The year 2020 has been a great year for me personally and professionally, but it has also been a tremendously disappointing and frustrating year for me as a citizen of the United States of America. I have been studying ISIS and related extremist ideologies for many years now. I recently completed a doctoral dissertation on how weaker actors like ISIS use narrative to achieve their objectives: narrative war. As I have watched the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests and riots associated with controversial police actions, and the presidential campaign, I have been both shocked and profoundly disappointed by the obvious presence of narrative war actions in all of these events and I have been a bit taken aback by the lack of understanding of these very techniques by many of the smartest commentators on news and politics. Each of these people use the word narrative a lot and they talk about “the narrative” or “a narrative” and yet like in the movie The Princess Bride, I cannot help but say to myself, “You use that word a lot. I do not think it means what you think it means.” I want to provide my observations of how narrative war is playing out in America in 2020 and how we should expect to see it play out in the future.
I truly hate that I have to say this, but I believe that I do have to say this. I am not making a political statement in favor of one narrative or another. I hope that I am conveying the nature of each narrative honestly and openly and doing so without putting my finger too heavily on the scale. I clearly have an opinion and bias. I know the narrative to which I adhere; however, I am still trying to present each narrative so that people who ascribe to the other two can better understand what they are hearing and seeing. More importantly, I want people to know why we cannot seem to talk across these narratives and why each group sees the others as either stupid or evil.
I will briefly describe narrative and story and then I will discuss how various parties use story and narrative to move toward their intended objectives.
The U.S. Military describes narrative in its manual titled Joint Publication 3-24: Counterinsurgency (2018) as “an organizing framework expressed in story-like form. Narratives are central to representing identity, particularly the collective identity of religious sects, ethnic groupings, and tribal elements. They provide a basis for interpreting information, experiences, and the behavior and intentions of other individuals and communities.” In essence, a narrative is how a person or group interprets events: it is the filter through which we see or understand the world. Dr Ajit Maan regularly emphasizes that narratives are not about facts or truths, but about how we interpret those facts and truths.
Most people intuitively grasp the meaning of the word story. We have heard, read, and seen them portrayed our entire lives. We regularly tell ourselves stories inside our own minds. The five parts of story come from Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives (1969): actor, action, goal or intention, scene, and instrument. We use stories to make sense of the world and most importantly they are used to solve for problems of dissonance between what we expect from the world and what actually happens. Some people call versions of these stories excuses and maybe they are, but they are also our internal means of solving for dissonance.
Each society has a narrative. As I will explain in a few paragraphs, the United States of America has three such dominant narratives in 2020. The expansion of important narratives contributes to the problems we see on our streets. Each governing person, party, or ideology offers a story for how that person, party or ideology will solve the dissonance for the various voters, citizens, or subjects and help them to achieve what seems to be the objective of the societal narrative.
In narrative war, a narrative entrepreneur also recognizes the dissonance that exists between the societal narrative and the governing story and seeks to further disrupt that story and by so doing weaken the connection between governor and governed. An objective of such disruption is displacement – moving the governing entity from a given place, service, or function.
What about America? An American narrative might be the American Dream. That narrative could be simply defined as America is a land of opportunity where average people can make of themselves whatever they want through hard work and great ideas. This is a narrative that has been created over generations with numerous stories and experiences as support. It is promulgated with millions of testimonials of hardworking women and men who achieved more than their parents through dedicated commitment. Every weekend, millions of people watch sports events where they hear stories of disadvantaged youth with bad family situations whom they watch as elite stars with large salaries and lucrative product endorsements. Every political candidate in America, either through a personal story, or by attacking the story of the opposing candidate seeks to connect with this narrative. I think there are currently three powerful versions of this American Dream narrative: America is Awesome, I Have a Dream, and 1619.
I will explain each of these narratives, but first I want to address the meaning of powerful or dominant narrative. Every country, nation, or state has multiple societal narratives. Like in linguistics where every language is made up of multiple dialects; however, there is usually a dominant or standard dialect that the majority or plurality of speakers use, the same is true of narratives. Every society has a dominant or standard narrative that seems to be common. For most of American history there tended to be a dominant and subordinate narrative. In 2020, I believe there are three narratives that have some level of equal significance.
America is Awesome is a play on the song title from The Lego Movie, but I also think it captures the meaning of the narrative. The narrative is based on a premise of opportunity. This is the belief of America’s divine founding, inspiration, and destiny. Phrases like manifest destiny, a city on a hill, the indispensable nation, an arsenal of democracy, and others capture the gist of this narrative. America is blessed. People come from all over the world and in America these people can achieve and enjoy their greatest possibilities.
I Have a Dream comes from the famous speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr on 28 August 1963. This speech captures the heart of the narrative which is a vision yet unfulfilled. The foundations of America are good, but the realization of that original vision is yet to be. The foundations may need some repair or amendment and the structure needs to be made true, plumb, and square and then that dream may be realized. It is the dream of achieving America is Awesome for all Americans, because if America is Awesome, it hasn’t yet been awesome for everyone, but it can be.
