Eaton Agonistes, Redux?



Bill Gertz, Washington Times national security columnist, reports (1/4/08) that the Pentagon has fired Stephen Coughlin, its most knowledgeable specialist on Islamic Law, and jihad terrorism. As Gertz observed aptly, the Pentagon thus ended the career of its most effective analyst attempting to prepare the military to wage ideological war against jihadism.

This past September, 2007, I lectured with Mr. Coughlin, a US Army Reserves Major, at The Naval War College, and witnessed his brilliant, tour de force presentation which elucidated the reliance of contemporary jihadism on Islamic Law. Coughlin demonstrated meticulously that “Jihad fi Sabil Allah”—“Jihad in the cause of Allah,” is the animating principle which underlies the threat of global jihad terrorism, and how this understanding should form the basis for rational, effective threat development assessment, and war planning.

That Coughlin’s analyses would even be considered “controversial,” or worse still lead eventually to his firing—perhaps, as Gertz strongly suggests, at the behest of a Muslim aide, Hesham Islam, within the office of Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England—is pathognomonic of the intellectual and moral rot plaguing our efforts to combat global jihadism.

There is no evidence that Mr. Islam—distinctly unlike Mr. Coughlin—has any specific expertise on the theory or historical practice of jihad; indeed Gordon England’s Egyptian Muslim aide is touted for his public relations skills—a sort of English-speaking Muslim Dragoman to the global Islamic umma. According to Deputy Secretary England,

Hesham [Islam] helps me understand people’s different perspectives and how they see things. He has a cultural background that’s very helpful, but he also works at it very hard to get a better understanding of people and how they think.

Coughlin’s reasoned conclusions simply update and complement, exquisitely, what serious scholars of jihad have long argued about revivalist movements throughout Islamic history. For example, forty years ago (in 1967), John Ralph Willis observed regarding the 19th century jihadist movements in West Africa, specifically, and such historical movements in general,

The jihad…is essentially an instrument of revival, employed for the purpose of extending the frontiers of Islam and leading the faithful back to roots. And it is not insignificant that the faithful, being in essence conservative, have been as susceptible to the summons of revivalists as they have been insensitive to the activity of reformists.

Stephen Coughlin’s modern predicament is eerily similar to what befell another courageous, unabashed American patriot, William Eaton, two hundred years ago, during our nation’s first encounter with jihad terrorism. Victory in Tripoli,” Joshua London’s compelling narrative of America’s initial conflict with jihadists—the Barbary wars—highlights, appositely, William Eaton’s experiences. Eaton’s triumphs and travails during his tenure as consul to Tunis (1799-1803), and later U.S. naval agent to the Barbary states, mirrored those of the young American nation he served.

Born on February 23, 1764 in Woodstock, Connecticut, the highly intelligent and strong-willed Eaton, when 16 years old, ran away from home, subsequently lying about his age to join Washington‘s Continental Army. He rose to the rank of sergeant in the Continental Army, which he served until 1783. Eaton graduated Dartmouth in 1790, and in 1791 was chosen clerk of the Massachusetts House of Delegates, where he remained until 1797, while he also served (beginning in 1792) the U.S. Army as both a fighter and negotiator during the frontier campaigns against the American Indians. Later, Eaton assisted then Secretary of War Timothy Pickering’s espionage/treason investigations. When Pickering became Secretary of State, he chose Eaton to serve as U.S. consul to Tunis, initially under President John Adams.

