Publications and Media
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Spike in African Terrorism Highlights the Importance of Jihadist Innovation,” War on the Rocks, February 26th, 2018
In early 2011, as the Arab Spring revolutions were just beginning, a New York Times article concluded that for most analysts, “the past few weeks have the makings of an epochal disaster for Al Qaeda, making the jihadists look like ineffectual bystanders to history while offering young Muslims an appealing alternative to terrorism.” The vast majority of terrorism experts believed the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa were the death knell not only for regional despots, but also for the jihadist movement.
In fact, the opposite occurred. The significant spike in terrorism in Africa since the onset of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions is as undeniable now as it was unanticipated at the time.
The numbers speak for themselves. In a new study titled Evolving Terror, three colleagues and I found that between January 2007 and December 2011 — as the impact of the Arab Spring revolutions was just beginning to be felt — jihadists carried out 132 successful, thwarted, or failed attacks against Western interests in Africa. This figure nearly tripled to 358 attacks between January 2012 and October 2017.
The chaos wrought by the revolutions provided jihadist groups with unprecedented opportunities in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Mali (where regime change in Libya had a spillover impact), and they capitalized. Some of the post-2011 spike in terrorist violence is unrelated to the Arab Spring. In Somalia, for example, the militant group al-Shabaab’s increasingly frequent and lethal attacks are largely independent of the revolutions in other African countries (though in the future we may learn that there was more cross-pollination between Somali and extra-regional jihadists than is apparent today).
Our findings highlight not only the political context in which these attacks took place, but also the importance of how jihadist organizations learn, which remains underemphasized in the terrorism studies field. Learning processes have not only been important strategically — allowing jihadist groups to capitalize on the changes wrought by the Arab Spring despite such vulnerabilities as negative public perceptions — but can also be discerned at the level of tactics.
In addition to the sheer number of terrorist attacks in Africa increasing, the attacks have also grown more sophisticated as jihadist groups adapted to countermeasures employed against them. For example, in 2012 Shabaab increasingly began to attack establishments popular among foreigners — which are often heavily guarded — using a combination of weapons and tactics. Previously, the group had relied mostly on single-method attacks, such as bombs or gunmen deployed in isolation of one another. Beginning in 2012, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices would often first “soften” a target, destroying barricaded entrances and striking security personnel, thus allowing armed assailants to storm it.
One emblematic attack occurred on June 25, 2016, when a Shabaab vehicle-borne explosive destroyed the gates to the Nasa Hablod Hotel near the Mogadishu airport, where foreigners stay relatively frequently. The explosion allowed several gunmen to enter the premises and shoot hotel guests while seizing hostages. Positioning snipers on the roof and exploiting the hotel’s own defenses for cover, including sandbags and blast walls, the gunmen engaged police in a shootout that lasted five hours.
For jihadist groups, the ability to innovate is a necessity rather than a luxury. As preeminent terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman has noted, terrorist groups have a “fundamental organizational imperative” to learn. Facing an array of internal and external challenges, these groups must adapt quickly and creatively or suffer the consequences. Militant groups that fail to address their vulnerabilities in the face of offensive counterterrorism operations will eventually be degraded to the point of strategic irrelevance. Similarly, organizations that cannot overcome defensive counterterrorism measures — policies aimed at preventing attacks — will become obsolete as more adaptive competitors exploit weaknesses in states’ security architectures.
Jihadist groups can adapt simultaneously to offensive and defensive measures employed against them — shoring themselves up in the face of counterterrorism actions meant to degrade them while overcoming defensive efforts to prevent attacks. For example, as Nigerian security forces became more adept at detecting Boko Haram’s suicide bombers, the group began to employ women and children in this role more frequently. This shift allowed Boko Haram to regain the element of surprise, and to conserve able-bodied men whom it needed to fight against the state. The relative novelty of these “unexpected bombers” further sensationalized Boko Haram’s attacks, amplifying a prevailing sense of insecurity in the population.
The adaptations that we can see African jihadist groups make in attacks on aviation are particularly concerning. The bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268 from Egypt in 2015 is well-known, as a bomb placed near the pressure bulkhead killed all 224 passengers and crew members. The Islamic State was responsible for this attack. Less notorious but also significant are Shabaab’s evolving efforts to strike aviation targets.
Initially, Shabaab unsuccessfully sought to launch projectiles at the Aden Adde International Airport in Mogadishu, often missing its target. But its aviation attacks became increasingly sophisticated. On Feb. 2, 2016, a Shabaab suicide bomber blasted a hole in Daallo Airlines Flight 159’s fuselage 20 minutes after it left the Mogadishu airport. The explosion blew the bomber out of the plane, but the pilot was able to make a safe emergency landing because the aircraft had yet to reach cruising altitude. It seems the bomb’s timer was intended to go off mid-flight, but a delay at the airport resulted in an early explosion. Authorities discovered that the bomber had used a laptop packed with explosives. Despite the attack’s failure, it should be regarded as sophisticated because it succeeded in getting a bomb on board the plane, which jihadists often regard as the key metric of success.
Just a month after the Daallo Airlines attack, another laptop bomb exploded at a screening area in Beledweyne Airport, also in Somalia. During that incident, authorities discovered and defused two more bombs, one of which was hidden in a printer. These designs were reminiscent of those developed by Ibrahim al-Asiri, a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who is known as one of the most innovative jihadist bomb makers. In one prominent 2010 plot, Asiri hid explosives in printer cartridges. Given AQAP’s proximity and close relationship to Shabaab, it is likely that the two share innovations.
The evolution of Shabaab’s previously crude efforts to strike aircraft clearly show a pattern of learning and adaptation over the past few years. African militant groups are well-positioned to test new tactics against aviation targets, and innovations born in Africa may be exported to other theaters. Better understanding jihadist organizational learning is essential to stopping these groups’ attacks, and to making sure that in the future we do not underestimate them at the strategic level, as most experts did after the Arab Spring.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Jacob Zenn, Sarah Sheafer, and Sandro Bejdic, “Evolving Terror: The Development of Jihadist Operations Targeting Western Interests in Africa,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 2018
Introduction and Executive Summary
After the Arab Spring, North African countries experienced growing instability, and jihadist groups capitalized on both social unrest and local conflicts.1 As these groups strengthened, jihadists expanded their operations into the Sahel, and were able to propagate their transnational ideology to new audiences. The threat that jihadist groups in Africa pose to Western interests has grown over the past decade, as groups operating in North Africa, the Sahel, West Africa, and the Horn of Africa have honed their capabilities. This is reflected in the increased frequency and complexity of attacks against Western interests. Between January 2007 and December 2011, jihadists conducted 132 successful, thwarted, or failed attacks against Western interests in Africa. This figure nearly tripled to 358 attacks between January 2012 and October 2017.
While the 490 total attacks against Western interests in Africa recorded in this study have varied in target type and tactics, jihadist operations have generally become more sophisticated. In some cases, jihadist organizations developed new tactics for penetrating well-guarded facilities. For example, the Somali militant group al-Shabaab has increased its use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), often supplementing such attacks with armed assaults. This adaptation allowed Shabaab to gain entrance to facilities like airports and UN humanitarian compounds, frequently penetrating past guarded gates.
African jihadist groups have also developed innovative ways to thwart the aviation industry’s security measures on the continent. For example, a Shabaab suicide bomber detonated a laptop bomb on Daallo Airlines Flight 159 in February 2016. A month later, Shabaab operatives concealed another bomb in a laptop that exploded at Somalia’s Beledweyne airport, and authorities defused two other bombs in the same incident, including one hidden in a printer. Not only do these events suggest an escalating threat to African aviation, but they also highlight how African jihadist groups learn and innovate. The ability to learn is critical to any violent non-state actor (VNSA), but particularly so for militant groups, which are pursued by state actors and sometimes also by other VNSAs. These groups need to be able to mount successful attacks against foes who constantly refine their defenses. The learning processes of African jihadist groups are evident in this study’s data set, as these groups have engaged in unambiguous adaptations over the course of the past decade. They will continue to engage in organizational learning in an effort to make themselves more effective – and, consequently, more dangerous. But there is also a significant risk that outside jihadist groups are assisting African jihadists’ innovations, and watching carefully to bring these tactics to new theaters after seeing how they fare in a “testing ground.” We return to the topic of jihadist learning processes in this study’s conclusion.
To understand evolving tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), targeting, and jihadist innovation, this report uses empirical and historical analysis to map trends in operations against Western interests over the past decade. The report focuses on five target types: (1) establishments popular among foreigners, such as restaurants and hotels; (2) energy and mineral resources infrastructure and facilities; (3) non-African tourists, expatriates, and NGO workers; (4) national and international government facilities, such as embassies and UN humanitarian compounds; Evolving Terror Page 7 and (5) the aviation industry. This report is based on an extensive list of successful, thwarted, and failed attacks against each target type, and utilizes both quantitative and qualitative analysis to identify trends and draw conclusions about the evolution of targeting preferences and TTPs since 2007.
Summary of Key Findings
• Establishments Popular Among Foreigners. Over the past decade, African jihadist groups attacked establishments popular among foreigners more often than the other four target types. Their TTPs became more complex as they combined multiple tactics and weapon types.
• Energy and Mineral Resources Infrastructure and Facilities. Jihadists primarily attacked poorly defended infrastructure, such as gas pipelines, as opposed to well-guarded energy facilities. While there were fewer attacks on the latter, those that occurred involved more resources on the part of jihadist groups and resulted in a larger number of casualties.
• Non-African Tourists, Expatriates, and NGO Workers. While kidnapping foreigners is not a new tactic in places like Somalia, jihadist groups in the Sahel have recently expanded these operations into atypical areas, such as northern Burkina Faso and Cameroon.
• National and International Government Facilities. Between 2012 and 2017, jihadist operations against embassies, consulates, and UN humanitarian compounds became more complex, as groups like Shabaab developed ways to penetrate well-guarded facilities by combining VBIEDs with armed assaults. These complex attacks were some of the deadliest. But they have remained comparatively rare, as these groups have primarily employed simple bombings.
