Bill Gertz, Washington Times national security columnist, reports (1/4/08) that the Pentagon has fired Stephen Coughlin, its most knowledgeable specialist on Islamic Law, and jihad terrorism. As Gertz observed aptly, the Pentagon thus ended the career of its most effective analyst attempting to prepare the military to wage ideological war against jihadism.
This past September, 2007, I lectured with Mr. Coughlin, a US Army Reserves Major, at The Naval War College, and witnessed his brilliant, tour de force presentation which elucidated the reliance of contemporary jihadism on Islamic Law. Coughlin demonstrated meticulously that “Jihad fi Sabil Allah”—“Jihad in the cause of Allah,” is the animating principle which underlies the threat of global jihad terrorism, and how this understanding should form the basis for rational, effective threat development assessment, and war planning.
That Coughlin’s analyses would even be considered “controversial,” or worse still lead eventually to his firing—perhaps, as Gertz strongly suggests, at the behest of a Muslim aide, Hesham Islam, within the office of Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England—is pathognomonic of the intellectual and moral rot plaguing our efforts to combat global jihadism.
There is no evidence that Mr. Islam—distinctly unlike Mr. Coughlin—has any specific expertise on the theory or historical practice of jihad; indeed Gordon England’s Egyptian Muslim aide is touted for his public relations skills—a sort of English-speaking Muslim Dragoman to the global Islamic umma. According to Deputy Secretary England,
Hesham [Islam] helps me understand people’s different perspectives and how they see things. He has a cultural background that’s very helpful, but he also works at it very hard to get a better understanding of people and how they think.
Coughlin’s reasoned conclusions simply update and complement, exquisitely, what serious scholars of jihad have long argued about revivalist movements throughout Islamic history. For example, forty years ago (in 1967), John Ralph Willis observed regarding the 19th century jihadist movements in West Africa, specifically, and such historical movements in general,
The jihad…is essentially an instrument of revival, employed for the purpose of extending the frontiers of Islam and leading the faithful back to roots. And it is not insignificant that the faithful, being in essence conservative, have been as susceptible to the summons of revivalists as they have been insensitive to the activity of reformists.
Stephen Coughlin’s modern predicament is eerily similar to what befell another courageous, unabashed American patriot, William Eaton, two hundred years ago, during our nation’s first encounter with jihad terrorism. “Victory in Tripoli,” Joshua London's compelling narrative of America’s initial conflict with jihadists—the Barbary wars—highlights, appositely, William Eaton’s experiences. Eaton's triumphs and travails during his tenure as consul to Tunis (1799-1803), and later U.S. naval agent to the Barbary states, mirrored those of the young American nation he served.
Born on February 23, 1764 in Woodstock, Connecticut, the highly intelligent and strong-willed Eaton, when 16 years old, ran away from home, subsequently lying about his age to join Washington's Continental Army. He rose to the rank of sergeant in the Continental Army, which he served until 1783. Eaton graduated Dartmouth in 1790, and in 1791 was chosen clerk of the Massachusetts House of Delegates, where he remained until 1797, while he also served (beginning in 1792) the U.S. Army as both a fighter and negotiator during the frontier campaigns against the American Indians. Later, Eaton assisted then Secretary of War Timothy Pickering's espionage/treason investigations. When Pickering became Secretary of State, he chose Eaton to serve as U.S. consul to Tunis, initially under President John Adams.
Eaton’s consular journal recorded these brutally honest and comical impressions of his first diplomatic encounter (on February 22, 1799) with Dey Bobba Mustafa of Algiers, which would make the craven State Department mandarins of today, wince:
…we took off our shoes and entering the cave (for so it seemed), with small apertures of light with iron gates, we were shown to a huge, shaggy beast, sitting on his rump upon a low bench covered with a cushion of embroidered velvet, with his hind legs gathered up like a tailor, or a bear. On our approach to him, he reached out his forepaw as if to receive something to eat. Our guide exclaimed, “Kiss the Dey’s hand!” The consul general bowed very elegantly, and kissed it, and we followed his example in succession. The animal seemed at that moment to be in a harmless mode; he grinned several times, but made very little noise. Having performed this ceremony, and standing a few moments in silent agony, we had leave to take our shoes and other property, and leave the den without any other injury than the humility of being obliged in this involuntary manner, to violate the second commandment of God and offend common decency. Can any man believe that this elevated brute has seven kings of Europe, two republics, and a continent tributary to him when his whole naval force is not equal to two line-of-battle ships? It is so.
Despite such inauspicious beginnings, and the institutionalized Barbary corruption Eaton found so repugnant to his person, and nation, his negotiations eventually secured U.S. commercial interests (at least a temporary) immunity from the attacks of Tunisian corsairs.
