The Inverse Triangle of Jihad

Not all jihadists are created equal. Some have proven far more capable of adapting their strategies to fit the situation on the ground than others. Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Jemaah Islamiyah enjoy wider popular support and as a result are more difficult to eradicate than other Islamist organizations because they follow the “inverse triangle” model of jihad. This model is one “in which a broad network of social services supports a smaller jihadist core…it adopts a model of charities and NGOs that help… advance its jihadist goals” (Abuza 2009, paragraph 1). This approach is particularly effective in areas where the state is weak and unable to provide basic services (Hilsenrath 2005, 365).

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

The Muslim Brotherhood was first founded in 1928. Its goal was to establish an Islamic state in Egypt free of foreign influence; these goals remain its driving ideology to this day (Caromba & Solomon 2008, 119). Unlike some of the other organizations discussed in this paper, the Muslim Brotherhood has declared that it has accepted procedural democracy. It has however, wholeheartedly rejected liberalism. Caromba and Solomon caution that

Pro-democracy arguments are useful for a party in opposition; less so for a party in government. It may be that the Brotherhood’s idea of democracy is merely a cynical ruse: ‘one man, one vote, one time’, in the words of Bernard Lewis… the pro-democracy rhetoric of the Brotherhood should not obscure its proscriptive policy preferences, which are likely to undermine freedom of speech, religion and gender equality if the Brotherhood ever came to power. Additionally, an Egypt ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood would certainly be more hostile to the West and Israel than the current regime, and might result in domestic sectarian violence between Muslims and religious minorities. In short, this would not be a desirable outcome for either Egyptians or the rest of the world (2008, 121 & 123).

The Muslim Brotherhood has built its popularity in two major ways. First, it took control of the Egyptian unions. The Egyptian civil society is dominated by these unions. This strategy has given the Muslim Brotherhood great access to the educated elite of Egypt (Caromba & Solomon 2008, 119-120). Second, it created a network of social services to address needs that the Egyptian government has not met.

This network of social services provides employment, health care, and food to a people desperately in need. This network was proved to be much more effective than the Egyptian government after the 1992 Cairo earthquake. The Muslim Brotherhood provided medical tents, food, clothing, blankets and shelters very quickly, and even gave one thousand US dollars to every family that lost their home. Their effectiveness made the government feel threatened; it responded by prohibiting humanitarian intervention by the Brotherhood (which backfired and made the Brotherhood even more popular than it already was). This network of social services creates an association in the minds of Egyptians between Islam and economic prosperity by showing success in areas where the state has failed, thereby advancing the Brotherhood’s Islamist agenda (Caromba & Solomon 2008, 120).


Hamas has long been considered a terrorist organization throughout the world. It was officially founded in 1987, though it had operated since 1973 as the Islamic Center, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It has long followed the “inverse triangle” model by operating schools, mosques, orphanages, medical centers, soup kitchens, and even sports leagues. These activities are funded by Palestinians working in foreign lands and private donors from Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries. One Israeli scholar admitted that “Approximately 90 percent of its work is in social, welfare, cultural and educational activities” (Snow 2010, 15). Hamas’s medical centers serve the dual purpose of endearing it to the Palestinian people as well as serving as a vehicle for jihadist propaganda; waiting rooms in their hospitals are littered with posters that glorify violence against Israel. Hilesnrath explained that “Hamas has adeptly exploited health services to gain legitimacy and, on occasion, to provide a base for terrorist actions against Israel” (2005, 369-370).

Hamas has long been respected for its ability to operate its network of social services without the same level of corruption that plagues the Fatah party associated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (Snow 2010, 15). Understanding that makes it easier to understand why Hamas was able to win control of the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006. This was a free and fair election that was monitored by the international community and drove Fatah from power (Snow 2010, 13).

The international community was horrified that a terrorist organization could win an election; the magic silver bullet of democracy had failed to moderate Palestinian politics. However, it seems evident that their electoral success had less to do with their violent jihadist agenda and more to do with the top of the inverse triangle; that is, their proven ability to provide services that would normally be performed by governments. Newsweek gave the following personal example: “In the West Bank village of Bidya, an old man who runs a vegetable stand explains that he voted for the Hamas mayor because he fixed the [mosque’s] toilets(Peraino et al 2005). Hamas provides an excellent example of how the inverse triangle can ensure the support of the common people for a terrorist organization.


