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The Psychological Asymmetry of Islamist Warfare

by Irwin J. Mansdorf and Mordechai Kedar
Middle East Quarterly
Spring 2008, pp. 37-44

U.S. military lawyers acknowledge that "civilians may not be used … to render an area immune from military operations… [or] to shield a defensive position, to hide military objectives, or to screen an attack. Neither may they be forced to leave their homes or shelters in order to disrupt the movement of an adversary."[1] Such restraint is not unique to the United States but also extends to Europe, Israel, and in the post-World War II era, many Asian countries as well. Increasingly, though, Israel's Arab foes and Islamist groups discount such constraints in order to seek psychological advantage against technologically superior foes. Western governments are challenged today by an enemy whose behavior is inspired by theological doctrines that not only disregard the Western concept of ethical combat but for whom the killing of civilians—on both sides of a conflict—also serves a vital purpose.

Policymakers and military officials often discuss asymmetrical warfare in the context of strategies weak states or terrorist groups adopt to confront stronger military powers. Israel, for example, enjoys advantages in manpower and technology over its terrorist adversaries, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. But the ideology of Islamism has created a paradoxical form of asymmetric advantage for terror groups and states: By rejecting the entire Western concept of the rules of war, Islamist groups turn the adherence of Western military powers to restrictions on battlefield conduct into not just a disadvantage, but one that can be relied upon in a conflict, whether confronting U.S. peacekeepers in Mogadishu, NATO units in southern Afghanistan, or Israeli soldiers in Gaza. Accentuating the danger, not only terror groups but also states practice the Islamist way of war. Countries such as Iran have implemented these doctrines on the battlefield. During the Iran-Iraq war, for example, Tehran demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice tens of thousands of its own children and men to confront an enemy, and during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Iran's proxy militia launched rockets at Israel and fought from within civilian populations as part of a strategy that sought both to kill Israeli civilians and to ensure that any Israeli self-defense would kill Lebanese civilians.

A Different Type of Asymmetrical Warfare

Most analysts acknowledge that Israel enjoys military superiority over its Arab neighbors,[2] a status preserved in part by the U.S. commitment to Israel's qualitative military edge relative to the Arab states.[3] Many Arab commentators and academics use this asymmetry for propaganda. Pro-Palestinian polemicist Edward Said juxtaposed "Israeli power" and "Palestinian powerlessness."[4] Nabil Ramlawi, the permanent observer for Palestine to the United Nations in Geneva wrote in 2002 of an alleged massacre in which Israel used "tanks and armoured vehicles, under a barrage of heavy gunfire from Apache gunships," and further committed a "long list of massacres" and "war crimes, State-sponsored terrorism and systematic human rights violations against the Palestinian people."[5] But Israel's technological edge does not mean that it enjoys every advantage in its battles with terror groups: While Israel subscribes to traditional restrictions on its battlefield conduct, its Islamist and jihadi adversaries, who eschew international humanitarian law, enjoy an asymmetric advantage born of psychological impunity.

The Israeli military faces a serious dilemma because it adheres to a specific moral code. Despite Arab propaganda to the contrary, Israeli military planners respect human life.[6] Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Asa Kasher and current Israel Defense Forces (IDF) intelligence chief Amos Yadlin write that, even when dealing with terrorists, Israeli soldiers conduct operations "in a manner that strictly protects human life and dignity by minimizing all collateral damage to individuals not directly involved in acts or activities of terror."[7] When trying to oust terrorists from Jenin in April 2002, for example, Israeli commanders decided to pursue a house-to-house ground strategy rather than employ the kind of airpower that would keep Israeli soldiers out of danger but would heighten the risk of collateral civilian casualties.[8] This decision cost the lives, in one incident, of thirteen IDF soldiers in an ambush in the Hawashin district on April 9.[9]

The Israeli judiciary also provides a check on the military. Israeli courts regularly impose restrictions on military tactics, despite the "price paid by the limitations put on the army's actions."[10] Arab petitioners have a voice. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz wrote that Israel's courts represent an "independent judiciary willing to stand up to its own government."[11] In 2004, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled for petitioner Fatma al-Aju against the Israeli military in a case that called for the IDF to take into consideration obligations towards civilians, such as allowing medical teams to enter combat areas, and other humanitarian needs when planning military operations.[12] The court also sided with Palestinian Arabs regarding the routing of Israel's security barrier.[13] Arab states have no such judicial independence nor are their leaderships subject to the rule of law.

