Archive for March, 2008

UAE Forces in Afghanistan

31 March, 2008

The BBC’s security correspondent, Frank Gardner, has a feature on the little-known role being played by troops from the United Arab Emirates in Afghanistan.

Troops from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been delivering humanitarian aid to their fellow Muslims and, on occasion, fighting their way out of Taleban ambushes. Though Jordanian forces have been carrying out some base security duties, the UAE’s troops are the only Arab soldiers undertaking full-scale operations in the country. Until now, their deployment has been kept so secret that not even their own countrymen knew they were here.

….

I asked Maj Ghanem whether he was worried about how some people in the Arab world might react to this.

“We have an answer for that. Even if you are asking back in the UAE or in the Gulf, or you asking here, we have the same answer,” he said. “We make a contract with the US Army to help the people down here, not to fight”.

But I put it to him that in fact his troops have been fighting insurgents as well as handing out aid.

“If we have any types of personal attacks we react with fire. And after that we go to the elders in this area: ‘Why are you shooting us? We came here to help you.

“‘If you have the same picture of all coalition forces, we are different. We came here to help you.’

“And we try to convince the people about the US, about British. They came here to give you peace.”

The portrait painted is a positive one, with the only negative point made being that what the Emiratis are achieving is unlikely to make a significant difference unless it is more widely emulated by other forces in-country:

These are hearts-and-minds operations at their most effective – drinking tea with Afghans, discussing what help can be provided. The Emirati approach is to meet their fellow Muslims’ religious needs first, then build schools and clinics later. But for this to have a wider, lasting, and national effect, the blueprint would need to be repeated and expanded by others, many times over and throughout Afghanistan. And that is not likely to happen in the near future.

There is no doubt that the reported role being played by the Emiratis is beneficial, but the implication that it should provide a template for NATO forces is overly simplistic. Furthermore, as Joshua Foust points out on Registan.net:

Of course, the very salient fact that UAE was one of the only countries to have recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and to have funded many of their brutal campaigns throughout the 90s, is left unsaid.

Read the BBC piece here.

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Could the British Army have fought a successful COIN in 1776?

31 March, 2008

IRG member and KCL PhD student Andrew Exum is raising hackles over at the Guardian’s Comment is Free

At the moment, Americans are reliving their revolutionary era through HBO’s slick new mini-series on founding father John Adams. But this interest in the American Revolution surely opens the door onto an interesting thought experiment: What would have happened had the British army applied contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine against those pesky colonists in the 18th century?

This question is one currently being asked by several smart US army and Marine Corps officers who have taken their experiences fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and applied them to historical analysis of other American wars. In his paper [PDF] on British counterinsurgency efforts in the American south during the revolution, US Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Paul Montanus notes with incredulity that while the British army garrisoned over 15,000 troops to defend New York City, only 8,500 men were left to execute counterinsurgency operations in the south. That meant the British had a troops-to-population ratio of 2:195 – far below what most contemporary military planners would deem necessary to fight an effective counterinsurgency campaign.

I’d not venture a strong opinion on the matter–not my area really. It strikes me, however, as the descendant on one side of United Empire Loyalists (aka ex-American colonists)) who fought against the Revolution and fled to Canada after it, that there was quite a bit of loyalty to the British Empire which was eroded/squandered. Doesn’t this make the troop ratio something of a red herring? Anyway, it’s too bad we lost.

Exum notes that his ancestor Colonel Benjamin Exum fought the British in the mountains of North Carolina which is rather cool. It’s nice to be in the winning side. My Empire Loyalist ancestors, on the other hand, were French Huguenots who fled France to America via a stint in Yorkshire. Twice-refugees, in other words; and intercontinental refugees at that–not bad for the 18th century. Another ancestor, Henry Lapp, fought the Americans in various places in Upper and Lower Canada and the northern states in the War of 1812. He narrowly escaped death in 1813 when they attacked York. He was the only survivor of an artillery battery of 12 men–the rest were killed by an explosion of the cartridge chest hit by an American shell.

