I wrote a paper some years ago that I’d like to bring out to StrategyUnit, since I feel there is still a lot of room to discuss the (mislabeled) Global War on Terror (GWOT). Indeed, I believe that there is a supreme lacking in the mature development of a conceptual framework to understand the Global Islamist Insurgency (GII). Theoretical and conceptual frameworks are needed; it functions as a systematic “outline”, on which we can organize a strategy and devise proper policy. What follows before is shortened version of the original 20+ page paper.
In the formulation of my own conceptual framework for understanding GWOT, I submit the following general premises:
1. The need to look beyond the traditional levels of analysis of international relations - personal, state and system level – and to take account local and transnational social cleavages.
2. Instability today is principally caused by the lack of “global connectivity” in certain counties and societies, resulting in local and regional crises and conflicts.
3. Variants of Salafi-Jihadi/Pan-Islamism have conflated these crises and conflicts as a global conflict against Islam and the Ummah by the “Other.”
Of course, there will alway be outlier cases, but the premises serves to cover the vast majority of situations relating to GWOT.
Thomas Barnett v. Samuel Huntington
There is no current theory or framework that can easily match with these premises. However, we can build this framework by synthesizing Barnett and Huntington. Below is a mini-review of their concepts and some of their shortfalls when taken alone.
Thomas Barnett declares that the amount of global “connectivity” in the world defines security issues in the international environment. It is the amount of connectivity a state possesses – in the transnational flow of trade, media, finances, information, culture et cetera – that distinguish between a peaceful, integrated “Core” state and a hostile or unstable “Gap” state. As Barnett states, the “new world must be defined by where globalization has truly taken root [the Core] and where it has not [the Gap].”(1) In short, the level of strategic regional and global security is directly linked to the level of globalization. This is no difference.
While Thomas Barnett presents a long term “big picture” framework for understanding the source of instability in the world, it cannot alone fully describe the nature of GWOT. It does not explain why certain peoples in certain regions are engaging in a confrontation against the members of the Core. In other words, if the international security environment is defined by those in the Gap and those in the Core, why were the majority of the 9/11 hijackers from Saudi Arabia, and not shamans from Indonesia or Orthodox Christians from Belarus?
The essential variables that need to be added to Barnett’s framework are those of religious and ultimately of socio-cultural factors.
While Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization” goes to the extreme in treating cultural regions as nearly monolithic political blocks (that is, civilizations), Huntington does well in thrusting cultural, religious, social, and historical as variables in the calculus that influences the foreign policy orientations of states and non-state organizations. Indeed, Huntington must be acknowledged as prescient in declaring the revival of religions, particularly non-Western religions, as remerging as an important cultural and political force in the world.(2)
Huntington-Barnett with a Social Level of Analysis: Gap Societies?
I agree with Barnett on the instability of regions lacking “global connectivity” and Huntington’s emphasis on cultural and religions as important variables in international politics and his concept of “civilization faultlines.” Barnett’s builds a framework for understanding all global and local conflicts in the long term. Huntington emphasizes culture as the central factor.
Barnett and Huntington’s frameworks are not mutually exclusive and this paper builds on their scholarship and research to explain the nature of this war. Both Huntington and Barnett rely on system – Civilization vs. Civilization, Core vs. Gap – and state level of analysis, where does one place non-state groups like Al-Qaeda, Al Takfir Wal Hijra, Hizb ut-Tahrir and including their support structures and sympathizers? Additionally, how we explain the presence of such groups in the Core states of Western Europe or within the Western Civilization?
An elegant solution to this problem is applying social cleavages as another level of analysis complementing the state and system level of analysis. Organizations like Al-Qaeda to Hizb ut-Tahrir are not just “terrorist groups” or “Islamist extremist,” but groups that represent a worldwide social movement that transcend nation-states, Core or Gap states or civilization blocks. Thus, there is a need to focus on different social groups inside Core and Gap states that are disconnected from the larger society and how they related to other states and societies globally.
Towards a More Total Concept of Warfare
Beyond abandoning the Western concept of state-to-state warfare, this is conflict where the enemy employs a new “combined arms” strategy beyond the traditional means of Western warfare and follows John Robb’s “Global Guerilla” on the more tactical and operational level.
