By Scott Stewart
Editor's Note: The following is the second installment of a series examining the global jihadist movement. Click here for Part 1.
Last week's Security Weekly was the first in a series of analyses intended to gauge the current status of the jihadist movement. The introduction to the first part discussed the two standards that will be used to assess the jihadist movement. The first scale is the goals and objectives of the movement itself and the second gauge is insurgent and terrorist theory. An analysis of the jihadists' goals noted that almost all jihadists — whether they are transnational or nationalist in ideology — seek to establish an Islamic polity along the lines of a medieval emirate. This goal is not only a matter of rhetoric, but action — several jihadist groups have attempted to establish emirates. Once established, the emirate would be ruled under an extremely austere interpretation of Sharia, as seen in Afghanistan under the Taliban, which was the first jihadist emirate. Transnational jihadists also seek to expand beyond the creation of an emirate to re-establish the caliphate.
Insurgency is armed rebellion, and militant organizations waging insurgencies will often utilize terrorism as a tool in that rebellion. There are many conflicting definitions of terrorism, but for our purposes we will loosely define it as politically motivated violence against noncombatants. By definition, all insurgencies employ violence, but not all of them employ terrorism. Therefore, while the two concepts are often complementary, they are not synonymous. In the specific case of the jihadist movement, we have seen them utilize terrorism as an element of their various insurgent campaigns. However, in order to fully understand them, we must approach these two complementary concepts — and the theory behind them — separately.
This week's security weekly will examine insurgent theory and terrorism theory to see how they can be used to measure the jihadist movement.
Insurgency, the Long War
Insurgency, sometimes called guerrilla warfare or irregular warfare, has been practiced for centuries in a variety of different regions and by a number of actors from different cultures. One of these historical examples was the Prophet Mohammed, who is seen by the jihadists as a model for their military campaigns. After Mohammed left Mecca and established the first Islamic polity in Medina, his forces began to conduct asymmetrical military operations against their stronger Meccan foes, attacking their commercial caravans and conducting hit-and-run attacks until they were able to amass the power necessary to conquer Mecca and expand the Islamic state to include a large section of the Arabian Peninsula.
In the 20th century, insurgent theory was codified by leaders such as Russia's Vladimir Lenin, China's Mao Zedong, Vietnam's General Vo Nguyen Giap and Latin America's Che Guevara. But at its core, the theory is based on the historic concepts of declining battle when the enemy has superior forces and attacking at a time and place where the insurgents can mass sufficient forces to strike where the enemy is weak. The insurgents take a long view of the armed struggle and seek to survive and fight another day rather than allowing themselves to be fixed and destroyed by their enemy. They may lose some battles, but if they cause losses for their enemy, forcing them to expend men and resources disproportionately while remaining alive themselves to continue the insurgency, it is a victory for them. Time is on the side of the insurgent in an asymmetrical style of battle, and they hope that a long war will serve to exhaust and demoralize their enemy.
There are varying conceptual differences between figures such as Mao, Lenin and Guevara regarding how to best advance a given political situation in order to strengthen an insurgent's position and recruit forces. For example, Mao believed in extensive political preparation among the peasant citizenry before launching an armed struggle. In contrast, Guevara believed that a small vanguard (or foco) of guerrillas could begin to conduct attacks without extensive political priming and that the armed struggle itself could shape public opinion and raise popular support for the cause. These differences are largely based upon what worked in a specific insurgency situation. However, looking at the bigger picture, all insurgent theorists promote the concept of insurgent leaders working to build their military forces so that they can engage in progressively larger military engagements while simultaneously degrading their enemy's capabilities. Starting with small-scale attacks (sometimes utilizing terrorism), they want to move up from hit-and-run raids to conventional combat, eventually seeking to achieve military parity and then superiority with the enemy so that they can conquer and hold territory.
