“Rad­i­cal Is­lamism is a move­ment, not an or­gan­i­sa­tion, which makes it much harder to de­feat”

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

At its heart, the United States’ strat­egy was to iden­tify ter­ror­ist groups and de­stroy them. The as­sump­tion was that ter­ror­ism re­quired an or­gan­i­sa­tion. Progress in this strat­egy meant iden­ti­fy­ing an or­gan­i­sa­tion or a cell plan­ning ter­ror op­er­a­tions and dis­rupt­ing or de­stroy­ing it. Since ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions are rel­a­tively small at the op­er­a­tional level, the strat­egy has re­sem­bled po­lice work: the first step is to iden­tify the per­son ac­tive in the or­gan­i­sa­tion. Hav­ing iden­ti­fied him, send drones or SEALs to cap­ture or kill him.

Op­er­a­tionally, the strat­egy worked. Ter­ror­ists were iden­ti­fied and killed. As the or­gan­i­sa­tions were de­graded and bro­ken, ter­ror­ism de­clined - but then surged. Th­ese end­less in­tel­li­gence and spe­cial forces op­er­a­tions may have been bril­liantly car­ried out, but the strate­gic goal of the United States has not been achieved. The war is not be­ing won and a stale­mate is equiv­a­lent to a loss for the United States.

The es­sen­tial prob­lem has been a per­sis­tent mis­un­der­stand­ing of rad­i­cal Is­lamism. It is a move­ment, not an or­gan­i­sa­tion. Or to be more pre­cise, rad­i­cal Is­lamism is a strand of Is­lam. How large or small it is has be­come the sub­ject of a fairly point­less de­bate. Its size is suf­fi­cient to send Amer­i­can forces half­way around the world and it is ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing out at­tacks in Europe and the U.S. Whether it is a small strand or a gi­ant strand doesn’t mat­ter. What mat­ters is that it can­not be sup­pressed, or at least has not yet been sup­pressed.

One of the prob­lems in Amer­i­can think­ing is that it still draws from the U.S.’ ex­pe­ri­ence with Euro­pean and Pales­tinian ter­ror­ism prior to 1991. Th­ese groups were heav­ily in­flu­enced by the So­viet model and cre­ated or­gan­i­sa­tions that were to a great ex­tent her­met­i­cally sealed. The or­gan­i­sa­tions had three char­ac­ter­is­tics. First, although sym­pa­this­ers might be re­cruited with a care­ful vet­ting process, mem­ber­ship in the or­gan­i­sa­tions was for­mal in the sense that you ei­ther were a mem­ber or you weren’t. Sec­ond, the or­gan­i­sa­tions pro­tected them­selves by stay­ing, to the ex­tent pos­si­ble, at arm’s length from any move­ment. They were ob­sessed with pre­vent­ing pen­e­tra­tion. Fi­nally, they were heav­ily com­part­men­talised so that members and op­er­a­tions were known only on a need-to-know ba­sis.

Th­ese or­gan­i­sa­tions were in­tended to be sus­tain­able over an ex­tended pe­riod of time. But they had a flaw. If they could be pen­e­trated (how­ever dif­fi­cult it might be) by in­for­mants or elec­tronic mon­i­tor­ing, the en­tire or­gan­i­sa­tion could un­ravel. Ei­ther it would be com­pletely de­stroyed through op­er­a­tions or the sheer para­noia of know­ing it was pen­e­trated some­where would cause in­ter­nal con­flict or lead it to be­come in­ert.

In some cases, th­ese or­gan­i­sa­tions had no move­ment sup­port­ing them or the move­ment was so thin that it was not an is­sue. This was par­tic­u­larly true with Euro­pean ter­ror­ists. The Pales­tini­ans had a sub­stan­tial move­ment, but it was so frag­mented and pen­e­trated that the or­gan­i­sa­tions dis­tanced them­selves from the move­ments. Th­ese or­gan­i­sa­tions were over time bro­ken by Western se­cu­rity ser­vices and bit­terly fac­tion­alised to the point dif­fer­ent fac­tions could be used against each other.

For 15 years, the op­er­a­tional fo­cus for the U.S. has been the de­struc­tion of ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions. The reason for this is that de­stroy­ing a par­tic­u­lar group cre­ates the il­lu­sion of progress. How­ever, as one group is de­stroyed, an­other group arises in its name. For ex­am­ple, al-Qaida is be­ing re­placed by the Is­lamic State. The real strength of Is­lamist ter­ror­ism is the move­ment that the or­gan­i­sa­tion draws it­self from and that feeds it. So long as the move­ment is in­tact, any suc­cess at de­stroy­ing an or­gan­i­sa­tion is, at best, tem­po­rary and, in re­al­ity, an il­lu­sion.

