E Pluribus Unum
Bill Roggio surveys the fortunes of al-Qaeda around the globe, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in its smaller theaters as well. And they are many. Pakistan, Somalia, Iran, North Africa/Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand. And to that list some might add Western Europe and Serbia. While each theaters of conflict is distinctly different -- and treated and perceived differently, witness Iraq and Afghanistan -- Roggio tallies them all through the prism of al-Qaeda. The unifying point of view with which to understand disparate conflicts, so different in character and setting from each other, is what parties are on which side: in other words, according to us versus them. With "them" being al-Qaeda. David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency strategist at the Pentagon recently interviewed by George Packer, attempted to identify the unifying thread running through the different conflicts in another way. On the one hand every battlefield and every locality within a given battlefield is different.“Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader, and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district.” But on the other hand every Jihadi battlefield is in some respects the same. The reason the individual Jihads cannot be treated separately, he reasoned, "is globalization".
Al-Qaeda was above all a popularizer of ideas. It was a creature of a the global consciousness, a presence on every scene. If al-Qaeda were a demon then the thing it sought to possess was the front page. But what exactly was it that Bin Laden was selling, Kilcullen asked himself: was it Islam? It was more eclectic than that.
Just before the 2004 American elections, Kilcullen was doing intelligence work for the Australian government, sifting through Osama bin Laden’s public statements, including transcripts of a video that offered a list of grievances against America: Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, global warming. The last item brought Kilcullen up short. “I thought, Hang on! What kind of jihadist are you?” he recalled. The odd inclusion of environmentalist rhetoric, he said, made clear that "this wasn’t a list of genuine grievances. This was an Al Qaeda information strategy."
Just as al-Qaeda was present in the local politics of a tribe in Waziristan, so too did it haunt Washington, DC.
Bin Laden shrewdly created an implicit association between Al Qaeda and the Democratic Party, for he had come to feel that Bush’s strategy in the war on terror was sustaining his own global importance. Indeed, in the years after September 11th Al Qaeda’s core leadership had become a propaganda hub. "If bin Laden didn’t have access to global media, satellite communications, and the Internet, he’d just be a cranky guy in a cave," Kilcullen said.
But what was the connection between the global themes of Osama Bin Laden and the particulars of every place and clime? What held joined al-Qaeda's global vision and the local grievances together, Kilcullen reasoned, was that the former provided a rationale for the latter. The young and discontented all wanted to be part of a rebellion that would change the world. Bin Laden would provide the justification for universal adolescence to rise in rebellion against the global adulthood.
"After 9/11, when a lot of people were saying, ‘The problem is Islam,’ I was thinking, It’s something deeper than that. It’s about human social networks and the way that they operate. ... People don’t get pushed into rebellion by their ideology. They get pulled in by their social networks." He noted that all fifteen Saudi hijackers in the September 11th plot had trouble with their fathers. Although radical ideas prepare the way for disaffected young men to become violent jihadists, the reasons they convert, Kilcullen said, are more mundane and familiar: family, friends, associates. ...
On his bookshelves, alongside monographs by social scientists such as Max Gluckman and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, is a knife that he took from a militiaman he had just ambushed in East Timor. “If I were a Muslim, I’d probably be a jihadist,” Kilcullen said as we sat in his office. “The thing that drives these guys—a sense of adventure, wanting to be part of the moment, wanting to be in the big movement of history that’s happening now—that’s the same thing that drives me, you know?”
Following this train of the thought led to the conclusion that the counter to al-Qaeda would be to meet it's grievances locally but deny it's pretensions to universality. As with the demons cast out in the Bible, the exorcist's first step was to put it in its proper place; it was only proper to acknowledge the demon was a shadow of malice, but a shadow withal. The exorcist never came before Beelzebub as an equal, but as the waking world against a dream of evil; invoking the sunlight to dispel illusion. In Kilcullen's view, America's first mistake was to accord the Jihad any importance.
