Center for Strategic Communication

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.