on security

Why Firepower Alone Can't Destroy Jihadism

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
9 MINS READFeb 4, 2016 | 08:12 GMT
The Islamic State in Libya is a militant organization that uses terrorism, guerrilla warfare and hybrid warfare tactics in its fight to overthrow the country's existing order -- in other words, it is an insurgency.
Iraqi forces fire on remaining Islamic State positions in Fallujah, the latest city to be retaken from the Islamic State.
(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

In last week's Security Weekly, we discussed how the renewed Western and regional military intervention in Libya should be able to degrade the Islamic State's capabilities and reduce its ability to hold and govern territory. But we also noted that cobbling together a stable and viable government to rule Libya would be a far more difficult task. In general, it is much easier to break things than to build them.

There is something about the Islamic State in Libya that is important to recognize: It is not just a terrorist group. It is a militant organization that uses terrorism, guerrilla warfare and hybrid warfare tactics in its fight to overthrow the country's existing order. In other words, it is an insurgency. The group's stated goal is to assume power and establish an Islamist polity of its own design — something it has already begun to do in the city of Sirte. Of course, both the Islamic State and al Qaeda are trying to achieve the same goal at the regional and transnational levels, too, and both are waging global insurgencies with the eventual aim of bringing the entire world under the rule of a global caliphate. Given their agendas, we must examine them through the lens of insurgency theory rather than just through the lens of terrorism.

Global Ambitions, Local Scope

When the United States and its regional and European allies launch their campaign to weaken and destroy the Islamic State's Libyan wilayat, or province, their efforts must be linked to the counterinsurgency efforts in the greater Sahel and Saharan regions, as well as those in Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will also have to be conducted with local and regional counterinsurgency principles in mind, instead of being limited to targeted counterterrorism operations designed to kill only a few Islamic State leaders and fighters.

Despite the jihadist movement's intentions to become a global insurgency, its success on the ground has been inexorably bound to local conditions, making it a truly "glocal" phenomenon. It is no coincidence that from West Africa to the Hindu Kush, jihadists thrive where vacuums of authority exist and governments suffer from crises of legitimacy. And in every current, prominent jihadist theater from West Africa to the southern Philippines, there exists a lengthy history of ethnic, tribal or sectarian conflict.

To Muslims who feel, correctly or not, that they are being oppressed — whether by another religion (such as Nigeria's Christians), another sect (Syria's Alawites) or corrupt governments led by Muslim leaders who the jihadists say misinterpret Islam and do not enforce Sharia — the Islamic utopia promised by jihadist groups can be quite attractive. It is understandable how the promise of peace and harmony under a just government that practices Sharia would appeal to someone living in a corrupt, oppressive or anarchic society. Still, in places like southern Yemen and northern Mali, this allure faded quickly once theory became practice and the jihadists began to show their true natures.

Despite the jihadist movement's intentions to become a global insurgency, its success on the ground has been inexorably bound to local conditions, making it a truly 'glocal' phenomenon.

In many ways, the global jihadist movement is a lot like the global communist movement that swept across the world in the 20th century, albeit with a very different ideology. Though the idealistic paradise that communists promised was not the utopia jihadists promote today, it did inspire many groups with local grievances to conduct terrorist attacks and wage insurgencies in an attempt to foster communist revolution. In fact, the competing flavors of communism, such as Marxism, Maoism and Trotskyism, engaged in the same type of propaganda and physical battles that we are now seeing between al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Within the past century, communist movements thrived — often without any sort of external help — in places of deep inequality and oppression. But in countries with democratically elected or popular governments, communist movements struggled to find a foothold. With outside support and funding, communists in the United States and Europe eventually established terrorist cells such as the Weathermen, the Red Army Faction and the Italian Red Brigades. But although these groups killed some people and terrorized many others, they never succeeded in gaining broad appeal and instead remained small and isolated. They never grew into insurgencies, much less toppled governments. 

