Let’s Play Ball: Christian Nonviolence versus Al-Qaida

Posted: August 23, 2008 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

Adherents of Christian nonviolence are often lazy and scared.

There. I said it.

We are often too lazy to actually read relevant reports and offer nonviolent alternatives in current violent situations. We tend to give pat answers, wring our hands about the difference between “violence” and “force” and walk away.

We are also often too scared of falling flat because we haven’t thought out exactly how a nonviolent method of dealing with real, identifiable badness would play out.

Nonviolent Christians, it’s time we played ball.  And we could do a lot worse than to start with al-Qaida (AQ).

In that spirit – what follows is a first pass at a nonviolent approach to dealing with AQ.  A couple of notes before we begin:

First, a word about the abuse of adjectives by the military.  Counter-terrorism is generally broken up into two areas.

  • Direct action: Killing people and blowing things up.
  • Indirect action: Not killing people and not blowing things up; instead, meeting basic needs, building capacity, working with local populations to inoculate them against terrorist infiltration.  In my last job we heard from a Special Ops veteran that the best weapon they took with them to fight terrorism in North Africa was a dentist. The local population had such a deep need for the service and was so thankful that the U.S. provided it that they immediately turned on the terrorists in favor of their new benefactor.  Last year I was standing about 3 feet from the then-future commander of U.S. Special Operations Command when he told Ann Scott Tyson of The Washington Post that “direct action buys you time; indirect action wins the war [against insurgents and terrorists in a given location].”

Second, a word about my qualifications to write this particular piece.  I am in no way a counter-terrorism expert. I have no special training.  However, I did spend two years in a job that required me to regularly attend congressional counter-terrorism hearings; distill hearing testimonies for public consumption; read counter-terrorism-related publications; and on one occasion fly to the UK to discuss with their government officials counter-terrorism communications strategies.  I do not have an advanced-degree’s worth of knowledge on the subject, but I’m no neophyte either.

Okay, now on to the meat of it. Richard Barrett, the Coordinator of the Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team of the United Nations Security Council, recently put out an informative new report on the status of al-Qaida (AQ) seven years into the Long War.  The summary reads:

The core Al-Qaida leadership remains in place, but it is still far from recovering the position of strength it enjoyed in 2001. It has suffered from an inability to clarify its role and aims. Though it may still count on thousands of sympathisers across the world, the leadership has failed to find a consistent and reliable way to connect with and direct its supporters. Furthermore, there has been a considerable backlash against Al-Qaida-inspired violence across the Muslim world, with the result that even in places where Al-Qaida used to be highly active – such as Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, and Saudi-Arabia – its campaign has lost traction and influence. 

The one geographical area where Al-Qaida has retained influence, or even consolidated or increased its standing over the last three years, is the Afghan- Pakistan border region. Though fragile, Al-Qaida’s alliance with the Taliban has survived, and the group’s future now largely depends on whether it can maintain this accommodation. With the Pakistan and Afghan Taliban becoming increasingly distinct, the most promising option from Al Qaeda’s perspective is to foster and deepen its relationship with the Pakistani rather than the Afghan Taliban. 

The key to defeating Al-Qaida will be to undermine its local base in the Afghan- Pakistan border area. The Afghan and Pakistan governments must encourage a measure of security and good governance in these areas. Furthermore, it will be important to promote the drift of the Afghan Taliban away from Al-Qaida, which could be achieved by allowing President Karzai more political room to negotiate a deal. The Pakistan government, on the other hand, needs to drive a wedge between tribal leaders and Al-Qaida. For both Governments, it will be critical to improve their bilateral relationship and cooperation. 

The international community can and must help with this, but it will have to do  so carefully. Al-Qaida will fight hard to obstruct the influence of the central government (in both Pakistan and Afghanistan) and will try to discredit it by arguing that it acts on behalf of external interests; it will aim to provoke further intervention by foreign forces, knowing that this is the one thing all the tribes will unite against. In order to be successful, therefore, the key objectives need to be achieved – and need to be seen to be achieved – by local governments on their own rather than as a result of external intervention. 

What the international community can do is to support local governments discreetly, and reduce Al-Qaida’s appeal by saying or doing anything that appears to support its claims or legitimacy. The key is to keep Al-Qaida’s leaders pinned down in the remote areas of the Afghan-Pakistan border and prevent them by all means from connecting in person with their supporters and  sympathisers elsewhere. 

What’s the takeaway from this?  Simple: al-Qaida (AQ) relies, not on its willingness to use violence, but on the consent of local populations, for its power and survival.  Further, rank-and-file members of AQ tend to be:

motivated by personal grievance mixed in with a sense of global mismanagement.