Comparative prisoner treatment also highlights the discrepancy: The Israeli government provides access to and information about captured terrorists, opening itself to criticism of their treatment,[14] whereas neither Hamas nor Hezbollah even acknowledge whether captured Israelis are alive, let alone allow international monitors access to them.

The result is an asymmetry in which Israel restricts itself in accordance with international law from indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets while groups such as Fatah, Hamas, and Hezbollah intentionally target Israeli civilians and employ their own civilians as human shields to deter an Israeli response. Avi Dichter, Israel's public security minister, spoke to this predicament in the context of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war: "You can [conduct military operations] in a short time; you can flood southern Lebanon with ground troops, and you can bomb villages without warning anyone, and it will be faster. But you'll kill a lot more innocent people and suffer a lot more casualties, and we don't intend to do either."[15] Maj.-Gen. Giora Eiland, Israel's national security advisor from 2005 to 2006, explained the Israeli decision-making process: "We are forced to kill someone only when four conditions are met: Number one, there is no way to arrest someone. Number two, the target is important enough. Number three, we do it when we believe that we can guarantee very few civilian casualties. And number four, we do it when we believe that there is no way that we can delay or postpone this operation, something that we consider as a ticking bomb."[16]

Israel is further harmed by the invocation of international law to implicate the legitimacy of its fight against its adversaries. International law is routinely misconstrued by the media commentators and non-specialists who cite it. Some journalists, for example, describe Israeli treatment of Palestinian terrorists as a contravention of international law. This is misleading. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, among others, fail to meet the criteria required for full protection under the Geneva conventions.[17] More broadly, human rights groups selectively quote international law but fail to note that "protected persons" (i.e., citizens under occupation) may not participate in violent activities against the occupying power.[18] Despite rhetoric to the contrary, there is no "right of resistance" under international law to either civilians under occupation or irregular forces that purport to challenge an occupier.[19]

Conventional war between armies may favor Israel, but the fact that Islamists do not differentiate between civilians and legitimate combatants creates an asymmetry in favor of those who are eager to use any method available to advance their cause.

Suicidal Ideology

Islamists preach unquestioned obedience to God and the duty of men to sacrifice their lives for God. Saudi columnist Mozammel Haque, writing for the London Central Mosque, explained, "The sacrifice of life and wealth in the way of Allah is the zenith of a man's belief."[20]

Despite the theological claim that man is free,[21] Islamists have a fatalistic approach to life.[22] If a person dies, it is because his predetermined day of death has arrived; the methods by which his life ends are beside the point.[23] Such beliefs contribute to a readiness among many combatants to have little or no fear of death. They cite the Qur'anic verse, "Their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them, neither shall they grieve."[24] Islamists preach istishhad,[25] voluntary martyrdom, which results in no pain upon death.[26] In addition, martyrs receive seventy-two virgins and can invite fifty relatives to paradise following their deaths.[27] The promised rewards make death materially better than life and encourage jihadis toward martyrdom.

In practice, this means Islamist thinking finds no problem with what Western nations see as the immoral and unacceptable killing of civilians. If collateral damage occurs when, for example, Hamas fires upon soldiers from schools or ambulances, there is no fault: The civilians caught in the crossfire were destined to die. The Saudi exile Muhammad al-Massari explains that any civilian killed in an attack on the enemy "won't suffer [but instead] … becomes a martyr himself."[28] During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah "apologized" for an attack on Nazareth that killed two Israeli Arab children—but said the two children should be considered "martyrs."[29] 

Many Islamist figures, for example, Zuhair Afaneh, president of the Islamic Society of Central Pennsylvania,[30] obfuscate the religious justification for war crimes by citing a Qur'anic verse: "Whosoever kills a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind."[31] Other Islamists, though, cite alternate verses to abrogate this.[32] Perhaps not all these radicals have proper religious credentials,[33] but such theological imprecision is moot if their followers accept the legitimacy of their religious justifications. As a result, Islamist groups have conducted horrendous acts against civilians, including mass killings,[34] beheadings,[35] and the use of children in terror attacks.[36]

