Survival, the journal of IISS in London, has published a review of my Countering militant Islamist radicalisation on the Internet: a user driven strategy to recover the web in a bumper three book review article. The other books are Brynjar Lia’s Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, and a RAND book by Martin C. Libicki, David C. Gompert, David R. Frelinger, Raymond Smith titled Byting Back: Regaining Information Superiority Against 21st Century Insurgents.
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Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al-Suri
Brynjar Lia. London: Hurst, 2007. 27.50. 510 pp.
Countering Militant Islamist Radicalization on the Internet: A User Driven Strategy to Recover the Net
Johnny Ryan. Dublin: Institute of European Affairs Press, 2007. €17.99.166 pp.
Byting Back: Regaining Information Superiority Against 21st Century Insurgents
Martin C. Libicki, David C. Gompert, David R. Frelinger, Raymond Smith. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2007. $23.00. 159 pp.
Terrorists are by nature a highly adaptive group: choosing to fight a subversive conflict with relatively limited resources in a hostile environment obliges one to adopt highly TSURtive methods of attack. Al-Qaeda and its derivatives are no exception, having shown themselves to be particularly evolutionary, with ever-shifting methods. Whether one understands the modern terrorist threat as a “global insurgency’; or, like al-Qaeda strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, one thinks of it as “nizam, la tanzim‘ or “system, not organisation’, with loose terrorist networks spread out across the globe under a broadly unifying ideology, al-Qaeda and affiliated groups recognise that the conditions under which they are attempting to conduct their conflict require broad-based asymmetric efforts using every possible tool at their disposal.
Three recent books investigate different aspects of al-Qaeda and its affiliates’ methods of making war: Brynar Lia’s impressive biography, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, offers a glimpse into the strategic thinking underpinning al-Qaeda’s efforts; Johnny Ryan’s investigation into online radicalisation, Countering Militant Islamist Radicalization on the Internet: A User Driven Strategy to Recover the Net, provides an overview of the issues raised in countering terrorist hijacking of this inTSURsingly critical public medium; and Martin C. Libicki, David C. Gompert, David R. Frelinger and Raymond Smith (henceforth Libicki et al.), in their By ting Back: Regaining Information Superiority Against 21st Century Insurgents, discuss ways counter-insurgent forces could improve their operations by deploying a new form of technological superiority. While Lia’s book does not offer policy recommendations as explicitly as the other two, by providing insight into a man who, in Lia’s view, is one of al-Qaeda’s brightest and most influential thinkers, it helps foster a deeper appreciation of the menace that is faced.
Following al-Qaeda’s expulsion from Afghanistan, the organisation seemed to mutate, hydra-like, into a body with three discernable ‘heads’.1 Commentators, such as Philippe Errera, identified a ‘core al-Qaeda’, which set up shop in the badlands of Pakistan’s frontier provinces; affiliated groups, such as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (formerly the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prdication et le Combat, or GSPC), that operated at the regional level; and finally, there were ‘freelancers … who profess[ed] to act in the name of al-Qaeda’.2 In fact, time has shown that these groups are probably not as self-contained as this analysis suggests. There has been an extraordinary fusion of extremist ideology internationally, and today there are links between Pakistan-based groups and European ‘freelancers’3; connections between regional groups in Libya and Iraq4; and plotters in Germany claiming allegiance to an Uzbek terrorist group.5
An examination of the life and writings of Abu Musab al-Suri appears to show that al-Qaeda’s dispersal may not be as uncoordinated and unintended as one might think. In his unwieldy 1,600-page magnum opus, The Call for Global Islamic Resistance (substantially excerpted and translated by Lia, pp. 347-484), al-Suri lays out ‘a formidable historical account of jihadi movements’ and a ‘new warfighting doctrine’, which has apparently been adopted by al-Qaeda. The group ‘appears to have moved towards the organizational model that al-Suri prescribed, with decentralized cells linked primarily by ideology and solidarity’ (p. 8). Whether by design or not, the writings of al-Suri seem to offer deeper insight into al-Qaeda’s evolution, and in Lia’s view have ‘become the most significant written source in the strategic studies literature on al-Qaeda’ (p. 7).
