[ by Charles Cameron — Hammami, Awlaki, RAND, Marisa Urgo and a theology of risk ]
Omar Hammami, also known as Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, is a young American from Alabama who joined Al-Shabaab in Somalia around 2007. Blogfriend JM Berger of Intelwire recently commented:
Omar Hammami would like you to think he’s the next Anwar Awlaki.
Among the reasons Berger gives: Hammami, like al-Awlaki, seems to like quoting RAND analyses of jihadist thinking. Case in point: in his most recent video, Hammami quotes the RAND report, Beyond al-Qaeda: Part 1, The Global Jihadist Movement MG-429.
I want to take a look at what Hammami chooses to quote, what he has to say about it, and what conclusions we may derive.
Hammami quotes RAND:
Hammami goes directly to the Conclusion: New Approaches to Combating the Global Jihadist Movement, which begins on page 159, and zeroes straight in:
From the analysis in this report, it is clear that ideology is the center of gravity of the global jihadist phenomenon.
Hammami’s primary concern is with this idea, which he specifically couples with the “decapitation” of those who can propagate the ideology — bin Laden and al-Awlaki are his examples here. Having made this point, and spoken briefly about the connection between global and local jihads, he continues with his RAND quotation, again focusing on the centrality of ideology:
The war on terror at its most fundamental level goes to the war of ideas. The goal is to deny extremists the high ground of Islamic politico-religious discourse, which has been adroitly exploited by al-Qaeda to further the appeal of its own radical and absolutist rhetoric.
He goes on to quote:
Although it is inherently difficult for outsiders to attack an ideology, the ideological approach has weaknesses that are susceptible to exploitation.
And again — I’ve skipped some more detail — he quotes:
Some analysts also note that the jihadist movement is sensitive to religious ideology to the point of vulnerability. Combatants are replaceable, but theologically trained sheikhs are not. Decapitation strategies should be expanded from operational leaders to ideologues. These ideologues are often asked to provide sanction for terrorist operations and are therefore a key part of terrorists’ decision making process. Preventing al-Qaeda’s ideological mentors from continuing to provide theological justification for terrorism could expedite the movement’s ideological deterioration.
Okay, those are the parts of the RAND analysis that Hammami wants to emphasize, and to sum up, he’s concerned with the centrality of the AQ “ideology” (RAND’s term) and with the “theologically trained sheikhs” who are its irreplaceable transmitters.
Hammami’s own comments deserve some notice, too — he clearly thinks the RAND authors are onto some key points, and his endorsement adds to the credibility of the RAND analysis.
I believe that these kuffar, despite being from amongst the most misguided of creation, have actually put their finger on something that is extremely beneficial for us to ponder. This important idea that I am referring to here is found in the beginning of the long quote I just read to you all … The authors of this RAND research stated that the ideology of al-Qaida is in reality its center of gravity…
He goes on to say:
Now from my perspective, I’d like to say that irrespective of what these kuffar have to say, from my own personal deductions, I believe that this conclusion is absolutely correct. … Let me just restate that conclusion in my own words, to make things clear. As Muslims, I think it’s pretty much a no-brainer that the most important element which brings about the cohesion and thereby the strength of our entire Muslim ummah is no other than our aqeeda and our manhaj, i.e. our methodology for how we propose to bring about productive changes. Now, I’m fairly certain after using these native terms from our religion, that no-one will disagree with the fore-stated conclusion…
And from there he goes on to discuss the significance of Islam as he sees it:
The pinnacle of our religion is not merely to establish the individual rights of Islam within the sphere of our personal, everyday lives, but rather, worshiping Allah is much bigger than that. The reality of worship actually extends to all ways in which we please Allah (swt) and make his word uppermost in this earth. The true pinnacle of our religion is to establish tawhid in the earth and to eradicate shirk — and this must be done collectively, as an ummah.
This aim, he concludes, can only be achieved under the leadership of a renewed Caliphate,
All this — the preaching and practice of jihad — is an act of worship.
