20 September 2009

Thinking Big: Strategic Papers on Terrorism plus more

To paraphrase Musashi, large scale combat is very similar to one on one combat. The same principles and capabilities apply such as deception, using your strengths against an enemies weaknesses, intelligence (knowing the enemy) and reconnaissance (detecting the enemy before they detect you) along with fire-power (your ability to cause physical damage to an opponent).

Today I will be providing some excerpts and comments to some strategic papers I hope you find interesting.


Strategy deals with the big picture. In the context of this post, strategy deals with global security situations. Global terrorism, insurgencies and geopolitics are all things which I feel are valid areas of study for those with a passion for combative subjects.

There are many valuable and insightful organisations and think tanks which produce papers for wide dissemination to the wider public and those interested in the subject matter. I personally am interested in those regarding international conflict and security matters.

My personal favourite places I go to for interesting strategic readings are Stratfor, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and the International Crisis Group (ICG). There are others, however these are the ones I continuously go back to.

What I want to do now is provide a number of examples and excerpts of some papers I have found particularly interesting.

The Three Al Qaeda Entities

Stratfor released an excellent paper which examines Al Qaeda today and how it is structured. It argues quite correctly in my opinion that Al Qaeda basically consists of three different and distinct entities. Below is an excerpt:

Al Qaeda has evolved into three different — and distinct — entities. These include:
  1. The core vanguard group: Often referred to by STRATFOR as the al Qaeda core, al Qaeda prime or the al Qaeda apex leadership, this group is composed of Osama bin Laden and his close trusted associates. These are highly skilled, professional practitioners of propaganda, militant training and terrorism operations. This is the group behind the 9/11 attacks.
  2. Al Qaeda franchises: These include such groups as al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Although professing allegiance to bin Laden, they are independent militant groups that remain separate from the core and, as we saw in the 2005 letter from al Qaeda core leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, there can be a great deal of tension and disagreement between them and the al Qaeda core. These regional franchises vary in size, level of professionalism and operational capability.
  3. The broader grassroots jihadist movement: This group includes individuals and small cells inspired by al Qaeda but who, in most cases, have no contact with the core leadership.
Physical v Ideological Battlespaces

It goes onto say that there are basically two battlespaces. The physical battlespace and the ideological battlespace. It argues that Al Qaeda is very much on the back foot on the physical battlespace but is doing very well, and indeed is focusing on, the ideological battlespace.

It is the ideological battlespace that will continue to provide Al Qaeda with new recruits to carry out their attacks. Without the modern world winning the ideological fight, Al Qaeda will continue to exist.

It continues:
As long as the jihadists can recruit new militants, they can compensate for the losses they suffer on the physical battlefield. When they lose that ability, their struggle dies on the vine. Because of this, al Qaeda fears fatwas more than weapons. Weapons can kill people — but fatwas can kill the ideology that motivates people to fight and finance.
The paper goes on in more detail and highlights numerous cases and examples and provides further analysis on the subject.

It links in well with a newer paper that discusses the lack of any real capability from the grassroots groups due that distance from the Al Qaeda core group. The Al Qaeda core group is not directly involved in grass roots attacks so therefore cannot provide their significant operational and financial support. So such attacks lack the impact of attacks from groups more connected to the core group.
...and we have discussed its weaknesses; mainly that this larger group of dispersed actors lacks the operational depth and expertise of the core group. This means the grassroots movement poses a wider, though less severe, threat — one that, to borrow an expression, is a mile wide and an inch deep. In the big picture, the movement does not pose the imminent strategic threat that the core al Qaeda group once did.
Interesting reading and there is much more to found at Stratfor.

The 'War on Terror' should actually be a 'War on Global Insurgency'

One of the more eye opening papers I have read recently from my university studies is a paper by Dr. David Kilcullen. In it, he argues that the declared 'Global War on Terror' is not actually a terrorist movement but a new globalised radical Islamist insurgency. This is a very significant difference to highlight.

As many of you will know, counter terrorism actions are very different to counter insurgency actions as terrorism and insurgencies are quite different.

Lets look at some definitions provided by Kilcullen:

Terrorism is:
politically motivated violence against civilians, conducted with the intention to coerce through fear
Insurgency is:
a popular movement that seeks to overthrow the status quo through subversion, political activity, insurrection, armed conflict and terrorism
So we can see that the tactics used by Al Qaeda are terrorist tactics. They are attacks aimed at civilians (mostly) aimed to coerce through fear. But what of the ideology behind their attacks? A look at the definition of an insurgency fits very well into what Al Qaeda aims to achieve.

They aim to achieve an Islamic Caliphate (popular movement to overthrow status quo) and use a whole range of propaganda and physical actions to achieve it. 

Terrorism is just one of the ways in which Al Qaeda goes about fighting its insurgency.

The paper goes on to analyse in detail the above and recommends that the counterterror methodologies being actioned today by governments needs to be replaced with a robust counterinsurgency approach. The differences are significant and Kilcullen goes on to explain these in detail.

...terrorists are seen as unrepresentative aberrant individuals, misfits within society. Partly because they are unrepresentative, partly to discourage emulation, ‘we do not negotiate with terrorists’. Terrorists are criminals,
whose methods and objectives are equally unacceptable. They use violence partly to shock and influence populations and governments, but also because they are psychologically or morally flawed (‘evil’) individuals. In this paradigm, terrorism is primarily a law-enforcement problem, and we therefore adopt a case-based approach where the key objective is to apprehend the perpetrators of terrorist attacks.

Under this approach, insurgents are regarded as representative of deeper issues or grievances within society. Governments seek to defeat insurgents primarily through ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the broader population, a process that by necessity often involves compromise and negotiation...
...we see insurgents as using violence within a carefully integrated politico-military strategy, rather than as psychopaths. In this paradigm, insurgency is a whole-of-government problem rather than a military or law-enforcement issue. Based on this, we adopt a strategy-based approach to ounterinsurgency, where the key objective is to defeat or marginalise the insurgent’s strategy, rather than to ‘apprehend the perpetrators’ of specific acts.
Adding to this, counterinsurgency has traditionally been fought in only one country at a time. This new global insurgency requires new counterinsurgency tactics to be developed to combat the global nature of it.

I found the above paper to be particularly interesting reading.

Strategy = Interesting

They are excellent papers and make for very interesting reading. The above examples are just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to absorbing the significant number of interesting strategic papers available freely out there.

To find interesting papers I have found that Google is often your friend. It helps to have a particular journel in mind to include in the search, an authors name, subject name or even try clicking on the 'Scholar' link under 'more' at the top of the Google search page.

I hope that this quite different post has been of interest to you.

Image by lilit 

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  1. That is indeed an interesting progression. Taking the strategy to its logical end...

    "War on Terror" becomes
    "War on Global Insurgency" becomes
    "War on Independence" becomes
    "War on Global Freedom"

  2. Hmmm, not really sure what you are trying to say there Chris... Its sometimes hard to decipher text where we don't get to see hand gestures, facial expressions and hear the tone of voice. Could u expand on that a little?


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