Sheikh Faysal Mawlawi, deputy chairman of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, explained, "If the Muslims' enemy attacks Muslim civilians, then it is permissible for us Muslims to apply the rule of reciprocity and attack the enemy civilians."[37] Egyptian Muslim scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who heads the European Council for Fatwa and Research, added that "martyrdom operations … are not in any way included in the framework of prohibited terrorism, even if the victims include some civilians."[38] In July 2003, the London-based pan-Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that Qaradawi issued a religious ruling encouraging suicide attacks on Israelis regardless of whether they are civilian or military.[39]

The acceptability of suicide missions has led several Islamic groups to boast that they "love death" in the same way that Jews and Christians love life.[40] Such sentiments extend even to young children, brainwashed to fight[41] despite international conventions against children participating in military combat.[42] The official Palestinian Authority television regularly encourages children to violence.[43] One clip instructed children, "How sweet is the fragrance of the shahids [martyrs]. How sweet is the fragrance of the earth. Its thirst quenched by the gush of blood flowing from the youthful body."[44] More recently, Hamas television featured a Mickey Mouse look-alike urging children to fight and, if necessary, die to extend Palestine to include all of Israel.[45]

Psychological Manipulation

If Islamist theology provides the moral inspiration for the strategy of terrorism, psychological warfare helps secure its benefits in practice. Psychological warfare is "the planned use of propaganda and other psychological actions having the primary purpose of influencing the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of hostile foreign groups in such a way as to support the achievement of national objectives."[46] Although psychological operations are aimed at enemy soldiers and civilians, insofar as Islamists view their own civilians as part of the military equation, they become a mechanism to achieve tactical advantage. A call to jihad is compulsory conscription for all citizens to participate in military operations either by choice as a combatant or involuntarily as a victim. One jihadist publication aimed at women is specific: "The blood of our husbands and the body parts of our children are our sacrificial offering."[47] Psychologically, the expansion of Islamist groups' pool of participants to include mothers, children, and other civilians helps create a sense of strength, solidarity, and purpose beyond what a limited band of fighters could provide.

Hezbollah, for example, was able to galvanize international outcry over civilian deaths after a July 30, 2006 Israeli strike on Kfar Qana, leading to demands for a halt in operations. Such tactics are not limited to irregular forces and paramilitaries. Where Islamist thinking shapes state military operations, the protection of civilians becomes irrelevant. Giora Eiland describes Iran as willing to sacrifice up to half of its population in order to fulfill what the leadership in Tehran sees as a religious imperative to destroy Israel.[48] And there is ample precedent for forced sacrifice in Iran: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution and Supreme Leader of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, called the deaths of thousands of children in human mine-sweeping operations a "divine blessing."[49] The German political scientist Matthias Küntzel describes how Iranian authorities gave young Iranians, some only twelve years old, plastic keys to paradise to hang around their necks.[50] Today, the Islamic Republic maintains "martyrdom-seeker" suicide units in the Iranian armed forces.[51]

The willingness of Islamists to suffer collateral damage—and even to pursue tactics specifically designed to cause the deaths of their own civilians—does not nullify their ability to exploit civilian causalities in order to gain sympathy from both domestic and international public opinion. Extensive reports by the Israeli NGO Monitor continue to document how Israeli counterattacks, which result in Palestinian causalities, spark criticism of Israel by human rights organizations whose condemnations either ignore or minimize Israel's right to self-defense.[52] Although moral codes limit Israel's range of action, such restraint does not prevent exaggerated accusations of Israeli "war crimes." During Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin, sensational claims of a "massacre"[53] were trumpeted by the Palestinian Authority, the U.N., various NGOs, and in the European and, particularly, the British media.[54] The claims were later found to be without merit,[55] but at the time they served a vital psychological-operations purpose: to undermine the moral legitimacy of Israeli self-defence.

Finally, the combination of standing armies and an alliance with or belief in Islamist ideology makes countries such as Syria and Iran a formidable challenge for Israel. Like terror organizations, they too pay little heed to the self-imposed restrictions of Western armies, but unlike most terror groups, they possess the manpower, weaponry, and finances to represent a far greater military threat.


