Posts Tagged ‘Insurgency’

Mapping Sub-State Violence in Somalia

29 April, 2008

A useful resource, worth keeping an eye on, is the mapping service provided by UNOSAT – the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Programme. While the majority of content is development-related, occasional products focus on sub-state conflict.

Two recent products include a map of insurgent incidents in the Somali capital Mogadishu since the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and allied Ethiopian forces took control of the city on 29 December 2006; and a map of reported incidents of piracy off the Somali coast from 1 January to 24 April 2008. The two maps are interesting both for the information they present, and the way in which they represent it.

Mogadishu Insurgent Incidents [UNOSAT]

An original PDF copy of the map of insurgent incidents in Mogadishu is available here, and the map of piracy incidents is available here.

The following is further information about the UNOSAT project:

UNOSAT is the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Programme, implemented in co-operation with the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and the European Organisation of High Energy Physics (CERN).


The UNOSAT core team consists of UN fieldworkers as well as satellite imagery experts, geographers, geologists, development experts, database programmers and internet communication specialists. This unique combination gives us the ability to understand the needs of our users and to provide them with suitable, tailored solutions anywhere at any time.

UNOSAT created an extended network of public and private partners, and collaborates with the majority of UN agencies, space agencies and several international initiatives active in satellite technologies field.

Created initially to exploit fully the potential of satellite earth observation, UNOSAT has developed skills in additional technical areas such as satellite navigation and telecommunications and is today looking into the future of integrated solutions.

Our mission is to deliver integrated satellite-based solutions for human security, peace and socio-economic development, in keeping with the mandate given to UNITAR by the UN General Assembly since 1963.

Our goal is to make satellite solutions and geographic information easily accessible to the UN family and to experts worldwide who work at reducing the impact of crises and disasters and plan sustainable development.


The Taliban, General Giáp and Guerrilla Strategy

13 April, 2008

According to a Taliban spokesman interviewed by the Asia Times, the Taliban’s 2008 spring offensive will be characterised by a new strategy based upon the guerrilla tactics of legendary Vietnamese general, Võ Nguyên Giáp.

As one of the principal architects of the defeat of France and the US in the two Indochina Wars, General Giáp is an understandable model for the Taliban to try and emulate in their own war against the US and its European allies.

Afghanistan is about to enter a new phase; for the first time since their ouster in 2001, the Taliban will scale back their tribal guerrilla warfare and concentrate on tactics used by the legendary Vietnamese commander General Vo Nguyen Giap, an approach that has already proved successful in taming the Pakistani military in the tribal areas.

“For the first time, the Taliban will have a well-coordinated strategy under which we will seize isolated military posts for a limited time, taking enemy combatants hostage, and then leaving them,” “Dr Jarrah”, a Taliban media spokesman, told Asia Times Online in a telephone conversation from Kunar province in Afghanistan.

“This is the second tier of General Giap’s guerrilla strategy. The third tier is a conventional face-to-face war. This aims to demoralize the enemy,” Jarrah explained. “We have been delayed by rainfall, but you shall see action by mid-April.”


The Taliban’s new focus is the brainchild of several retired Pakistani military officers who are now part of the Taliban movement. They are complemented by men trained by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence’s India cell to fuel the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir.

These “neo-Taliban” have changed the face and dynamics of the Afghan insurgency. They are particularly careful not to blindly waste manpower, as in the past. During 2008, the main center of Taliban activity will be eastern Afghanistan.

While the Taliban’s desire to explicitly adopt classic insurgency doctrine is interesting, it is questionable whether they are in a position to successfully emulate Giáp in Afghanistan. One of the main differences is that Giáp was able to benefit from a regular supply of heavy weaponry and munitions from Mao across the border in China, including the artillery and anti-aircraft guns that proved key to isolating and destroying the French at Ðiện Biên Phủ.

Although able to overrun isolated outposts manned by poorly equipped Afghan National Police (ANP) – in the same way as Baitullah Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are able to temporarily seize isolated forts in the FATA in Pakistan – the Taliban are a long way away from achieving the kind of coordinated assault, backed by heavy weaponry, that would be required to seize a coalition Forward Operating Base. It is also questionable whether the Taliban have the extremely tight command and control structure required to conduct the coordinated multi-pronged offensives key to Giáp’s success.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the Taliban’s claims have been greeted with considerable scepticism by NATO/ISAF commanders:

“Every year they claim a spring offensive. What offensive are they talking about? Blowing up cell phone towers in Helmand and Kandahar or blowing up power stations in Ghazni? This is not an offensive,” [ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Carlos] Branco told Asia Times Online in a telephone interview from Kabul.