• Aviation. In recent years, African jihadist groups have demonstrated a greater interest in conducting sophisticated attacks against aviation targets. Techniques have included measures designed to evade airport security by concealing explosives in electronic devices, and the attackers have relied on complicit airport employees in several cases.
Access the full report and footnotes here.
Demystifying al-Qaida in Nigeria: Cases from Boko Haram’s Founding, Launch of Jihad and Suicide Bombings
Jacob Zenn, “Demystifying al-Qaida in Nigeria,” Perspectives on Terrorism Journal, December 2017
Boko Haram was ranked the world’s “most deadly” terrorist group in 2016 and the country where it primarily operates, Nigeria, was ranked the world’s third “most terrorised” nation in 2017. However, for such a significant militant group there is a dearth of research on Boko Haram using document analysis that can shed light on the inner workings and decision-making processes of the group’s leadership. Most researchers have instead examined structural factors in Nigeria to understand Boko Haram. This has led to an academic consensus that Boko Haram was originally peaceful and only marginally benefitted from its ties to al-Qaida – if at all. This article, in contrast, presents documents of the leadership of al-Qaida and Boko Haram that show early and continuing communications between Boko Haram and al-Qaida and al-Qaida had a significant impact on Boko Haram’s founding in 2002, launch of a jihad in 2009 and introduction of suicide bombings in 2011. In addition, the al-Qaida-trained militants in Boko Haram played a leading role in conquering territory in Nigeria in 2013, setting up a line of communication to Islamic State in 2014 and facilitating Boko Haram’s switch of allegiance and merger with Islamic State in 2015.
In the thirty years since al-Qaida’s founding, there has been a significant amount of scholarship on the group and those affiliates and cells that have benefitted from al-Qaida’s funding, training and advice. However, there is one group whose origins and violent rise is still misunderstood. This group is Jamaat Ahl as-Sunnah Liddawah wal-Jihad, which has become known as “Boko Haram” and was ranked the world’s “most deadly” terrorist group in 2016 for the number of people it has killed.
The key debates about Boko Haram reflect the debates surrounding jihadism more generally, such as whether structural and local factors or external influences and individual agency best explain Boko Haram’s origins and violent rise. The former view, which is supported by Alexander Thurston, Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, and Kyari Muhammed, tends to see only a “marginal” role of al-Qaida in Boko Haram’s origins and violent rise and instead sees Boko Haram as the product of “multi-dimensional” factors, such as “religious doctrines, poverty and inequality, post-1999 politics, youth agency, and geography.” The latter view, in contrast, finds Boko Haram to be primarily the result of the individual decisions of militants who sought to engage in a jihad in Nigeria and were empowered to do so because of al-Qaida’s and particularly al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) and al-Shabab’s funding, training and advice. Neither view can be fully correct but this article argues the latter view is more accurate but also underutilised in explaining Boko Haram’s founding, launch of a jihad, and tactical innovations, such as suicide bombings.
The article will present three episodes or cases of Boko Haram from: (i) the group’s founding in 2002-2003, (ii) launch of jihad in 2009-2010 and (iii) introduction of suicide bombings in 2011-2012. It is argued that these three cases exemplify how al-Qaida’s significant impact on Boko Haram has been misunderstood to be “local” phenomena in most previous research on the group. Furthermore, this article discusses obstacles and opportunities for future research on Boko Haram.
All footnotes and the full essay can be found here.
Sarah Sheafer, “Sadat’s War Strategy: Political Gains vs. Military Victory,” The Strategy Bridge, October 21, 2017
On Nov. 20, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat stood before the Israeli Knesset on a historic trip to the country. Addressing 120 Israeli parliamentary members, Sadat said, “I come to you today on solid ground to shape a new life and to establish peace.” Never before had an Arab leader formally visited Israel, and the means by which he arrived at this situation was unorthodox. Just four years prior, Egypt and Israel were at war.
Employing the dictum of Carl von Clauzewitz—war is an extension of policy—Sadat decided to wage a limited war against Israel on Oct. 6, 1973, to achieve political gains as opposed to a decisive military victory. After the humiliating defeat during the 1967 Six-Day War, Sadat sought out to restore Arab self-confidence, shatter the Israeli myth of invincibility, and bring Israel to the negotiating table.
While Sadat ultimately achieved his objectives, his strategy was risky, and one could argue his political gains were a result of sheer luck and mistakes made by his adversary. Despite ultimately signing a long-lasting peace treaty with Israel, Sadat isolated Egypt and himself, with many Arab nations calling him a traitor. Nevertheless, much can be learned from Sadat’s decision making process. With clear, attainable objectives, Sadat’s strategy during the 1973 October War is perhaps a perfect example achieving political gains through limited war by exploiting an adversary’s weaknesses and simultaneously employing clever, diplomatic means.
SADAT’S INHERITANCE: A POOR ECONOMY, HUMILIATION AND UNWANTED SOVIET RELATIONS
When Gamel Abdel Nasser unexpectedly died of a heart attack on Sept. 28, 1970, many viewed his vice president, Sadat, as a temporary replacement. Unlike the charismatic and popular Nasser, Egyptians initially viewed Sadat as ineffectual. This assessment, however, was incorrect, and Sadat’s impact proved to be immense. Not only was Sadat faced with the task of stifling political isolation, he also inherited a number of problems from Nasser.
One of the foremost concerns on Sadat’s mind was Egypt’s failing economy. In Sadat’s memoir, he wrote, “The economic legacy Nasser left me was in even poorer shape than the political.” Sadat largely blamed Egypt’s economic woes on its relationship with the Soviet Union, saying that with “crass stupidity” Egypt had “copied the Soviet pattern of socialism.” Sadat’s distaste of communism was reflected during his early presidency when he carried out the Corrective Revolution, shocking Egyptians by dismissing and imprisoning two powerful officials from Nasser’s old regime—Sharawy Gomaa, the Interior Minister, and Sadat’s vice president Ali Sabry, who had close ties with the Soviets.
To bolster Egypt’s collapsing economy, Sadat reoriented emphasis in Egypt’s relations from the Soviet Union to the Unites States. In his memoir, Sadat described Egypt’s relationship with the Soviets as disadvantageous, because “the Russians had practically no relations with anybody.” Several obstacles, however, stood in his way. Sadat believed the situation after the 1967 defeat needed to be redressed to regain Egypt’s self-confidence and the world’s confidence in Egypt. To Sadat, the economic situation was merely one of the facets of the problem.
Another obstacle in the way of reorienting Egypt to the West was the strong relationship between Israel and the United States. Tensions were still high between Israelis and Egyptians. Israel was satisfied with the status quo after capturing the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula in 1967, which served as potential security buffers. Sadat not only needed to take away Israel’s bargaining chips at the negotiating table, but also convince the United States to pressure Israel to even come to the table. After U.S. President Richard Nixon’s first trip to the Soviet Union in May 1972, however, the policy of détente was issued jointly between the two superpowers, calling for a military relaxation in the Middle East. Sadat viewed this decision as giving in to Israel.
A close adviser to Sadat described him as one who took “big leaps over small steps and often used what he called ‘electric shocks’ to stir up the stagnant waters of diplomacy.” In line with his political style, Sadat decided to wage a limited war against Israel to break the deadlock, forcing the United States to step in and earning a respectable place at the negotiating table at the same time. To achieve a lasting peace with Israel, regain the Sinai, and improve Egypt’s economy, Sadat laid out three objectives:
2. Shatter the Israeli myth of invincibility; and
3. Alter U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.
By achieving these goals, Sadat would ultimately restructure the Middle Eastern regional order.
SADAT’S WAR STRATEGY
After an impressive Israeli performance from June 5-10, 1967, in which Israel destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground during the first day of war, Westerners praised the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for its decisive victory. Many compared the characteristics of the war to Napoleon Bonaparte’s use of Antoine-Henri Jomini’s principles of war, involving speed, surprise, concentration, and the offensive. Sadat, however, needed to take on a different approach. Eighty-five percent of Egypt’s air force and 80 percent of its ground equipment were destroyed in 1967. While Israel grew even stronger militarily after its victory, Egypt was slow to recover due to its collapsing economy. By 1973, Egypt’s armed forces were still unprepared to fight another war with Israel. Many senior military commanders opposed war when Sadat proposed the idea in 1972.
Considering Egypt’s military weaknesses, Sadat proposed a limited war focused on inflicting the heaviest Israeli losses as opposed to defeating the Israelis. By causing high casualties, Sadat expected to change Israel’s thinking and morale, undermining the country’s belief in its ability to protect itself in the future. To achieve this, Sadat planned for two fronts: Egyptian forces in the south and Syrians in the north. By forming a coalition with Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad, Egypt could offset, to some degree, Israel’s superior forces.
In addition to generating heavy losses, Sadat planned for Egypt’s armed forces to cross the Suez Canal and recapture as much as the Sinai as possible. Sadat used to tell Nasser, “If we could recapture even 4 inches of Sinai territory (by which I meant a foothold, pure and simple), and establish ourselves there so firmly that no power on earth could dislodge us, then the whole situation would change—east, west, all over.” Therefore, Sadat’s goal never called for the ambitious recapture of the entire Sinai. Instead, Egyptian armed forces would focus on casualties rather than terrain, only taking land if the opportunity arose.
The element of surprise was also crucial to offset Israel’s superior forces and produce psychological effects. Sadat implemented several endeavors to deceive the Israelis to thinking Egypt would not wage a war. These efforts will be discussed later, but it is important to note Sadat’s clever manipulations. For example, he strategically chose the month of October because it was during Ramadan, an unlikely time for predominantly Muslim countries to wage a war. In addition, the 6th of October was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Many Israeli soldiers would be home, praying and fasting with family.
