As the controversy over General's McChrystal's report and future US strategy in Afghanistan continues, many in the counterterrorism (CT) community remain unconvinced that as a nation we adequately understand the nature of the fight we are in and who exactly is the enemy. Over the last eight years as the Global War on Terror transformed into the Long War (and now may be changing yet again to become a "Global Counterinsurgency"), we have been introduced to many versions of the enemy. The official list of foes has included not only al Qaeda and its associated movements, but all terrorist groups of global reach as well as state-sponsors of terrorism and even ungoverned spaces. The new administration has also added violent extremism to the list of enemies we face.

More clarity will be provided, we hope, by the new US National Security Strategy that the White House is expected to release before the end of this year. Even then it seems unlikely that we shall have satisfactorily addressed one of the most important aspects of this conflict: ideology. Although some in our CT community may still be caught in last year's debate between Drs. Hoffman and Sageman over whether al "Qaeda Central"' is still the seminal threat to the US or whether we are now in an age of "Leaderless Jihad," one fact remains in either scenario: our enemy has a globally attractive message built upon a cogent ideology. Whatever strategy is penned by the new administration for Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other theater, we must better understand the enemy's global ideology if we are to defeat it.

The foundation of this totalitarian ideology is the concept of "jihad by the sword." But this concept has been repeatedly reinterpreted and redefined since the days of the Prophet Muhammad. Over centuries, jihad by the sword has been used by leaders and ideologues to rally their co-religionists in the pursuit of a political objective. However, the leading ulema [religious scholars] and political elite of the Muslim community today are less than unambiguous regarding the meaning of the word jihad. The concept is often used in different ways to please disparate audiences. We who are fighting the violent jihadists must therefore make an effort to see beyond the misrepresentations, since bin Laden has successfully reinterpreted this concept through the actions of al Qaeda. Therefore, to properly understand the historic significance of al Qaeda, one must understand the contextual evolution of the concept of jihad and the great success bin Laden has had in redefining it for the current conflict.

In brief: since the days of Muhammad, jihad by the sword has been shaped in seven stages which occurred in the following order: empire building, the suppression of apostate subjects, the revolution against "false" Muslim leaders, the anti-colonial struggle and "purification" of Islam, countering Western influence and jahiliyya [unbelief], guerrilla warfare against secular invaders, and finally targeting civilians in what is recognized as terrorism (see table). This article will explain each contextual interpretation and the significance of today's jihad, a war against the West employing terrorism.

Religious vs. Political Definitions of Jihad

The post-9/11 debate on the meaning of jihad has often foundered on the superficial understanding of the word as referring simply to either "striving" or (holy) war. Jihad literally means to struggle in the path of Allah, to destroy evil and make his truth supreme on earth. The second question is, of course, what the word "struggle" refers to and how Allah's "truth" is realized. These questions can be answered by understanding the definition of jihad, agreed upon by Islamic theologians and jurists, as well as the subsequent, historically-shaped political conceptualizations of jihad -- especially the last, provided by bin Laden.

Jihad must be understood in the first instance to consist of four varieties of human activity: the jihad of the heart, the so-called "greater jihad" of fighting evil within oneself, the jihad of the mind and the jihad tongue. Then there are the condoning of right behavior in others, and counseling those that have gone astray. Finally, there is jihad of the sword. This is the version that is most relevant to us today and which is contingent upon historical context for its actual content.

Seven Swords

Each contextualization of jihad of the sword has been dictated by the need to have jihad fill a very real, specific and political need for Muslims in a given age and facing a specific threat. When the Prophet Muhammad was building a completely new state, he used the concept of jihad to justify the expansion of Islam. The Khoran does not use the term jihad to refer directly to empire-building in the military sense, sura 25 verse 52 stipulates, "obey not the disbelievers, but strive against them with the utmost endeavor." Understood, as this verse must be in the context of Muhammed's return to from Medina, and the ensuring conflict with the Meccans that is reflected in the latter half of an earlier sura, (22 v.39-), it is clear that striving is in this instance connected to military combat post hijra [migration], as Muhammad returned to Mecca and enforced his new writ. This constitutes the first offensive use of the concept, striving as going beyond internal struggle and referring to the conflict to establish order amongst the Arab tribes around Mecca, where necessary by force.

