Friday, September 12, 2014

ISIS and the Old Definition of Terrorism

I may exert a lot of effort criticizing the term "terrorism," but I do think, when used correctly, it is an apt description for specific acts of violence against the innocent. Terrorism, at its most basic, is violence aimed at noncombatants or civilians for political ends. When a bomb explodes in a market place, that's pure terrorism.

Not all of ISIS's violence is thus terrorism. If it attacks an Iraqi military base, this is an act of guerrilla/insurgent/asymmetrical/irregular war. The targets are military. Though there's a lot of grey in between terrorism and guerrilla war (Targeting police? Politicians? POWs?), as an ideal type such actions should be separated from terrorism, if that word is to retain any meaning.

And it should retain its meaning, given the fact that targeting civilians is a regular feature of late modern war, civil or otherwise.

ISIS is an armed group that uses terrorism as well as insurgent violence targeting military actors. It has a long record of engaging in pure terrorism, specializing in targeting markets and mosques in Shia neighborhoods. Now that its successfully taken control of territory in Syria and Iraq—through guerrilla and military tactics as well as pure terrorism—it is engaging in a different form of terrorism. Whereas before its terrorism was part of what Italian fascists called the "strategy of tension," i.e. creating mayhem to destabilize the political order, now it engages in terrorism as a form of government. Though the James Foley and Steven Sotloff killings fall more under the category of pure terrorism (if not mercenary terror), its public executions and massacres of captured Iraqi soldiers is more akin to the original meaning of the word "terrorism," coined during the darkest period of the French Revolution.

The term "terrorisme" was created to describe a rational governing strategy during the tumult of revolutionary instability. According to Maximilien de Robespierre, terrorism is the responsibility, if not the moral duty, of the newborn revolutionary state:
If the basis of a popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in a time of revolution is virtue and terrorvirtue, without which terror would be barbaric; and terror, without which virtue would be impotent.
Revolutionary violence—or rather the violence of the revolutionary state—is largely communicative. While purging counterrevolutionary elements is a key end in itself, the theatricality of this violence is aimed at evoking a reaction in its audience: terror for some, fervor among others. The guillotine in the public square and the jihadi's beheading video aren’t too far apart. And their purposes are the same: violence to terrorize enemies, violence to demobilize opponents, violence to galvanize supporters, violence to legitimize the revolutionary state.

Robespierre was not the architect of terrorism-as-governance—it’s a well-worn tradition—but he was its most articulate spokesman, defining it as an essential tool for the revolutionary state. For him, terror, the “despotism of liberty against tyranny,” was essential to creating not only a new state, but a new individual: the citizen. In order to do so, the state needed to first purge society of counterrevolutionary forces, the defenders of tradition and continuity with the past. Killing these people publicly is a cheap and effective way of not only forcing a very real break with tradition, but of viscerally demonstrating this break to the general public. Now, the only division was between the citizen and the other; the guillotine, for a moment, enforcing this boundary. Much like the Islamic State’s use of violence separates the pious believer from the impious, the "good" Muslim and the infidel.

This strategy almost never works. Ask Robespierre.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

What Happens When Sylvester Stallone Trains Terrorirsts

Cracked has a nice piece on how Hollywood gets guns wrong. Number 1 provides a dash of hope in this violent world of ours:
Another thing you see in movie firefights is that dramatic moment where the hero shoots until he hears a dry "click" of the trigger, then has to dive behind cover to reload. In reality, that's the equivalent of driving your car until the tank is completely empty, knowing it will leave you stranded in bear country. "Any time you get a chance, you top-off," Matt [former Army Ranger] says. "And if the mag still has rounds in it, you dump it into your drop bag, a loose-carry pouch, so you can keep those bullets for later. Running your gun empty is a sign you've done something really wrong." 
Cartel gunmen may be the foot soldiers of an unspeakably evil crime syndicate, they were kids once and they watched exactly as much Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone as you did. This has gotten some of them killed, according to Jerry [private security contractor]. "Working in South America, so many of the bad guys would just stand there shooting until they're empty -- and then have no idea what to do. To be entirely honest, I saw the last frame in a bunch of people's reels be them just standing there, looking down at their own weapon in confusion and disbelief because the gun ran dry. Apparently the idea that they'd be fucked when the bullets ran out had never occurred to them." 
And, while pretty much any solid object can stop a Hollywood bullet, the real ones tend to punch through anything short of a concrete wall or an engine block. The average person clearly doesn't realize this. According to Jerry: "We once had a guy pop up, shoot at us a bunch and then drop back down 'into cover.' We heard him laughing like he'd gotten away, but he was hiding behind a couch. A couch. You'd also see guys hide behind sheetrock walls, corrugated metal sheets, and car doors. But none of those things stop bullets."

