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The Strategy of the Paris Attacks

After Ahmed Merabet, a French policeman, was killed outside the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last week, his brother Malek said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims. Islam is a religion of peace and love.”

It was moving, but to say that all Muslims who commit cruel and violent acts in God’s name are “false Muslims” is like saying that the Crusaders who devastated the Middle East nine hundred years ago were “false Christians”.

The Crusaders were real Christians. They believed that they were doing God’s will in trying to reconquer the formerly Christian lands that had been lost to Islam centuries before, and they had the support of most people back home in Europe.

Similarly, Said and Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly believed they were true Muslims doing God’s will, and some people in Muslim-majority countries agree with them. But there is an important difference from the Crusades: the supporters of the young French terrorists are a minority everywhere, and among Muslims living in Western countries they are only a tiny minority.

This is not a “war of civilisations”. Seventeen innocent people killed in Paris is not the equivalent of the Crusades. For that matter, neither was 9/11. These are wicked and tragic events, but they are not a war.

There is a war going on, but it is a civil war within the “House of Islam” that occasionally spills over into non-Muslim countries. As foot-soldiers in that war, the three killers in Paris probably did not fully understand the role they were playing, but they were serving a quite sophisticated strategy.

Two of these Muslim civil wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, were ignited by US-led invasions in 2001 and 2003. Four others, in Syria, Libya, Yemen and the northern, mostly Muslim half of Nigeria, have begun since 2011. Others go back even further, like the war in Somalia, or have flared up and then become dormant again, like Mali and Algeria.

In every one of these wars the victims are overwhelmingly Muslims killed by other Muslims. From time to time non-Muslims in other countries are killed too, as in New York in 2001, in London in 2007, in Bombay in 2008 and last week in Paris, and these killings do have a strategic purpose, but it’s not to “terrify non-Muslims into submission.” Quite the contrary.

The great Muslim civil war is about the political, social and cultural modernisation of the Muslim world. Should it continue down much the same track that other major global cultures have followed, or should those changes be stopped and indeed reversed? The Islamists take the latter position.

Some aspects of modernisation are very attractive to many Muslims, so stopping the changes would require a lot of violence, including the overthrow of most existing governments in Muslim countries. But that is the task that the Islamists in general, and the jihadi activists in particular, have undertaken.

As they are minorities even in their own countries, the Islamists’ hardest job is to mobilise popular support for their struggle. The best way to do this is to convince Muslims that modernisation – democracy, equality, the whole cultural package – is part of a Western plot to undermine Islam.

This will be a more credible claim if Western countries are actually attacking Muslim countries, so one of the main jihadi strategies is to carry out terrorist atrocities that will trigger Western military attacks on Muslim countries. That was the real goal of 9/11, and it was spectacularly successful: it tricked the United States into invading not one but TWO Muslim countries.

But smaller terrorist attacks that lead to the mistreatment of the Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries also serve the cause. They can create a backlash that victimises the local Muslim minorities, thus generating yet more “proof” that there is a war against Islam.

This strategy actually has a name. Appropriately it is in French: “la politique du pire”. It’s the strategy of making things worse in order to achieve one’s ultimate goal – in this case, revolutions that will sweep away the existing governments in almost every Muslim country and put the Islamists in power instead.

There is a sub-theme in some of the Middle Eastern wars that muddies the waters a bit: in Syria, Iraq and Yemen the general radicalisation has also revived and militarised the age-old conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. But even in these countries most of the killings are of Sunni Muslims by other Sunni Muslims.

There will be more attacks like the ones in Paris, because lost young men seeking a cause abound in every community, including the Muslim communities of the West. We can’t arrest them all, so we will go on having to live with a certain amount of terrorism from both Muslim and non-Muslim extremist groups and trying not to over-react — just as we have been doing for many decades already.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“This strategy…Muslims”)

“Global” Terrorism

“We will not be cowed by these sick terrorists,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron after ISIS produced a grisly video of the mass beheading of Syrian captives by foreign jihadis who allegedly included British fighters. “We will not be intimidated,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper after the recent attacks in Montreal and Ottawa. As if the purpose of terrorist attacks in Western countries was to cow and intimidate them.