War of 1812. Now there’s an interesting bit of historical parallelism, Andrew. (Ps. You lost that one, you know?) Thomas Jefferson is reputed to have said ‘the acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American continent.’ Canadian nationalism (such as it is) has strong roots in the idea that they showed in 1812 that they could and would fight for their country against American aggression and hubris. We can be quite chippy about it actually. Evidence: this hagiographical site on General Sir Isaac Brock (‘Canada’s Originial War Hero’) where you can find, believe it or not, a Brock action figure(!). Brits hardly remember the War of 1812 which might have something to do with Andrew Jackson and New Orleans (mutter, mutter) but for Canadians it’s a big deal because we kicked American ass and you lost. Did I just drop all scholarly pretense, use vulgarity, and bold at that? You see what I mean? Chippiness. And I haven’t lived in Canada for over a decade. Sadly, speaking of chips, we failed to defend this mighty icon of Canadiana against American incursion some centuries later. But I digress…

Ah well, the Anglosphere’s a big happy family now.

Kagan on the British in Basra

30 March, 2008

Frederick Kagan, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the architects of the ‘surge’ in Iraq, has long been critical of the British role in Basra. In a telephone conversation with the Sunday Telegraph over the weekend, he had this to say about the British contribution to the current offensive against Sadrist militias:

“It’s very clear that the Maliki government has launched a major offensive against Iranian-backed special groups and militias. The Iraqi security forces are in the lead and we are backing them up.

“It’s a good fight that they’re fighting. It’s a very important fight and I think we should be prepared to support them fully. And by ‘we’ I mean the entire coalition.”

“The British military in Basra has said it is in a position of strategic overwatch. That means that they expect the Iraqis to take the lead in security operations and that British forces are there to provide back-up and support in case the Iraqis encounter something that is beyond their means.

“It is pretty to apparent to me – and just about anyone else I have spoken to – who looks at this that the clearing of Basra is going to be beyond the means of the Iraqi security forces.

“So it’s a little bit hard to understand in that context, if the British military really means that it is in a strategic overwatch posture, how they would reject supporting the ISF in what is after all the decisive fight in their area of operations.

“The Iraqis have made the decision to do something at this point in time, [and it] is vitally in the interests of both the United States of America and Great Britain that the elements in Iraq which have been the agents of direct Iranian military intervention be defeated.

“This is not something that we’re doing because we like the Iraqis. It is not in our interests – for either state – for the Iranians to continue this intervention in Iraq’s military affairs.

“It is rather a watershed moment in the Anglo-American alliance. I understand that your prime minister has already said that the special relationship is over. This is another watershed moment. There’s an issue of special relationship. There’s an issue here of fulfilling your obligations as an ally, freely undertaken.

“If Britain has responsibility for that area of operations, which it does, then British forces have an obligation to step up when needed and it sure looks here like they’re needed.”

Interview with Defence Secretary Des Browne

29 March, 2008

Today’s Daily Telegraph has an interview with UK Defence Secretary Des Browne. The interview covers a range of topics, and some of what he has to say is likely to prove controversial.

Browne’s assessment of the situation in Iraq is upbeat, despite (and even because of) this week’s developments in Basra:

The Defence Secretary is remarkably calm under fire. Last week, he visited Basra and returned “as optimistic as I have ever been about the future of Iraq”.

That optimism has not been blown apart by the violence this week. “The Iraqis have decided that they’re ready to take on the militia. Their very presence in the city engendered a response. That was to be expected.”

The British did not, in his view, cut and run. “We left at exactly the right time. The majority of the violence when we were in Basra was directed at us.”

There is no plan for British troops to return to the city, although he does not altogether rule out re-engagement.

To my surprise he says the British withdrawal of troops could be “accelerated” rather than delayed by recent events.

“This operation is taking place on a timescale that’s quicker than we would have thought as a consequence of the growing confidence of the Iraqis. We hope by spring to be able to get to about 2,500 [British troops]. I’m not thinking that everybody could be home by Christmas but when the time is right we can reduce our forces.”

Such optimism isn’t entirely misplaced. As Max Boot has argued, “If Maliki is now getting serious about asserting the supremacy of the Iraqi state over the militias, that is a development to be cheered.” This echoes an argument put forward in the Financial Times, in which Steve Negus states that, while enormously risky, “If the prime minister succeeds, the pay-off would deliver a big boost to the credibility of a shaky government, proving that the growing national army is capable of taking on powerful militia and addressing fears that a withdrawal of US troops would leave Iraq’s fragile state at the mercy of armed factions.”

However, Browne’s repetition of the standard government line that the initial withdrawal from Basra was justified by the fact that the majority of the violence in the city had been directed against British troops is less convincing. The argument fails to acknowledge that the current clashes are in part a consequence of the British failure to displace the militias from the city, which made the kind of reckoning we are seeing now inevitable eventually.