In other words, at the same time that AQ relies on consent from local populations to survive, thrive, and project power, it relies on a very specific narrative frame to attract and retain recruits.  AQ identifies recruits with a personal grievance; attempts to create in the recruit’s mind a causal link between the grievance and their being a member of the global Muslim brotherhood; portrays the worldwide Islamic community as being under seige by Western – especially American – forces; introduces violence as a legitimate means to participate in politics; and portray AQ as the legitimate defender of the global Muslim community against Western aggression.  These are, roughly, the “steps to radicalization.” AQ’s reliance on this frame to grow its recruitment pool often leads people to refer to the fight against AQ as a “war of ideas.”  All of these ideas are open to challenge, but unfortunately, the consensus is that the U.S. is not doing so well at it. Dr. Linton Wells from the National Defense University lamented to Congress:

The United States needs to do much better than it has in communicating its commitment to the Nation’s core values, reaching out to those who share our ideals, supporting those who struggle for freedom and countering those who espouse hate and oppression.  In many parts of the world, regard for America has declined to dangerous lows.2  As one person asked:  “How can the country of the Declaration of Independence, Madison Avenue and Hollywood be losing the war of ideas to people who think it’s rational to cut other people’s heads off?” 

This brings us to the use of violence.

Part of the reason we are losing the “war of ideas” is that the U.S.’s tendency to see the fight against AQ as a military problem plays right into AQ’s frames. The phrase “war on terrorism” is at once laudatory and pejorative: AQ reaps prestige from being the U.S.’s opponent in a “war,” while the broad brush term “terrorism” obscures the fact that AQ is the U.S.’s primary adversary, allowing AQ to more easily portray it as a more general war against Islam itself. Further, because they rely so heavily on the consent of local populations – often living and taking shelter among them – U.S. military strikes against AQ members also tend to kill significant numbers of non-combatants. These noncombatants – who suffer either direct injury or loss of property, or indirect injury such as the loss of a loved one – are very susceptible to AQ’s overtures of grievance. AQ is also extremely adept at disseminating propaganda via non-traditional media, including the Internet, and they quickly commoditize footage of U.S. strikes as evidence of a war on Islam: consumers of their information see American troops who do not look like them killing Muslims who do look like them. The images, whether accurate or not, tell the story of a war on Islam by Westerners.  Because of the way in which AQ frames the conflict, every single use of force on the part of the U.S. forces is potentially a strategic setback in their fight against AQ.

Violence, though, cuts both ways.  Because, like all systems of domination, AQ relies on consent as the source of its power, its own use of violence backfires:

The broader ideological justifications for Al-Qaida’s violence have also suffered blows, most notably in Egypt with the very public denunciation of its arguments in November 2007 by Sayyid Imam al Sharif, the imprisoned leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and a major influence in extremist circles.6 In Saudi Arabia, Salman al-Ouda, an influential preacher in radical circles, has also offered very public criticism of the pointlessness of Al-Qaida attacks, also stressing the numbers of Muslim women and children who have suffered from them.7 These criticisms have often been very personal, addressing Al-Qaida leaders by name as if to underline that the organisation is nothing without them.


Fed up with being part of a group that cuts off a person’s face with piano wire to teach others a lesson, dozens of low-level members of al-Qaeda in Iraq are daring to become informants for the US military in a hostile Baghdad neighbourhood.

The ground-breaking move in Doura is part of a wider trend that has started in other al-Qaeda hotspots across the country and in which Sunni insurgent groups and tribal sheikhs have stood together with the coalition against the extremist movement. 

Oh, and:

In an online town hall meeting with supporters last month, Al Qaeda #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri was asked a number of unusually pointed questions.  “Do you consider the killing of women and children to be Jihad?” one asked.  “What is the legal [basis] for killing the innocents?” another wanted to know.

Turns out, others in Al Qaeda are wondering the same thing — including one of its founding members.  In this week’s New Yorker, Lawrence Wright profiles Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, “known to those in the underground mainly as Dr. Fadl.” He’s part of “the original core of Al Qaeda,” and “one of the first members of Al Qaeda’s top council. Twenty years ago, he wrote two of the most important books in modern Islamist discourse; Al Qaeda used them to indoctrinate recruits and justify killing. Now Fadl was announcing a new book, rejecting Al Qaeda’s violence. ‘We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that,’ Fadl wrote in his fax, which was sent from Tora Prison, in Egypt.”