1619 comes from the name of the 1619 Project of The New York Times that began publication in August 2019. The root of this narrative is that the founding of America was flawed. This is an argument of power relationships. White European settlers and colonists established a system where non-white, non-European, and non-Protestant Christians were at a disadvantage. The very systems established are flawed and need correction. Every person, organization, and institution attached to such systems are corrupted by association. To move forward, the structure must be remade with a complete and proper foundation otherwise whatever structure built on such a foundation is flawed.
I want to emphasize that I am not explaining these narratives to express why people are different, but why for each person his or her narrative is right. She is correct for her. It is only once we realize this that some level of productive discourse can begin. A person who holds that America is Awesome needs to see that a 1619 person is right and try to see the world from that perspective. The 1619 person is not being cynical and manipulative when he says that there is systemic injustice. He really believes it to be true and from the 1619 perspective, he is right. The same holds true for the 1619 person looking at the America is Awesome person. She is also right. Now to use politics as an explanation of what happened this year.
I believe that most presidential campaigns prior to 2008 were discussions over which candidate’s story best solved for the America is Awesome narrative. Even the 1860 campaign was about who could best solve for the greatness of America and make sure most Americans could enjoy that greatness. We could debate president for president, but most presidential candidates held to the greatness of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and then later Abraham Lincoln. In 2008 and 2012, I believe the narrative shifted, but it shifted for both candidates. Both candidates crafted stories of how they could solve the dissonance between experience and the I Have a Dream narrative. Maybe this was primarily generated by the candidacy of Barack Obama, but I believe that many Americans, and especially the media and academic institutions, came to believe that there were numerous flaws in the America is Awesome narrative.
The 2016 campaign was probably the first campaign where the two presidential candidates had stories solving for dissonance in two different narratives. Donald Trump returned to the America is Awesome narrative with his catchy Make America Great Again slogan. It was simple and attractive to many who still believe in the America is Awesome narrative. Hillary Clinton sought to develop a story that connected to the I Have a Dream narrative as did Barack Obama. The attempt to solve for two different narratives is part of the tremendous division following the 2016 election. Because the two different camps addressed two different narratives neither side believed the other’s explanations for events. The two groups are not from two different worlds, they were and are from two different narrative worlds. This is like the 6 October 1967 Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” where the Enterprise crew interacts with a parallel universe. Neither side fully understands the other.
The 2020 campaign has faced an even greater divide. If seen on a spectrum, America is Awesome is on one side and 1619 is on the other with I Have A Dream in the middle. Though I don’t believe that Joe Biden fully embraces the 1619 narrative, many of his surrogates do and many of the various media outlets do. In this sense, the narrative divide in this current election is even greater and the cognitive dissonance following the election will be more significant as a result.
What does this have to do with narrative war? As the year unfolded, each side sought to disrupt the story-narrative resonance of the other. 1619 sought to disrupt the America is Awesome story-narrative resonance by expressing loudly and clearly the problems with America as various police events unfolded. In most cases, these efforts were peaceful; however, more aggressive elements expanded the disruption into literal displacement through acts of aggression that led to the actual displacement of police precincts or police action in some cities or parts of cities. 1619 adherents displaced certain article, voices, and organizations from social media platforms. America is Awesome adherents sought to disrupt the 1619 story-narrative resonance by implying or stating that such acts made the individuals involved outside the definition of Americans and thereby displacing them from conversations.
My concern is that neither side effectively accomplished their goals as neither side actually understands the other. The efforts at the disruptions and displacements worked primarily from the perspective of the actor and not the audience. People who rioted did not displace those who believed America is Awesome and those who chastised and called out looters did not actually reach those who believe that the entire system is corrupt. At best, these actions served to polarize those of the I Have a Dream narrative and further separate the two camps.
Regardless of who wins on 3 November 2020, the incredulity of the other side will be greater than in 2016. Both sides will claim that the winning side cheated, was corrupt, manipulated the process, etc. Both sides will continue to seek to disrupt the story-narrative resonance and there may be greater efforts at displacement whether that is through social media, mainstream media, protests, riots, or worse.
I believe that for America to become one country we need to have a single dominant narrative, one that both parties agree to solve for. I believe that the effort to reclaim such a position must begin with every person seeking to understand the correctness of the narrative of others.
Recent interactions between the US and Iran have driven Syria from the primary news cycles. Such absence from our thinking will come back to bite all of us. Syria is the center of most of the issues and problems in the Middle East and those problems have connections globally.
Owen Wilson famously tells Billy Bob Thornton in the movie Armageddon, “okay, so the scariest environment imaginable. Thanks. That’s all you have to say, the scariest environment imaginable,” in response to Thornton’s explanation of what it will be like on the asteroid to which they are being sent. In thinking about Syria, one can start with a similar line: the most complex environment imaginable.
