Boko Haram

Contemporary terrorism perpetrated by radical militants who self-identify as Muslims constitutes not only a police problem and a military problem (which of the two it is, or properly ought to be, is itself a matter of debate), but it is also a social problem and a political problem. Recent spectacular terrorist attacks — for example, the Peshawar school massacre, the massacre of staff at the Magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and an attack on Kukawa by Boko Haram that may have resulted in 2,000 killed — show this sociopolitical problem in an especially glaring light.

Europe in particular faces a problem in how to respond, and, as I wrote above, this is as much a social and political problem about the response to Islamic terrorism as it is a police or military response. Politicians would be greatly relieved if something so socially problematic could be carefully circumscribed as a police matter without wider social consequences, but this illusion cannot be sustained. Sustaining the illusion does not address the underlying problem, but allows it to fester and to grow from a problem into a crisis. It is better to address the problem when it is still a problem, albeit a thankless problem.

An organization in Germany, Pegida (Patriotische Europaer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) has been organizing demonstrations to protest what it calls the Islamization of Europe, and these demonstrations have been met by larger counter-demonstrations intended to frame Pegida as a xenophobic, right wing fringe movement. The counter-demonstrations against Pegida have been organized by government bodies, and cannot be characterized the spontaneous outpourings of grassroots German sentiment. In other words, we see here Europe wrestling with his own demons from its past. The political leadership of Europe is painfully aware of Germany’s Nazi past, and they are willing to go to considerable lengths to avoid targeting a minority that could be used as scapegoat for public discontent. The situation is similar in France, having its own and different demons from the past. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, French President Hollande said, “Those who committed these acts have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.”

Elite opinion in Europe is at one — the same message comes from the governments and major media outlets — that spectacular terrorist attacks committed by self-identifying Muslims are not to be attributed to Islam nor to the presence of Muslims in Europe (at present, about five million or 7.5% of the population in France, four million or 5% of the population in Germany, and three million or 5% of the population in the UK). However, this unity of elite opinion comes at a cost, and with a danger. Recently in The Technocratic Elite I wrote about the yawning divide between those who hold power and those who are subject to power in the contemporary industrialized nation-state. When elite opinion is perfectly unified, it looks contrived and controlled by the public. Moreover, anyone who speaks out against unified elite opinion is immediately cast in the role of a lone outsider who is speaking unwelcome truth to power. This in itself is a powerful rhetorical position, and those who would protest the influence of Islam and Islamic values in Europe willingly take on the mantle. Elite opinion would probably prove itself to be more effective if it allowed for some latitude, and co-opted the most radical voices by giving them an official outlet.

The problem of elite opinion in Europe is partly the above-mentioned demons of Europe’s past, which suggest the ever-present possibility of plunging into another savage conflict with genocidal overtones (as the Europeans tend to do every century or two), and also partly a result of the fact that the nation-state system has its origins in Europe and it is in Europe that the nation-state is still strongest. That is to say, the political entities that constitute Europe are states based on a national ethnic identity, and despite the attempts by Europe to constitute their contemporary states as diverse liberal democracies, they are nothing like the nation-states of the western hemisphere. Identity matters in Europe. Anyone can become an American. Almost no one can become a German, a Frenchman, or an Italian unless you are born to it. Elite opinion knows this, but still attempts to put a brave face on a pluralistic, diverse, and democratic society.

The larger background to this problem is the demographic imbalance between Europe and its Islamic neighbors. European populations are static or falling, while the population of neighboring Islamic nation-states are growing. Conflict in these Islamic nation-states creates refugees, and the attempt to maintain the facade upon which elite opinion trades in order to maintain its legitimacy requires that Europe take in refugees from anywhere in the world (to “prove” they are not racist or xenophobic). These burgeoning Islamic populations can easily send millions into Europe without affecting population growth in their nation-states of origin. These refugees have no interest in assimilating into European society, and even if they did have an interest, European society cannot realistically pretend that Muslims from North Africa, Arabia, or Mesopotamia can pass as Europeans.

This is not the first time that this has happened in the Old World. If you visit the cities around the Mediterranean Basin, which was once all the Roman Empire, you will find classical temples and Christian churches with contemporary Muslim populations flowing around them like a stream flows around ancient rocks embedded in its course. In some small towns on the coast of Turkey, you can literally find rock cut tombs preserved in the middle of streets, with traffic flowing around them — a reminder of a world that is now utterly lost. Europe knows this story as well as anyone, and even if elite opinion cannot speak of it in public, the idea of the great monuments of European civilization surrounded by a alien population with a different tradition of civilization cannot be far below the surface.

What is to be done? Can elite opinion, steadfastly maintained by elite discipline, allow Europe to negotiate these troubled waters and continue to put a brave face on a politically impossible situation? After all, everything in life is mere temporizing if you look at things in the long term. Europe can temporize a bit longer — for a few hundred years, or a few thousand years. The Europeans are good at this, as the example of Byzantium demonstrates (though the Byzantines were mostly Greek, and Greece is not now in a position to assert its rule over even a rump of Europe). If you can temporize longer than anyone else, you have done all that can be expected of any political entity.

And what of grassroots opinion in Europe? Do we even know what it is? The efficacy of elite discipline in Europe shrouds public opinion in euphemisms that prevent it from being expressed in the ugly forms it took under twentieth century fascism. If elite opinion capitulated to the masses, what would the result be? We don’t know. The post-WWII period in Europe has been so effective in De-Nazification and re-education that we do not know at present that Europeans would do if not guided by the liberal internationalist vision of elite opinion. If elite opinion fell away, would we instantly see an anti-Islamic Kristallnacht unleashed in Berlin, Paris, Rome, London, and Copenhagen? Would we see the beginnings of a new holy war between East and West?

I have several times discussed the views of Reza Aslan on Islamic terrorism as a form of cosmic warfare. Unlike French President Hollande and most public figures of elite opinion, Aslan openly acknowledges that Islamic terrorists are inspired by religious zeal, but maintains that the only way to win a cosmic war is not to fight it. However, as I have observed, one may get dragged into a cosmic war against one’s will. The eschatological dimension of human experience cannot be avoided. If we pretend it does not exist, others will foist it upon us — sometimes in the form of a massacre (cf. my post Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception).

Sam Harris, like Reza Aslan, frankly recognizes the religious roots of Islamic terrorism and has discussed this unmentionable fact (unmentionable, that is, for elite opinion) of Islamic terrorism repeatedly, claiming that Islam as a religion is uniquely well-adapted for inspiring suicidal terrorism. I’m not sure if Harris has any solution other than to imagine a world without religion, so that, presumably, advancing programs of secularization might be on the table. However, such top-down measures are vulnerable to all of the same problems that how beset elite opinion in Europe. Sometimes it seems as though the more well-intentioned a policy is, the more likely it is to be denounced as malign social engineering.

The critics of Sam Harris, especially in the Arab world, have noted his Jewish background (a fact unmentionable in other contexts) and his lack of criticism of Israel (a religiously-constituted nation-state, presumably an appropriate target for someone like Harris), more or less assimilating Harris’ position to an anti-Islamic prejudice. But Harris is right that there has been no outpouring of revulsion from the Muslim masses over repeated spectacular terrorist attacks by self-identifying Muslims shouting “Allāhu Akbar” as they kill innocent children. You will not often find the governments of Islamic nation-states organizing protests against the killing of Christians in the way that anti-Pegida activists are organizing protests against protests against Muslims.