In traditional military usage, the term “combined arms” is defined by the U.S. Department of Defense as “The full integration and application of two or more arms or elements of one Military Service into an operation”(3) -such as the integrated and coordinated use of infantry, tank, precision bombers, and reconnaissance under one unified command. As war on the social level against the states and other societies, we see “combined arms” taking not only a purely military dimension but the integration of a full spectrum of human concerns – political issues, social issues, cultural issues, religious issues, etc – under the banner of a unifying ideology. In this case, this ideology is religious in nature.
GWOT as a Radical, Global and Muslim Social Movement
The use of social, cultural and religious issues as important dimensions of the war has it roots in the religious nature of this war – that is, religious as defined by the enemy. Stemming from its roots from Islam, Salafi-Jihadist share the tradition of embracing religion as a totality inseparable from any social sphere. In contrasts with the Peace of Westphalia that helped brought about the separation of the Christian church away from the state in the West, Islam has kept itself as the sole truth for all totality – it applies to and encompasses all aspects of human activity. In the West, the Muslim Brotherhood was most famous in emphasizing this fact of Islam, with its statement of recognizing “Islam as a total system” and the “final arbiter of life in all of its categories.” The most famous quote by the Muslim Brotherhood was its founder’s, Hassan al-Banna, proclamation that “Islam is a faith and a ritual, a nation and a nationality, a religion and a state, spirit and deed, holy text and sword.”(4) Indeed, other Muslim scholars, such as Sayyid Qutb, have criticized the West for its corruption of Christianity with its “schizophrenic” separation between the secular and the sacred, between church and state.(5) In contrasts to Christianity today, he declares Islam as a “system [that] extend into all aspects of life; it discusses all minor and major affairs of mankind.”(6)
Indeed, by actively uniting and linking all human activities to a single religious belief, it is easy to see how local conflicts affecting Muslims can be exploited to be seen as an attack on the entire global Muslim community – the Ummah. This combined with the concept of jihad al-asghar (lesser jihad) explains the confluence of local conflicts involving Muslims – Chechnya, Palestinian Issue, Moro in the Philippines – to being seen as a global conflict against Muslims.(7) And borrowing from John Robb, we see how quickly the conflict can become a social movement and a “Global Swarm”.
The relationship between social conflict and the fanatical organizations that exploit these conflicts are not only self-reinforcing, but help export and spread instability in the region and internationally (as illustrated above). In the primary link, each local conflict begins to be linked to a cause (Islamist jihad) and is transformed to being seen as one of many conflicts (reaching towards secondary linkage). This conflation of the socio-political and socio-economic issues with the Islamist movement reaches the point that, in some cases, it is difficult to distinguish between what are social problems and what is part of the war.
As this war is more of cross between an insurgency and a social movement, there maybe no clean cessation of violence in the near or distant future. And in this conflict, there will be no battlefield,s, but rather our adversaries will be attached as a Global Swarm as Global Guerillas.
If the U.S. and it allies achive victory (how can we even defien this?), there will be neither a ceremony on USS Missouri nor televised collapse of an “Evil Empire”. In the words of the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, “Some people see war and peace as a light switch. When the lights are off, it’s peacetime. When the lights go on, it’s wartime. I see more of a dimmer switch. We’ll see the intensity wax and wane, but there will always be some level of conflict going on.” (8) Let us hope that the United States and its allies dims that switch, least it will be a long hard slog.
1. Barnett, Thomas P.M. “The Pentagon’s New Map.” Esquire. March 2003. (17 November 2003).
2. Samuel Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 95-101.
3. United States of America. Defense Department. DOD Dictionary of Military and 3. Associated Terms, 30 November 2004, (04 September 2004).
4. Daniel Pipes, “Fundamentalist Muslims Between America and Russia”, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1986, Accessed Online: http://www.danielpipes.org/article/279 (04 February 2004).
5. Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 89.
6. Sayyid Qutb, Social Justice in Islam, (New Jersey: Islamic Publications International, 2000), 32.
7. For a comparative to the Islamic concept of jihad al-asghar within the Abrahamic religions, see the Judaic concept of milchemet mitzvah (obligatory war) and the Christian concept of Just War as described in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.
8. No Author. “Changing and Fighting, Simultaneously”, 30 October, 2004, National Journal, Available at (03 January 2005).