There is no shortage of differences between Islamic terrorist organizations. They belong to different religious sects, they hail from different populations and societies, they have different aims and different names. However, these Islamist cells find common ground in their strategy of muqawama, the Arabic term for “resistance.”
The notion of Islamic resistance draws from the fundamentalists’ perception that Islam and its values are under severe attack by the West. The West's ill-mannered culture; its sexual liberalism, including its twisted outlook on the status of women; its blasphemy; and above all its coarse marketing of the liberal and democratic values through movies and the internet -- all this creates a “threat” that Islamists see as a tremendous peril to the Islamic youngsters who can easily be tempted by the pleasures the Western culture has to offer. In short, Western culture challenges Islam's most basic conception, namely that it is a ruling religion that will prevail across the world. Resistance against the West, then, becomes the Islamists’ way of attaining the hegemony they believe is rightly theirs.
Islamic terrorist organizations share seven similar goals:
First, they believe that the muqawama is a long, obstinate, and persistent struggle. They do not expect immediate results, nor is a triumph foreseen.
Second, the muqawama is relatively weaker than the countries and regimes it attacks. Nevertheless, the muqawama sees its martial weakness as an advantage. The jihad campaign against the former Soviet Union’s forces in Afghanistan is a pilot model, offering the prospect of triumph against a significantly stronger enemy.
Third, the muqawama is premised on support from civilian populations. Thus, Islamic terrorist groups will efficiently support the local inhabitants in fields where the local regime neglects them by providing education, security, and other necessities. This component enables the resistance to survive on a long-term basis. Without the local population's support, Islamists know, they are doomed to fail.
The three components mentioned above are relatively common patterns of guerrilla warfare. The following patterns are unique to the muqawama.
A fourth feature of the muqawama is that it aspires to be a worldwide, religious struggle for ensuring the supremacy of Allah and his believers against the heretics. As a worldwide struggle, it will recruit support, activists and funding from various sources. The struggle, however, will necessarily seek some sort regional cause for reasons of recruiting local support.
Fifth, the resistance places little importance on territory. It is meaningless to hold a line, or keep a certain territory under its governance. The muqawama's warriors will not loose if they retreat from their posts, even for months. Islam needs to prevail, not a specific platoon.
Sixth, Islamic terrorists see death as an advantage, and pines for it. Those who have fallen in the name of the resistance’s gain earn special respect and become "Shahids" (literally – witnesses, who demonstrate, or testify about their deep belief by giving their lives away for the cause).This practice, based on the ancient Shiite tradition of self sacrifice and eventually imported to Sunni Islam, turns the wish and desire for martyrdom into a powerful weapon.
Seventh, the terrorists’ battle will take place among and against civilians. Innocent people on both sides are put into the battlefield, mostly against their will. Because the battlefield is a spiritual one, the battle can occur anywhere, whether in the enemy's main street or in the warriors own village. Regarding the risk that Muslim civilians will be killed during these actions, Muqawama combatants will reply with the saying that "Allah will recognize (the believers) of his own," literally meaning that Muslims who died during a campaign will gain respect and glory in heaven because Allah is able to identify them as true believers.
All of this has important implications for Western military strategists and policymakers. Because terrorists will operate in civilian surroundings, the Western world’s ability to project military force will have to be limited in order to minimize civilian casualties. Instead, the West will have to ensure that terrorist organizations lack the popular support to carry out their activities. That will require countering the terrorists’ claims that they represent the interests of local populations, while at the same time offering them an alternative for improving their lives.
The good news is that terrorist organizations are often their own worst enemies in this regard. A good example would be the Palestinian Islamist organizations. Starting from October 2000, the Palestinian Jihad and the Hamas movement, along with national Palestinian forces, initiated a series of warfare activities against Israeli citizens and soldiers. During the first two years of these clashes, 92 percent of the Palestinian population supported the fighting. But after a long campaign with almost no political achievements by the Palestinians, the support has slowly decreased more than 40 percent.
The Palestinian public asked themselves two simple questions: "What did we achieve?" and "How much did it cost?" The answer to the first question was nothing. The answer to the second question was quite a lot: over 3000 casualties; the imposition of blockades, roadblocks, and the defense barrier separating the Palestinian territories from Israel; a significant economic hardship. Needless to say, this is not a balance that creates support for the goals of the “resistance.”
Another important lesson about terrorist organizations is that they often act rationally. Like all organizations, they seek to function effectively and will not compromise their own strategic position. Lebanese Hezbollah, for example, does not want to be seen as the cause of a civil war that will tear Lebanon apart, loosing Hezbollah many of its supporters. Rationally, it will not and cannot let this happen. Awareness of this fact creates an opening for the West to undermine terrorist organizations where they operate.
At the end of the day, the muqawama is fought more on a conceptual basis rather than on the battlefield. It is therefore essential for the West to realize that counterterrorism cannot mean simply killing enemy combatants. More than ever before, defeating terrorism will require the West to win the “hearts and minds” of civilian populations, both in the Middle East and at home.
Yaniv Ofek is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at The Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.