Posts Tagged ‘Post-Maoism’

Documents of Note #3

3 May, 2008

The following is the latest in a periodic round-up of reports, papers, monographs, etc likely to be of interest to IRG members and the wider COIN/CT community.


RAND has published Volume 5 in its Counterinsurgency Study series of monographs, which is co-authored by IRG founder John Mackinlay and Alison Al-Baddawy.

Rethinking Counterinsurgency

The May-June edition of the US Army Combined Arms Center’s Military Review includes the following piece by Philip Seib:

The Al-Qaeda Media Machine [PDF]

The Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College has published the following studies:

Precision in the Global War on Terror: Inciting Muslims through the War of Ideas – Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur [PDF]

Global Climate Change: National Security Implications (ed. Carolyn Pumphrey) [PDF]

The SWJ Magazine has published interim versions of the following papers:

Social Epidemics and the Human Element of Counterinsurgency – CPT Nils French

Iraqi Non-Lethal Contributions to the Counterinsurgency – CPT Justin Gorkowski

The Counterinsurgency Cliff Notes – CPT Craig Coppock

The US Department of State has released the latest in its annual series of terrorism assessments:

Country Reports on Terrorism 2007

The International Crisis Group has released two new reports on Iraq:

Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape

Iraq after the Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy

The Combined Arms Research Library has made the following documents available. Original date of publication is provided if the document is not new.

Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958 – David Galula, 1963 (2006 Rand edition with foreword by Bruce Hoffman)

War by Other Means: Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency – RAND

55 Trends Now Shaping the Future of Terrorism – Dr. Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies

Defeating Cross Border Insurgencies – Thorsten Joergensen, 2007

Tactical Handbook for Operations Other Than WarUK Ministry of Defence, 1998

Strategic Assessment of the Mau-Mau Rebellion – Robert Eatman, 2007

Chechen Suicide Bombers – Robert W. Kurz and Charles K. Bartles, 2007

The Evolution of Al Qaeda – Sean Wilson, 2007

Globalization and Asymmetrical Warfare – William Hartman, 2002

Piracy and Maritime Terrorism: A Seamless TransitionJohn Hahn, 2004

Asymmetric Warfare: An Historical Perspective – Frankling Miles, 1999

Why Insurgents Fail: Examining Post-World War II Failed Insurgencies Utilizing the Prerequisites of Successful Insurgencies as a Framework – Frank Zimmerman, 2007

Secrecy News
has made available the following reports from the Congressional Research Service:

Operation Iraqi Freedom: Strategies, Approaches, Results, and Issues for Congress [PDF]

Iraq: Regional Perspectives and U.S. Policy [PDF]

High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) and High Power Microwave (HPM) Devices: Threat Assessments [PDF]


The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy

29 April, 2008

The following post was contributed by IRG member, indeed IRG founder, John Mackinlay.


On Sunday 27 April Taliban fighters attacked Afghanistan’s National Day parade with light mortars, RPGs and AK 47 fire. The firing started during the 21 gun salute at the climax of the parade and the presence of camera crews and reporters from every major TV station and international news agency ensured that the story and above all the images were instantly beamed across the world in several major languages in time to make the evening news. After the initial reactions, there has been no intelligent acknowledgement in the US and European print stories which followed on Monday that this attack is part of Taliban’s propaganda of the deed (POTD) campaign and the extent to which the media are its major propagating asset. Are our “defence correspondents” too shy to scrutinise their own indispensable part in the Taliban POTD strategy or genuinely unaware of their central role in post modern insurgency?

In his yet to be published paper “Hearts and Minds: Time to Think Differently” Steve Tatham (researching at UK’s Defence Academy) shows convincingly that Taliban moved to a much more sophisticated propaganda approach in 2006 when it became the “key component in their campaign”. It is also possible that Taliban were increasingly aware that their previous efforts fell far short of the expectations of a potential audience that was multilingual and routinely exposed to the best television products in the world and therefore educated and very demanding in a visual sense. This point is also made in Nicholas O’Shaughnessy and Paul Baines about to be published 2008 paper “British Muslim Susceptibility to Islamist Propaganda: An Exploratory Study”. According to Steve Tatham Taliban’s re-branding project began by sending a start up team as interns to Al Qaeda’s video production unit Al Sahab in 2006 and very soon afterwards in early 2007 their own production standards visibly improved. In April 2007 the new, media savvy Taliban began to promote themselves as “the people’s movement” thanks to a five part series screened by Al Jazeera and compiled by their credulously enthusiastic Pakistan reporter. In June 2007 images of a Taliban suicide bombers graduation ceremony augmented this new image of themselves on the internet and in June a spokesman announced that they were henceforth the “New Taliban”.

Seen in this context Taliban’s recent attacks in Kabul (in January at the Serena Hotel and yesterday at the National Day parade) should be considered by our defence reporters with greater rigour as part of a new and highly sophisticated POTD campaign in which they themselves are a key factor. It is unlikely that the National Day attack was conceived as just another event in a series of random bang – bang attacks, which is how it has been reported. Had Karzai’s parade gone according to plan there would be no images of Sunday’s National Day ceremony now appearing on any of the international channels or newspapers. A burst of small arms fire and a few mortar bombs transformed it into a much more sensational event for the press who with steadfast incomprehension have filed exactly the images and moments that the Taliban’s own propaganda manager would have chosen himself. By doing so they boost up a global interest in the particular aspects of its disgrace, the sense of pantomime, the rout of be-medalled parade soldiers scampering across the parade square before the Taliban fire and worst of all rows of dignitaries diving for cover behind their seats on the flag decked parade stand. Thanks to the media all that remains of this tragic day are these relentlessly unforgiving and unqualified images.

