In an earlier column, I briefly addressed the similarities between the utopian ideology of the Islamic State and that of the global communist movement. I have also compared the counterinsurgency efforts used against the two movements in the past. But as I was writing about the structure of the Islamic State last week, I encountered more and more parallels to the global Marxist movement. This got me thinking even more intently about the similar ways that the two — despite their differences — have applied, encouraged and supported the use of violence. In light of these parallels, the lessons derived from the decades-long struggle against communism throughout the world may provide important guidance for the continuing fight against jihadism.
Different Targets, Different Tactics
Taken individually, the violent acts of Marxist or Maoist terrorist groups don't appear to hold a candle to the horrors that Islamic State or al Qaeda jihadists have visited on the world. The attacks conducted and territories seized by individual Marxist groups such as the Red Army Faction, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, the New People's Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, for instance, seem to pale in magnitude when compared with those of the Islamic State. When one views individual communist terrorist and insurgent groups as part of a larger global movement, however, the parallels with jihadism become more apparent. Undoubtedly, the Italian Red Brigade posed a lesser terrorist threat to Europe than the Islamic State does today. But combined with all the Marxist groups operating across Europe, from the Provisional Irish Republican Army and November 17 to the Red Army Faction and the Basque ETA, the threat of Marxist terrorism was every bit as severe as the threat of jihadist terrorism is now.
Of course, there are significant differences in the methods of Marxist and jihadist terrorist groups in Europe. Marxist terrorists focused their attacks mostly on symbols of the state and the international system, and they rarely staged strikes intended to create mass casualties. More interested in winning hearts and minds, Marxist terrorists did not want to harm the people they hoped to attract to their cause. So, Europe's Marxists targeted prominent politicians, industrialists and American diplomatic and military targets. When deploying large vehicle bombs, the groups often provided warnings to try to minimize civilian casualties. (Outside Europe, Marxist groups were not always so restrained when it came to targeting civilians, especially in Israel. The Japanese Red Army's 1972 assault on Israel's Lod Airport resembled the recent attack by Islamic State operatives on Istanbul's Ataturk Airport, though the Japanese Red Army operatives did not use suicide vests.)
To date, no jihadist attack in Europe has come close to rivaling the complexity of the assassination of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Brighton Hotel bombing or the assassination of Alfred Herrhausen.
At the time, these groups could go after hard targets such as the OPEC headquarters in Vienna, the German Embassy in Stockholm, or an American CIA station chief and naval attache because, for one thing, they were much easier targets than they are today. But perhaps Marxist terrorists' greatest advantage over jihadists was access to professional trainers from intelligence organizations such as the Soviet KGB, the East German Stasi and the Cuban DGI. These trainers taught professional-level courses on subjects such as surveillance, operations security, bombmaking, clandestine operations and covert travel. What's more, the highly skilled intelligence agents provided terrorist operatives with weapons, funding, and authentic or professional-grade counterfeit travel documents. Terrorists could find refuge in places such as Yugoslavia, Lebanon or Yemen. In some cases, state sponsors could supply terrorist operatives with cash, or even weapons and explosives, smuggled into the target country by way of the diplomatic pouch.
This access to training and resources gave European Marxist terrorist groups a considerable edge. In fact, I would argue that the level of terrorist tradecraft that some of them exhibited was far superior to anything we've seen from jihadist operatives or supporters in Europe. Relative to their jihadist counterparts, they excelled at planning and executing attacks. To date, no jihadist attack in Europe has come close to rivaling the complexity of the assassination of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Brighton Hotel bombing or the assassination of Alfred Herrhausen.
That the Japanese Red Army struck an Israeli target in solidarity with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine underscores the international nature of the Marxist movement. A friend of mine who is a former member of the Communist Party USA attended a Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine training camp in Jordan, where he encountered a wide array of international Marxists. The mix of foreign fighters at that camp — and at other Marxist training camps in Libya, Yemen and Lebanon — was not unlike the collection of foreign fighters one would find today at an al Qaeda or Islamic State training camp. Much as Irish Marxists taught Colombians and Filipinos how to make bombs, today Chechen and Egyptian jihadists teach Tunisians and Indonesians the tools of their trade.
The foundational concepts and precepts of communism and jihadism are obviously very different. After all, one is, on its face, a religion and the other is an atheistic economic and political system. Even so, I would suggest that jihadism is far more than a religion. Like communism, it is an ideology that governs all aspects of life, including government, economics and culture. (Likewise, I would posit that Marxism and Maoism are far closer to religions than many people realize.) Despite the huge gulf between the two ideologies, they nevertheless share several similarities. Both are fundamentally revolutionary in nature and openly embrace a struggle to supplant the existing order by violence. Both, moreover, are overtly expansionist, seeking to "liberate" all of mankind and bring people under the control of the new order they intend to create.
