Review: “De-Legitimizing al-Qaeda”

by Jeffry R. Halverson

De-Legitimizing al-Qaeda: A Jihad-Realist ApproachThe Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) has released a short monograph, De-Legitimizing al-Qaeda: A Jihad-Realist Approach, by sociologist Paul Kamolnick, a professor at Eastern Tennessee State University. Kamolnick criticizes current US efforts to counter al-Qaeda’s messaging and recruitment strategies as ineffective, and proposes an alternative two-fold solution to marginalize and defeat al-Qaeda. However, Kamolnick’s proposed strategy is problematic for several reasons.

In the first component of his proposed strategy, Kamolnick suggests that since Islam (specifically Sunni Islam) is a religion of orthopraxy and law, American policy makers and strategists should determine how Islamic jurispru­dence, specifically discourses on jihad, “may be leveraged for, and not against, vital U.S. national security interests.” It is unclear what exactly this “leveraging” entails. But he does warn that the US government must do so in secret (deferring “open association” until a later time) so as not to taint the legitimacy of potentially helpful sharia scholars and their formulations.

These formulations should ideally come from “credentialed actors of immense statue and learning.” And these jurists would reaffirm how Islam and the sacred texts prohibit things such as killing non-combatants indiscriminately. He is particularly interested in what he calls “jihadi-realist” scholars, meaning militant Islamists (such as Sayyid Imam, aka Dr. Fadl) who have rejected terrorism as a strategy to bring about change. By “leveraging” this sort of work (how remains unclear) for “vital U.S. national security interests” the US can create a narrative (my wording, not his) that portrays the US as a country “on the side of the lawful and just” against those who violate sharia (i.e., al-Qaeda).

The truth is that there is no shortage of Muslim scholars, jurists, preachers, activists, and so on, who have condemned terrorism and al-Qaeda’s violent strategies – despite the bizarre yet common refrain in America that no one in the Muslim community has done so. The traditional rules of warfare in Islam, such as prohibitions against killing civilians or women and children, are also already commonly known among Muslims. Therefore, I’m not sure how having the US secretly “leverage” these condemnations will harm al-Qaeda. When it comes to fatwas (Islamic juridical rulings) it only takes one to justify a practice or behavior. And there have been plenty of bizarre and isolated fatwas out there justifying abhorrent behavior.

It must also be said that while sharia is important to Sunni Muslims, especially Salafi and other über devout people, Kalmonick’s emphasis on the resounding mass influence of sharia on the decisions people make, especially the youth, seems exaggerated. At the end of the day, someone bent on committing an act of violence won’t stop because someone gave a ruling that it was a sinful or bad idea. Aspiring perpetrators will either find a ruling to support them, make their own ruling, or dispense with a juridical ruling altogether and act anyway. They could even invoke a dream where the Prophet Muhammad told them to act – which is not as far fetched as it sounds.

Another issue on the topic of sharia and fatwas is that even seemingly clear-cut issues can be stretched, twisted, and overturned by using a range of well-established juridical principles. That’s why most everyone knows that killing civilians is forbidden, but al-Qaeda still manages to win some people over. For example, it is a well-established belief in Islam that suicide is forbidden. Suicide is a grave sin.

There are numerous hadiths that describe the truly horrific punishments that someone will receive in Hell if they commit suicide. We can also find countless rulings by Muslim jurists that prohibit suicide. These positions are well-known. So why do we have some Muslims committing suicide by strapping bombs to their bodies or crashing airliners into buildings for al-Qaeda? It could suggest that religio-legal justifications aren’t that important when it comes to people seeking vengeance or justice for outstanding sociopolitical grievances.

But more to the point, extremists also utilize concepts like niyya (intention), darura (necessity), and reciprocity, among others, to neutralize these prohibitions against suicide or whatever else goes against their preferred strategy or plan of action. For example, al-Qaeda might claim that a terrorist who blew himself up at a military outpost in Iraq did not commit suicide because his intention was to attack and inflict harm on the enemy. After all, the Prophet once said: “All actions are judged by intentions.”

