In 2004, Abu Bakr Naji, a suspected al-Qaeda strategist, published an online manuscript entitled, The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass, which was translated into English in 2006 by William McCants, a fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. The book is largely jihadi rhetoric; the language perpetuates the hatred pervasive in inflammatory Islamist dogma and further perpetuates the polarization between Islam and the non-Islamic West. Naji’s writing ascribes to Salafi1 principles, following a Wahhabi2 doctrine of Sunni Islam, and as such, has been widely embraced by Islamic State (IS) senior leaders as a blueprint for their barbarous acts and intended plans for the establishment of a caliphate.3 The violence that we have seen is not “whimsical, crazed fanaticism, but a very deliberate, considered strategy,” says one British analyst. “The seemingly random violence has a precise purpose.”4
The book is not so much an operational guide for establishing a caliphate; rather, it is more an Islamist justification for the use of violence. But understanding the work is an important step in understanding the kind of war that some Islamist groups – especially IS – have embarked upon. While The Management of Savagery has been interpreted into English, it remains a lengthy and rhetorical text, not easily accessible to even the expert reader. This article will provide an overview of the book within a historical context that will provide the reader with a deeper understanding of current events.
For example, Naji believed that a civil war within Islam would lead to a Sunni caliphate, so he argued for a campaign of violence to polarize the Muslim population, attract followers primarily in the form of youth, expose regional inabilities to maintain control, and create a spreading of regional chaos and savagery.5 “The management of savagery” refers to the control of the chaos that results from the breakdown of order. It is an interim stage between the collapse of the old order and the establishment of the caliphate – a stage characterized by ungoverned space, savage politics, lack of the provision of basic needs, and loss of religious adherence. It describes a stage where order must be established and the Umma – the Muslim community – defended. “If we succeed in the management of this savagery,” writes Naji, “that stage will be a bridge to the Islamic state which has been awaited since the fall of the caliphate. If we fail it does not mean end of the matter; rather, this failure will lead to an increase in savagery.”6 IS has become the primary strategic actor in the management of savagery.
Post Sykes-Picot Era
Historically, when a state or empire collapsed – whether Islamic or non-Islamic – and the successor state that came into being was not comparable in power and control, the regions and sectors of the state changed on account of submission to what is called the “administrations of savagery.” Naji explains that when the caliphal state fell, this savagery appeared in some regions. However, the situation stabilized soon after that on account of the Sykes-Picot Agreement7. The division of the caliphal state and the withdrawal of the colonial states led to division of the caliphal state into large and small states ruled by military governments or civil governments supported by military forces. The ability of these governments to maintain administrative control over these states was dependent on the strength of their connection with these military forces and the ability of these forces to protect the state, whether through the power which these forces received from their police or army, or through the external powers which supported them.
Naji writes, “Whether these countries were truly independent or each secretly succeeded the state that colonized it previously, they began after a time to circle in the orbit of the global order which resulted after the end of the Second World War. The outer form (of this global order) was the body of the United Nations and its inner reality was two superpowers [literally “poles”] that consisted of two states joined by rival camps of the allied, powerful states. (Moreover), each superpower was followed by dozens of satellite states.”8
The administrations of these satellite states acquired economic and military benefits from the superpower they orbited around, and compensated with various types of support. Following that period, some of the regimes collapsed and others were established, either because the superpower abandoned the state or was unable to protect it from collapsing, or because another superpower helped a different group infiltrate and overthrow the regime. “Those regimes that achieved stability were able to impose their values upon the society of every state they controlled. These regimes opposed the belief system of the societies which they ruled and, with the passage of time and gradual decay, they squandered and plundered the resources of those states and spread inequity among the people.”9
When the Soviet Union fell into chaos after its collapse in 1991, specific elements came into existence that quickly led to the establishment of administrations of states without passing through the “administration of savagery” stage. In Chechnya and Afghanistan (Afghanistan was not one of the Soviet republics), the administrations of savagery succeeded in establishing what can be called states, but they have since collapsed.