You hear this sort of rhetoric from Western leaders all the time, but Harper went further, and demonstrated exactly how they get it wrong. “(This) will lead us to…redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organisations who brutalise those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores. They will have no safe haven.” Sound familiar?

Sure enough, there are now half a dozen Canadian planes bombing ISIS jihadis in Iraq (although it’s unlikely that either of the Canadian attackers, both converts to radical Islam, had any contact with foreign terrorist organisations). But Harper has got the logic completely backwards.

The purpose of major terrorist activities directed at the West, from the 9/11 attacks to ISIS videos, is not to “cow” or “intimidate” Western countries. It is to get those countries to bomb Muslim countries or, better yet, invade them. The terrorists want to come to power in Muslim countries, not in Canada or Britain or the US. And the best way to establish your revolutionary credentials and recruit local supporters is to get the West to attack you.

That’s what Osama bin Laden wanted in 2001. (He hoped for an American invasion of Afghanistan, but he got an unexpected bonus in the US invasion of Iraq.) The ISIS videos of Western hostages being beheaded are intended to get Western countries involved in the fight against them, because that’s how you build local support. So far, the strategy is working just fine.

The “Global Terrorism Index”, published annually by the Institute for Economics and Peace, reported last week that fatalities due to terrorism have risen fivefold in the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, despite the US-led “war on terror” that has spent $4.4 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and anti-terrorist operations elsewhere. But it’s not really “despite” those wars. It’s largely because of them.

The invasions, the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Africa, the whole lumbering apparatus of the “global war on terrorism” have not killed the terrorist beast. They have fed it, and the beast has grown very large. 3,361 people were killed by terrorism in 2000; 17,958 were killed by it last year.

At least 80 percent of these people were Muslims, and the vast majority of those who killed them were also Muslims: the terrorists of Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al-Qaeda and its offspring in other parts of the world (like al-Shebab in north-east Africa).

That is not to say that terrorism is a particularly Muslim technique. Its historical roots lie in European struggles against oppressive regimes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it gained huge currency in liberation struggles against the European colonial empires after the Second World War. Even the Stern Gang in Israel and the Irish Republican Army can be seen as part of this wave.

Later waves of fashion in terrorism included the European, Latin American and Japanese “urban terrorist” movements of the 1970s and 80s – Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, Red Brigades in Italy, Montoneros in Argentina, Japanese Red Army and so on – none of which has any political success at all. Specifically “Islamic” terrorism really begins only in the 1990s, with the rise of radical, anachronistic forms of Sunni Islam.

Only about 5 percent of the victims of this latest wave of terrorism lived in developed countries, but it was their deaths, and their governments’ ignorant responses to them, that provided the fuel for the spectacular growth of jihadi extremism. So what can be done about it?

The Global Terrorism Index has some useful observations to offer about that, too. It points out that a great many terrorist organisations have actually gone out of business in the past 45 years. Only 10 percent of them actually won, took power, and disbanded their terrorist wings. And only 7 percent were eliminated by the direct application of military force.

EIGHTY percent of them were ended by a combination of better policing and the creation of a political process that addressed the grievances of those who supported the terrorism. You don’t fix the problem by fighting poverty or raising educational levels; that kind of thing has almost nothing to do with the rise of terrorism. You have to deal with the particular grievances that obsess specific ethnic, religious or political groups.