In the case of an insurgency against a foreign occupier, it is not always necessary to follow this progression and achieve military parity with them. Local insurgents invariably have superior intelligence as well as the advantage of fundamental interest. Put another way, a foreign occupier nearly always has less interest in a particular piece of territory than the locals who call it home. If the insurgents resist long enough and cause enough expenditure of blood and treasure, often the occupier can be forced to leave, even if the insurgents are taking disproportionately heavier casualties.
As noted above, the jihadists seek to emulate what they believe to be the pattern of the Prophet Mohammed and his followers, who progressed from caravan raids, to irregular warfare, to the capture of Mecca and eventually the formation of a vast empire conquered and realized by conventional military forces.
Given insurgent theory and the example of Mohammed, we are in a position to look at the various jihadist groups and gauge their current status — and more important, their trajectory — based upon their stage of insurgency. Has the group progressed from small-scale attacks to irregular warfare? Have they regressed? Have they conquered and held territory? Have they lost it?
Terrorism tends to be a tool of the weak. It is often used as a way to conduct armed conflict against a militarily stronger enemy when the organization launching the armed struggle is not yet at a stage where insurgent or conventional warfare is viable. Marxist, Maoist and Focoist groups often seek to use terrorism as the first step in an armed struggle. In some ways, al Qaeda also followed a type of Focoist vanguard strategy by using terrorism to shape public opinion and raise popular support for their cause. Terrorism can also be used to supplement insurgency or conventional warfare when it is employed to keep the enemy off balance and distracted, principally by conducting strikes against vulnerable targets in the enemy's rear. The Afghan Taliban employ terrorism in this manner. Such attacks against "soft" targets require a disproportionate allocation of resources to defend against. While costly in terms of materiel and manpower, such an allocation is absolutely necessary if the security forces wish to prevent the targeted population from feeling terrorized.
Used as a tool by any organization conducting an armed struggle — whether that organization is Marxist, Maoist or jihadist — terrorist attacks are most effective when employed in a manner that is guided by an overarching strategy, one that seeks to achieve the organization's military (and ultimately political) objectives. Because of this, a hierarchical organizational structure, with direct lines of command and control, is the best model for terrorists to use in a perfect world — as it is for any military organization for that matter. However, conditions on the ground often prohibit the use of a hierarchical organization, the most significant inhibitor in the field being the aggressiveness of security forces.
In a location where the security forces are weak and disorganized, it is quite possible for terror groups to utilize a hierarchical command model. But in places where the security forces are competent and aggressive, the terrorists' job is harder. A proficient security force can become quite successful at collecting intelligence on a militant organization, perhaps even to the extent of penetrating the organization with agents, or developing informants from within. Such intelligence operations permit the security forces to quickly identify and round up members of the group, using their own established hierarchy as a targeting framework.
Practicing good operational security can help a militant organization protect itself from the intelligence collection efforts of the security forces, but those measures can only go so far. If the security forces are capable and aggressive, they can still find ways to infiltrate the organization. One way militant groups have countered such aggressive intelligence efforts is to move away from a hierarchical configuration and toward a cellular structure in which small teams or cells work independently and do not have links to each other.
In some organizations, the cells can be totally independent and self-contained operationally, conducting all their activities internally based on direction received from their central command. Other organizations will employ functional cells that conduct the different sorts of tasks required for a terrorist operation. In such an operational model, there might be finance and logistics cells, command cells, bomb-making cells, propaganda cells, recruitment cells, surveillance cells, assault cells and so on. The idea is that if one cell is compromised, the damage will be contained and will not allow the authorities to identify the entire organization. But still, these various cells are linked by a common command element and directed in their operations.
However, even cellular organizations are vulnerable to intelligence penetration. Because of this fact, some terrorist theorists have proposed an operational model called leaderless resistance, in which independent cells and individuals conduct attacks without direction from a central command.