By speaking of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the Taliban, the Iranian government, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda in terms of one big war, Administration officials and ideologues have made Osama bin Laden’s job much easier. “You don’t play to the enemy’s global information strategy of making it all one fight,” Kilcullen said. He pointedly avoided describing this as the Administration’s approach. “You say, ‘Actually, there are sixty different groups in sixty different countries who all have different objectives. Let’s not talk about bin Laden’s objectives—let’s talk about your objectives. How do we solve that problem?’ ” In other words, the global ambitions of the enemy don’t automatically demand a monolithic response. ...
Kilcullen speaks of the need to “disaggregate” insurgencies: finding ways to address local grievances in Pakistan’s tribal areas or along the Thai-Malay border so that they aren’t mapped onto the ambitions of the global jihad. Kilcullen writes, “Just as the Containment strategy was central to the Cold War, likewise a Disaggregation strategy would provide a unifying strategic conception for the war—something that has been lacking to date.” As an example of disaggregation, Kilcullen cited the Indonesian province of Aceh, where, after the 2004 tsunami, a radical Islamist organization tried to set up an office and convert a local separatist movement to its ideological agenda. Resentment toward the outsiders, combined with the swift humanitarian action of American and Australian warships, helped to prevent the Acehnese rebellion from becoming part of the global jihad.
And there was certainly other anecdotal evidence to support the theory of "disaggregation". Western observers may have failed to understand that the Islamic Courts Union was making itself very unpopular in Somalia because it banned women from public in a country where women were the chief breadwinners. Others noted how the Islamic prohibition on the traditional narcotic of khat, much more than any political reason a Western academic could understand, condemned the imams in the sight of the populace. Diplomats may understand radical Islamism in terms of geopolitics, but the tribesman may weigh it in the scales of his livelihood. It is easy to say "your task is to become the world expert on your district," but how does America, the epitome of the modern state with huge bureaucracies and a gigantic military establishment, actually do this? How does it re-engineer itself to fight wars locally instead of with big battalions and aid programs. The answer, apparently, is only with great difficulty. George Packer's article continues.
Crumpton, Kilcullen’s boss, told me that American foreign policy traditionally operates on two levels, the global and the national; today, however, the battlefields are also regional and local, where the U.S. government has less knowledge and where it is not institutionally organized to act. In half a dozen critical regions, Crumpton has organized meetings among American diplomats, intelligence officials, and combat commanders, so that information about cross-border terrorist threats is shared.
But in one area the Coalition had yet to formulate an effective counter. The Jihad held local discontents together with a cement of information operations supplemented by intimidation and terrorism. Armed propaganda. Kilcullen described how the Taliban sent "night letters" to Afghan farmers, exhorting them to plant the opium poppy -- the better to detach them from the legal economy -- and threatening dire consequences should they refuse. " This is a classic old Bolshevik tactic from the early cold war, by the way. They are specifically trying to send the message: 'The government can neither help you nor hurt us. We can hurt you, or protect you—the choice is yours.'" Against such terrorism, only the gun will prevail. "In a counterinsurgency, the gratitude effect will last until the sun goes down and the insurgents show up and say, ‘You’re on our side, aren’t you? Otherwise, we’re going to kill you.’ If one side is willing to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side and the other side isn’t, ultimately you’re going to find yourself losing." But using force creates other information problems, chiefly with the media. The media and the Internet was being effectively used by the Global Jihad to disseminate atrocity stories to immobilize the coalition and to glorify its acts of violence to spur recruitment and to raise money. Against these information operations the Coalition could only set a broken reed.
After Kilcullen returned from Afghanistan last month, he stayed up late one Saturday night (“because I have no social life”) and calculated how many sources of information existed for a Vietnamese villager in 1966 and for an Afghan villager in 2006. He concluded that the former had ten, almost half under government control, such as Saigon radio and local officials; the latter has twenty-five (counting the Internet as only one), of which just five are controlled by the government. Most of the rest—including e-mail, satellite phone, and text messaging—are independent but more easily exploited by insurgents than by the Afghan government. And it is on the level of influencing perceptions that these wars will be won or lost. “The international information environment is critical to the success of America’s mission,” Kilcullen said.