And above all, keep foreigners out of the process. Their interventions ALWAYS make matters worse. Which is why the terrorists love them so much.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That is…Islam”)

Terrorism 101

There was a time, as recently as 25 years ago, when military staff colleges around the world taught a reasonably effective doctrine for dealing with terrorism. Then it was forgotten, but we need it back. It would be especially useful in dealing with the terrorist state that has recently emerged in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

The doctrine was painfully worked out back in the decades of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when terrorism was one of the world’s biggest problems. Most of the time, the strategy worked, whether the threat was the urban terrorists who plagued most Latin American countries and a number of big developed countries, or the rural guerillas who fought the government in many African and Asian countries.

The key insight was this: Terrorist movements always want you to over-react, SO DON’T DO IT. The terrorists usually lack the popular support to overpower their opponent by force, so they employ a kind of political jiu-jitsu: they try to use the adversary’s own strength against him. Most domestic terrorism, and almost all international terrorism, is aimed at provoking a big, stupid, self-defeating response from the target government.

The Red Army Faction terrorists, for example, hoped that their attacks would provoke West Germany’s democratic government into severe repression. This was known, in the works of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, as “unmasking the repressive tolerance of the liberal bourgeoisie” – and once the West German government had dropped its mask, the RAF terrorists believed, the outraged workers would rise up in their millions and overthrow it.

But we never found out if the workers would actually do that, because the West German government refused to panic. It just tracked down the terrorists and killed or arrested them. It used violence, but only in legal, limited and precisely targeted ways. The same approach ended the terrorist campaigns in Italy (the Red Brigades), Canada (the Quebec Liberation Front), Japan (the Japanese Red Army) and the United States (the Weathermen).

In Latin America, by contrast, the “urban terrorists” did succeed in the first stage of their strategy. Their attacks drove the military in Argentina, Brazil and a number of other countries to seize power and create brutally repressive regimes. But even this did not cause the population to revolt, as the terrorists had expected.

Instead, “the people” kept their heads down while the military regimes destroyed the revolutionaries (together with many innocent bystanders). Extreme repression can also eventually succeed as a counter-strategy to terrorism, but it imposes a terrible cost on the population.
International terrorism has a somewhat better record of success, mainly because these terrorists are not actually trying to overthrow the government they attack. They are merely trying to trick that foreign government into using massive violence against the countries where they really do want to take power. The attacks of the foreigners will outrage and radicalise the local population, who will then give their support to the local revolutionaries.

The most successful operation of this kind was 9/11, a low-cost attack that incited the United States to invade two entire countries in the region where the revolutionaries of al-Qaeda hoped to replace the local governments with Islamist regimes. The local population has been duly radicalised, especially in the Sunni-majority parts of Iraq, and thirteen years later an “Islamic Caliphate” has taken power in the northern and western parts of that country.

Osama bin Laden would have condemned the extreme cruelty that the new Islamist state has adopted as its modus operandi, but in essence it is the fulfilment of the grand strategy that he worked out after the Russians left Afghanistan a quarter-century ago. He could not have predicted that the strategy’s greatest success would be in Iraq, for he had no allies or followers there before the US invasion, but he would still take credit for it.

So now that Osama bin Laden’s vision has finally taken concrete shape, how should we deal with it? (“We” in this case is practically every regime in the Arab world, most of the other Muslim countries, and all of the NATO countries, with Russia and China in supporting roles). ISIS’s behaviour is abominable, but is there any better option than simply bombing it from a great height?

Rule one in the old anti-terrorism doctrine was DON’T OVERREACT, and it still applies. That means as little bombing as possible, and only of strictly military targets. Preferably, it would mean no bombing at all except in specific areas where ISIS troops are on the offensive.

It means not letting yourself be lured into more extreme action by the public beheading of innocent hostages and the other atrocities that ISIS stages to attract a certain kind of recruit. Indeed, it means not launching a major ground offensive against ISIS (for which the troops are not available anyway), and waiting for events to take their course within the ‘Islamic State’.