The problem of Islamic terrorism is not going to go away any time soon. Elite opinion, not only in Europe but the world over, is careful to dissociate such terrorist acts from Islam, but does so at the cost of its intellectual integrity. There are approaches like that of Reza Aslan and Sam Harris that possess intellectual integrity, but appeal as little to mass opinion and mass man as does elite opinion. Elite opinion at least has the virtue of being fired in a political crucible that makes it credible as a mass movement, even if it lacks grassroots appeal. At the grassroots level, we really don’t have any good, non-politicized data to form a judgment as to what might occur if elite opinion capitulated to popular opinion.

The one thing of which we can be certain is the fear. There is the fear of what will become of Europe as European populations dwindle and Muslim populations expand. There is the fear of what will happen if popular sentiment against Muslims living in Europe gets out of hand. There is the fear of what becomes of Western civilization if Europe becomes Islamicized, however slowly and gradually. There is the fear on the part of Muslims of the influence of Western civilization and Western ways upon Islamic civilization. There is the fear of Muslim residents in Europe and elsewhere beyond the Islamic world of what will become of their lives as coreligionists conduct massacres that causes them to live under a cloud of suspicion. There is the fear that civil wars in Nigeria and Syria will spread instability to other parts of the globe. There is a surfeit of fear in the world today, and perhaps this is a sign that it is the fear we should address and is perhaps the most tractable of this cluster of intractable problems.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

sarajevo postcard

Assassination in Sarajevo

There is something horrifically appropriate in the fact that the trigger for the First World War exactly one hundred years ago today was an act of terrorism. By the end of the twentieth century terrorism would again be a trigger for global events, but in the meantime the largest wars in planetary history were fought as symmetrical contests between peer or near-peer nation-states, and then the non-war, non-peace of the Cold War involved an ongoing contest between two power blocs that dominated the international system. Terrorism kicked off global industrialized war, and now since peer-to-peer global conflict has all but disappeared, terrorism is once again a power in the world, after being submerged by much larger and more systematic forms of violence. Terrorism has come into its own again, so that the assassination in Sarajevo appears not only as the momentous trigger of the first global industrialized war, but also has a foreshadowing of the world that would follow the long sequence of global wars of the twentieth century. We could, with some justification, call the twentieth century the Second Hundred Years’ War.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, with an elephant he shot in Ceylon. The Archduke was an avid hunter, so there is something of poetic justice in himself becoming the hunted.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, with an elephant he shot in Ceylon. The Archduke was an avid hunter, so there is something of poetic justice in himself becoming the hunted.

Before the First World War there had been smaller, regional industrialized wars. The American Civil War, with its use of rifled guns and artillery, the Gatling gun, and ironclads was an early glimpse of what was to come. The War of the Pacific (1879-1883) was another prescient conflict, as it may be thought of as the first “resource” war — it was also called the “Saltpetre War,” and demonstrated that nation-states would go to war to secure essential resources for their industries. Most demonstrative of all was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Its use of machine guns (the Maxim gun was invented in 1884) and the Battle of Tsushima between steel battleships, in which wireless telegraphy played an important role, foreshadowed the kind of warfare that would typify the twentieth century. (American President Teddy Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth, which brought the war to an end.)

Gavrilo Princip postcard or dopisna karta published by Jakob Kappon in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, post-World War I, circa late 1920s, early 1930s. Printed by SHS Jugoslavija Zagreb. P. B. 4.

Gavrilo Princip postcard or dopisna karta published by Jakob Kappon in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, post-World War I, circa late 1920s, early 1930s. Printed by SHS Jugoslavija Zagreb. P. B. 4.

Despite these earlier intimations of industrialized warfare, the First World War was unprecedented in scope, scale, and catastrophic consequences. Millions died; empires fell; and a new way of war became inescapable. Any belligerent who persisted with outdated weaponry or tactics was not merely defeated in battle, but his social and political institutions were likely to be annihilated. Imperial Germany, Tsarist Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were all annihilated in a war they made possible. Global colonial empires were activated both to open new and distant fronts, as well as to bring colonial troops to Europe to witness the civilized Europeans at their most savage. After a long period of relative stability, the world was rapidly turned upside down, and in four years’ time the decisive break with the past had been made. Everyone knew that there was no going back. How could the assassination of one marginal man by another marginal man in a marginal provincial city be the trigger for the first global industrialized war?

Minutes before the assassination...

Minutes before the assassination…

In a relatively stable international system, wars almost by definition erupt only on the margins of the most advanced political institutions, and the more stable these institutions, and the longer lived, the further outward the margins are pushed, until the margins of the most advanced political powers are pushed into a region that has never benefited from the stability. The Balkans, always on the periphery of Europe but never one of the great centers of European civilization (at least, not since Periclean Athens), met this condition almost perfectly. Still largely rural, poor, and undeveloped, the peoples of the Balkans were nevertheless exposed to the most advanced ideas of Europe, and nationalism was one of the most powerful of these ideas. The idea of nationalism, and of a nation-state as the political expression of nationalism, was inflammatory in the ethnic mixture of the Balkans. The quotes that can be cited in relation to the Balkans are all so perfect that it is difficult to choose among them. Otto von Bismarck predicted, “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” And, in explanation of why this should be so, Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” Sarajevo was, in a sense, at the center of this periphery, and we should, like Bismarck, expect an incident in such a place to be the source of instability in an otherwise stable international system.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in state

Aged Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph had already lost his son and heir to a spectacular and scandalous suicide, and had to turn to the unpromising Franz Ferdinand as his heir. Though not the first choice in the succession to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand took to the role as well as anyone might be expected to step into such a role. Although often described as something of a dullard (similar things were said of the last Russian Tsar, also soon to be shot), Franz Ferdinand was in fact a reformer, and it is impossible to imagine how different the twentieth century would have been if there had been no First World War, if Franz Ferdinand has ascended to the Dual Monarchy, and had been in a position to put his reforms into practice, dragging the reluctant Hapsburg Empire into the modern world without requiring the sacrifice of millions (starting with the heir to the throne himself) for this to happen. Precisely because Franz Ferdinand was in a position to influence the fate of the Hapsburg Empire, a strike at the Archduke was an existential threat to everything that empire represented — as it turned out, a successful existential threat, which, by striking the monarchy itself, decapitated the empire. Thus while authors have competed with each other to describe Franz Ferdinand in unflattering terms, he was the crucial man in the Hapsburg Empire, and not the marginal figure he is sometimes made out to be.

The 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were riding at the time of their assassination on 28 June 1914.

The 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were riding at the time of their assassination on 28 June 1914.

Gavrilo Princip was a committed terrorist, i.e., a man who was prepared to kill and to die for ideological reasons. In other words, Gavrilo Princip was the prototype, the progenitor, and the model of a type of figure that would become increasingly common in the twentieth century, and who is still common in our time. Ideologically motivated terrorism requires an inscrutable synthesis of individualism and self-sacrifice that could not have been produced before the industrial revolution, and the conditions for producing the type in any number only came to full fruition in the twentieth century, with its mass societies of millions and its rising living standards that encouraged even the lowliest to think that they could leave their mark upon history. History was no longer beyond the reach of the ordinary man: history had become personal. A similar sentiment was expressed by a very different spirit, Rupert Brooke, in his poem Peace: “Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour.” Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand, and Gavrilo Princip were all together matched to their hour, and the confluence of these three meant that the global industrial-technological civilization taking shape at that time should be crucially shaped by global industrialized warfare.