The Assad regime is seriously weakened. It no longer governs the country in anything approaching its entirety. The country is now the center of global great power competition with the participation of Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and the United States along with other European countries in a lesser role. A large percentage of the population is displaced either internally or externally. It is also the nexus of regional sectarian and ethnic competitions and complexities.
What is going to happen in Syria? The simple answer is I don’t know. I will try to provide some thoughts regarding this complexity.
Russia and China are also deeply involved for separate and complicated reasons. Russia is seeking a warm water port, expanded influence outside its borders, combat experience, and a way to weaken and complicate the NATO relationships. China is likewise interested in expanding its influence and developing an understanding of the 21st century combat environment.
One theory of the future might be the following. At some point Syria will gain sufficient control of its internal dynamics such that it can get the Kurds to agree to some form of semi-autonomy. The Kurds will do so to avoid domination of their territory by Turkey. Syria will owe its continued existence to Iran. As such, it will have to follow Iran’s guidance. Syria will continue to be a conduit for arms to Hezbollah. It will also become more and more co-dependent on Hezbollah as Syria could not have survived without Hezbollah’s military support. This will place Hezbollah in a near-peer bargaining position with the government of Syria. Once Syria has control of its internal dynamics it will be inclined to reestablish a stronger regional position and exert influence over Lebanon and intimidate Israel. The Syria-Lebanon struggle will be interesting as Syria will have lost most of its dominance. I am unsure that it can regain the prior position absent some significant change in the Allawite-Kurdish relationship within Syria. Syria needs to return to a combative relationship with Israel as that will be the only way, in their perspective, to regain regional posture. This may take years, unless Syria directs some of its many proxies against Israel or Syria becomes Lebanonized by Iran such that some of the Syrian militias become within Syria as Hezbollah is within Lebanon.
Is a zebra white with black stripes or is it black with white stripes? That is the zebra question. What does it matter how people answer?
I have recently asked this question to groups of military professionals. It started as something of a whimsical question, but it has had my mind reeling with possible meanings. The way I phrased the zebra question was is the normal state of the world peace punctuated by war (white with black stripes) or is it war punctuated by peace (black with white stripes).
How does it shape your thinking if you believe that the world is normally peace or normally war? Years ago I gave a presentation to a think tank associated with the United States Special Operations Command. Following the presentation I was challenged that my approach fell into the "good war" camp. By this, my challenger meant that I was suggesting that there was a good war to be had and if we had only adjusted our behavior than we would have had that good war. This accusation not only implied that I was looking for a good war, but that I was also naïve enough to believe that such wars exist. In this case, a good war could be construed as a war that we would have won and achieved a clear and final victory. Someone who sees the zebra as white with black stripes probably does believe that wars can achieve better endstates that might be some level of final and achieve some level of resolution.
On the other hand, how might the black with white stripes view shape your thinking? I lived and worked in Israel for a couple of years. I was present in the country during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in 2009-2010. I regularly spoke with Israeli military personnel and national security professionals who expressed the need to go back into Gaza every few years to "mow (or cut) the grass." The phrase expressed the idea that the problems in Gaza would never really go away. Like grass, the forces opposed to Israel in Gaza would always grow back necessitating a military intervention sooner or later to cut the grass back down to an acceptable level. I was assigned next to Iraq and while serving there I met numerous US military officers who expressed a similar set of ideas. ISIS (then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq or AQI) would never be finally dealt with and we simply needed to have a plan to come back in every few years to "mow the grass." This sentiment was even stronger in 2014 and 2015 as I returned to Iraq again.
I wish that I had asked the zebra question for years. I haven't. I have taught US military officers over the span of more than twenty years and I believe that twenty years ago officers saw the world differently than today. As I trained officers at the US Army Armor School in 2001 to 2003 and sent many directly to Afghanistan or Iraq I know that I thought we were going to fight so that we could win and then resolve problems so that we wouldn’t have to return (white with black stripes). As I have recently asked this question, more than 75% of those present have characterized the world as being black with white stripes – war is the normal condition and peace is the punctuated exception. I found it depressingly interesting that the more junior the officers the higher the percentage who had the pessimistic view.
The good news is that this has not been a scientific poll. It is simply anecdotal. Only about 100 people have been asked the question so far.
It is fascinating that when I have discussed the question in greater depth people start to see things differently. Most human beings (the vast majority) around the world are not in a war environment and most will never be in their entire life time. Most of the timeline of human history, if taking into account geographic dispersion and global population, is peace. There may always (or something close) be some war going on somewhere, but that war usually doesn’t affect most people anywhere else. The US is a great example of this. The US has not really been at war for the past nearly twenty years. Very few Americans have seen any violence associated with the Global War on Terrorism. Very few Americans have had a friend or loved one die in this war, yet we regularly characterize the entire country as participating in the war.