Like the communist movement, the jihadist movement espouses terrorism as a tool of revolution. The communists' tactics ran the gamut of military action from insurgency to conventional warfare and, as they became stronger, proxy warfare and state-sponsored terrorism. To date, the jihadists have moved up and down the military force continuum from terrorism to conventional warfare, depending on their situation and location. And by officially embracing a range of disparate insurgent and terrorist groups, al Qaeda and the Islamic State have adopted a form of proxy warfare. Both have also dispatched teams of operatives from their core organizations to conduct terrorist attacks abroad, and they have encouraged grassroots operatives to conduct terrorist attacks under the principles of leaderless resistance. But neither has yet approached the level of state sponsorship that communist states such as the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Cuba provided to communist terrorist and insurgent groups across the globe.
In today's fight against the global jihadist movement, as in last century's fight against the global communist movement, no quick and easy way to win the war exists. Communism and jihadism are both ideologies, and ideologies are much harder to kill than their proponents are. Communism outlived Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Jihadism has survived the deaths of Azzam the American, Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and it will likewise endure beyond the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the fall of the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate.
This is not to say, however, that operations on the battlefield are fruitless. The jihadists must not be allowed to amass and wield the might of a nation-state or of multiple nation-states as the communists did. Attacking the pillars of the jihadists' military and economic power is critical. The Islamic State must not be permitted to pursue its plan to take over Iraq and Syria before expanding into Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and other adjoining countries. Meanwhile, other pockets of jihadism in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia must also be kept in check.
While the Islamic State has been aggressive in proclaiming a caliphate and establishing governance over territory, the al Qaeda movement adopted a more patient, Maoist-type campaign to win local support in many areas. To combat its influence there, counterinsurgency programs must be implemented. This is perhaps the most difficult task. Dropping bombs on oil refineries or conducting unmanned aerial vehicle strikes against jihadist leaders is easy. By contrast, building strong institutions that can resist corruption and govern fairly and justly is far more difficult. The very failure to build such institutions has given rise to resurgent jihadism in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Mali.
Dropping bombs on oil refineries or conducting unmanned aerial vehicle strikes against jihadist leaders is easy. By contrast, building strong institutions that can resist corruption and govern fairly and justly is far more difficult.
For citizens of corrupt, repressive or even kleptocratic states, jihadism's utopian message resonates far more loudly — just as Marxism's did. It is no coincidence that despite their best efforts, the KGB and its affiliated intelligence services found little success in fomenting insurgencies in parts of the West with good, honest governance. The seeds that the communists planted never grew and flourished as they did in places where inept or repressive regimes held power. Unlike Nicaragua's Sandinista Liberation Front or Afghanistan's People's Democratic Party, the United States' Weather Underground Organization, Germany's Red Army Faction and Greece's November 17 remained small and isolated, never progressing up the continuum of violence from terrorism to insurgency — much less attaining power. Today, a similar dynamic is at play not only in Europe and North America but also in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, where jihadism is struggling to grow beyond small-scale terrorism despite large Muslim populations.
Over the past decade, a rift has developed in the jihadist movement between the proponents of al Qaeda’s approach to revolution and those of the Islamic State's methodology. Like the divisions in the communist movement, which arose between the Stalinists and Trotskyists of the Marxist camp and later between Marxists and Maoists, those in the jihadist movement have gone beyond ideological disagreement and have erupted into overt violence in some locations. During the Cold War, the United States and its allies managed to exploit fissures in the communist movement, such as the Sino-Soviet split, to their advantage. These schisms, along with a variety of robust international treaty organizations, helped to isolate and contain the movement's most bellicose actors and limit their ability to broaden their spheres of influence.
Just as the United States and its international partners contained the Soviet Union, they must continue their efforts to contain and defeat the Islamic State and al Qaeda cores. At the same time, they must keep working to identify and stop the terrorist operatives whom the groups are dispatching, to quell the regional insurgencies caused by franchise jihadist groups, and to pre-empt terrorist acts by grassroots jihadists. Taking these physical steps will give the ideological battle time to gain momentum. Indeed, defeating the Islamic State on the battlefield will serve to undercut the claims that it is an inexorable force blessed by Allah that facilitated the group's rise. But until the ideology of jihadism is totally discredited, it will continue to attract new recruits.