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Hearts and Minds

21 December 2013



“…what could be more excusable than violence to bring about the triumph of the cause of oppressed right?”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Gerald E. Bevan, Part 2, Chapter 4

How are hearts and minds to be won? And how are they lost? These are questions that have become central to the practice of war in our time. In an age of declining peer-to-peer conflict the military environment is increasingly that of asymmetrical warfare, and there is a tension in the environment of asymmetrical warfare between the methods necessary to wage and to win a counter-insurgency and the methods necessary to win the hearts and minds of the people for whom insurgents claim to be waging an armed struggle.

Not only do we live in an age of declining peer-to-peer conflict and increasing asymmetrical warfare, but we also live in of age of popular sovereignty. In an age of unquestioned popular sovereignty, winning the hearts and minds of the people (or losing them) has not only immediate practical consequences but also far-reaching political and ideological ramifications that cannot be ignored. Terrorism today cannot be cleanly separated from insurgency, and insurgency cannot be cleanly separated from the ideal of national self-determination and popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty means that the hearts and minds of the people rule the state, so that winning or losing hearts and minds is the difference between decreasing or increasing incidents of terrorism. Thus the question of hearts and minds becomes a question of terrorism.

Terrorism — especially terrorism occurring in the context of an insurgency — is one of the great security issues of our time, and the causes and motivations of terrorism constitute one of the great sociological problems of our time. Why do people commit acts of terrorism? What do they hope to gain by the use of terror? Who becomes a terrorist? How do terrorists understand their actions, and how are these actions understood by others? (Some of my earliest blog posts here were concerned with the subject of terrorism — The Future of Terrorism and Terrorism and the evolution of technology — as I had at that time recently read Caleb Carr’s Lessons of Terror — and I have continued to occasionally post on terrorism, as in The Apotheosis of Terrorism.)

The self-understanding and self-justification of the terrorism typically takes the form of an elaborate and detailed extremist ideology, and this extremist ideology is usually found in the context of a broader ideological tradition, of which the violent militant’s faction is a refined and carefully crafted set of beliefs that hangs together coherently and provides an explanation for all things, including the necessity of terrorism and militancy. Often, but not always, this extremist ideology is a set of religious beliefs specific to a particular religious community, in which the ethnic and social community is indistinguishable from the ideological community; in other words, there is an identification of a people with a set of beliefs that define this people. Not all of the people within this community may assent to extremist militancy, but most are likely to assent to the religious ideology that provides the identity of the people.

One of the themes that appears repeatedly in the work of Sam Harris is that religious moderates provide cover for religious extremists, so while religious moderates don’t commit ghastly crimes in the name of religion, they implicitly facilitate ghastly crimes committed in the name of religion. Here is the passage in The End of Faith where Harris introduces this theme:

“…people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused. One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance — born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God — is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.”

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005

For Harris, religious moderation is not a welcome respite from fanaticism, but a pretext for reasonable people who are vague about their religious beliefs to make excuses for unreasonable people who are clear and unambiguous about their religious beliefs. Ideological moderation provides cover for ideological extremism, and ideological extremism provides cover for militancy. I haven’t read anything In Harris’ work in which he identifies this as a principle, but it is a principle, and, like many principles conceived to explain some particular aspect of the world, it can be generalized as a explanation across many other aspects of the world.

Thus in the same spirit of Harris’ principle that religious moderates provide cover for religious extremists, we can generalize this principle such that ideological moderates of any kind, subscribing to any set of (vaguely held) beliefs, provide cover for ideological extremists who are willing to put their beliefs into practice in an uncompromising form. I will call this the principle of facilitating moderation, since, according to the principle, moderates facilitate the beliefs and actions of extremists. This, as we shall see, is the great stumbling block in winning hearts and minds.

The generalization of Harris’ principle from religion to any ideology whatsoever makes it easier to understand extremist ideologies like communism and fascism (or even simple nationalism) in terms of the same principle without having to argue that such non-religious ideologies are surrogate religions. (I do not disagree with this argument; I have, in fact, made this argument in Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization, but I also know that many people reject the idea of religious surrogates, and as this is not necessary to the argument in the present case, I need not make that argument here in order to make my point.)

Another theme that appears repeatedly in Sam Harris’ lectures is that different religions are adaptable to a greater or lesser extent to being transformed into a suicide cult; some religions are very easily exapted to this end, while others are not at all easily exapted to this end. (Harris makes this point repeatedly in his lectures, but I did not find this explicit argument in his books.) In other words, not all religions are alike in the danger than they pose as pretexts for violent militancy, and Harris goes on to explicitly single out Islam as especially vulnerable to being exapted for violent militancy.

It is a moral “softball” to discuss Islamic suicide terrorism, as this is a topic on which almost all Westerners are in a agreement. It is more morally problematic — and therefore perhaps will better challenge us to sharpen our formulations — if we consider the relative peaceableness of Buddhists and their institutional representatives — a group which Harris explicitly singles out as much less likely to engage in religiously-motivated militancy than Muslims. The way to make intellectual progress is to take a problem at its hardest point and to seek the solution there, avoiding easy answers that cannot hold up in extreme circumstances. (Does this make me an intellectual extremist? Perhaps so.)

Harris contends that it would be much more difficult to transform Buddhism into a suicide cult than Islam, and I want to explicitly say that I do not disagree with this, but… one of the most powerful moments in the Viet Nam war that demonstrated that the US was not only not winning hearts and minds, but was rather disastrously losing them by its support of the Ngô Đình Diệm government, was when Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death in Saigon in 1963 to protest the treatment of Buddhists by the government of Ngô Đình Diệm. While the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức harmed no one but himself, it would be difficult to imagine a more “inflammatory” symbol of political protest (and please forgive me for that unfortunate formulation).

It would be difficult to identify self-immolation as anything other than an act of extremism, and it is ideological extremism that motivates ideological militancy. Buddhist monks who protest by self-immolation (and there have been many) represent an extreme form of violence, though as violence turned against oneself it causes no direct harm to others. In practical politics, however, spectacular violence toward oneself — a category that includes suicide bombings — may have the same effect as spectacular violence toward others. Buddhist monks who have spent a lifetime in meditation on the human condition should know well the reaction of the ordinary person to such a spectacle, and it is not likely to be peaceful.

The act of violence in the context of a mostly non-violent community, which latter seeks only to retain its identity and to go about with the ordinary business of life, presents a fundamental problem for counter-insurgency. In any effort to win hearts and minds it is essential to distinguish between those who assent to a given ideology, no matter how extreme, but who make no effort to engage in an armed struggle (or to aid and support such an armed struggle) and those who do engage in militancy, acting upon calls for violent intervention. Terrorism follows from militancy, and militancy follows from extremism, but if strong ideological views are tarred with the same brush as militancy there is the danger of pushing peaceful ideologues over the threshold of militancy and joining in armed struggle.

Most people, no matter how strongly they believe in a given ideology, do not engage in militant action but are willing to work within the established framework of society to attain their ends. Such individuals, and the groups that represent them and speak on their behalf, must not be alienated in any counter-insurgency campaign. On the contrary, they must be cultivated. It is this moderate majority whose hearts and minds must be won if peace is to be established and militants marginalized.

However, it is also this moderate majority that, according to the principle of facilitating moderation, make it possible for extremist ideology and militant groups motivated by extremist ideology to persist. And if the moderate majority are alienated, they are likely, at the very minimum, to give their support to violent militants. Chairman Mao, who came to power through guerrilla warfare and knew a thing or two about it, famously said that, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” In other words, Mao clearly understood the principle of facilitating moderation, given that the guerrilla is the militant who moves among moderates who support and sustain him. Some alienated moderates may also pass beyond disaffection and support of violent militants and may become active militants themselves.

