The Parliamentary Debate over Fighting ISIS – Defining the Enemy

Corporealism XVI: Justin Trudeau Redux

D. The Parliamentary Debate over Fighting ISIS – Defining the Enemy

by

Howard Adelman

Sūn Zǐ, a 6th century BCE, Chinese general and author of The Art of War, wrote, “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” The Greek philosophical motto from Socrates was, “Know thyself!” The complementary practical motto may be equally or even more important. “Know thine enemy.”

Characterizing ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), ISIL (Islamic State in the Levant) or Daesh as evil incarnate and adding to it adverbs and adjectives like vicious, as the Conservatives, Liberals and, on occasion, the NDP even did, may be accurate bit it is not much help in understanding ISIS. It may help rally the forces on one’s own side, by representing the target in absolute moral language, but limiting oneself to condemnatory language does not help us develop the skills of defeating an enemy in war. By using verbs like extinguish, exterminate, eradicate, we forget that the object of all war is the defeat of the enemy not elimination. Cockroaches and termites need to be exterminated. Enemies need to be degraded and decimated as a fighting force. War is a noble enterprise. Genocide, even of a horrific enemy, is not. In my next blog, I will focus on the art of war, on the means of defeating ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. In today’s blog, I will characterize the enemy and not simply brand ISIS with colourful moral language.

It is not as if there is any shortage of scholarship on Daesh or on terrorism more generally. There is, in fact, a plethora of material. As one example, Peter Bergen, Courtney Schuster and David Sterman wrote, “ISIS in the West: The New Faces of Extremism,” for the think tank, New America (November 2015), a long essay or study of home-grown Islamic extremists who have gone off to join ISIS and whose return may pose a hidden danger to the U.S., Canada and the West more generally. David D. Kirkpatrick, Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt wrote a journalist piece called, “ISIS’ Grip on Libyan City [Surt] Gives it a Fallback Option” (28 November 2015). That essay describes the strategy and many of the tactics used by Daesh. More generally, there is the journal of an old friend, Alex Schmid (if you are reading this, I recall very fondly staying in your house in Holland). Alex edits, Perspectives on Terrorism put out by the Terrorism Research Initiative in Vienna, which he directs. The journal has published a number of issues filled with excellent analyses of different aspects of terrorism. His edited 2011 volume, The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research is a “must read” and, while terrorism is neither a legal term in international law nor a scientific classification, Alex brought together a number of depictions arrived at through examining the various uses of the term in academic literature. They are quoted in the edited volume in twelve points. I offer a pitted version.

Terrorism is primarily political in its motivation and its societal repercussions as a fear-generating coercive tactic either 1) by individual perpetrators, small groups or diffuse transnational networks to resist the real or alleged illegal use of state power, or 2) by repressive states and its spies and proxies to carry out illegal state repression. [States may practice terrorism, but states are not terrorists.] Terrorism is “a conspiratorial practice of calculated, demonstrative, direct violent action without legal or moral restraints” aimed at larger audiences and leaders utilizing shocking  brutality and  lack of discrimination,  carried out for dramatic or symbolic quality in total disregard of both the rules of warfare and of punishment. Terrorism targets mainly civilians and non-combatants for propagandistic and psychological effects on various audiences and conflict parties, assisted by the media, to instil fear, dread, panic or anxiety through threat-based communication processes to demoralize, fracture or even destroy constituencies. Terrorist tactics do not constitute war, though such acts are part of irregular warfare, but are single-phase, dual, triple or a series of acts of lethal violence – bombings, armed assaults, hijacking, disappearances, kidnapping, secret detention, torture and murder and other forms of hostage-taking for coercive bargaining. Terrorism sews insecurity and is intended to terrorize, intimidate, antagonize, disorientate, destabilize, coerce, compel, demoralize or provoke a target population and, thereby, manipulate the political process.

On 24 May 2014, a man wearing a dark baseball cap and carrying several bags walked into the Jewish Museum of Belgium in the centre of Brussels. It was 10 minutes to four. The man pulled out an AK-47 and started shooting. Ninety seconds later, three museum visitors were dead; a fourth, critically injured in the attack, would later die of his wounds. The shooter managed to escape on foot and was captured six days later, after a nationwide manhunt. He was revealed to be Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French national who had traveled to Syria and served as a jailer for the Islamic State. When arrested, he was carrying a bag containing a Kalashnikov, a .38, cameras, a gas mask, and about 330 rounds of ammunition. Nemmouche, we now know, wasn’t working alone. He was part of a network run by his friend Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian who had traveled to Syria and became an ISIS “Emir of War” in the Deir es-Zor governate. Like Nemmouche, Abaaoud, too, returned to Europe with the intention of pursuing jihad. His efforts were more successful than his disciple’s, leaving 130 people dead in a series of attacks in Paris on Nov. 13. (Liel Leibovitz, Tablet 1 December 2015)

My friend, Raphael Cohen-Almagor, an Israeli academic now based in Britain, sent me a note promoting his own work on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I extract from it.  “More violence. More blood. No leadership. On November 22, 2015, Hadar Buchris, 21, was murdered. She was the 22nd victim in this wave of terror attacks that has swept Israel during the past two months. 192 other people were injured in the stabbings, shootings, and car runovers of innocent bystanders. More hatred. Polarization. The radicals are dictating the agenda. Sad.”