While the management of savagery differs according to the goals and nature of the administration, there are a number of basic requirements consisting of:
- Spreading internal security
- Providing food and medical treatment
- Securing the region of savagery from the invasions of enemies
- Establishing sharia justice among the people who live in the regions of savagery
- Raising the level of belief and combat efficiency during the training of youth of the region of savagery and establishing a fighting society at all levels and among all individuals by making them aware of its importance
- Working for the spread of sharia science
- Dissemination of spies10 and seeking to complete the construction of a minimal intelligence agency
- Uniting the people through sharia governance and compliance with rules which are publicly observed, at least by those in the administration
- Progressing until it is possible to expand and attack the enemies in order to repel them, plunder their money, and place them in a constant state of apprehension
- Establishing coalitions with those with whom coalitions are permitted, those who have not given complete allegiance to the administration
Figure 1: The Stages to establishing a Caliphate
The Path for Establishing an Islamic State
1. Power of vexation and exhaustion
2. Administration of savagery
3. Power of establishment – establishing the state
As shown in figure 1, the primary goals for the stage of “power of vexation and exhaustion” are:
- Exhaust enemy forces and disperse their efforts
- Attract new youth to the jihad by undertaking operations that will grab peoples’ attention. Part of this will be accomplished by way of a media strategy that seeks rational and sharia justification for such operations.
Though the author does not delve too far into stage 3, “power of establishment”, he touches on it as a future goal. Here he explains that in preparation of establishing the state, work in stage 1 must continue in regions that have yet to fall into savagery. In other words, instigation of weaker regions will push them towards breakdown and savagery.
Naji speaks of planning operations that lead towards the establishment of the state. “Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the Crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible,” he writes, “so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.”11 For example, he writes about striking tourist resort targets in Bali which will force the enemy to increase security of all tourist resorts around the world, with a consequent huge increase in spending. If a bank “belonging to the Crusaders” is struck in Turkey, all such banks in all countries will require additional security and the economic draining will increase. Attacks on petroleum infrastructure will prompt intensive security measures of tankers and oil pipelines, and as such will further drain enemy economic resources.
“Hitting economic targets will force (the enemy) to goad the regimes, who are (already) exhausted from protecting the other remaining targets, into pumping in more forces for its protection. Thus, these large numbers of forces are sometimes structurally weak and it is easy to attack them and take large amounts of their weapons”12, 13
Principles and Policies of Military Combat
Naji calls for an increase in administration as the needs of hundreds of thousands of people from weakened states with diminished governments begin to require increased administration. He says that “Regrettably, some of the small groups in the previous stages of jihad ignored [sharia] military principles not out of fear of contradicting the sharia; rather, their neglect was facilitated by random behavior and rigidity, along with the desire of the praiseworthy youths to attain unto the station of martyrdom as soon as possible.”14
The author references a principle which states, “If regular armies concentrate in one place they lose control. Conversely, if they spread out, they lose effectiveness”. Applying this principle, Naji writes, “We can begin with small operations over a large area of land in remote places. After a while, we can undertake operations that are larger with respect to kind and then we can shrink the distance between the remote places.”15
Another important principle which Naji discusses in numerous places throughout the book is the importance of draining the enemy of its resources. “The most likely way to defeat the strongest enemy militarily is to drain it militarily and economically.”16
“One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening (others), and massacring. I am talking about jihad and fighting, not about Islam and one should not confuse them.”17
Naji refers to “paying the price”, and that this is not limited to the “Crusader enemy”. He cites an example of the “apostate Egyptian regime” undertaking an action to kill or capture a group of mujahids. “The youth of jihad in Algeria or Morocco can direct a strike against the Egyptian embassy and issue a statement of justification, or they can kidnap Egyptian diplomats as hostages until the group of mujahids is freed, and so forth. The policy of violence must also be followed such that if the demands are not met, the hostages should be liquidated in a terrifying manner, which will send fear into the hearts of the enemy and his supporters.”18
In the stage of “vexation and exhaustion”, the author argues for the need to polarize the youth of the Umma, and the best way to do that is through justifying the operations rationally and through the sharia.