The inherent tension in the relationship between the non-violent majority and the violent minority who turn to militancy is held in check by a shared vision of the world, the common ideology of militant and non-militant, and this means that while individuals may disagree on ways and means, they are likely to agree on the end in view. I wrote about this previously, coming from a slightly different angle, in Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception:

Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted for grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.

Sam Harris makes a similar point:

“In our dialogue with the Muslim world, we are confronted by people who hold beliefs for which there is no rational justification and which therefore cannot even be discussed, and yet these are the very beliefs that underlie many of the demands they are likely to make upon us.”

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005

This fundamental tension between winning hearts and minds and successfully combating violent extremists whose hearts and minds overlap to a significant degree with the non-violent majority cannot be wished away; there will always be a trade-off between placing more emphasis on fighting an insurgency or winning hearts and minds. The generality of this result is suggested by the fact that I first formulated this idea in Anti-Technology Terrorism: An Upcoming Global Threat?, and the generality of this result suggests to danger to which we are exposed.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Recently in Grand Strategy in the Pacific I discussed the change of command at Pacom — US Pacific Command — and some remarks by the incoming admiral, Samuel J. Locklear III, in an article on the DOD website, Locklear: Pacom’s Priorities Reflect New Strategic Guidance.

In the article cited above we find this explicit evocation of transnational threats:

Transnational threats pose another concern and area of emphasis for Pacom. Locklear identified cyber threats as the most daunting, noting the importance of secure networks not only for Pacom’s military operations, but also for regional stability and economic viability.

After a quote on the transnational threat posed by hackers, Admiral Locklear is quoted as follows:

“In the terrorist world, as you squeeze on one side of the balloon, it pops out somewhere else. [Terrorists] look for areas of opportunity. And they find areas of opportunity in places that are disenfranchised, that have poor economies and opportunity to change the mindset of the people looking for a better life but don’t know how to get it.”

The DOD article cites three specific transnational threats: cyber threats, terrorism, and drug trafficking. The UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE previously cited in Grand Strategy in the Pacific cited transnational threats as one of five “Focus Areas” along with “Allies and Partners, China, India, North Korea.” Specifically, the strategic guidance document says this regarding transnational threats:

5. Counter Transnational Threats

i. Work with Allies and partners to build capacity and share information to counter violent extremism, transnational crime, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
ii. Disrupt violent extremist organization networks and defeat the threats they pose.
iii. Partner with other nations to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and associated technologies.

The January 2012 strategic planning document, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, does not mention exactly the same mix of threats found in the Pacom strategic guidance or Admiral Locklear’s remarks, but it does prominently refer to “violent extremists” on page one:

“…violent extremists will continue to threaten U.S. interests, allies, partners, and the homeland. The primary loci of these threats are South Asia and the Middle East. With the diffusion of
destructive technology, these extremists have the potential to pose catastrophic threats that could directly affect our security and prosperity. For the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.”

The concern regarding “violent extremists” is repeated on the next page:

“Our defense efforts in the Middle East will be aimed at countering violent extremists and destabilizing threats, as well as upholding our commitment to allies and partner states. Of particular concern are the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).”

While the Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense document makes no explicit mention of “transnational” threats, in the above discussion of violent extremists these extremist movements are mentioned in conjunction with “non-state threats.” This is a theme that continues later in the same document:

“To enable economic growth and commerce, America, working in conjunction with allies and partners around the world, will seek to protect freedom of access throughout the global commons –– those areas beyond national jurisdiction that constitute the vital connective tissue of the international system. Global security and prosperity are increasingly dependent on the free flow of goods shipped by air or sea. State and non-state actors pose potential threats to access in the global commons, whether through opposition to existing norms or other anti-access approaches. Both state and non-state actors possess the capability and intent to conduct cyber espionage and, potentially, cyber attacks on the United States, with possible severe effects on both our military operations and our homeland. Growth in the number of space-faring nations is also leading to an increasingly congested and contested space environment, threatening safety and security.” (p. 3)

Compiling the remarks on particular threats from UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND STRATEGIC GUIDANCE, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, and the quotes from Admiral Locklear, we get this list of presumably transnational threats:

Cyber threats, cyber espionage, hacking

terrorism, violent extremists, non-state threats

transnational crime, including drug trafficking

WMD proliferation, ballistic missiles, “the diffusion of destructive technology”

While I think few people would argue that these listed transnational threats are serious problems facing the world, and indeed most are recent threats that emerged as strategic trends in the late twentieth century and are only now coming into their own as major threats that could disrupt life and commerce in the major nation-states of the world (being threats to “regional stability and economic viability”), even from a purely conventional standpoint there are some problems with this strategic laundry list. I admire the concision and focus of these strategic guidance documents, but I am troubled by the overall strategic incoherence of the goals outlined.

The threats identified superficially present themselves as appropriate concerns for the world’s powers to seek to counter, but which fail to cohere as a grand strategy. The failure of a grand strategy to be coherent means that efforts can end up being at cross-purposes, dissipating themselves to little effect, meaning in turn that the threats may not be decisively met. Worse yet, if a threat comes under pressure, it will buckle and disappear if it was inconsequential, but if the threat is real and growing, and it meets with just enough pressure to stimulate it, to force its leadership to weld the organization into a disciplined force, a weak and insufficient effort to counter a strategic threat can be worse than no effort at all.

There is no question that transnational crime, especially highly profitable crime such as drug trafficking and human trafficking, often comes together with terrorism, violent extremists, and non-state threats to create a toxic and difficult to eradicate force. Violent extremists have no intrinsic objection to crime, and crime can be employed to pay the bills for ideologically motivated violence. The destabilizing effects of pervasive transnational crime creates further criminal opportunities in an escalating cycle of criminality. It is a legitimate strategic concern that networks of violent criminal elements will traffic in WMD and all manner of destructive technologies, but it must be understood that the primary threat here is trafficking, and not the employment of such technologies.

It is the nature of transnational and non-state threats to be amorphous, flexible, evolving, geographically scattered, unstructured, and non-hierarchical. A transnational or non-state threat holds and defends no territory, has no permanent relations with other political entities, has no formal economy, has no permanent installations, no permanent personnel, and possesses no industrial plant and no infrastructure. It is a pure fantasy to attribute the pursuit of ballistic missile technologies to non-state actors. Ballistic missiles are a large and bulky technology that requires permanent facilities and a substantial industrial plant to produce or operate. It is only slightly less of a fantasy for a non-state entity to acquire WMD. If a non-state entity wanted to acquire WMD, they would seek the smallest, lightest, and most portable instances of WMD, and these would, for obvious technology reasons, be the most advanced versions of the technology, therefore the most difficult to acquire and the most expensive.

Further, the Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense document speaks of, “directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary,” and this of course has great appeal, but is precisely what is most difficult when it comes to transnational and non-state threats. I discussed this previously in The Political Context of Striking a Carrier, where I wrote:

“[A] response is not so much about what is possible as it is about what is sustainable and can be integrated into a comprehensive grand strategy. Just as Thomas Barnett pointed out, a dedicated adversary can sucker punch the US at any time; so too the US can strike back at any time, but for either the sucker punch or the retaliatory strike to have any meaning they need to be located in a political context. If the adversary is a non-state actor, the response becomes highly problematic. A reactive US response undertaken under domestic pressure simply to show that the US can strike back might satisfy voters but will mean almost nothing in a strategic context.”

