A Look at Managing Savagery:
The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Uma will Pass
ISIL has a textbook. Its actions thus far have so closely followed this textbook, it is astounding. The textbook is translated into English, and not particularly difficult to read and understand. Suspend your disbelief. Maybe ISIL is more than a random group of irreverent murderous thugs taking advantage of ungoverned space. Maybe the counter-ISIL strategy is lacking.
Managing Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Uma Will Pass was written by Islamic strategist Abu Bakr Naji in 2004, translated in 2006 by William McCants who is a leading scholar of militant Islam. It describes a three phase approach to establishing an Islamic state. The theory behind ISIL’s entrenchment in Iraq and Syria is accurately described in the decisive operation, managing savagery. But don’t be misled by the terminology. “Savage” refers to non-Muslims and moderate Muslims. The violence ISIL displays is an effort to “manage” the “savages.” It is a disciplined program to establish Salafism, and its members are not undisciplined criminals any more than the Nazi Gestapo in the 1930s, or Stalin’s security apparatchiks in the 1950s.
The book is highly prescriptive, more Jominian than Clauswitzian, and equally brilliant. The author describes a version of mission command under the heading “art of management” providing guidance for who should lead, how to make decisions, how to delegate authorities, when to engage in combat, when to use violence against a population, Sharia law and justice, and how to gain and maintain the initiative. He describes formidable obstacles to establishing an Islamic state and what to do about them, such as: countering infiltration of adversaries, countering Western messaging, increasing the lack of administrative cadres, how to minimize members changing loyalties, and how to reverse the decreasing numbers of “true believers.”
The three phased approach bears striking similarity to US operational doctrine, which begins with shaping operations, then decisive combat operations, and then transition to peace.
It is not a coincidence that Americans now characterize themselves as “war weary,” because they are victims of a deliberate strategy of exhaustion.
The first phase, according to the author, is “vexation and exhaustion.” It can be compared to the colonial American Continental Army’s approach to combat against the British Empire in the 1700s, or any number of successful asymmetric conflicts throughout the centuries. In such cases, the weaker opponent must wear down the stronger opponent until it can achieve some level of parity. The author provides a number of historic examples, all of which seem to pit Islamic warriors against non-believers. The most compelling is the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, where the Mujahedeen successfully wore down the Red Army. The book describes setting strategic “traps” for Americans in Iraq, causing the US to plunge further and further into an inescapable quagmire. It is not a coincidence that Americans now characterize themselves as “war weary,” because they are victims of a deliberate strategy of exhaustion.
This strategy is in fact an extension of Usama Bin Laden’s strategy of limited warfare employed by Al Qaeda. Abu Bakr Naji assumed that pulling Americans deeper into the Iraq war would eventually lead to the collapse of the United States because he inaccurately attributed the collapse of the Soviet Union to Mujahedeen operations in Afghanistan. Therefore, its strategy of exhaustion against the US was only partially successful. Although it succeeded in making Americans war weary, it has yet to achieve its desired goal, which is the collapse of the United States.
The second phase of establishing an Islamic state, “managing savagery,” is the decisive operation and best describes current ISIL efforts. The focus of the second phase is to remove elements it believes as cancerous to a pure Islamic society. Although Western media sources tend to characterize ISIL’s penchant for dramatic executions as irrational, the source of its violent behavior is rational because it follows a logical purpose motivated by a combination of fear, honor, and interest. Although brutal and abhorrent, it is rational in the same sense that the Rwanda Genocide in 1994, or Nazi extermination of Jews, followed a logic and purpose. Garnering very little attention in Western media, ISIL also forces the population to continue working; requiring bakeries and administrative offices to remain open. It patrols the streets to ensure markets and retail stores are not mobbed or looted. It appoints local villagers as leaders. It establishes a school system to “properly educate” the next generation of Salafi Muslims. It establishes courts and a system of justice, beginning with a public square in which public executions may be conducted. Compared to Nouri Al Maliki’s Iraq, or Bashir Al Asad’s Syria, much of the Sunni population find ISIL governance more attractive.
The third phase focuses on expanding the Islamic state and provides guidance on establishing affiliations, franchises, and alliances. The book even explains which countries and regions are ripe for an Islamic revolution. Particularly noteworthy, the author rejects the boundaries of existing Middle Eastern countries as western colonial fabrications. When he refers to “Syria” for example, he is referring to a population that likely spans into Turkey and Iraq. His theory of expansion seems to be theoretically similar to the Marxist expansion of communism, in the sense that a global revolution establishing a pure Salafi Islamic state is inevitable.
Overall, the strategy described in Managing Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Uma will Pass is a brilliant and artful theory of achieving a very difficult end state with extremely limited means. Since it is the strategy of our adversary, this conclusion may be difficult to accept. Even more difficult to accept is the necessity to re-think the counter-ISIL strategy in the context of ISIL’s text book. Specifically, will the counter-ISIL strategy destroy ISIL, or feed into the establishment of an Islamic state? If the strategy is similar to Communist expansion, would a closer study of George Kennan’s containment strategy outlined in his “Long Telegram” be more appropriate? In a region where Western democracy is not understood and largely rejected, what alternatives to Assad and Maliki can the U.S. provide that ISIL is not providing?
Harry York is a strategic planner in the Pentagon. He holds a Master’s Degree from the Army School of Advanced Military Studies and a Bachelor’s Degree in Russian from the University of Washington. He has multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan as both an aviator and an operational planner. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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[i] Mr. Hassan Hassan, co-author of the best selling book ISIS: The Army of Terror and whose home town is in ISIL held Syria, stated in a Pentagon lecture on 11 March 2015, “Some people like that ISIL establishes law and order. Sunni populations do not want Shia militias operating on their soil, even to “free” them from ISIL. Therefore, ISIL is gaining support despite military defeats. It is strategically winning in part because there is no sustainable governance replacing it, and moderates are becoming weaker. In addition, no one says what will replace ISIL. Some say ISIL is crumbling (referencing a Washington Post Article by Liz Sly), but it is not.