The concept of leaderless resistance is really quite old, but its modern form was perhaps best articulated and documented by a series of American white supremacist leaders following the 1988 Fort Smith Sedition Trial. While the 13 white supremacist leaders charged in the Fort Smith case were eventually acquitted, testimony and evidence from that trial demonstrated that the white supremacist movement had been heavily infiltrated by American law enforcement agencies. Some of the leaders of those penetrated groups began to advocate leaderless resistance as a way to avoid heavy government intelligence activity.
In 1989, William Luther Pierce, the leader of a neo-Nazi group called the National Alliance and one of the Fort Smith defendants, published a fictional book under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald titled Hunter, which dealt with the exploits of a fictional lone wolf named Oscar Yeager. Pierce dedicated the book to convicted serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin and he clearly intended it to serve as an inspiration and model for lone-wolf operatives. Pierce's earlier book, The Turner Diaries, was based on a militant operational theory involving a clandestine organization, while Hunter represented a distinct break from that approach. (Coincidentally, Franklin was executed by the state of Missouri as this article was being written.)
In 1990, Richard Kelly Hoskins, an influential "Christian Identity" ideologue, published a book titled Vigilantes of Christendom in which he introduced the concept of the "Phineas Priesthood." According to Hoskins, a Phineas Priest is a lone-wolf militant chosen by God and set apart to be God's "agent of vengeance" upon the earth. Phineas Priests also believe their attacks will serve to ignite a wider "racial holy war" that will ultimately lead to the salvation of the white race.
In 1992, another of the Fort Smith defendants, former Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam, published an essay in his magazine The Seditionist that provided a detailed roadmap for moving the white hate movement toward the leaderless resistance model. Beam's roadmap called for lone wolves and small "phantom" cells to engage in violent action to protect themselves from detection.
The leaderless resistance model was advocated not only by the American far right though. Influenced by their anarchist roots, left-wing extremists also moved in the phantom direction and movements such as the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front adopted operational models that were very similar to the leaderless-resistance doctrine prescribed by Beam.
Upon seeing the success the United States and its allies were having against the al Qaeda core and the wider jihadist network following 9/11, jihadist military theoretician Abu Musab al-Suri began to promote a leaderless resistance model for jihadists in late 2004. This was based on the jihadist concept of individual jihad. As if to prove his own point about the dangers of maintaining a high profile and communicating with other jihadists, al-Suri was reportedly captured in November 2005 in Pakistan. It is believed that he was released from prison in Syria in late 2011 or early 2012.
Al-Suri's concept of leaderless resistance was embraced by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al Qaeda franchise group in Yemen, in 2009. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula called for this type of strategy in both its Arabic-language media and its English-language magazine, Inspire, which published long excerpts of al-Suri's theories pertaining to individual jihad. The magazine also endeavored to equip aspiring do-it-yourself jihadists with practical material, such as bomb-making instructions. Inspire's bomb-making directions have been used in a number of plots, including the Boston Marathon Bombing.
In 2010, the al Qaeda core also embraced the idea, with U.S.-born spokesman Adam Gadahn echoing the call for Muslims to adopt the leaderless resistance model.
However, in the jihadist realm, as in the white-supremacist realm before it, the shift to leaderless resistance is an admission of weakness rather than a sign of strength. Jihadists recognized that they have been extremely limited in their ability to successfully attack the West. And while jihadist groups openly welcomed recruits in the past, they are now telling them it is too dangerous to travel because of the steps taken by the United States and its allies to combat the transnational terrorist threat. The advice is that they should instead conduct attacks in the Western countries where they live.
The net result is that we can use terrorist theory as a way to measure the status of a particular jihadist group. Are they able to operate as a hierarchical organization, or do they have to work in a cellular structure? Can they project their power by conducting attacks across transnational boundaries, or is their reach confined to a specific city, country or region?
Next week we will apply these measures of insurgent and terrorism theory to a variety of jihadist groups. By also incorporating the objectives of the jihadist movement (as examined in part one of this series) as a benchmark, we will be able to see exactly where these groups stand in relation to each other and interrogate their relative condition and status.