Wednesday, February 25, 2015

When It Rains It Pours – Sources for Teaching and Learning about Terrorism

            Teaching graduate students about homeland security is a curious job. We may go months with the media ignoring terrorism, while it focuses entirely on crime, immigration issues, environmental hazards and natural disasters.  In fact, the Obama Administration did its best to eliminate the term “terrorism” early in its tenure, substituting “workplace violence” and “man caused disasters.” And until recently, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson.  has been so quiet that some have questioned whether his department should be eliminated.

            But then reality always intrudes. We have an undeniable terrorist event, and suddenly the airwaves and internet (and legacy print media) are full of “experts” writing on the subject.  The good news is that sometimes the authors really are experts, and what they write or say really is worthwhile.

            And so it has been recently. Atop the flood of dreck published about “violent extremism,” float a handful of very insightful articles and interviews about Islamic terrorism and the danger it poses.  This posting will highlight  six such sources.

            The first is a Charlie Rose television interview with Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (USA, Ret), former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.  He speaks from more than a decade of experience chasing individual enemies to kill or capture them. His thesis is that we have completely misunderstood Islamic extremists in general, and ISIS in particular. He concludes that while there are many peaceful Muslims in the world, and in fact Islamic allies in our fight, there is a core of many millions who are motivated by their religious beliefs to conquer the world and destroy us in the process. To defeat this very serious threat, we must recognize it, call it by its proper name, organize an allied response, and mount an effective US response – both within our government and within our nation. Even more importantly, we must press “moderate Muslims” to craft and advance a narrative that counters the Al Qaeda/ISIS version of religious duty. And finally, we must understand the failure of the “nation-state” model in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and elsewhere.  Our strategy is to advance a political solution that will no longer work in a significant part of the world. We are trying to promote democracy and honest government.  What we are getting is corruption and ethnic discrimination. Many overseas,  cheated by their own governments, see ISIS as promoting a viable alternative. To end the threat, we must solve that problem. Flynn’s interview offers an uncompromising analysis of our failure to see truth, and use accurate language to analyze and combat our enemies.

            Secondly, I strongly recommend anotherRose interview, this one with Michael Morell, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. (click)  He delivers the clearest explanation I have seen anywhere of the growing instability in the Mideast.  Virtually every state in the region is wracked by internal conflict. Many of the various internal opponents have split with their governments and are supporting opposing groups in other countries.  Thus the discussion of the “root cause” of terrorism leads to wrong conclusions unless you understand there are many overlapping causes, and they require multiple, layered, and coordinated solutions. The center of these challenges lies, Morrell maintains, in Iran, which is determined to re-establish the Persian Empire as the political and religious center of the region, and perhaps of the world.  This intent threatens the US (Iran has killed more Americans than any other current opponent), and the US threatens Iran in return. But deescalating these counter threats will not be easy (unless we simply surrender), because the Iranian vision of the world demands the reduction of US power and presence.  The implications of this analysis are sobering.

             Third, anybody who has followed the news recently knows of the debate over President Obama’s apparent inability to use the words “Islamic” and “terrorist” in the same sentence.  An answer now dominating the discussion is provided by Graeme Wood in the March 2015 Atlantic. In an extended essay that provides a definitive response to the President’s reluctance, Wood asserts: “The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.” That is, ISIS (and those who build on the same model) are most certainly Islamic in the 7th century sense of the word. They may not be the only legitimate version of Islam in the world  but they represent a sizable minority view. To the millions who follow them or a similar vision, their beliefs do represent a legitimate interpretation of the Islamic faith, and thus carry the emotional power of religious duty. The implications of this conclusion are dire. Adherents expect to fail and perhaps die, but thereby do their duty by ushering in a new divine order. Killing them all will be exceedingly difficult. Convincing them without killing them will be nearly impossible.