A comprehensive grand strategy is also (ideally) a coherent grand strategy, and there is little either comprehensive or coherent about claiming to target groups with no permanent territory, personnel, assets, infrastructure, or industrial plant. One can expect the ongoing targeted assassinations of key personnel and charismatic leaders, as is currently the case, but the effect of such strikes is limited and local, whereas a truly transnational threat is non-local, non-regional, and non-individual. The criminal and terrorist network will repair itself and go on with its business, since it has little or no structure or hierarchy to destroy.

It is easy to find someone to kill, or a target to bomb, but this approach, if iterated irresponsibly, will do far more harm than good, especially when it comes to winning hearts and minds. Just as Mao said that a guerrilla moves among the people like a fish in sea, so too terrorists and criminals also move among the people like fish in the sea, and when you try to strike back at the moving, amorphous, adapting transnational threat hiding among the people, you hit the people far more often than you hit the threat. And every time you hit the people instead of the terrorist or the criminal, you create new enemies whom the terrorists and criminals will seek to recruit.

On a deeper level, if transnational threats become the all-purpose category of military threat (which seems to be the case here, with ballistic missiles and WMD thrown in the same grab-bag with non-state actors), there is the potential danger of calling any threat a transnational threat, and deriving the converse implication that any transnational movement is a threat. In the long term, such an attitude will serve any nation-state poorly, since one of the major strategic trends of our time is the rise of non-state actors, and not every non-state actor is maleficent. It has been said that, if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The danger, then, is seeing every non-state actor as a nail. In a strategic climate of opinion where “transnational” becomes a synonym for “threat,” there is the very real danger of stigmatizing as a threat that which may be the key to future peace and prosperity. And with the growing role of non-state entities in the international system, committing yourself to a course of action of opposing non-state entities means putting yourself in on the losing side of history and taking on a fight you cannot win.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Who can resist a portrayal of Roman decadence? Perhaps the picture galleries of the future will feature works named something like 'Americans of the Decadence,' although Madden's book fortunately doesn't feed into this famliar narrative.

I have just finished listening to Empires of Trust: How Rome Built — and America Is Building — a New World by Thomas F. Madden. The author makes a tripartite distinction between empires of conquest, empires of commerce, and empires of trust. He formulates an elaborate analogy between the growth of the Roman Empire and the growth of the de facto American empire. The author would point out that the Roman Empire, at least during its phase of growth, was also a de facto empire, because Rome preferred allies to conquered territories, and did all that it could to avoid foreign entanglements while also seeking to secure its frontier.

From what I have written briefly about the book above, the contrarian cast of the book should be clear. This is to be welcomed. Too many people write popular histories and rely on regurgitating conventional wisdom in order to avoid offending their public and therefore selling more copies. Thus I welcome the author’s contrarianism. I also appreciate the author’s studied distantiation from any declension narrative. He goes out of his way to point out that his parallelism between Rome and America is not the familiar parallel of Rome became decadent and fell, therefore America, which is becoming decadent, will soon fall. Madden emphasizes that his parallels are between the Roman Republic, a thousand years before it fell, and America. He also explicitly acknowledged, near the end of the book, that all empires fall, but that if an empire has a thousand years of life that this is a good run. I agree.

Roman grew to such a great extent, according to Madden, because Rome turned enemies into friends and allies.

Much is Madden’s argument is closely parallel to what I have called The Credibility Paradox: Rome once, and America now, have credibility in foreign affairs not because they sought or seek power, but precisely because they avoided or avoid it. Empires of conquest grow because a sovereign power actively seeks to control other peoples, conquering them in order to rule them. Empires of trust grow because a sovereign power does not seek to control, and therefore has credibility when it comes to power. Not wanting to rule, an empire of trust comes into power by refusing power. Madden tells some stories of cases in which dying kings actually willed their kingdoms to Rome, such was the trust and confidence that these kingdoms would be well ruled by Rome.

In the latter parts of the book, Madden formulates another detailed analogy between the terrorism that the US faces from Islamic militants and the terrorism that Rome faced from Jewish militants. In one place he quite explicitly argues that the Romans had it worse in first century Palestine than the US has it today in the same general region.

Roman occupied Palestine. According to Madden, Jewish terrorism in ancient Judea got so bad that the Romans eventually came down hard on the Jews and re-named the whole region.

By touching on issues of terrorism he brings up an important point of contemporary relevance, although he avoids using some familiar terminology, and it isn’t clear that this is purposeful or not. The position he formulates is the familiar line that political Islam is the problem, and that Islam must modernize and become a personal faith rather than a political doctrine. However, Madden never speaks of “political Islam” in his discussion.

Madden also writes — and I agree — that Islam in the minds of many of its practitioners, is still an essentially medieval belief system. I think that this is true because Islam is about six hundred years behind Christianity in terms of its social development, and when it has passed through its medieval phase — think of Christianity six hundred years ago and you should understand what I mean by having a “medieval phase” — it will experience its own modernization through internal forces. This view of mine entails the idea that what we think of as the high point of medieval Islamic civilization (which occurred during the Christian Middle Ages) was not a medieval period for Islam, but was rather Islam’s “classical antiquity,” and the great empires of Islam of the Middle Ages are then parallel to the Roman Empire. I don’t think that Madden holds this view at all, but I wanted to mention my own point of view here.

Golden Age of the Abbasid Caliphate: classical antiquity for Islamic civilization?

In any case, when Madden develops his position of Islam as a medieval belief system, he nowhere mentions the idea of cosmic war that has been developed by Mark Juergensmeyer in Terror in the Mind of God and Reza Aslan in How to Win a Cosmic War. I discussed both of these books in Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception. I think that Madden’s formulations could have been improved by drawing on the idea of cosmic war, since that seems to be what Madden is getting out, but he didn’t use the term or explicitly invoke the concept. Also, the “solution” that Madden urges (force Islam to modernize) strikes me as being as unworkable as Aslan’s “solution” (refuse to fight a cosmic war).

Madden, Juergensmeyer, and Aslan have in common an explicit recognition that Islamic terrorism is religiously motivated. Madden extends this model to Jewish terrorism in classical antiquity, and I think that his argument is a sound one. Again, he didn’t call it a cosmic war, but we can say that ancient Jewish terrorists waged a cosmic war against Rome. In this struggle, Rome prevailed, but at the high cost of destroying the temple, depopulating Jerusalem, and sending the Jews into exile — events commemorated in Rome by the Arch of Titus, which can still be seen today. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, Madden’s message is a hopeful one, in so far as he explicitly states that terrorism can be overcome, and suggests that he is hopeful that it can be overcome in our time through less brutal methods.

The Romans plundering the temple in Jerusalem: not so much the spoils of war as the price to be paid for terrorism.

Madden’s treatment of terrorism set me to thinking, and I realized that he is right, is so far as terrorism could be much worse today, and has been worse in the past. While Madden’s focus of concern is a comparison of Rome and America, if we go a little farther afield we can produce an even more “successful” example of terrorism than first century Palestine, and that is the cult of the assassins, also known as Shi’a Nizari Ismaili Muslims (as well as by many other names).

The story of the assassins is so astonishing that it would seem to have been taken from a Hollywood film rather than actual history, but the assassins were real, and we might even say that they constituted the apotheosis of terrorism. If we take the murder of Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk in 1092 as the first victim of the assassins, and fall of the last assassin fortresses in 1265 to the Mamluk sultan Baybars as the end of the group, the assassins exercised an influence throughout the region for more then 170 years — which is quite a run for a terrorist group. If any government today thought they were facing a threat that could last nearly two hundred years, there might be a certain sense of hopelessness in fighting such a menace.

