September 25, 2018


How to be militant: Diana Darke explores 'the three golden rules that militant leaders must follow to win', and why Islamic State fails (Diana Darke, 9/18/19, TLS)

[Max Abrahms, one of the world's leading experts on terrorism] set out on a mission to plug this hole, studying the tactics of hundreds of global militant groups, including the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah, the PKK, the IRA and the African National Congress. He examined the public pronouncements of leaders such as Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Mahatma Gandhi, Chairman Mao and Nelson Mandela to come up with a clear formula for success - three golden rules that militant leaders must follow to win. 1. Don't kill innocent civilians. 2. Create a highly centralized structure under a clever leader. 3. Maintain your brand through total denial when things go wrong. [...]

Abrahms's research shows that terrorism on civilians obstructs victory and is damaging to public sympathy for the cause. The IRA, for example, quickly learned this and issued warnings to minimize casualties, even apologizing to safeguard their image where blame was unavoidable. Abrahms marvels at how, by contrast, "ISIS never got the message". When its operatives publicly beheaded the US journalist James Foley in August 2014 and attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January 2015, they merely convinced both Barack Obama and François Hollande to devote their presidencies to crushing them. When IS began terrorist attacks against innocent tourists inside Turkey, President Erdoğan changed tack from allowing jihadists to cross into Syria to join the extremists and instead granted US planes permission to bomb them from Turkey's İncirlik airbase. By July 2017 the US-led coalition had virtually destroyed the caliphate and killed 60,000-70,000 IS fighters in the largest counter-terrorism campaign the world has ever assembled. Yet, as Abrahms marvels, "think-tank pundits spent years extolling the strategic genius of Islamic State for blowing up random victims in soccer stadiums, markets, rock concerts and nightclubs etc". In practice IS lost political credibility and sympathy among mainstream Muslims by demonstrating that "the path to the golden age of Islam is to be paved with viciousness and gore".

Up to 80 per cent of jihadists, Abrahms tells us, have been assessed by scholars as being "largely ignorant about Islam". Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself only turned to Islamic theology when he failed to get the grades to study law. An analysis on al-Qaeda operatives in the West found that "they went to bars and frequented prostitutes more often than they went to the mosque". A report on foreign fighters in Syria found that they tended to be "thrill-seekers" looking for adventure in an arena where they felt they had impunity. The Briton Mohammed Emwazi, aka Jihadi John, achieved his notoriety through videotaping his beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers; his "gruesome acts" led to him getting killed by drone in November 2015 and were "deeply counterproductive" for IS. Their decentralized leadership ensured "a lower quality fighter". Al-Baghdadi violated all the rules for rebels, with his "modus operandi of decentralised carnage".

Hezbollah's techniques, on the other hand, under its canny long-time secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, have been highly successful. The group has gradually become the key player in Lebanon's government, thanks to its centralized, hierarchical structure, giving clear instructions to its fighters from the top. Its leaders also invested a full year in teaching each recruit "the ideological goals of Hezbollah" so that each knew what he was fighting for. If an attack caused heavy civilian casualties, the leadership resorted to a denial of involvement. "Strategic dunces" like al-Baghdadi claimed organizational responsibility for everything, "thereby ensuring the world coalesced against them".

If blame is inescapable, Nasrallah has tended to make public apologies to minimize the PR fallout, as in the summer of 2006 when Hezbollah rocket fire killed two Israeli-Arab children in Nazareth. "I apologize to this family", he said on Al-Jazeera, "we consider them martyrs for Palestine." The many tables and figures Abrahms uses to validate his research provide clear evidence for what works and what doesn't.

The success of the Irgun, ANC, IRA, Hezbollah, etc. and the failure of Al Qaeda, ISIS, etc. are also tied directly to the extent to which their stated goals implicate Western ideals, giving them legitimacy.  Violence on behalf of democratic self-determination is not terrorism.  Violence on behalf of illiberal authoritarianism/totalitarianism is.  

Posted by at September 25, 2018 4:25 AM