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 for 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 “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 among 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.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Terrorism and the Alchemy of Revolution

This is a bit that I cut from a paper I have been working on. I figured I'd throw it up here because I like it.

Clandestine armed groups often begin their campaigns optimistic about their capacity to create revolutionary conditions through violence. Karl Marx characterized such a strategy as “alchemical”:
Their business consists in forestalling the process of revolutionary developments, spurring it on to artificial crisis, making revolutions extempore without the conditions for revolution. For them the only condition required for the revolution is a sufficient organization of their own conspiracy. They are the alchemists of revolution, and they share in every way the limitations and fixed ideas of the alchemists of old. (Quoted in Fischer, 1996: 29)
This description fits the IRA and ETA at the beginning of their campaigns in the late sixties and early seventies. The IRA, encouraged by the deteriorating conditions in Northern Ireland in the early seventies, believed that “one more push” was all that was needed to drive the British from Ireland. The model of violence developed by ETA, the “action-repression spiral,” was purely “alchemical” in the Marxian sense. According to an ETA strategist:
Suppose there is a situation in which an organized minority can strike a material and psychological blow against the state, forcing it to respond and violently suppress this aggression. Suppose the organized minority can elude this repression and it falls mainly on the masses. Finally, suppose this minority persists and, instead of a state of terror, popular rebellion emerges that supports and insulates the minority from the state so that the action-repression cycle can be reproduced, each time with greater intensity. (Quoted in Ibarra 1987, 69)

Such revolutionary optimism was short-lived in both cases. By the middle of the seventies, the ascendant clique of young Northern Irish militants led by Gerry Adams challenged the IRA leadership’s optimism and called for the adoption of a prolonged attritional strategy, the “Long War.” Following the 1974 split, ETA Military rejected its former “action-repression” strategy, opting like the IRA for an attritional strategy aimed at forcing the Spanish state to negotiation with ETA over the self-determination of the Basque Country. The rival ETA Politico-Military, on the other hand, retained the action-repression model, though its insurrectional strategy proved far too ambitious, with that faction’s military wing moving toward ETA Military’s more pragmatic strategy. In both cases, attritional strategies required the formation of movement structures to securely reproduce the armed group and broaden its struggle into “political” domains.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

What do Radical Basque Separatists Want?

There is considerable confusion as to what radical Basque separatists want. Yes, they ultimately seek an independent socialist Basque state comprised of the seven seven historic provinces, three on the French side of the border, four on the Spanish. But radical separatists—including ETA—don't think independence is achievable in the short term. In the meantime, they seek “self-determination,” a functionally vague term and some form of intermediate association with France or Spain within the context of the EU. More importantly, they seek “the right to choose.” “We want what the Quebecois had,” a leader of the Sortu party told me a few years back, “We know we won’t win the vote. Not in the next twenty-five years. But we want that right to decide our future.”

The movement has largely delinked the issue of self-determination from that of ETA’s continued existence. The “peace process,” or as much as it involves ETA, centers on a simple demand: peace for prisoners. As legally defined “terrorists,” ETA members—as well as many individuals belong to nonviolent movement groups—are treated differently than “normal” prisoners. They are dispersed throughout Spain and France, rather than being imprisoned near their home regions. Unlike other prisoners, ETA members are not released after serving two-thirds of their sentences. Finally, under the so-called “Parot doctrince,” ETA members convicted of “blood crimes” (i.e. involving killing or wounding individuals) were given effective life sentences—despite the fact that the Spanish penal code stipulates that an individual cannot serve more than thirty years. The Spanish high court that oversees the local war on terror, the Audiencia Nacional, ruled that reductions to the sentences of ETA prisoners would not be applied the thirty year maximum, but rather to thier total sentence—ETA members are given two or three hundred years in prisoner, while some of the Madrid 3/11 bombers got sentenced to over a thousand years. This means that they will serve life sentences. (Americans, of course, find this opposition to serving life a bit perplexing. But, we're talking Western Europe here.) 

In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the doctrine violated EU human rights treaties. Begrudgingly, the Rajoy government allowed the release of several ETA prisoners. In the absence of any formal peace process, the separatist movement has used the ruling and releases as proxies for advances toward peace.

In December, ETA authorized that its members seek “individual” means for securing their release. The is a significant development. ETA had finally accepted the mechanism that the Spanish government has offered since 1982: “social reinsertion,” whereby individual prisoners renounce violence, admit the implications of their actions, and ask the courts for a reduction of their sentence. In the eighties, scores of prisoners and exiles took advantage of the offer, and it is likely that more would be released if the Spanish government were to initiate the process today. Unfortunately, the Rajoy administration is hindered by the intransigent nationalism of its base, particularly the nationalist right, members the police, and powerful victims of terrorism associations. While ETA reluctantly agreed to the reinsertion scheme, the Rajoy government once again cried “insufficiente!” Just as they did yesterday.