How to balance military needs, international humanitarian law, and the reality of facing an enemy whose tactics are not restrained by accepted conventions are challenges to which Israel and other Western nations need to devote serious thought. The asymmetry of battle that Israel faces requires a rethinking of strategy to deal with threats from forces whose ideologies allow them not just to frustrate many Western military advantages but to use the openness of Western societies—especially their print and image media, and the organizations through which the Western penchant for self-criticism is expressed—to their own advantage. Ideology, including the perception of right versus wrong, becomes part of the discussion. Ultimately, non-Islamists, such as Israel, need to win the ideological war as well as the military one.

In the short-term, Israel can take the lead by repeatedly and forcefully asserting the moral high ground by pointing out that civilian causalities are never intentional but, given the cynical tactics of the enemies it must fight, are regrettably inevitable. Israeli spokespersons must further assert that the culpability for civilian casualties lies with the terrorists who have deliberately chosen to wage war against Israel from within civilian populations precisely because of the propaganda benefits of such tactics. While this is not likely to appease those who seek to paint Israel as a serial violator of human rights, the evidence will show that, given Israel's military arsenal, any premeditated policy of targeting civilians would most certainly have resulted in massively higher death tolls than have actually taken place. From a human rights perspective, the tables need to be turned by arguing that states such as Israel are victims of a capricious and cynical policy of civilian exploitation and that militant Islamists are intentional violators of international conventions that seek to protect civilian lives.

In the long term, though, defeating an ideologically-based movement may not be possible without defeating the ideology itself. For Islamists, any move toward moderation will be a political tactic or a forced concession rather than an actual political or ideological reform or accommodation. What should Western societies do when fighting Islamist groups? In order to defeat the political ideology behind Islamism, Muslim civilians must develop a viable and practical alternative to the Islamist organizations that claim to represent the broader Muslim community.[56] While the ideology is immutable, if the civilian population withdraws its support, Islamist movements will be rendered impotent.

Irwin J. Mansdorf is director of the David Project fellows program in Israel studies at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. Mordechai Kedar served for twenty-five years in the Israel Defense Forces in military intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse and now lectures on Arabic at Bar-Ilan University.

