Islamic “Fundamentalism”

If your conception of ISIS imagines illiterate fanatics making suicidal charges in pickup trucks and are confused about how a glorified motorcycle gang could conquer half of Iraq and Syria, wiping out a $25 BN US investment in the Iraqi army in the process, you might want to learn more about the roots of the movement and how it is trained and led today. Such an understanding may come in handy in the future.

For background, try William R. Polk’s article, Understanding Islamic Fundamentalism, on As he explains:

Some of [Sayyid Qutub’s] writings bear comparison to the Islamic legal classics. As a group, they have attracted a mass readership — believed to be in the tens of millions — throughout the Islamic world and have apparently influenced men as opposed to one another as the leaders of the Taliban, the Saudi Royal Establishment, al-Qaida, the Iranian and Iraqi clerics [Arabic: ulema] and now the various and competing groups of Syrian militants. Sayyid Qutub is the philosopher of the Islamic revolution.

Implicit in his writings was the idea that Islam is under attack and therefore must defend itself because failure to do so would be to contravene the intention of God.

It’s a long piece, and you’ll have to read this carefully, but it should make it easier to understand what’s happening in the Middle East and South Asia today.  Those of you who follow Chuck Spinney’s Blaster will recall Polk from a piece he and Chuck did a couple of weeks ago, “How to Evolve an Exit Strategy From America’s Foreign Policy Shambles.”

As for what’s going on today, here’s a summary by Mitchell Prothero writing for McClatchy, How 2 shadowy ISIS commanders designed their Iraq campaign.  You have to be extremely careful accepting at face value anything coming from that part of the world (remember Baghdad Bob?), but even so, I think you’ll be impressed at the professionalism of the ISIS leadership. Writing them off as ignorant fanatics would be a big mistake:

“These men are very good and very ruthless at this sort of thing,” [a former British officer] said. “How do I know? Because I trained them. As did the Americans and everyone else for their fight against Iran in the ’80s. It’s all the same guys at the top now.”

This combination of slowly gaining strength among disaffected Sunnis was crucial to the ISIS advance.

“You don’t need many Daash [ISIS] guys,” said the Kurdish intelligence official. “A few gun trucks shooting at the checkpoint as a suicide bomber or two in cars smash into it, followed by the tribes taking the police station. A few people acting fast can seem like a lot more.”

Most estimates of ISIS’s strength in Iraq tend to be in the low thousands. But their easy mobility in convoys of pickups with little threat from an almost nonexistent air force gave the group an outsized presence, the sources agreed.

This last might remind you of Boyd:


• By exploiting superior leadership, intelligence, communications, and mobility as well as by playing upon adversary’s fears and doubts via propaganda and terror, Mongols operated inside adversary observation- orientation-decision-action loops.


• Outnumbered Mongols created impressions of terrifying strength—by seeming to come out of nowhere yet be everywhere.


• Subversive propaganda, clever stratagems, fast breaking maneuvers, and calculated terror not only created vulnerabilities and weaknesses but also played upon moral factors that drain away resolve, produce panic, and bring about collapse. [Patterns of Conflict, chart 28]

 Amazing how this stuff works time and time again.

7 thoughts on “Islamic “Fundamentalism”

  1. I wonder if this is fundamentalism is a legacy of colonialism, and increasingly, the importance of oil. The Middle East has never had its equivalent of a Renaissance period, nor has it offered much for the standard of living of the average person. Nothing like this ever appears in a vacuum.

    What I think fundamentalism offers for many may very well be a perceived source of hope, against the perceived wrongs of the world to many. That may seem crazy to us living in the West, but consider a person living in the Middle East.

    Relating to ISIS, the logical conclusion of all of this is that this ISIS has a very tight OODA loop indeed. It appears to have competent leadership that has learned the hard won lessons of warfare. They can move faster than any “conventional” 2nd generation Western military can, so to speak.

    Of course, what does this all mean for the US? Realistically, I doubt there is much the US can do. There are quite a few calls interestingly enough, particularly from the neoconservatives, to send troops into Iraq.

    The experiences of the war in Afghanistan over the past 10 years fight the Taliban, along with various tribes throughout that nation, however, are not encouraging. So too is the inability of the US to face down the counterinsurgency. The “bring it on” mentality that Bush II encouraged was very, very ill-advised. I cannot imagine though that the neocons will allow such facts to get in the way though.

    The scary question is, will Washington succeed in escalating this one to a full scale war like Iraq in 2003?


  2. I read Cockburn’s article. My assessment of the situation is:

    Most of the Sunni people who claim to be a part of ISIS appear to be actually moderate. They aren’t really fundamentalists. They just want a better life for themselves. The Maliki government has clearly wronged them, treated them as second class, and at times, used violence against them for no reason than their ethnicity. It is true that Suddam did the same against the Shi’a people, but that does not justify Maliki “returning” the favor so to speak.