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Islamic State's Oaths Don't Mean Much

Should we be surprised that terrorists don't abide by their oaths?

The emergence of the Islamic State has challenged one of the core assumptions of terrorist experts: that al Qaeda is a global organization. After a brief flirtation with the idea of "networks," western analysts re-embraced an organizational understanding of al Qaeda better suited to the global scale and interventionist nature of the War on Terror. Drawing on the model of the multinational corporation, al Qaeda was rebranded as a transnational organization consisting of local affiliates and franchises under the leadership of al Qaeda Central in Pakistan. Al Qaeda, for its part, was involved in its own effort of impression management. Terrorists and counterterrorist have thus more or less cooperated in crafting this image, with experts emphasizing al Qaeda's expanded reach with each declaration of allegiance by a local insurgent group. The lack of real organizational linkages and operational direction doesn't matter. Oaths of allegiance, bayat, are real enough. Indeed, the bayat of an affiliate to al Qaeda is logically more durable than an effective command-and-control structure because an oath is sworn to God. Al Qaeda members being fanatics and zealots would never back out of an oath to God.

The Islamic State has belied the supposed durability of the jihadi's oath—as well as the idea that this is an effective way to build a global organization.

First off, al Qaeda boss Ayman al Zawahiri and his crowd would love to replicate the corporate model that Osama bin Laden implemented back in the '90s. But such a structure was only effective given al Qaeda's relative inactivity during this period. The initial organization of terrorist groups doesn't last once they start using violence. Counterterrorism forces groups further underground, making even rudimentary forms of organization difficult to maintain. Following 9/11, al Qaeda's organizational structures all but collapsed. The group was even forced to rely on Pakistani terrorist allies to flee Afghanistan and survive underground. And it has not been able to rebuild its organization—other than virtually through the oaths of its affiliates.

Terrorist groups lie about their organization. It's their thing. By making bold claims about the durability of group structures, terrorists bolster the perceived threat they pose. And since its difficult to know what's actually going on within terrorist groups, it is often impossible to disprove their claims about their organizational strength. But one should always be suspicious when terrorists publicly describe their organization's structure. After all, they aren't likely to provide actual details. Especially not actionable details that their opponents can use against them.

With the defection of the Islamic State, al Qaeda members and affiliates rushed to shore up the group's organizational image. Their efforts and requests to rigidly define bayat belies its virtual and rather ineffective nature in building a global organization. Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, a sharia officer in the Syrian al Nusrah Front stressed that the bayat the Islamic State of Iraq, the current group's predecessor, was "completely binding." The leaders of ISIS, he argued, should thus "know very well their rank" within al Qaeda's hierarchy. Abu Sulayman's admonishment, as well as the Twitter appeals issued by him and his colleagues for Zawahiri to more clearly define "the issue of allegiances and the disputed arbitration between adversaries," suggests that al Qaeda lacks clear or perhaps even actual organizational structures. If there were actual structures, Zawahiri would not need to articulate them. More importantly, the appeals for clarification suggest that al Qaeda has no real enforcement mechanism over its presumed affiliates—beyond Tweets.

If you can't police your own organization, you probably don't have much of an organization to police.

The defection of ISIS was accomplished simply by ignoring an oath, which suggest that al Qaeda's international structure is more virtual and discursive than actual. The fact that al Qaeda can do nothing to enforce the commitment of its presumed subordinates belies the hierarchical model that officials such as Abu Sulayman describe. He'd like us to believe that there's a hierarchy. But that doesn't mean one actually exists.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Swearing Oaths (Bayat) to al Qaeda

Last month, a well-known jihadi ideologue, Shaybat al Hukama, issued a few Tweets reminding the Islamic State that its caliphate was illegitimate due to Osama bin Laden’s oath of allegiance—bayat¬to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. For some reason(s), Al Hukama quickly deleted the Tweets. 

