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The Canons of Jihad: Terrorists' Strategy for Defeating America

The Canons of Jihad: Terrorists’ Strategy for Defeating America, edited by Jim Lacey. Naval Institute Press, 2008, 186 pp.

This book should be required reading for every citizen of the United States and the European Union. Jim Lacey has done us all an incredibly valuable service by collecting this illuminating volume of writings. It is not a collection of writing about jihadists; it is a collection of writings by jihadists. As such, it provides an enlightening and in many cases alarming insight into their goals, their motives, and their very minds. It is very much like reading the personal mail of jihadists communicating with each other. The Canons of Jihad reveals for us what jihadists are saying to each other, about each other, and about themselves. Every member of any US administration, as well as every member of Congress, should take the time to read this book and reflect upon its implications. That is very much like recommending, in 1936, that leaders around the world should take the time to read Mein Kampf. Adolph Hitler was extraordinarily clear in describing his intentions and his underlying motivations, but the world in general did not take heed. So it seems today. Although we are not dealing with a single person advancing National Socialism as a means to grab enough power to threaten the world, we are faced with a relatively small group of people who are even more determined to seize political power to impose their ideology and their religion upon the world at large.

Lacey has made it much easier to understand just who these people are, what they really want, and how they intend to get it. As he states in his introduction, one of the major disincentives of reading jihadist writing is that it is so incredibly steeped in “religious” scholarship. Jihadists do not merely state facts and assumptions or use analysis to support conclusions. Instead, almost all of their writings are burdened with extensive religious or quasireligious justification for a statement or a point of view. As Lacey points out, the ratio of noise to signal, or justification to message, generally approaches 10:1. Lacey uses the term “dense” to describe it; “impenetrable” might be a more appropriate description for most Westerners. Lacey has made literature that is simply too dense for most readers at least comprehensible.

The opening chapter, “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders,” consisting of a mere three pages, is worth the price of the entire book. It is the 1998 declaration of war against the United States issued by the “World Islamic Front” and signed by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, among others. Many Westerners have a tendency to consider a fatwa as the ravings of a lunatic—someone shrilly screaming incomprehensible noise. A reflective reading of this chapter should cause a reader to pause and hear the message in the noise. These people are serious—deadly serious—and are absolutely convinced that any means to achieve their ends are fully justified, even required, by God. They make three points in this document: the United States is “occupying” the Arabian Peninsula; it has been massacring Iraqis; and the ultimate US aim is to permanently occupy the Arabian Peninsula as a means of guaranteeing Israel’s survival.

For a critical thinker, the appropriate question is not whether this point of view is accurate or even partially justified; the appropriate question is who does this message appeal to and how convincing is it to that audience. The answer to that question is sobering, particularly in light of the accompanying fatwa: “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip.” Note the call to every Muslim and the universality of violent engagement. The message continues, “We, with God’s help, call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money whenever and wherever they find it.” To ignore the implications of such a call to violence requires a determined refusal to acknowledge a very real threat.

This somewhat detailed dissection of the first chapter could apply equally to the rest of the book as well. Lacey presents the distilled messages in a generally readable, comprehensible style. Americans in particular should understand who the Muslim Brotherhood are and what their goals are, as well as the fact that they have assassinated not just one, but two Egyptian presidents. The Muslim Brotherhood is not your local Moose Lodge. A common theme is that replacing “apostate” despotic rulers in the Middle East is an intermediate goal that must be preceded by cutting off the support of the “great Satan.” To cut off that support, the United States must be attacked and neutralized worldwide, by any and every means possible. Only with the United States neutralized will the imposition of Islam be possible worldwide.

In the West, we tend to compartmentalize our lives and our environment, with a compartment for politics and government, another for religion, another for the law, another for business, and yet another for personal behavior. It is difficult for most Westerners to comprehend that Islam rolls all of these compartmentalized parts into a single integrated ideology; it is not just a religion, it is an all-encompassing, all-consuming ideology that would impose itself on every facet of human life. This truth emerges from the writings of jihadists to jihadists.

Lacey’s book is not perfect. Even with the majority of religious rationale stripped away, it is still tedious. It reminded me a great deal of the various communiqués and manifestos issued by an assortment of “revolutionaries” in the 1970s and 1980s. That cannot be helped. It is still one of the best, most readable insights into the mind of the jihadist I have read. Get a copy. Read it. Consider it in light of the recent unrest in the Middle East. Believe it.

Thomas E. Ward II, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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