What’s in a terrorist’s name? A step to understanding the Islamic State.

Summary: The fires expand over the Middle East, driven by centuries of relative decline and corrupt rule, stoked by our interventions. We struggle to understand this phenomenon, cutting through the lies and misinformation fed us. Today guest author Hal Kempfer takes us to the logical starting point: what to call this movement.

“Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever has not kindness has not faith.”
— Attributed to Mohammad.

Islamic sky

What’s in a terrorist name? Perhaps some meaning.

By Hal Kempfer (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired)

There is an active debate on terminology regarding the type of terrorists we see involving or inspired by groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. (aka the Islamic State of Iraq & Greater Syria, or ISIL, where they refer to the “Levant” vice “Greater Syria”). ISIS is a former Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliate that has almost eclipsed AQ.

The White House does not like the term “Radical Islam” in describing this threat. However, it is descriptive since it implies from whence their beliefs came. However, it also misses what makes them significantly different from mainstream believers of the Islamic faith.

When Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, most of them school kids, we didn’t call that “Radical Christianity,” nor did we do so in describing the events near Waco, Texas in 1993 or when Larry McQuilliams attacked the Mexican Consulate, Police Headquarters and federal courthouse in Austin, Texas, around Thanksgiving of last year. Further, when Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. attacked the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Assisted Living Facility in Overland Park, Kansas, in April of 2014, we didn’t call it “Radical Paganism,” even though his motivational beliefs were the same as the Nazi pagan cult of WWII.

So there does seem to be a semantic inconsistency.


A broken world
It’s an almost universal desire to unify humanity.

A broken Islam world

Countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and Libya are actually borders defined by former European colonial rulers (e.g., Britain, France, Russia). They are borders that too often divide nationalities, ethnicities and tribes — are artificial constructs defying functioning socio-economic alignment.

The acronym laden name of “Pakistan” exemplifies the problem. Hence, the world is littered with “failed states” (i.e., “fragile states“). Historically these states were only successfully ruled by brutal strongmen like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gadhafi, or repeated military dictatorships. Absent these autocracies, these states have mostly devolved into various levels of civil war and become territories that export terrorism abroad.

However abhorrent, ISIS and AQ provide an alternative, albeit an ideal built on bloodshed.

From the time of the Islamic Prophet Mohammad (early 600s AD) to the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1924 there had usually been an Islamic Empire or Islamic state. The successors of Muhammad after his death in 632 AD were called Caliphs (i.e., rightly guided ones”). What Al Qaeda and ISIS want is the restoration of the Caliphate, re-creating an Islamic empire to conquer all territories that are predominantly Muslim. The collective of Islamic believers or Muslims worldwide is the Ummah; they see their new Caliphate ruling the entire Ummah. This poses an existential threat to the Nation-state system and international order.

ISIS spreading the word
Beheading of James Foley on 19 August 2014.

Restoring the Caliphate

The Caliphate is an institution that came immediately after Muhammad. It is a political concept first and foremost, the unifying principal to maintain rule over the territories conquered by Muhammad under Islam. Soon after Muhammad’s death factions arose in Islam, and the Caliphate become more political as religious beliefs splintered.

Al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, calls himself the new Caliph and his “Islamic State” the new Caliphate. But he does not represent the Ummah, but only a tiny violent faction.

The Caliphate is both a political and religious concept since the authority of the Caliph comes as the successor of the Prophet Muhammad. Its legal authority is Sharia Law, albeit there are several schools with significantly differences. ISIS seeks to impose a brutal, medieval idea of justice, one that Mongol invaders or European Crusaders of an eon ago would easily understand. As would Romans, who ruled with similar ruthless.

ISIS was kicked out of AQ in 2013 for being too brutal.

Choosing a name.

Choosing an operationally useful label

For a term that more descriptive than “Radical Islam,” I suggest “Caliphists.” To some Muslims it may seem as untoward as “Papist” to Roman Catholics. That’s a inappropriate comparison, shifting the name from a religious to political political basis. Unlike the papacy, there is no true Caliphate in the modern age. Rather than impugn the name of the entire religion, “Caliphists” refers to those who wish to impose a new political empire on the world, achieved through overwhelming violence. It removes the aspersion to mainstream or peaceful Islam, and puts the “name” towards describing a small warring faction that sees political rule through mass terror as its end state.

The White House wants to refer to AQ, ISIS/ISIL and their affiliates, and homegrown followers, as generic “terrorists” or “violent extremists.” That works if you seek to respond to terrorism, but it is a meaningless if your seek to prevent terrorism by by identifying terrorists before they act.

Every violent extremist spawns from something that isn’t inherently violent or extreme, something that in the mainstream of life. I suggest describing the critical differences between the faction and the mainstream, such as their goal. Absent that, we either don’t describing the threat or doing so by a broad brush on one of the world’s largest religious faiths.