I’m not interested here in why the Tweets were deleted. What’s more interesting is that Al Hakuma’s tweets and subsequent deletes belie the virtual nature of al Qaeda as an organizational reality. The matter of bayat appears to be central to creating an image of al Qaeda as an organization and as a global organization with franchises and affiliates. 

Two things are clear. First, al Hakuma was trying to bolster the credibility of an inactive and thus increasingly irrelevant al Qaeda Central. Current emir Ayman al Zawahiri has not been able to replicate bin Laden’s charisma, so the idea is to borrow some from Mullah Omar. Second, al Hakuma having to define bin Laden’s oath to Mullah Omar as a “great bayat” and then having to delete of these Tweets indicate that bayat is an ambiguous practice. Otherwise there would be no need to argue over what one entails. 

As with all things al Qaeda, the bayat is often treated by western analysts and commentators as a rigidly defined religious practice. And since it is religiously defined, its meaning must be unambiguous among the zealots and fanatics of al Qaeda and its offshoots. But fanatics and zealots can sometimes be pragmatic. 

Bayat, though originally a tribal institutions, is often interpreted within a religious framework. The bayat is certainly defined as a religious practice within al Qaeda. In The Osama bin Laden I Know, Peter Berger writes that:
  • Bayat is "patterned after the oath of allegiance that Muslim tribal leaders owed to the Prophet Muhammad and the early Islamic caliphate" (423)
  • It is "a solemn, spiritually binding commitment to obey the commands of a single leader, or emir...in effect, pledging allegiance to the emir's organization as well" (423) 
  • The individual pledging bayat "implicitly commits himself to obey the emir's lieutenant, follow the rules of the emir's organization, and [would] transfer his allegiance to his emir's successor if the emir dies" (423)
  • Bayat is "entirely a voluntary act" with "no institutional penalties for disobedience, as such matters were considered to be between the individual and God" (424) 
Bergen provides an example such a vow: "I swear allegiance to you, to listen and obey, in good times and bad; and to accept the consequences myself I swear allegiance to you, for jihad, to listen and obey; I swear allegiance to you and to die in the cause of God" (424). 
 
Al Hakuma's tweets alluded to the organizational nature of bayat, Bin Laden’s oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar thus made all al Qaeda members—i.e. those who swore biyat to bin Laden—subordinates of the Taliban leadership. Additionally, to the extent that bayat is organizational, at least in al Qaeda’s world, thus those who pledged to follow bin Laden pledged to follow the al Qaeda leadership—regardless of their utter lack of charisma and credibility. Thus, the Islamic State is doubly discredited: it broke solemn oaths of allegiance to both al Qaeda and, by extension, to Mullah Omar.

There does, however, appear to be some wiggle room—at least from the perspective of al Qaeda’s first generation. In its tribal form, the bayat is often conditional on leaders upholding their obligations to subordinates. In his capacity as emir, the al Qaeda leader has a duty to his followers, the least of which is to function as an armed group. Bayat's may also be contingent on opportunity. In The Black Banners, Ali Soufan writes, some al Qaeda members "offered only a conditional bayat, agreeing to join al Qaeda and fight America with the proviso that if a jihad effort with a clearer justification existed on another front, they would be free to join that instead" (65). 

Bin Laden’s pledge to Omar brought many of the ambiguities of bayat to the fore as a practical issue. Some al Qaeda members resented bin Laden's oath in that it technically made al Qaeda subordinate to an emir to whom most militants did not pledge bayat. As an erstwhile al Qaeda member, Nasser al-Bahri, a.k.a. abu Jandal, explained to FBI investigator Ali Soufan:
It meant that all al Qaeda members who had pledged bayat to bin Laden were obligated to follow Mullah Omar. To me that's not what al Qaeda was meant to be, and not what I signed up for. I didn't sign up to join the Taliban. (314)
Al Qaeda defectors may have been using the contractual nature of bayat to rationalize turning on the group. But there is nevertheless some precedent for bayat as a conditional pledge, one contingent on performance of duties. With al Qaeda effectively nonexistent as an armed organization, the Islamic State declared the contract null and void. And they back up their defection with action. Al Qaeda Central can do little more than tweet—and subsequently delete. Even the support of other jihadist organizations does not appear to matter that much in the court of militant appeal.