It was apparently a namesake of mine, William Bruce Cameron, whose 1963 book Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking included a quote now frequently attributed to Albert Einstein:
It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
Einstein is usually credited with the second sentence there, but it’s a pleasure to read the context in which the quote in question was originally uttered.
It is, for instance, easier to count guns, or even “all military-age males in a strike zone“, than it is to account for zeal, religious and otherwise. As a result, we devote far more intellectual firepower (think about that metaphor for a moment) to tracking people and materiel than we do to tracking ideas and passions. And when we do try to think about ideas, we often leave out the passions that empower them.
Which is why I’m grateful for the notion that Al-Qaida has an “ideology”, but don’t think it quite cuts it.
An ideology is propositional. It refers to a system of ideas, but says nothing about the fervor with which those ideas are held and acted upon. Specifically, it doesn’t address worship.
Which is where I think Marisa Urgo gets things right.
Marisa gets it right:
Marisa Urgo gets it right, I’d suggest, when she says:
there’s a gap in our understanding that simply can’t be described using the discourse of psychological dysfunction or earthly geopolitical ends.
That quote is from a recent post in which Marisa is commenting on Ayman al-Zawahiri‘s Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet (2d ed).
And that — in a nutshell — is why Hammami “translated” from RAND’s use of the word “ideology” to the “native terms” of his religion, aqeeda and our manhaj. That’s why he mentioned worship.
For Hammami, as for al-Zawahiri, jihad is sacramental. It is an act of worship.
In his book The Qur’anic Concept of War, the Pakistani Brigadier SK Malik writes, with emphasis:
In war, our main objective is the opponent’s heart or soul, our main weapon of offence against this objective is the strength of our own souls…
I’d like to take that one step further.
We speak of our own troops being “in harm’s way” in war — and this is no less true of those who are targeted by drone strikes. War is a risky business for all concerned. But how much risk are jihadists taking — and how much risk do they perceive themselves to be taking?
Al-Zawahiri and bin Laden, Omar Hammami and other jihadists take risks, but they calculate their risk-taking in terms of the soul — and in this way their risk-assessment notably diverges from our assessment of their risk. We in the West tend to take the Napoleonic position that “God is on the side of the big battalions” — but the jihadists prefer to believe that invisible, which is also to say, unaccountable, help may be at hand, in line with Qur’an 8.9:
When ye sought help of your Lord and He answered you (saying): I will help you with a thousand of the angels, rank on rank.
A theology of risk:
Back to Marisa, who raises an interesting point in this regard: She suggests, specifically with respect to Zawahiri, but with application to all those for whom jihad is a sacramental act, that the jihadists are essentially calculating according to a theology of risk:
What may be at work here is what some theologians call a personal theology of risk. It’s an idea common enough in Christian traditions; however, I’m uncertain of its presence in Islam. It would be interesting to find out if such an idea exists, because few, if any, analyst have attempted to interpret al-Qaeda’s decision-making as a function of theologically-informed risk. And yet given his life choices, theologically-informed risk-taking makes more sense than any realpolitik explanation for Zawahiri’s decision-making.
If Zawahiri has a theology of risk, it would require bold moves at the worst times, constantly pushing the envelope in order to see for a moment (without worldly obstructions) God’ will. It’s the very essence of counter-intuitive, because, to put it bluntly, God’s wisdom is not man’s, and a person guided by a theology of risk will take seemingly irrational risks at incredibly inopportune times in order to seek out that personal knowledge of Godly wisdom.
For “a person guided by a theology of risk” in Islam, in fact, the only risk is a lack of trust in God. As al-Awlaki notes, for many westernized Muslims, “the concept of Jihad is one in where it is ‘dangerous’ to practice. Their trust in Allah is not there…”
For he who entrusts himself to God in jihad, there are only two outcomes, frequently described as such: martyrdom — or victory.
From the jihadist’s point of view, it’s a win-win situation.