A secret CIA plot was revealed last week: Beginning almost 10 years ago, the agency set in motion a plan to make Osama bin Laden action figures. Over time, the paint on the face would fleck off, revealing a demon beneath. The idea was to dissuade children in the Muslim world from seeing al Qaeda's leader as a hero.
The CIA eventually decided not to proceed with the scheme, and there is reportedly only one two-faced prototype Osama doll left, sitting in some Langley office. Don't count me among those making fun of this aborted "influence operation," though. My only quibble: We should be targeting not just individuals, but also the ideology that motivates them.
Both President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry recently spoke of the dangers posed by the "jihadists" now carving a blood-soaked trail through Syria and Iraq. In the past, they have generally talked instead of "violent extremists," apparently in the belief that for most Muslims, "jihadist" has a positive connotation, and that it would be counterproductive to reinforce that by calling them what they call themselves.
However, sound policy-making requires conceptual clarity. Besides, can it really make any difference how non-Muslims refer to those Muslims who claim they are killing (and being killed) for the sake of their fellow Muslims?
Having come this far, Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry should now ask some probing questions. Among them: What are the central pillars of jihadist ideology? Where does it fit within the history and theology of Islam? What are the jihadists' goals? What are they prepared to do to achieve them?
They could begin to find answers in "The Mind of Jihad," a book written seven years ago by the since-deceased Laurent Murawiec for the Pentagon's director of net assessment. Murawiec explained that jihad implies "warfare with spiritual significance." He added that the concept "stems irrefutably from the [Koran]," and that jihad cannot be seen — as so many of its apologists contend — as "a response to 'colonial aggression,' 'imperialist encroachments,' 'Zionist intrusion' or "American crimes.'"
Jihad was the primary means by which the great Islamic empires of antiquity expanded their borders until, starting in the 1100s, European scientific and military developments began to shift the power equation, and Christian empires started to encroach "into lands that had long been conquered and ruled by Muslims."
Over the centuries that followed, Islamic warriors increasingly found themselves on the defensive. "But as soon as some in the umma [transnational Muslim community] could nurture again the belief that jihad could be victorious again, that the balance of forces would again favor the umma, sizable groups and schools of thought went back to the offensive."
Murawiec saw clearly that we are now in such an era. Within the Muslim world, "sizable groups and schools of thought" view the West as weakening, in decline, unwilling and maybe unable to defend itself. They further believe that Muslims have a religious obligation to exploit this opportunity to expand "the writ and word of Allah."
"Modern jihad," as Murawiec called it, "erupted in full force with the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 in both the Shiite and the Sunni world." Thousands of jihadist attacks have followed over the years since.
After giving the order to kill bin Laden, President Obama was not alone in assuming that "the tide of war" would recede. In fact, however, jihadists of the Sunni variety are now fighting on more battlefields than ever, and the Shia rulers of the Islamic republic of Iran, with their eyes on future jihad, have spent an estimated $100 billion to develop a nuclear weapons capability. If they achieve it, our grandchildren will live in a very different world. It's amazing how many people still don't grasp that.
In "Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice," Michael Bonner, a professor at the University of Michigan, points out that the literal translation of jihad is "striving," though almost always intended in the "specific sense of fighting for the sake of God (whatever we understand that to mean)." To be sure: Many millions of Muslims do not believe that, in the 21st century, God is commanding them to behead infidels and strap bomb vests on their sons and daughters. The self-proclaimed jihadists, however, regard such moderate Muslims as apostates and traitors who deserve death as much as any "infidel."
Does all this imply that the violence must continue until one side or the other is vanquished? Not quite. Bernard Lewis, perhaps the greatest living scholar of Islam, noted in his 1998 book "The Multiple Identities of the Middle East" that while Shariah, or Islamic law, imposes "a perpetual state of jihad" on all lands not ruled by Muslims, the conflict can be "interrupted by truces as and when appropriate."
In practice, this means that jihadists may accept a hudna, a temporary armistice, anytime they feel outgunned. A permanent peace with infidels, though, followed by sincere rapprochement, is out of the question.
Jihadists also reject the Western construct of a world order based primarily on national rather than religious allegiance. In the Middle East in particular, as Efraim Karsh pointed out in his 2006 "Islamic Imperialism: A History," the nation-state system "has been under sustained assault since its formation in the wake of World War I," which is when the last Islamic caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, collapsed. Its core became Turkey, a secular democracy now sliding toward Islamism. Its provinces came under the control of European empires before becoming independent nations.
Among them were Syria and Iraq, where today the full force of modern jihad is on barbaric display. Extinguishing these fires, or even just containing them, won't be easy. Toys alone will not suffice.