Eaton’s consular journal recorded these brutally honest and comical impressions of his first diplomatic encounter (on February 22, 1799) with Dey Bobba Mustafa of Algiers, which would make the craven State Department mandarins of today, wince:

…we took off our shoes and entering the cave (for so it seemed), with small apertures of light with iron gates, we were shown to a huge, shaggy beast, sitting on his rump upon a low bench covered with a cushion of embroidered velvet, with his hind legs gathered up like a tailor, or a bear. On our approach to him, he reached out his forepaw as if to receive something to eat. Our guide exclaimed, “Kiss the Dey’s hand!” The consul general bowed very elegantly, and kissed it, and we followed his example in succession. The animal seemed at that moment to be in a harmless mode; he grinned several times, but made very little noise. Having performed this ceremony, and standing a few moments in silent agony, we had leave to take our shoes and other property, and leave the den without any other injury than the humility of being obliged in this involuntary manner, to violate the second commandment of God and offend common decency. Can any man believe that this elevated brute has seven kings of Europe, two republics, and a continent tributary to him when his whole naval force is not equal to two line-of-battle ships? It is so.

Despite such inauspicious beginnings, and the institutionalized Barbary corruption Eaton found so repugnant to his person, and nation, his negotiations eventually secured U.S. commercial interests (at least a temporary) immunity from the attacks of Tunisian corsairs.

Eaton agonized over the gulf between the enormous potential and depressing reality of the Barbary states. He admired the Mediterranean coast of Tunis, “…naturally luxuriant and beautiful beyond description…I know not why it might not vie with the opposite continent in every thing useful, rich, and elegant”, yet despaired of the stultifying religio-political institutions which arrested the regions progress. Ultimately, Eaton concluded that Islam itself, certainly as practiced in Barbary, was the source of this backwardness:

Considered as a nation, they are deplorably wretched, because they have no property in the soil to inspire an ambition to cultivate it. They are abject slaves to the despotism of their government, and they are humiliated by tyranny, the worst of all tyrannies, the despotism of priestcraft. They live in more solemn fear of the frowns of a bigot who has been dead and rotten above a thousand years, than of the living despot whose frown would cost them their lives…The ignorance, superstitious tradition and civil and religious tyranny, which depress the human mind here, exclude improvement of every kind…

Appointed Naval Agent for the Barbary Regencies in 1804, Eaton then organized and led an expedition to unseat the predatory Barbary ruler Yusuf Qaramanli. Eaton’s army arrived outside Derna. on April 25, 1805. When the bey of Derna refused his generous ultimatum, at 2 p.m. April 28, Eaton led a successful attack on the city, supported by U.S. naval gunfire. During the fighting Eaton—who had led his outnumbered force in a gallant bayonet charge—was wounded in the left wrist. As London recounts:

He simply wrapped his arm in a makeshift bandage and sling, grabbed a pistol with his right hand, and continued to charge ahead. With the American Marines in the lead, Eaton’s forces stormed the ramparts and advanced straight to the harbor.

Subsequent diplomatic efforts stalled the expedition. Tobias Lear, the Consul General, reached an accomodation with Yusuf Qaramanli, which included ransom money for all American prisoners, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Derna, and the betrayal of Eaton’s key Arab ally, Ahmad Qaramanli. Eaton commented upon this treaty with predictable bitterness in a letter to Commodore John Rodgers:

Could I have apprehended this result of my exertions, certainly no consideration would have prevailed on me to have taken an agency in a tragedy so manifestly fraught with intrigue, so wounding to human feelings, and, as I must view it, so degrading to our national honor.

Although the Senate ratified the Tripoli treaty in April 1806 by a vote of 21 to 8, as London notes,

Jefferson declared ‘victory,’ but the ‘peace’ proved rather political…The Federalists did not manage to derail the treaty, but they did embarrass and, at junctures, discredit President Thomas Jefferson and forever tarnish the career of Tobias Lear.

Just over five years later, in Brimfield, Massachusetts, June 1, 1811, an alcoholic forty-seven year old William Eaton died in near anonymity.

The signing of the Treaty of Ghent (Christmas eve, 1814)—subsequently ratified in the U.S. (February, 1815)—ended the so-called War of 1812 with Great Britain, and allowed President James Madison to address the problem of renewed Barbary jihad terrorism. Shortly afterward, President Madison commissioned two naval squadrons led by Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur, and dispatched them to the Barbary States in May, 1815. By June/July 1815 the ably commanded U.S. naval forces had dealt their Barbary jihadist adversaries a quick series of crushing defeats. These U.S. victories were solidified by what London terms “unprecedented” treaty agreements forced upon the Barbary states, which “..made practically no concessions and stood very firm on every point”—the abolition of all tribute; release of all American prisoners currently held, and acknowledgement that no future American prisoners of war could be enslaved; the payment of indemnities; and the restoration of American properties held by the dey.

