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How to Identify Jihadi-Salafists Through Their Ideology, Practices, and Methodology

How to Identify Jihadi-Salafists Through Their Ideology, Practices, and Methodology
(Mary Habeck, March 6, 2019)

Transcript available here

Watch her speaker playlist here

About the speaker

Dr. Mary Habeck lectures on al-Qaeda and ISIS, as well as on military strategy and history, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Georgetown University, and American University.

Her recent monograph for the Heritage Foundation is titled, “The U.S. Must Identify Jihadi-Salafists through Their Ideology, Practices, and Methodology-and Isolate Them.”

She is the author of Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (Yale, 2005) and three forthcoming sequels, Attacking America: Al-Qa’ida’s Grand Strategy; Managing Savagery: Al-Qa’ida’s Military and Political Strategies; and Fighting the Enemy: The U.S. and its War against al-Qa’ida.

She is also a Senior Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute. From 2005-2013 she was an Associate Professor in Strategic Studies at SAIS, teaching courses on extremism, military history, and strategic thought.

Before moving to SAIS, Dr. Habeck taught American and European military history in Yale’s history department, 1994-2005. She received her PhD in history from Yale in 1996, an MA in international relations from Yale in 1989, and a BA in international studies, Russian, and Spanish from Ohio State in 1987.

Dr. Habeck was appointed by President Bush to the Council on the Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities (2006-2013), and in 2008-2009 she was the Special Advisor for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff.

Her other books include Storm of Steel: The Development of Armor Doctrine in Germany and the Soviet Union, 1919-1939 (2003), Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, co-editor (2001) and The Great War and the Twentieth Century, co-editor (2000).

For more on the nature of jihad, see Robert Spencer’s Westminster talk, The History of Jihad.


Robert R. Reilly:

Well, our speaker tonight is Dr. Mary Habeck who lectures on Al Qaeda and ISIS as well as military strategy and history [at] Johns Hopkins, SAIS, George Washington University, American University.

Her recent monograph for the Heritage Foundation has the title of the subject of which she will be speaking tonight: The U.S. Must Identify Jihadi-Salafists through their Ideology, Practices, Methodology and Isolate Them. I encourage you, you can go to the Heritage Foundation website and get Mary’s excellent monograph.

Now, I first encountered her renowned name when she wasn’t quite as famous as she is now when she first published her book, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology in the War on Terror, and your having sequels to those?

Mary Habeck:

Yeah, I actually have one of them.

Robert R. Reilly:

One of them is finished, great. Would that be “Attacking America: Al Qaeda’s Grand Strategy?”

Mary Habeck:

It is.

Robert R. Reilly:


Dr. Habeck has taught American and European Military History in Yale’s History Department. I mentioned that she has taught at SAIS here in Washington. Her PhD in history is from Yale as is her Master’s in international relations.

Between 2008 and 2009, Dr. Habeck was the special advisor for strategic planning in the National Security Council staff. As a former armor officer I was particularly attracted by the title of one of your books, Storm of Steel: The Development of Armor Doctrine in Germany and the Soviet Union.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Habeck.

Mary Habeck:

Tonight, what I’m hoping to do is to give you an additional way for understanding the problems that we’re confronting in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, a huge problem that did not start with 9/11 but that was pretty sharply brought to our attention by the events of 9/11.

I was a professor at Yale University at that point, teaching military history, military and strategic history, and I had however, spent the two years before 9/11, learning about Islam, ordinary Islam, not the extremists at all.

And when the attack occurred, I immediately started reading everything I could get my hands on about the extremists in order to understand the people who had carried out that horrific attack.

And what I learned was that for many of my colleagues the problem was not one out there. The problem was in fact one in America. Immediately after 9/11, there was a teach-in held at Yale University in which the brightest minds in the history and political science departments and the law department concluded that the problem we were having and the horrific events of 9/11 were caused by America’s foreign policy and that what had to change was our relationship with the world, that we in some ways deserved what happened.

I had however been reading about ordinary Islam as I mentioned in the 1990s and I recognized the language that was being used by the attackers and I understood the sorts of tropes, the appeals that they were making with this language.

So I started to read very closely the sources for ideology and what I discovered was that we were dealing with a death cult, a cult that has somewhere around .0167% of the Muslim world behind them, but one that is convinced that they can take over the entire religion and convince other Muslims to follow them and if they won’t follow them willingly, they’ll be forced to do it through violence.

So we’ve seen some of that in the Middle East. Every once in a while we hear stories about ISIS, carrying out horrific attacks or massacres. Most of what we focus on is attacks against Americans or our allies. We focus on attacks against Christians or the persecuted, the Yazidis or others.

But in fact, the vast majority of the people being killed by the extremists are other Muslims, the vast majority. In terrorist attacks its nine times as many Muslims are killed in terrorist attack as non-Muslims and when it comes to irregular warfare or insurgency in places like Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, it’s almost entirely Muslims that are in fact being killed in pursuit of their goals.

So I, right from the start, understood the language being used and the religious fervor that underlay a lot of the actions that were being carried out and when I had conversations with my colleagues however, religion was dismissed as an explanatory principle for what was going on. People preferred to talk about politics, about social issues, about a lot of other things rather than talk about the religious language or even the religious belief that might be behind some of these actions.

At the same time I found that there was another developing opinion in America that what we were confronting was, in fact, all of Islam. That the problem wasn’t some small group but that Islam itself had a serious problem, one that went back thousands of years and one that had been animating the religion from the very start. I looked into it. I spent a lot of time studying that and what I found is Islam itself went through a tremendous transformation, a real reformation, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a reformation from which it emerged a very different religion than what it had gone into, what had begun in the mid-19th century and previously. But this is not the first time this has occurred. In fact, Islam has gone through multiple reformations. About every five hundred years it goes through a tremendous transformation. And I became convinced that we were dealing with something other than just Islam with these extremists.