“The Taliban haven’t had a new strategy in the past, neither will they have one in the future. They will do what they did in 2007. They avoided any confrontation with NATO or the Afghan National Army and instead they attacked district headquarters and claimed they had captured the whole district. But before the arrival of our troops, they left.

“They did indeed attack some of our forward operation bases, but their attacks were ineffective as they lack the military capability … it makes me laugh when they try to compare their guerrilla strategy with that of General Giap’s,” said Branco.

“This is really nonsense. General Giap used coordinated guerrilla attacks and employing conventional tactics with a range of weaponry. The Taliban’s tactics are useless. The tried to use those tactics in 2006 and suffered heavy losses. I don’t think they will be able to repeat those tactics. They are not able to confront us on open ground, not even at the platoon level,” Branco said.

Read the article here. Read a PBS interview with General Giáp here.

Al-Qaeda, al-Suri & Insurgency Doctrine

11 April, 2008

The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) has published two pieces by Dr. Brynjar Lia, whose work on Al-Qaeda usually provides some of the more perceptive commentary available within a crowded field.

The first paper, Al-Qaida’s Appeal: Understanding its Unique Selling Points [PDF], examines how Al-Qaeda has managed to elicit sympathy and support from a broad global constituency despite its record of slaughtering civilians, including Muslims, on a massive scale.

I argue in this presentation that al-Qaida’s continuing appeal is a result of three key factors. First, al-Qaida propagates a simple popular message, which resonates strongly with deeply held grievances in the Muslim world. The organisation strives to follow the popular mood in many respects. Secondly, al-Qaida has created for itself a powerful and captivating image. It has become the world’s most feared terrorist organisation, which is an immense attraction for certain groups of young people. In some countries in Europe, it has become “cool” to be a jihadi. Thirdly, the strength of al-Qaida’s appeal lies in its global character; unlike most terrorist groups of today, membership of al-Qaida is open to virtually everyone, irrespective of ethnicity and nationality. As long as one is willing to accept its extremist ideology, anyone can, in principle, become an al-Qaida member.

While acknowledging Al-Qaeda’s successful emergence as a global terrorist ‘brand’, Lia argues that its emphasis on mass casualty terrorism has created schisms within the jihadist movement, and that its failure to develop a coherent political platform will eventually undermine its support.

Another inherent weakness of al-Qaida is that it does not seem able or willing to prepare for a future transition to politics. Al-Qaida’s appeal is totally dependent on the continuation of violence. Its brandname is simultaneous car bomb attacks with suicide bombers, not state building and party politics. Bin Laden has said that al-Qaida’s victory is simply to inflict pain and economic losses on the enemy, and undermine its political resolve. But this also means that al-Qaida’s appeal will diminish quickly wherever the population grow tired of violence that does not lead anywhere. At some point, al-Qaida’s image will inevitably fade; just as all extremist ideologies have a limited life span, so too does al-Qaida’s extremist interpretation of Islam.

Although the first paper provides a useful perspective on the al-Qaeda phenomenon, the second paper, Dissidents in al-Qaida: Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri’s Critique of bin Ladin and the Salafi-Jihadi Current [PDF], is the more interesting of the two.

While al-Qaeda represents an innovative form of global insurgency, paradoxically it has produced few thinkers who themselves may be considered truly innovative, or who may be judged to have made an original contribution to insurgency doctrine. One of the exceptions is Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, who is in essence the insurgent’s T.X. Hammes or William Lind – an exponent of fourth generation warfare (4GW) who, prior to his capture, was one of the few individuals within the jihadist movement prepared to challenge the strategic vision of bin Laden.

The scholarly literature on al-Qaida has recently begun to pay more attention to internal divisions and ideological schisms in the global Jihadi Current. This literature has uncovered important fault-lines between al-Qaida strategists on issues such as the primacy of media and propaganda efforts versus the building of an effective military organization. Differences over the primacy of religious-theological purity versus military-strategic effectiveness have also come to light.

This paper aims to contribute to this literature by discussing these internal clashes through the writings of one of al-Qaida’s most articulate and prolific writers: Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Sethmariam Nasar, better known by his pen names Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri and Umar Abd al-Hakim. Until his arrest, presumably in Quetta, Pakistan in late 2005, al-Suri was one of the most outspoken voices in the Jihadi Current. His critical analysis of previous jihadi experiences, especially of Algeria, provoked strong responses and debates. Furthermore, his ambitions to integrate Marxist guerrilla warfare theory into the jihadi war-fighting doctrine, to introduce self-criticism as an accepted genre and method in jihadi thinking, and his attempts critically to analyze the Jihadi Current ‘objectively’, inevitably led to numerous clashes with orthodox and conservative elements, especially the strong Salafi current in al-Qaida.