Violence targeting civilians characterizes both acts of terror. But there is a difference. The latter, though stimulated and encouraged by a general atmosphere and positive reinforcement from the society from which the terrorist emerged, is really a random act by a random perpetrator against a random target. The former is an agent of a political entity known as ISIS or ISIL which occupies a swath of territory in Syria and Iraq as well as a segment of a splintered Libya. The first attack was subversion behind enemy lines. The second attack above took place in the heart of the land of battle for a century, the former Mandate of Palestine. Nenmouche was an Emir of War. The murderer of Hadar was a volunteer martyr without any command and control operation. To call them both terrorists defines the act taken not the agent behind the act. For the agents are radically different in the two cases.

My purpose here is to characterize ISIS more than the form of terrorism it practices. Yet ISIS is defined precisely by the way it uses terrorism, so it is incumbent to characterize the type of warfare being conducted by ISIS. In both of the above examples, the terrorists were driven by a cause that included the destruction of an enemy. In both cases, there is an asymmetry in power between the two sides, the terrorists coming from a much weaker side. The unique characteristic of ISIS is that it engages in conventional warfare rather than just asymmetrical warfare. But, like all terrorists, whether engaged in individual acts of terror, insurgency or regular warfare, the power of initiative belongs to the terrorists. Those fighting terrorism are by and large in a reactive role, certainly initially. Since in the debates, the warfare practiced by ISIS was referred to as an insurgency, it may be helpful to distinguish between the type of warfare practiced by Dsesh in contrast to an insurgency.

  1. Insurgency Warfare is revolutionary and looks towards a radically changed future. Daesh warfare is not just counter-revolutionary, it is reactionary and harks back to a past, in this case that of the Caliphate in which all Muslims were under a singular Muslim leader answerable only to Allah so the association with Islam is built into the terrorism.
  2. Insurgent warfare is clandestine; Daesh warfare depends also on wide publicity.
  3. Insurgent warfare depends on winning the support of the civilian population, hence the need for a hearts and minds campaign; Daesh warfare, on the other hand, simply wants to win command and control of the population; fear, rather than serving as a supplement, becomes the prime means of expressing its authority.
  4. Insurgent warfare depends on propaganda and an educational program to indoctrinate the local population into a new set of values, beliefs and practices; Daesh warfare appeals to a “pure” version of existing traditional values, beliefs and practices.
  5. Insurgent warfare demonizes those who hold existing political, military and economic power; Daesh warfare demonizes all other groups, not just those in power, such as Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Chaldeans, and readily attempts to exterminate these alleged “non-believers.”
  6. Insurgent warfare operates by surreptitiously infiltrating the local population; Daesh warfare, though it may also do the latter, operates, not like traditional armies attacking and destroying the centres of political and military power of those defined as the enemy, but by attacking often disparate sources of economic power in territories it seeks to conquer, creating in the process few if any good options to destroy ISIS without destroying a good part of the civilian population and the economic assets, oil terminals and transportation routes, being held hostage.
  7. The prime targets for insurgency warfare are chosen to expand control of territory from a base and extending from there the control of more territory; the prime targets of Daesh hybrid warfare are centres of natural resources – primarily oil – which, when it captures such resources, sells the oil on the black market to fund its military operations.
  8. Insurgent warfare to succeed usually requires a patron, whether near at hand or distant – Russia for China, the USSR for Cuba – while Daesh warfare prides itself on self-sufficiency.
  9. Insurgent warfare relies on youth, but ISIS, though it recruits many teenagers, has a more mature human resource base whose average age is 26 years among males, many of middle class backgrounds with post-secondary education as well as, and unusually, many women, especially in the underground overseas.
  10. Insurgent warfare, while flouting the importance of its ideology, really depends on the weakness of the existing regime, its corruption, its internal divisions and its inherent contradictions; Daesh hybrid warfare depends more on the extension of the above so that a vacuum in the centre seems more relevant than just the traditional weaknesses, particularly when the centre of power favours one previously repressed group (the Shiites in Iraq) and the insurrection favours a previously powerful group now relegated to the margins so that the politics of resentment becomes preeminent.
  11. In insurgent warfare, intelligence primarily focuses on the militant strategies and tactics being used by the insurgent group; in Daesh warfare, intelligence primarily focuses on the supply of arms, recruits, the sale of oil and the location of its leaders and infrastructure.
  12. Defeated leaders in insurgency warfare are often executed for crimes against the people after a preemptory military trial; Daesh captives are beheaded and literally the heads are “posted” as an integral element of the politics of fear.
  13. Insurgency warfare relies on traditional propaganda based on the print media; the internet and social media are integral elements of the propaganda campaign of ISIS and subsequent propaganda campaign after a victory attack suppresses entertainment and substitutes messages that extol the organization, Allah and then the Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
  14. When suffering defeats in their home bases, Daesh militants shift their focus to attacking the home ground of the enemy militants – Paris this past November in revenge for France increasing its aerial attacks in Syria and Libya, and a Russian airliner taking off from the Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport in Egypt in response to stepped-up Russian bombing raids in Syria.
  15. When pressed and territory is recaptured, instead of increasing its calls for recruits, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the ISIS spokesman, calls for Muslims to stay home and launch attacks from there “in any manner or way.” (e.g. Michael Zehef-Bibeau, a recent convert who killed a Canadian solder at the Cenotaph on Parliament Hill.)

Given this characterization of the enemy, assuming it bears a resemblance to reality, in the next blog I will explore the strategy and tactics necessary to combat Daesh.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Next Blog: Strategy.and Tactics for Confronting ISIS

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