The incident on Sunday demonstrates a classic propaganda of the deed partnership in which the insurgents with growing skill select a media-significant target and with witless incomprehension international reporters beam the most sensationally damning images of the event around the world so as to deliver the worst possible interpretation. There is no need for a Taliban subtext or even a photo caption, the images speak powerfully for themselves sending messages of a stricken regime put to flight in their gilded uniforms by the daring fighters of the Taliban.

The failure of frontline reporters to understand their role in a POTD campaign is emphasised in BBC 2’s flagship series on terrorist attacks “The Age of Terror”. In it Peter Taylor, who has been reporting on terrorism for 30 years makes a “thoughtful and intelligent examination” of the Palestinian hijack to Entebbe and the PIRA bomb at Enniskillen. But in both programmes so far his cameras dwell endlessly on the kinetic details of the attacks and at no time does he explain the two campaigns in terms of their significance in the evolution of insurgency. In particular the fact that neither attack had any military or tactical significance and that to succeed as part of a nascent POTD campaign their respective stories and images had to reach the outside world via the media, and that the assumption that the media would was central to the operational concept in each case. Taylor seems to view the attacks from a moral island without appearing to understand the concept that was being played out and above all that the media were part of the problem.

In the media’s defence it could be argued that on Sunday in simple, unqualified descriptive terms they showed what took place, and how are we to trust them if they withheld images and stories so that a different account emerges? However newspapers and TV stations have always been biased towards an editorial perspective or a particular audience. They also impose restrictions on themselves for apparently honourable reasons – to protect the privacy of children, rape victims, Prince Harry’s military service and caveats on impending military and police operations. The BBC routinely prefaces its news from Zimbabwe with the notice that their reporters are banned from that country. Why not therefore include in this category of honourable exceptions a constant qualification and declaration of their status in the reporting of a post-modern insurgency in which the POTD motive is central to every attack? Why not explain the propaganda context of their images or better still embargo the use of all images when reporting a sensational terrorist incident, including the endless resuscitation of images of previous attacks? But short-termism and golden–goose-egg syndrome ensure that no ambitious editor will forgo immediate profit to prevent the emergence of a regime in which their own function would be banned.

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.

China, Tibet & Counterinsurgency in Cyberspace

10 April, 2008

In David’s earlier post on the possibility of an emerging proto-insurgency in Tibet, he cites the fact that Tibetan activists are effectively exploiting virtual networks to further their cause:

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.

According to a report in Information Week, these techniques of post-modern insurgency David refers to are being countered by opposing techniques of post-modern counterinsurgency. The report claims that ‘A shadow war against organizations supporting Tibetan protesters has erupted in cyberspace, mirroring efforts by Chinese authorities to quell unrest in Tibet.’

Among the techniques being employed is the following:

The cyberattack involves sending e-mail messages to mailing lists, online forums, and people known to be affiliated with pro-Tibet groups. To enhance their legitimacy, the messages contain information related to recent events in Tibet and may appear to come from a trusted person or organization.

But the content is simply bait, a social engineering con, to get recipients to open the documents and trigger an exploit. “The exploit silently drops and runs a file called C:\Program Files\Update\winkey.exe,” explains Hypponen. “This is a keylogger that collects and sends everything typed on the affected machine to a server running at And is a Chinese DNS-bouncer system that, while not rogue by itself, has been used over and over again in various targeted attacks.”

While the source of the attacks has been traced back to China, this doesn’t necessarily mean the Chinese are responsible. Greg Walton, who researches Chinese computer espionage and provides IT support for Tibetans, states: “These attacks are sophisticated. We can only speculate where they’re coming from. We can say the control servers are based in China. But these servers can just be stepping stones.”

Interestingly, although it is probable that China is indeed the origin of the attacks, it is likely that they are a bottom-up emergent phenomenon rather than a state-controlled initiative. As Marcus Sachs, director of the SANS Institute Internet Storm Center, explains:

Sachs recounted how in 2001, following a collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a People’s Liberation Army jet, Chinese hackers attacked U.S. servers. “Best we could tell, there was no Chinese government involvement,” he said.

Sachs believes the cyberattacks directed at Tibetan organizations are similarly the actions of Chinese hackers motivated by nationalism, without national direction.

The massive cyberattack on Estonia last year, in response to Estonia’s decision to move a Russian war memorial, presents an analogous situation. While Russia’s hand in the affair is easy to imagine, cybersecurity experts mostly see the attack as an act of nationalist zeal rather than coordinated, state-sponsored cyberwarfare.

If it is true that the Chinese state is not behind the attacks, it would suggest that what we are witnessing is the evolution of a form of open-source counterinsurgency resulting from the spontaneous mobilisation of a distributed network of self-selecting ‘virtual counter-insurgents’. Conversely, if the Chinese state is responsible, it raises other important questions. As the Information Week piece concludes:

Now that the Internet has evolved from a geeky curiosity to a shared transnational platform of economic, social, and political consequence, the question becomes, what kind of political response is appropriate for such attacks?

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.

Responding to Insurgencies in the 3rd Millennium: British Research into Countering Insurgencies

1 March, 2008

Two Day Workshop at RUSI

3-4 March 2008

This event, organised by the IRG and hosted by RUSI, will take the form of a small multi-disciplinary workshop.

The aim of the workshop is to define what the British mean by post-Maoist or post-modernist insurgency. Its secondary aim is to get the leading experts and researchers in this field into the same room with a view to forming the nucleus of a research group.

Any IRG members who wish to go should contact Jaz. Space is limited.