Lia’s biography of al-Suri, Architect of Global Jihad, is the definitive work on this key figure, and this paper provides a useful introduction to the man. It also serves to counter the tendency common among analysts to represent al-Qaeda, and the jihadist movement, as a single monolithic entity.

Attacks in Afghanistan Up On 2007

10 April, 2008

Experienced Afghanistan commentator Barnett Rubin has a couple of charts posted on his Informed Comment blog comparing attacks by Taliban and Anti-Government Elements in the first 13 weeks of 2008 with attacks in 2007. One of the charts, showing a clear escalation in the operational tempo compared to last year, is reproduced below:

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan 08 vs. 07 [cf. Informed Comment]

China, Tibet, the Olympic Games and Proto-Insurgency

10 April, 2008

First, I should get something off my chest. I hate the Olympics–I always have but it gets worse with each iteration of the ‘best Olympics ever’. The false bonhomie and brotherhood of nations in friendly competition crapola, the dreadful opening ceremonies featuring synchronized flag-waving and other pseudo-mythic symbolism so beloved by dictators through the ages, ‘amateur’ athletes doped to the eyeballs, and all run by the International Olympic Commission–an organization so corrupt it could probably offer master classes in corruption to officials from places like Myanmar or Somalia. The Games should not have gone to Beijing (that they did is proof of point that the Olympic Games in practice are a travesty of the ideals which they purport to represent). So I agree more or less with the main sentiment of this editorial May the Torch be Harassed (the caveat being that the author thinks that they ought to have gone to Toronto instead; I hate Toronto too but not so much that I’d wish to inflict the Olympic Games on the place).

But I’ve a more serious interest in the Tibet-China-Olympic Games story. If you are interested in contemporary insurgency you should be interested too. For I would suggest that what we are seeing here is that most interesting of academic cases to study: a proto- or almost-insurgency. Whether, why and how it becomes a full-blown insurgency (or not, as the case may be) is something of great interest. In common with other groups, Tibetans are using some of the cutting edge techniques of post-modern insurgency. These include virtual networks involving a diaspora, alliances with other groups with similar or related aims, global connectivity, and a really rather sophisticated and effective propaganda campaign. There is also a strong religious dimension. This is already a pretty rich stew; what’s missing is a final spicy ingredient.

That ingredient is violence. I’m not ignoring or explaining away the recent riots in Lhasa. Those seem to me to have been a spontaneous outpouring of rage not the organized instrumental use of violence for political ends. (There’s still not enough known about the riots, their cause, extent, and leadership to judge, in my view). There would seem to be more than a passing similarity here to the outbreak in December 1987 of the first Palestinian Intifada which, if not altogether spontaneous, nonetheless caught both the Israelis and the major Palestinian resistance movements off-guard. In other words, Tibetan ‘resistance’ may be on the verge of the biggest strategic decision that any non-state actor seeking a change in the status quo must ultimately face: whether to add violence to its repertoire or not.

It bears emphasizing that most non-state actors do not choose to adopt violent means and there are good reasons why they should not. For one thing, non-violence has quite a good record of success. For proof of this see Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s rather fine book A Force More Powerful. For another thing there is in almost all cultures a strong taboo against the use of violence. This taboo is evident in various dimensions: Legal (violence is criminal in pretty much every society which has bothered with even a rudimentary code of law); Political (the notion that states hold a monopoly on the legitimate use of force is a powerful norm); Social (violent individuals are generally socially excluded); and, religious (most religious beliefs embody some moral injunctions against violence). Additionally, non-violence is attractive to non-state groups as a technique because it is less likely to expose the group to a violent state response. In plain terms, non-violent resistors are less likely to be killed or incarcerated for long periods. Nonetheless, the taboo against violence may be weakened or overridden by other considerations almost all of which exist to a greater or lesser degree with respect to Tibetans:

  • Political and legal norms may be weak or lack legitimacy, especially in a failing or corrupt regime. Whether or not the Chinese Communist Party constitutes a failing regime is a question for another day; what should not be in dispute is its corruption and its deficit of legitimacy.
  • Social norms may become more accepting of the use of violence to settle disputes, and religious norms may be ineffectual or reinterpreted to allow violence under specific conditions. Insofar as the Dalai Lama commands what Tibetan Buddhists regard as the norm regarding the use of violence we can say that this dimension of the taboo still holds. See: Why the Dalai Lama Might Quit. Nonetheless, there is good reason to ask how long this might remain the case –not so much that the Dalai Lama will change his mind but that activists will decide that his opinion on the matter should not rule.
  • The group’s ideology may portray its adversary as an existential threat and thus a legitimate target of violence in the name of self-defence and political/social justice. Here too it seems to me this is an area where the taboo against violence is being eroded. Tibetans, and many non-Tibetans, do view China as an existential threat to that country through a process of cultural, linguistic and economic assimilation hastened by the mass , government-sponsored migration of Han Chinese. See: BBC Inside Tibet click on the ‘Cultural Shift’ tab.