Nizam al-Mulk, first known victim of the Assassins.

The assassins began as a stateless entity — essentially an NGO — but grew to such power that they seized fortresses and held territory for almost a hundred years. They organized secret cells throughout much of the region, and such was their power at the height of their influence that it was felt that anyone, anywhere, anytime could suddenly become the victim of the assassins. By killing prominent figures at politically sensitive times — they murdered Conrad of Montferrat just before his coronation in 1192 — they fulfilled the essential function of terrorism, inspiring disproportionate terror in the populace at large, and especially among the political leaders who feared that they would be the next target.

The fear that anyone, anywhere, anytime could become a victim is curiously parallel to the situation of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War, since under these latter circumstances the same formulation was found, and was the basis of escalating fears: anyone, anywhere, anytime could be killed by a nuclear missile appearing as though from nowhere. But a nuclear weapon is an anonymous agent of death; an assassin was a very personal agent of death. I am not sure which is worse, or which inspires the greater terror. Certainly, both are effective.

Putting a smile on mutually assured destruction.

The point here is that we must recur to something as monumental and as a horrific as mutually assured destruction in order to understand the impact that the assassins had on the Levant during the Middle Ages. In fact, it was the success of the assassins that led the major military powers of the day to eventually undertake military operations to destroy the fortresses held by the assassins. Eventually this action was successful, and the archive of the assassins was burned, so that the record of history consists exclusively of hostile witnesses. Perhaps if the assassin’s library had been preserved we would view them in a different light, and not call them terrorists (as I am doing here). From what we do know about them, however, the assassins seem to deserve to be called the apotheosis of terrorism.

Like Madden’s upbeat closing note that Jewish terrorism in the Levant was eventually ended by Rome, and that we can hope that terrorism today can be defeated at a lower cost, I can also observe that the assassins were eventually defeated, but it was a long, hard slog.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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What does it mean when an government, military, or police official makes a public statement that there will be no negotiation with terrorists? I think intuitively we think of a situation as it is unfolding, and the sense of “negotiation” involved is that of a crisis/hostage negotiator. This is the most obvious paradigm of negotiation with terrorists, but it is not the only negotiation that is possible.

When a society changes itself in response to terrorism, this is essentially a social negotiation with terrorists. There may be no talks held between government officials and representatives of a terrorist organization, but an indirect form of negotiation takes place in the media. This is the sense of “negotiation with terrorists” that is captured in the film Munich, when, after an exchange of targeted bombings, the character Carl says, “They’re talking to us. We’re in dialogue now.” (scene 107) This is a “dialogue” that takes place in newspaper headlines.

After the 11 September 2001 simultaneous terrorist attacks on US targets, significant changes in daily life appeared in the US. The most obvious result was the increase in airport security. Despite some grumbling and a few high profile complaints, for the most part people accept this with equanimity. It is seen as the price that you must pay for security. But it is also a social negotiation with terrorism. Truly enough, it sends a strong message to terrorists, that the US will employ all of its powers to keep its citizens safe and the strike back at the terrorists, but it also tells the terrorists that they can successfully change the way of life in a targeted nation-state.

In the wake of Anders Behring Breivik’s shocking attack in Norway, there is a question as to how Norway will “respond” to the attack. When US officials and journalists use the term “respond” one gets a feeling that there is an expectation that dramatic and proactive steps will be taken. However, the initial Norwegian response does not seem to be at all following this model.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg made a public statement that Norway’s response would be, “more democracy, more openness, more humanity, but without naivety.” I am sure that there are those who would already discern naïveté in this statement, but from what is known so far, the Norwegian public seems to agree. USA Today has reported (in Can Norwegian punishment fit the crime?) that a poll taken by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten showed that 71,000 of 97,000 respondents held that Norway should not re-instate the death penalty for the crimes of Anders Behring Breivik.

From the point of view of the individual, and individual accountability, there are some who would see this as a “soft” response to crime, but from the perspective of the possibility of social negotiation with terrorists, Norway’s position is the most hardline position possible: Norwegians will not enter into a social negotiation with terrorists. It is only from the perspective of the big picture that we can see this hardline position for what it is. There are many who will see it otherwise, but this is due to their inability to see the forest for the trees.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Anders Behring Breivik

It now appears that the responsible party for the bombing and shootings in Norway was an individual, an ideologically motivated “Lone Wolf” who practiced meticulous care not only in planning his attacks, but also in documenting his planning and preparation that extended over a period of many years. While the sheer scale of the carnage makes it difficult to believe that a single individual could have perpetrated these attacks, this is now a lesson in how “successful” a lone wolf attack can be when everything “goes right” according to the perspective of the attacker.

After the Oklahoma City bombing it was reported that the truck bomb assembled by Timothy McVeigh had only incompletely exploded, so that despite the massive destruction it caused, this destruction would have been even worse had the bomb performed as planned. With this in mind, I would guess that the bomb assembled by Anders Behring Breivik was of a similar design, and also reportedly assembled from fertilizer, like the Oklahoma City bomb, and that the extraordinary destructive power of the blast was due to the bomb functioning as intended.

Breivik, however, killed far more people in his shooting rampage than he did with his bomb. I can’t recall an incident outside a war zone in which a single individual killed so many in a single shooting rampage. As with this bomb, Breivik’s meticulous planning and preparation, coupled with the vulnerability of individuals living in a highly open society, seems to have yielded the intended result. If we compare Breivik’s shooting rampage with that of the Columbine killers, for example, who had hoped to kill hundreds, Breivik’s massacre approached the scale of efficacy to which the Columbine killers has aspired, without themselves achieving that scale.

However, Breivik’s “success” on a tactical and operational level — if we define success as the identification of an explicit objective and taking offensive action in order to attain that objective, both of which were embodied in Breivik’s plans — is coupled with a complete and utter failure on a strategic level. In this Breivik is to be compared not with Timothy McVeigh, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — other isolated, ideologically motivated killers — but to Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda was highly successful on an operational level, repeatedly carrying out simultaneous attacks on an international scale, but its strategic agenda never even got off the ground. Because of the tactical and operational efficacy of Al Qaeda, they posed a genuine threat, and so major military operations were taken to counter their power and influence. From this, many drew the conclusion that Al Qaeda had achieved its ends through its spectacular acts of terrorism. It had not. The terrorism was not an end in itself, but had an objective.

The strategic agenda of Al Qaeda was, narrowly conceived, to topple the Saudi government and to put in its place a militant Salafist regime in some respects modeled on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but ultimately modeled on the first community established by the Prophet himself in Medina (to which example the Taliban also looked). The grand strategic ambition of Al Qaeda, on the widest scale, was to trigger cascading revolutions throughout the Islamic world that would topple governments throughout the region, installing traditionalist regimes and ultimately the re-establishment of the Caliphate and the re-invigoration of the Islamic world.

Thus while Al Qaeda’s spectacular acts of terrorism were effective on a tactical and operational level, they were strategic failures, and, I would argue, utterly misconceived as the operations that would bring about the desired revolutionary contagion and the regime change desired. In fact, a very different revolutionary contagion did come to the region, though it was not based upon the ideological model of Al Qaeda, and the regime changes that have occurred as a result of this revolutionary contagion have not installed retrograde traditionalist regimes seeking to turn back the clock, but rather progressive regimes seeking to join the modern world.

What Al Qaeda and Anders Behring Breivik have in common is that they are ideologically-inspired violent revolutionaries. They are believers in revolutionary violence, and moreover believers that they can serve as the trigger for a wave of cascading revolutionary violence that will transform the political and social landscape. This mode of thought embodies what I have called a cataclysmic conception of revolution.