Is the world really black with white stripes? The true answer (assuming that there is such a thing) doesn’t matter. What matters is that a person is conscious of how his or her own answer shapes his or her thinking. Am I looking for the right way to fight this war to achieve a desired end – the good war – or am I expecting that whatever I do I will just be coming back again in a couple of years to do it again – mowing the grass? The answer matters as one tries to come to grips with national security policy implementation.
The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass is the single most important manual for understanding the transformation of global terrorists like al-Qaeda and ISIS. It was published in 2004 by Abu Bakr Naji (a pseudonym for an individual about whom we know nothing). The document was translated from Arabic to English by William McCants under funding provided by the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University. This is a 268-page book in its English translation and one of the most important documents for students of al-Qaeda and ISIS to read. The Management of Savagery gives a strategic and operational vision and plan of action for achieving exhaustion against the West, in general, and the United States of America, in specific.
Recently (April and May 2019), ISIS published a series of online articles collectively referred to as "ISIS Insurgent Tactics" that describes the tactical conduct in the current operational environment. These articles provide a tactical update to the earlier Management of Savagery and also give specific tactics, techniques, and procedures for actions in areas where ISIS does not govern nor have the ability to consolidate gains sufficient to achieve governance. It is recommended that readers combine both The Management of Savagery and the "ISIS Insurgent Tactics" in order to gain a total picture of how the group intends to behave depending on the potential for governance.
ISIS and like-minded groups have regularly informed the public on their intended behavior. Those who have read their words know their intent. It is in this spirit, that the summary and synthesis of the two sets of material is included below.
Al-Qaeda and ISIS see the West as operating with technological advantages in addition to a having a deceptive media halo or protection from the global media environment. Both groups also see the West as fundamentally weak with respect to will and economic capacity. These assessments drive the approach used. Abu Bakr Naji, lays out the road to victory – it is a road of economic and societal exhaustion. The West cannot be always vigilant. Hyper-vigilance will cause exhaustion in the societies just as it does in a person. Additionally, the objective is to create conditions such that the West will collapse under the weight of their own security apparatus.
The Management of Savagery is organized into a preface and five topics. The preface lays out the basic argument against the world as it was in 2004. This includes criticisms of the post-World War I borders imposed on the Middle East and the European or Western imposed standards. The first topic is the definition of the management of savagery. The second topic is the path for establishing an Islamic state. Note that this was published online two years before the Islamic State of Iraq declared itself and a decade before the declaration of the caliphate. The third topic includes ten sections that lay out the principles and policies for fulfilling the vision of the Islamic state. The fourth topic addresses six problems and obstacles the state will face. The fifth topic is the conclusion which also includes seven articles that explain a variety of challenges facing the endeavor.
The progress through the various phases, as envisioned by Naji, is clearly explained as a struggle and not a singular progression. The author accepts regression as a possibility. Regression through failure will mean an increase in savagery.
Abu Bakr Naji recognizes that there is a battle of narrative happening. He terms it “the illusion of the deceptive power” by which he means the U.S. He suggests that the submission to such illusions begins the downfall. He further states that it is the will of the society that makes weapons effective, not the weapons themselves. Thus the focus on the attacks on society to weaken the will. He further explains the narrative power as a media halo that is essentially a mirage that once stripped away can weaken the power of the opponent. He specifically takes aim at the economy of the U.S. as the fatal weakness. By destroying the economic power, this will strip the media halo and the deceptive power. Abu Bakr Naji uses the Soviet Union as an example of victory against this media halo, and he chastises those who doubt the ummah can succeed against the U.S. He acknowledges the U.S. as having a more powerful media halo, but views it as significantly weaker than was the Soviet Union. He concludes the preface by providing three goals that he claims began with the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es-Salam. They are one, to destroy the respect for the U.S. by revealing its deceptive media and forcing it to abandon the war against the Muslims. Two, provide humanitarian aid to those who have suffered from the savagery present in the conflict between Islam and the West. The author imagines the money for this aid will flow in once the people of the world see the revealed truth of those who oppose Islam. Three, force the U.S. to fight directly and not through the media and through proxies.
The management of savagery is the management of savage chaos. Abu Bakr Naji acknowledges that this is not about creating chaos, but about creating an environment of struggling people who will turn to the Islamic state for assistance and guidance rather than to those who cannot control the savagery. This management of savagery is a period of management. It is not the state even though the state may be declared during it. It is the transition from simple terrorist acts toward actual uncontested rule. This is similar to the phases of revolutionary war described by Mao Tzedong. Too often in the discussion of management of savagery, readers place emphasis on savagery and not on management. In this discussion Abu Bakr Naji states the importance of selecting the right people to administer and acknowledges that not all people are fit for these roles. The author notes the value of using jihad in combat as a means for avoiding corruption and keeping people focused on the purpose. He emphasizes the importance of wave of attackers in that this creates the idea in the minds of the opponents that these attacks will never end. Violence is a tool to be used to cause the enemy to be thoughtful before acting. To a degree this violence feeds into his definition of power and the use of power. Power is essentially the fear in the mind of the enemy that action against the state will result in an unacceptable response. This is a battle where all tools are used to educate the masses to the reality that the author is preaching.