As for polarization during the stage of “the management of savagery”, a spontaneous kind of polarization begins to happen among the people who live in the savage regions. “The people, seeking security, rally around a jihadi organization. The first step of polarizing these groups begins so that they may enter into mutual professions of loyalty with the people of truth by establishing administrative groups that are subordinate to us in the understanding of how to manage the regions which are under their control. We will find that along with this first step there will be a continuous emigration of the youth of other regions to our regions in order to assist them and live in them, despite the loss of lives and worldly gains or the pressure of the enemies upon these regions.”19
In short: The first step of polarization in the stage of “the management of savagery” is mastering the administration of the regions under control. As for the remaining steps of polarization in this stage, the most important of them is to raise the level of faith, which is the shortest way to polarize the people who live in the region under administrative management. There is a difference between the people accepting administration so that security may be provided for them and so forth, and between joining the ranks and working towards set goals and joining in the battle. Also related to this point, there are regions which fall under the administration of tribes. They have power and capacity, so the message should not seek the dissipation of this power – aside from the difficulty of doing so.
Rules of Affiliation
Naji asks, rhetorically, how allegiances are formed and how it is determined which group receives the pledges from other groups. Is it only a question of size and material superiority? Or rather a question of precedence in jihad? “Knowing the rules of affiliation, practicing them, and referring to them facilitates the undertaking of the first step in the stage of ‘establishing the state’, which follows the stage of ‘the management of savagery’, since the first step in that stage is a leader or group uniting the scattered groups and regions under a single banner so that the ‘power of the establishment of an Islamic state’ may be formed through them.”20
Mastering the Security Dimension
Naji proposes the infiltration of police forces, armies, political parties, newspapers, Islamic groups, petroleum companies, private security companies, civil institutions, etc. He explains that effective infiltration requires patience over a long period of time so that the role in the institution can be mastered.
Mastering Education Within the Movement
Numerous methods of learning about the Quran’s teaching and of jihad are laid out by the author but he emphasizes that sitting and learning from stories or teachers is a poor method. He explains that the only truly valuable method of learning the teachings is through the act of jihad with the Quran at one’s side. “The greatest field for education is the field of battle…”21 “Active jihad which the first Muslims undertook is connected with spiritual jihad. One is never disconnected from the other for a single moment. Active jihad is the greatest means of educating the Muslims and establishing the heavenly meanings and exalted standards in their souls.”22
Naji argues that only preceding generations of jihadis will enable subsequent generations to bear the trust of the religion and move the Umma to join the practice of jihad. True leaders come forth through battle. “That is because speaking on the pulpit is easy and in the newspaper even easier and in books even easier than that. As for having (one’s) home destroyed and one’s family made homeless and one’s mother and sister torn to pieces, only the most extraordinary men are capable of (bearing) that. Great leaders and hardened troops will not come forth save in an atmosphere like this.”23
Conclusion: Are there Easier Solutions?
Is it possible to enter into the stage of power establishing an Islamic state without passing through the first two stages? Naji argues that without preparing the foundation for the state through vexation, and administration of chaos and savagery, establishing and maintaining the state is not possible. Passing through these stages is a great opportunity. He writes:
The tyrants plan and plot together for the continued humiliation and pillage of the Umma, the suppression of the jihad, and the buying off of the youth and the (Islamic) movements. Therefore, we must drag everyone into the battle in order to give life to those who deserve to live and destroy those who deserve to be destroyed. We must drag all of the movements, the masses, and the parties to the battle and turn the table over the heads of everyone. We will become a single power by uniting our groups, improving the organization and systematizing the spread of our groups, giving allegiance to each other, assisting each other to the ends of the earth and to its East, and by dividing our enemies and dividing their interests and their goals (by the permission of God). (This single force) will be able to impose the rule of the sharia and preserve its rights and the rights of humanity which the Taghuts24 of unbelief and apostasy toy with. Thus, we must burn the earth under the feet of the tyrants so that it will not be suitable for them to live in, save (by professing) tawhid25 and being just to the oppressed. Otherwise, they will be destroyed.26
Little is known of the author, Abu Bakr Naji; The Management of Savagery was the only book published under this name. As to the validity of his work, we need only look to the author’s adherents to see whether his writing has relevance. Many of the plans laid out in the book have already been played out by the Islamic State. I have highlighted the topics in Naji’s book that he seemed to give the most attention to, as well as those topics that seem most relevant to understanding the historical, political, economic, and religious justification for acts presently being played out by IS. There were other points of interest, such as the discussion of what Naji refers to as “qualitative operations;” operations like Bali, Riyadh, and Tunisia. The author calls on new youth entering the jihad to take it upon themselves to perform such operations as they see fit. While he praises large-scale operations like 9/11, he confesses that such operations require too much planning, funding, and approval. If we take this as a call to action and overlay it with Naji’s discussion of uniting under one banner, we see, too, the call for lone wolf terrorists, proclaiming their actions for the Islamic State.
