The threat of ISIS and the importance of understanding the ideology of jihadism

by Elizabeth Rodricks and Kevin Dunne  |  March 15, 2016  |  PAST EVENTS

Dr. Sebastian Gorka, professor at The Institute of World Politics and founding member of the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs (CENSA), delivered a lecture on March 2 entitled "ISIS, Religion, and Today's War", to an audience convened for the day's conference on "Providence, Military Women, and Syria," co-sponsored by Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy and IWP. The morning and afternoon panels for the day were  a Panel on Women in Combat and a Panel on Syria, Migrants, Russia, and ISIS.  

Dr. Gorka started his lecture by stating that ISIS has achieved more in two years than Al Qaeda thought possible over the course of its existence. The main difference between the two groups is that ISIS is better at exploiting and manipulating religious beliefs than Al Qaeda is. To restate Dr. Gorka, the threat of terrorism is global, not national, and the constant to every attack launched against the West has been the mindset of jihadism. In order to appreciate the motivation behind these attacks, one has to understand the role of sincerely held religious belief.

Dr. Gorka argued that there are four reasons why ISIS is much more dangerous than Al Qaeda.  First, ISIS is a fully fledged international terrorist group with a self-sustaining resource pool which has brought in more than 75,000 jihadists. Second, ISIS is the wealthiest organization of its kind -- that is, a militant Islamic organization -- estimated by the Financial Times to bring in roughly $500 million a year.  Third, ISIS is particularly adept at recruiting foreign fighters, and, moreover, its austere interpretation of Islam is able to attract a high volume of disenfranchised Muslims in the West. Lastly, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the media and command arms of ISIS have done an excellent job crafting a compelling narrative for jihad on top of authentic religious material from the Hadiths and Quran.

Understanding the role of religion and the transcendental is crucial to the U.S. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi claims he is leading ISIS for the sake of his God and the community of all Muslims, yet many people in the U.S. government and administration believe that this war has nothing to do with Islam or religion. Dr. Gorka proffered a response to the question of "so what?" by arguing that it is always better to "know your enemy." To solidify this point, he demonstrated that in 2003, there were 1.4 million indigenous Iraqi Christians; now, in that same area, there are fewer than 200,000. The conflicts in the Middle East have an explicitly religious edge to them. Our own problems with religious terror are on display in our backyard, too: 2015 has seen a record number of attacks in the U.S., and over 90 individuals have been arrested.

Dr. Gorka expressed that anyone who denies that this is a religious war is committing "national security malpractice." More than 40 percent of intelligence analysts at CENTCOM, he said, do not have confidence in the analytical integrity of the material being published. This group of individuals believe that domestic political correctness is undermining our capacity to understand the enemy in the way that he understands himself. Dr. Gorka concluded by arguing that the hardest and most important task of any competition is to not only know the enemy, but, as Sun Tzu says, "know thyself." Americans must know themselves well enough to realize their vulnerabilities that ISIS uses, and they must know the enemy well enough to treat him as is, not as he ought to be from the perspective of progressive society.

Dr. Sebastian Gorka teaches Enemy Threat Doctrine of Global Jihadism at The Institute of World Politics and advises and briefs at the highest levels to U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, and NATO. Dr. Gorka has published over 140 monographs, book chapters and articles, and was awarded the Joint Civilian Service Commendation by US Special Operations Command.