After Muhammed's death, as his successor, Abu Bakr, faced recalcitrant tribes on the Arabian Peninsula that were threatening the order Muhammad had previously established, the second meaning of jihad was born: riddah, or the war against apostasy, against one's own subjects (against what the Western world would call rebels).

The third contextual definition of jihad would only come centuries later after the eclipse of the Abbasid Caliphates, starting in the second half of the 13th century.

It is this reworking of the meaning of holy war, most significantly by Ibn Taymiyya, that has greatest consequence for us today. The motivation behind this redefinition was the need to provide Muslims with the right to revolt against their own leaders, specifically the Mongols. Islam had previously prohibited revolution against Muslim rulers. Ibn Taymiyya's importance is a result of his removal of this prohibition, his statement that jihad is permissible against one's own leaders if they do not live as true Muslims and if their rule does not conform to the requirements of Sharia. "And it is known by necessity from the deen [ruling authority] of the Muslims, and the agreement of all the Muslims, that whoever permits the following of a deen other than Islam or following a Sharia other than the Sharia of Muhammad then he is a kafir [unbeliever], and it is like the kufr [blasphemy] of one who believes in part of the Book and disbelieves in part of the Book."i

As Taymiyyah was writing, Mongol, Turkic and Tartar power was coalescing and he was very specific about the threat to "pure" Islam and how Muslims must respond: "Fighting the Tartars, those who came to the land of Shaam is wajib [religious duty] according to the Book and the Sunnah, for indeed Allah said in the Khoran: 'And fight them until fitnah [schism/ blasphemous upheaval] is no more, and the deen becomes all for Allah."ii Therefore, in the Middle Ages, jihad became legitimate revolution based upon a new mechanism by which the people could deem their leaders un-Islamic.

The fourth political reconceptualization of jihad came four centuries later, starting in the early 1700s. As the European powers pushed militarily and politically into North Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, the threat to Islamic societies was double-edged. Empires such as the British had to be physically resisted. At the same time, the West's cultural influence upon the purity of the Islamic faith was growing and had to be countered. During this period jihad would be re-defined as anti-colonial resistance. This new interpretation of jihad was typified by the pronouncements of Mohhamed ibn Abd al Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabi Islam. Its practical and military consequences were amply demonstrated during the decade-long resistance to the 1830 French invasion of Algeria led by Abd al Qadir, and also by the Sudanese resistance to the British led by the self-proclaimed Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmad. The second, non-military, element of this redefinition of jihad -- what Noor Mohammad has described as Islam's internal "housecleaning" -- was represented by Shah Waliullah's call to spiritual revival and the purification of India's Muslims under British control.iii

This definition of jihad would lead directly to the next interpretation, one that relies heavily on the principles laid down hundreds of years prior by Ibn Taymiyya, including the doctrine of takfir, or excommunication. This fifth version of jihad was fathered and later developed by Abul ala Maududi in India (then later Pakistan) and Sayyed Q'utb in Egypt. This time the threat was embodied by the post-WWII Arab leaders of the Middle East and the influence of Western "soft power," which together equaled a new jahiliyya, or age of polytheism and ignorance. Apostate leaders were to be resisted once more (and removed if possible), Islam purified and Sharia re-imposed.

Jihad the International Brand

With the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979, jihad would no longer be limited to resistance against the cultural and political influence of the secular West or un-Islamic Arab rulers. Although it is true that within Afghanistan, among the Afghans, the motivation to resist Soviet domination did not have to be couched in terms of theology but simply in terms of survival and sovereignty, to the Arab mujahidin recruited by the Palestinian Abdullah Azzam, jihad was a crucial concept, a brand Azzam assiduously built in his travels around the world. Most importantly, Azzam built his jihadi brand in a way that negated earlier requirements for holy war to be declared by a legitimate authority: he redefined military resistance to be an individual duty. In his introduction to "Defense of Muslim Lands" he plainly states that "…if a mpiece of Muslim land the size of a hand-span is infringed upon, then Jihad becomes fard ayn [a global obligation] on every Muslim male and female, where the child shall march forward without the permission of its parents and the wife without the permission of the husband." Azzam invoked Ibn Taymiyyah by name in order to justify his version of self-declared jihad, then warned his audiences of the price they would pay if they did not follow the path of military resistance. Quoting from sura 9 verse 39 of the Khoran: "If you march not forth, He will punish you with a painful torment and will replace you with another people, and you cannot harm Him at all, and Allah is able to do all things."iv