Hal Kempfer (Lt Colonel, USMC, retired)

About the author

Hal Kempfer (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired) is the CEO and Founder of Knowledge and Intelligence Program Professionals Inc. (KIPP,) in Long Beach, California. He has been involved in terrorism issues in the military and civilian sectors for almost a quarter century.

KIPP’s clients have included the Naval Postgraduate School, U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Task Force Homeland Defense, the National Guard’s National Interagency Civil-Military Institute and California Specialized Training Institute.

Hal served with the USMC in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He was Director of Intelligence (G/J-2) for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, CENTCOM’s Combined/Joint Task Force Consequence Management, and the joint/interagency fusion center (JRIC) at Camp Pendleton.

Hal is a senior instructor and course developer for the Terrorism Liaison Officer courses, Infrastructure Liaison Officer (InfraGard) course, Al Qaeda Doctrine (AQD) seminar, Human Skills workshop, Pre-Incident Indicator workshop, and a variety of other courses, workshops, seminars and Homeland Security exercises.

He holds a Master’s degree from Thunderbird School of Global Management, a Bachelor’s degree from Willamette University, and is a graduate of the Army’s Command and General Staff College, the Marine Corps’ Amphibious Warfare School and completed all academic curriculum of the Air War College, holding military officer specialties in intelligence, amphibious reconnaissance, infantry and engineering.

See his firm’s website for more information (the source of this bio).

Terrorist Screening Database
Terrorist Screening Database, The Intercept, 5 August 2014

For More Information

Terrorism is an American tradition. See Wikipedia’s Terrorism in America page, with a long but very partial listing of incidents since 1900 (including the  thousands in the 19th C would have made it one of their longest entries). It’s sorted by date and type. It’s a game most American political movements have played.

For more reliable and detailed information see the 2014 Global Terrorism Index by the London-based The Institute for Economics and Peace. To see the history of terrorism at home: “Terrorist Attacks in the U.S. between 1970 and 2013: Data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD)“, Erin Miller, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 2014.

But the money is in fighting foreign enemies, not those at home. See the FBI’s CounterTerrorism Guide; it lists only foreign groups. It’s also the politically easy choice.

See all posts about the Islamic State, al Qaeda, terrorism, and Islam. Here are a few of special interest. About our war with Islam:

  1. The Fight for Islamic Hearts and Minds.
  2. We are the attackers in the Clash of Civilizations. We’re winning.
  3. Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on America to win.
  4. We seek a future of war with Islam, while wearing a cloak of virtue.
  5. We cannot defeat al Qaeda unless we understand it. And since we’re told mostly exaggerations and lies…
  6. Well-funded organizations inciting us to hate & fear, again. How gullible are we?
  7. France volunteers itself as a front line in the clash of civilizations.
  8. We’re goading our enemies to attack America. Eventually we’ll succeed, and they will.

Posts about Islam:

  1. Hatred and fear of Islam – of Moslems – is understandable. But are there hidden forces at work?
  2. Should we fear that religion whose believers have killed so many people?
  3. Hard (and disturbing) information about schools in Pakistan – the madāris.


15 thoughts on “What’s in a terrorist’s name? A step to understanding the Islamic State.”

  1. Near as I can tell the weird defining characteristic of ISIS/ISIL is that they goad. They goad the US to fight them. They goad Christians to fight them. They goad Muslims of many stripes to fight them. They appear mad the way mad dogs are mad; drooling and foaming at the mouth mad. And finally having created their own private PR disaster and without a friend in the world they appear politically barking mad. They appear to have a strategy of gathering unto themselves all who are equally mad. Blood lusting Christians, blood lusting Muslims, war mongerers, whatever. I think even our own mad men who got us into wars in Iraq and Afganistan are flummoxed by these uber madmen. That’s saying a lot.

    1. Peter,

      Having lived and fought in villages with ISIS, I can tell you that they are not mad. Rather, their tactics are brilliant. Their messaging is brilliant.

      You’re just looking at it from the wrong lens.

      With one beheading and one tweet, they convince us to overreact and spend billions of dollars.

      The ROI of their operations cannot be matched.

      1. Mike,

        I agree on all points. The jihadists (or whatever one choose’s to call them) are a learning organization. That was my observation in my second post, at Defense & the National Interest in November 2003, when the military still called our foes “dead-enders” and bandits.

        They have learned much since 9/11, which was itself probably the single most effective military operation ever.


    2. This reminds me of a great line from an original Star Trek episode where Kirk admits he cannot understand the actions of a pure evil entity. Something like:
      Kirk: I don’t understand. What is this things purpose?
      Spock: Evil has no purpose, captain. It can however have a goal

  2. I think they are gangsters—albeit gangsters with military arsenal. Their “idealogy” if there is one, is power and territory—like all gangsters anywhere—to call them criminal gangsters is the most appropriate as well as de-legitimizing counter-tactic. Anything else gives them credibility.

