clearly understood. Given the fiscal challenges of the Global War on Terror, the fact that its coordination may be at odds with great power competition,2 and certainly contests the interests of other smaller states (like Iran), why are we aiming at eradication, rather than containment, and is eradication possible? Differentiating a ?true Islam? from the false and destructive aims of such groups is an important response. Each region-based administration has so crafted its anti-terrorist rhetoric, and Muslims, in general, are not willing to view their religion as a destructive, anachronistic entity, so this unfortunately difficult task of ideological differentiation is an acceptable theme. But it is in- sufficient as a strategy because Islamist insurgencies have arisen in the context of a much broader, polychromatic religious and political ?Islamic awakening? that shows no signs of receding. That broader movement informs Muslim sentiment today from Indonesia to Mauritania, and Nigeria to London. Official statements will not diminish recruitment; deeds, not words, are needed. Finally, eradication may be impossible, but containment is philosophically unattractive. A combination of eradication (denial) and co-optation, as we have seen in the Muslim world thus far, probably makes sense. Certain assumptions that underlie U.S. strategies of denying and diminishing the terrorism of Islamist extremists therefore need to be reconsidered.

Among the recommendations made in this monograph are:

  1. Revise strategies that too narrowly or too broadly define extremist networks and their operational modes.
  2. Acknowledge the evolution and change of Islamist extremist leadership and develop strategies to contain it. Utilize those who know the extremist bases of operations well and speak the appropriate languages instead of relegating this enormously difficult task to those who have no deep understanding of the area, ideological issues, or delicacy of the issues.
  3. Focus on antiterrorist as well as counterterrorist principles.
  4. Understand and respond to the increasing sophistication of Islamist tactical and strategic efforts.
  5. Carefully consider the impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and in other areas of the Muslim world on the stated aims of the Global War on Terror.
  6. Continue working with local governments in their counterterrorist and counterinsurgency efforts.
  7. Establish centers for international counterterrorist operations to specifically address Islamist extremists (rather than all global forms of terrorism).
  8. Avoid the use of physical and psychological torture and extralegal measures.
  9. Encourage local governments to normalize relations with Islamist groups, and utilize dialogue programs or amnesty efforts in order to return supporters of jihad to society.
  10. Recognize the potential of moderate Islamist groups and actors to participate in political processes. This does not mean that moderate or ?progressive? Islamists as defined in urban American settings can serve as mediators or spokespersons for counterparts in the region.
  11. Extra-governmental diplomacy should be used to achieve mutual understanding on the relevant issues or obstacles to a more ?global? pursuit of the Global War on Terror.
  12. Establish a multi-country, full media (Web, television, radio, and print) program to discuss and debate Islamist and other forms of religious extremism.
  13. Stay the course in promoting democratization of the Middle East and the Muslim world.
  14. Provide advanced training to military, intelligence, and political leaders on the history, evolution, and tactics of Islamist extremists.


1.Dexter Filkins and David Cloud argue that insurgents in Iraq are stronger, more sophisticated, and being quickly replaced. See ?Defying U.S. Efforts, Guerrillas in Iraq Refocus and Strengthen,? New York Times, July 24, 2005. On the other hand, George Friedman claims that al-Qaeda?s global counteroffensive is a weak last-ditch effort. See ?Al Qaeda?s Global Campaign: Tet Offensive or Battle of the Bulge? Stratfor, July 26, 2005, at http://www.strafor.biz/Story. Nora Bensahel of RAND explains that charting short-term trends in insurgent violence can be very misleading, hence we should measure progress against them with different yardsticks. See Commentary, ?Gauging Counterinsurgency,? Baltimore Sun, August 9, 2005, at http//www.rand.org/commentary.

2.Stephen D. Biddle, American Grand Strategy After 9/11: An Assessment, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, April 2005, pp. 16-21. What is of interest to me are Biddle?s astute perceptions about the nature of international competition and the costs of a transformational policy like the Global War on Terrorism. In the next section of the monograph, Biddle suggests that only radical political reform will address terrorism in the Middle East, but I do not see the end of terrorism as the only possible, or most likely, result of such reform, nor has such reform really begun. Rather, states and elites are resisting these processes, and the Iraqi and Afghani cases illustrate the difficulties of simultaneously building states, reforming preexisting structures and behaviors, and fighting extremism and terrorism. Lack of space prohibits a full exploration of these issues in this monograph.