Sadat also deceived the Israelis by expelling Soviet military advisers from Egypt in 1972. Israelis interpreted this move as an indication Egypt would not launch a war in the near future. Sadat also made this decision to distance Egypt from the Soviet Union, providing an opportunity for the United States to exert its influence. By expelling the Soviets, a war with Israel would also be seen as purely Egyptian, as opposed to another episode of the Cold War. If the Americans viewed the 1973 war as a proxy with the Soviets, however, the United States would prevent any headway in the region. Despite Sadat’s bold, risky move, the Soviet Union continued to fulfill Egyptian weapons system requests in order not to lose its place in Egypt to the United States.
Another way Sadat used non-military measures to achieve political gains was the opening of backdoor channels to form diplomatic relations with the United States. He also used personal relationships with oil-rich countries to exert economic pressures on the West. Before the start of the war, Sadat enlisted their support, which resulted in an oil price increase of 70 percent on October 17, 1973. Working in tandem with Egyptian and Syrian military efforts, Arab oil-producing states threatened to reduce output 5 percent every month until Israel withdrew from the territories it captured in 1967. The effects of the price increase had a startling impact on markets around the world. On October 19, Saudi Arabia went even further by placing an oil embargo on the United States after Nixon requested from Congress a $2.2 billion emergency aid package for Israel. These economic pressures impacted the U.S. decision to pressure Israel to agree to a cease-fire on October 22.
ADDRESSING “HOW” MILITARILY: EGYPTIANS EXPLOIT ISRAELI VULNERABILITIES
To implement this strategy, the Egyptian armed forces focused on exploiting Israeli vulnerabilities in three areas: intelligence, air power, and armed forces. Israel’s decisive victory in 1967 was largely due to excellent intelligence regarding Arab war plans, capabilities, and vulnerabilities. The tremendous success by Israeli Military Intelligence, however, made the country overconfident. As a result, Israel based its war planning on the assumption of having accurate intelligence, which predicted a 48-hour warning of an impending Arab attack. This would later prove a major impediment in October 1973, when its miscalculation resulted in the inability to mobilize troops in time to fight the Egyptians and Syrians.
Arguably, Egypt’s success in exploiting Israeli vulnerabilities in intelligence was largely due to its adversary’s mistakes; however, as mentioned earlier, Sadat pursued a deliberate plan to deceive Israeli Military Intelligence and disguise his intentions. He started by orchestrating a massive media campaign, which included the planting of information in newspapers to make it seem Egypt was not ready for war. Sadat also made subtle moves, such as telling a foreign minister of a certain European country he was going to be at the United Nations in October 1973 because he predicted the minister would tell Israeli officials. He took several measures to confuse Israel regarding his intentions earlier in May that year by mobilizing Egyptian troops. He did the same in August, and the Israelis responded once again by mobilizing its forces. When Egypt conducted the same move in October, however, Israel did not mobilize. When asked why he made this decision, Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan said Sadat “made me do it twice, at a cost of ten million dollars each time. So, when it was the third time round I thought he wasn’t serious.” Not only did Israel consider the costliness of mobilization, Israeli intelligence pointing to the unlikelihood of war and the specific date also played an important factor. Israel was wary of calling up reserves on Oct. 5, which was the eve of Yom Kippur.
Regardless of whether intelligence could predict an Egyptian attack within 48-hours, Israeli intelligence also failed to calculate the time at which Egyptian troops could cross the Suez Canal. After 1967, Israel set up sand embankments on the eastern side of the canal and a defensive line of fortifications known as the Bar Lev. Breaching the sand embankments would take considerable time, providing a period for Israeli forces to mobilize. Israeli intelligence failed to predict Egypt’s use of an ingenious solution: a water pump. Instead of the five to six hours 600 pounds of explosives and one bulldozer required to clear 1,500 cubic meters of sand, water pumps could clear the embankments within two to three.
Egyptians were also concerned about the Israeli Air Force. In contrast to Egypt, Israel’s war strategy depended on maintaining air superiority. Over half its defense budget went to the air force. For this reason, Israel assumed Egypt would not launch a major war without first ensuring sufficient air power, considering a fight in open desert almost suicidal after lessons learned in 1967. To challenge Israeli air superiority, Egypt employed integrated air-defense systems, comprised of SAM-2s, SAM-3s, SAM-6s, SAM-7s, and ZSU-23-4s. Sadat had to strike a delicate balance with the Soviets after expelling its advisers to continue receiving military aid that provided for these technological means.
Israel’s ground forces were the third element Egyptians needed to address in its exploitation of vulnerabilities. Israel maintained predominantly tank-intensive forces after their successes in 1967, where armored brigades led by tanks with little or no infantry support allowed for the lightning advance across the Sinai desert. Not only did Israel emphasize armor in budget allocations, it also altered its doctrine and reorganized its forces, converting several infantry brigades into armor units. Instead of focusing on future wars, the Israeli Defense Force prepared to fight the last one by relying on what worked best in 1967: intelligence, air power, and tanks. The Egyptians exploited this emphasis by employing Soviet anti-tank missiles such as Saggers and RPG-7s. Israel’s predominantly armored units lacked enough infantry, mortars, and artillery to subdue Egyptian infantry armed with these weapons in 1973.
THE EGYPTIAN ASSAULT AND THE SHATTERING OF ISRAELI INVINCIBILITY
On October 6 at 4:30 a.m., Israeli intelligence reported an impending Arab attack. A source indicated a joint Egyptian-Syrian attack would take place at 6 p.m. that day. Not only did Israeli intelligence fail to issue a 48-hour warning in advance of an attack, it predicted the wrong time of attack, actually scheduled for 2 p.m. Israeli reserves and troops were still mobilizing during the initial assault. Almost every element in the Egyptian crossing operation went according to plan. In Sadat’s memoir, he recalls, “Israel had been boasting of the Six-Day war; now we could boast of the Six-Hour War.” The attack stunned virtually everyone in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said, “The circumstances could not possibly have been worse. In the first two or three days of the war, only a thin line of brave young men stood between us and disaster.”
Matters for the Israeli military only seemed to get worse as confusion consumed the battlefield. Israeli commanders failed to order the evacuation of strong points, despite the Egyptian surprise attack. It was not until mid-morning on October 7 that Israeli Chief of Staff David Elazar issued the order to evacuate the outposts in proximity of major enemy thrusts. By then, many of the men who had remained at the strong points were surrounded by Egyptian troops or had either been killed or captured. Furthermore, Israeli military doctrine called upon Israelis to never abandon their fellow soldiers. Many Israeli commanders instinctively responded to desperate calls for help, rushing to the strong points. High losses experienced by the Israelis occurred during the first several days of the war in these fortifications, which served as killing grounds for Egyptian troops who ambushed their counterattacks.
Sadat’s goal of striking a psychological blow against Israel started to come to fruition on the second day. The Egyptian troops had already damaged a great deal of Israeli equipment and men. By the end of the morning on the second day, one armored brigade reported its tank count falling from 100 to 23. The heavy losses of men took a toll on Israeli soldiers. General Ariel Sharon recounted that day when he observed troops pulling back from the Suez Canal: “I…saw something strange on their faces—not fear but bewilderment. Suddenly something was happening to them that had never happened before.” Similar sentiment emanated from senior officials. Dayan described October 7 in his morning report as the Day of Judgment and the “fall of the Third Commonwealth.”
The third day of war sealed the full impact of Egyptian and Syrian tactical achievements after a foiled Israeli counterattack. Despite Egyptians clearly holding the initiative on October 8, the Israel Defense Force was determined to stall an expected attack on the passes with its own major countermove. Egyptian resilience and Israeli mistakes, however, ultimately defeated the counterattack. Fog and friction had dominated the battlefield, causing heavy Israeli losses in men and equipment. Despite these losses, the Israelis failed to achieve any tactical or operational gains. Many Israeli historians and analysts consider October 8, 1973, as the worst day in the history of the Israeli military.
THE ISRAELI RESURGENCE AND END OF HOSTILITIES
After three days of surprising successes and soaring confidence, Egyptian commanders and senior officials called for the taking of the Sinai passes. Despite mounting pressure, Sadat remained steadfast, focusing on political ends rather than military means. He preferred caution over a reckless mistake of pushing too fast just for the sake of gaining more territory. Adhering to his original strategy, Sadat told his commanders to continue focusing on Israeli casualties. He wanted time to conduct secret diplomacy with the United States.
By October 9, however, the military situation on the second front was deteriorating. Sadat started to receive Syrian calls for help. A special emissary from Asad traveled to Cairo on October 11, pleading for the Egyptians to relieve Israeli pressure in the Golan. Confronted with the possibility of losing political credibility in the Arab world, Sadat felt compelled to demonstrate solidarity with the Syrians against Israel. Economic factors may also have influenced his decision, because Egypt relied heavily on financial assistance from Arab oil-producing countries. Taking the offensive in the Sinai, however, would significantly alter the course of the war. On October 14, Egyptian forces implemented orders to take the passes, resulting in sheer disaster as a result of attempting an offensive attack too late with insufficient forces. With Israeli troops reinforced with U.S. antitank TOW (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided) missiles, the Egyptians were unable to penetrate Israel’s defensive positions. Before the end of the day, Egyptian forces were in full retreat to their bridgeheads. In their wake, they left behind some 250 destroyed tanks, which surpassed the 240 tanks they lost from October 6-13.
With an opportunity to seize the initiative, the Israelis devised a crossing operation for October 15. While the assault resulted in intense fighting and heavy losses, Israeli forces were successful. Nevertheless, Sadat’s goal of shattering Israel’s belief in its security was reinforced when Israeli commanders were increasingly concerned about casualties. As a result, Israeli commanders began to gravitate toward operations that favored armored tactics as opposed to infantry support. Despite achieving heavy Israeli casualties, Sadat became increasingly concerned. The Israeli forces had pushed their way to within about a kilometer of the main Cairo-Ismailia highway. Sadat’s hope now rested with the United States and the Soviet Union, who agreed to sponsor a UN resolution calling for a cease-fire. The Americans were crucial in pressuring Israel to abide by the resolution on October 22. Israel, however, broke the ceasefire by continuing its advance after claiming Egypt fired on Israeli forces first.
