The impact of the Islamic State (also called ISIS or ISIL), which has blazed across Syria and Iraq, is reaching perilously close to home. On July 6, President Obama made a rare visit to the Pentagon, where he outlined new strategies for countering the organization’s influence and military power.
At least 180 Americans have traveled to the Middle East to join the Islamist jihad. A number of Americans are involved in the “holy war” here in the United States, posing challenging new security threats for law enforcement officials.
These recruits are drawn in by today’s digital media, which presents the religious and ideological aspects of radical Islam on a 24/7 basis.
We should not be surprised by the nature of the threat we now face. The Islamic State operates, in part, according to a playbook long used by guerrilla forces, including those of the far right in this country and its ideology aims to bring the fight directly to our shores.
Social media recruits jihadi wannabes
Consider the 2009 example of Nidal Hasan, who, as a serving Army officer, opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding many more. He had been in contact with one of the most notorious American Imams who preached jihad over the internet.
A more recent example: in Boston, authorities described a three-person conspiracy promoting violent action in the name of the Islamic State. The plot was short-lived; a self-proclaimed jihadi, Usaamah Rahim, was shot and killed on June 2 by Joint Terrorism Task Force officers after he pulled a knife and advanced toward the officers on a public street.
The same day, his nephew, David Wright, was arrested for obstruction of justice. And a week later, Nicholas Rovinski was arrested on a conspiracy charge.
These three men apparently were drawn together by their Islamic beliefs and the effects of Islamic State propaganda. They formed a small cell and, under their own guidance, began to plan their operations.
Operating without ‘leaders’
This pattern of self-actuated guerrilla war is known as “leaderless resistance.” In my 2003 doctoral dissertation and a 2010 book, The Phinehas Priesthood, written on the American radical right, I extensively studied the leaderless resistance and lone-wolf strategy used by many resistors. Much of my research was centered around interviews with convicted felons who had practiced such individual operational tactics.
The concept of “leaderless resistance” itself isn’t new to our domestic politics. After World War II, as the power of the Soviet Union grew, and anxiety about a domestic communist threat developed within the American population, some on the right began to prepare for the worst.
In the 1950s, Colonel Ulius “Pete” Louis Amoss, a highly decorated Army Office of Strategic Services officer and veteran practitioner of espionage in the service of his country, proposed a new “dis-organization” for the conduct of guerrilla warfare. The idea was to maintain freedom of maneuver, or operational security, against an overwhelmingly strong enemy through uncoordinated individual and small cell operations.
Amoss designed “leaderless resistance” with the idea of providing American resistance fighters a more secure operational method that would enhance their chances of survival as they fought the communist occupiers, should the need arise. (Amoss died in 1961.)
In 1992, Louis Beam, Klansman, Aryan Nations supporter, and a pamphleteer of the radical right, divining what he believed was the growing threat of “federal tyranny,” adapted Amoss’ “leaderless resistance” to another enemy, a national government he believed was departing from adherence to the US Constitution.
In the mid-1980s, law enforcement successfully took down two prominent resistance groups, one called The Order and the other known as The Covenant, The Sword and the Arm of the Lord. These groups were well-organized and had conducted successful criminal activities. Their demise shook the world of right wing resistors. In the wake of these defeats, Beam published his own take on “leaderless resistance.”
This concept became the template of choice for resistors of the right. As time passed, with no operational coordination or cooperation among them, men such as Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bomber), Eric Rudolph (anti-abortion bomber), Walter Thody (Phinehas Priest and bank robber), and others, adopted what Beam described as “nothing less than a fundamental departure in theories of organization.”
The idea is that while individuals may hold certain beliefs or principles in common, there is no organizational hierarchy or controlling chain of command. Thus, there are no critical nodes for the authorities to target. Meanwhile, the ideological backers of a cause can use radio, television, the printed word and the internet to recruit new members and inspire true believers.
Digital media steps in as director
Dr James Forrest, a terrorism expert at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, calls the use of such media enablers “influence warfare.” That is, a call to action goes out over media channels, but each resistor acts to further the cause as he or she sees fit.
Like domestic terrorists of the past, today’s Islamists have far fewer resources to draw upon than the American military; thus, these jihadi are involved in what has been called “asymmetric warfare.”
However, American jihadists, such as the cell recently broken up in Boston, are taking advantage of the operational security advantages of “leaderless resistance” which aided provocateurs of the radical right in the past.
Caliphate as a recruiting tool
What draws American jihadists to the cause? Unlike al-Qaeda, Islamic State has conquered a sizable territory. This is critically important to many Muslims worldwide. Islamic State has declared that the caliphate (the unified government under Islamic law) has been established.
And the caliphate is growing. An economy of sorts has been developed. The sale of oil from captured Iraqi and Syrian wells and tributes extracted from locals are helping to fund the war effort.
The Islamic State also has a sophisticated psychological warfare effort under way. Through the internet, they recruit and radicalize followers and preach to sympathizers. The dangers posed by the Islamic State, as Guardian journalist Emma Graham Harrison recently wrote, “may be more acute because of its embrace of modern technology, mastery of the difficult art of online propaganda and its appeal to young, computer-literate foreigners, including known hackers.”
The sense of success and momentum holds out an allure to some American Muslims who live in what they call Dar-ul-Harb (“House of War”), or a country controlled by non-Muslims. They see a society that, according to their belief system, is immoral and godless.
Fighting for the ‘House of Peace’
Daniel Akbari, Sharia lawyer and author, writes that “Ijma” (the consensus of Islamic scholars throughout history), directs that “every Muslim is obligated to fight until all territories become Dar-ul-Islam (House of Peace).”
Of course, strains of such zealous devotion to one great cause are found in all societies. But we are accustomed in the United States to tolerance, multiculturalism and diversity; some would say diversity is our greatest strength as a nation.
But diversity is not a principle of war. And we are at war, whether we like it or not.
American jihadists reject all American ideals, as do jihadists everywhere. But they are united in their objective. Whether we in the West care to acknowledge it or not, the Islamists are fighting a religious war and we are the infidels.