The central argument espoused by jihadist ideologues and leaders is that the Muslim world is plagued by grievances and injustices, many of which are caused by the West. According to their logic, the United States and corrupt, oppressive Muslim regimes are two sides of the same coin. Jihadist leaders warn Muslims not to fall for Western “deceptive” ideas such as democracy and human rights because they are designed to divert the umma (Islamic community) from jihad and ultimately paralyze it. Ayman al-Zawahiri, for example, asserts that the United States has only achieved its interests “by spreading oppression and terrorism at the hands of its [Islamic] allies.”[1] According to al-Zawahiri, Western civilization sings the praises of human rights and liberties as long as such singing serves and benefits its interests.[2] Jihadists have thus determined that jihad is the only path toward genuine change in this world and divine reward in the hereafter. Their jihad, they claim, is to fight to make God’s Law supreme on earth. Only then can all Muslims, rulers and citizenry, be equally accountable to God’s Law.

In view of the prevalence of “Islamic” expressions in contemporary political discourse, it is critical to distinguish between Islamists and jihadists. Islamists—who share with jihadists the belief that Islamic teachings of social justice are the solution to the malaise Muslims face today—operate within the political processes of the nation-state; they often form political parties and advance their agenda through contesting elections. By contrast, jihadists reject the world order of nation-states, believing it to be a continuation of Western imperialism through other means. This extends to their rejection of political notions such as national sovereignty and any regional or international institutions (such as the Arab League or the United Nations).

Jihadists have instead opted for a paradigm exclusively defined by religious principles. Given their rejection of the legitimacy of national and international political norms and institutions, a religious paradigm allows the jihadists to find alternative sources of legitimacy that would make it lawful, in their eyes, to transcend and indeed violate the laws of their home regimes and those of the international community. Such an ideology, as articulated by its adherents, has its strengths, but also harbors within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

The Strengths of Jihadist Ideology

There are three key features that lend themselves to advancing the cause of jihadism: 1) an idealistic commitment to a righteous cause; 2) individualism in interpreting religion; and 3) the conviction that Muslims today are engaged in defensive warfare (jihad al-daf`), making their jihad not just lawful but an individual duty incumbent upon each one of them.


Jihadist ideologues project a commitment to a righteous cause. They claim that their battle is waged in the service of God; it is not contaminated with ephemeral interests. The loyalty of the jihadists is to God alone, not to leaders or states. They love what He loves and hate what He hates. This form of loyalty underpins the bonding mechanisms that are meant to unite jihadists, namely the paradigm of wala’ and bara’: wala’ refers to the loyalty jihadists must have toward those, who, like them, love God’s friends and hate His enemies; bara’ refers to those from whom jihadists must dissociate because they have compromised God’s Law by putting worldly concerns ahead of divine commands.[3] In political parlance, wala’ and bara’ constitute the jihadists’ “social/global contract,” designating those who are “in” from those who are “out.” Yet in their case, loyalty is not subject to the exclusive bureaucratic processes of the state, as jihadism does not define categories comparable to “refugee,” “illegal immigrant,” or “alien.” Instead, every person, irrespective of status, color, gender or origin could potentially be accepted into the jihadist community on the basis of embracing the common creed. In principle, the process of becoming a jihadist is far simpler than acquiring the citizenship of a state.

Individualism in Interpreting Religion

Jihadists yearn for the time when they, confident that they are the true believers, can be united under the leadership of a genuine Muslim figure (amir al-mu’minin), who governs according to Shari`a. Yet not only do they believe that Muslim leaders today do not govern according to the justice of Islam, but they are equally distrustful of religious scholars and officials who are perceived to have any ties to the political establishment. Usama bin Ladin, for instance, is adamant that “no official scholar’s juridical decrees have any value as far as I’m concerned.”[4] Similarly, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi wrote a treatise whose purpose is to forbid Muslims to attend state-funded madrasas to shield would-be jihadists from the influence of traditional religious scholars.[5] This individualist disposition to interpreting religion empowers the believer to serve God directly, freeing him from conforming to what jihadist leaders and ideologues regard as the infidelity of their political and religious authorities.

Jihad as an Individual Duty (fard `ayn)

Jihadist ideologues stress that they are engaged in defensive jihad and draw on the classical/medieval defensive doctrine of jihad to argue that jihad today is the individual duty of every Muslim. The classical jurists who developed the defensive doctrine of jihad envisaged it would only apply under extraordinary circumstances when Muslims are under attack in their own territory and therefore did not have the luxury to seek permission to defend themselves. They thus made it lawful for Muslims to take up jihad on their own initiative without awaiting the orders or permissions of any religious, political, parental or spousal authority.

Jihadist ideologues have molded this classical legal doctrine of warfare into a contemporary global military program. They believe that today’s jihad is not simply to repel a territorial attack. Instead, jihad is against both their own regimes (the near enemy) and the West (the far enemy); they have declared their own regimes to be in apostasy from Islam and are fighting against them because they do not govern according to Shari`a, and they are fighting certain states in the West because they lend support to their “apostate” rulers. This popularization of the defensive legal doctrine of jihad by jihadist ideologues has broken down the barriers between the individual, especially the youth, and any authority that might prevent that person from joining, in the words of `Abdallah `Azzam, the “caravan of jihad.”[6] In essence, this doctrine allows jihadists to transcend the authority of the state and undermines any form of hierarchy or authority that may stand between the militant believer and jihad.