Eaton agonized over the gulf between the enormous potential and depressing reality of the Barbary states. He admired the Mediterranean coast of Tunis, “…naturally luxuriant and beautiful beyond description…I know not why it might not vie with the opposite continent in every thing useful, rich, and elegant”, yet despaired of the stultifying religio-political institutions which arrested the regions progress. Ultimately, Eaton concluded that Islam itself, certainly as practiced in Barbary, was the source of this backwardness:
Considered as a nation, they are deplorably wretched, because they have no property in the soil to inspire an ambition to cultivate it. They are abject slaves to the despotism of their government, and they are humiliated by tyranny, the worst of all tyrannies, the despotism of priestcraft. They live in more solemn fear of the frowns of a bigot who has been dead and rotten above a thousand years, than of the living despot whose frown would cost them their lives…The ignorance, superstitious tradition and civil and religious tyranny, which depress the human mind here, exclude improvement of every kind…
Appointed Naval Agent for the Barbary Regencies in 1804, Eaton then organized and led an expedition to unseat the predatory Barbary ruler Yusuf Qaramanli. Eaton’s army arrived outside Derna. on April 25, 1805. When the bey of Derna refused his generous ultimatum, at April 28, Eaton led a successful attack on the city, supported by U.S. naval gunfire. During the fighting Eaton—who had led his outnumbered force in a gallant bayonet charge—was wounded in the left wrist. As London recounts:
He simply wrapped his arm in a makeshift bandage and sling, grabbed a pistol with his right hand, and continued to charge ahead. With the American Marines in the lead, Eaton’s forces stormed the ramparts and advanced straight to the harbor.
Subsequent diplomatic efforts stalled the expedition. Tobias Lear, the Consul General, reached an accomodation with Yusuf Qaramanli, which included ransom money for all American prisoners, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Derna, and the betrayal of Eaton’s key Arab ally, Ahmad Qaramanli. Eaton commented upon this treaty with predictable bitterness in a letter to Commodore John Rodgers:
Could I have apprehended this result of my exertions, certainly no consideration would have prevailed on me to have taken an agency in a tragedy so manifestly fraught with intrigue, so wounding to human feelings, and, as I must view it, so degrading to our national honor.
Although the Senate ratified the Tripoli treaty in April 1806 by a vote of 21 to 8, as London notes,
Jefferson declared ‘victory,’ but the ‘peace’ proved rather political…The Federalists did not manage to derail the treaty, but they did embarrass and, at junctures, discredit President Thomas Jefferson and forever tarnish the career of Tobias Lear.
Just over five years later, in Brimfield, Massachusetts, June 1, 1811, an alcoholic forty-seven year old William Eaton died in near anonymity.
The signing of the Treaty of Ghent (Christmas eve, 1814)—subsequently ratified in the U.S. (February, 1815)—ended the so-called War of 1812 with Great Britain, and allowed President James Madison to address the problem of renewed Barbary jihad terrorism. Shortly afterward, President Madison commissioned two naval squadrons led by Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur, and dispatched them to the Barbary States in May, 1815. By June/July 1815 the ably commanded U.S. naval forces had dealt their Barbary jihadist adversaries a quick series of crushing defeats. These U.S. victories were solidified by what London terms “unprecedented” treaty agreements forced upon the Barbary states, which “..made practically no concessions and stood very firm on every point”—the abolition of all tribute; release of all American prisoners currently held, and acknowledgement that no future American prisoners of war could be enslaved; the payment of indemnities; and the restoration of American properties held by the dey.
Joshua London concludes his engrossing, carefully researched account of the Barbary wars with this insightful analysis:
During the war with Tripoli, the United States began to test William Eaton’s hypothesis that fighting back and protecting the national honor and national interest with force was the best way to end Barbary piracy. Just at the moment of triumph, however, President Thomas Jefferson wavered and settled on the side of expediency. Jefferson’s lack of resolve left American interests unguarded, and once again American maritime trade felt the Barbary terror. By 1816, however, the United States finally provided that William Eaton was right. This success ignited the imagination of the Old World powers to rise up against the Barbary pirates.
Thirty years earlier, in 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, then serving as American ambassadors to France and Britain, respectively, met in London with the Tripolitan Ambassador to Britain, Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja. These future American presidents were attempting to negotiate a peace treaty which would spare the United States the ravages of jihad piracy—murder, enslavement (with ransoming for redemption), and expropriation of valuable commercial assets—emanating from the Barbary states (modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya). During their discussions, they questioned Ambassador Adja as to the source of the unprovoked animus directed at the nascent United States republic. Jefferson and Adams, in their subsequent report to the Continental Congress, recorded the Tripolitan Ambassador’s justification:
… that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise.
Stephen Coughlin understands and enunciates what was stated openly to then Ambassadors John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—and what they apparently understood—by the Tripolitan Ambassador Adja. During his September. 2007 presentation which I witnessed at The US Naval War College, Coughlin updated this timeless Islamic formulation into its modern context:
If the Enemy in the War on Terror (WOT) states that he fights jihad in furtherance of Islamic causes that includes the imposition of Shari’a law and the re-establishment of the Caliphate; And Islamic law on jihad exists and is available in English; Then Professionals with WOT responsibilities have an affirmative, personal, professional duty to know the enemy that includes ALL the knowable facts associated with the law of jihad.
And Coughlin, a well-trained lawyer, further argued that such understanding by our military leaders is obligatory if they are to uphold their essential commission:
This is the Professional Standard.
Stephen Coughlin has been fired for reminding his peers of this basic obligation.
Two hundred years after William Eaton’s bitter, tragic experiences, and ultimate posthumous vindication, let us fervently hope that our contemporary military and political elites muster the intellectual courage to heed Major Stephen Coughlin’s advice in a much more timely, and responsible manner.