All of the above should lead the U.S. to realize that, because AQ relies on consent and on narrative frames, the terrorist network is a political problem, not a military problem.


a) because U.S.-backed violence plays directly into AQ’s hands in the “war of ideas,” further bolstering AQ’s power; and

b) because of the corrosive effect of AQ’s violence on the consent of those they rely on to operate and project power

the use of violence in this conflict represents a party’s greatest liability.

But, their opponent can effectively exploit that liability only to the extent that they themselves forego violence.

As an example, note how detrimental the use of force by the U.S. in a given situation could undermine the State Department’s own recommendations to fight the “war of ideas”:

At the end of May, the Policy Coordinating Committee (PCC) of the National Security Council (NSC) on Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy issued the “U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication.”4  It laid out three strategic objectives for America’s public diplomacy and strategic communication with foreign audiences: 

  • America must offer a positive vision of hope and opportunity that is rooted in our most basic values. 
  • With our partners, we seek to isolate and marginalize violent extremists, who threaten the freedom and peace sought by civilized people of every nation, culture and faith. 
  • America must work to nurture common interests and values between Americans and people of different countries, cultures and faiths across the world. 

Violence on the U.S.’s part would effectively immunize the victim community against these messages.

Both of these factors taken together – the political nature of the AQ problem and the liability posed by the use of force – show that, just like a repressive government, AQ is vulnerable to nonviolent sanctions. The above clearly shows AQ’s vulnerability to two types of outcomes to a nonviolent resistance to their presence in a given area:

Poliical Jiu-Jitsu, or “Shooting Yourself in the Foot”: “The contrast in types of action throws the opponents off balance politically, causing their repression to rebound against their position and weaken their power. By remaining nonviolent while continuing the struggle, the resisters will improve their own power position…Political jiu-jitsu causes increased alienation from the opponents by any or all of three possible groups: members of the opponent group itself, members of the population affected by the issues, and third parties not directly involved in the conflict. That alienation can result in the growth of internal opposition in the opponents’ camp. It can also increase the numbers of resisters and the extent of resistance. it also often turns third parties against the opponents and in favor of the resisters. [Remember the change of heart on the part of the former AQ cleric quoted above?]”

Undermining the sources of power required by opponents, or “erosion“:  “The principle is simple. Dictators [and AQ certainly loves to play dictator when they co-opt an area] require the assistance of the people they rule, without which they cannot secure and maintain the sources of political power they require. These sources of political power include:

  • Authority or legitimacy;
  • Human resources, the persons and groups that obey, cooperate with, or assist the rulers;
  • Skills and knowledge, needed by the regime and suplied by the cooperating persons and groups;
  • Intangible factors, psychological and ideological factors which may induce people to obey and assist the rulers;
  • Material resources, control of or access to property, natural resources, financial resources, the economic system, and means of communication and transportation; and
  • Sanctions, punishments, threatened or applied, to ensure the submission and cooperation that are needed for the regime to carry out its policies and to exist.”

Political jiu-jitsu would be initiated by dumb violent acts on the part of AQ, while “erosion” would come about as the result of local populations turning on AQ once their ideological bankruptcy becomes obvious. 

All of this leads me to believe that there are workable solutions to the AQ problem that fit with a consistent, Christian, nonviolent stance.  For example:

The U.S. government, aid groups, and Christians in general should continue with an emphasis on “indirect action,” helping to provide basic capacities and to meet basic needs in areas sensitive to AQ recruitment. This would serve several purposes: it would make communities less reliant on “any help they could get,” including from AQ. It would inject a fair amount of static into AQ’s narrative of “America versus the Islamic world.” And, it would make political jiu-jitsu more likely to commence should AQ act against the community’s benefactor. The caveat to this would be that the groups opposing AQ must disavow violence in all circumstances in order to maximize the destabilizing effect that AQ’s violence would have on their own legitimacy. (Yes, this means people could die, but I’m still waiting on the violent solution that keeps everyone alive)  Violence on the part of the U.S. and NATO would also have the effect of increasing AQ’s power:

Al-Qaida will fight hard to obstruct the influence of the central government and will try to discredit it by arguing that it is all on behalf of external interests; it will aim to provoke further intervention by foreign forces, knowing that this is the one thing that all the tribes will combine to oppose; it will exult in civilian casualties that it can exploit to stir up tension, and it wcontinue to abuse religion as a method of indoctrination and justification for its acts..The international community will face huge frustrations. But pouring more troops into Afghanistan will not help if it alienates the local population and allows both Pakistan and Afghan Taliban to forget their internal differences and combine against a common enemy. The focus should remain squarely on Al-Qaida, not on the internal politics of Afghanistan.

