The Politics of Barbarism

by Ahmed Humayun

ScreenHunter_962 Jan. 26 10.27Is there a method to the madness of Islamist extremism? Yes, if a voluminous literature produced by militants in Arabic and other languages is to be believed. One example of the genre is the militant manual, the Management of Savagery, a text highly influential among Islamist radicals, and translated from Arabic into English by the combating terrorism center at West Point. It is a curious amalgamation of geopolitical analysis, religious propaganda, social psychology, and military tactics. The work has some literary pretensions but it is of uneven quality and gives the impression of being pasted together from disparate sources.

Yet it also outlines a clear, coherent worldview, a theory of geopolitical change, and, when it is not recycling superficial clichés about Western decadence, offers penetrating insight into how terrorist tactics can succeed, even when they appear to fail. It is a call to action that outlines a series of concrete, often diabolically clever steps that have been followed by a wide range of militant groups. There is a striking parallel between the prescriptions in the text and the actions of ISIS, the militant group that now controls a vast chunk of territory in the Arab heartland.

The fall of the Ottoman Caliphate, and the partition of the Middle East by European powers has long been a preoccupation of radicals in their diagnosis of the ills plaguing Arab societies. The text takes the same stance, rejecting not just the current governments that prevail in the Middle East, but the global order as a whole. It sees a world in which major powers in the center – the United States, above all – ally with tyrannies in the periphery, imposing through them a foreign, 'apostate' order in Muslim majority societies.

This historical moment is not unprecedented, it is argued. After the breakdown of political order such as that occurred in the early 20th century there is always a period of transition before a new settled order comes into being. Such a transitional state prevails in the Muslim world today. Militant groups should therefore seek to 'vex' and 'exhaust' the enemy- the regimes ruling their societies, or their Western allies. This will catalyze the breakout of chaos – the weakening of political authority across the land, creating opportunities for militants to 'manage the savagery' successfully, so that the ultimate goal, an Islamic state, may be realized.

The management of savagery is therefore the intermediate step. The use of brutal violence is to terrify enemies, mobilize support, and build organizations. Yet violence is far from the only goal. Militants need to establish control and maintain administration, in order to meet common needs such as food, medicine, security, and justice. There are strong exhortations to acquire expertise in administration, including a specific recommendation to purchase books on management theory. The text is rife with platitudes that would not be out of place in a business school seminar or management consulting workshop.

Management analysis of Western power is central to its prescription of spectacular terror. It sees Western strength as resting on the basis of military ability, social cohesion, and what is called a 'deceptive media halo.' This last factor is deemed especially critical. Despite their power, 'countries of the center' cannot completely impose their will on the periphery without a 'deceptive media halo which portrays these powers as non-coercive and world encompassing' and relies on 'slogans' like freedom and justice. In other words, the success of the West in spreading its ideology, in making it's ascendance seem natural and inevitable, is central to its overall power.

Yet, when the West begins to believe the illusion about its invincibility, that is the beginning of the end. Management quotes Paul Kennedy's argument from the rise and fall of great powers about the danger of strategic extension and overreach. This overreach exacerbates other vulnerabilities such as economic inequality, moral decadence, and social injustice.

The task of the militant movement, therefore, is to accelerate the downfall of the West and it's allied regimes through vexation and exhaustion terrorist attacks – a sort of death by a thousand cuts strategy that forces the dispersion of effort and expenditure of resources. In addition to the damage these operations inflict, they weaken the 'aura of invincibility' that is central to Western power.

Most importantly, a key goal of the attacks is to compel the United States to directly attack the Muslim world, rather than rule through proxies. Direct invasions of Muslim majority societies will polarize society, forcing the 'heedless' masses to abandon pretexts for avoiding their religious obligation. Several analyses of Islamist militant literature have consistently pointed to the same basic strategy.

Attacks like September 11 play a vital role:

'as a consequence [of attacks like September 11], America will either seek revenge and the conflict will intensify or it will launch a limited war. In the case of the latter it's grudge will not be satisfied and it will not succeed in curbing this escalating expansion…America will begin to confront the formation of this expansion into tens of thousands of groups (like those of) September, which will turn their strikes against it and America will not find a state as an entity from which it can take its revenge, and the remaining (states) are it's clients.'

Even when they do not rise to the level of carnage inflicted on September 11, spectacular, attention grabbing, media covered acts of terror are critical for militants. As Management argues, spectacular attacks create images of weakness and foster demoralization and fear in the ranks. They attract attention from the global media, and advertise militant strength. And there is a sort of demonstration effect for the benefit of recruits, as every attack encourages emulation.


The text is laced with references to religious texts- Quranic verses, stories from early Islamic history, and the purported sayings of the prophet Muhammad. In general, the purpose of these citations is to seek prior precedent for waging war in general, and for some tactics in particular. The interpretive strategy is polemical rather than scholarly and involves strip mining texts rather than considering the entirety of the tradition as a whole. Thus, while verses, anecdotes and juridical interpretations that sanction violence are emphasized, those that take an opposite view, or which impose constraints or qualifications are not accounted for. Yet the propaganda advantage of alleging precedent from Islam's early years and judgments in classical juridical works is obvious.

Since September 11, there has been much debate about whether Islamist extremists are practicing real Islam. This debate misses the point. Clearly, many militants believe they are practicing authentic Islam, and they have been able to mobilize recruits on the basis of their interpretations. This does not mean that sincerity of conviction among militants is universal, however. To take just one example, part of the leadership of ISIS appears to be comprised of ex-Baathists, who belong to a secular, nationalist tradition. They were removed from power after the invasion of Iraq by the United States. They are now seeking a way back to authority in Iraq, and ISIS's visceral loathing for secular nationalism has not prevented its pragmatic alignment with them.

More to the point, many influential religious scholars and clerics around the Muslim world reject the interpretation of the radicals, such as the clerics who wrote a letter to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of ISIS. Most Muslims are not radicals, which is why militant texts are peppered with contempt for the somnolent masses who do not live up to their obligation to join the militant struggle.

Still, given the breakdown of political authority in many Muslim societies, and the absence of any single overarching authority that can enforce the validity of any given interpretation, this ideological war will not conclude soon.


In the meantime, we not have to do the militant's work for them. Distracted by their brutality, we tend to overlook their cunning. We can start by understanding the basic facts about the politics of this struggle.

We should deny the proposition that there is a war underway between the West or modernity, on the one hand, and Islam, on the other. This statement concedes the core propaganda claim of the terrorists – that they represent ‘real' Islam. It serves no purpose other than to increase polarization between Islam and the West.

We should avoid giving excessive attention to spectacular terror. Media attention is like oxygen for militant organizations. By elevating them into existential threats, we give them the status that they crave, and aid their efforts to win recruits.

The West must avoid military intervention in the region to the greatest degree possible. These further weaken political structures, help create Frankenstein's like ISIS, and shift the conversation from the intentions of the terrorists to the intentions of the West, activating a potent mix of nationalistic and religious sentiment.

Finally, the West can try to live up to its values. The militants correctly identify that concepts like freedom, liberty, and justice resonate in Muslim majority societies, and see them as competing with the ideology they seek to implement. But when we unflinchingly back autocrats in Muslim majority societies instead of defending our stated values, when we support the stultifying status quo instead of encouraging critical political reform, we shrink the space for progressive ideas to emerge and expand opportunities for militant notions. We will never persuade the militants, of course but we might be able to persuade others if we tried.