The same is true of today's jihadist groups. In places with democratically elected governments, across Europe and North America, jihadist organizations are small, isolated and unable to pose a serious threat. Like the communist terrorists that came before them, they, too, have killed people, but they are a far more manageable threat in areas of stability than in places like Iraq and Libya. By comparison, in places with long-standing social and political grievances, jihadists have grown strong and threaten the very foundation of governments. It's not surprising that countries like Afghanistan and Yemen have seen both communist and jihadist revolutions. In environments like these, jihadists become much more than a problem of policing or countering violent extremism; they require a concerted counterinsurgency effort using military force.

Insurgencies: Not Just a Military Problem

But military force alone is not enough to defeat an insurgency. As countless militaries have learned the hard way over the centuries, you can't quash an insurgency solely with firepower. As Americans discovered in Vietnam and Soviets realized in Afghanistan in the 20th century, employing indiscriminate violence in a way that affects civilians will in all likelihood create radicals faster than it can kill them. This principle does not apply only to foreign powers, either. The use of indiscriminate force by Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government against its population, including chemical weapons and barrel bombs, results in the same effect.

As the United States found in Vietnam, an external power can't fight an insurgency forever. At some point, the local government must take the lead — a process called "Vietnamization" by Richard Nixon's national security team. This doctrine has been frequently mentioned by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama in their attempts to build local security force capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. And at first, Bush's efforts to "Iraqi-ize" the country's counterinsurgency were successful when the Anbar sheikhs signed on to them in 2007 during the Anbar Awakening. The operations that followed gradually crippled and nearly destroyed al Qaeda in Iraq, which by that time had renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq.

However, local conditions also proved the undoing of Iraq's counterinsurgency efforts. After the United States withdrew from Iraq, the Shiite-led government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki became increasingly sectarian and reneged on nearly all of the promises it had made to the Sunni Anbar sheikhs. Sectarian tension and abuses gave the Islamic State in Iraq the room it needed to survive and thrive, as did Syria's civil war, which pitted al Assad's Alawite government against a mostly Sunni opposition. In this way, the national sectarian politics of both countries had a major global impact by fueling the Islamic State's rapid rise.

Mao Zedong once wrote that the guerrilla "must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea." In Iraq and Syria, jihadists were given plenty of room to swim, just as they are now being given the space to swim in Libya, the Sahel, Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. But they don't just swim; like a school of piranhas, they attack. These groups then entrench by recruiting, securing logistics and training new cadres. In some places, such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, they are also governing.

Therefore, any serious attempt to defeat these jihadist insurgencies must go beyond the tools of counterterrorism and instead apply the art of counterinsurgency. As we've already seen in Iraq and Yemen, even if you deal a heavy blow to a jihadist organization, it will regenerate as soon as the military pressure is lifted if underlying political problems that enabled its generation remain unaddressed. And neither the United States nor its allies have the resources or the appetite to indefinitely police every area in which jihadists operate.

In Libya, a Stable Government Is Key

This brings us back to Libya. Unless the United States and its allies can create some sort of legitimate and stable government there, the coalition can bomb the Islamic State all it wants, but it will not eradicate the group. Jihadists will be able to lay low until the coalition eases its offensive, then re-emerge. Of course, what is a stable and viable government for Libya today may be quite different from the one that many have in mind. In the past, U.S. and European efforts at state building have been inconsistent at best and outright failures at worst. Such failures have been most pronounced in attempts to impose Western values and a Western style of governance on a population that is hostile to those ideas and views them as foreign.

There is also the question of how we define what a state is, or whether the current manifestation of that state is viable. Iraq, Syria and Libya are all examples of this problem. Are these countries still viable as we think of them today, or would small states formed along ethnic, sectarian or tribal lines be more stable? Like the former Yugoslavia, each of these states is a relatively modern construct that contains deep ethnic and tribal fault lines. Similarly, they were held together by the force of a dictator, only to descend into significant turmoil once that dictator fell.

The political answer to the problems in places like Iraq, Syria and Libya may not be separation into smaller states, as it was for Yugoslavia. Instead it may be the creation of a more autonomous federal system, or perhaps something else entirely. Nor will the answer necessarily be the same for every country plagued by a jihadist insurgency. That said, one conclusion holds true for all: Until their underlying political issues are dealt with and stable governance is established, leaders won't be able to drain the water giving jihadists room to swim.

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