For al-Qaeda, it only counts as suicide if the person was lost in despair and their intention was to end their life. That was not the intention though, it is argued, and thus the prohibition is nullified. Instead, the terrorist is a celebrated battlefield martyr. The core of the matter is that sharia is always the product of interpretive agents; meaning people devise the divine rules according to their own subjective human interests and goals. So I wouldn’t invest too much in the restrictive powers of Islamic law as a counter-terrorism strategy.

The second part of Kalmonick’s strategy is a radical shift in US foreign policy and military policy in order to fundamentally alter perceptions of US intentions in the Muslim world. No specifics are given. “No amount of spin or messaging matters,” he writes, “when daily life and its common-sense interpretation contradict official pretensions and pronouncements.” I can agree with this statement, but then again he doesn’t provide any specifics. And let’s get real. Given the various special-interest groups and ideological trends currently entrenched in the US political system, this part of Kamolnick’s strategy is probably even less plausible than his problematic covert sharia ideas.

Major changes in US foreign and military policies might help alleviate some of the serious grievances among Muslims that al-Qaeda invokes in its messaging against the US. And I think most scholars would agree with that. But Kamolnick does not specifically discuss what changes should be made – maybe a compelling US push to establish a two-state solution along the 1967 borders to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Nor does Kamolnick address how the memories of past events still influence the present. For example, ending the Crusades centuries ago hasn’t stopped it from being invoked (as a narrative system) at every opportunity.

Regardless, it is extremely unlikely that the US government will ever make major changes to address Muslim grievances, such as the annexation of East Jerusalem or Russian control of Chechnya. More importantly though, the intention or meaning behind any changes to US foreign policy are still entirely subject to interpretation, despite US intentions or what Kamolnick calls “common-sense interpretation.” Those interpretations, typically conveyed as narratives, can vary widely among different audiences.

For example, if the US withdraws from a country (e.g. Iraq) under the pretense that the mission was accomplished and it has no interest in occupying the country, al-Qaeda disseminates a narrative that the US withdrawal was a “retreat” and a victory for the mujahideen over the “Crusaders.” This is the business of narrative, and human beings, regardless of religion, love and live by their stories. And do not think for a second that “leveraging” condemnations of al-Qaeda by some credentialed Muslim jurists or “jihadi-realists” won’t fall victim to al-Qaeda’s narratives either. Sayyid Imam, aka Dr. Fadl, was dismissed by Zawahiri and other extremists as a sell-out and someone who gave into torture in prison. Extremists discredit and condemn Muslim scholars and jurists who oppose them as hypocrites, apostates, heretics, Zionist agents, even as the “magicians of the Pharaoh,” every day. And this sort of rhetoric existed long before al-Qaeda ever took shape in Afghanistan.

In the final evaluation, I did not find anything that is particularly new or plausible in Professor Kamolnick’s approach to dealing with al-Qaeda’s messaging and recruitment strategies. In fact, I fear that his dismissal of the importance of narrative and counter-narrative strategies would set the US back in this ongoing struggle and make his own strategy suggestions all the more untenable.

Update: Note to readers, you can read Professor Kamolnick’s response to my review and critique of the monograph in the comments section.

6 Responses to “Review: “De-Legitimizing al-Qaeda””

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  1. Cameron says:

    Spot on.. great piece, Jeff.