The issue of bayat is perhaps academic. For the wannabe jihadi in Riyadh or London, the Islamic State’s legitimacy is grounded in its violence—and the savvy presentation of it online.

There is still that tendency among western commentators to essentialize Islam, generally as either an inherently peaceful or inherently violent religion. In so doing, its practices and institutions become subject to rigid definition. One is bombarded by what Islam really means. If anything, Islam is a religion. And like all successful religions, it thrives on ambiguity. Bayat thus has no objective, essential nature. While it is associated with Muhammed, and thus has a devotional quality, in actual practice jihadis have interpreted bayat more pragmatically. For some it is a sacred vow, for others a conditional contract. 

There’s an interest in treating bayat as a rigid oath: it provides virtual linkages between al Qaeda and ts affiliates despite the near total absence of operational and organizational connections. Al Qaeda central wants bayat to be seen as a sacred oath of allegiance creating durable ties between organizations. The group has few other organizational weapons in its arsenal. Unfortunately, counterterrorists have a similar interest in maintaining the image of al Qaeda as an actual and actually global organization. Thus they’re often all too willing to assist Zawahiri in his PR battles. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Will ISIS Recruits Bring Jihad Home to the West?

Belgian scholars Chams Eddine Zaougui and Pieter Van Ostaeyen over at the New York Times argue at  that the threat of ISIS's Western recruits bringing jihad back to Europe has been overblown:
What draws these young men — and, to a lesser extent, women — to fight are what they regard as the indiscriminate killings of Muslim children, women and men in Syria. The use by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of industrial-scale torture, barrel bombs and chemical attacks evokes a strong desire to defend fellow Muslims. 
This is the motive described by a former Dutch soldier known to us as Yilmaz, who became well known after being interviewed for a Dutch television news program. He said he had no intention of going back to the Netherlands unless it was to see his family — and certainly not to commit an attack in Europe. We, too, affirmed this by communicating with Yilmaz in Syria via his social networking account. Another Dutch fighter in Syria we contacted, the producer of the Dutch-made jihadist video “Oh Oh Aleppo,” is equally clear about his reasons for fighting in Syria; he expressed no intention of attacking the West.
I agree to a large extent, as I argued in my last post: jihadist recruits aren't going to Syria and Iraq to learn international terrorism, but rather to become soldiers fighting a "local" war. But, this is not to say they won't come out of Syria as international terrorists. 

Radicalization is often a result of membership in a militant organization rather than the motivation for joining in the first place. Recruits may begin their career for fairly prosaic reasons: they want to defend "their people" (however defined) and are willing to sacrifice their lives in the process. Once they join an organization, however, recruits become socialized into the ideology and culture of militancy, leading to the adoption of new beliefs and the reinterpretation of original motives. In the case of ISIS, it may be that a young Muslim joins the group because he wants to defend fellow Muslims in Syria or Iraq from external or internal enemies. It is unlikely that recruits are concerned with jihad in Europe or the US. After all, they're leaving the West to fight, rather than waging war at home as did the London and Madrid cells.


Over time, however, recruits become radicalized, accepting ISIS's worldview (which thus far focuses on the near enemy, i.e. the Syrian and Iraqi states) and the brutal ethics behind its military strategy. As ISIS's fortunes decline, the group may look for enemies abroad to remain relevant. As a result, a recruit that started out wanting to defend the community overseas may end up as an international terrorist planning attacks against civilians in the West. 


Engaging in jihad thus not only provides recruits with the technical know-how to wage war, but the ideological beliefs and worldviews that legitimize, justify, and even demand violence against Europeans and Americans at home.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Will ISIS Become the New al Qaeda?

Will ISIS replace al Qaeda as the referent for jihadists worldwide? A better question may be: Has it already replaced al Qaeda? But for now, let’s stick with will.

First, it should be noted that al Qaeda’s international popularity has always been grossly overstated. And what little support the group received from Muslims globally has diminished over time.