Joshua London concludes his engrossing, carefully researched account of the Barbary wars with this insightful analysis:

During the war with Tripoli, the United States began to test William Eaton’s hypothesis that fighting back and protecting the national honor and national interest with force was the best way to end Barbary piracy. Just at the moment of triumph, however, President Thomas Jefferson wavered and settled on the side of expediency. Jefferson’s lack of resolve left American interests unguarded, and once again American maritime trade felt the Barbary terror. By 1816, however, the United States finally provided that William Eaton was right. This success ignited the imagination of the Old World powers to rise up against the Barbary pirates.

Thirty years earlier, in 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, then serving as American ambassadors to France and Britain, respectively, met in London with the Tripolitan Ambassador to Britain, Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja. These future American presidents were attempting to negotiate a peace treaty which would spare the United States the ravages of jihad piracy—murder, enslavement (with ransoming for redemption), and expropriation of valuable commercial assets—emanating from the Barbary states (modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya). During their discussions, they questioned Ambassador Adja as to the source of the unprovoked animus directed at the nascent United States republic. Jefferson and Adams, in their subsequent report to the Continental Congress, recorded the Tripolitan Ambassador’s justification:

… that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise

Stephen Coughlin understands and enunciates what was stated openly to then Ambassadors John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—and what they apparently understood—by the Tripolitan Ambassador Adja. During his September. 2007 presentation which I witnessed at US Naval War College, Coughlin updated this timeless Islamic formulation into its modern context:

If the Enemy in the War on Terror (WOT) states that he fights jihad in furtherance of Islamic causes that includes the imposition of Shari’a law and the re-establishment of the Caliphate; And Islamic law on jihad exists and is available in English; Then Professionals with WOT responsibilities have an affirmative, personal, professional duty to know the enemy that includes ALL the knowable facts associated with the law of jihad.

And Coughlin, a well-trained lawyer, further argued that such understanding by our military leaders is obligatory if they are to uphold their essential commission:

This is the Professional Standard.

Stephen Coughlin has been fired for reminding his peers of this basic obligation.

Two hundred years after William Eaton’s bitter, tragic experiences, and ultimate posthumous vindication, let us fervently hope that our contemporary military and political elites muster the intellectual courage to heed Major Stephen Coughlin’s advice in a much more timely, and responsible manner.

Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad (Prometheus, 2005) and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism " (Prometheus, November, 2008) You can contact Dr. Bostom at

17 responses to “Eaton Agonistes, Redux?

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  2. Comment from a current Army LTC who has participated in one of Coughlin’s seminars:

    MAJ (USAR) Stephen Coughlin is to my knowledge the only Islamic Law scholar on the Joint Staff…

    He is a lawyer by training and a reserve Military Intelligence Officer. His first interface with Islamic Law began in Pakistan where he was investigating and prosecuting an intellectual property rights case about 10 years ago. Reviewing Pakistani property rights law, he kept seeing footnoted references to the Quran and sharia law…

    I have long argued and wondered why our military from senior leaders down to tactical level are so unread and unstudied on Islam, jihad in Islam, even the topic of terrorism. I have often contrasted this unconscionable wartime state of affairs, with the due diligence the US military showed since I was a cadet at West Point 30 years ago, where we lived, ate, slept and drank Soviet warfighting doctrine…it was the threat we oriented on and we developed our own doctrine around– “AirLand Battle” in the early 1980’s.

    Can anyone show me where the equivalent of the Soviet threat doctrine series for the global war on terror is published?

    It has not been done.