            Those put off by the length of Wood’s essay can find an excellent summary of his work by Peggy Noonan . Unfortunately, the Wall Street Journal (as a good capitalist publication) wants to sell you access. But the short version of Ms. Noonan’s summary is that ISIS is very Islamic, in a medieval sense. The solution is not invasion and occupation (because it is too risky, not because it is unjustified).  The solution is a “slow bleed” of ISIS through air strikes, while hoping that it will become a failed state. What to do if that hope does not materialize is never made clear.

            The final debate de jour (with long term importance) is over the “root cause” of terrorism (or in the Administration’s preferred prevarication, “violent extremism”). I think the Administration spokesperson recently excoriated for connecting violence to a lack of jobs deserves a break on this one. Clearly she did intend to make a more sophisticated point that the violence was the product of a range of conditions, from Western oppression to a lack of economic opportunity.  The problem is that her broader point is demonstrably false as well.  While attention to this claim is new, the argument itself is not. For a point by point refutation of the idea that anyone but the terrorists are responsible for their behavior, it is hard to beat this decade old essay by David Meir-Levi . His response is powerfully presented and carefully cataloged. I will not attempt to summarize as the reader needs to see the weight of the argument as a whole.

            Another suggestion, more current and less strident, comes from Ira Straus, a former Fulbright professor of political science.  As he provides his own summary of his own article, I will merely repeat: “There we have, in a nutshell, the root causes of Islamic terrorism. Its primary bases for recruitment and support: Islam and Islamism. Its secondary safe spaces and aids in radicalization: the non-Muslim Left, and the Western media and intelligentsia. Its economic base: oil.”  But lest you assume this is merely an anti-Muslim screed, please note what hero Straus cites as offering the best solution: “President el-Sisi of Egypt. In his speech at Al-Azhar University, the world’s most respected institution of Islamic learning, he demanded that Islam expurgate [the claims of terrorist justification] from its ideological doctrines and practices.”

            And there you have it – a wealth of mostly new deliberations on Islamic terrorism and its causes. What we would all like is for this issue to go away so we can return to our more mundane studies of hazards and natural disasters. Unfortunately, these speakers and authors suggest (correctly I fear)  that’s not likely to happen any time soon.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Most Important Question in Strategy