[1] USAF Intelligence Targeting Guide, Air Force pamphlet 14- 210 Intelligence, Feb. 1, 1998, section A4.2.1.2.
[2] Mark A. Heller, "Assessing the Israeli-Palestinian Balance of Power," Strategic Assessment, Aug. 2000.
[3] William Wunderle and Andre Briere, "Augmenting Israel's Qualitative Military Edge," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2008, pp. 49-58.
[4] Edward Said, "Israel at Fifty: Palestine Has Not Disappeared," Le Monde Diplomatique, May 1998.
[5] "Question of the Violation of Human Rights in the Occupied Arab Territories, Including Palestine," U.N. High Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, E/CN.4/2003/G/20, Dec. 17, 2002.
[6] "Ethics," Israel Defense Forces website, accessed Oct. 17, 2007.
[7] Asa Kasher and Amos Yadlin, "Military Ethics of Fighting Terror: Principles," Philosophia, July 2006, pp. 75-84.
[8] Yedi'ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), Apr. 10, 2002.
[9] "IV: Background: The Battle inside Jenin Refugee Camp," Jenin: IDF Military Operations: Israel, the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinian Authority Territories, Human Rights Watch, May 2002.
[10] Ayala Procaccia, "The Role of the Supreme Court in Israel in Protecting Human Rights," lecture at Boston University, Nov. 7, 2005.
[11] The Harvard Crimson, Sept. 23, 2002.
[12] Office of the State Attorney vs. Fatma al-Aju, judgment of the Israel High Court of Justice, HCJ 4764/04, May 30, 2004.
[13] Beit Sourik Village Council vs. Government of Israel, judgment of the Israel High Court of Justice, HCJ 2056/04, June 30, 2004; The New York Times, Sept. 4, 2007.
[14] The Palestine Monitor (Ramallah), Apr. 7, 2002.
[15] The New York Times, July 26, 2006.
[16] "Battle for the Holy Land, Program #2015," Frontline, PBS, Apr. 4, 2002.
[17] Ted Lapkin, "Does Human Rights Law Apply to Terrorists?" Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2004, pp. 3-13.
[18] See, for example, Article 68, "Geneva Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War," Aug. 12, 1949.
[19] The New York Sun, Mar. 14, 2005.
[20] Mozammel Haque, "Lesson of Hajj: Sacrifice on the Way of Allah," The Islamic Cultural Center and the London Center Mosque, accessed Oct. 17, 2007.
[21] Qur. 4:40.
[22] Louis Gardet, in Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. 2, vol. IV (Leiden: Brill, 1960), s.v. "Al-Kada' wa'l-Kadar," pp. 365-7.
[23] Marmaduke Pickthall, "The Untenable Charge of Fatalism against Muslims," 1927, accessed Oct. 17, 2007.
[24] Qur. 2:62.
[25] E. Kohlberg, in Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. 2, vol. IX, s.v. "Shahid," pp. 203-7.
[26] E. Tyan, in Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. 2, vol. II, s.v. "Djihad," pp. 538-40; "Sheikh ‘Ijlin Mosque in Gaza," Palestinian Authority TV, Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, Aug. 17, 2001.
[27] Boaz Ganor, "The Rationality of the Islamic Radical Suicide Attack Phenomenon," International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Herzliya, Mar. 21, 2007.
[28] The New York Times, June 10, 2007.
[29] Al-Manar (Beirut), July 20, 2006.
[30] The Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.), Oct. 6, 2001.
[31] Qur. 5:32.
[32] Qur. 2:194.
[33] David Zeidan, "The Islamic Fundamentalist View of Life as a Perennial Battle," Middle East Review of International Affairs, Dec. 2001.
[34] "Victims of Palestinian Violence and Terrorism since September 2000," Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accessed Oct. 17, 2007.
[35] Timothy Furnish, "Beheading in the Name of Islam," Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005, pp. 51-7.
[36] "Children as Combatants in PA Ideology," TV Archives-Video Library, Palestinian Media Watch, Jerusalem, Oct. 2000 - mid 2003, accessed Oct. 17, 2007.
[37] Sheikh Faysal Mawlawi, quoted in "Attacking Civilians in War Times: Juristic Approach," Islam Online Fatwa Bank, Oct. 29, 2002.
[38] "Al-Qaradhawi Speaks in Favor of Suicide Operations at an Islamic Conference in Sweden," The Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch Series, no. 542, July 24, 2003.
[39] Asharq al-Awsat (London), July 19, 2003.
[40] Martin Kramer, "Ask Professor Esposito," Sandbox, Sept. 26, 2002.
[41] The Forward (New York), Sept. 11, 1998; Justus Reid Weiner, "The Use of Palestinian Children in the Al-Aqsa Intifada," Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Nov. 1, 2000.
[42] Children and Armed Conflict: International Standards for Action, Human Security Network and the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, New York, Apr. 22, 2003.
[43] "PA Indoctrination of Children to Seek Heroic Death for Allah—Shahada," TV Archives-Video Library, Palestinian Media Watch, accessed on Oct. 17, 2007.
[44] Palestinian Authority TV, June 28, 2006, video at Palestinian Media Watch website, accessed Oct. 17, 2007.
[45] Fox News, May 7, 2007.
[46] Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Pub 1-02 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Defense, Mar. 23, 1994).
[47] BBC World News, Aug. 24, 2004.
[48] The Jerusalem Post, Aug 24, 2006.
[49] Matthias Küntzel, "Ahmadinejad's Demons: A Child of the Revolution Takes Over," The New Republic, Apr.14, 2006.
[50] Ibid.
[51] Ali Alfoneh, "Iran's Suicide Brigades," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2007, pp. 37-44.
[52] "Human Rights Watch in 2005: Political Bias against Israel Continues despite Wider Middle East Focus," NGO Monitor, Jerusalem, Apr. 6, 2006.
[53] BBC World News, Apr. 18, 2002.
[54] The Washington Times, May 1, 2002.
[55] Richard Starr, "The Big Jenin Lie," The Daily Standard, May 8, 2002.
[56] See, for example, M. Zuhdi Jasser. "Exposing the ‘Flying Imams,'" Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2008, pp. 3-11.  

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