The document deserves to be digested in some detail. It was explained here only in brief as it relates to the transformation of the strategic approach and the forming and evolution of narrative space terrain. One of the most important elements identified by Abu Bakr Naji is that the focus of the effort must be on small attacks and not on the large attacks of the earlier era or cycle. This expresses the end of trying to duplicate another 9/11-style attack. I place that emphasis here as so many pundits and even some specialists in terrorism emphasize that no more 9/11 attacks have happened as if the enemy is still seeking to perform such attacks. They aren’t, and they haven’t been since 2004 and the publishing of this work.
Doctrine usually follows behavior. In 2019, ISIS provided what could be termed doctrinal guidance to its adherents through something akin to an online newspaper. There are four articles, and they come across as a how-to manual with respect to operations in areas where the governance of the caliphate no longer exists. The documents regularly use an Arabic word tamkin which can be translated as consolidation of gains. The author is very practical. He knows that ISIS does not govern and cannot govern now. He warns fighters to avoid taking control of areas when they cannot consolidate the gains into governance.
Operating in this environment, the author explains the purposes for operations - drain the resources of the state, weaken the will and resolve of local commanders, and make soldiers and police feel as if they are all alone. By doing this, the defense will be less resolute, the response will take longer, and operations will be more likely to be successful if conducted rapidly.
The mujahidin need to operate as did their predecessors centuries ago - keep the desert to their back and melt into it if they receive a response stronger than anticipated. It is better to survive to fight again than to sacrifice oneself for something that cannot be consolidated into a larger governed area.
Throughout the "ISIS Insurgent Tactics" local commanders are given tremendous autonomy and responsibility. They need to plan, gather intelligence, and conduct operations mindful of survival as the highest priority and still be able and willing to take advantage of opportunities that are present.
Another Arabic term of note is nikaya. The word can be translated as damage, but this is damage with a purpose. The idea being to weaken the opponent. This is not wonton destruction. The author talks about destruction of court related documents to keep captured fighters from the death penalty as one example. The idea is to create an environment wherein ISIS can return and govern.
Both The Management of Savagery and "ISIS Insurgent Tactics" are important documents to understand how and why various non-state actors conduct operations as they do. They have a strategy - exhaustion - and tactics - nikaya and tamkin to destroy such that they can return to governance. The more familiar we are with their words and approach, the less surprised we will be by their actions.
I first read “Without Sky” nearly a year and a half ago. I was directed to the short story through several different articles dealing with the Russian conceptualization of modern warfare. I found the story online. The first reading was confusing: What is this “without sky” concept and how can it actually work? On a second reading, I began to see tremendous insight into Russian thought on conflict.
For me, the story’s value was well beyond the science fiction. Part of the value is in the commentary on the nature of war. The connection of the author, Natan Dubovitsky (real name: Vladislav Surkov) and Russian President Vladimir Putin was important as well; Surkov is reportedly a close advisor.
For the last two class years, I have asked my U.S. Army Command and General Staff College students to read “Without Sky,” and we have discussed possible meanings and interpretations. The discussion has proven to be illuminating. What follows is an adaptation of that discussion. I am including the text of the story with my commentary interspersed.
There was no sky over our village. That’s why we went to the city to watch the moon and birds, on the other side of the river. The people in the city were not thrilled to have us, but they did not try to stop us. On one of the hills, where the brick church stood, they even built an observation platform. Since for some reason they considered us drinkers, in addition to benches and a pay telescope, they built a small tavern by the observation deck, and a police post.The early paragraphs set the stage for the main character. He is the voice of a broader community of people who are left without sky. Later on, the author explains that these victims can see only in two dimensions. Something about the nature of the fighting and the weapons used have created this transformation in perspective in those who lived beneath the sky in which the massive battle took place.
The two-dimensional perspective is also expressed in terms of yes and no, a sort of conceptual black or white appreciation of the world rather than simply a spatial limitation. I believe that the author is making a statement about the Russians’ being “without sky” — the simple people who are being kept out, and the West being the city — the civilization to which those without sky are being denied entry.
In this science fiction oddity, it is easy to miss the comment on current and future evolving conflict: it is all aerial. This comment is reminiscent of theories developed and promulgated by thinkers like Giulio Douhet, Hugh Trenchard, and Billy Mitchell during the 1920s and 1930s. They proposed that the development of aircraft capability would make armies and navies irrelevant. In a world where all combat is in the air, then the air quality matters as the author notes.
Originally published 4 October 2017
The 1 October 2017 shooting in Las Vegas and the rapid claim by ISIS of the shooter as a soldier of the Caliphate has generated several articles and comments by lots of people. Many of those writing and speaking on this topic addressed the claim of responsibility by ISIS as a grab for notoriety and not a serious claim. Some have made the argument that ISIS has rarely done this in the past and should be taken seriously until more is known. Others piled on by scoffing at the claim and linking it with Twitter statements weeks earlier where ISIS followers took pleasure in the destruction and suffering caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma. These commentators argued that ISIS’ claim of responsibility for Vegas is as silly as them claiming responsibility for hurricanes hitting the United States.