After writing, teaching, and speaking about strategy (in all its forms, from military and business, to national and homeland security) for 28 years, I can tell you that Strategy is a lot more complicated and uncertain than it seems at first glance.  Many important facts remain hidden until too late. Many human beings do not react as predicted. There are lots of what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “unknown unknowns.”  In the face of this reality, the most important single question a strategist can ask (and answer) is this:  “When I take the actions I am considering, how will my opponent react?  What will happen next?” 
Let’s jump over all the current discussions about Constitutional  powers and Congressional prerogatives, and get right down to the key strategic question: If President Obama sends US troops, aircraft, allies, and equipment to Iraq and Syria with the mission of destroying ISIS in three years and without expanding the war . . . what will happen next?
Answer: With the President, the Congress and the American people all reluctant to expand the war, ISIS is likely to play to those fears by EXPANDING THE WAR.  There are several ways they could go about this.
They could expand the war by encouraging copy-cat insurrections in other Muslim countries. Al Qaeda affiliates and Iranian surrogates have already planted roots in countries from Morocco to Pakistan, and deep into central Africa. The ISIS media campaign of slick snuff films that so appalls Western sensibilities is pushing these groups toward ever more savage confrontations with their governments, just to remain competitive for recruits and contributions.  A couple of attacks like the Taliban murder of more than a hundred school children in Pakistan, but focused on royal targets in the Arabian peninsula, could force America to choose between leaving our Arab allies to their fate, or expanding the war into those countries.  As ISIS is threatened at home, it can  distract the forces attacking it by  spreading the war to its flanks.
Another option for ISIS would be to expand the type of war within  the conflict’s current boundaries by adding terrorist attacks (as opposed to conventional main force attacks, which has been their strategy to date) against key resources  -- especially in rear areas and populated places.   A  concerted terror campaign against the newly vetted, created and trained Iraqi Army brigades scheduled to do the bulk of the fighting in retaking ISIS territory could quickly demoralize this force, as well as allied forces.  Recently, the airport in Baghdad was closed for days by a single rifle shot that struck a commercial airliner. Last year some Iraqi units were stranded without supplies after attacks on resupply trucks. A concerted terror campaign against the support system for new Iraqi forces or their families might quickly weaken Iraqi resolve.
ISIS could also expand the war to America and Europe through attacks by American and European citizens trained in Iraq and Syria, then returned home to do their worst. The attacks on hotels in Mumbai, the mall in Kenya, the Beslan School in Chechnya, and the newspaper office in Paris all demonstrate  how effectively a small band of trained fanatics can expand war into “safe” places. Of course, ISIS runs the risk that such attacks might encourage local resolve to stiffen, not weaken. But pushing the US or others to commit more forces in response to terrorist outrages may serve ISIS’s murderous purpose – as demonstrated in the next point.
Our very presence in Iraq will allow ISIS an opportunity to expand the war to Americans in a different way.  Even though the President’s strategy is to keep US “boots on the ground” to a minimum by relying primarily on Iraqi, Kurdish, and Free Syrian troops in the assault, those few US special operations boots present will need lots of American logistical, communications, medical, and air support boots based in nearby places where ISIS can reach them.  ISIS could mount attacks on these support facilities and personnel, especially in the “Green-on-Blue” style (false friendlies attacking our troops) that had such a negative effect on American morale in Afghanistan.  Look especially for ISIS to broaden operations from attacks into kidnappings of US military personnel, and the even more vulnerable contractors who support them.
Finally, expect to see ISIS  expand the ferocity of the war by taking hostages for the purpose of producing videos showing the murder and abuse of US and allied forces – especially women.   American  media “talking heads” continue to miss the point that pictures of ISIS “troops” torturing, crucifying, beheading, and burning captives increase the popularity of our enemy in the minds of their followers, many of whom want vengeance against those they consider the enemies of Allah.  Some Western pundits think ISIS would not add US captives to the victims in those videos, thus running the risk of increasing Western resolve. But those who commit these acts in the name of religion are more likely to see such videos as evidence of divine victory, and a way to demoralize the West. And they might be right about the second part.
ISIS videos that you can’t see because Google, Facebook, and other American sites block them are already reported to show Christian women and girls stripped in public and sold into sexual slavery.  What would be the effect of videos showing female American soldiers receiving that treatment?  ISIS support in its target demographic would skyrocket.  The American public would be outraged. But, would they be moved to demand the reinvasion of Iraq, with tens of thousands more troops and an occupying force that stayed long enough to run ISIS to ground in every last dirt-walled hamlet?  Or would they demand removal of American troops from a war we did not have to fight in a place we did not belong? Would the first video of an American female soldier being raped and sold cause Americans to demand an expanded war or a retreat?  Would ISIS win either way?
The answer is unknown.
However, what we do know is that our enemy will not wait passively for our precision weapons to destroy them one pickup truck at a time.  They will strike back in ways that give us pause, hoping to make us reconsider a war that many now seem to think we will win easily.  “Easily” is   not the way war works – ever. Right now the rush to war against ISIS is popular.  I hope it works. But the time to consider what will happen next is now, before we take the action – not later when we are surprised by what looks inevitable in retrospect.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Burned Again

