A Review of Defeating Jihad by Sebastian Gorka

Nations are only brought to life by their beliefs and their concepts, and they die only with their desires and their lusts.

Sebastian Gorka has a preternatural allergy to totalitarianism lodged deep in his bones. In fact, it’s a part of his genetic makeup. His newest book, Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War, opens with a retrospective on communist totalitarianism. The hero of this story is Gorka’s father Paul, who, as a young man in Hungary, first helped fight the fascists and then, following the conclusion of WWII, Hungary’s Soviet occupiers. Paul’s resistance was not without great costs: he was eventually betrayed, imprisoned, tortured to the point of permanent disability, made witness to the summary execution of his closest friends, and condemned to what was intended to be a life sentence.

This family history helps ground Gorka’s analysis of Soviet totalitarianism. Examining the American diplomat and Russian expert George Kennan’s famous Cold War era report on the USSR, the “Long Telegram”, Gorka points to Kennan’s description of the unique quality of Soviet aspirations:

[U]nlike prvious aspirants to hegemony, [the USSR] is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.

This aspiration was backed by the Soviet awareness that the United States, as the premier center of power in the non-Soviet world, was the principle enemy and therefore had to be subverted or destroyed by one means or another. Happily, of course, the Soviet ambition failed.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century. Sebastian Gorka, watching the black smoke mar the Manhattan skyline after the planes hit, understood one thing clearly: the totalitarians were back. Through a comparison between the Soviet and radical Islamist species of totalitarianism, Gorka convincingly argues that America needs to look back to the strategy that helped defeat the Soviets and to bring something similar to bear on the current fight. Kennan’s Long Telegram, a deep dive exploration of the Soviet mindset, its aims, and what it is was that drove their fight, helped shape America’s successful Cold War response. Defeating Jihad is Gorka’s groundwork for a new Long Telegram.

The heart of Defeating Jihad is helping readers to come to terms with our new totalitarian enemy. Behind any of the terrorist actions on US soil from just the last couple of years — whether the Philadelphia attack on a police officer in his car; to the botched Garland, Texas attack; to the Chattanooga massacre; the San Bernardino massacre; or most recently the Orlando night club massacre – we must recognize a doctrinal basis. That doctrine is global jihadism, rooted in the martial history of Islamism. Drawing on Islamic scholarship, Gorka notes that jihad consists of four varieties of human activity. The first three include fighting evil within oneself, exhorting proper behavior in others, and counseling and calling back to fidelity those who have fallen astray. The type of jihad most relevant in discussions of radical Islamist terrorism is the fourth kind – the jihad of the sword.

Tracing the trajectory of one stream of redefinition and reinterpretation that has transformed the character of jihad of the sword from the early days of the Prophet Muhammad to the present day, Gorka makes clear that the operational strategies of groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are deeply grounded in this evolving doctrine. Molded by seven historically-shaped conceptualizations, jihad of the sword has come to encompass empire building; the suppression of apostate subjects or “false Muslims”; revolution against “false” Muslim leaders; anti-colonial struggle and the “purification” of the religion; countering Western influence and jahiliyyah, or pagan ignorance of Allah; guerilla warfare against infidel invaders; and, ultimately, in the minds of extremists, the direct targeting of “the far enemy” – civilian noncombatants – in terrorist attacks.

The motivation of this latest, most extremist, expression of jihad of the sword is the motivation behind all of jihad – a struggle of belief against unbelief. Of course, the radical jihadist arrogates the right to determine who among their fellow Muslims are true believers. Collapsing apostates and infidel non-believers into a single enemy, the radical jihadists are motivated by a desire to purify the world and to reestablish Islamic greatness by inaugurating a new Caliphate – a new theocratic empire against which there is no dissent. Under Allah, everything must be one, all lands everywhere, the world entire, must be unified in shared submission to the will of the one true God. Like all totalitarians, the radical jihadist is determined to inaugurate the eschaton – the final phase of human history – into the here-and-now. For Gorka, America needs to grasp that this is a fight to the death. While he recognizes that our enemy does not, yet, have either the tank divisions or the nuclear weapons of the Soviets, they nevertheless have “something much more important: a religious fervor combined with an un-Western degree of patience that produces a lethal and unbelievable resilient commitment to its cause.”

Exclusivist, absolutist, and total, global jihadism will not run out of steam – it must be stopped. But, Gorka cautions, just because it’s a fight to the death it doesn’t mean we can simply kill our way out of this. Instead, we need to augment military action with psychological operations. This will involve, first, that we commit to speaking the truth about who our enemy is and what motivates them. Abdullah Azzam, one of the founder’s of Al Qaeda, wrote that “nations are only brought to life by their beliefs and their concepts, and they die only with their desires and their lusts.” Against these beliefs, drones are largely ineffective. However, notes Gorka:

There are hundreds of brave men and women across North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who, at risk to their lives, are arguing on the Internet against the seventh-century version of Islam that groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State represent.

The US, Gorka insists, “must redirect some of its resources from purchasing weapons and hardware to the covert funding of the information warfare campaigns of friendly Muslim governments and private initiatives. The Western world’s championing of the free market of ideas is among our greatest achievements. Now, rendered in a Muslim accent by our Islamic neighbors of good will, it can become our greatest counterterror asset. Azzam believed that global jihad was funded, necessarily, by both ink and blood – scholars and warriors. US firepower has a crucial place, but this is fight is a two-front war.

This ought to make sense to us. If we understand Martin Luther, we have the capacity to understand jihadi extremism. The Islamicist extremist believes he is embarked upon a great reformation of Islam. Sharing a macabre version of Luther’s own here-I-stand zeal, the jihadist extremist will not stand down. He believes he is on the brink of inheriting everything – what will he gain from parleying with us?

America and her allies have faced and defeated totalitarianism before. With a new band of allies, and the proper strategic will, we can do so again. Defeating Jihad, the new Long Telegram, helps to point the way how.