During this time, the Soviet Union and the United States became increasingly concerned about being drawn into the war. Moscow made it clear to Nixon that if Washington would not pressure Israel to cooperate and stop its violation of the ceasefire, the Soviets might be faced with taking appropriate steps unilaterally. The Soviet Union placed seven airborne divisions on a heightened state of alert and increased its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Responding to Soviet actions, the United States decided to raise the U.S. nuclear alert to Defense Condition 3 (DEFCON3), the first of such an alert since the Cuban Missile Crisis 11 years prior. After U.S. pressure, Israel agreed to a second ceasefire on October 25.
THE WAR’S IMPACT IN ISRAEL
While Israel emerged from the war militarily victorious—encircling Suez City and penetrating 20km into Syria—Sadat achieved his goal of destroying Israeli confidence in its security and reorienting U.S. policy in the Middle East. Over 2,800 Israelis died in the war, and 7,500 were wounded. For a small country like Israel, this figure was immense. If compared to U.S. losses in Vietnam, which numbered around 50,000, Americans would have suffered 200,000 dead in proportion to the number of Israelis killed in 1973. Another type of casualty arose in the Israel Defense Forces. Prior to 1973, there were few psychiatric cases resulting from battle. The war, however, produced a high ratio of cases.
After the war, Israelis became obsessed with the question of what went wrong. With mandatory service, all Israeli homes felt the effects of war and called for accountability and an inquiry to investigate the failure of the government and Israeli military. After a series of protests, Meir agreed to the conduct of an investigation, carried out by the Agranat Commission. The investigation criticized Israeli Military Intelligence for failing to provide accurate information pointing to a high probability of war and recommended the termination of its director’s career, among a few others. Its report also found Elazar seriously negligent in his overconfidence in the Israeli military’s ability to repel an attack on two fronts. It criticized him for not ordering a partial mobilization by the morning of October 5 as a precautionary measure and called for his resignation. The commission also criticized the Israel Defense Force for lacking a detailed plan based on realistic assessments of Syrian and Egyptian capabilities in the event of a surprise attack.
While many other military officials received negative evaluations, the commission failed to indict the Israeli political leadership. As a result, there was public outrage and protests throughout the country. Many Israelis felt the commission used the military leadership as a scapegoat for the failure caused by Meir and Dayan. The national turmoil had already affected politics, with Meir’s Labor Party losing six of its previous 57 Knesset seats in the December elections. Meir was unable to form a coalition until March 10, 1974. With public outrage over the report, however, Meir decided to step down as prime minister on April 11, 1974. When another round of elections occurred in 1977, Menachem Begin and the Likud Party came to power, ending the Labor Party’s control of the country, a tenure that had endured since the establishment of the state in 1948.
It is important to note the formation of the Agranat Commission and the political changes within Israel, because they shed light upon the effects caused by the war. One of Sadat’s main objectives in 1973 was the disintegration of Israeli invincibility and confidence in its security. He achieved this by inflicting heavy casualties in a limited war that came as a surprise to Israel. The war humbled his adversary and altered the Israeli political landscape. Furthermore, it brought the Israelis to the negotiating table.
PEACE AT A HIGH PRICE
After the war, the United States altered its policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. A situation emerged that provided an opportunity to increase U.S. influence at Soviet expense. Washington now worked toward promoting peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt. Despite failing to achieve a military victory in the war, Sadat fulfilled his political objective of reorienting relations toward the West. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was key in the negotiations and intermediated directly between the two countries to keep the Soviets out of the peace process. The war also resulted in mending Egypt’s failing economy, which Sadat had aimed to do by reorienting Egypt’s relationship from the Soviet Union to the United States. Washington began sending Egypt economic assistance, making the country America’s main recipient of foreign aid after Israel.
Not only was Sadat able to attract Western capital, he also restored Egyptian pride. In his memoir, Sadat described the war as changing the world order. He said the “Arab people were no longer a ‘lifeless body’ but a world power—they could fight, and in fact defeat, Israel.” Sadat also noted Egypt did not go to war for the sake of war, but for a “respectable place at the negotiating table.” Sadat’s objective was fulfilled after Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula in September 1978 as a result of the Camp David Accords. On March 26, 1979, Egypt and Israel signed a historic peace treaty.
After making peace with Israel, many in the Arab world viewed Sadat as a traitor, calling him Israel’s man and an American puppet. Sadat also faced opposition at home. Egypt’s National Unionist Progressive Party publicly denounced the peace treaty, saying it was made at the expense of Arabs. After a failed plot to overthrow Sadat and numerous plans to assassinate him, one eventually succeeded. On October 6, 1981, Sadat was assassinated at the annual victory parade held in Cairo celebrating the crossing of the Suez Canal during the 1973 October War.
While Sadat was able to achieve his objectives through a strategy focused on political gains as opposed to military victory, his efforts ultimately cost him his life and isolated Egypt from the Arab world. Furthermore, his bold moves, which involved the delicate balance of secrets and manipulation in order to surprise the Israelis, were risky. If Israeli intelligence had discovered his intent earlier, his plan would have been foiled. Regardless of an intelligence failure, Elazar could have called for partial mobilization on October 5 after witnessing a large number of Arab troops massing on the Syrian and Egyptian fronts. If Elazar had done so, the Egyptians may have been unable to assault the fortified positions along the Bar Lev line. Instead of political gains, Sadat would have incurred heavy human and material losses. He also probably would not have survived politically.
Moreover, Sadat’s strategy hinged on the belief that an Arab initiative in the first 24-hours would result in shattering the myth of Israeli invincibility. Sadat had no way of knowing how Israel would react to heavy casualties, despite achieving a military victory. Sadat’s strategy also relied on Western involvement. If the United States had not pressured Israel to accept a ceasefire, Israeli forces could have made it all the way to Cairo. In such a scenario, Sadat would have placed Egypt at an even lower position at the negotiating table.
Sadat, however, understood these gambles. He once told a close adviser he liked men who took risks: “If they were prepared to do what they believe in and accept the consequences…without the willingness to take such risks, nothing would ever change.” Sadat saw a limited war as the only way to address Egypt’s economic woes, restore Arab self-confidence, and achieve a lasting peace with Israel. According to Clausewitz, military leaders should be “guided by the laws of probability.” In waging war, there is a lack of clarity, and risks must be undertaken. Sadat’s probability assessment ultimately proved correct, and the risks he undertook were crucial in forcing a more powerful adversary and two superpowers to change their attitudes toward the Middle East.
The 1973 October War illustrates how war is an instrument of policy by other means. Other than Sadat, few would have predicted a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel as a result of a fourth Arab-Israeli war. When the Egyptian president addressed the Israeli Knesset on November 20, 1977, he acknowledged his responsibility to employ any instrument necessary to achieve this peace, saying:
“God Almighty has made it my fate to assume responsibility on behalf of the Egyptian people…the main duty of which, dictated by responsibility, is to exploit all and every means in a bid to save my Egyptian Arab people and the pan-Arab nation from the horrors of new suffering and destructive wars, the dimensions of which are foreseen only by God Himself.”
After four Arab-Israeli wars, Sadat could finally conclude his address in Jerusalem with “Salam Aleikum—peace be upon you.”
*All footnotes can be found in the original publication here.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Tens of Thousands of Syrian Rebels Poised to Regroup,” The Cipher Brief, October 12, 2017
Al Qaeda’s role in the Syrian civil war drastically increased after the al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) managed to take control of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and position itself as the strongest rebel force battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. HTS has built accumulated support in Syria by focusing its attention on battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as opposed to concentrating its efforts on international targets. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross to discuss HTS’ influence in Syria, the organization’s overall strategy, and the group’s short and long-term objectives.
The Cipher Brief: Al Qaeda-linked militants in Syria formed an umbrella group known Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has incorporated several Syrian rebel factions. It has taken hold of Idlib province in northwestern Syria, and now represents the strongest opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. How has the group managed to consolidate power? Does it represent a formidable rebel force?
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: Many factors contributed to HTS’ creation. One set of factors was endogenous to its predecessor organization, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). JFS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani faced internal pressures within his organization that moved him toward seeing HTS as strategically necessary. A second set of factors is exogenous to JFS, including the relationships between rebel groups. Five militant factions that were clashing with JFS joined the militant group Ahrar al-Sham, at least in part. This expansion of Ahrar al-Sham with groups hostile to JFS provided the impetus for JFS to accelerate efforts to swell its ranks.
But in addition to these endogenous and exogenous factors, there is a strategic dimension to HTS’ formation, and earlier moves on the part of HTS’ predecessors enabled the group’s later consolidation of power. Prior to JFS’ formation, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria was known as Jabhat al-Nusra. In contrast to the Islamic State’s (ISIS) decision to try to dominate all militant factions on the ground, Nusra adopted more of a big tent approach of cooperation with other rebel groups. A significant step in the group’s evolution toward becoming HTSwas then-Nusra front emir Julani’s emirate plan. Revealed through leaked audio in July 2014, the plan called for the announcement of an emirate in the Levant and implementation of sharia in areas the emirate controlled. To create an emirate, Nusra would have to unify disparate militant efforts in Syria and fend off the challenge posed by ISIS.
Nusra took advantage of the fact that it was then widely regarded as a spent force, so U.S. airstrikes did not focus on it. The only time the U.S. hit Nusra targets during this period was when the U.S. struck at the “Khorasan Group” (affiliated with al Qaeda’s core leadership), which was embedded with Nusra and other rebel groups. The Pentagon said at the time that the Khorasan Group was plotting to attack American and Western interests. The United States’ narrow targeting of the Khorasan Group while Nusra was left largely unchecked was driven in part by the fact that Nusra was heavily intertwined with other rebel factions and the U.S. did not want to be seen as attacking the anti-Assad rebels as a whole. However, this targeting decision also helped Nusra/al Qaeda achieve a stronger base in Syria.