This is not to say that violent jihad has not been appealing over the last decade to many young men worldwide. Recruits from Arab countries and a number of Westerners have travelled to Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, Syria, and back to Iraq to wage war. But, this is not al Qaeda’s jihad of international terrorism. Local jihad offers recruits the experience of actual soldiering, of fighting against actual soldiers. This is real war, not the paltry substitute of terrorism. I imagine that the average wannabe jihadist fantasizes not about blowing himself up in a Western city, but rather carrying a Kalashnikov into battle alongside his fellow mujahidin. In many ways, the American invasion of Iraq undercut al Qaeda’s international terrorist strategy by providing militants a theater for guerrilla war.

Like other young Muslim men, bin Laden was stirred by the soldiering fantasy following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, was a product of the post-Soviet era, its core made up of the last of the Afghan Arabs. Though bin Laden’s crew tried to gain a foothold in in the fighting in Chechnya and Bosnia, it increasingly turned toward terrorism during the ‘90s. Though ideology played some role in bin Laden’s pivot to the United States, opportunity—or rather lack of opportunity—was probably more important. The US was in many ways an easy target for a secret army in search of a public war. Thus the “far vs. near enemy” idea was born. Bin Laden was also influenced in turning away from “local” jihad by Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose own terror campaign against the Egyptian government provided a textbook case of how to alienate supporters and fail at jihad.

After 9/11, al Qaeda may have influenced many local jihadist groups—i.e. “affiliates” or “franchises” such as al-Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda in Arabian Pennisuala, the al-Nusrah Front, and, al Qaeda in Iraq, now the Islamic State, a.k.a. ISIS—but its model for international terrorism has not necessarily been widely adopted. Guerrilla war is in again. (This isn’t to say that these groups don’t use terrorism in their campaigns. They do. But this isn’t a strategy international terrorism. Just terrorism as a tactic of guerrilla war.)

There’s also the organizational strength that waging a successful guerrilla insurgency provides armed groups, thus increasing its appeal on the international scene. Controlling territory allows one to acquire resources and space to train recruits, for making propaganda videos, etc. Furthermore, the transnational chaos of civil war facilitates the construction pipelines through which volunteers can be channeled into the organization from abroad.

So, if ISIS can keep it up—and there’s no indication that the wars in Syria and Iraq are going to end anytime soon—it will become the new al Qaeda.

But the reason for ISIS’s success—the fact that it is a guerrilla army—will ultimately cause its downfall, both as the referent for wannabe jihadists and as an effective fighting force. It is not likely that ISIS will maintain its current territorial holdings for long, particularly not in Iraq. The group appears to be making the same mistakes its predecessors made in 2005-06, alienating its Sunni supporters through its brutality. With Iran and the US allied against them, its only a matter of time until ISIS is dislodged from Iraq. In Syria, on the hand, ISIS will likely stay put for the time being. It is a pretty effective proxy for the regime, after all.

An ISIS in decline will likely revert to its previous MO, suicide bombings against civilian targets. In other words, it will look more like al Qaeda, only more psychotic. And with wide swaths of Iraq likely to remain ungoverned or barely governed—along with the now nonexistent border and a Syrian sanctuary—an ISIS in decline may look to the “far enemy” for a way to keep its war alive.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Links, Links, and al Qaeda

Charles E. Berger:
Terrorist groups are paramilitary organizations and behave as rational actors. Their strategies are directed specific political end states, or “causes.” While a group’s end state and ideology are related, they are not synonymous. For example, Al Qaeda and the Palestinian group Hamas share similar Islamist ideologies, but their end states are completely different. Likewise, the causes of most of the Al Qaeda’s affiliates are regional, differing from Al Qaeda core’s focus on the West. When these groups assume the Al Qaeda moniker, they anticipate a predictable counterterrorism response from the United States; however they do so to attract funds, recruits and media attention. 
Al Qaeda’s propaganda machine went into high gear as military action in Afghanistan and Pakistan pushed it into survival mode. With little more than public pronouncements, other terrorist groups rebranded themselves as Al Qaeda. Counterterrorism officials and media outlets began to refer to these groups as Al Qaeda “branches,” “franchises” or simply “Al Qaeda.” However, these terms overstate the relationships between these groups and the Al Qaeda organization. Counterterrorism officials will often use the term “Al Qaeda linked” but will rarely define the term. While some affiliates have a few former Al Qaeda core members among its leadership, others are organizationally distinct. There is some communication between the affiliates; however, these connections are tenuous.