Browne goes on to argue that we should be talking to militants such as the Taliban and Hizballah. This is likely to be questioned by some, coming as it does after the controversy that erupted following comments made by Jonathan Powell – a former aide to Tony Blair – who suggested it was a mistake not to be talking to groups such as Al-Qaeda. It is worth noting, however, that unlike Powell, Browne draws the line at engaging with Al-Qaeda:

In his view, the West must be seeking diplomatic as well as military solutions. Controversially, he argues that Britain should be willing to talk to extremists groups.

“What you need to do in conflict resolution is to bring the people who believe that the answer to their political ambitions will be achieved through violence into a frame of mind that they accept that their political ambitions will be delivered by politics.”

A former Northern Ireland minister, Mr Browne says there will always be some people who are “irreconcilable” to a peaceful path – he draws the line at al-Qa’eda because “their demand is an end to our way of life”.

But, he argues that the West should be willing to talk to people with a history of violence – including elements of the Taliban and Hizbollah.

“In Northern Ireland I talked to people with a past. There are different varieties of these organisations. There’s no question that some of them if we succeed will transfer into the political dimension.”

Read the interview here.

Interviewing the Taliban

28 March, 2008

Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail has conducted a fascinating research project designed to gain an insight into the attitudes and motivations of ordinary Taliban footsoldiers.

A local Afghan was given basic journalism training and sent into five districts in the province of Kandahar to pose a standard set of questions to a total of 48 Taliban fighters. The results were combined into an online documentary comprising six short segments, each focusing on the results from a particular sub-set of the questions. In addition, the raw video of all 48 interviews has also been made available.

While in no way a scientifically-sound survey, the project nevertheless provides a rare and intriguing glimpse into the minds of the insurgents.

Check it out here.

Focus on Hamas

27 March, 2008

Three pieces out today look at the relative merits of various strategies for dealing with Hamas, with most views seeming to conclude that the current strategy is failing dismally.

The Christian Science Monitor has an article by Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, entitled Punishing Hamas Has Backfired. The article follows the release last week of an ICG report entitled Ruling Palestine I: Gaza Under Hamas.

The policy of isolating Hamas and applying sanctions to Gaza has been a predictable failure. Violence to both Gazans and Israelis is rising. Economic conditions are ruinous, generating anger and despair. The credibility of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other pragmatic forces has been grievously damaged. The peace process is in tatters. Meanwhile, Hamas’s hold on the Gaza Strip, purportedly the principal target of the policy, has been strengthened.

….

The logic behind the policy was that by putting pressure on Hamas, they could prevent rocket launches into Israel. This would demonstrate to the Palestinian people that Hamas could not deliver and ought not be trusted. The hope was that the West Bank, buoyed by economic growth, a loosening of Israeli security measures, not to mention a revived peace process, would serve as an attractive countermodel. But the theory has not delivered on any of these counts.

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By boycotting the security, judicial, and other government sectors, the Palestinian Authority turned an intended punitive measure into an unintentional gift, creating a vacuum that Hamas has filled. The absence of any international involvement has meant the absence of leverage. The closure of the crossings has caused the private sector to collapse, eroding ordinary citizens’ traditional coping mechanisms, increasing their dependence on those who govern, and weakening a constituency traditionally loyal to the Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile, the Economist has an article entitled Hamas’s Battle for Hearts and Minds, which echoes some of the points made by Evans.

After Hamas’s bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip last June left Mr Abbas in control of only the West Bank, the West and Israel talked about making the West Bank a shining example of what Gazans could aspire to—if they got rid of Hamas. But that scheme is failing. In the West Bank, Israel has done nothing to ease the maze of checkpoints and roadblocks that cripple the economy, and its talks with Mr Abbas on a Palestinian state are yielding no visible progress. A blockade it imposed on Gaza backfired in January when militants broke through Gaza’s southern wall bordering Egypt, briefly letting hundreds of thousands of Palestinians replenish their stores. The constant exchange of Palestinian rockets and Israeli air raids escalated a month ago into a battle that killed two Israeli troops and well over 100 Gazans, many of them children.

Finally, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has a forum report entitled The Hamas Dilemma: A Debate on Alternative Strategies, in which Robert Satloff and Robert Malley outline their perspectives on the situation. While Satloff defends the current strategy, arguing it should be given more time, and counsels against engagement with Hamas, Malley’s argument is closer to that expressed by Evans and the Economist. A full audio recording of the debate is also available.