Following the announcement of the emirate plan, Nusra was able to assemble the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in March 2015. As the New York Times has noted, Jaysh al-Fatah was “a loose alliance” rather than a “unified army.” That is, its members shared resources, coordinated military efforts, but remained “independent, and there is no overall military commander.” Jaysh al-Fatah was predominantly composed of Islamist factions, including Nusra and also the group that is now the most prominent Sunni rebel alternative to HTS(other than ISIS), Ahrar al-Sham. One key impetus behind Jaysh al-Fatah’s creation was the fact that ISIS had gobbled up Deir ez-Zor from April to July 2014, taking the governorate from al-Qaeda and other rebels. This defeat made clear that Nusra needed a new military approach. Jaysh al-Fatah began with a bang, capturing the provincial capital of Idlib the same month that it was announced. The coalition was able to carve out a safe haven that was approximately the size of one of the smaller New England states.
Another key step toward HTS’ formation was Nusra/JFS’s public dissociation from al Qaeda. This announcement proved to be a precursor step to the formation of HTS. HTS was initially formed by five rebel factions: JFS, Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zinki, Liwa al-Haq, Liwa Ansar al-Din, and Jaysh al-Sunna. It is unlike Jaysh al-Fatah in the sense that the factions that make up HTS no longer retain a nominal separate identity. Instead, they officially dissolved, becoming part of a new entity.
Does it represent a formidable rebel force? Yes. Ahrar al-Sham has lost a number of fighters to HTS through defection, and as of January 2017 the Middle East newscompany Al-Sharq Al-Awsat estimated that HTS had 31,000 fighters. Though such estimates should be viewed with some caution, as even official estimates of the numbers in Syria-based militant factions have proven to be unreliable in important ways in the past, the core idea that the group has tens of thousands of fighters seems correct.
TCB: What are HTS’ objectives? Does it prioritize ousting Assad from power or attacking regional and international adversaries such as Turkey, the EU, and the U.S.?
Gartenstein-Ross: Objectives and priorities should be understood as separate things. Forsalafi jihadist groups like HTS, their long-term objectives, or ultimate goals, are inherently rooted in their ideology. Salafi jihadism is a violent outgrowth of the salafi movement, and has several long-term objectives that drive its use of violence. One objective is to impose sharia, or Islamic law, a goal that can be seen in Julani’s emirate plan; sharia has also consistently been implemented by al Qaeda affiliates whenever they have been able to capture distinct geographic areas, including in Northern Mali, Somali, Yemen, and elsewhere. Another objective of the salafi jihadist movement is reestablishment of the caliphate. Al Qaeda leaders have made numerous references to the need to reestablish the caliphate, though they rejected ISIS’ claim to have done so as illegitimate because it did not fulfill the necessary prerequisites.
The caliphate’s alleged establishment did not end ISIS’ war against the infidels, nor would it do so for al Qaeda. One work that shows how jihadists envision their fight continuing even after the caliphate has been restored is Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein’s influential 2005 book Al-Zarqawi: The Second Generation of al-Qaeda, which Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright has called “perhaps the most definitive outline of al-Qaeda’s master plan.” Hussein shows that al Qaeda’s strategists foresaw a “stage of all-out confrontation” with the forces of atheism after the caliphate is established. Hussein writes, “Al-Qaeda ideologues believe that the all-out confrontation with the forces of falsehood will take a few years at most. The enormous potential of the Islamic state—particularly because the Muslim population will amount to more than 1.5 billion—will terrify the enemy and prompt them to retreat rapidly.”
But long-term objectives do not dictate current priorities, which are driven by a group’s situation and strategy. There is no evidence that HTS’ current priority is attacking Turkey, the EU, and the U.S., which would likely be strategically counterproductive. Instead, HTS seems intent on consolidating its power in parts of Syria. Jihadist groups have a tendency to intermingle the local with the transnational, so we should not take its current local prioritization as unchangeable – but the group is currently emphasizing the local, while its overarching objectives remain transnational.
TCB: HTS publicly severed ties with the al-Qaeda network while under its previous name, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Does the group still maintain ties to al-Qaeda?
Gartenstein-Ross: I assess it as highly probable that HTS maintains ties to al Qaeda. When al Qaeda first moved into the Syria theater, its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra disguised the fact that it was part of the al Qaeda organization. This was designed to allow it to operate as part of a broader rebel coalition. ISIS ultimately forced Nusra to reveal its relationship with al Qaeda when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi publicly claimed that Nusra was subservient to him. In response, Julani acknowledged Nusra’s affiliation with al Qaeda, and appealed to Zawahiri to resolve his dispute with Baghdadi. While Zawahiri did side with Julani, he was not happy that, in responding to Baghdadi, Julani showed “his links to al-Qaeda without having our permission or advice, even without notifying us.”
There are several examples of al Qaeda employing clandestine connections to its affiliates. Indeed, an official al Qaeda publication outlines what may have been intended by JFS’ public dissociation, as Al-Masra (a weekly newsletter of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that is a key source for understanding al Qaeda’s thinking) published an article by the pseudonymous Osama bin Saleh on August 9, 2016. In a section of his letter titled “Not Standing Out,” Saleh reiterated that al-Qaeda never wanted a publicly-acknowledged affiliate in Syria. He quoted the May 2014 passage from Zawahiri reprimanding Julani for announcing al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria without authorization. Bin Saleh also pointed to an August 2010 letter (previously released by the U.S. government) from bin Laden to Ahmed Godane, the emir of Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab. Bin Laden told Godane that Shabaab’s “unity” with al-Qaeda “should be carried out … through unannounced secret messaging.” Godane and his men could spread the news that Shabaab had joined al-Qaeda “among the people of Somalia,” but should not make “any official declaration” of allegiance. The letter to Godane made clear that Shabaab was already part of al-Qaeda at the time, but bin Laden believed ambiguity was a strategic advantage. “If the matter becomes declared and out in the open, it would have the enemies escalate their anger and mobilize against you,” bin Laden wrote. Though bin Laden conceded that “enemies will find out inevitably” about Shabaab’s allegiance to al-Qaeda, he argued that “an official declaration remains to be the master of all proof.” Bin Saleh underlined the point: “Notice that the leadership of the organization [al-Qaeda] was not passionate about declaring their relationship with other factions, in order to avoid confrontation with the enemies and … denying them excuses.”
While open sources do not fully answer the question of HTS’ connection to al Qaeda – just as in the past they did not fully answer questions about al Qaeda’s connection to groups like al-Shabaab or Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia until important documents were later made public – I would advise keeping this strategic calculus in mind when considering the question.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Terrorists Are Using Drones Now. And That’s Not the Worst of It,” Fortune, September 9, 2017
Sixteen years after the 9/11 attacks and the onset of the “war on terror,” the jihadist movement has grown stronger in almost every measurable way. Jihadists enjoy more safe havens throughout the globe, control more territory, are at the forefront of more insurgencies, and have achieved more popular support than they did 16 years ago. The pace and lethality of terrorist attacks in Europe represents something of a nightmare scenario, with hundreds of Europeans dying in the past three years. ISIS’s mobilization of foreign fighters creates a looming security issue across dozens of countries that will have to deal with returning fighters.
While the factors leading us to this alarming state of affairs are many—including ill conceived foreign adventures and critical misreadings by analysts at key junctures, including the lead-up to the Iraq war and early on the Arab uprisings—we cannot overlook how technological advances have provided terrorists with significant new opportunities.
Technology has tended to have an ambiguous impact on sub-state violence. While militant groups seek to capitalize on new advances, states can leverage these same platforms, including for surveillance and getting information from local populations.
One of the most important studies on this issue, by political scientists Jacob Shapiro and Nils Weidmann, used micro-level data from Iraq to compare trends in cell phone network penetration with insurgent violence. The trends in declining violence that Shapiro and Weidmann found suggested to them “that cell phone coverage reduces insurgent violence largely because it enhances voluntary information flow from noncombatants to counterinsurgents by reducing the risks of informing.”
The ambiguous impact of new technologies appears to have given way in recent years, with militant groups capturing the upper hand. This is likely because the world has witnessed breakthroughs across so many spheres at once that exploiting new advances has proven easier for those who would use them to destroy—who have the easier job—than for those who want to use them to protect.
An early sign of this shifting technological advantage was the way ISIS combined a deft exploitation of social media’s potential with advances in DIY video production techniques to craft slick and effective propaganda that helped drive a record number of foreign fighters to the Syria-Iraq theater.
Though suspensions of pro-ISIS accounts by service providers reduced, but did not eliminate, the returns ISIS could expect from social media, the militant group had already found other creative ways to exploit new advances.
The post-Edward Snowden boom in end-to-end encryption allowed ISIS to forge digital methods of providing the same services to remote operatives that physical terrorist networks once provided. Over the past few years, Syria-based ISIS operatives have found recruits online, spurred them to action, and played an intimate role in the conceptualization, target selection, timing, and execution of attacks. They used encrypted communication platforms to assist in bomb-making techniques. Virtual planners have even helped operatives who got cold feet, literally coaching them until the moment they blew themselves up.
The virtual planner model has helped transform lone attackers who rely on the Internet from the bungling wannabes of a decade ago into something more dangerous. These operatives have been seamlessly incorporated into jihadist groups’ global strategy in a way they never were before.
Then there are advances that haven’t yet been used in Western countries, but that militant groups are already beginning to master. As Iraqi forces retook Mosul from ISIS, the militant group used drones to drop explosives on the advancing soldiers. And then there are the powerful, improvised explosive devices that have become all too common in the war zones of the Middle East and South Asia—designs that we fortunately haven’t yet seen successfully migrate to Western cities.
Over time, the advantages of new technologies may swing back in favor of states. It’s possible that this will result from hard work on the part of governments that grapple with whether their organizational design is sufficient to deal with the perils and promises of new technologies. But for now, the efficacy of militant groups continues to rise, and every time you stop to admire a new app or tech toy, someone else is wondering how they can use it to kill.