    The ISIS leadership though appears to be quite battle hardened. Since 2003, they’ve learned the hard lessons of war and have managed to unify the Sunni factions (which appear to be rivals) by not going too extreme. In the long run, their goal is to create a fundamentalist state, but they know that they cannot in the near future, because they need their fellow Sunni on their side if they are to have any hope of consolidating their gains.

    In the long run, if they establish control over the Sunni areas and are secure, they will begin to try to enforce a far more authoritarian and far more fundamentalist agenda. But for now, they will try to keep themselves moderate, especially because they know that the Sunni population distrusts them.

    The logical conclusion of all of this is that the US cannot really help by sending troops or airstrikes.

    Airstrikes will kill mostly the supporting factions. That will anger the Sunni population even more, most of whom already see the US as anti-Sunni. It’s unlikely that it will do much against the veterans, most of whom probably lived for years with air attacks anyways. With airplanes that could actually be useful being retired (namely the A-10 and anything similar), the US will be limited to tactical bombing and drone strikes. Needless to say, the historical performance of those weapons systems speak for themselves. Civilian casualties could far higher in Iraq than Afghanistan too, owing to the more urbanized nature of iraq.

    A “conventional” attack will also be ineffective. At first, it may gain an initial advantage for a few years (like in Afghanistan when the US partnered with the Northern Alliance). But in the long run, it will not be effective. ISIS will adapt. In fact, they may not even gain an initial advantage. The insurgency in Iraq has over 10 years of leadership facing the US. I cannot see the US able to pacify any insurgency with any number of troops. Plus the US cannot even afford a sustained war as is.

    What if the US manages a Bin Laden style raid? Or kills the “number two and number three”? Well, killing Bin Laden did nothing in Afghanistan to weaken the Taliban. How many times have you heard of “number x” being killed in the news by drone strikes or raids? Did it ever have an effect? No, it was militarily insignificant. The logical conclusion is that it won’t be in Iraq either.

    I can see the Sunni nations, especially Saudi Arabia backing ISIS. Meanwhile, Iran will try to back the Shi’a government in power there. So that adds complexity.

    Compounding all of this, if the US intervenes, it will be seen as a moral failure. To the Sunni people, it will be seen as US essentially taking sides against the Sunni as an ethic group.

    I don’t know if my assessment means anything, but my bet is that it is probably closer to “right” than the people in Washington who make policy are.

    – Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      We shall see.

      “Sunni,” by the way, simply means “one who follows the way,” in this case of the Prophet Mohammad as illustrated by the hadith (sayings) and sunnah (stories about what the Prophet did). The differences between Sunni and Shi’ite may seem quite esoteric to non-Muslims, and they are sometimes compared to those between Catholics and Protestants in Christianity. You can find lots more information out on the Web.

      Point is that neither “Sunni” nor “Shi’ite” are in any way ethnic labels. There are tribes in Iraq, for example, that have both Sunni and Shi’ite sub-tribes. I’m not sure what this means as far as what’s going on over there now.


      • “The differences between Sunni and Shi’ite may seem quite esoteric to non-Muslims, and they are sometimes compared to those between Catholics and Protestants in Christianity. You can find lots more information out on the Web.”

        Having quite a few Muslim friends, I agree. You are correct. They are not ethnic groups. They are sects. But I think under the circumstances, they are in a way, like the ethnic conflicts that we see elsewhere. The school of Islam for most Muslims gives them their identity in life. That is why we see the intensity of the struggle the way it is happening.

        The situation is far more complicated than that though. The tribes are not quite like what we see things in the developed world. Loyalty for the people in each tribe is to their tribe or clam. There are differences from say, Afghanistan owing to the more urban nature of Iraq, but the basic loyalty is going to be to your group.

        I guess the best way to put it would be like a computer model. You gotta make some assumptions, whenever you make a model. What you don’t have is unlimited time, computer processing power, and so on. Certainly you do not have “perfect information”, or else you would have no need for a model. The model gives you an imperfect approximation that will hopefully be good enough so to speak for assessing whatever it is you are modelling.

        But I think otherwise what I said is basically correct. If the US enters the war against ISIS, this could spark a backlash among Sunni Muslims. That could have consequences elsewhere.

        I wonder if anyone who ever made their strategy in ISIS has read a translated version of Sun Tzu. They seem to have mastered his ideas quite well. That does not bode well for us in the West. By contrast, the US military seems to be stuck with a very 2nd generation mentality to warfare, believing that superior technology and firepower will win the “War on Terror”. If anything, both the US Congress and MICC seem determined to ignore the hard won lessons of the past few decades.

        – Chris

      • Hi Chris,

        I wonder if anyone who ever made their strategy in ISIS has read a translated version of Sun Tzu. They seem to have mastered his ideas quite well. That does not bode well for us in the West.

        I’d be surprised if they hadn’t. His stuff is widely available. When I was in Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s, a friend in the Royal Saudi Air Force showed me an article in their cadet magazine on Sun Tzu.


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