Eric Martin has a post up at American Footprints that’s definitely worth reading – especially for hawks like me who are looking for a path through the issue of Islamist terror that doesn’t involve a choice between surrender and the mass killing of Muslims.
Now Eric’s post – and it appears the Packer article (I’ve just scanned it tonight – still working!) are interesting, thoughtful suggestions about separating the committed terrorists from the populations they operate within, and about exploiting the fissures between groups of terrorists.
It’s a good read, and food for thought – but I think I disagree. But it’s a damn useful article because it helped me clarify my disagreement, and I want to quickly sketch it out (with the usual promise to try and develop it better soon – I’m still kinda chasing people and mosques in Baghdad).
The nub of the argument Packer and Martin make is here, and it’s based on the counterinsurgency theory of Australian Captain David Kilcullen:
“After 9/11, when a lot of people were saying, ‘The problem is Islam,’ I was thinking, It’s something deeper than that. It’s about human social networks and the way that they operate.” In West Java, elements of the failed Darul Islam insurgency – a local separatist movement with mystical leanings – had resumed fighting as Jemaah Islamiya, whose outlook was Salafist and global. Kilcullen said, “What that told me about Jemaah Islamiya is that it’s not about theology.” He went on, “There are elements in human psychological and social makeup that drive whatâ€™s happening. The Islamic bit is secondary. This is human behavior in an Islamic setting. This is not ‘Islamic behavior.’ ” Paraphrasing the American political scientist Roger D. Petersen, he said, “People don’t get pushed into rebellion by their ideology. They get pulled in by their social networks.” He noted that all fifteen Saudi hijackers in the September 11th plot had trouble with their fathers. Although radical ideas prepare the way for disaffected young men to become violent jihadists, the reasons they convert, Kilcullen said, are more mundane and familiar: family, friends, associates.
The problem here is really an epistic one; if I look at the actions of an individual (and all human actions are done, after all, by individuals) I can understand those actions by – reviewing the psychological background of the individual (as above) – or by looking at economic motivations (vide Marx) – or by looking at their cultural history – or by looking at the political organization of the cultures to which they belong.
Each of these constructions is, in a sense, true.
The question is – are they useful?
Because what we’re trying to do is applied social science – not just to study what people do with and to each other, but how best to effect it.
So the question becomes at what point in the hierarchy from personal psychology to political theory can we have the best and most direct impact – impact that will change the rate at which people become hardened terrorists?
The issue between my beliefs and Eric’s is, in my mind, straightforward.
First, that this model undervalues the role of state actors both in making terrorist groups more effective – in using terrorist groups in service of traditional state interests – and in improving the soil for terrorist recruitment by – for example – steeping the state-supported educational systems with literature that supports terrorist ideologies and beliefs (Jews are evil, the West must be destroyed, death in battle is to be welcomed).
Second, that the modern terrorist groups are more of a network and less isolated pockets of motivated individuals, This network effect is both by virtue of a common and powerful ideology and belief system, because the supporters of terrorism – both within terrorist groups and states that support terrorism publicly or tacitly – see the advantage in a network effect in which IRA trainers improve the skills of Columbian guerrillas or Saudi members of Al Quieda share techniques with Hizbollah fighters.
The validity of those two assertions is in my mind the key to choosing a military or a more ‘law enforcement’ model of counterinsurgency. Having said that, the specific points about understanding the individual groups, looking for fissures and local advantage and exploiting them as a part of a kind of ‘Imperial Grunts’ strategy makes a world of sense to me.
But I’ll bet we’re already doing much of it in places like Columbia.
Lots more to discuss on this, obviously but I wanted to get the party started.