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catastrophic ideologies. James J.F. Forest Director of Terrorism Studies. T he C ombating T errorism C enter . A t w est p oint. Threat Convergence Summit, 30 November 2006.

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catastrophic ideologies
catastrophic ideologies

James J.F. Forest

Director of Terrorism Studies

The CombatingTerrorismCenter

Atwest point

Threat Convergence Summit, 30 November 2006


The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

importance of ideology
Importance of ideology
  • We face a hostile ideology - global in scope. . . ruthless in purpose and insidious in method. Unhappily, the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration.
      • Farewell Radio and Television Address to the American People
      • by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1961

The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means can never be considered in isolation form their purposes. . . . War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means.

Karl Von Clausewitz

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

ideologies of violence
Ideologies of violence

A Spectrum of Ideologies

Threshold of

catastrophic violence



Apocalyptic Terrorism

Groups that want to change the world, but reject the need for violent means

Groups that want to change the world, and see a need for violent means

Groups that want to destroy the world, for various reasons,possibly with WMD

ideologies of violence1
Ideologies of violence
  • Ideologies offer a combination of intellectual and emotional appeal
    • Violence is seen as necessary for achieving political, social, economic and/or religion change
  • Terrorist ideologies vary:
    • Nationalists and Ethnic Separatists (e.g., Anti-colonial groups, Chechens, PLO, Tamil Tigers/LTTE, Basques/ETA, Kurds/PKK)
    • Left-wing (e.g., radical Communists revolutionaries)
    • Right Wing (often target race and ethnicity; Nazi, Aryan nations, etc.)
    • Religious (e.g., Christian militias, Islamic jihadists, Shia revolutionaries, Zionists, etc.)
    • Others: Anarchists, Environmentalists, Animal Rights Extremists Apocalyptic cults, etc.
salafi jihad ideology
Salafi-jihad ideology

Al Qaida and affiliated groups

salafi jihad ideology1
Salafi-jihad ideology
  • Islam is the one and only way of ruling mankind that is acceptable to God
  • Pluralism, the idea that no one has a monopoly on truth, is a falsehood, and liberal democracy (rule by man’s laws) is against God’s will.
  • Muslims should use force to establish a more just society. (Mawdudi)
  • Jihad is the only source of internal empowerment and reform in the Muslim world. (Qutb, Maqdisi, et al.)
  • Muslims must resist the influences of Western institutions and traditions that have poisoned mankind (Qutb)
  • We have a global conflict between Islam and the West. Islam is under siege and only we (the Jihadis, the “pure” defenders of Islam) can lift it.
salafi jihad ideology2
Salafi-jihad ideology
  • “The world is truly messed up, and only Islam is the answer - therefore we (Jihadis) must do all that is necessary to tear down the existing order and replace it with one built on Islam.”
  • We must mobilize the entire Muslim community to join our global jihad
  • We must overthrow corrupt, incompetent “apostate” regimes in the Middle East and replace them with governments that rule by Sharia law
    • This requires defeating their powerful Western patrons (OBL, Zawahiri)
  • Then we must re-establish the Islamic caliphate to rule over the entire Muslim world
  • The violence we inflict upon our own people, governments, and resources is 1) necessary, 2) religiously sanctioned, and 3) really the fault of the West, Israel, and apostate regimes.

3 Categories of Academic Theory

  • Aspects of the Self What influences an individual’s decision to embrace an ideology of violence and join a terrorist group?
  • Social & Group DynamicsWhat social and group dynamics influence terrorists’ actions?
  • Conditions and Facilitators - Why do ideologies resonate?- What local circumstances allow terrorist groups to thrive and grow?- What factors facilitate radicalization, and where?

enablers of ideological resonance
Enablers of ideological resonance





Sense of Crisis




Limited opportunities/power to bring about change without use of violence


  • Local political, economic and social conditions:
    • Chaos/capacity (weak/failing states, zones of competing governance)
    • Socio-demographics (youth bulge, unemployment, lack of integration, etc.)
    • Authoritarian/repressive regimes; desire to address a power imbalance (AQ/Hizb as symbols of “resistance” - empowering the disenfranchised)
    • Ethnic/Socio-cultural fissures (Tamils, Chechens, Kurds, Basques)
    • Pre-existing belief in superiority of race, religion, tribe, etc.
    • “Holy land” geographical issues, historical irredentist claims
  • Global issues:
    • Israeli-Palestinian conflict (incl. as symbol of universal Muslim oppression)
    • Perceptions of U.S. relations/bias/imperialism/double standards
    • Globalization/Westernization of cultural values “threatening our way of life”
enablers of ideological resonance1
Enablers of ideological resonance

Popular Support

The role of local and global enablers of resonance . . .

What social, political, religious or other factors could move this threshold toward greater acceptance of catastrophic terror?

