ISIS and the strategy of managed savagery

Management of Savagery, by Abu Bakr Naji has been described as “al-Qaeda’s playbook.” Although ISIS (often referred to by its adversaries as Da’ish) has ideological differences with al Qaeda and should not be viewed as an affiliate of the older jihadist group, Alastair Crooke believes that Naji’s text outlines the strategy which ISIS is now following in Iraq.

In 2006, in a review of jihadist theorists, Lawrence Wright wrote:

Naji writes in the dry, oddly temperate style that characterizes many Al Qaeda strategy studies. And, like all jihadi theorists, he embeds his analysis in the tradition of Ibn Taymiyya, the thirteenth-century Arab theologian whose ideas undergird the Salafi, or Wahhabi, tradition; bin Laden frequently refers to Ibn Taymiyya in his speeches. The remarks of bin Laden and Zawahiri play only a modest part in Naji’s work. Indeed, Naji is a more attentive reader of Western thinkers: the thesis of “The Management of Savagery” is drawn from the observation of the Yale historian Paul Kennedy, in his book “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” (1987), that imperial overreach leads to the downfall of empires.

Alastair Crooke now writes:

The term “management or administration of savagery,” a term detailed in Abu Bakr Naji’s treatise, in fact refers to that hiatus which occurs between the waning of one power and the consolidation of power of another. What is being assumed here is that a certain chaos will pertain, and that the disputed territory will be ravaged by violence as power oscillates back and forth between the “old” power and its incoming successor (the Islamic State).

In this period, according to its literature, the ISIS will have limited aims: achieving internal security and preserving it; fixing its frontiers; feeding the population; establishing Shariah and Islamic justice — and most importantly fixing the establishment of a “fighting society,” at all levels within the community.

According to The Management of Savagery, in this stage, security will require the elimination of spies and “deterring the hypocrites with proof and other means and forcing them to repress and conceal their hypocrisy, to hide their discouraged opinions, and to comply with those in authority, until their evil is put in check.” In short, we might expect that this will comprise ISIS’ aims for the coming period.

In other words, any move on Baghdad, which Da’ish insists will come, is unlikely to be imminent, but will have to wait until the area already seized is ‘secured’, and its frontiers controlled.

This phase also marks the “plundering the financial resources” for the purposes of the “project.” The implication here is that ISIS has as its aim eventually to become financially self-sufficient. Indeed, it clearly has been pursuing this objective in Syria (taking oil fields, seizing the arms warehouses of the SNC, and selling to Turks much of the industrial infrastructure of Aleppo and northern Syria).

This also suggests that, whilst ISIS is not presently contesting militarily the Peshmerga takeover in Kirkuk (with its substantial oil resources), it is only a matter of time before Da’ish seeks to acquire such an obvious source of funding – just as it has fought other jihadist groups in Syria for control of Raqa’a’s oil revenue.

But this second phase (administering the violent hiatus until the State is consolidated) — more ominously — signals the start of “massacring the enemy and making him frightened.” The literature underlines that anyone who has actually experienced conflict (in contrast to those who simply theorize about it) understands that slaughter and striking fear into the hearts of the enemy is in the nature of war.

The point is made by citing the Companions (of the Prophet) who “burned (people) with fire, even though it is odious, because they knew the effect of rough violence in times of need.”

The author of The Management of Savagery treatise bluntly states that there is no room for “softness”: “Softness” is the ingredient for failure: “our enemies will not be merciful to us, so it compels us to make them think one thousand times, before they dare attack us.”

It is here that we see the second key Zarqawrist notion: the reading given by ISIS to the military campaigns conducted by first Caliph. This “reading” highlights (and seeks to legitimize) the need to use “rough violence” during this period of hiatus, when Islamic power was not yet fully consolidated. It was a moment, following the death of the Prophet that several Arab tribes refused to pay Zakat to Abu Bakr (as they had earlier to the Prophet when he was alive), and held (in accordance with the prevailing Arab tradition) that their tribal allegiance to the Prophet naturally expired with the leader’s death. There followed the brutal Wars of the Ridda (or the Wars of Apostasy).

What is significant here, too, is the narrow construction placed on apostasy — a definition to which Da’ish adheres closely.

In sum, the beheadings and other violence practiced by ISIS are not some whimsical, crazed fanaticism, but a very deliberate, considered strategy. The military strategy pursued by ISIS in Iraq, too, is neither spontaneous nor some populist adventure, but rather reflects very professional well-prepared military planning. [Continue reading…]

While the re-creation of the caliphate is ISIS’s stated goal, its desire to establish an Islamic state and its declaration that it has already succeeded in accomplishing this goal, begs the question of how it envisions governance. If Naji serves as a reliable guide, it sounds as though the jihadists want to assert ideological control while handing over administrative responsibilities to hired employees.

Lawrence Wright writes:

Alone among Al Qaeda theorists, Naji briefly addresses whether jihadis are prepared to run a state should they succeed in toppling one. He quotes a colleague who posed the question “Assuming that we get rid of the apostate regimes today, who will take over the ministry of agriculture, trade, economics, etc.?” Beyond the simplistic notion of imposing a caliphate and establishing the rule of Islamic law, the leaders of the organization appear never to have thought about the most basic facts of government. What kind of economic model would they follow? How would they cope with unemployment, so rampant in the Muslim world? Where do they stand on the environment? Health care? The truth, as Naji essentially concedes, is that the radical Islamists have no interest in government; they are interested only in jihad. In his book, Naji breezily answers his friend as follows: “It is not a prerequisite that the mujahid movement has to be prepared especially for agriculture, trade, and industry. . . . As for the one who manages the techniques in each ministry, he can be a paid employee who has no interest in policy and is not a member of the movement or the party. There are many examples of that and a proper explanation would take a long time.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email