My review of “Defeating Jihad” by senior Trump CT Advisor Sebastian Gorka

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It is often said that “personnel is policy.”

Today, Dr. Sebastian Gorka – recently appointed to a high-level Counter-Terrorism position in the Trump administration – was the subject of an  in-depth Politico profile.

Over the weekend I read Dr. Gorka’s 2016 book and will review in this post.

Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War is an important text that I recommend.  If the recommendations are only generally followed it’s an improvement for US national security. Here are the broad takeaways about what we can extrapolate about the new administration’s CT approach:


(1) Violent Jihadism placed in the context of  Islamic history:

Chapter 2 “The Story of Jihad” merits close reading as Dr. Gorka (correctly) places militant Islamism in the context of the broader history of Islam.

The main takeaway here that readers should draw is that violent Islamism is not some sudden and inexplicable development that appeared out of the blue. The reaction and pushback against a modern (Christian dominated world) has been happening for at least 150 years in the Muslim world. The violent Jihadism of the last 30 or so years falls squarely within the context of that historical trend.

Having lived in the Middle East for seven years this isn’t a controversial statement there, the way it is in politically correct academic circles in the US. In the Middle East, the reaction to this chapter would basically be “OK, and?” Only in the US are (a few) people making an issue out of this.

(2)  Jihadism as a Totalitarian Ideology – Similar to Communism 

Professor Gorka makes a creative comparison between Jihadism and Communism, referencing George Kennan, a famous US diplomat whose 1948 “Long Telegram” provided the intellectual framework for confronting the spread of Soviet Communism throughout the Cold War:

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Jihadists unquestionably have the same aspirations to global dominance as the Communists did.  They are every bit as totalitarian and anti-democratic. Whether they will ever reach that level of power, is another question, but they certainly aspire to.

(3) New Age- Jihadism as “Insurgency” not “terrorist organization”

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Another important point. In the age of the Internet-era surveillance state, my view is that traditional 1990s era Al-Qaeda type terrorist groups are no longer able to exist at least not transnationally. As I wrote in the 19 book – Beating Jihadism Reading List– I highly recommend “Leaderless Jihad” – the classic book by Marc Sageman for more on this point.

The future is ISIS-style decentralized, Anarchic-insurgent models of terrorism.


Religion versus Political/Economic Disenfranchisement or some combination of both?

Throughout the book Dr. Gorka correctly criticizes the Obama administration’s insistence that Jihadism has nothing to do with Islam.  He also takes issue with President Obama’s contention that the problem is really about political and economic disenfranchisement:

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This was the only major area where I take some issue with Professor Gorka’s framing of the problem. True, the Obama administration’s devotion to Political Correctness means they downplayed any connection between Jihadism and religion.

However, is it also possible to go too far in the opposite direction and say that Jihadism has nothing  to do with political and economic disenfranchisement?  Especially given Professor Gorka’s nuanced comparisons between Jihadism and Communism:

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Let’s unpack this point the Communist comparison:

Why did people join Communist movements?

It was clearly tied to political and economic disenfranchisement. Those who were unhappy with the local status quo, tended to buy into the radical explanation of their predicament offered by Communism and in many cases joined.

By contrast, those content with the status quo, did not. Aristocrats did not join Communist movements.  Super wealthy people or even comfortable middle class people did not join. Nor did members of the Church.

The exact same patterns are happening with people joining Jihadist groups today. True elites in counties like Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Egypt etc are NOT joining. The system is fine for them.

By contrast, those who are unhappy with the status quo, are the ones joining.

Let me reiterate –

This is 100% not the “poverty creates terrorism” argument.

People joining Jihadist movements are not “poor.”  Many of them have college degrees (although that is fairly meaningless in the 2017 Mid East). The key factor is that they are virtually all from the 80% of the populations who are not positioned to gain social/economic status based on the current status-quo socio-economic arrangements.

So I would suggest that the best way of thinking about this is that it’s BOTH.  Here is the general way I would reframe the problem:

Those who are unhappy with their local status quo, are the ones who gravitate towards the Jihadist narrative of how the world works. Those who are happy with the status quo, accept the moderate or “establishment” narrative.



In the final chapter – “How America Wins and the Jihadis Lose” Dr. Gorka provides a variety of innovative solutions.

(1) Launch a Major Propaganda Campaign:


This is hugely important. Under President Obama US efforts to craft effective narratives to counter the Jihadist recruiting narrative were highly ineffective.

For example, 16 years after 9/11, the Pentagon was unable to field a team of minimally qualified linguists needed to produce effective content. The State Department’s Think Again Turn Away campaign produced material that was so incompetent it was in many cases more likely to convince potential recruits to embrace radical Islam after reading then they were before reading.