In ad­di­tion, be­cause there is a move­ment, the main or­gan­i­sa­tion can or­gan­ise ter­ror at­tacks by send­ing in­di­vid­u­als who know lit­tle of the de­tails of the or­gan­i­sa­tion to carry out op­er­a­tions. But be­cause the move­ment con­sists of in­di­vid­u­als who un­der­stand what needs to be done, ji­hadist or­gan­i­sa­tions do not have to re­cruit peo­ple to carry out at­tacks or teach them how to do so. The com­plex­ity of 9/11 was never re­peated and the level of simplicity has in­creased over time. That means that members of the move­ment who have never had con­tact with the or­gan­i­sa­tion can carry out at­tacks. From the point of view of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, th­ese are ideal at­tack­ers. They can­not be traced back to the or­gan­i­sa­tion, they are not un­der sur­veil­lance and there are suf­fi­cient mod­els for them to draw on with­out need­ing to ask for advice.

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In the old model, all at­tacks were co­or­di­nated by the cen­tral or­gan­i­sa­tion. In the new model, most or­gan­i­sa­tions have no con­tact with the peo­ple or­gan­is­ing op­er­a­tions and at­tack­ing the cen­ter will not di­min­ish the at­tacks. Of late, there have been ab­surd dis­cus­sions about whether par­tic­u­lar ter­ror­ists had con­tact with other ter­ror­ists, or whether they had been “rad­i­calised.” I as­sume this means the per­son was per­suaded to be­come a ter­ror­ist. In a move­ment, you are aware that there are others like you and who think like you. You do not need for­mal at­tach­ments to re­spond to the ideology of the move­ment.

How­ever, the idea of ji­hadism has per­me­ated the move­ment and Mus­lims are aware of this. Most may re­ject it but others em­brace it. You don’t need a train­ing pro­gramme to ab­sorb what is all around you. If an in­di­vid­ual doesn’t know any­one who is part of this on­go­ing move­ment, there is enough on the in­ter­net, or enough spec­u­la­tion in the me­dia to draw a map for any­one who wants a map drawn. The idea that if a Mus­lim shoots 20 peo­ple, but has had no con­tact with a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion, he might not have done it for ide­o­log­i­cal reasons might be true. But it for­gets that he does not need con­tact with a men­tor to plan an at­tack, es­pe­cially a rel­a­tively sim­ple one. The move­ment and the at­mos­phere is filled with the idea.

The move­ment is not an or­gan­i­sa­tion any more than con­ser­vatism or lib­er­al­ism is. There may be or­gan­i­sa­tions at­tached to it, but it is more of a so­cial ten­dency. How­ever, its members still com­mu­ni­cate with each other. There are lead­ers in all th­ese move­ments, although there may not be man­agers.

This ten­dency in Is­lam makes the move­ment dif­fi­cult to de­feat. It can­not be sur­gi­cally re­moved. Some members of the move­ment don’t wear a uni­form. It is also im­pos­si­ble to at­tack the move­ment with­out at­tack­ing Is­lam as a whole. And at­tack­ing Is­lam as a whole is dif­fi­cult. There are 1.7 bil­lion Mus­lims in the world and any of them can be­lieve in rad­i­cal ji­hadism. And the be­liev­ers in ji­hadism are se­ri­ous peo­ple, moved by their own fate. We would like to dis­miss them as fools. If they were, they would be easy to de­feat.

It is ob­vi­ous that the con­ven­tional spe­cial op­er­a­tions ap­proach hasn’t worked and won’t work. It is also ob­vi­ous that a gen­eral war on Is­lam is im­pos­si­ble. What is left is dif­fi­cult but the only op­tion. It is to bring pres­sure on Mus­lim states to make war on the ji­hadists and on other strands of Is­lam to do so as well. The pres­sure must be in­tense and the re­wards sub­stan­tial. The like­li­hood of it work­ing is low. But the only way to elim­i­nate this move­ment is for Mus­lims to do it.

They may not want to, and they may fail if they try. But more drone strikes and an­nounce­ments that an­other leader of some group has been killed won’t work. Our op­tions are down to hav­ing to “live with it” or fo­ment­ing a civil war in the Is­lamic world. In the end, we might wind up with “live with it” any­way.

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