The Spanish government could end ETA at once by simply moving prisoners to the Basque country. This is not only a demand of radical separatists and of ETA, but a policy supported by the moderate Basque Nationalist Party and a large number of Basque society. In fact, the last few years have seen an unprecedented increase in support for “prisoners to the Basque Country,” as indicated in the recent marches in support of the reform, the largest in Basque history.

But, the little Spanish war on terror continues.

Friday, February 21, 2014

ETA's Decommissioning: International Verification Committee May Have to Provide Details to Spanish Courts

This morning, Ram Manikkalingam, spokesperson for the International Verification Committee (IVC), announced that ETA had begun the process of decommissioning its weapons. At least some of its weapons. This is, of course, good news. Despite the absolute absence of any formal peace process and despite (or perhaps because of) the Rajoy government's absolute commitment to its little war on terror, a considerable step forward in ending political violence in the Basque Country has been made.

That doesn't mean much to COVITE, an association of victims of ETA's violence, which asked the Spanish equivalent of the attorney general -- la Fiscalia de la Audiencia Nacional, to be exact -- to subpoena the IVC for details of the meeting, including the identities of the ETA representatives and other interlocutors and the location of the meeting. COVITE wants this information to be used by Spanish and French police to defeat ETA. The Fiscalia indicated its support for the petition.

I don't want to question the sincerity of victims of ETA's violence. They and their loved ones have suffered tremendously. But, as I have written here before, the groups representing them, COVITE, as well as the Association of Victims of Terrorism, have made ending political violence in the Basque Country difficult, taking hardline positions on counterterrorism, as well as against Basque separatism more broadly. Indeed, the political position of these groups do not differ at all from those of the Spanish right, which opposes anything short of the absolute defeat of ETA and the radical separatist movement.

I expected that we'd see some counterproductive behavior on the part of the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy and the Spanish right. And they won't disappoint.

Regarding ETA's decommissioning, it may take a while. Though it is doubtful that ETA has many weapons, it is certain that the group has no other form of leverage, other than holding to its remaining guns. 

UPDATE: COVITE wants ETA members tried for genocide

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and How to Suck at Insurgency

ISIS is officially a terrible terrorist group. Not terrible as in evil, but terrible as in strategically and operational stupidity. The group has abandoned the territory in the oil-rich Deir al-Zor in order to avoid more inter-insurgent bloodshed, according to the group. Of course, ISIS could have avoided bloodshed by not causing it in the first place. That is, the group could have learned from its mistakes in Iraq. But, this isn't a strategically thoughtful group.

ISIS also is upset that the other groups do not want to engage in dialog with it.

Monday, February 10, 2014

US Let's Haqqani Keep His Money (Supposedly to Keep Him Talking)

Eli Lake is on the story:
In the last 17 months since the U.S. government financially blacklisted the Haqqani Network, one of the deadliest insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not a single dollar associated with the group has been blocked or frozen, according to U.S. officials and one of the Congressman who oversees the Treasury Department’s financial war on terrorism. 
But it’s not just the Haqqanis—an ally today in the Taliban’s fight against U.S. troops and the Afghan government—who seem to have been spared from America’s economic attacks. According to a Treasury Department letter written in late November, not a single dollar been seized from the Pakistani Taliban, either, at least for 2012. 
The reason why, according to a leading Congressman, is that enforcing such sanctions might upset delicate negotiations between America, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban, and other insurgent groups. “The Haqqani network is associated with the Taliban. My opinion is that this is appeasing the Taliban. Because if we go after the Haqqani network’s money, then the Taliban will walk away from these talks,” Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees the fight against terrorism, told The Daily Beast.
The Haqqanis aren't the only ones getting a free ride. According to the Treasury department other groups are keeping their money, including Harakat ul-Mujahideen, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Islamic Jihad Union, Harakat ul-Jihad-I Islami or the Pakistani Taliban.

It isn't clear whether the lack of seizures is a result of insurgents adapting to US effortsto disrupt their financing or if inaction is meant to encourage negotiations. If it's the latter, the rationale is problematic. While I am no economic rationalist or hardcore materialist (at least not consistently), I imagine that targeting a group's finances would probably do more to encourage insurgents to talk than doing nothing. This is the basic rationale of "talking and fighting": keeping up the pressure may force insurgents to the negotiating table in order to stem further decimation of the organization. Similarly, by targeting finances you incentivize engagement: make a deal and keep some of your ill-gotten gains. And for the Haqqanis, these gains are considerable