Satloff:

An important contrast can be made between the internal PLO debate two decades ago and the debate inside Hamas today. The former debate (which may still not be fully settled) was between advocates of a phased plan to destroy Israel and advocates of a two-state solution. The Hamas debate, however, has no advocates of peace with Israel. Rather, it is between those who call for a tahdiya (brief lull in fighting) and those who favor a hudna (a longer-term armistice) — neither of which approximates peace with, or even recognition of, Israel. Therefore, it is difficult to fathom why Hamas should be required to meet less onerous conditions for engagement than the PLO faced twenty years ago. The bottom line is that those who advocate engagement must believe that Hamas is willing to be complicit in its own demise. This is folly.

The right course for policymakers begins with recognizing that peacemaking will take time. When progress does not appear swift and sure, it is only counterproductive to entertain new strategies. Instead, the United States should maintain confidence in the strategy it adopted after Hamas’s Gaza putsch: investing in the West Bank’s success and isolating the Hamas regime.

Malley:

Any discussion of policy toward Hamas must begin with an admission that the current policy is a failure. Isolation has not compelled Hamas to accept the Quartet’s conditions, has not turned the people of Gaza against the group, has not strengthened Fatah, has not reduced anti-Israeli violence, and has not contributed to any visible progress in peace diplomacy. It has, however, further embittered the Palestinian people, in both Gaza and the West Bank. Israel cannot make peace with half of the Palestinian people and be at war with the other half. The theory that peace can be achieved more easily by dividing Hamas and Fatah has been proven wrong in practice. It is also clear that Hamas has a stronger grip on Gaza than ever before, and that it has the power to thwart any forward movement in diplomacy. Regardless of the fact that Hamas does not appear to have softened its strategic objectives vis-a-vis Israel, this practical reality cannot be wished away.

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A wiser approach would be to give Abbas a central role in reaching any new arrangement with Hamas. But this requires Hamas’s assent, which would come at a price. Specifically, the United States would need to drop its objection to a power-sharing agreement between Fatah and Hamas as the basis for a new accord. This accord, achieved through Egyptian mediation, would open transit between Gaza and Egypt, give Abbas supporters a certain role in border control, and give Hamas an appropriate role in Palestinian national institutions.

Shia Clashes in Basra

27 March, 2008

Al-Jazeera English has a good report on the current fighting in Basra, which offers a more nuanced analysis of events than is provided by most coverage. The report makes clear that underlying the engagement is a struggle for influence in the oil-rich south between the two main Shia factions in Iraq: the Sadrists led by Muqtada al-Sadr, whose armed wing – the Jaish al Mahdi (Mahdi Army) – is the object of the security operation; and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), whose armed wing – the Badr Organisation – dominates the security forces.

h/t: Danger Room

Update:

The Council on Foreign Relations has a Q&A with Vali R. Nasr – CFR’s Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies – which provides an excellent introduction to the complex dynamics that govern the inter-relationships between the Sadrists, the ISCI, the US and Iran.

Update 2:

The Basra incidents have generated a wealth of comment. Small Wars Journal has a collection of links here.

Update 3:

According to a BBC report, British ground forces have intervened for the first time in the Basra hostilities. In what appears to be an isolated incident, British forces launched artillery shells at a mortar position in the al-Klalaf area of northern Basra, which had been firing on Iraqi troops.

Comic Strip Heroes vs. Al-Qaeda

26 March, 2008

In a novel effort to combat the Al-Qaeda narrative, innovative officials in the North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) state in Germany have turned to comic strips in a bid to counter the radicalisation of young Muslims.

Following the success of a similar campaign against right-wing extremism in 2004, in which schoolboy hero Andi stood-up against xenophobia and racism, a new strip has been produced in which Andi helps his Muslim girlfriend rescue her brother from the influence of a radical friend and an Islamist “hate preacher”.

26MAR08_Andi

The comic — printed in 100,000 copies and distributed to every secondary school in Germany’s most populous state — aims to show young people the difference between peaceful mainstream Islam and the violent, intolerant version peddled by militants.

“We were always careful not to hurt feelings and anger people by painting a caricature of Islam,” said Hartwig Moeller, head of the NRW interior ministry’s department for protection of the constitution, responsible for intelligence gathering.

“We had to make clear we weren’t aiming against Muslims, but only those people who want to misuse Islam for political aims,” added Moeller, who despite his intelligence role says 50 to 60 percent of his work is educating the public about threats.