What factors might constrain acceptance of catastrophic terror?

Threshold of

catastrophic violence



Apocalyptic Terrorism

constraints of ideological resonance
constraints of ideological resonance

Socio-Political Constraints

  • Lack of acceptance about need for violence
  • Failure to build ideology on pre-existing belief structures, cultural values, etc.
  • Behavior of group’s leader seen as too extreme (or perhaps not extreme enough?)
  • Grievances not widely shared
  • Popular support vs. potential to disgust potential supporters

Religious Constraints

  • Fringe/overly radical interpretation of religious texts (e.g., cults like Aum Shinrikyo)
  • Lack of acceptance of proposed religious justification for violence (al Qaida claims strategic justification, but do they truly have theological permission to kill Muslims?)
  • Violence prevents individual Muslims from conducting their own jihad as Qu’ran requires
so what
So what?

Our counterterrorism approach is insufficient

CounterTerrorism Strategy: DIMEFIL







Legal/Law Enforcement

Countering a group’s operational capabilities and (to some degree) their will to conduct terror attacks

Deals exclusively with ideology and context, motivations behind violence

so what1
So what?

Must do more to counter catastrophic ideology and enablers of resonance

CounterTerrorism Strategy: DIMEFIL







Legal/Law Enforcement

Focus on governance and security, but also need to shape the socio-political environment to constrain ideological resonance

Reduce the appeal and legitimacy of Salafi-Jihad ideology

know your enemy
Know your Enemy . . .

Identify the ideology’s leaders and their core arguments

  • Most influential living Jihadi thinkers
    • Maqdisi
    • `Abd al-Qadir
    • Tartusi
    • Abu Qatada

battlespace of the mind
Battlespace of the mind

Discredit the Salafist-Jihadi ideology

  • Salafi scholars, particularly Saudi clerics, are best positioned to discredit the movement.
  • Jihadis lose credibility among mainstream Muslims by attacking women, children, the elderly; tarnishing the image of Islam among non-Muslims.
  • When innocent Muslims are killed, they are robbed of their chance to conduct their own personal and spiritual jihad as called for in the Qu’ran.
  • Jihadis lose support by creating political and social chaos in the Muslim world (fitna) and by damaging the sources of a nation’s wealth (such as tourism and oil).
  • Theirs is an extremely radical interpretation of an otherwise peaceful religion, and followers of this interpretation are more cultish than part of a religious movement.
    • “Qutbis” are followers of a man’s ideas, not the Koran
discrediting the ideology
Discrediting the ideology

Popular Support/Political Considerations

Apocalypticcults have limited ideological resonance; implications for strategic communications effort against al Qaida?





Apocalyptic Terrorism

“AQ & others who follow the Salafi-Jihad ideology are members of a destructive cult (Qutbis) not a religious movement”

counter the enablers of ideological resonance
Counter the Enablers of Ideological resonance

Offer a compelling counterideology

  • Is democracy an adequately compelling counterideology? If not, what is?
    • The spread of liberal democracy will address some - but not a majority - of the underlying causes of terrorism
    • Our policy of democratization is seen by many Muslims as a man-made religion, the antithesis of Islam, thus our commitment to spreading it throughout the world may be adding fuel to their fire. Must use caution.

Strengthen constraints to ideologies of catastrophic terrorism

  • Convince Jihadis that their methods are an ineffective and counterproductive means for social change
    • Because of the resilience of our society, economy, political system, etc., you are guaranteed not to achieve your objectives, regardless of the frequency or magnitude of your catastrophic terror attacks.
ideologies resonance
Ideologies & resonance


ideologies resonance1
Ideologies & resonance

[ backup slides ]

enablers of ideological resonance2
Enablers of ideological resonance
  • Religious beliefs are a particularly powerful enabler of violent ideologies because they add a spiritual dimension and:
  • Explain the state of the world, particularly why believers are continuously persecuted, oppressed, discriminated against, etc..
  • Explain how and why violence may be condoned and necessary
  • Are often theologically supremacist - meaning that all believers assume superiority over non-believers, who are not privy to the truth of the religion
  • Are exclusivist - believers are a chosen people, or their territory is a holy land
  • Are absolutist - it is not possible to be a half-hearted believer, and you are either totally within the system, or totally without it (and only the true believers are guaranteed salvation and victory, whereas the enemies and the unbelievers are condemned to some sort of eternal punishment or damnation, as well as death)
  • Overall, religious ideologies embrace polarizing values in terms of right and wrong, good and evil, light and dark - values which can be co-opted by terrorist organizations to convert a "seeker" into a lethal killer

wmd and ideology
WMD and ideology

Total Destruction

Ideology may indicate likely preference for certain type of CBRN










Apocalyptic Vision

Spectrum of Violent Ideologies