Another obvious point of reference here is Theodore Kaczynski, the unabomber, who also viewed himself as a one-man cadre whose actions would trigger a revolution, and indeed it was widely reported today that Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto included extensive extracts from Kaczynski’s manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future.

Since Anders Behring Breivik is alive and in custody, he may well provide the most thorough and complete picture of the violent revolutionary yet. Mostly the violent revolutionary accepts his death as the price of triggering a world-historical event. The death of violent revolutionaries itself serves an integral function in revolutionary violence, since a surviving revolutionary lives to see the failure of his cause and his careful plans and preparations come to nothing. A violent revolutionary whose death is written in to the histrionic scheme of his plot to trigger cascading revolutionary contagion can go to his death believing that, with his triggering action, the revolution has already begun, and it is merely a matter of the remaining events unfolding according to the ideological script.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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When I arrived in Oslo in 2009 I wrote a post titled Oslo, The Quiet City, in which I remarked on the preternatural quietude of Oslo. Even Kyoto, with its stately gardens, is loud and busy in comparison. Oslo remains the quietest city I have ever visited, and so the shock of today’s bombing in Oslo must have multiplied the terror by an order of magnitude. Residents familiar with the quiet routines of Oslo, largely absent the Schopenhauerian noise of other capital cities, would have had their day torn apart by the unprecedented violence.

In the early stages of terrorist attacks we have become accustomed to saturation media coverage at a time when no information has yet become available, and so the television news outlets opt for a looped meme of violence, explosions, death, and carnage. I suspect that this approach to the coverage of terrorism has something to do with the success of terrorism as a political weapon. As it happens, I just today received in the mail a copy of Roger Trinquier’s Modern Warfare, which bluntly states in the opening of Chapter 4:

“Terrorism… is a weapon of warfare, which can neither be ignored nor minimized. It is as a weapon of warfare that we should study it.”

These texts published in the Classics of Counterinsurgency Era series are proving themselves to be not only uncompromising but also prophetic. From the same series I have David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, which is similarly uncompromising and prophetic.

From the initial reports and the early video available in the aftermath of the Oslo attack, the bomb seems to have been extraordinarily powerful. Also, the damage seems to have exploded outward from the inside of a targeted building (or buildings). This suggests that, unlike the Oklahoma City blast, it was not a large car bomb parked outside in the street. It could have been a large car bomb parked inside in a parking garage.

While the size of the blast suggests sophistication and a minimal coordination of resources and organization, we also know from the Oklahoma City bomb that a large and powerful device can be assembled by one “Lone Wolf” or a small group — e.g., by a terrorist cell. Individuals and small, isolated cells are a tough nut to crack for intelligence services.

The subsequent shooting at a Labour Party youth camp on the island of Utøya near Oslo, which claimed further victims (and possibly more than the bombing in Oslo), has been reportedly tied to the bombing by Norwegian police (according to the BBC). The Norway News reports that 80 students have been killed, which for a shooting is a very high death toll. A 32 year old ethnic Norwegian has been taken into custody in connection with both attacks.

The Norway News also quoted an online statement of Abu Sulayman al-Nasir of the group Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami (Assistants of the Global Jihad) as having said the following on online forum Smukh or Shamikh:

“We have warned since the Stockholm raid of more operations and we have demanded that the countries of Europe withdraw from the land of Afghanistan and end their war on Islam and Muslims. What you see is only the beginning and there is more to come.”

It is possible that this preemptive claim of responsibility is authentic, but it is also possible that it is an opportunistic claim intended to shore up the Jihadist “street cred” of the little-known group making the claim.

While Norway’s involvement in NATO operations points to a retaliatory attack carried out by Jihadists — and there have been quasi-militant jihadist sympathizers in Norway (the case of Mullah Krekar is relevant here) — it is difficult to reconcile this with the arrest of a lone ethnic Norwegian. Only time and further information will sort this out. And I suspect that the major intelligence agencies of Europe as well as the US will be sending staff to Norway to assist in the investigation, if the Norwegians will agree to accept such assistance.

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Although the public debate over strategy frequently takes the form of men in ties surrounded by microphones and cameras, doing their best to project an image of gravitas, dignity, and respectability, there is more often than not a surreal quality to these oh-so-serious pronouncements. It is almost as though, in planning some of our most complex and expensive strategic weapons systems, that the strategic threat such weapons systems are intended to counter has been plucked out of the clear blue sky. In writing this I have in mind the recently announced strategic missile defense system planned by NATO, which I discussed in NATO’s Gambit.

Now, the threat of ballistic missile attack is not plucked out of the clear blue sky. We know for a fact that there are many nation-states that have developed ballistic missiles and are intent on improving the range and accuracy of these extant weapons systems, and we know that other nation-states are attempting to develop such weapons systems. The great concern is that ballistic missiles could be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMD) quickly and accurately to a distant target. This threat is real. However, it is not the only threat. Moreover, and more importantly, I do not believe that it the most likely threat.

What gives the surreal quality to the plan to develop an ABM system to counter the WMD ballistic missile threat is that political leaders are behaving as though “rogue” nation-states were going to cooperate in fielding a weapons system that conforms to our plans and expectations rather than trying to surprise us. This is not the way the world works. In NATO’s Gambit I wrote:

“I don’t think that the system, once built, would be any more effective than the Maginot Line. If ballistic missiles can be shot down with any degree of reliability, then rogue regimes pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and intent upon their use, would use any means of delivery other than ballistic missiles.”

What other methods of delivery might be considered? The traditional triad of strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems consists of land-based ICBMs, strategic bombers, and submarines. I have already suggested above that ICBMs are too obvious. They have the advantage of being a technology that can be realistically developed (they have ample proof of concept), of striking rapidly, and of being difficult to counter. Difficult, but not impossible. And I think it is fair to say that no “rogue” nation-state, and certainly no terrorist organization, could get its hands on a strategic bomber that could penetrate the air defenses of NATO member states or other advanced industrialized nation-states. This would require either masses of bombers to overwhelm air defenses, more than state-of-the-art stealth, or an inside ability to bring down air defenses by the use of spies or electronic counter-measures. All of these are beyond the efforts of the kind of adversaries NATO plans against.

The 'suitcase nuke' is a known threat that could be delivered by a 'lone wolf' operative.

One common terrorist nightmare that has been discussed is the possibility of a “suitcase nuke,” but this too requires high technology, which must either be developed or purchased. With the nuclear test ban treaty, and the relative ease of detecting nuclear tests, the amount of testing required to produce a reliable, miniaturized suitcase nuke is beyond the ability of all but a very few industrialized nation-states.

Shipping containers are large and anonymous, therefore a threat vector for WMD.

A variation on the theme of suitcase nukes is the scenario of a nuclear device in a shipping container. Millions of shipping containers move around the world every day, and a nuclear device inside such a container would not be limited by concerns of the miniaturization of technology. Awareness of this threat has resulted in the installation of radiation monitoring in ports. This system of monitoring is imperfect, but with time and increased experience and expertise, one could expect a reasonable degree of detection. However, the shipping container vector remains a very real threat.

Efforts are being made to detect nuclear devices in shipping containers.