Understanding Naji’s writing may offer some degree of prescience for operations yet to come. At the very least, the book provides an understanding of many of the Islamic State’s barbaric actions and the context in which they are being played out. The original text can be found here.
- Salafi jihadism or Jihadist-Salafism is a transnational religious-political ideology based on a belief in "physical" jihadism and the Salafi movement of returning to (what adherents believe to be) "true" Sunni Islam. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salafi_jihadism
- Wahhabism is an ultraconservative religious movement or branch of Sunni Islam. Wahhabism has been accused of being "a source of global terrorism", inspiring the ideology of the Islamic State and for causing disunity in Muslim communities by labelling Muslims who disagreed with the Wahhabi definition as apostates (takfir). Takfir refers to the denouncement of one Muslim to another as being impure.  Haider, Murtaza (Jul 22, 2013). "European Parliament identifies Wahabi and Salafi roots of global terrorism". Dawn.com. Retrieved 3 August 2014.
- The Islamic State is a Salafi jihadist militant group that follows an Islamic fundamentalist, Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam.
- Abu Bakr, 12. https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf
- The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1920 divided the Middle East into areas of British and French control in an attempt to subdue the region after World War I. The divisions cut across ethnic, linguistic, and religious lines. Arab nationalists have condemned the “Sykes-Picot borders” as artificial, illegitimate, and undeserving of recognition. If IS succeeds in establishing a Sunni caliphate, it will effectively dissolve the Sykes-Picot Agreement. http://muftah.org/the-sykes-picot-agreement-isis/#.Vz36AZErLIU
- Abu Bakr, 13. https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf
- Ibid, 14.
- The current Syrian crisis has created opportunities for IS operatives to gain access to Europe under the guise of refugees. See: Opportunities of Convenience: Refugee Smuggling, Organized Crime Syndicates, Terrorism, and the Canadian Implications. Security Matters, Mackenzie Institute. http://mackenzieinstitute.com/3757-2/
- Abu Bakr, 46-47. https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf
- This scenario occurred when Iraqi Security Forces fled an IS attack in Ramadi in 2014, leaving their weapons behind.
- Abu Bakr, 48. https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf
- Abu Bakr, 64. https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf
- Ibid, 65.
- Ibid, 69.
- Ibid, 72.
- Ibid, 78.
- Abu Bakr, 111. https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf
- TRAC: Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium provides detailed analyses of this topic. See also: TRAC Insight: List of Islamic State Wilayats (alt. Wilayah) By Nation. http://www.trackingterrorism.org/chatter/trac-insight-list-islamic-state-wilayats-alt-wilayah-nation
- Shaykh Muhammad al-Amin al-Misri, cited by Abu Bakr, 134. https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf
- Abu Bakr, 134. https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf
- Ibid, 137
- Ruling by foreign laws and abandoning Islam and its legislations, enacting laws and setting limits like permitting interest, fornication and adultery and intoxicants. Taghut is everything that dissuades one from the worship of Allah. http://www.haqyayinlari.com/en/books/read/truemuslim/truemuslim05.htm
- Tawhid is the defining doctrine of Islam. It declares absolute monotheism—the unity and uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe. http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e2356?_hi=15&_pos=2
- Abu Bakr, 176. https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf