The Book on Jihad That Donald Trump Needs to Read

A fan in the crowd wears a button badge with a quote from Donald Trump about attacking the Islamic State militant group at the candidate's rally in Pendleton, South Carolina, on February 10. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Donald Trump need not wait until someone "figure[s] out what is going on," as he put it when discussing foreign jihadis and calling for a total ban on Muslims entering the United States. In The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy, British journalist Jason Burke tells us with clarity and insight who Islamic extremists are, why they kill and what they are likely to do going forward. The New Threat has recently been listed for the Orwell Prize in the United Kingdom, which is awarded for superior political reporting that also rises to the level of great literature. Given the prominence of terrorism and the crises in the Middle East, as well as all the foolish assertions blared in our presidential campaign, it is more important than ever to pay the book attention.

The tale is sobering: The Middle East is in chaos, and U.S. policies in Iraq unintentionally fomented Islamic extremist violence. But Burke cautions that "the most important development in Islamic militancy over the last three decades [is] the emergence, consolidation, and expansion of what can be called the movement of Islamic militancy." The problem has moved beyond Al-Qaeda and the current focus of attention, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Yes, part of the problem is with what has happened to Islam as it has buckled under modernity and writhes from a hideously violent fringe of putatively religious zealots.

For all the horror, reading Burke is relatively reassuring. He shows that this clash of civilizations, along with the jihadis-are-everywhere posture, is terribly misleading, despite what presidential candidates of the right intone, neocon policymakers assert and the loudest, emptiest candidate shouts. Instead, the threats we do face need to be seen as a series of distinct regional and social problems in Muslim societies, tinged with a now-widely-shared ideology. Islamic terrorists do not pose an existential threat to the United States, nor have they ever done so, despite what the public has been led to believe these past 15 years.

Likewise, identifying with aspects of an ideology of grievance and virtual empowerment does not make a terrorist. Few jihadis and few ideological fellow-travelers seek, have sought, or are likely to strike the United States. (I used to argue with colleagues that Muslims wearing Osama bin Laden T-shirts—of which we had many reports—were no more jihadis than college students in my era wearing Che Guevara T-shirts were Communist revolutionaries.) Nearly half a million Americans have died from handguns since the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001, while only dozens have been killed in the U.S. by jihadis. And yet the fear of a clash of civilizations shapes our national discourse. Nonetheless, Burke shows why there will be individuals who commit mayhem in the name of Islam for the foreseeable future, no matter what the U.S. does.

Reading Burke plunged me back into the intense arguments during my years as a CIA officer about Islamic terrorism and what the U.S. response should be. In broad terms, there was a division in the intelligence community about the nature of "Islamic terrorism." Some argued that Islamic terrorism was part of a global, coherent and strategic "movement" or "network." The counterterrorism parts of the intelligence community relied heavily on link analysis to demonstrate and conclude this: If terrorist suspect "Muhammad" at any time had contact with "Abu," then the CIA would characterize "Abu" as a suspected part of the global terrorist network. This view comforted the neocon policymakers of the Bush administration and continues to inform the public's view of Islamic-inspired terrorism.

On the other side of the argument, regional experts and many counterterrorism analysts said only one terrorist group in the world sought to strike the United States, Al-Qaeda. Regional Islamic terrorist groups (Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Shabab, etc.) and various "terrorist" states (Iraq, Iran) shared some parts of jihadi ideology with Al-Qaeda but were focused only on regional concerns. As I put it almost a decade ago, "No other Islamic-based terrorist organization, from Mindanao to the Beqaa Valley to the Sahel, targets the U.S. homeland, is part of a 'global jihadist movement' or has more than passing contact with Al-Qaeda. These groups do and will, however, identify themselves with global jihadist rhetoric and may bandy the bogey-phrase of 'Al-Qaeda.'''

These experts and I placed terrorism in the context of social revolution and dislocation, one issue in a web of regional problems for the U.S. and local societies to confront, which included the hardest problem of all: what I called at the time "small numbers of Muslims in certain Western countries…who seek to commit terrorist acts," some of them in uncoordinated and "in irregular contact with al-Qaeda," but who are fundamentally "free agents for their imagined cause." Burke calls them, with horribly accurate creativeness, "inspired warriors."