So, I felt as if I were caught between two sort of arguing groups, one of which was convinced it had nothing to do with religion and one of which was convinced it had to do with all of the religion, and I disagreed with both of them profoundly.

So tonight, I’m going to offer you the evidence to help you make up your own mind and perhaps, you’ll find yourself like me, somewhere in the middle. And, by the way, having things thrown at you from both sides.

I’m a fairly conservative person. I have spent eighteen years at Yale and didn’t lose my conservative principles. I blame it on my mother’s Scotch-Irish stubbornness. This is where you get that from. But at the same time, writing my book was the first time I’ve ever been called a liberal, a progressive, by some people from the conservative side. On the other hand, I’ve had a lot of people on the progressive or liberal side who’ve spent a lot of time throwing things, sticks and stones at me, for even daring to raise the fact that something about religion might be involved with the groups that we’re talking about.

So let me start and what I’m going to do I hope for you is provide you with some evidence, some facts, and some interpretive frameworks for looking at these facts and making up your own mind about what is going on in the Muslim world.

The first thing that strikes me is that knowing the enemy is still something we’re all struggling with. Understanding what motivates these guys, why they are carrying out these attacks and by the way, what kind of group rationale or what are their actual aims, what are there ultimate goals? How are they going about doing it?

I had conversations with people from the very start and they would say things like, ‘well, they don’t really have a plan. They just… They have an objective. They want to, you know, create the perfect Islamic State, a state they call the Caliphate, but they don’t really have a strategy for doing it. They’re just kind of carrying out random attacks and killing people and hoping somehow a state will develop out of this.’

And I also realized that we’re having trouble defining what this enemy has to do with Islam. Some people are convinced it’s all of Islam that’s the problem we’re dealing with. Some people are convinced it has nothing to do with Islam.

By the way, you’ve got a lot of groups out there that call themselves Al Qaeda and a lot of groups that say they’re associated with ISIS, that say that they’re somehow linked together. Are all these groups the same thing? Are all jihadist groups exactly the same? Do we have to take them all equally seriously? Are Islamist groups a problem as well? Should we take them just as seriously as we do the jihadist groups, the guys who are carrying out violence to achieve an end? Well, these other guys, some of these Islamist groups, have the same objective. They’re just using different means. Shouldn’t we take them just as seriously?

And, by the way, if I asked you guys to describe the extremists, wouldn’t the first word you would use to describe them be terrorists, right? I think a lot of us have grown accustomed to calling them terrorists. I’m going to make an argument that they’re not terrorists at all, that they are in fact insurgents, which is a far bigger problem than simple terrorism.

So all these questions that I raise here in these three separate parts have really important policy implications. If we decide that it’s all of Islam that’s the problem, you’ve got 1.8 billion people that might be the enemy, right? On the other hand, if it has nothing to do with Islam, then we might completely misread who the enemy is likely to be recruiting and how they’re likely to go about doing it, right?

If we decide really, all those fighting groups out there that call themselves Al Qaeda, the only thing that’s really important is keeping ourselves safe. There are a lot of people who think that today. They think, ‘Oh, let the Middle East burn. They’re just killing each other.’ I hear people say these things, right? ‘We don’t need to be concerned about it except if they decide to attack us but we might keep ourselves safe and lose the entire rest of the world.’

And by the way, if we misread what kind of enemy we are dealing with, we might suppress the enemy in one place, the instant we walk away, they come back. And we’ve seen it happen, I don’t know, a dozen times in a dozen different countries. How many times have people gone into Somalia, trying to help fix Somalia? I mean besides the Kenyans, the Ethiopians, and AMASOM, right? The United States has been there as well. We walked in and out of Iraq and the problems simply come back. We’ve walked in and out of a lot of countries and the problems seem to come back every time you just walk away, it’s not just us as I’m going to point out in just a bit here.

So there are all sorts of things that we need to understand when we’re talking about knowing the enemy. We have to understand them ideologically/religiously, we have to understand them organizationally, what they really are, what actually constitutes these groups. Is everything equally a problem? And we have to understand them as fighting groups. What are we really dealing with when we talk about these groups and their desire for violence, what kind of violence and what is their strategies? What are they hoping to really achieve?

So I’m not going to probably be able to talk in-depth about all of these during the 45 minutes or hour that I have to talk but what I’m hoping to do as I said is provide you with some frameworks, some evidence and some frameworks for you to be able to look at these problems and make up your own mind about them.

So first of all is ideologies. Islam as I said is 1.8 billion people. In the 1990s, that was my original interest, was just ordinary Islam not the extremists, not Islamism, not jihadism, just Islam. I felt that it was something that was going to be important in the future, so in the 1990s I spent two years doing basically Master’s and PhD reading and research in order to get smart on an issue I knew nothing about. And what I discovered was a world, it’s so big, it’s so diverse, and the Sunni-Shia split that everybody knows about is just one piece of how big a world we’re discussing. There’s all sorts of different groups that we’re talking about. You’ve got modernists, you’ve got traditionalists, people who are very pious and serious about the religion, and people for whom it’s really a cultural thing and they, you know, sort of take it as a kind of label that you use or something that defines the holidays you decide to celebrate and not much else, right?

But there are these groups that call themselves Islamism and Salafism. Those are two separate things.

See the rest of her talk…

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