And there are other incentives for the use of violence which probably apply:

  • It may be seen as the only viable option against an authoritarian regime (check)
  • It is more attractive if the state is weak or failing (probably no check)
  • or if the group is unable to mobilize the general population to mass protest which is the hallmark of non-violent resistance (check, cf Tiananmen Square 4 June 1989)
  • It may be seen as necessary and proportionate if the state is already using violence at a low or high level (check).
  • And finally, violence will be chosen where it is seen to have been effective

On the last, watch and wait.

Endnote: My thinking on these things is strongly influenced by a PhD student in the department, Jeni Mitchell, who is working on strategies of violence in non-state actors. You might not have heard of her yet. In a couple of years when she gets her thesis done you will.

A Plague on Both Their Houses

4 April, 2008

The Economist has an interesting take on the battle for hearts and minds in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. Their correspondent argues that all sides in the conflict – the British, the Afghan government, and the Taliban – are losing popularity with local Helmandis, who increasingly see little to choose between them.

While many in the region had been optimistic following the arrival of the British, the failure to provide security, or even a stable form of insecurity, has drained their support:

Helmandis have endured instability for three decades. But the arrival of British forces and a surge in fighting two years ago have made things worse. Locals were used to negotiating a passage from a known commander, whether government or Taliban. Now they face a bewildering array of local bandits, corrupt police, tribal militias, Taliban and NATO forces. All can prove deadly. It is a grinding, bloody stalemate, with inevitable “collateral damage”.


The British government has sought to win local “hearts and minds” with reconstruction aid for roads, wells and the like. But most Helmandis impugn British motives. Xenophobic at the best of times, they spread their accusations widely: the British are intent on avenging 19th-century defeats in Afghanistan; are scheming with Pakistan; they are planning to steal drug profits. Attempts to co-opt elements of the Taliban, which led the Afghan government to expel two Western diplomats last December, reinforced suspicions.

However, based upon his interviews with locals, the correspondent concludes that the Taliban are faring little better:

It is some consolation that the Taliban are also ever more unpopular. And Western intelligence officials claim the militants’ co-ordination is breaking down under the relentless killing of Taliban leaders (200 have been killed and 100 arrested in the past year) by Western special forces. Taliban commanders in Helmand bear out this claim. Chains of command have become disjointed, they admit, with larger numbers of junior commanders filling the space left by senior figures such as Mullah Dadullah, their overall commander in Helmand, who was killed by British special forces last May. Internal discipline is harder to enforce. New recruits tend to be younger, more radical and from outside.

Two out of five Taliban fighters in Helmand are now outsiders, according to one Taliban leader. This causes friction with local people. One older Taliban commander admitted that some of his colleagues have been treating people “too harshly”. Local people have become more vocal in demanding that reconstruction be allowed and schools reopened. Militants differ over how to respond.

Read the full article 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.

Iraq, Oil and Insurgency

16 March, 2008

The New York Times has an interesting and lengthy feature out today on the role played by oil in the Iraqi insurgency, examining the case of the Baiji refinery in particular.

The sea of oil under Iraq is supposed to rebuild the nation, then make it prosper. But at least one-third, and possibly much more, of the fuel from Iraq’s largest refinery here is diverted to the black market, according to American military officials. Tankers are hijacked, drivers are bribed, papers are forged and meters are manipulated — and some of the earnings go to insurgents who are still killing more than 100 Iraqis a week.

Iraqi deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, cites (unnamed) Iraqi security analysts who claim Al-Qaeda in Iraq receives $50,000 to $100,000 per day from scams related to the Baiji refinery alone. This illicit diversion of oil revenues is presented as one of the principal reasons the insurgency continues to maintain momentum after five years, with money seen not just as an enabling factor for the insurgents, but a motivating factor too.

In fact, money, far more than jihadist ideology, is a crucial motivation for a majority of Sunni insurgents, according to American officers in some Sunni provinces and other military officials in Iraq who have reviewed detainee surveys and other intelligence on the insurgency.

Although many American military officials and politicians — and even the Iraqi public — use the term Al Qaeda as a synonym for the insurgency, some American and Iraqi experts say they believe that the number of committed religious ideologues remains small. They say that insurgent groups raise and spend money autonomously for the most part, with little centralized coordination or direction.

Read the full article here.