Another threat is that posed by the third leg of the triad, and always the most stealthy leg of the triad: submarines. Everyone is familiar with the idea of submarines as a strategic threat, but building a missile boat is almost as complex and difficult as the considerations mentioned above in relation to strategic bombers or miniaturized suitcase nukes. Only a very few industrialized nation-states are tooled to produce a submarine that can reliably launch either ballistic missiles or cruise missiles. The latter two threats are particularly of concern because a submarine could move close in to shore and fire off missiles that would strike targets in less than fifteen minutes. Even excellent air defense systems would have difficulty defending against this. But we are protected after a fashion by the barriers to entry presented by this difficult and expensive technology.

U-47 leaving Kiel for Scapa Flow.

There is, however, another submersible WMD threat that I have never seen discussed, although I certainly can’t claim any kind of thorough knowledge of defense-related scenarios. Submarines are ships, and one of the great things about ships as that they can carry a lot of weight, and, compared to tanks or airplanes, they have a lot more space. What this means is that even a crude nuclear device could be constructed within the hull of a basic submarine. While advanced submarine technology is beyond all but a few nation-states, basic submarines are not. Some time ago in The Future of Terrorism I suggested that, given the fact that even drug smugglers are using submarines these days, it would not be beyond the reach of a non-state terrorist entity to build and operate a submarine.

In the same spirit, a non-state entity or a rogue nation-state could build a submarine for the express task of carrying a nuclear device stealthily into the harbor of a great city. Many of the world’s largest, richest, and busiest cities are port cities with busy shipping lanes that might well be infiltrated by reasonably stealthy submarine technology. We recall in this connection that during the Second World War, Günther Prien in U-47 infiltrated the UK’s Home Fleet’s anchorage in Scapa Flow and sunk the Royal Oak at anchor. Take a look at a map of Scapa Flow, and you can see what a feat this was.

The submersible threat vector might be organized in any of several different ways. For example, a remotely operated, uncrewed submarine could be sent into a harbor, or a small suicide crew could pilot a submarine into a harbor, planning to detonate the weapon themselves and die in the delivery, or a crewed submarine could drop a large nuclear device at the bottom of a harbor and escape before its detonation. If it is objected that no rudimentary submersible could make a long distance trip and therefore be able to sneak into a harbor, it is obvious that this is not necessary. A mothership with a hull open to the sea could approach a shoreline (still in international waters), drop a submersible into depths without anyone being the wiser, and the submersible with its WMD aboard would have only a short, stealthy trip to make to deposit its deadly cargo.

HMS Royal Oak

Submarines, as I have pointed out previously, are a robust and well-documented technology. Rudimentary nuclear weapons are nearly as robust and well-documented; the real challenge is not in the design, but in obtaining the materials. No miniaturization would be needed to build a nuclear device into a still relatively small submersible. Moreover, the surrounding water would act as insulation to defeat detection of radioactivity. A reasonable degree of stealth would be sufficient to infiltrate a busy commercial harbor. None of this lies beyond the means of the nation-states that NATO considers dangerous, and it is much more likely to be successful than a rudimentary ICBM.

A real nightmare scenario based on this strategic threat could involve nuclear devices pre-placed throughout the world, and either timed to go off simultaneously or rigged to detonate on some command signal. Imagine the consequences for a maritime nation-state if it suddenly lost all of its major port facilities in one fell swoop. This would be a loss from which there could be no quick and easy recovery.

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A gun-type nuclear device -- the easiest kind to build -- naturally has the same shape as the cylinder of a submarine, so that installing such a nuclear device in a small submarine, even a relatively crude one, would be comparatively easy.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A few days ago in Politicized Anger I mentioned that I have been studying How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror by Reza Aslan. In the book, Aslan mentioned that he took the idea of cosmic war mentioned in the title of his book from Mark Juergensmeyer’s book, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Chapter 8 of which is concerned with the idea of cosmic war. Juergensmeyer is a well-known scholar in religious studies who began his career at the Union Theological Seminary, studying to become a Methodist minister, there a student of Reinhold Niebuhr.

When I first saw Aslan’s How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror — for I happened upon it browsing the shelves of a library; I hadn’t read any reviews or even heard of it before I saw it — I was immediately interested and intrigued as I could see right away that a cosmic war clearly falls under the umbrella of the eschatological conception of history.

The eschatological conception of history assumes non-human agency in the world, and any human agency under this conception is mediated by non-human agency.

In several posts — Three Conceptions of History, Revolution and Human Agency, and The Naturalistic Conception of History, inter alia — I have been developing a general framework for understanding the overall conceptions that people bring to their understanding of history. This framework is based upon differing conceptions of human agency in the world. That is to say, the framework for understanding how people understand their history is based on how they understand their role in history. Are we helpless before the events of the world? Can we make of our lives anything we desire? Must we seek to supplicate unseen powers? Is human being-in-the-world no different in essentials from a tree’s being-in-the-world? A “Yes” to one of these questions places you, respectively, under the catastrophic, political, eschatological, or naturalistic conception of history.

Juergensmeyer in his above-mentioned book discusses several contemporary examples of religiously-inspired terrorism and war, saying that the religious militants have been “driven by an image of cosmic war.” He goes on to say:

“I call such images ‘cosmic’ because they are larger than life. They evoke great battles of the legendary past, and they relate to metaphysical conflicts between good and evil. Notions of cosmic war are intimately personal but can also be translated to the social plane. Ultimately, though, they transcend human experience. What makes religious violence particularly savage and relentless is that its perpetrators have placed such religious images of divine struggle — cosmic war — in the service of worldly political battles. For this reason, acts of religious terror serve not only as tactics in a political strategy but also as evocations of a much larger spiritual confrontation.”

Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Chapter 8, pp. 149-150

Aslan in his book follows Juergensmeyer closely in these formulations. Aslan says of the 11 September hijackers:

“They were engaged in a metaphysical conflict, not between armies or nations but between the angels of light and the demons of darkness. They were fighting a cosmic war, not against the American imperium but against the eternal forces of evil. A cosmic war is a religious war. It is a conflict in which God is believed to be directly engaged on one side over the other. Unlike a holy war — an earthly battle between rival religious groups — a cosmic war is like a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.”

Reza Aslan, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, Introduction, p. 5

I find this very interesting, but I would like to see it developed with much greater care and rigor. Both Juergensmeyer and Aslan are rather cavalier in their language. I heartily approve of Aslan’s careful distinction between holy war and cosmic war, but I would also suggest that in the interests of analytical clarity we should also distinguish cosmic war and metaphysical war, with the latter as the broader category, while the former is a particular kind of metaphysical conflict, and especially a supernatural kind of metaphysical conflict. This is important, as one could characterize the crusading spirit of early twentieth century communism (or even the French Revolution earlier) as exemplifying a metaphysical conflict of an explicitly materialistic (perhaps naturalistic) metaphysic.

I would myself prefer to speak in terms of eschatological war as being an expression of the eschatological conception of history, but it is just as well with me to speak in terms of cosmic war. The point I want to make in this connection is that the idea of cosmic war does not exist in an intellectual vacuum. It is part of a way of seeing and understanding the world; it is part of a Weltanschauung. This is relevant to some of Aslan’s claims.

Twice in his book, near the beginning and near the end, Aslan writes that the only way to win a cosmic war is to refuse to fight one. We are to decline eschatological combat. Aslan is right when we says that cosmic wars are unwinnable, and therefore also unlosable (p. 8). But Aslan also claims that aggrieved communities have legitimate grievances, and that these need to be addressed. I agree with this, but I also know from my reading of history the near hopelessness of this task. What task? The attempt to “help” people in utilitarian and pragmatic ways when their grievances are not expressed in utilitarian and pragmatic terms. Many efforts of the US around the world have come to grief on this rock.

Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted to grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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