Hezbollah was labeled a terrorist organization by the United States in 1983 following the bombing of a marine barracks in Beirut and other attacks against Jews and Americans. However, many other governments, including the European Union, have refused to do the same (Flanigan & Abdel-Samad 2009,123) because Hezbollah has so adeptly followed the “inverse triangle” model of jihad.

Hezbollah is primarily known in the United States for the violent actions of its paramilitary units and terrorist attacks; in reality, this is only a small part of Hezbollah’s reach. Hezbollah runs a network of health and social services that is far stronger than the Lebanese government is capable of. It also is a major political party that dominates politics in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah’s members see their social programs and political activity as part and parcel of their unified strategy of resistance to Israel and the West. International donors and aid agencies have a hard time avoiding interaction with Hezbollah, since they are one of the best equipped organizations to distribute aid (Flanigan & Abdel-Samad 2009, 122-123).

Hezbollah’s assistance to the Lebanese people takes many forms. They helped people trapped in their homes during a major snowstorm in 1992. Through their Jihad Construction Foundation, Hezbollah has built up infrastructure in Lebanon. In the early part of the 2000s, Hezbollah was distributing 45% of the water to Beirut’s southern Shiite suburb. They also provide garbage collection in poor areas (Flanigan & Abdel-Samad 2009, 125,129). Hezbollah gives financial assistance to families who have lost loved ones or been wounded in conflicts with Israel, and rebuilt over five thousand homes in eighty-two different villages in only two months after Israel attacked Lebanon in 1996. They even provide loans to start small businesses (Flanigan & Abdel-Samad 2009, 127, 131).

Hezbollah also has a significant influence in education. Public education in Lebanon is very poor quality, leading those with means to turn to expensive private schools. Hezbollah operates private schools for far less than other organizations, to the tune of 14,000 students. They also provide scholarships, financial assistance for low-income students and operate libraries (Flanigan & Abdel-Samad 2009, 125-126).

Hezbollah is known for improving access to health care. In Lebanon, government health care has long been used as a tool of political patronage for politicians to reward their supporters. Hezbollah has met health care needs through its Islamic Health Unit, which operates three hospitals and more than fifty other health care facilities that provide low-income residents care at little or no cost. They also offer free health insurance and use a network of pharmacies to provide prescription coverage. As a result of their success, the Lebanese government turned over several government hospitals in Southern Lebanon to their control (Flanigan & Abdel-Samad 2009, 125, 130).

This devotion to services has ensured strong political support for Hezbollah. Seventy-two percent of Lebanon’s poor back the party (Flanigan & Abdel-Samad 2009, 132). After all, “one can see the appeal of a party that has designated itself as ‘the champion of the peasants and farmers, the laborers and the poor, the oppressed and the deprived, the workers and the homeless‘” (Flanigan & Abdel-Samad 2009, 127). The Shiite population in particular trusts Hezbollah to come to its rescue if they are victims of violence (Flanigan & Abdel-Samad 2009, 125).

Hezbollah is quite unambiguous about its motives. Hezbollah’s NGO director Hajj Kassem Aleik put it bluntly that “the resistance society [against Israel] is our vision. It is the task to build a society that will refuse oppression and fight for its rights. All the rest – water provision, garbage collection, agricultural training – is only a working strategy” (Flanigan & Abdel-Samad 2009, 133). Hezbollah’s “inverse triangle” has brought it great political success.

Jemaah Islamiyah

Jemaah Islamiyah is a terrorist organization that fights for an Islamist state in Indonesia. It was founded in 1993, and is an al-Qaeda affiliate that trained both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In its first years of operation, it was a more conventional terrorist organization. It slaughtered Christians and Hindus in an attempt to create separate Islamist areas for Muslims. It has also used bombings to achieve its goals. In October 2002, it bombed a disco in Bali, which resulted in the deaths of over two hundred people. The Indonesian authorities responded with a fairly successful crackdown in 2003, forcing Jemaah Islamiyah to change its strategy and adopt the “inverse triangle” model proven by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah to survive (Abuza 2009).

Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia serves as the parent organization for all of Jemaah Islamiyah’s overt activities. This organization has published anti-Semitic and anti-American books, magazines, and even multimedia since 1999. It now lobbies politicians and is successfully working within the system to implement Islamic law at the regional level. In nearly forty regions, local governments have implemented Sharia law to force Qur’an reading, ban alcohol and regulate interaction between the sexes. It also seeks to replace secular media programming with Islamic programming, require Arabic literacy and force government employees to wear Islamic dress (Abuza 2009).

