Homeland Security

Understanding Classic Islamic Warfare: The Key to Confronting ISIS

A video of propaganda by "Dash" or "Islamic State" or "ISIS" is seen online on November 18, 2015. It shows young children being trained to sports, weapons and to Quran recitation in an undisclosed area somewhere between Syria and Iraq. Photo by Balkis Press/Sipa USA

ISIS and other radical Islamic organizations are but the latest chapter in a long saga of cataclysmic violence which has characterized many periods of Islamic history.

These groups believe they are following the rules of warfare laid down by their prophet Muhammad and his companions. These rules are found in the Quran, the hadith, the Shari’a, and the Sira, the biography of Muhammad written about 150 years after his death. These sources tell us what to accept, and are guides to how to confront ISIS and these other groups.

In short, anything is acceptable in order to advance Islam.

The ultimate goal is to make the whole world convert/succumb to Islam. Yes, there are arguments among Muslims as to how to accomplish this goal, but the end result is the same. This war — between Dar al-Islam (Arabic: the World that Islam rules) and Dar al-Harb (the World of War — i.e., the world which will eventually succumb to Islam) — is eternal. There is no compromise. The eventual goal: The whole world is to be ruled by a caliph, under Shari’a law.

What is classic Islamic warfare? How do Muslims capture territory?

Since their armies/forces numbers were small, they could not afford to take large numbers of casualties. So they raided their enemies — taking booty, inflicting havoc. Their goal was to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies — mostly using daggers and swords — and to cause their enemies to flee. The Muslims would then march in and take over the territory and whatever else their enemies abandoned. That, in Western terms, is called “terrorism,” or irhab in Arabic. This was and still is a normally accepted form of warfare in the Muslim world, albeit one which we in the West find abhorrent.

That is what ISIS is doing in the lands they control and in other places over which they have influence. That is what happened in Paris last month.

Westerners cannot understand how these radicals who fight in the name of Islam are prepared to commit suicide for the advancement of Islam. To us, suicide goes against human nature; humans will do almost anything to survive. But Muhammad, et al, addressed that issue as well. Anyone who dies trying to advance Islam is labeled a shahid — i.e., a martyr — who instantly attains paradise, where he is surrounded by “perpetual virgins,” who exist solely to satisfy his earthly needs. And since most of these radical Islamic fighters — especially adolescent males — lack the ability to find that satisfaction on earth due to the constraints of Islamic culture, the descriptions they learned about paradise from their leaders provide that strong antidote to overcome the fear of death.

This form of warfare has raised its ugly head throughout Islamic history.

For example, the eminent historian Bernard Lewis describes this form of warfare in detail in his book The Assassins, regarding the 11th to mid-13th century movement of the same name. This book is undoubtedly the best guide to understanding radical Islamic warfare, and how to eliminate them. The religious leaders of the Assassins had mountain fortresses where they trained their young male followers to assassinate their enemies. After enticing their young trainees with hashish, their leaders then brought in women, who gave these young trainees a taste of what awaited them in the afterlife after they assassinated their leader’s enemy. This meant certain death — and certain paradise as well.

Islamic terrorists today, be they ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc., are imitating their radical Islamic ancestors, as well as those described in the above-mentioned biography of their prophet Muhammad and his companions.

How has this problem been solved? In the past, Islamic leaders who feared their radical brothers tried to appease them in various ways, none of which worked. How could they offer these young men something which was more enticing than the joys of paradise?

In the past, as Lewis described, the only thing that worked was to liquidate the leadership of these movements. In the case mentioned above, for example, it was the Mongols in the mid-13th century who eliminated them completely.

In other cases, after eliminating their historical ISIS/PLO antecedents, the victors brought the local tribal, religious, and other leaders into the system and protected them from ISIS/al-Qaeda equivalents. And it was local religious leaders who then, after the radicals were destroyed, combed their sources to rationalize/explain why the radicals were wrong.

What can we learn from the past to address today’s Islamic terror? We must have a robust program to destroy them, along the lines that General Petraeus used to subdue al-Qaeda during the 2007 surge in Western Iraq. Petraeus destroyed al-Qaeda and worked with the local Sunni leadership to restore order. Why did this work? Because al-Qaeda — though also Sunni — was making the local Sunnis submit to its rules, and demanding that the locals marry their daughters to the al-Qaeda members. The locals saw Petraeus’ U.S. Marines as the strongest “tribe,” which liberated them from the yoke of the radical Muslims of al-Qaeda. They gratefully supported the Marines who worked with the locals, who again became masters of their own fate under the Americans.

The best way to combat jihadist aggression and to deter future terrorist violence is to use Islamic culture against them. Shahids believe their deeds will enable them to ascend immediately to heaven. Dipping bullets in pork fat, many jihadists believe, will prevent them from entering heaven for eternity. Whether Islamic religious authorities accept this dogma is irrelevant, since much of the masses do. Moreover, the defeatist argument — that doing so will serve as a recruiting sergeant to convince more Muslims that the United States is a threat to their religion — can also be dismissed, unless the West is willing to simply surrender.

Employing political correctness in warfare is to greatly misunderstand the nature of the challenge.

Both Islamic history and the legacy of “the surge” demonstrate that half-measures are self-defeating; they will only highlight American weakness and leave the door open as ISIS advances. Indeed, the Islamic State will continue to attract foreign fighters unless and until it can no longer sustain — or, more aptly, portray a picture of — success.

So far, mass carnage in Paris has compelled France’s leadership to put the country on a war footing. It ought to not take the equivalent — ISIS bombings in the United States — for policymakers to implement options that lead to the total decomposition of the Islamic State.

We must spare no effort to destroy ISIS and similar groups. Only America has the power to do so.

Only after America puts its heart and soul into this campaign can it succeed. Obama’s policy of a few sorties a day is at best counterproductive. It actually strengthens ISIS, because it demonstrates to the locals see that America is unwilling to do what is necessary to eliminate them.

General Petraeus succeeded, within less than a year, in quelling this madness. So could Obama today, if he had the will to win.