2014's spate of Islamic terror attacks against Western targets leaves observers grasping for words to describe what's happening. President Obama doesn't want to deal with it at all, so after a Muslim convert beheaded a woman in Oklahoma, he thought it appropriate to send the beheader's mosque (the Islamic Center of Greater Oklahoma City) warm greetings about "shared peace" and "a sense of justice." (The occasion was the Muslim feast of Eid Ul-Adh, but the timing was awful.) U.S. national security agencies are no help either—under the tutelage of the Muslim Brotherhood, they were purged long ago of any vocabulary useful for dealing with jihad. "Lone wolf" gets a lot of play with the media, but as Michael Ledeen, Andrew McCarthy, and Patrick Poole (here, here, and here) have all pointed out, there's nothing 'lone' about Muslim warriors, self-selected or otherwise, engaging in fard 'ayn (individual jihad) in obedience to the doctrine of their shared faith.
Nor are these attacks simply "terrorism" in any way that is uniquely descriptive. As Ledeen noted, the Unabomber was a domestic terrorist. The FBI calls the ELF (Earth Liberation Front) terrorist. The Black Liberation Army was accused of murdering more than a dozen police officers in its day. But none of these operates today in obedience to a 1400-year-old ideology that claims a divine commandment to conquer the earth. Nor is any of these other 'domestic terrorists' the 21st century embodiment of a force that already has overrun many powerful civilizations, including the Buddhist, Byzantine, Middle East Christian, Hindu, and Persian ones.
It's time to call this what it is: Jihad.
Jihad is a unique descriptor: it is motivated solely by one ideology—an Islamic one. It encompasses any and all tactics of war, be they the kinetic violence of terrorism, the stealthy influence operations of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian intelligence agencies, or funding, speaking, teaching, and writing. Importantly, the term 'jihad' is the one used by its own practitioners—the clerics, scholars, and warriors of Islam. Arguably the most valid qualification of all is that Islamic Law (shariah) defines jihad as "warfare to spread the religion [Islam]." Warfare encompasses many things, though, and not all of them are violent.
Katharine Gorka, President of The Council on Global Security, has an astute new essay entitled "The Flawed Science Behind America's Counter-Terrorism Strategy" in which she skewers the Obama administration's misguided policy it calls "Countering Violent Extremism." She explains how America's counter-terrorism 'experts' have tried haplessly to apply Social Movement Theory to what actually is a totalitarian ideology cloaked loosely in a handful of religious practices. A decade or more of attempting to apply the language of grievance, poverty, and unemployment laid at the door of Western colonialism or secular modernity has achieved little but the neutering of America's national security defenses. Yet, even this dead-on analysis doesn't quite get us where we need to be.
Just as Obama's bland "violent extremism," deliberately devoid of meaning identifies neither the enemy nor the ideology that animates him, so in its way, 'terrorism" likewise falls short. For if "terrorist" can and does mean anyone from a nut job like Ted Kaczynsky to assorted tree huggers, neo-Nazi skinheads, as well as Islamic warriors committing atrocities in the name of Allah, then its scope is just too broad to define precisely the paramount threat to global stability in the 21st century: jihad.
The magnitude of the jihad threat demands its own category. Neither Kaczynsky nor animal and environmental activists nor neo-Nazis could threaten the very existence of our Republic. Certain 20th century totalitarian ideologies arguably did, though, and that's why the U.S. marshaled every resource at its disposal to fight them to defeat. Islamic totalitarianism is such an ideology, albeit one that has survived cyclical periods of defeat and resurgence for many centuries. We constrain ourselves both conceptually and legally, however, when the only way to label an act of violence 'terrorism' is when it is carried out against civilians for a political purpose and the perpetrator(s) can be tied to a designated terrorist organization, with no consideration for the ideology that so many of them—and others not on such lists—share.
Islamic terror attacks of recent decades typically involved identifiable Islamic terror groups such as al-Qa'eda, Ansar al-Shariah, HAMAS, Hizballah, and the PLO, but were often funded and supported by jihadist nation states such as Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. As Katharine Gorka described in her white paper, though, the Obama administration's willfully amorphous term, "violent extremism," ensured that no enemy threat doctrine called 'jihad' that unifies these diverse yet similarly-motivated actors and that actually may threaten the Republic, was ever permitted to be articulated—or confronted.
Now, after the overwhelming post-9/11 Western retaliatory offensives, both al-Qa'eda and more recently, the Islamic State, increasingly have called for acts of 'individual jihad' (fard 'ayn, according to Islamic doctrine). Such attacks by Islamic true believers against armed service members, civilians, and law enforcement officers as well as ordinary citizens duly are proliferating across the West, but the U.S. national security establishment grasps for any term—lone wolf, violent extremist, workplace violence—to avoid saying either 'terrorism' or 'jihadist.' Granted, as Daniel Pipes noted in his 24 October 2014 essay, "Terrorism Defies Definition," there are legal consequences under the U.S. Legal Code for "formally certifying an act of violence as terrorist." But as we see, it's more than that – and it's why we need to use "jihad" more often and "terrorism" less.
To properly identify individual jihad attacks is to acknowledge that there is an established ideology behind them that derives its inspiration from Islamic doctrine, law, and scripture. To acknowledge that would mean the threat actually is existential, at a minimum in its objective: universal conquest and enforcement of shariah. Until and unless the entire American citizenry, federal bureaucracy, Intelligence Community, law enforcement, and the U.S. military understand that failing to acknowledge, confront, and defeat the forces of Islamic jihad and shariah indeed do endanger the very existence of our Republic as we know it, and mobilize to meet this challenge, the inexorable advance of shariah will continue. As Pipes notes with some understatement, the current "lack of clarity presents a significant public policy challenge."
The term "terrorism" will continue to provide useful applications in security categories and lists. But it is much too inclusive and yet restrictive to offer a precise definition of the Islamic threat. The forces of Islamic jihad and shariah are mounting a whole of civilization assault against liberal, modern, representative, secular civil society. Nation states, sub-national terror organizations, transnational alliances, academics and scholars, media conglomerates, networks of mosques and Islamic Centers, so-called 'charitable foundations' and their donors, battlefield fighters, and too many individual Muslims are united in a jihad that is not only violent but insidious, inexorable, and sophisticated. Unless we learn to resist in the same way—a whole of civilization way—that list of subjugated civilizations may yet include one more: ours.