    1. anon,

      As Mike said, that’s totally false. The US news media, like most journalists, feeds our prejudices (as the government desires). They are barbaric, something with long precedents in Islamic history, in Middle Eastern history, western history, and our history. In numbers of women and children killed they’re in the kiddie leagues by western standards.

      FAILure to understand one’s foe is just a step towards defeat — well-known advice going back to Sun Zsu.

  3. Fascinating interview with Alastair Crooke, director and founder of Conflicts Forum based in Beirut.

    “I was there at that time. [Muhammad] Zia-ul-Haq was a strong, Muslim Brotherhood-oriented leader, and he rejected any notion of blowback. For 25 years, I have seen political leaders who believe that they can control and use the Salafists for their own ends, but who subsequently find it is they who have been used by the Salafists,” said Alastair Crooke, director and founder of Conflicts Forum based in Beirut and formerly adviser on Middle East issues to EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana.

    The rest is well-worth reading. He discusses two separate subjects:

    1. The new world order created by the US, abandoning the international institutions we build after WWII in favor of economic coercion.
    2. ISIS — how it came to being, its role and significance in the Middle East.

    Note: “Zaman” (meaning “today” in Turkish) is one of Turkey’s largest newspapers.

  4. LtCol Kempfer, I believe this short essay makes a very important contribution to the understanding of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, IS). Since their goal is establishing a Caliphate, I think you accurately name this state-making entity (in the sense of Charles Tilly, this is state-making or more accurately state transformation.

  5. The problem with labeling ISIS as “Caliphists”, is that it presumes that the concept of a Caliphate is something separate from orthodox Islam. But as stated in the same article this is not the case. The Caliphate concept has been accepted by all major Islamic scholars throughout history. Which is not surprising since Caliphate was historically operational in some form or another from more than a thousand years. It is just basic common sense. Division and isolation results in weakness and destruction. You don’t need Sun Tzu or Boyd to understand this.

    Labeling terrorist groups as “Caliphists” also attacks the concept of a Caliphate itself by painting it as inherently barbaric like ISIS. But perhaps this is the main target after all? Because honestly, what is more of a threat? A politically unified Muslim world with average mainstream Muslims protecting their own interests, people and resources; or some fringe self isolating extremists? Even if they are very cunning.

    The funny thing is that most mainstream Muslims were totally unaware of this Caliphate concept. And those aware of it, saw political unity as some completely unrealistic fantasy. Just as unrealistic as politically unifying East Asia or Africa. It is the Westerners who have more faith in Muslim political unity, than they have in it themselves. It always amazes me.

    Just to be clear. Islam actually promotes political unity amongst Muslims, but it doesn’t necessitate it for salvation. Because people are judged for their own actions+intentions, not for the actions+intentions of others.
    Judgment is based on choice (actions+intentions), and responsibility is based on ability and authority.
    Imagine being sent to hell just because you as an individual were not able to politically unify a billion people. It is completely absurd. You are not responsible for what you cannot do. But you will be rewarded for your efforts.

    This principle also makes forced conversion completely counterproductive, because if the intention is incorrect the action becomes completely useless.

    Some Muslims call ISIS “Takfiri”, with which they mean “those who (unjustly) accuse others Muslims of being apostates implying also that they should be killed”.
    I have also heard Muslims call them “Khawarij”. These are the original extremists of which individuals with their type of mindset actually already existed during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). These are people who are so extreme the Prophet had warned the Muslims about them. They would appear so overly religious externally, but be void of spirituality and knowledge.

    Sahih al-Bukhari 6930 http://sunnah.com/bukhari/88/12
    Narrated `Ali: … No doubt I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, “During the last days there will appear some young foolish people who will say the best words but their faith will not go beyond their throats (i.e. they will have no faith) and will go out from (leave) their religion as an arrow goes out of the game. So, where-ever you find them, kill them, for who-ever kills them shall have reward on the Day of Resurrection.”

    Sahih al-Bukhari 6934 http://sunnah.com/bukhari/88/16
    Narrated Yusair bin `Amr:
    I asked Sahl bin Hunaif, “Did you hear the Prophet (ﷺ) saying anything about Al-Khawarij?” He said, “I heard him saying while pointing his hand towards Iraq. “There will appear in it (i.e, Iraq) some people who will recite the Qur’an but it will not go beyond their throats, and they will go out from (leave) Islam as an arrow darts through the game’s body.’ ”

    Are ISIS truly the Khawarij as mentioned in these traditions? I personally don’t have enough data yet to confirm or deny this. I’ll leave this to those with more knowledge than me. And God knows best.

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