Recent experience bears this out:

The National Security Archive has just posted a declassified, 400-page Sandia National Laboratories report on bin Laden, written in 1999. One of the big conclusions: the Clinton Administration thought that its August 1998 cruise missile strikes would make the Taliban more likely to give up bin Laden, but actually it drove the two closer together.

The U.S., aid group and Christians could support programs like these in Pakistan and Afghanistan:

Law enforcement successes have been reinforced by a parallel success in a growing number of countries that have instituted national programmes designed to counter radical influences by examining and addressing the specific factors that have drawn individuals towards extremism. Saudi Arabia is a particular example of this, as is Indonesia, where the government has introduced a sophisticated programme of rehabilitation for people caught up in political violence. The success of these programmes in allowing a way for extremists to return to society, and the publicity they have generated, have also helped to undermine any sense that Al-Qaida expresses the concerns of the broader community.

There are also a variety of political options discussed in the report, in addition to a violent suggestion at the end, but overall the picture is pretty clear. Your best option versus AQ isn’t a gun. It’s a dentist, or a water well, or a Gene-Sharp-style trainer in nonviolent resistance to violent domination. AQ derives its power from the same sources as a repressive government, and as such, it shares their vulnerabilities.  As the 20th century showed, there’s plenty of space within Christian nonviolence for effective ways to deal with this brand of evil.

  1. […] United States seems to be doing its best to implement al-Qaida’s vision for the world. Published […]

  2. This is a very good post. I wholeheartedly endorse the strategy proposed here. Bravo!

    I am convinced, however, that strategies such as these ultimately amount to little more than band-aids on a very broken international system.

    It is my contention that states are inherently violent, because they command obedience by use of violent force or the threat of violent force. While it would certainly be much better for states to use the carrot much more than they currently do, still, that carrot always has the stick lurking in the background. It’s never JUST a carrot.

    The real problem with wars and terrorism is embedded in the state system and its underlying us-versus-them psychology.

    I am a Buddhist, so I can only address your focus on Christian nonviolence as an outsider, but it seems clear enough to me that Jesus would have had a far more radical response to the problem of terrorism.

    In his language, he might have said that the problem of terrorism is a problem of love. Even if we focus on humanitarian aid, so long as this purely strategic–and even if it’s a sound strategy–we may disable al-Qaeda but we won’t really be sowing the seeds of nonviolence. Only by expressing a deep and sincere love for the people caught in a co-dependent relationship with AQ (which includes, but is much more than, providing aid), can we supplant hatred with its opposite, love.

    I should mention that this is not my language, though I endorse its spirit. For me, love is just too squishy a word–it means too many things to too many people. But whatever language we use, we must be careful not to regard the people of, say, the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan as pawns in a global power struggle, or as the nameless and faceless masses who deserve only our pity.

    Instead, we must hear their names, look deeply into their faces, and recognize our ultimate and abiding unity within difference.

  3. dcrowe says:


    …I agree with everything you wrote, and I think you accurately characterize how Jesus would talk about the problem of terrorism.

    Your post points out a deficiency of the way I tend to write on this blog – I have a tendency to focus on the political nature of nonviolence while not emphasizing enough the “Christian.” Thank you for pointing it out.

  4. […] I’ve blogged about this previously, but I reiterate: from a strategic standpoint, the use of violent military force is a liability in the struggle to stop terrorist networks. But more than that, we Christians in America must take a step back and realize that the methods our government is using to “rid the world of evil” only ensures its persistence.  Jesus taught us that we are to love our enemies, not kill them.  The only real way to fight evil is to love your enemies so much that you’d die before you’d harm them. That’s a hard lesson to take, but it’s the lesson taught by Christ. Published in: […]

  5. […] These dynamics point to the working of political forces in the Iraq conflict that lend themselves to nonviolent action. (I blogged about this earlier; take a look.) […]

  6. […] Creep into Pakistan and the Problem of Violence A while back I wrote a post on the liabilities inherent in the use of violence in our conflict with…. One of the sources cited warned the parties involved that the worst strategic mistake the U.S. and […]

  7. […] our current methods get us what we want? As Johnson noted above, and as I have argued before, the answer is […]

  8. […] in love (and yes, it really is that simple and that difficult). I’ve written before about the political dynamics that render al-Qaida vulnerable to nonviolent interference and resistance.  If we really want to “win” in Afghanistan, Christians should understand that […]

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