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.