We should brace for worse.
George Selim & Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Save the Terrorism Prevention Toolkit,” War on the Rocks, August 28, 2017
The images from Charlottesville captured the nation’s attention. Cameras showed Nazi salutes, swastikas, and militant antifa counter-protesters. As pepper spray and ramming vehicles supplanted debate, those events highlighted ideological strains different from the jihadist movement that dominates discussion of violent extremism in America. It may be surprising, then, that the U.S. government’s efforts to counter violent extremism of all ideological varieties has been the subject of growing controversy.
The government’s efforts to counter violent extremism — a bundle of programs known as CVE — rest on the premise that America cannot arrest and kill its way to victory against militant groups. CVE aims to intervene in the process of violent radicalization with a collection of non-coercive, non-violent, and voluntary activities. CVE’s detractors have been energized by President Donald Trump’s election. On the left, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice, while decrying the president’s “animosity towards Muslims,” cheered the prospect that his administration might “dismantle, or at the very least substantially reconfigure,” the domestic CVE apparatus. On the right, a Heritage Foundation-based commentator argued that CVE should focus exclusively on “the threat posed by Islamism.”
While CVE has always had opponents, its adversaries now occupy influential political positions in the new administration. Whether the government will embrace an anti-CVE tack remains unclear. Despite the ascension of CVE skeptics, this year the Department of Homeland Security authorized its Office for Community Partnerships to release 26 CVE grants to community organizations, with a total of $10 million in awards. At the time the grants were approved, one of this article’s co-authors (George Selim) served as the office’s director, while the other author (Daveed Gartenstein-Ross) served as a senior advisor to the director.
The terminology of violent extremism was first used during the Bush administration, and the policies designed to counter the phenomenon were driven by career civil servants. The Bush administration recognized the ideological component of jihadist groups, and pioneered a preventive approach to weaken the pull of the ideas motivating these groups. This was the original “war of ideas.” (The architects of the preventive approach, though, did not view ideology as the exclusive or primary driver of extremist violence in all cases.) This realization led Bush administration officials to adopt a multidisciplinary approach to reducing the appeal of extremist violence, an approach that continued under Obama.
Community-driven CVE has proven valuable in advancing U.S. national interests. Modifications to the programs are in our view welcome, but many criticisms of community-driven CVE are off-base or misapprehend what it is. The events in Charlottesville underscore the reason why framing CVE broadly, rather than honing in on a single ideology, is a necessity rather than a politically correct frivolity. Abandonment of community-driven CVE would leave behind a dangerous void. We believe it is important for Americans to understand how domestic CVE efforts were conceived, and the programs that comprise them. But first, perhaps nothing illuminates the great promise of CVE better than the stunning success that such efforts achieved in a place far from our shores — a small Belgian town called Vilvoorde.
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Vilvoorde is a small Flemish town near Brussels, often described as “sleepy.” Between 2012 and 2014, 28 individuals from Vilvoorde left to join jihadist groups in Syria — an unprecedented number for a town of less than 40,000 people, and the highest recruitment rate in Western Europe. “We have seen young people leaving from virtually every secondary school in my city or from every neighborhood,” Vilvoorde’s mayor, Hans Bonte, recalled.
But 2014 was a turning point for the city. Bonte instituted a CVE program, modeled on American efforts, centered on prevention and intervention. One aspect of this program brought together mothers of deceased Belgian foreign fighters, foreign fighter returnees, police officers, teachers, and local religious officials to reclaim Islamic religious terms and cultural practices from the terrorists. And after glimpsing signs of radicalization in children as young as 11 years old, Vilvoorde created another engagement program centered on a youth center that would provide teenagers with a positive social environment and educational opportunities.
Elsewhere in Europe, foreign fighter travel to Syria spiked following the announcement by the Islamic State (ISIL) that it had reestablished the caliphate. Vilvoorde, though, saw the number of its citizens who turned to terrorism or departed for Syria drop to zero. Local officials attributed this stunning success to their CVE efforts.
Vilvoorde is a striking example of what CVE can accomplish in adverse circumstances. It is highly unlikely that an approached based exclusively on law enforcement — surveillance, detention, and arrest — could have achieved a comparable degree of success. Round-the-clock surveillance of a single individual who is radicalized and believed to pose a risk of violence requires around two dozen officers. Vilvoorde did not have the resources to deal with every subject through surveillance and arrest, a situation mirrored throughout Europe, where counter-terrorism officials have been warning for over a decade that their security services are overstretched. These resource constraints challenge even the United States, which faces a less daunting problem with extremist violence than does Europe.
For Vilvoorde, CVE represented both an effective and cost-efficient alternative to sole reliance on strict counterterrorism measures. Whereas “counter-terrorism” implies countering an individual who, in the eyes of the law, has already taken steps toward committing a terrorist act or joining a terrorist group, CVE counters recruitment, focusing on the root causes of terrorist motivations, and working to either prevent those causes or provide “off-ramps” for individuals who may have taken steps toward embracing ideologically-motivated violence. It works, in part, by thinning the herd of those who might pose a danger.
Why look at Belgium? CVE’s successes have been more dramatic in Western Europe than in the United States for a few interlocking reasons. First, Europe has a more significant problem with extremism than does the United States. Since it starts from a baseline of more dramatic difficulties, European countries also have the opportunity to produce more dramatic successes. Second, Western European countries like Britain, Germany, France, and Belgium have poured more resources into CVE efforts than has the U.S. government. Third, the U.S. government has been less aggressive about a certain aspect of CVE — intervention into the process of radicalization — than have Western European countries. In our view, more focus on intervention by the U.S. government would yield better results. Thus, examples from European countries like Belgium illustrate CVE’s potential — and, in particular, its potential when the circumstances are most adverse.
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The Obama administration was actually rather slow to stamp its own imprimatur on this set of policies. From a perch within government, one of this article’s co-authors (Selim) discerned a long evaluation period: It seemingly took about two years for the Obama administration to really sink its teeth into issues related to CVE, which resulted in carrying over the policies of the previous administration.
From the Bush administration onward, the U.S. government has implemented several kinds of community-driven CVE programs. Such programs hold that government can engage relevant communities in reducing the chances that those in their midst might be driven to violent action. A sizable amount of focus in the United States and Europe has been on Islamist terrorism (though, compared to Western Europe, a fractional amount of resources has been spent by the U.S government), but it is important to note there has not been an exclusive focus on Islamist terrorism.
The U.K. government’s disclosures, for example, make it clear that while Islamist terrorism rates as the top concern, right-wing extremism ranks second. But there have also been interventions in other ideological sectors, including with left-wing, anarchist, and Sikh extremists. While Sikh extremism doesn’t register as a major issue for most Americans, the deadliest terrorist attack in Canadian history came from this movement. British interventions related to left-wing and Sikh extremism have tended to be more isolated, with more generalized programs of intervention focusing on Islamist and right-wing ideologies.
There are many similarities between the radicalization and recruitment processes of domestic-extremist groups and foreign terrorist organizations. Both cast nets far and wide with their messages, hoping to catch individuals with the right state of mind, or “cognitive opening,” to be susceptible to recruitment. Both cultivate followers with a steady stream of proselytization that includes tactics and techniques to spew hate, or even commit acts of terror. And while federal authorities and police need to be right 100 percent of the time to stop attacks, extremists need only to be right once in their attempts to incite violence and terrorism. These attempts are repeated continuously.
What do community-driven CVE policies actually entail? One type of CVE policy is counter-messaging designed to refute extremist propaganda. One of us (Selim) was serving in a National Security Council staff position when ISIL came to international prominence in early 2014. Across the U.S. government, there were intense discussions about how to counter the group’s alarming ability to recruit. ISIL was making sophisticated use of social media, jihadist messaging was becoming markedly higher in quality, and radicalization was occurring exponentially faster than in the past.
Fashioning a response involved reaching out to private-sector colleagues at EdVenture Partners, who specialize in building industry-education partnerships, for help developing online grassroots campaigns by college and university students across the globe. The goal was to create a swell of content pushing back against ISIL’s digital onslaught. The first semester of the resulting “peer-to-peer” program was piloted in the fall of 2015. The U.S. government and its partners constructed a 15-week academic syllabus that faculty could use to turn their classrooms into a laboratory for countering ISIL’s messaging.
College classes in mass communications, digital media, marketing, political science, and some other social sciences from across the United States (and also internationally) were tasked with identifying an audience, designing a social-media campaign, implementing the campaign, and measuring its effectiveness — all on a budget of $1,000 to $2,000. Participating campuses competed against each other for prize money and notoriety. At the end of the semester, all the programs were evaluated by participants from the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and executives from private social-media firms. The Lahore University of Management Sciences ended up winning the competition, with West Point coming in second. Counter-narratives generated through this competition reached 4.5 million people.
Different situations call for different tools. Around 2008, there was a noticeable spike in the radicalization and recruitment of young Somali-Americans in Minneapolis’s Twin Cities area, with dozens traveling back to Somalia to join militant groups. It soon became clear to civil servants working on the issue that the Twin Cities-based Somali-American community lacked key information that could help it prevent radicalization in its midst. Officials recognized commonalities between the situation in the Twin Cities and that of other communities — including Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities — where foreign terrorist organizations were trying to radicalize and recruit young people, especially online.
Early in the Obama administration, a number of federal officials who had specialized in outreach and engagement with the American Muslim community created the Community Awareness Briefing program. (One of this article’s co-authors was a part of this effort.) The Community Awareness Briefing became a critical tool through which the federal government could clearly and effectively, in a non-threatening fashion, help educate families, parents, and educators about the threat of radicalization and recruitment. As in the Twin Cities, the briefing often served as a conversation-starter that could produce deeper discussions about offering resources to communities to help them develop comprehensive plans for building and enhancing community resilience, intervention programs, and the like.