    Yet today we are in the process of prosecuting war, that from doctrinal perspective, we fundamentally do not understand. Over two years I have had 90 of the Army’s top majors come through ACSC, across all branches including MI and special operations forces, and only one had read a book with the title Understanding Terror Networks, that by Marc Sageman…

    Just before Christmas I presented a lecture…to an interagency audience … that included Joint Staff and Joint Command officers, DIA and other IC reps, DHS and law enforcement… there, two people had read Sageman’s work…two out of the special ops community. The third individual was Sageman himself.

    More importantly we have not studied Islamic Law and few have seen or heard of even the English translation of it that has been in print for years, none had at JSOU or had read a work titled Understanding Jihad, War and Peace in the Law of Islam or even The Quranic Concept of War…I can go on but let me be frank.

    This failure of intellectual preparation is a leadership failure, and it is as the 9-11 Commission warned, a failure of vision.

    We have spent much intellectual capitol revamping and analyzing our own doctrine as it relates to counterinsurgency…it’s time we do our homework on the threat.

    Coughlin has briefed senior Marine Corps leaders and staff and has presented his thesis in various military educational venues…by all accounts the veil of ignorance is lifted for all but only a few who are afraid to face what Islamic Law, doctrinal Islam, says and means with respect to jihad and how it plays out across the Islamic world from al Qaida, to the Saudi government, to Pakistan to the Muslim Brotherhood…

    What Coughlin did was provide the epiphany in his over 300-page Joint Military Intelligence College thesis titled, “To Our Great Detriment: Ignoring What Extremists Say About Jihad” that is meticulously documented and powerfully argued.

    In short, he argues we have in fact intellectually pre-empted our military decision making process and intelligence preparation of the battlefield process, the critical step 3-“evaluate the threat.” Strategically we have failed to do that by substituting policy for military analysis, for substituting cliché for competent decision processes.

    We began on September 12, 2001 with “Islam is a religion of peace” which soothed ideological sentiments of many but has failed us strategically, short-stopped the objective, sytstemic evaluation of the threat doctrine.

    “Islam is a religion of peace” is fine for public policy statements, but is not and cannot be the point of departure for competent military or intelligence analysis…it is in fact a logical flaw under any professional research methodology…you have stated the conclusion before you have done the analysis.

    If one has studied the implication of the Holy Land Foundation trial discovery documents as I have, as a former DIA senior military analyst, and understanding as even Bill Gertz has written in his book, Enemies about the dismal record of our counter-intelligence one has to wonder and question the extent we are in fact penetrated in government and academia by foreign agents of influence, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists and those who truly in essence do not share our social compact.

    The termination of Stephen Coughlin on the Joint Staff is an act of intellectual cowardice.

    We can only hope he can be positioned in his next venue to continue to educate our military for the fight we are in– if we don’t understand the war and the enemy we are engaged against we remain vulnerable and we cannot win.

    No victory in the war on terror.

  3.' Harry MacDougald

    Well, all in all a very depressing read. To this catalog of pathetic failure and ignorance may be added the senior FBI counterterrorism official who didn’t know the difference between Shiite and Sunni, and Silvestre Reyes, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who didn’t know the difference either.

    It would take about 1 hour to find 100 people on the internet who understand the threat better than these clowns, and most of those 100 have gained that understanding it in their spare time.

    I guess we can console ourselves with Victor Davis Hanson’s observation that we win wars because of the tendency of the enemy to recover from his incredible stupidity slower than we do from ours.

    Best regards,

  4. This is truly dreadful, and what’s at the bottom of it is even more so. From an earlier story by Gertz:

    “[Gordon R.] England has been a leading advocate of what critics in the Pentagon say is a misguided attempt to reach out to the wrong Muslims, regardless of their views, in an effort to counter Muslim extremism.

    “That approach has kept military and civilian officials from conducting much-needed assessments of how Muslim extremists are waging war because doing so would involve analysis of Muslim religious tenets, a politically taboo subject area.”