Jemaah Islamiyah is more transparent about its dislike for freedom than other Islamist organizations. Muhammad Jibril, the manager of the multimedia publishing department, explained to Al-Jazeera: “We want an Islamic state where Islamic law is not just in the books but enforced, and enforced with determination. There is no space and no room for democratic consultation” (Azusa 2009). Another leader, Ba’asyir, said that “The democratic system is not the Islamic way. It is forbidden. Democracy is based on people, but the state must be based on God’s law- I call it Allahcracy. Islam’s victory can only come through da’wa and jihad, not elections” (Azusa 2009).

Jemaah Islamiyah now offers social services in keeping with the example of Hezbollah as a way to increase its support. During the tsunami of December 2004 and the earthquake of May 2006, Jemaah Islamiyah used its charities to advance its Islamist goals. It sent volunteers that assisted in reconstructing mosques, distributing aid and the burial of the many who perished. Beyond its humanitarian goals, however, it sought to prevent non-Muslim relief agencies from being able to proselyte in Indonesia. The World Food Program gave one of Jemaah Islamiyah’s affiliates a major aid distribution contract; the aid was to be distributed by terrorists just released from prison. The WFP only backed out after strong international opposition led by neighboring Australia (Azusa 2009).

The “inverse triangle” model has been very successful in Indonesia. There is no longer any political will to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure that exists there. Political leaders have also been unwilling to enforce United Nations Security Council 1267 or US Treasury Department rulings that prohibit fundraising for Jemaah Islamiyah and its deriviatives because they have the mistaken belief that their overt activities will de-radicalize them. Many Indonesians no longer consider Jemaah Islamiyah a radical organization because of their change in strategy. Terrorist leaders have been released from prison and now work openly in politics, religion and through their charities. Their greater connections with the legal civilian world has made them able to continue their work more effectively (Azusa 2009). Azusa warned that:

Policymakers in Indonesia need to understand precedent. The existence of charities and social service networks has not made Hamas or Hezbollah any less violent although they have contributed to de-legitimization of governments. The Indonesian government should do what the Lebanese, Israeli, and Palestinian Authority governments did not: They must uproot social networks. Few governments have put forward a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the phenomenon of the inverse triangle, and most disaggregate the terrorist and social welfare arms and fund raising. This unwillingness to take on terrorist infrastructure is regrettable. First, like Hezbollah and Hamas, Jemaah Islamiyah has a long-term timetable. Second, by pursuing overt strategies, Jemaah Islamiyah is able to forge closer ties and common cause with Islamists who might otherwise eschew their violence… Targeting their financial and social networks is essential to the long-term fight against terrorism.


What can we learn from the success of Islamist organizations using the “inverse triangle” model? We learn that counterterrorism that only targets military wings of organizations cannot be successful. It is like trying to kill a hydra. You can cut off one head, but two more will grow in its place. There are real and significant reasons these groups enjoy popular support. We must understand their appeal and provide the people meaningful alternatives.

A comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy that features meaningful economic development as its primary focus will be far more successful than one that focuses on military means. Improving governance, reducing corruption and improving the abilities of nation-states to respond to their own citizens needs is also essential. Winning over the hearts and minds of the people who support these organizations is only possible if they have somewhere else to go when they are injured or sick; somewhere else to turn for clean drinking water, and somewhere else to educate their children. If the void these organizations fill through the “inverse triangle” is filled, then people will have a greater incentive to reject their radical agenda; they won’t have to bite the only hand willing to feed them.

Reference List

Abuza, Zachary. 2009. “Jemaah Islamiyah Adopts the Hezbollah Model.” Middle East Quarterly 16, no. 1: 15-26. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2011).

Caromba, Laurence, and Hussein Solomon. 2008. “Understanding Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.” African Security Review 17, no. 3: 118-124. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2011).

Flanigan, Shawn Teresa, and Mounah Abdel-Samad. 2009. “Hezbollah’s Social Jihad: Nonprofits as Resistance Organizations.” Middle East Policy 16, no. 2: 122-137. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2011).

Hilsenrath, Peter. 2005. “Health Policy as Counter-terrorism: Health Services and the Palestinians.” Defence & Peace Economics 16, no. 5: 365-374. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2011).

Peraino, Kevin, Nuha Musleh, and Samir Zedan. 2005. “How Hamas Wins Voters.” Newsweek 145, no. 16: 42. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2011).

Snow, Donald. 2010. Cases in International Relations. New York: Longman.


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