Those who are scoffing and dismissing the ISIS claim are seeing this too literally and missing something very important. This is not like fact-checking a political leader or some other public figure. To understand this claim, one must approach it from ISIS’ perspective. This is not about fact. This is about narrative.
If an ISIS follower believes that he is part of the Caliphate, that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the Caliph, the proper and only accepted successor of the Prophet Mohamed, then this person is inclined to believe that the United States is the enemy. Not just the enemy of ISIS and it’s Caliphate, but the enemy of God. In this belief, the United States is seeking to thwart the efforts of the true believers and followers of God. By so doing, the United States is open to the punishments and wrath of God. ISIS is the instrument by which God will bring about His purposes on the earth, or so the argument goes.
If one understands this reasoning then it can be clear how any harm that happens to the United States can be construed as being the will of God and also supportive of ISIS. Any person who brings pain and suffering, according to this line of thinking, is therefore serving the interests of the Caliphate. In effect, any shooter, bomber, mass murderer, etc. can be seen as a soldier of the Caliphate as they are serving the interests of the Caliphate in causing suffering to the conceptual enemy of God and the physical and literal enemy of ISIS.
It may be found that the Las Vegas shooter did have some direct connection to ISIS. Whether he did or not does not negate the claim made by ISIS just as the criticisms about claiming responsibility for hurricanes does not negate the fact that an “act of God” did tremendous damage to multiple American states and territories. The shooter harmed America. By definition, his actions served the Caliphate and thereby he is, in some form, a soldier of the Caliphate. The recent hurricanes have harmed America. By definition these acts of God have served the Caliphate and thereby, in some form, serve the interests and support the actions of ISIS.
ISIS is functioning in a world where they maneuver in the narrative space. The narrative space is where they see success now and in the future. It is their belief, their ideology, and their conviction of rightness that allows them to conduct themselves as they have regardless of the successes or defeats on physical battlefields. For those of us opposed to ISIS and their ilk it is imperative that we understand this maneuver in the narrative space and become proficient in such maneuver ourselves so that we can use our own powerful narrative of inclusion, opportunity, freedom, and rule of law to dominate and win on the narrative battlefields that matter in the Twenty-first Century.
Originally published 13 July 2017
I read a New York Times piece titled "Iraqi Prime Minister Arrives in Mosul to Declare Victory Over ISIS" in which the Iraqi Prime Minister almost stated that Mosul was liberated. Not quite, but he was really close. The same article also stated that ISIS holds an area about 200 meters by 50 meters and that was expected to be reduced (my word, not theirs) within the next day or so. A friend asked me for some thoughts regarding what is after Mosul. I share some of my response here.
First of all, congratulations to the Iraqi Security Forces and all of the coalition partners who have assisted them in this difficult task. Regardless of futility toward ultimate Middle Eastern peace, this is still something an accomplishment worthy of pride. ISIS are bad guys and it is good to kill them and remove them from the equation.
Second, I addressed my thoughts on what comes next (after the defeat of ISIS) earlier in this blog. Though written in March 2017, I think it is still generally accurate.
My biggest concern is the reports on the exhaustion of the Iraqi Security Forces and the sporadic return of ISIS fighters to "liberated areas." I say this is my biggest concern because I have my doubts of the capability and/or willingness of the Iraqi government to provide significant infrastructure repair and attention to get Mosul back up and running in a meaningful way in anything like a reasonable time frame. I expect at least 40% of the destroyed city will still be a ghost town a year from now. That is my negative side speaking, but if I am right then this is the biggest danger.
ISIS still has people and sympathetic groups in Iraq. Some of them are still operating around Kirkuk and Hawija and other places. There are also plenty of people who are inclined to support the general ideological bent of ISIS even if they don't like ISIS' management of the area when in charge. If the Iraqi government does not deliver on "reconciliation" then those who are inclined toward ISIS or ISIS-like groups will return to the idea of militant resistance and the possibility of retaking the city.
I have reconciliation in quotation marks because that word has wildly different meanings to the different parties. I believe that there are elements in the Iraqi government that see reconciliation as an absence of near-genocide of Sunni inhabitants of Mosul and mass incarceration. This line of thinking implies that the fact that people are allowed to live in the rubble means that the government is reconciled with that reality. There are people in Mosul and Anbar province who see reconciliation as something much greater: infrastructure repair and improvement, benefits from Iraqi oil wealth through opportunity, employment, and political voice. That will not happen to the level that many desire. Is there a mediated settlement possible? Who is the trusted mediator seeking to achieve this settlement?
