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.