    So the most crucial task in our defense against the ideological jihad is “politically taboo” — in the Defense Department. It brings to mind Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons after Czechslovakia was yielded to Hitler at Munich in 1938:

    “I find unendurable the sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit and influence of Nazi Germany, and of our existence becoming dependent on their good will or pleasure. I have tried my best to urge the maintenance of every bulwark of defence … to restrain the onward movement of this power. It has all been in vain … we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.” And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup that will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” (Winston Churchill, “The Gathering Storm,” p.328.)

    OT, an update on the assassination of Swedish Assyrian genocide researcher Fuat Deniz, in the form of an open letter to the Swedish ambassador to the U.S., may be seen here.

  5.' heroyalwhyness

    Compounding the fact that Stephen Coughlin was the most knowledgeable specialist on Islamic Law, Dr. Bostom reveals in the comments, via Army LTC, Stephen Coughlin was the ONLY knowledgable specialist on the Joint Staff!
    Hugh Fitzgerald and Robert Spencer discussed at some length West Point’s reading list provided by General Vines a couple of years ago.
    This deliberate ignorance saturating every level of security is most alarming.

  6. Nonsense.

    Everyone knows that the only reason the Islamic states have any grievance against the U.S. is our continued and unjustified occupation of their holy lands. And of course, George Bush.

    In fact, they wish us no harm. Their religion poses no threat to us. Islamofascism is a manufactured creature of Islamophobia. To believe otherwise is paranoia working overtime.

    We can abandon our military presence in the Islamic countries and be assured of living in peace with them for all time.

    After all, the Islamic representatives assure us this is true. Their American representatives in CAIR tell us the same. And doesn’t history show that it is so?

  7. Mr. MacDougald —

    Does that mean we have a shorter OODA loop? And has the firing of Stephen Coughlin by “the suits” in The Building (as Boyd called the Pentagon) made our Loop that much slower.

    Depressing. Col. Boyd is rolling over in his grave. Were he still here, he be jamming his forefinger into the chest of these idjits, his cigar in the corner of his mouth.

    Oh that we had another Boyd on board…

    BTW, where do people think Mr. Coughlin will end up? Surely someone will grab him?

    For all the good it will do, I am going to write Sec Gates…and suggest same on my blog.

  8. Either Mr Fembup above has his tongue firmly planted in both cheeks or he can’t see what’s in front of his eyes. If Bostom hasn’t provided ample enough evidence for him that simply pulling out and acting nice will not stop the 1400 year old Jihad, then I advise Mr F to take a visit to and check out the mountains of documentation provided there.

    To keep their data in perspective they keep a running “Weekly Jihad Report”. The summary data for the week of Dec. 22 – Dec. 28 2007:

    Jihad Attacks: 34
    Dead Bodies: 251
    Critically Injured: 434

    A question (and answer), from the same site, for anyone who feels that the Jihad is purely a response to American Foreign policy:

    It’s all about Iraq, isn’t it?
    Yep, it’s all about Iraq and…

    India and the Sudan and Algeria and Afghanistan and New York and Pakistan and Israel and Russia and Chechnya and the Philippines and Indonesia and Nigeria and England and Thailand and Spain and Egypt and Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia and Ingushetia and Dagestan and Turkey and Kabardino-Balkaria and Morocco and Yemen and Lebanon and France and Uzbekistan and Gaza and Tunisia and Kosovo and Bosnia and Mauritania and Kenya and Eritrea and Syria and Somalia and California and Argentina and Kuwait and Virginia and Ethiopia and Iran and Jordan and United Arab Emirates and Louisiana and Texas and Tanzania and Germany and Australia and Pennsylvania and Belgium and Denmark and East Timor and Qatar and Maryland and Tajikistan and the Netherlands and Scotland and Chad and Canada and China and Nepal
    and the Maldives and…
    …and pretty much wherever Muslims believe their religion tells them to:

    “Fight those who do not believe in Allah, … nor follow
    the religion of truth… until they pay the tax in acknowledg-ment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.”
    Qur’an, Sura 9:29

  9. Excellent post and perspective on this issue. It’s the old, “those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it. It’s too bad Bush and Olmert can’t understand this.