In some ways, the challenges presented by radicalization are similar to those posed by human trafficking. Both happen right under people’s noses; without knowing the signs to look for, many observers will find the phenomenon hard to spot. So, addressing the problem often necessitates first raising awareness about its nature and scope. The interagency CVE Task Force used the Community Awareness Briefing as a key instrument for raising awareness about the nature and scope of the threat.
But some of the most important results of CVE are less direct. The approach builds trust between communities and authorities. For recent immigrants arriving from countries like Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Libya, engaging with police or security services may seem like an alien concept. These exercises, in addition to imparting information, help to humanize the government. Community members can see first-hand the ways that law enforcement approaches are nuanced, and can actually serve the community.
This trust can benefit the community. Those who have experienced CVE engagements are more likely to come to authorities with their problems. These bonds of trust also make communities more hostile to violent extremist recruiting efforts.
But training and engagement can only extend so far: interventions begin where someone subscribing to violent extremist ideas, who may pose a danger, has been identified. Intervention efforts are more robust in Europe than in the United States. In America, intervention unfortunately remains an unmet post-9/11 priority. European efforts often include an ideological dimension, in part because the U.S.’s conception of the separation between church and state differs from that of its European allies.
Other kinds of interventions involve mental-health professionals. While terrorists, generally speaking, suffer from mental illness at a lesser rate than the general population, it is still a factor in some cases. Anecdotal evidence suggests that lone-wolf terrorists (as opposed to those affiliated with groups) are “relatively likely to suffer from some form of personality disorder.” Intervention teams may bring together social workers, psychology professionals, and, when needed, police.
Interventions are intended to give individuals who are at risk of violent extremist radicalization a way to get off the ledge other than being arrested. Employing interventions rather than a criminal-only approach relates to the key insight driving CVE efforts: that neither the United States nor its allies have the resources to deal with violent extremism solely through policing efforts when the problem is large, as it sadly is today. It is necessary to thin the numbers of people who may engage in extremist violence.
This is also a superior alternative for families who have a son or daughter who is radicalizing. If your son or daughter is radicalizing, and the authorities don’t have any kind of off-ramping mechanism in place, the options that the authorities could undertake are rather bleak: arrest, surveillance, or doing nothing. Members of a close-knit community who recognize the signs of radicalization in a community member will face similarly unsatisfactory options if they are considering drawing in authorities who have no alternatives other than arrest and prosecution.
Resilient communities are better able to prevent radicalization before it happens. The most recent round of CVE grants was aimed at creating “communities where violent extremists routinely meet disinterest and opposition, recruitment attempts routinely fail, and communities know what tools and support are available to assist individuals that may be on a path towards violence.” This is the way to fight terror.
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Vilvoorde is a shining example of the success of CVE efforts. As of the last available count, the city has applied its deradicalization approach to 39 citizens. Of the 131 residents found to be at risk of radicalization, not one has departed for Syria or taken part in terrorist attacks or plots. But Vilvoorde is far from unique.
In Montreal, for example, the Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence developed and implemented a comprehensive CVE prevention program. Its approach to CVE relies on engagement and intervention. In the engagement space, the center provides local stakeholders with training on radicalization through presentations, and awareness-raising workshops and teaching tools developed for social workers, prison professionals, law enforcement professionals, public and private organizations, and educational professionals. For example, the center held 53 meetings with community organizations on the risks and signs of radicalization, directly reaching nearly 1,000 community leaders and members. Tying its programs together is a hotline that local stakeholders can contact for advice on radicalization, help with intervention, and requests for trainings. The center’s hotline received 577 calls between March and December 2015, the most recent period for which information is available. Of these calls, 186 contained credible and actionable evidence of radicalization. 150 calls involved youths with “worrisome” or “alarming” behavior that led the center’s intervention team to act, while eight cases were referred directly to law enforcement as an imminent threat of violence to the community.
The British city of Luton has seen its residents recruited into white supremacist, anti-government, and Islamist violent extremist organizations. While Prevent — a nationwide strategy of engagement programs — operates in every locality, there are over 100 different tailored intervention programs across the U.K., known as Channel panels. The U.K. Home Office funds both Prevent and Channel. Various data points suggest that both have been effective at reducing radicalization and facilitating interdiction of those who are mobilizing. Referrals to Channel in Luton have increased. The percentage of people who enter Channel intervention programs in Luton and exit successfully appears to be relatively high. Overall, Luton seems to be reducing its pool of radicalized individuals significantly.
Robust community-based CVE programs have also been implemented in Denver and Los Angeles. The Denver program includes frequent delivery of the Community Awareness Briefing,and is building CVE into existing programs, such as gang prevention programs and school resource officer trainings. And the L.A. region has developed engagement programs designed to foster partnerships between federal and local government, law enforcement, the private sector, academia, and community-based organizations in order to establish a resilient civil society and build healthy communities. The L.A. framework also uses engagement programs to strengthen at-risk populations’ identity formation, integration, inter-group relations, and access to services, thereby reducing the success of terrorist recruitment and inspiration within those communities.
There’s unquestionably a need for better evaluation of what does and does not work. Some programs classified as CVE have, at best, a tenuous relationship to preventing violent extremism. (This is actually not so different from the mislabeling of counterterrorism programs following the 9/11 attacks.)
It’s that need for better evaluation that makes the $10 million in CVE grants authorized by then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly a unique opportunity. The various programs funded by this grant money will create one of the biggest datasets concerning the outcomes produced by various kinds of community-driven CVE efforts. Not all of the grantees’ projects will succeed; it is virtually certain that some of their projects will fail. But being able to measure and evaluate these programs successfully will give the U.S. government a much better idea of what works and what does not, moving beyond the anecdotal evidence that too frequently drives CVE policy. Both of us have worked with dedicated civil servants and advisors to try to ensure that a strong monitoring and evaluation regime is in place to measure these grants’ effectiveness.
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Examples from both Europe and here in our own backyards have proven that the fundamentals of both civic engagement and community policing are still sound. Deliberate and focused efforts need to be applied in today’s changing threat environment; prevention can no longer be an afterthought or an unfunded mandate. While revisions to community-driven CVE policies may be laudable, discarding community-driven CVE as a tool would be a mistake that we would come to regret. Critics on the left should heed the words of Andrew Glazzard and Eric Rosand in a recent article they wrote for Lawfare: “Less CVE is unlikely to mean more peacebuilding or conflict prevention; less CVE will, if recent history is anything to go by, mean more counterterrorism and hard security.” Glazzard and Rosand concluded that “CVE’s detractors should be careful what they wish for.” And for critics on the right: Would doing away with community-driven CVE really make us more safe?
We need to be able to thin the pool of potential violent extremist recruits of all stripes, and have off-ramps rather than just a law enforcement approach. It’s important that limited resources be conserved, something that community-driven CVE can advance while a law enforcement-only approach does not. Community-driven CVE can already claim demonstrable successes, and as the U.S. government’s data about what works becomes more robust, the effectiveness and efficiency of these efforts should improve as well.
Nate Barr, “ISIS’ Blueprint: The Second Life of an al Qaeda Proposal,” Foreign Affairs, August 25, 2017
The massacre of innocent civilians in Barcelona last week has once again forced Europe to grapple with the threat posed by the Islamic State, or ISIS. In the last year alone, the terrorist group has claimed responsibility for attacks on concertgoers in Manchester, pedestrians on London Bridge, and shoppers at a Christmas market in Berlin, as well as for several smaller-scale operations in France. The diversity of these attacks makes it difficult to discern the logic behind the jihadist group’s strikes in Europe. Beyond a general desire to intimidate and divide European countries, is there a strategy that guides ISIS’ external operations?
One insight into this question comes from an unlikely source: a set of documents produced almost a decade ago by al Qaeda, ISIS’ enemy and rival. Written in or around 2009, at a time when al Qaeda was struggling to strike the West, one of the documents, titled Future Works,proposed a new operational model under which al Qaeda would increase the pace of its attacks through a campaign of small-scale, unsophisticated plots. The attacks, Future Works suggested, would allow al Qaeda to apply constant pressure on the West while shifting the attention of security services away from the complex, spectacular operations that the terrorist group was planning simultaneously. Al Qaeda never fully adopted this approach, either because it lacked the capacity to do so or because it decided against it. But ISIS seems to have perfected this strategy, supporting crude attacks at the same time that it has continued to plan major operations, with devastating consequences for Europe.
A NEW MODEL
In 2009, al Qaeda’s external operations division was in a rut. The group had not carried out a major attack in the West since the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, and over the years that followed, European governments had disrupted several high-profile al Qaeda plots, including a 2006 scheme to blow up as many as ten planes as they were flying from Europe to the United States. Some al Qaeda operatives had become so discouraged that they had stopped planning attacks altogether.
To right the ship, an al Qaeda senior commander, possibly the veteran Mauritian jihadist Younis al-Mauritani, proposed a new external operations plan. The proposal was outlined in Future Works. German authorities discovered the strategy paper and over 100 other al Qaeda documents after they searched the memory card of Maqsood Lodin, an Austrian citizen who trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and was tasked to carry out an attack in Germany, where he was arrested in 2011. Future Works—which has never been publicly released but was reported on extensively by the investigative journalist Yassin Musharbash in 2012—suggested that al Qaeda should pursue a two-pronged approach to its campaign against the West.
First, Future Works recommended that al Qaeda, which had until then focused on planning complex operations, send European recruits who had received a minimal amount of training in Afghanistan to carry out small-scale attacks in their home countries. The logic behind this proposal was simple: by intensifying the tempo of its attacks and supporting crude plots, al Qaeda would be able to evade security services and strike the West repeatedly. The document also encouraged al Qaeda to develop secure communications techniques so that the group could interact with its operatives once they reached Europe. (Another document stored in Lodin’s memory card noted that operatives in Europe should behead their victims and send videos of their executions to al Qaeda’s propaganda wing so that they could be distributed globally.)