  2. Paul Kamolnick says:

    5 June 2012

    As the author of the monograph reviewed, I’d like to clarify what I believe I did, and did not accomplish, in its writing.
    1. I’d like to begin with one paragraph from the ‘Summary’ that captures the gist of my suggested shift in approach:
    “Approaches to counter-radicalization that rely on so-called ‘counterideological’ or ‘counternarrative’ approaches miss their mark: they presume ending al-Qaeda’s reign of terror requires that Islam as a religious faith delegitimize core Islamic and Islamist tenets, including key planks anchoring religious faith. They also fail to acknowledge and engage the breadth and depth of nonreligiously-motivated opposition to existing U.S. foreign and military policy, especially in the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Finally, and most specifically, counternarrative approaches unnecessarily burden this strategic objective by casting a net far too wide and capturing in it a vast Islamic, Islamist, and salafist universe whose adherents are overwhelmingly morally repelled by al-Qaeda’s terroristic methods”.
    2. Some related points:
    A. Your position on the potential value of the sharia as a means of unraveling AQ is not one I share. You state: “The core of the matter is that sharia is always the product of interpretive agents; meaning people devise the divine rules according to their own subjective human interests and goals. So I wouldn’t invesst too much in the restrictive powers of Islamic law as a counter-terrorism strategy.”
    In constrast, I believe that ‘leveraging’ recent ‘jihad realist’ shariatic criticisms of AQ mass casualty terrorism is a grave threat to AQ. A careful reading of the recently disclosed Abbottobad letters, particulary the vehement concerns registered by Attiyatullah and Gadahn over grave sharia violations, is consistent with this. You state that it “is unclear what exactly this ‘leveraging’ entails, but on pp. 4-19, in the Summary and Conclusions, and throughout the Endnotes, I refer specifically and repeatedly to several specific legal violations that go well beyond those you do cite, and this certainly is part of what is meant by ‘leveraging’.
    B. I did not call for a leveraging of Islamic prohibitions against suicide since virtually none of the ‘jihad realist’ authors I cite, nor the vast majority of militants, seem to concern themselves with this. The question of martyr vs. self-murderer while important is neglected in favor of those rulings that appear to me to most obviously undercut AQ mass casualty terrorist attacks.
    C. You are right that I do not ‘name names’ when it comes to the details of the specific foreign and military policy changes I believe would make the US a far more credible actor in the Muslim world. Thankfully, in fact, SSI grants the academic freedom required, however, to be fairly clearly about the general terms I suggest (see esp. pp. 24, and esp. Endnote 72, (which runs five full pages at single-spaced 8 point font [pp. 59-64]). Whether the US is open to such changes is certainly important, but the causal question–‘Why 9/11?’–is the most fundamental of all.
    D. I agree that the ‘high value recruits’ targetted in this monograph–i.e. those for whom religious legitimacy is a sin qua none for militant activity–is a restricted group, but I explictly state that intention repeatedly: “among whom adherents for whom shari’a compliance is an essential requirement” (p. viii); “particularly in the eyes of those deeply religiously-motivated potential recruits for whom religious law is a sine qua non for participation” (p. 6). I also make reference to matters of prudence, and not prudence that “may ultimately prove more persuasive to otential recruits unmoved by strict compliance to with scholastically encumbered jurisprudential disputes, who seek concrete results manifest in tangible evidence of Muslim empowerment, well being, and the expansion of the Islamic call” (p. 10).
    D. I specifically restrict the monograph to the task of contributing to the tactical implosion of AQ–as one means of ending terrorist organizations–and offer as means the use of the Islamic law of military jihad and a saner, wiser US foreign policy. I beleive potential readers are well-advised to consider the original monograph, as well as this review and my commentary on the review, to formulate their own judgments. As written, in my opinion, the review does not do justice to either the crux, or nuance, of the position I argue.

    Paul Kamolnick, Ph.D., Professor
    East Tennessee State University

  3. halverson says:

    Dear Paul,

    Thanks very much for your response. I’ve added a note to the end of the review to encourage visitors to read it.

    I’m still unclear about what “leveraging” the sharia formulations you’ve cited entails. Are you suggesting that US officials quote works of fiqh? That the US govt fund the publication and dissemination of critiques like Dr. Fadl’s? I think your proposed method for leveraging these damning critiques of AQ’s strategies needs further explanation.

    We’ll agree to disagree over the restrictive powers of sharia.


