(Editor’s note: Team Room, we want to introduce you to this three-part series by Brian Bauer. It’s an interesting discussion and we think you’ll appreciate the subject matter.)
The assertion that religion is part of the global jihad movement is by no means profound. That stated, the fusion is more complex than most politicians or journalists like to acknowledge. If we as Americans hope to develop effective foreign policy solutions, it is important to understand the context in which religion is intertwined with the terrorist movement emanating from the Middle East today.
The simple narrative of “Islam is evil” is counterproductive to the development of effective national strategy, though it seems to resonate well in certain sectors of American society. The religion itself not the enemy, but it is undoubtedly attached to the ideology that is used to justify action and mobilize fighters. At this stage of the conflict, it is all but obvious that our previous attempts to contain this movement have failed. We are likely losing this war as the Islamic State (IS) gains regional momentum. The more territory the ‘Caliphate’ gains, the more legitimate it becomes, even in the eyes of non-violent members of Whabbist and Salafist sects of Sunni Islam.
For the jihad, this establishment was simply the next logical step in the fight and has always been part of the long-term strategy. The strategy is relatively simple: Gains in territory translate proof (in their narrative) that the Islamic State is acting on behalf of Allah. This, in turn, leads to greater recruiting potential. The recent ousting of the Islamic State from Tikrit is an insignificant setback for the movement. What is more significant is their expansion into Libya, Yemen, Nigeria, and elsewhere. Not only are they recruiting new fighters, they are beginning to siphon entire AQ franchises as the movement gains operational capacity and credit.
The Islamic State is now an openly hostile competitor to AQ, though the movements were joined under al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) for strategic convenience by and Osama bin Laden back in 2004. IS represents the Zarqawi brand of jihad, much like AQ represents the bin Laden brand. Though the two terrorist leaders were very similar when it came to religious doctrine, Zarqawi drew harsh criticisms from bin Laden during the height of the Iraq war due to the ruthlessness that he feared was strategically shortsighted.
Now under the command of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Islamic State continues to utilize particularly brutal tactics similar to those fielded by Zarqawi, though now on a much larger scale. Though we have the military might to win any battle, the political complexities and the perpetual nature of the conflict has the potential to bleed our financial and human resources to the point of retreat and defeat. As an additional consequence, our nation is affected by a massive debt that is limiting our ability to wage war and deter the larger nation-state competitors of the U.S.
This is not just a war of bombs and bullets, but also a war of ideas, and it is in this ‘battlefield of the mind’ where the conflict will be won or lost in the long term. The reason we are losing is because we, the public who demand action, do not understand how we got here to begin with. How can we determine a coherent path forward if we don’t understand the problem? How can we elect representatives to forward real solutions when they prey on our sensibilities by regurgitating popular but false narratives in order to gain our electoral support?
Further, our collective demand for quantifiable results shortens the policy time-horizon that our representatives are willing to work on for fear of not gaining our support during reelection. It is a challenge for our society to suspend preconceived notions that are the result of over a decade’s worth of pundit-led rhetorical barrages exacerbated by the sensationalism of America’s commercial media. They, just like the aforementioned politicians, are all vying for patronage.
They, just like the aforementioned politicians, are marketing narratives that they believe will resonate most deeply with constituents and consumers in order gain support and attention. This is no evil conspiracy by politicians and media. This is merely the result of the political and economic incentives of the respective players. Although they mean well (mostly), it is hard to overcome one’s self-interest, which often has the power to even trick the player into rationalizing their own bias and behavior. As voting citizens, we are responsible for the decisions of the leaders we elect.
(Featured image courtesy of historia.ro)