The other concern is what happens to the various "coalition" members once ISIS is declared defeated? Many European members will accept the declaration and go home. The Iranians will increase their efforts to gain influence through humanitarian and social aid. The Kurds will probably have their independence referendum, but will there be Kurdish unity (of any sort) toward governance? Absent the unifying threat of ISIS it is likely that the fractious nature of Iraqi politics will explode. Will that explosion create the time and space for ISIS (or some similar minded group) to regroup or to regrow?
I just finished Graeme Wood's book on ISIS (The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State). You may not have time to read it, but he does an excellent job of explaining why the concept of a caliphate is so motivating and why that idea and the idea of violent opposition motivated by sectarian interpretations will probably not go away.
That said, it is possible that this has been a Hiroshima moment for the people of Mosul and they will not want to go back to the violence no matter what and they will change from militants to pacifists as did the Germans and Japanese (at least officially) after WWII. My opinion is no, but it is in the realm of possibility and should be considered.
There are many voices who speak of the ultimate end of civil strife being when the people simply get tired of the killing. The victims are tired of it, but are the masses of Iraqis tired of the killing? Tired to the point of compromise and reconciliation? The negative voice in my head says that this point has not been reached despite the carnage and destruction throughout the country and especially in Mosul. The simple if-then statement is as follows. If the ideology of violence is more powerful than the desire for the killing to end then the violence will continue.
Originally published 21 March 2017
There are a lot of good articles currently published and numerous smart and well-informed people who have written on this topic (download the Comprehensive Bibliography to see what I am talking about). Despite these other sources, I feel that I need to write a brief assessment of predictions for a post-Mosul/Raqqa ISIS* world because people have asked for my opinion and this is a way to capture that opinion for future reference.
Assuming that Mosul and Raqqa fall in the next several weeks or months I believe there are five possible outcomes. Of course, reality is that a sixth outcome will happen that will include to some degree or another elements of each of the five I mention. I encourage a reader to see the five as part of the nutrition pyramid from which they can build a healthy meal of regional prediction.
1. ISIS Goes Away
First, ISIS simply goes away - it dies, never to rise again. This is the least likely. Simply stated, the business model that ISIS has demonstrated since 2012 has been so successful that the group ceasing to exist in full seems incredibly unlikely. That said, it is still possible and in some form it may be likely. For a short while maybe. Or many of the participants may follow this path.
2. ISIS Returns to an Earlier Form of Insurgency
Second, ISIS stops trying to be a state and returns to an earlier form of insurgency. This would resemble something like the insurgency seen in Iraq in 2003-2011. Attacks, bombings, kidnappings, intimidation, etc. with the intent of retaining consciousness in the minds of the public, but not such a burden as to engender a national or international level response from major security forces. That insurgency in Iraq went through multiple phases and types over the seven or more years that it existed so this is a broad swath of possibilities.
3. ISIS Waits it Out
Third, ISIS goes into the desert and caves and waits it out. Despite what people see on television and movies, even modern technology cannot see everything everywhere. There are places in eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and more likely the cities of both countries where a dedicated group could blend in with the locals and simply wait out the current international pressure. That pressure will die out and then ISIS can come back. The Western powers and their regional lackeys (as seen from the perspective of ISIS) do not have the patience of spiritual conviction and so they will eventually tire. In some ways this is similar to elements of Maoist revolutionary war theory where the revolutionary moves back and forth through phases as needed. This would be analogous to moving back to phase one (building the foundation) and then resetting the conditions for movement to phase two (insurgency) and phase three (conventional attacks). Normally, I do not believe that ISIS or al-Qaeda based groups follow Maoist theory in detail, however, I use it here as a useful analogy only.
4. ISIS Becomes a Virtual Caliphate
Fourth, ISIS primarily becomes a virtual caliphate. The organization has built a formidable and resilient online publishing and production capacity with hundreds of thousands of viewers and subscribers. It may be possible to maintain some form of virtual relationship that promotes the ideals of the group and seeks to inspire people around the globe to conduct attacks on behalf of their association with this virtual entity. In a world that has people enamored with Twitter followers and subscriptions, this may be a viable possibility.
5. ISIS Disperses
Fifth, ISIS disperses back to the various countries from which its adherents came. In this case, those adherents then continue their activities, but now in their native (or adoptive) lands where they can both grow and terrorize new populations seeking greater personal notoriety.
As noted in the opening paragraph, the reality is a sixth way wherein ISIS does some form of all of the above. Some individuals will return to their home countries. Some with the intent of returning back to a "normal" life where they can feel pride at having conducted their personal jihad and adventure tourism and can share those stories with children and grandchildren yet to be born. Others may return and try to spark the jihad in their home or adoptive countries. Others will continue to produce their material online. Others will see no other place to go and they will hole up somewhere and wait it out. Some of them will fight and die in a lonely cave somewhere that no one has heard of or will remember, but others will hope to come forward from these waste places to rekindle their vision of the good life once the attention of the world has faded. Many who have participated in this enterprise believe that they are doing God's bidding even if they cannot articulate where God said it. Understanding this much will help a reader to recognize that whether this was a short-term adventure or a lifetime commitment each person will respond as their circumstances allow to see the fruition of their intention.