(2)  Repair Ties with Our Traditional Partners in the Region

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Another critical Counter-terrorism recommendation. The Obama administration severely damaged our relations with the most pro-American governments in the region. President Obama himself blatantly insulted the Saudis in his vaunted Atlantic interview last year in a way that would have been a Stage 5 media emergency if President Trump said the same.

The  Trump administration is already repairing the damage -as they should. Last week CIA Director Pompeo was in the Kingdom working on rebuilding the relationship. These are the governments that the US needs in the fight against Jihadism.

(3)  Stop the Nation Building – Just Kill Terrorists

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Everywhere the US has intervened and attempt to dictate the nature of local government in the Muslim world since 2001 we have  (Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria) made things worse than they would have been otherwise.

The US focus should be on helping our friends in the Middle East develop their abilities to counter Jihadists and sometimes doing it ourselves but only if necessary.

(4)  Call the Muslim Brotherhood a Terrorist Organiztion:

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Personally, I am ambivalent about this and could go either way about whether it is truly necessary. No, it is unlikely to move the Brotherhood towards adopting violence as some of President Trump’s critics are saying. Some of them are moving in that direction anyway.

I am skeptical about what exactly would be gained.  Do the gains from taking this step lead to some clear outcome that makes it worth doing?

I would recommend an approach of strategic silence about the Muslim Brotherhood to keep them guessing.

(5) Restore a Balanced US Approach in the Gulf:

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US policy towards Iran during the Bush and Obama years was tremendously counter-productive and has played a major role in destabilizing the region. The Iraq War was the equivalent of offering Iraq  – the traditional Sunni check against Iranian adventurism – to the Revolutionary Gaurds in a giant gift wrapped package.

But the Obama administration went even further in its contributions to Middle East instability with its naive push for an Iranian nuclear deal. This only encouraged Iran’s aggressive activities in say, Syria, while Washington simultaneously insulted and neglected traditional allies like Saudi Arabia, who logically felt negative security repercussions from these activities. This policy was ill thought out and created more new problems that didn’t previously exists as a result of the intense commitment to reaching a deal with Iran.

Balancing Iran can take many forms, but one way to effectively do it, is make sure that countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE know the US has their back. A healthily confident Saudi Arabia is one that Iran respects and causes it to think twice about stoking conflict throughout the region.  If Riyadh has Healthy Confidence, they can do the lion’s share of the work in checking Iran, and ensuring regional stability, not the US.

#6. End any sense that Jihadism is connected to socio-economics:


As I mentioned above, this is the only core area of the book that I disagree with.

Again – NOT – the poverty creates terrorism argument.

But what I am suggesting is that we look at the roots of the Communist appeal and what tactics the US used to stop support for that movement.

Here is how I would frame the issue most effectively:

Those who are unhappy with their local status quo, are the ones who gravitate towards the Jihadist narrative of how the world works. Those who are happy with the status quo, accept the moderate or “establishment” narrative. 

Here is just one classic example – Anis Amri – the Berlin Christmas Market terrorist claim to Europe as a refugee/ economic migrant. By all accounts he showed no interest in Jihadist ideology in Tunisia. He went to Europe, and failed to achieve the success he was looking for, an entirely predictable outcome given his lack of skills. The Jihadist narrative of blaming everything on the West, was appealing to someone like him and he became a true believer.

Bottom line:

Most parts of the Middle East and Africa are a disaster economically. And it’s only going to continue more as the Youth Bulge generation hits the job market. The Anis Amri pattern is going to be related 100,000 times per year over the next 20 or so years.

X number of people are going to be disgruntled with their situation and are going to find the Jihadist “anti-establishment” analysis of their situation to be compelling.

This is why the perfect complement to Dr. Gorka’s approach is the 21st Century Marshall Plan concept advocated by Mr. Tom Barrack, a senior Trump advisor. It doesn’t have to be massive involvement. There are plenty of things we can do to get good results. And 2 or 3 billion dollars is only a tiny drop in the bucket of the overall defense budget.

Make no mistake about it – unless the economic equation sending so many people to migrate to Europe is addressed in some way, the Jihadist terrorism problem plaguing Europe is only going to get worse and worse. There is a very real possibility that 2015-2016 Europe is going to be the new norm without a major adjustment of the paradigms employed.

Anyway, Defeating Jihad is a great book that I highly recommend.


Are you like me, a practical person who wants this problem to be solved and just go away? check out these posts on related topics: 

#1 – Beating ISIS the “state” was the easy part – the 100 year ideological war is just getting started

#2  – Why the principle of America First in the Middle East just means smarter policies with better results

#3 – Analyzing Mediocre US Anti-Jihadism messaging

#4 – Can Egypt’s Muslim Establishment Neutralize the Jihadist anti-Establishment narrative?

Finally – do you want to keep reading posts like this?  Sign up to receive posts by Email directly below or get content via Twitter (@nathanrfield1)

6 thoughts on “My review of “Defeating Jihad” by senior Trump CT Advisor Sebastian Gorka

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