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In Their Own Words: Voices of Jihad

In Their Own Words: Voices of Jihad by David Aaron. RAND Corporation, 2008, 348 pp., $35.

In Their Own Words: Voices of Jihad differs from the plethora of existing books on radical Islamic terrorism that have emerged since 9/11. This volume offers minimal analysis and commentary. It instead focuses on poignant direct quotes from jihadist correspondence, interviews, writings, and recordings. While other in-their-own-words jihad tomes focus almost exclusively on such senior al-Qaeda leaders as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, this book broadens the scope by presenting a wider range of jihadists to include the prominent and the obscure.

David Aaron is highly qualified to assemble and comment on these provocative and relevant passages. Prior to his current role as director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at RAND, he served in the US Foreign Service, in the Carter administration as deputy national security advisor, and in other high-level diplomatic posts. His educational background includes degrees from Occidental College and Princeton University.

Between illuminating introduction and conclusion chapters, the core of In Their Own Words includes seven chapters, each focusing on a single aspect of the jihadist movement. These include “Life in Jihad,” “Seeds of Jihad,” “Ideology,” “World View,” “Enemies,” “Fighting,” and “Iraq/Afghanistan.” Each begins with a brief commentary by the author.

In the chapter on ideology, the author discusses the influences on and diversity of the various Islamic viewpoints (from relatively liberal Sufism to the conservative Wahhabism). When introducing the chapter on fighting the jihad, the author emphasizes that terrorist acts are not simply killing for the sake of killing. Instead, these acts are strategic attacks with specific end states (however unrealistic) in mind. The introductions are concise, providing sufficient context for the material without overshadowing it.

What do the jihadist passages reveal? Amidst the religious posturing, several quotes reveal the pragmatic and economic concerns underlying the jihad: “All products have gone up in prices several folds except oil itself, which is the basic component of the whole industry. Oil prices do not reflect market reality. . . . A fair price for oil at the present time is a minimum USD 100.00.” The words also underscore the transnational nature of the jihadist objectives:  “When the enemy has entered an Islamic land, there is no doubt that it is obligatory on those closest to the land to defend it, and then on those around them . . . for the entire Islamic land is like a single country.” The latter quote distinguishes jihadism, as defined by Aaron in his introduction, from such more narrowly focused militant Islamic groups as Hezbollah and Hamas. The reader also will find traces of military doctrine in such passages as “The United States superiority is in its air power only, and air power, as everyone knows, cannot decide a war.”

Most striking of the quotes is the degree of apparent sincerity among many jihadists and the elaborate rationalizations subsequently provided for their actions. In one testimonial, a jihadist reported, “We were sinners and I thought this was the only way to redemption.” Another “heard a long sermon that touched my heart and I decided to commit myself to jihad.” Once converted, these jihadists place few behavioral barriers in the way of their sacred calling. One passage debates whether “women, children, monks, old people, the blind, handicapped and their likes.” should be killed; perhaps thinking himself merciful, the jihadists suggest they “make an exception for women and children since they constitute property for Muslims.”

On the mundane end of the spectrum, several passages border on the humorous, at times sounding almost like a Saturday Night Live sketch. Imagine the following lines from the book taking place inside a cave that serves as al-Qaeda’s accounting department: “Why did you buy a new fax for $470? Where are the two old faxes? Did you get permission before buying a new fax under such circumstances? . . . Please explain the cell phone invoice amounting to $756 (2,800 riyals) when you have mentioned communication expenses of $300. . . . Why are you renovating the computer? Have I been informed of this?”

As the author notes, even jihadists are not immune from bureaucratic tendencies. Another passage provides elaborate modifications to the rules of soccer to conform with radical interpretations of Islam: “Any of you who, when he kicks the ball between the wooden or iron posts, then runs so that his friends will run after him to embrace or adulate him as players do in America and France, spit in his face and discipline him and berate him.” Such unintended humor is rare, overshadowed by persistent bigotry: “There is no such thing as an ‘innocent’ kafir, innocence is only applicable for the Muslims.” Another quote focuses on out-group dehumanization through such terms as Hindu dogs and more than 100 references to infidels. Still another quote relishing killing in the name of religion: “We found Pilipino Christians, so we cut their throats and dedicated them to our brothers. . . . We found Hindu engineers and killed them, too, praise God.”

The United States may possess military, economic, and diplomatic dominance over the jihadists, but the informational instrument of power has too often worked against the United States in this lengthy conflict. To gain further ground in the war of ideas requires a deeper and less simplistic understanding of the jihadist movement. As the author notes in his closing, “Understanding this enemy is crucial to devising effective strategies and defenses and to waging the war of ideas that underlies jihadism.” Therefore, for anyone who heeds Sun Tzu’s ancient advice to “know thy enemy” will consider this compilation from RAND essential reading.

Maj Benjamin D. Forest, USAF

Air Command and Staff College

"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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