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The Military Strategy of Global Jihad

Authored by Lieutenant Colonel Sarah E. Zabel. | October 2007

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America entered the Global War on Terrorism with little understanding of the enemy it faced. Al-Qaeda plays a leading role in the larger movement of global jihad, a splinter faction of militant Islamism intent on establishing its vision of strict Islamic rule in the Muslim world through armed action. Global jihadis have spent more than 40 years refining their philosophy, gaining experience, building their organization, and developing plans to reestablish what they see as the only true Islamic state on earth. The September 11, 2001 (9/11), attacks set this plan in motion.

In the years leading up to and following the 9/11 attacks, global jihadis have written copiously on their military strategy for creating an Islamic state. This paper draws on those writings to examine and explain the mechanisms by which they plan to neutralize the superpower guardian of world order, claim land and peoples for Islamic emirates out of the resulting chaos, and bring these emirates together to become a true Islamic state. Their writings also expose weaknesses in their strategy, and this paper explores some of those potential vulnerabilities as well.


Though the global jihad strategists write primarily to motivate followers and display their vision, they occasionally refer revealingly to actions their enemy takes that work against their movement. Actions that call into question the internal legitimacy of the movement are deemed particularly effective, and include statements by Islamic religious authorities opposing global jihad, deaths of Muslim civilians caused by jihad, and conflating their movement with those of jihadis that even they consider to be wrongheaded extremists.69 (An example of the last is Algeria?s Armed Islamic Group [GIA] which regarded the Muslim communities that live under the current secular government to be complicit in their rule, and carried out massacres that killed tens of thousands of Muslim civilians.70) Mujahidin targeting of Iraqi Shi?a Muslims repeatedly raises the specter of the deaths of Muslim civilians caused by jihad, prompting an uneasy dialogue within the movement. In a captured letter to former al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu-Mus?ab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri cautioned against the practice as it did not play well to their Muslim audiences.71 Others, like al-Ayiri, consider the Shi?a to be renegades and collaborators with the West and therefore justifiable targets.72 To be effective, any challenge to the movement?s legitimacy with respect to its own rules can only come from within the Islamic community.

American planners can benefit greatly from the global jihadis? strategic writings by viewing U.S. actions and strategy in the light of the jihadis? very different perceptions and philosophy. America?s challenge is great: Though the United States cannot simply absorb strikes crafted to create maximum destruction and refuse to respond, the global jihadis will continue to try to turn any American military response to her disadvantage. While the West cannot afford to neglect the ungoverned regions of the world, the global jihadis will continue to paint U.S. and Western military involvement in the Muslim world as an invasion. The global jihadis make clear that creating instability is a key component of their strategy, and the West must play its role in restoring order and mitigating adverse conditions in regions the jihadis would otherwise try to bring under their sole control. Taliban-style rule should not be the only option offered to the victims of anarchy; instead, promoters of democracy should make sure such people have other alternatives, forcing the jihadist vision to compete within an open marketplace of ideas. Finally, America?s declared policy of promoting democracy73 is problematic as it confronts issues of religion and governance that reach beyond the global jihadis into the much broader Islamist movement. The United States would do better to seek common ground with Islam by emphasizing the core beliefs behind its democratic philosophy: representative government that responds to the people and protects human rights and dignity. The United States must also remember that democracy is no panacea; the phenomenon of increasing radicalization of British Muslim youths shows that even the opportunities offered by life in a modern democratic nation may be insufficient to defeat the idea of jihad.74

Global jihadis? strategic writings show how they have translated their philosophies and experiences into plans for action; plans they continue to prosecute to this day. To understand and counter their strategy, the United States must take advantage of the insights their writings provide into their ideology, their formative experiences, and their goals.


69. Ibid., pp. 669-670.

70. Council on Foreign Relations, ?Armed Islamic Group, Algeria, Islamists,? available from www.cfr. org/publication/9154/,Internet, accessed March 7, 2007.

71. See Ayman al-Zawahiri?s letter to Abu-Mus?ab al-Zarqawi, linked from Combating Terrorism Center Harmony Investigation Web Page at ?Zawahiri?s Letter to Zarqawi,? available from www.ctc.usma. edu/harmony/CTC-Zawahiri-Letter-10-05.pdf,Internet, accessed October 12, 2006.

72. Open Source Center, ?Future of Iraq, Arabian Peninsula after the Fall of Baghdad.?

73. George W. Bush, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, Washington, DC: The White House, 2006, pp. 9-11.

74. See Munira Mirza, Abi Senthilkumaran, and Zein Ja?far, Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the Paradox of Multiculturalism, London: Policy Exchange, 2007, pp. 11-14, available from www. policyexchange.org.uk/images/libimages/246.pdf,Internet, accessed March 9, 2007.