    I wanted to DIGG this post, but got a message that the URL didn’t work for some reason.

  10. I hope this is simply an isolated case of a soldier [England] admiring Islam for its ferocity and warrior ethos… a guy who roots for the Klingons, and thinks Seven Days In May had a sad ending….

    Yeah, I know… wishful thinking. This probably comes from the top. The “small minority of extremists” meme has apparently become official policy, and will be enforced no matter how toxic it becomes.

    Too bad Islam refuses to divide itself up along those lines… think anybody in D.C. has noticed that yet?

  11. Archimedes2, “everybody knows” . . .should have been a dead giveaway. If that didn’t do it for you, then I won’t comment on the rest.

    See, I didn’t expect any fish actually to bite. I thought only that readers would at once recognize the irony, and smile – sadly – in silence.

  12. John F. – I smiled in silence!

    Nicely done, BTW, – I shall use some of that during my next chat with an ignorant lefty.

  13. Here’s just one tidbit, showing official stupidity, from the

    12/27/2006 Christian Science Monitor at :

    “There is a message here, and that is that Muslims and the Islamic religion are totally compatible with Western values,” says Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England in an interview.

    Excerpts from this article were sent out in an American Congress for Truth newsletter.

  14. Reading posts like these, albeit well written and well documented, it’s depressing. Not because of the writter’s motifs, but because I see a great civilization breaking apart mostly because we lack the will to fight back. Sure, we have our own share of sins and problems, but there mudt be something good about Western Judeo-Christian, greco-roman culture that makes everyone in the world to wish to live here.

    Future generations will marvel (as probably contemporany Lebanese Christians do) as to why did we let thigns get so out of hand. Why? Isn’t there anyone who can stand up for what we believe anymore? Politician, I mean.

    Where are the modern Churchils? Where are the modern Jan Sobieski? And Charles Martel? Where are the western heroes?

    Sad sad sad…

  15. Mats, you ask where are the modern Western heroes? They were in Serbia in the early 1990’s, fighting the Islamists in Bosnia and Kosovo. But Germany supported the Croatian neo-Nazis. The US supported the Bosnian Islamists and bombed Serbia in 1999 and was essentially the KLA (Islamist) airforce (and also supported the Islamists in Chechnya). This drove Russia into strategic alliance with China, for which we will pay a very high price. How do you think it makes me, an American, feel to write the above, to see that Western post-modern, post Christian civilization has a death wish?

  16. This was an excellent analysis of a depressingly common situation, inside government and in academia. I would enlarge on its central point to say that, beyond becoming acquainted with the place of jihad and jihadism in the Koran, military professionals and counter-terrorism practitioners need to pay attention to the disturbingly high levels of social support in the Muslim world for the program, leader, actions, and goals of the enemy. This evidence is readily available, though U.S. strategy continues to be shaped largely by opposite assumptions, i.e.: that the enemy is a tiny minority of Muslims.

    I documented these points in a 2006 article in the Southeast Review of Asian Studies, A SMALL SUBSET? MEASURING SOCIAL SUPPORT FOR ISLAMIST TERRORISM IN THE MIDDLE EAST, SOUTH AND SOUTHEAST ASIA, which can be found at a website maintained by the University of Kentucky:

    I encountered skepticism even among professionals in irregular warfare at the Naval War College when discussing this thesis informally during the months before the article was published. There I don’t think resistance grew from political correctness, but rather from professional specialization in narrowly targeted tactics and related strategies.

    But the problem is that the enemy is not tiny: it is broad, and legitimized by social institutions not directly connected to waging jihad against us.

  17. From Dr. Bowen:

    I mis-spoke when I posted at your website Friday that I had been presenting my study at the Naval War College. Actually, it was at the Naval Postgraduate School (Monterey, CA). If as master of the blog you can edit, please correct this unintended error.


    Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
    Professor of Political Science and International Relations
    Mary Baldwin College