“I can’t imagine that this video will be of any help in recruiting.”
These are the words (as best I could record while listening on 04 Feb 2015) of a media commentator concerning the ISIS propaganda video showing the murder by immolation of a Jordanian prisoner of war. But this was not just any talking head – this was a member of the US national security community for three presidents. This person has been an interpreter of our enemy’s behavior; a drafter of policy and response.  And their response stands as a shining example of why the strategic elite in this country just cannot get its act together in the fight against people who insist on going to war against us.
Our enemy makes a propaganda and recruiting film. We say it could not possibly work.  And yet it does, pulling money and fighters from around the world.  Burned again.  How could we be so wrong so consistently?
There are lots of overlapping answers, starting with our mistaken academic views of how the world works.  But for this brief article let’s focus on just one giant mistake in our thinking.
The torture, rape and horrific murder of captive men, women and children by ISIS is not, as our leaders apparently believe, unique behavior by a lunatic “death cult,” reviled by everyone everywhere. Instead, it is a current manifestation of the way war has been waged throughout recorded history, with the small exception of the last three centuries or so in the Western world, under the influence of Christian ideology and then Humanist philosophy.  People wage war this way because they like it – they enjoy the savagery – especially when loosed from tenuous moral constraints by religious assurances that they are serving god by feeding their inner monster.  Many are attracted to the power and the spectacle and the cruelty, and they want to join.  Believing otherwise makes it harder to fight ISIS, and confuses us about what we need to do to win.
History is littered with examples of combatants who not only treated captives horribly, but saw such action as the privilege – even the reward – due those who won the battle. This behavior was not restricted to one religion (Islam) or one area (the Middle East). The Hawaiians did it. So did the Incas, the Mayans, and Native Americans in the US, from the Iroquois and Seminole in the east, to the Apache and Comanche in the west. The Vikings, Celts, and other “barbarians” based their personal reputations on their viciousness toward enemies. In southern Europe, the “civilized” Romans murdered captured Carthaginian soldiers, sold the women into slavery and threw the children from the city walls. Crucifixion was the Roman solution for local rebellion. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and later Persians made their reputations by similar behavior.  ISIS attitude toward captives is the same model earlier Islamic armies adopted as they expanded west, and Crusaders copied as they pushed back to the east. The Ottoman navy that terrorized southern Europe was crewed largely by Christian slaves chained to their oars. To the south, the Zulus were distinguished by their military effectiveness, not just their cruelty which was stock in trade for many African tribes and clans. In Central Europe, “Vlad the Impaler” (later recreated in fiction as Count Dracula) earned his name for his treatment of Muslim armies in the defense of Christian lands.  Further east, the Tartar invaders, Genghis Kahn’s Mongols, the warlords of China, the various Rajas of India, and the warrior class of Japan creatively burned, boiled, flayed and disemboweled their prisoners and their subjects. The lucky ones were simply beheaded.
Never in this whole long history of man’s inhumanity to man is there an example of an army that could not recruit because potential followers rejected the opportunity to inflict pain and suffering on others. Instead the opposite has consistently been the case. People rape, murder and torture because they like it. And when given moral permission to do so (by religious or political or ethnic ideology) they participate with enthusiasm. Ask the people of Bosnia and Rwanda what happened when the moral and legal barriers came down.
So why do our leaders misunderstand this, and what difference does it make?
Our strategic leaders think that recruits will be repelled by violence against innocents because after 1500 years of effort by Christian, then Humanist, and now Human Rights philosophers, we have achieved a social standard that rejects such behavior. And that’s good. I am glad that both national and international laws (primarily generated in the West) covering the conduct of war exist, and I am happy to see them enforced – even when that occasionally means prosecuting US personnel who violate the norms.
The danger comes when we convince ourselves that people have evolved past their old nature, and actually embrace these artificial norms worldwide.  That kind of thinking leads to the conclusion that violence is abhorrent to everyone, old religious beliefs are irrelevant, and differences can always be bridged by rational discussion. This mindset then becomes the basis of our approach to ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc. “Violence doesn’t solve anything,” the mantra goes.  Except it seems to be solving problems quite handily for ISIS.  Their recruiting is up and their funding is up, while we reassure ourselves that if we just find the right words, or share the right shocking image, or bomb precisely the right target, logic will be restored, and the beast that is the human heart will retreat back into the cage we designed for it. 
The challenge posed by ISIS is a complicated one. No single magic bullet will solve this problem, be it economic improvements, boots on the ground, or religious reconciliation between traditionally hostile tribes. But by now we at least ought to know one thing that WON’T work – depending on an innate human revulsion to violence to rob the perpetrators of power and support.