Regimes as radical and violent as this one rarely survive for long. The revolution will eat its children, as so many have before, and it will happen a lot more quickly if they don’t have a huge foreign military threat to hold them together.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 10.  (“In Latin…population”; and “Osama…it”)

Coalition of the Unwilling

“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons,” said Winston Churchill in 1941, defending his decision to regard Stalin as an ally after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

If the brutal fanatics of ISIS and their new “Islamic State” in parts of Iraq and Syria were really an existential threat to the United States, then President Barack Obama, using the same logic, would now be treating the governments of Syria and Iran as allies. But he isn’t.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has just ended a recruiting tour of the Middle East, signing up Arab states and Turkey for a new coalition that will allegedly “degrade and ultimately destroy (ISIS).” Moreover, it must do so without ever requiring US “boots on the ground”: the American public would not stand for any more of that.

The US will happily provide air strikes if others will do the dying on the ground, of course, and the Iraqi government will go along with that deal since it has just lost a third of its national territory to ISIS. But it will take a long time to rebuild the Iraqi army after its recent collapse – and the only other US allies who are willing to die to stop ISIS are the Kurds.

Jordan will supply intelligence services. Turkey will make it harder for would-be jihadis to cross its borders with Syria and Iraq (the route by which most of ISIS’s foreign recruits have traveled), but it will not let the US use Turkish air bases for military operations. Egypt murmurs words of encouragement but makes no specific commitments.

Almost all the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait included, have promised to stop the large flow of donations from wealthy individuals to the various jihadi outfits in Syria (including, at least until recently, ISIS). The United Arab Emirates reportedly even offered to carry out air strikes against ISIS. But it’s hardly a mass mobilisation, and it doesn’t involve any “boots on the ground”.

There are plenty of boots available if Washington wants them, but they are on the wrong feet. The Syrian Army has been fighting the jihadis for almost three years now, and after its initial losses it has managed to hold its own against them everywhere except in eastern Syria. Elsewhere, it has actually been gaining back ground for more than a year now.

Then there is Iran, a big, industrialised country whose armed forces do know how to fight. Iran provided the key support for the local Shia militias that stopped ISIS from sweeping into Baghdad last summer, and it has been providing indispensable support to the Syrian government for years.
Finally, there are the “wrong” Kurds. The Kurds of Iraq can be part of the coalition, because they have their own self-governing region and are legitimate recipients of American military aid. But the Kurdish nationalist forces of northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey, who have lots of combat experience and have been holding their own against ISIS, are classed as “terrorists” by Washington and so cannot be part of the gang.

But Washington has not asked these major players to join its new coalition. Indeed, it has invited everybody in the Middle East to join except those who are actually willing to fight ISIS on the ground. How peculiar.

There are reasons for this odd behaviour, of course. The obsessive American mistrust of Iran goes back to the hostage crisis of the late 1970s, and is reinforced by Israel’s paranoia about Iran.

Turkey would go ballistic if the United States started arming the Kurdish rebels of the PKK, who have fought a long and brutal war (currently in remission) against the Turkish state. And it’s just too abrupt a U-turn for Obama to start doing business with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whom he was getting ready to bomb just one year ago.

Maybe a rebuilt Iraqi army can drive ISIS out of Iraq eventually, although ISIS has lots of local support in the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq. But where does Obama think the troops will come from to drive ISIS back in its Syrian heartland?

His only answer is to build a new “Free Syrian Army” composed of “moderates” who will fight on two fronts, defeating ISIS while also overthrowing Assad. But that’s ridiculous, since the old FSA has almost all been absorbed into the various jihadi groups in Syria. There is nothing left to build on.

For added comic effect, this new Free Syrian Army will be trained in Saudi Arabia, the principal supporter and paymaster of those same jihadi groups until ISIS scared it into hedging its bets.

One is tempted to think that Obama is not really all that worried about ISIS as a strategic threat. One is further tempted to speculate that he has learned not to care too much about what happens in the Middle East any more. But those are subjects for another day.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 11 and 12.  (“Finally…gang”; and “There…ago”)