The Weaknesses of Jihadist Ideology

Notwithstanding the republican egalitarianism discernible in the aspirations of some jihadist leaders, their exclusive appeal to religious principles has rendered jihadism vulnerable to the limitations that a religious principle imposes if narrowly interpreted. Not all jihadists are driven solely by a sense of political injustice; some hold the conviction that their jihad is designed to fight against Muslims who do not observe a pure form of Islam. Their desire does not always stem from a spiritual yearning and it is not necessarily based on a profound understanding of religion. Such narrow-minded jihadists are unwittingly empowered by jihadist strategists who downplay the value of religious education lest it forestalls the Muslim youth’s enthusiasm for militancy. For instance, jihadist strategist Abu Mus`ab al-Suri believes that jihad should do away with the complications of a religious education. The only obligation is to “embrace Islam, then fight.”[7]

This ambivalent approach to structured religious education has inevitably made jihadism a magnet for many who embrace jihad even before learning how to pray. To these nouveaux Muslims, religious doctrine is an end in and of itself. For them, the emphasis is not so much on loyalty (wala’) to fellow Muslims; they are more preoccupied with those from whom they must dissociate (bara’). Some jihadists take this dissociation further, declaring those who do not share their beliefs as unbelievers. This pronouncement is called takfir and, for some, carries the license to shed the blood of fellow Muslims. Given the idealistic and individualistic disposition of the jihadists, takfir is not limited to being declared against non-jihadists; it is a pronouncement that could be declared by jihadists against other jihadists. Thus, for the sake of protecting the purity of the faith, the doctrinally-driven jihadist fights the unbelievers—including fellow jihadists whom he perceives to have shirked their commitment to the faith—on two fronts: he does so in word, through declaring takfir against them; and in deed, through jihad.

Takfir is not about making friends and forging alliances; rather, the mindset of takfir translates into an obsessive preoccupation with identifying enemies and eliminating them. Thus, what takfir achieves by way of purifying the faith from any perceived signs of unbelief, it negates by preventing any sustained unity among the group. Even more seriously, since jihadism is premised on an individualist understanding of religion (until a true Islamic leadership emerges), takfir too can be decided by individual jihadists and thus lead to an anarchic use of jihad and violence to execute God’s Law as each religious zealot sees fit.

Does Jihadism Have a Future?

What is lacking in the jihadists’ commitment to equality before God is a deeper conviction that they need, in Hannah Arendt’s words, to “act in concert.”[8] In Islamic parlance, they lack an appreciation of the importance of the unity of the jama`a, the “community,” the cornerstone of Sunni Islam. Instead, the jihadist believes that he has entered into an individual covenant with God: he fights to make His Law supreme on earth, and in return God reserves a place for him in paradise. The true test of the jihadist is his willingness when necessary to dissociate himself from his group and its members, and declare takfir against them if necessary. In so doing, he is armed with the conviction that while he loses his community, he gains the eternal life of his soul.

The rejectionist mindset that some jihadists ultimately develop combines odd blends of idealism with sectarianism; commitment to equality with a lack of desire to be with equals; individualism with remarkable indifference even to death itself. The jihadists are trapped by their own idealistic goals; the more principled they are in their ideals, the more likely they will resort to takfir.

As a result, jihadism’s very strength prevents it from functioning “in concert” to concentrate, organize and monopolize violence to meet its objective of establishing an Islamic state or caliphate.[9] The consequences of this worldview are detrimental to achieving any form of sustainable unity within a group, let alone on a global scale. Potentially, the jihadist can direct his jihad against not just the “infidels,” the “apostate” rulers and their collaborators, but also against fellow jihadists. Thomas Hobbes’ apocalyptic narrative of life in a lawless state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short” may still be an optimistic description of what jihadism can lead to: parts of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan now provide a living reality of the freewheeling of jihad and takfir.

Jihadist ideologues can applaud themselves for mobilizing Muslims across the globe to join the caravan of jihad, but they have ultimately failed to distinguish between jihad and power. More precisely, they have failed to distinguish between what Arendt observed as the “instrumental character” of violence on the one hand, and power, or “the human ability not just to act but to act in concert,” on the other hand.[10] Accordingly, the jihadists’ chances of securing eternal life in paradise are probably greater than their chances of establishing a caliphate in this world.

Nelly Lahoud is associate professor at the Combating Terrorism Center in the Department of Social Sciences, U.S. Military Academy, West Point. This article is based on her book The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction, which was released in October 2010.

[1] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “al-Badil huwa al-da‘wa wa-al-jihad,” Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad, undated, available at

[2] Ayman al-Zawahiri made this statement in an interview with al-Sahab, conducted four years after the attacks of 9/11. The interview is available at

[3] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “al-Wala’ wa-al-Bara,” Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad, undated, available at

[4] Usama bin Ladin, “The Example of Vietnam,” in Bruce Lawrence ed., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (New York: Verso, 2005), p. 141.

[5] Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, “I‘dad al-Qada al-Fawaris bi-Hajr Fasad al-Madaris,” Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad, undated, available at

[6] `Abdullah `Azzam was instrumental in popularizing this doctrine to mobilize Muslims to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.

[7] Abu Mus`ab al-Suri, “The Global Islamic Resistance Call,” excerpts of which are translated in Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: the Life of al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p. 428.

[8] Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: A Harvest Book, 1970), p. 44.

[9] This is based on the definition in Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 33.

[10] Arendt, pp. 44, 46.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up