Impervious Hubris: How U.S. Intelligence Failures About Islam Led to ISIS

A decade after U.S. leadership declared a “war on terror,” all it has to show for it is the creation of the Islamic State — an Islamic body that has taken terror and atrocities to a whole new level.


How did this happen?

A key factor often overlooked is the intelligence community’s failures concerning what fuels the jihadis.

Consider Michael Scheuer, author of the 2004 national bestseller Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror. Scheuer’s credentials as described in that book are impressive:

For the past seventeen years, my career has focused exclusively on terrorism, Islamic insurgencies, militant Islam … I have earned my keep and am able to speak with some authority and confidence about Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, [and] the dangers they pose and symbolize for the Unites States.

Indeed, Scheuer has also served as senior adviser for the Osama Bin Laden department and chief of the Sunni Militant Unit.

The fundamental thesis of his book is that al-Qaeda’s terrorism is a reaction to U.S. foreign policies. Wrote Scheuer:

Bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but everything to do with U.S. policies and actions in the Muslim world.

As proof, he regularly quoted bin Laden’s messages to the West, which did in fact validate Scheuer’s assessment. He went on to compare bin Laden, that jihadi terrorist, to heroes like Robin Hood and even Saint Francis of Assisi, and concluded that al-Qaeda’s war revolves around … love:

Bin Laden and most militant Islamists, therefore, can be said to be motivated by their love for Allah and their hatred for a few, specific, U.S. policies and actions they believe are damaging — and threatening to destroy — the things they love.

Theirs is a war against a specific target, and for specific, limited purposes. While they will use whatever weapon comes to hand — including weapons of mass destruction — their goal is not to wipe out our secular democracy, but to deter us by military means from attacking the things they love. Bin Laden et al are not eternal warriors.


 American liberals, academics, politically correct media, politicians, and government — in a word, the “establishment” — willingly embraced and regurgitated this Muslim grievance thesis which, while not original to Scheuer, certainly received a boost thanks to his book.

It was in this context that I sought to translate al-Qaeda’s Arabic writings that I discovered in 2004 while working at the Library of Congress.

As opposed to the carefully crafted communiques al-Qaeda was sending to the West — which were presented without context and accepted hook, line, and sinker by the so-called “experts” — these arcane writings were directed to fellow Muslims.

These writings made perfectly clear al-Qaeda’s ultimate motive in attacking the West: Islam’s commands for Muslims to hate and subjugate the non-Muslim, or “infidel.”

Here’s a sampling of what bin Laden was writing to fellow Muslims, even as he was duping Western analysts with talk of “grievances”:

As to the relationship between Muslims and infidels, this is summarized by the Most High’s Word: “We renounce you. Enmity and hate shall forever reign between us — till you believe in Allah alone.” So there is an enmity, evidenced by fierce hostility from the heart.

And this fierce hostility — that is, battle — ceases only if the infidel submits to the authority of Islam, or if his blood is forbidden from being shed [i.e., a dhimmi], or if Muslims are at that point in time weak and incapable [in which case, bin Laden later clarifies, they should dissemble (taqiyya) before the infidels by, say, portraying their violence as a product of “grievances”].

But if the hate at any time extinguishes from the heart, this is great apostasy!

Such, then, is the basis and foundation of the relationship between the infidel and the Muslim. Battle, animosity, and hatred — directed from the Muslim to the infidel — is the foundation of our religion.  (The Al Qaeda Reader, p. 43).


Bin Laden also asked and answered the pivotal question:

Does Islam, or does it not, force people by the power of the sword to submit to its authority corporeally if not spiritually? Yes.

There are only three choices in Islam: either willing submission; or payment of the jizya [tribute], through physical though not spiritual submission to the authority of Islam; or the sword — for it is not right to let him [an infidel] live.

How does one square such clear assertions with Scheuer’s claim? Again, Scheuer guided U.S. policy with this clearly inaccurate assertion:

None of the reasons [for al-Qaeda’s antipathy] have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy.

I raised this question in a 2008 article criticizing Scheuer’s claims about al-Qaeda’s motivations. In response, Scheuer lashed out in the comments section of my article (as it appeared on Middle East Strategy at Harvard; see my full response to him here).

Instead of acknowledging that al-Qaeda’s own words damned his thesis, the man who insisted Islamic terrorism was a product of “imperial hubris” exhibited a sort of impervious hubris — impervious to facts and reality. He sarcastically wrote:

Mr. Ibrahim’s Al Qaeda Reader is an excellent example of what passes for solid analysis and intellectual honesty among Neo-conservatives.

