A fluttering Islamic State flag, is flown over a hill in Tel Abyad town on the Syrian-Turkish border. (Stringer/Reuters)
Opinion writer

It may not be as revealing as “Mein Kampf” or “The Communist Manifesto.” But people looking for insight into the extremist strategy that inflames the fighters of the Islamic State might begin with a book chillingly titled “The Management of Savagery.”

Published in 2004 by a jihadist who called himself Abu Bakr Naji, the book posits a world in which the superpower halo of the United States has disappeared and the Muslim world within the colonial boundaries known as the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement has descended into chaos — “savagery,” as the author bluntly puts it.

Sound familiar? Read on. The book, translated in 2006 from Arabic by William McCants, is a frightening guide to the ultra-violent tactics today embraced by the Islamic State and its leader, who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The book makes for horrifying reading. But the one thing I found positive is that, in gruesome practice, this jihadist war plan is burning so hot — and creating so much brutality and bloodshed — that it appears to be alienating Muslims. One sign of this is the broad coalition of Muslim nations that have joined the fight against the Islamic State.

The “Savagery” manual, thankfully, isn’t a bestseller among Muslims. A U.S. counterterrorism expert says it appears to be “too esoteric” to have a wide following among the masses.

The manifesto proposes that the jihadists draw an overstretched America into a war in which it will eventually become “exhausted” and give up. This strategy requires polarizing the Muslim world and convincing those moderates who had hoped for U.S. protection that it’s futile.

Naji argues that if the United States overextends itself militarily, this will lead to its demise. “The overwhelming military power (weapons, technology, fighters) has no value without . . . the cohesion of (society’s) institutions and sectors.” Loss of America’s media reputation as an all-dominating superpower “removes the aura of invincibility which this power projects, [and reveals] that nothing at all stands in front of it.”

Naji’s war plan was written in the aftermath of America’s 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and 2003 invasion of Iraq. His theme was the need to draw the United States even deeper into conflict across Muslim lands.

The author’s premise was that the United States was a paper tiger that would become fatigued by a long war in Muslim countries and by social problems back home: “Work to expose the weakness of America’s centralized power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and the war by proxy until it fights directly.”

The key to undermining American power is raw violence, the more shocking the better, he argues. It wasn’t just that this ultra-violence would expose the West’s feebleness but also that it would force Muslims to make a choice. In the disorder of formerly stable Arab lands, the jihadists would make their name through “management of savagery.” Naji even urged his readers to consult books on business administration.

Naji had special contempt for Muslim softness. “The ingredient of softness is one of the ingredients of failure for any jihadi action,” he wrote. “It is better for those who . . . are also soft to sit in their homes. If not, failure will be their lot. . . . If we are not violent in our jihad and if softness seizes us, that will be a major factor in the loss of the element of strength.”

To support his case for brutal tactics, Naji notes that two caliphs who followed the prophet Muhammad “burned (people) with fire, even though it is odious, because they knew the effect of rough violence in times of need.” In another passage, he notes that “we need to massacre” others as Muslims did after the death of Muhammad. Violence is beneficial, Naji argues: “Dragging the masses into the battle requires more actions which will inflame opposition and which will make people enter into the battle, willing or unwilling. . . . We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away.”

We’re watching a test case of Naji’s argument for managing savagery as the pathway to a successful jihadist caliphate. How is it going, a few weeks into this brutal new conflict?

Two factors should be encouraging: First, the West isn’t so exhausted that its halo of power has disappeared altogether; and second, most Muslim states (with little apparent public opposition) seem as disgusted by the ultra-violence of the Islamic State as the West — and ready to join a coalition to fight it.

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