One objective of the smaller attacks, according to Future Works, was to foment chaos in Western countries and to force governments to adopt increasingly stringent security measures, which, al Qaeda reasoned, would alienate Muslims living in the West and push them toward al Qaeda. ISIS articulated a similar rationale for its operations in Europe in Dabiq, its now defunct English-language online magazine, arguing in February 2015 that government-directed crackdowns, coming after terrorist attacks, would “eliminate the gray zone” and force Muslims living in the West to choose between ISIS and secular society.
But the crude operations were also intended to enable the second component of al Qaeda’s proposed strategy. As the thinking went, small attacks perpetrated by individuals already known to European intelligence services would consume the authorities’ resources, distracting them from disrupting jihadist networks involved in coordinating more sophisticated operations. These large-scale attacks would demonstrate al Qaeda’s capabilities to the world and thus restore the confidence of the group’s rank and file.
Although there is no publicly available evidence that ISIS ever obtained Future Works, the tactics outlined in the document are strikingly similar to ISIS’ strategies in the West. Al Qaeda provided little support for small-scale attacks, at least until around a decade ago, when the Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki began urging Westerners to carry out domestic attacks. ISIS, on the other hand, immediately recognized the impact that dozens of crude attacks would have on European society and quickly developed an infrastructure to support these operations.
Indeed, ISIS’ so-called virtual plotter model represents an innovative take on the approach proposed in Future Works. Rather than wait for European recruits to reach training camps in the Middle East or Central Asia, ISIS’ virtual plotters identify jihadists living in Europe and direct them to strike using whatever tools they have at their disposal. In a recently thwarted plot, ISIS members in Turkey sent explosives to a cell in Australia plotting to blow up a plane. This suggests that ISIS planners are seeking to make their virtually directed operations more sophisticated without slowing the pace of attacks.
Meanwhile, ISIS has sought to improve its propaganda to maximize the impact of its low-tech attacks. ISIS has instructed operatives planning attacks to videotape themselves pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader, and has directed them to upload these videos to the Web in order to make them available to ISIS propagandists. This has allowed ISIS to claim responsibility for attacks perpetrated across the globe and to maintain the perception of momentum in the face of territorial losses.
But perhaps the most revealing and worrying parallel between Future Works and ISIS’ strategy concerns the jihadist group’s use of small-scale attacks as a smoke screen, a distraction from its more complex operations. Beginning in September 2014, ISIS propagandists issued a seriesof calls for individuals to carry out attacks in the group’s name. At the same time, ISIS operatives based in Syria directed jihadists living in Europe to carry out attacks at home. The proliferation of low-tech attacks in 2014 and early 2015 consumed the resources of European security services, leading many analysts to conclude at the time that ISIS’ strategy was limited to inspiring lone wolves. That is one reason why security services were caught off-guard in 2015, when a budding jihadist network, initially led by the Belgian Moroccan operative Abdelhamid Abaaoud, launched an unprecedented, multicity plot, first in Paris in November and then in Brussels several months later.
As officials try to make sense of the Barcelona massacre, the two-pronged model outlined inFuture Works is as relevant as ever. ISIS’ investment in the virtual plotter model has positioned the group to sustain a campaign of low-tech, crude operations for months or years to come. And although many recent attacks claimed by ISIS in Europe, including the Manchester and Berlin attacks, have been perpetrated by lone actors, the Barcelona operation, which involved as many as 12 plotters, demonstrated that the threat posed by larger networks has not dissipated, either. Governments working to prevent ISIS attacks must counter both kinds of plots to keep Europe safe.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Manchester Attack Shows How Terrorists Learn,” The Atlantic, May 23, 2017
Yesterday’s terrorist attack that struck at the end of an Ariana Grande concert in Britain’s Manchester Arena—leaving 22 people dead and 59 injured, by the latest count—feels perhaps even more callous and personal than other such recent atrocities. As The New York Times noted, the target was “a concert spilling over with girls in their teens or younger, with their lives ahead of them, out for a fun night.”
For Europe, the attack, now claimed by ISIS, represents a continuation of a nightmare scenario: The pace and deadliness of terrorist attacks in the continent has reached levels unprecedented in the post-9/11 era, with the heinous and grotesque becoming frighteningly routine.
Even five years ago, specialists could count the major post-9/11 attacks in Western countries on one hand, and knew every date on which they had been perpetrated. They were known by names like 3/11 or 7/7 (references to attacks in Madrid and London, respectively).
Over the past three years, though, there has been an explosion in the frequency of terrorist attacks against Western countries, and in the lethality of these events. From a brutal urban-warfare-style assault on Paris in November 2015 (130 dead) to the March 2016 bombings at the Brussels Airport and the Maalbeek metro station (32 dead), to a cargo truck plowing through crowds celebrating Bastille Day on a promenade in Nice (86 dead), to a truck striking a Christmas market in Berlin (12 dead), and now to an Ariana Grande concert, the message is that no place—no matter how familiar, beloved, or associated with the young and innocent—is truly safe. And there are so many other, recent examples. A priest whose throat was slit in the middle of a service in Normandy. An attacker in Magnanville who killed a couple, then turned on Facebook Live while menacing their three-year-old child. A suicide bomber who struck outside a concert in Ansbach, Germany, wounding 15.
The very events that would end up propelling the current spike in terrorist attacks were widely misread about six years ago as the solution to jihadism. When CNN’s Fareed Zakaria claimed in March 2011 that the revolutions that had swept across the Arab world at the beginning of that year represented “a total repudiation of al-Qaeda’s founding ideology,” he was articulating a near-consensus view. Peaceful revolutions brushing aside authoritarian governments and ushering in newly democratic regimes were supposed to show that the violence of jihadist movements was unnecessary. These views were shared not only by pundits, but by U.S. government analysts. In his memoir The Great War of Our Time, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell regretfully explained that his agency “thought and told policy-makers that this outburst of popular revolt would damage [al-Qaeda] by undermining the group’s narrative.”
In fact, the Arab revolutions and their aftermath provided the jihadist movement an unparalleled boost. The extraordinarily bloody civil war in Syria and the post-Muammar Qaddafi wreckage left behind in Libya have placed jihadists on the front lines of some of the world’s major conflicts. ISIS was able to use social media to popularize its cause—a sickening mirror of the way protesters turned out to oppose Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt—while also relying on physical networks like those associated with Khalid Zerkani or Sharia4Belgium to move devotees to its Syria-Iraq sanctuary. Jihadists’ newfound ability to reach broader audiences over social media in more intimate ways coincided with the global boom in end-to-end encryption, allowing ISIS to pioneer the “virtual planner” model of directing operatives from afar.
Those who predicted the decline of jihadism in 2011 missed several things. Most important, perhaps, is the sheer innovativeness and adaptability of major jihadist groups. For jihadist organizations, the ability to innovate is a necessity, not a luxury. Terrorist groups have a “fundamental organizational imperative” to learn, as the preeminent terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman noted in his classic book Inside Terrorism. As they face an array of internal and external challenges—the most significant being the existential threat they confront from state actors—these groups must adapt quickly and creatively or suffer the consequences.
Across a range of organizations—not just militant groups—organizational learning occurs when the knowledge that an individual gains can be transferred into broader organizational knowledge. One example of this is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s notorious bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, who was able to transfer his extraordinary technical knowledge to the organization as a whole. This is reflected in the concerns expressed by security experts several years ago that al-Asiri’s knowledge had been transferred from Yemen to the Syria theater. When knowledge is disseminated through an organization’s memory in this way, the organization is “no longer dependent upon the original learner,” and can impart knowledge to others within the group, according to Mick Beeby and Charles Booth. This process is particularly essential for jihadist groups that suffer from high levels of attrition, and thus must quickly encode new techniques into their organizational DNA or risk losing them.
New technology provides an additional impetus and accelerant of organizational learning within the jihadist movement. New technologies, including communications platforms and systems that can be fashioned into weapons, such as ever-improving consumer drones, are introduced at a dizzying rate. Reporting from Iraq, Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio recently noted ISIS’s ominous use of drones: “ISIS had also made deadly adaptations to its use of drones, Iraqi officers said. In the first days of the battle for western Mosul, they were being employed with newfound intensity, swarming Iraqi positions, disrupting operations, and inflicting casualties. The drones dropped more than 70 bombs on one sector alone in a span of just two days, commanders said.”
Many of the significant advantages new technologies have presented to militant groups do not represent true leaps of innovation, but, rather, intuitive applications of widely available technologies that have come to market. ISIS established an impressive apparatus for making itself omnipresent on social media before Twitter got serious about shutting down pro-ISIS accounts, but establishing a real social media brand is what twenty-first century organizations do. The virtual planner model fused two major technological trends—social media and improvements in encryption—but was fundamentally consistent with developments in online learning. Even ISIS’s aforementioned use of armed drones to repel Iraqi forces that are advancing on Mosul had been foreseen by experts (who, truth be told, had come up with even more inventive uses than those that ISIS ultimately made of the drones).
In the case of Manchester, there is much we don’t yet know, but many of the answers related to the attack may circle back to methods of organizational learning. How did the attacker sneak his bomb past the tight security that had been employed at Manchester Arena? How did he build the IED in the first place? Was he assisted by accomplices on the ground in Britain—or perhaps by technical experts advising him from their perch in Syria? Had the attacker been in touch with planners in an organization like ISIS to try to integrate the attack into a militant group’s broader war strategy?
European politicians don’t have good answers to the problem of terrorism right now. Often, it is regarded as “the new normal,” something we will just have to live with and die with for years to come. But as technology marches on—with 3D printing, increasingly capable consumer drones, growing vulnerabilities to hacking, and the like—there is the worrying prospect that tomorrow will be worse than today.
We should not, in the future, underestimate militant groups as learning organizations. And at the same time, the innovativeness of terrorists and the organizations in whose names they act should serve as a critical mirror.
They are growing increasingly adept at killing us. Are we as inventive about saving lives? Or do bureaucracy, inertia and failures of our own imagination stand in the way?
March 1, 2016: Thomas Joscelyn on the slow release of Osama bin Laden’s trove of documents.
Available through the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ website here.