  4. Paul Kamolnick says:

    Here is what I mean by ‘leveraging’ the fiqh of lawful jihad.
    1. The declared policy of the US government is to deter, disrupt, and ultimately defeat the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.
    2. The 9/11 Commission Report stated that three major strategic objectives–decapitation, preventing radicalization and recruitment to AQ, and hardening homeland security–should be the focus of US strategies to defeat AQ. As I state in the monograph, the first and third of those strategic objectives have been notably more successful than the second. The 5 June killing of Abu Yahya al Libi, and earlier killings of Osama bin Laden and AQAP ‘emir’ Awlaki are other notable examples, as well as attriting on a major scale the bench of this terrorist enterprise are examples of the first. The hardening of homeland defense has involved extensive policies designed to prevent catastrophic mass casualty terrorist attacks, including but well beyond civil aviation, and that has been notably successful to date. As I note, it is the second objective–preventing radicalization and recruitment to AQ–where success has been less than stellar.
    3. To accomplish national security objectives, all instruments of national power–Diplomatic; Intelligence; Military; Economic; Financial; Informational; and Legal (DIMEFIL)–are to be synergistically combined and deployed.
    4. By ‘leveraging’ the fiqh of lawful jihad I am suggesting that US diplomacy and Informational operations, primarily, in an effort to dissuade recruitment to AQ, add to their messaging strategies these ‘damning critiques’ being produced among bona fide ‘jihad realist’ militants. This does not involve the US quoting works of fiqh, or publishing and disseminating these original critiques, but drawing on them in order to selectively target those recruits for whom sharia compliance is essential. I grant you that these are a sliver of a potential pool being drawn to AQ for a variety of motives, and therefore my suggestions are certainly insufficient and are merely one arrow in a quiver directed at addressing those motives. However, as I state, jihad is not mass casualty terrorism, and AQs terrorism is extremely vulnerable on fiqh grounds to a variety of charges that amount to grave and unpardonable sins. As I state in the monograph, beyond conceding that the military jihad is in fact a binding religious prescription, ‘[t]hree essential additional premises must also be conceded if an Islamically-rooted case against al-Qaeda’s reign of terror is to be valid, namely first, that there is an absolute legal distinction between ‘legitimate jihad and terrorism; second, that terrorism is ‘haram’ (forbidden); and third, in addition to being forbidden, ‘grave Sharia violations’ have accompanied terrorist methodologies” (p. 6). On page 8 I cite an internet post by a person self-named ‘Mystrugglewithin’ whose quest to justify action on behalf of the umma is sincere, and who is precisely the type of person I target in my monograph.
    5. I state that ‘national security decisionmakers . . develop the motivation, capability, and sophistication to promulgate and execute a carefully calibrated messaging strategy on these bases’ and so the question ‘how precisely’ is one that must be based on effectiveness and greatest liklihood of success. Two specfic tactics come to mind. First, using our own newly-created Diplomatic and Informational assets, e.g. the newly created but rarely discussed US State Dept. unit, Center for Strategic Counterterrorism; the newly-created 3 person unit in the US embassy in Islamabad; to include among their tasks, the careful and calculated use of the results of these fiqh debates in its efforts to engage specific target markets and prevent recruitment to AQ. Second, assisting in whatever way possible the ongoing efforts among fiqh experts and authorities who are engaging these same audiences via internet and other modalities. However, I am adamant that we take full advantage of the most militant internal critics for whom the military jihad is an absolute imperative, since in my opinion, this presents the greatest possible means for blowing wide open the very foundations of AQ’s violent terroristic campaign.
    5. Cronin has stated that terrorist groups end typically as a result of six specific means, and among these failure due to implosion and marginalization, are extremely important. Al Qaeda’s marginalization is well attested, and is the secret of its ultimate demise, but its implosion is also key. I cite Cronin (p. 3) who states that four paths to implosion are typical: failure to attract new generations of membership and leadership; in-fighting and fractionalization; loss of operational control; and offering exit ramps for marginal members seeking to separate. My monograph is intended as a contribution to the first two of these–dissuading membership and leadership, and further busting open fatal fractures. Finally, for the US to openly associate we must also in fact, not just in word, prove our commitment and willingness to work toward more just outcomes, in particular, Israel-Palestine.
    I hope this clarifies a bit what I intend by ‘leveraging’ fiqh.
    Take care,


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