By the late 1980s, this rebranding of Muslim holy war, of jihad in a new political and geostrategic context, was so successful that even in the West jihad would become synonymous with guerrilla resistance to communist invasion and dictatorship.

Only after the eventual defeat of the Soviets, the end of the Cold War and the outbreak of the first Gulf War, would the seventh and most important redefining of jihad of the sword be born. With Azzam's death in 1989, his organization of Arab guerrillas, the Mujahidin Service Bureau (MAK), was taken over by his deputy Osama bin Ladin. Rejected before the first Gulf War by his own government after he had offered to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq with his Arab fighters, bin Laden would change the mission and name of his organization. The "godless" Russians had been defeated, the bipolar world order replaced by the hegemony of a victorious United States -- a United States which had been invited to bring its troops and its influence into the Arabian Peninsula to defend Saudi Arabia from Iraq. Guerrilla warfare within Saudi Arabia against the apostate House of Saud and against U.S. targets was impractical, if not impossible.

Several influential figures who had followed the Egyptian ideologue Hassan al-Banna, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, had, after the severe crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, joined the Azzam's MAK. There bin Laden's Wahhabi understanding of jihad would be suffused with the ideology of the Q'utbists. What eventually resulted was al Qaeda and a new indirect approach to military 'striving.' Subsequently, the meaning of jihad was expanded for the seventh time since the Muhammad built his empire in the 7th century.

The fight would be focused less and less on irregular warfare in nations where Muslims were suffering, and more and more on the "far enemy." With the Khobar Towers attack, the East Africa bombings, the USS Cole attack and then finally 9/11, bin Laden successfully made jihad mean the willful targeting, by a non-state actor, of civilians through unconventional means.

The seventh political definition of jihad is, therefore, terrorism.

It is crucial for analysts and strategic planners to fully understand this evolution of the concept of jihad over time. It is dangerous to persist in seeing jihad solely as a religious concept referring to the striving of the individual to be pure, if only because all the 199 references to jihad in the most common collection of hadith (Sahih al-Bukhari) refer to warfare. It is clear that the meaning of violent jihad has been shaped during the centuries to fit the needs of those espousing holy war and calling their co-religionists to the battlefield.

Osama bin Ladin's great historical significance is that he managed to turn jihad from referring to the guerrilla resistance to Soviet military oppression of the 1980s to mean the killing of mass numbers of civilians on the soil of non-Muslim lands. The success of this rebranding is impressive. Unless we understand how this was achieved, it will not be possible to significantly degrade al Qaeda's ideology.

Sebastian L. v. Gorka PhD is founding director of the Institute for Transitional Democracy and International Security and associate fellow of the Joint Special Operations University. An internationally recognized expert on matters of national security and democratic transition, he advises and briefs at the highest levels to US Special Operations Command and NATO. His column: On Defending Democracy, with the Hudson Institute New York, focuses on stories and issues that the mainstream media do not cover. (For a shorter version of this article see vol. 2 issue 9 of the West Point Combating Terrorism Center's journal Sentinel.) The author welcomes comments at

i Ibn Taiymiyyah, Rulings of Fighting the Mongols, fatawa, 28/524

ii Ibid. See also Ibn Taimiyah, Al-Shaykh al-Imam: Al-Siyasah al-Shariyah fi Islah al Raiwa Rajyah, Ed. Al Banna & Ashur, Dar alshab, 1976, Cairo.

iii Noor Mohammad: The Doctrine of Jihad: An Introduction, Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 3, No. 2 , 1985, pg.396.

iv Otherwise known as part of the Sura at Taubah


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