In the information war, America and its allies are barely competing. America’s information operations, far from being the primary strategy, simply support military actions, and often badly: a Pentagon spokesman announces a battle victory, but no one in the area of the battlefield hears him (or would believe him anyway). Just as the Indonesians failed in East Timor, in spite of using locally successful tactics, Kilcullen said, “We’ve done a similar thing in Iraq—we’ve arguably done O.K. on the ground in some places, but we’re totally losing the domestic information battle. In Afghanistan, it still could go either way. ... “It’s now fundamentally an information fight,” he said. “The enemy gets that, and we don’t yet get that, and I think that’s why we’re losing.”
If the Kilcullen's description of winning the airpower but losing the airwaves sounds familiar, it should. This was exactly the position the Israelis found themselves in vis a vis Hezbollah in the 2006 war in Lebanon, a subject discussed in Blogosphere at War. But many of the current efforts to fight the information war consist of initiatives like Karen Hughes' Public Diplomacy project, which attempt to 'make public officials more available to the press'. While that is certainly useful, it does nothing to answer the question of how to fight the information battle against the Jihad locally. It does nothing to disrupt what Kilcullen called that "ladder of extremism", the pathway of indoctrination which exists beyond the reach of Public Diplomacy, beyond the reach of a media strategy and only within the grasp of an information strategy.
When I asked him to outline a counter-propaganda strategy, he [Kilcullen] described three basic methods. “We’ve got to create resistance to their message,” he said. “We’ve got to co-opt or assist people who have a counter-message. And we might need to consider creating or supporting the creation of rival organizations.” Bruce Hoffman told me that jihadists have posted five thousand Web sites that react quickly and imaginatively to events. In 2004, he said, a jihadist rap video called “Dirty Kuffar” became widely popular with young Muslims in Britain: “It’s like Ali G wearing a balaclava and having a pistol in one hand and a Koran in the other.” Hoffman believes that America must help foreign governments and civil-society groups flood the Internet with persuasively youthful Web sites presenting anti-jihadist messages—but not necessarily pro-American ones, and without leaving American fingerprints.
Kilcullen argues that Western governments should establish competing “trusted networks” in Muslim countries: friendly mosques, professional associations, and labor unions. (A favorite Kilcullen example from the Cold War is left-wing anti-Communist trade unions, which gave the working class in Western Europe an outlet for its grievances without driving it into the arms of the Soviet Union.) The U.S. should also support traditional authority figures—community leaders, father figures, moderate imams—in countries where the destabilizing transition to modernity has inspired Islamist violence. “You’ve got to be quiet about it,” he cautioned. “You don’t go in there like a missionary.” The key is providing a social context for individuals to choose ways other than jihad.
If the idea of rousing the private citizens to flood the Internet with persuasively youthful Web sites presenting anti-jihadist messages—but not necessarily pro-American ones, and without leaving American fingerprints sounds familiar, it should, because this is similar to what the blogosphere does. Maybe not well enough to counter the Jihad, but it points the way. And although the government may dream of flooding the Internet with sites willing to take the Jihad on, it is the Man with the Day Job who has so far actually delivered. But just as it was the private sector, not the government which first mounted effective resistance to Jihadi information warfare, it may yet be the private sector, not "Western governments" that will eventually "establish competing 'trusted networks' in Muslim countries". Private organizers -- activists -- assisted by the blogosphere may provide a way of coming to grips with the Jihad on local issues and oppose them in the field of ideas on a woldwide basis. It is the Global Everyman, not just the government, which must be mobilized to fight the Global Guerrila. The government has a role too; it is the combination of kinetic warfare against terrorist, coupled with across the board intellectual resistance to extremism, and grassroots organizing on a wide front against the oppressive forms of the Jihad, which will ultimately kill al-Qaeda.
Maybe the answer was right under our nose. The key to defeating the Global Jihad may lie in the West remembering the levee en masse, that part of its history now forgotten, which consisted of raising a nation in arms, because the nation consisted of everyone, not in weaponry but this time in ideas. It may consist in relearning that the first role of government is not to do things for its citizens, but rather to awaken them; reawaken them to the idea that free men, not some throwback to the 8th century, are the bearers of the true revolution. The West needs to remember before it can believe; and it needs to believe before it can survive. Then it can be, if not again the tide of the Idea With a Sword, at least that of a Sword With an Idea.