In this highly selective collection, Mr. Ibrahim picks and chooses from the enormous corpus of writings, statements, and interviews by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to produce a slim volume which he claims will once and for all prove that Al Qaeda and its allies are bent on imposing a worldwide Caliphate to be governed by what the Neocons are pleased to call Islamo-fascism … [T]he book deliberately misleads an America public.


For the record, my “slim volume” is 320 pages long. As for it being a “highly selective collection,” the book is actually the most balanced of its kind, as it presented al-Qaeda’s releases to the West and its exhortations to its Muslim followers.

For example, Bruce Lawrence’s Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden (2005) complemented Scheuer’s grievance paradigm by only presenting al-Qaeda’s propaganda communiques to the West. The Al Qaeda Reader juxtaposes both the terrorist group’s doctrinal writings to fellow Muslims and its grievance messages to the West, giving the reader a more complete picture.

At any rate, now — a decade later — the “why do they hate us” question has been settled by those best positioned to settle it: the Islamic State, or al-Qaeda 2.0. In a recent article titled “Why We Hate You & Why We Fight You,” the Islamic State gives six reasons. Reason number one says it all:

 We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers; you reject the oneness of Allah — whether you realize it or not — by making partners for Him in worship, you blaspheme against Him, claiming that He has a son [Christ], you fabricate lies against His prophets and messengers, and you indulge in all manner of devilish practices.

It is for this reason that we were commanded to openly declare our hatred for you and our enmity towards you.

“There has already been for you an excellent example in Abraham and those with him, when they said to their people, ‘Indeed, we are disassociated from you and from whatever you worship other than Allah. We have rejected you, and there has arisen, between us and you, enmity and hatred forever until you believe in Allah alone’” (Al-Mumtahanah 4).


That quote is Koran 60:4, the same verse bin Laden quoted above. The article continues:

Furthermore, just as your disbelief is the primary reason we hate you, your disbelief is the primary reason we fight you, as we have been commanded to fight the disbelievers until they submit to the authority of Islam, either by becoming Muslims, or by paying jizyah — for those afforded this option [“People of the Book”] — and living in humiliation under the rule of the Muslims [per Koran 9:29].

It is only in reasons five and six that ISIS finally mentions “grievances” against Western foreign policies — only to quickly clarify, and in a manner that puts the hubristic errors of Scheuer to rest authoritatively:

What’s important to understand here is that although some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary, hence the reason we addressed it at the end of the above list.

The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.

Even if you were to pay jizyah and live under the authority of Islam in humiliation, we would continue to hate you.

It is this unrelenting hatred that many Westerners cannot comprehend.

This hate compels Muslim husbands to hate their non-Muslim wives. It compels America’s “friends and allies,” such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to publish government-sanctioned decrees openly proclaiming their hate for America because it is not Islamic.

It was always this hate that fueled al-Qaeda’s jihad — not policy grievances.


It’s worth noting that in Scheuer’s response to me, he mocked the idea that the caliphate would be resurrected — which I had predicted.

Scheuer claimed:

[T]he Islamists know that it is as unlikely to appear in their or their grandsons’ lifetimes as Christians know that a uniform world of turning-of-the-cheek or loving-thy-neighbor is at best light years over the horizon.

Likewise, in Imperial Hubris, Scheuer wrote:

At this point in history, we need worry little about the threat of an offensive and expansionist jihad meant to conquer new lands for Islam and convert new peoples to the faith (page 7).


Tell that to the terrorized non-Muslims and non-Sunnis — Christians, Yazidis, Druze, Shia — who have been enslaved, raped, slaughtered, even burned and buried alive as the caliphate expanded into their territories over the last couple of years.

All of this was enabled by the West’s embrace of the tragically false “grievance” theory.

The “grievance” theory was the cause of abysmal policies meant to pacify aggrieved Muslims, such as wholesale support for the “Arab Spring,” which saw the Obama administration turn its back on 30-year-long allies such as Egypt’s secular dictator Mubarak.

The”grievance” theory is partially responsible for why, a decade after the U.S. started bringing “freedom and democracy” to this and that Muslim nation — Iraq, Egypt, Libya, ongoing in Syria — specifically by ousting secular dictators experienced at suppressing jihadis, all the most powerful and freedom-loving nation in the world has to show for our efforts is the creation of the Islamic State.

Even so, the impervious hubris continues!


Instead of accepting the hard fact that Islamic hostility is a product of Islamic teachings, U.S. President Obama continues invoking the “grievance” meme concerning ISIS.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said that it’s important to:

… [show] respect even for one’s enemies, trying to understand and insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.

Clinton said this at Georgetown University, which is fitting. Scheuer, who did not have to wait for our “grandsons’ lifetimes” to see just how much he got wrong, has parked himself where all who excel at denying Islam has any connection to violence have been congregating. He now teaches a future generation of “terrorism experts” at Georgetown.



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