We know who won that argument. The neocon's victory led to all sorts of disastrous errors. The Bush administration lumped together all the terrorists, or "bad guys," into part of a coherent and existentially dangerous global jihadi network: Not just Al-Qaeda but also secular Saddam Hussein in Iraq, theocratic Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran, Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, Sunni Hamas in Palestine, Al-Shabab in Somalia, the FARC in Colombia, foreign fighters in Iraq, Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia. All were considered part of the "global jihadi network," and thus lumped together in "the war on terror."

At least in part as a result, the Middle East is in chaos and more hostile to the U.S. and the West than ever before. Iraq has devolved into a de facto Sunnistan, Kurdistan and Shiitestan, Iran has expanded its influence, and ISIS has spread its murderous ideology across Iraq and Syria.

Thankfully, we have Burke to explain what's really "going on." I will summarize it, so that Secretary of State Kardashian can brief President Donald Trump. He will not have to order the U.S. military or the CIA to torture people and break the law to figure it out. Perhaps as a first step, this synopsis and Burke's book should be sent as a policy backgrounder to the Republican National Committee. But for normal citizens, too, Burke lays out in understated, and therefore powerful, prose, what we are facing with the jihadi threat.

The New Threat breaks the jihadi threat into three categories: global groups, regional groups and inspired warriors. Al-Qaeda has been and remains the only jihadi group with global operations and that explicitly targets the U.S. "homeland." It remains capable, and "its rivalry with the Islamic State will no doubt spur the group to make greater efforts to execute a spectacular international operation."

ISIS resonates ideologically and culturally with many disaffected Muslims but does not operate globally. The group will continue its "carefully calibrated strategy of calling for individuals to mount their own strikes in the West." But Burke shows convincingly that ISIS has not and probably will not target the West directly, unless there is a change of leadership or of its stability as a regime-controlling territory. It has and will, however, continue to inspire individual jihadis.

Then there are regional militant groups, ranging from Boko Haram in Nigeria to Al-Shabab in Somalia: Burke shows how none of these groups have directly tried to attack the West and, for now at least, are unlikely to do so. They share the global ideology of jihad, may have some contact with Al-Qaeda or ISIS, but remain independent organizationally and operationally.

Lastly, and most importantly, Burke describes the "inspired warriors," a term he prefers over "lone wolves," which he says is conceptually misleading. In The New Threat,Burke shows how most extremists today who have been inspired by ISIS or Al-Qaeda may have had cursory contact with some peripheral part of these two organizations. But in almost every meaningful way, they have acted on their own. Burke makes an overwhelmingly convincing case that these inspired warriors define the nature of the threats facing the West.

Sound familiar? Sure, ISIS is new, but Burke makes a modified version of the same argument the Bush administration—and too many of the CIA's counterterrorism experts—disastrously ignored. And he makes that argument at an important time. The Middle East is in chaos as the old order, which has been in place since the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, is dissolving. Burke describes this phenomenon well at the level of individual anomie. When discussing the origins of modern jihad, he notes that "the broad-ranging religious revival [in Islam] was an expression of social and economic tensions building up over decades."

Yet neither Burke nor I believe that Islam and the West, or Islam and modernity, must obligatorily clash. The New Threat describes a process of social and theological turmoil in Islamic societies, but one that also contains the possibility, even the likelihood, that moderation and modernity will eventually triumph. In the West, the Church once violently clashed with modernity. Today, that clash has become an imperfect, but functioning accommodation of divergent views, although pressures remain from absolutist and even theocratic elements in the West.

There is no such accommodation among the suicide bombers and throat slashers creating havoc in Iraq and Syria. The jihadis are engaged in a clash of civilizations, and so they have imposed one on us, however much we reject their norms. Yet Burke's book carefully spells out with courageous modesty who civilization's enemies really are, and shows us that we need not embrace their fanaticism and their barbarity to defeat them. It is a lesson some of our would-be leaders need to learn. Especially Donald Trump.

Glenn Carle, a retired CIA officer, was deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats on the National Intelligence Council, responsible for the intelligence community's most senior terrorism analyses from 2003 to 2007, and author of The Interrogator, which detailed his involvement in the interrogation of one of the top members of Al-Qaeda.