Never Mind Group Membership -- It’s Islamic-Supremacist Ideology That Matters Most

by Andrew C. McCarthy

There’s a lot to be said about the matters covered in Patrick’s excellent post, which continues to plumb the depths of farce in the New York Times’ Hillary-free revisionist history of Benghazi. For now, though, just one observation: Far too much is made of the taxonomy of these multiple, expanding, cross-pollinating jihadist groups. (Judean People’s Front . . . or is it the People’s Front of Judea?)

In the jihadist plots of 1992–93 that we proved in the Blind Sheikh case, there was a New York–New Jersey–based cell comprised of a number of Sheikh Abdel Rahman’s subordinates from Gamaat al-Islamia (the Egypt-based “Islamic Group”); Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nephew; a group of Sudanese loyal to the Sheikh’s pal, Hassan al-Turabi; a Hamas guy; some other Palestinian and Iraqi jihadists; a couple of Americans who’d made their bones fighting in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan; an American from Puerto Rico (who today would be pigeon-holed into the misleading category of “home-grown” terrorist); and probably a few others who’ve slipped my mind. Al-Qaeda existed at the time, but not in the same form it would have a few years later, much less the form it has now.

I do not mean for a moment to suggest that membership in a specific terrorist organization is unimportant. I am simply pointing out that it is a lot more important to the terrorists than it is to us. To us, the targets, what matters is the overall jihad.

In my Benghazi column over the weekend, I reiterated the point I’ve been striving to make for over a decade (with diminishing returns, I often fear):

What knits together the global jihad is Islamic-supremacist ideology — mainstream Middle Eastern Islam, directly traceable to Koranic scripture. The organizational niceties and shifting loyalties of jihadist groups are a sideshow — including what it has become fashionable to call “core al-Qaeda” and its expanding array of franchises, tentacles, and wannabes.

In fact, even the resurgent Sunni–Shiite divide that is currently tearing the Middle East apart is less important when it comes to the United States, the Anglosphere, Europe, and Israel. As much as they despise each other, they hate us more. That’s why they put their significant differences aside to collaborate against us. To take the best and most important example, Shiite Iran and Hezbollah have been arming, training and harboring Sunni jihadists (including but by no means limited to al-Qaeda and Hamas) for over 20 years.

It is critical that we grasp this reality because hyper-focus on which organization is which can lead us to miss the big picture. It is how the Obama administration minimizes the terrorist threat – what’s the point of obsessing over “core al-Qaeda” when we well know that (a) even before 9/11, al-Qaeda colluded with other jihadist groups and regimes, and (b) after 9/11, al-Qaeda of necessity evolved into a more atomized, less centralized network whose cells and franchises had varying degrees of interaction with the “core”?

Too much focus on the known organizations is also how the Bush administration underrated the ideological threat. The formal groups and the emerging cells are not merely “violent extremists”; they are Islamic-supremacists who adhere to an ideology globally propagated by, most notoriously, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi regime, and the Iranian regime. Not everyone who shares the ideology is a terrorist. In fact, the vast majority are not. But huge numbers sympathize with the terrorists and abhor us. A good example: Polling during our military operations in Iraq indicated that a sizable majority of Iraqis believed Americans were legitimate targets of violent jihad, even though comparatively few Iraqis were terrorists. (This is because their sharia-based ideology teaches that non-Muslim “occupiers” must be driven out of Muslim lands – even if the said occupiers are actually trying to make life better for Muslims.)

We should be thankful that we have experts like Tom Joscelyn who understand the evolution, inter-connections, and infighting of jihadist groups and their members. You could never otherwise comprehend the threat and its global nature. But we also need to understand, first and foremost, that jihadists from different organizations – even ones like al Qaeda and Hezbollah, who are fighting each other in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq – will work together against us. When it comes to the jihad against America and our allies, shared ideology is key, organizational membership is secondary, and terrorist plots will often be joint ventures in which the perceived opportunity to attack an American target will be more relevant than which jihadist is in which group . . . at least for this week.

Of course, redirecting our focus to ideology instead of group membership would require overcoming our political correctness – namely, our willful blindness to the fact that the ideology in question is a mainstream interpretation of Islam – the “moderate” adherents of which are committedly anti-American even if they do not practice and may not support terrorist methods. Until we get that part right, we’ll never be able to develop an effective global counterterrorism strategy.