The cartoon, featuring boldly drawn Manga-style figures, is designed to be used in citizenship and religion lessons for schoolchildren aged 12 to 16.

“We have learned from our opponents. This is exactly the age at which the Islamists are trying, through Koranic schools and other means, to fill young people with other values,” Moeller told Reuters.

Athough unconventional, reaction from German Muslims has been generally positive, although there have been some reservations:

“We found the basic approach was right and good, we only regretted (the authorities) didn’t tell us about this initiative in advance, then it could have been made much better,” said Aiman Mazyek, general secretary of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany.

He said the portrayal of the Islamist hate preacher was “a bit overdone”, but added: “There are people like that, I can’t say there aren’t.” He said copies of the comic have been distributed in mosques.

Another regional government, Hamburg, is also using the Andi story, and there has been interest from Austria, Denmark, Japan and the United States.

It’s hard to say whether the strategy will be effective, or should be adopted elsewhere. However, with the campaign in NRW state costing just 30,000 euros ($47,440) for the artist and the print run, as long as any such campaign is not counter-productive, which could be ensured via proper prior consultation with Muslim youth workers, there would seem very little to lose.

Read the Reuters article here.

Update 1:

A copy of the comic strip (in German) can be downloaded here. A follow-up piece from Reuters is available here.

Update 2 (15 April 2008):

Newsweek has a feature about a similar intitiative being run in the Middle East, with an X-Men style series called The 99, which is a creation of Kuwaiti psychologist and entrepreneur Naif Al-Mutawa.

A graduate of Tufts University in the United States with a triple major in clinical psychology, English literature and history, the 37-year-old Al-Mutawa also has a keen sense of symbols. Mainstream comics in the West have drawn heavily on Judeo-Christian narratives and iconography, he says. Why not create a cast of characters whose powers echo Muslim history and traditions? And because his company, Teshkeel, is the distributor of Marvel and DC comics in the Middle East, Al-Mutawa knows just where to find top writers, pencilers and inkers to make his new publications as polished as any on the market.

Countering Jihad in Germany

26 March, 2008

The international online edition of Spiegel magazine has an in-depth interview with Ernst Uhrlau, the president of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the BND. Uhrlau discusses the threat to Germany posed by Al-Qaeda inspired jihadist militants; the role played by homegrown terrorists, and by converts in particular; and the processes by which the marginalisation of Muslims can lead to radicalisation.

AFP/SITE Institute via SPIEGEL

The whole interview is recommended, but the following is an extract:

Uhrlau: Turkish Islam traditionally plays an important role for the domestic intelligence agencies. Milli Görüs, the largest Islamist organization in Germany with about 26,000 members, is under observation. With its extremist worldview, it poses a threat to our constitutional democratic order. But it is not an organization that preaches violence. Germany’s 2.5 million Muslims of Turkish origin come from a secular country that is strongly oriented toward the West, a country where militant fundamentalist movements are relatively insignificant — unlike Lebanon, say, where the radical Hezbollah has many supporters.

SPIEGEL: Does this mean that we should be pleased that the Turkish variety of Islamism is so strong in our country?

Uhrlau: At least we don’t have the kinds of problems that the United Kingdom and France are facing because of their colonial past. The Pakistani Muslims in England and the North African Muslims in France come from countries in which Islamist beliefs and violence play a more important role in parties and movements than in Germany. This is also reflected among the immigrant population.

SPIEGEL: Your counterparts in Paris and London are concerned about so-called home-grown terrorism. Is this something that we also have in Germany?

Uhrlau: The arrests in Oberschledorn are evidence that we also have this phenomenon in Germany. Even though many of the potential terrorists were born and grew up in Europe and do not stand out, they feel marginalized. As a reaction to this, the second or third generation of immigrants reverts much more strongly to its roots. In the process, religious belief becomes decisive. A process of isolation begins that leads to a parallel society. They are convinced that they must defend their own religion and values against the majority Western society.

SPIEGEL: Feeling misunderstood and wanting to defend your faith is one thing, but wanting to killing “infidels” is another.

Uhrlau: A fanatic prepared to commit violence sees himself as part of the ummah, the Muslim community of believers. He perceives any attack on his fellow Muslims — be it by the Israelis in the Gaza Strips or by the Americans in Iraq — as an attack on himself and his religion. Someone like this is an easy target for jihad or al-Qaida propaganda and can be recruited for the holy war against the “infidels.”