ISIS created a business model that I call crowd-sourced terrorism. In this they have demonstrated that it is inexpensive to generate tremendous personal commitment. It only takes a moment to generate fanaticism if the moment is right. That requires few resources and can have a profound impact on a community. So regardless of whether or not ISIS ends this month or this year, this business model - profoundly accepted religious ideology combined with a promise of near instantaneous salvation - will live on.
*ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Sometimes this same group may be referred to as the Islamic State or IS, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or ISIL, or by its Arabic acronym of Da'ash (also written as Da'esh or Da'ish). Regardless of all of the other uses, I always refer to it as ISIS for simplicity sake.
Originally published 15 June 2016
The tragic events of 12 June 2016 in Orlando Florida have reignited debates that have mistakenly raged for years – debates which have dragged to the surface a term used during each of the attacks on U.S. soil in the last several years: Lone Wolf. I have never been clear about what this phrase means. I think it is meant to express the notion of a single terrorist who operates independently of a larger organization and then conducts the attacks at a time and place of his or her choosing. Such a term may have applied a decade ago, but the world of global terrorism is manifestly different today than it was in 2006. The term no longer fits.
Al-Qaeda popularized franchise terrorism - terrorists who wanted to adopt the al-Qaeda name needed to adopt a level of indoctrination and accepted practices. This is similar to many franchises in the business world. If one wants to be a hamburger franchise then one needs to use the parent company uniforms, follow the same menu, and conduct the same type of service. Essentially, this is cloning the headquarters’ behaviors and procedures. However, al-Qaeda also expanded to include freelancers. These were smaller groups or individuals who didn’t necessarily adopt the bureaucratic association with al-Qaeda, but they did accept the basic premises and doctrine. One might characterize such freelancers as Lone Wolves.
In the years since, ISIS has gone one step further: crowd-source terrorism without the need for formal linkage to the parent organization. Any person anywhere at any time can declare that he or she is acting in the name of ISIS and that is sufficient. There is no need for coordination, planning, money, indoctrination, association, or hierarchical structure. A person could be a non-Muslim or a non-practicing Muslim one day and a crowd-sourced ISIS terrorist the next day. No purity test. No worthiness needed. Just the simple declaration and the action. This is not a lone wolf. This is an actor who, without the declaration to ISIS, would be considered random. This seems to have been the case in Orlando, San Bernardino, Philadelphia, and Garland.
Using the previous franchise example, ISIS has empowered every person who barbeques hamburgers in their back yard to declare themselves a fast food chain and act. This is a business model that benefits ISIS. As an organization, they have no resource commitment and yet they receive tremendous international press coverage of an ISIS attack in the United States, even as details continue to surface regarding the complex motives of the perpetrator. The murkier details will not overwhelm the initial headlines.
This is part of the ISIS strategy and the strategy of those like-minded groups. ISIS and their ilk want to create a world wherein there is no gray and every Muslim must choose between Islam or hedonism and every Muslim. In their own magazine (Dabiq, issue 7, pages 54-66), ISIS calls for "The Extinction of the Grayzone".
Why does this matter? Though there are always disgruntled people, few of them will become violent. The response of American citizens to this latest and any future atrocity will define the environment and likelihood for future attacks. Muslim residents and citizens need to feel at home and that they are a part of America. Two recent articles examined the dangers of forcing people to decide between secularism and God. These articles reference debates that raged in Belgium and France (2011-2012) regarding the wearing of the hijab (Muslim head scarf) and the niqab (veil). A possible result of those debates was that Muslim young men and women came to believe that they were not really Belgian or French. In that environment many sought to fight for Islam abroad. Muslim-Americans are watching and listening to responses and comments. Is this their country and home or are they condemned to be forever foreign in an alien and hostile land?
Americans should not live in fear of offending a future criminal. We should instead recognize each attack for what it is: a singular instance of a person seeking to gain notoriety for themselves or their cause by causing harm to other people. In most attacks in the United States, the perpetrators also struggle with mental illness or they were isolated through choice or perception from the associations and opportunities which are possible in America.
The antidote might sound trite but it can be effective: every day we should be good and involved neighbors as well as good and involved citizens. The best protection is the strongest community relationships. It is reaching out to know, talk with, and serve those around us. It is not sufficient to hide behind fortifications. One has to venture out and build communities which serve and respect each other. Only after we have strong relationships will neighborhoods police themselves and report bad actors. This murderous event happened a week into the Islamic month of Ramadan. This is a time for Muslims to fast, reflect, and become better. This is also an opportunity for non-Muslims to reach out and learn something of a stranger, a newcomer, or a foreign belief. Being a good neighbor and citizen is the right thing to be and also the right way to secure our safety and freedom for future generations. Every call for greater security from the government will mean fewer freedoms for all of us and only generate more distrust and create a greater and murkier pool where the spawn of extremism will grow.