SPIEGEL: Did the refusal of the Social Democratic and Green Party coalition government under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to take part in the Iraq war reduce the risk of attack in Germany? Will a stronger German military presence in Afghanistan increase it?

Uhrlau: Jihad is triggered by current political developments. The jihadists do not reward us for having stayed out of the Iraq war. And whether we increase our presence in Afghanistan is irrelevant for the Islamists. As far as they are concerned, Germany is already not a neutral country. We are on the side of the hated Americans and we traditionally support Israel, which they consider a “Zionist entity.”

SPIEGEL: How large is the army of jihadists in Germany?

Uhrlau: We estimate that there are a few hundred extremists who are prepared to commit acts of violence. Up to 700 people are under various levels of observation by German intelligence and security agencies. Most of them live in our midst. A small proportion of these people, however, stand out by being frequent travelers. We currently know that more than a dozen people, including converts, have traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years, where they seek contact with like-minded people.

SPIEGEL: So you simply allow these potential terrorists to go about their business?

Uhrlau: As long as there is no concrete evidence that they are making preparations for attacks, we have no other choice. But we do attempt to monitor their movements and determine their destinations. Not all of them are potential bombers — some are traveling as couriers. The Islamists are very familiar with the technical possibilities which the intelligence agencies have at their disposal. Hence important messages are delivered in person.

SPIEGEL: Can you prove direct contacts to al-Qaida?

Uhrlau: We follow them into the inaccessible tribal areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan …

SPIEGEL: … where al-Qaida’s terrorist training camps are located …

Uhrlau: … and we try to find out what they are doing there and with whom they are meeting. A lot of information is due to intensive cooperation with intelligence agencies in countries through which these suspects pass on their way to the Hindu Kush region. Some are briefly detained and questioned for other offences on their way back. But the fact that we are on their tail doesn’t really deter them. They continue undaunted. This doesn’t necessarily have to lead to the construction of a bomb. Some specialize in propaganda, in recruiting other activists or in conveying information.

Read the full interview here.

The Bombers Who Weren’t

25 March, 2008

While it is increasingly recognised that success in the fight against Al-Qaeda inspired militancy requires we gain a thorough understanding of the processes by which self-selecting individuals become radicalised, there is less appreciation of the lessons that might be learned from an understanding of the processes by which potential terrorists have in the past de-selected themselves, and become de-radicalised.

In an article entitled The Bombers Who Weren’t, Michael Jacobson – a former staff member of the 9/11 commission, and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – argues that such processes of de-radicalisation represent ‘fault lines that counterterrorism officials should exploit.’

It’s become a truism of counterterrorism that we must understand how and why individuals become jihadists in the first place. But almost nobody is studying the flip side of radicalization — understanding those who leave terrorist organizations. We’d do well to start. Figuring out why individuals walk away from terrorist groups can help governments predict whether an individual — or even a cell — is likely to go through with a plot. Understanding the dropouts should also make it easier for governments to determine which terrorists might be induced to switch sides, help stop radicalization and craft messages that could peel away people already in terrorist organizations. The more we know about why terrorists bail, the better we can fight them.

Jacobson illustrates his argument with reference to a number of Al-Qaeda operatives who did de-select themselves – including Sajid Badat, who was supposed to conduct an identical mission to that of ‘shoe-bomber’ Richard Reid, but who pulled-out at the last minute, leaving his dismantled bomb at his parents’ house.

Jacobson identifies a number of factors which in the past have caused individuals to break with Al-Qaeda, some of which are ‘strikingly prosaic’. Common reasons include:

  • Disillusionment with the group’s tactics and strategy.
  • Lack of respect for the group’s leadership, particularly their lack of battlefield military experience.
  • Money, particularly when inadequate compensation is perceived as unfair treatment towards an individual.
  • Petty slights and personal animosities between operatives and leadership figures.
  • Family ties and personal connections, particularly as experienced by an operative following his re-insertion into society following a period of detachment in a training camp or other retreat.

Unfortunately Jacobson has no suggestions on how this might be translated into practical counterterrorism policy, acknowledging that ‘there’s no obvious silver bullet here’. Nevertheless, such ‘fault lines’ seem an avenue worth exploring, and understanding and then exploiting processes of de-radicalisation should be incorporated as a goal within broader counter-radicalisation strategies.

Read the full article here.