A career jihadist, al-Suri’s formative experiences took place in Syria, where he participated in the aborted effort by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow Hafez Assad’s regime in the 1980s. His career then took him on a grand tour of jihadist hotspots. He caught the ‘Peshawar spirit’ and joined the Muslim warriors battling the Soviets in Afghanistan; he later became an active ‘pen-jihadist’ in ‘Londonistan’, writing material to support the Groupe Islamique Arm (GIA) while acting as a point of contact for Western journalists seeking to interview Osama bin Laden. (He helped coordinate Osama’s first major interviews with Channel 4 and CNN.) In between, he stopped off in Spain to pick up a local wife (and passport), travelled to Amman and France to study, probably wandered to a few more places, and finally returned to Afghanistan in 1997, either as a result of growing pressure from European security services or of being forewarned of the pending 1998 US Embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi (or a combination of both). Currently, it is suspected that al-Suri resides in one of the CIA’s ‘black-sight’ prisons, having disappeared after being arrested in Quetta in October 2005. (According to Lia, the timing of these events is disputed.)
Lia’s discussion of al-Suri’s itinerant life helps us to better appreciate the evolution of his work – also reflected in the jihadist’s writings – which in turn deepens our understanding of the threat that al-Qaeda poses. Throughout the text we hear about al-Suri’s experiences from individuals with whom he interacted and from his own speeches and writings, experiences that are placed within the context of the timeline of global jihad. This sheds light on how al-Suri developed his strategic thinking, leading to his conclusion that al-Qaeda should evolve into a more decentralised and autonomous series of cells. As Lia puts it, al-Suri is an ‘architect’ who ‘through his writings has designed a comprehensive framework for future jihad’ (p. 8).
Throughout the book, Lia highlights al-Suri’s dry humour and eagerness to use texts and theories outside traditional jihadist thinking, revealing an individual who, while clearly a deeply driven and dedicated jihadist, was not afraid to buck the trend. While in London in the mid 1990s, he broke with the GIA and one of their then-London representatives, Abu Qatada (though Lia suggests he may have continued to advise them under pseudonyms). Later, while in Afghanistan, he had an acrimonious spat with Osama bin Laden, decrying the way in which the latter had announced his ‘Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders’ to the press from a camp that the Taliban had previously denied existed. It would appear, however, that al-Suri lost this round, as the Taliban rallied around bin Laden following the American response to the Embassy bombings. Later, al-Suri questioned the sagacity of the 11 September 2001 attacks and the justification they provided for ‘invading and occupying the Islamic world and inflicting heavy losses on Muslims’, but avoided openly criticising them, recognising that their ‘purpose was to awaken the Islamic Nation’ (p. 315).
Al-Suri never saw himself as a religious figure; Lia quotes him as saying, ‘I have never ever claimed for myself the ability to be a mufti’ (p. 178). Rather, he saw himself as a theoretician, and was regularly disappointed to see the prioritisation of ‘religious oratory and zeal’ over ‘jihadi field experience’ (p. 189). While he saw the value of religion and true faith in the fight – at one point he despairs that fighters were both arriving in and leaving Afghanistan ‘with empty heads’ (p. 106) – he also seems eager to detach religious training from actual combat, recognising the importance of each to the global jihad but believing that overall success was more likely if the two were kept apart. Lia summarises al-Suri’s beliefs thus: ‘for any jihadi organisation to survive in the much harsher climate of the New World Order, propaganda, media and incitement activities should never ever be mixed with operational ones’. All that should connect the leadership to their troops is ‘the common ideological and doctrinal basis’ (p. 339).
In this networked age, forging such connections through cyberspace is easily feasible.6 In Countering Militant Islamist Radicalization on the Internet, Johnny Ryan explores the Internet’s role as both a force and ideology multiplier and sustainer, and as a basic tool of communication for the international jihad-ist movement in the post-11 September world. Quoting Marc Sageman, he notes that ‘the pre-9/11 groups were linked via face-to-face interactions’, but inTSURsing security-service attention ‘forced potential jihadis to the internet and chatrooms’. In this largely ungoverned virtual space, ‘militant Islamist messages … cannot be censored’ (p. 13). Indeed they can thrive, and their wider dissemination is raising the terrifying possibility of the absolute freelance terrorist, self-radicalised through online material.
Ryan’s book provides a detailed look at how online radicalisation works and all the difficulties that free, democratic governments will face in attempting to impose any rigid rule of law in cyberspace. He offers a very useful descriptive model of the ideological structure and flow of online radicalisation, characterising it as a new ‘4Ps: Precedent, Perseverance, Piety, Persecution’. (This purposely imitates the British government’s ‘4Ps’ counter-terrorism strategy.7) He supports this model with a detailed analysis of online radical tracts. Noting that preventing Internet-based radicalisation is difficult, Ryan concludes that the best thing to do is to empower the end user with ‘cultural intelligence’ – he persuasively points out that the alternative, attempting to control the Internet, would be both undemocratic and practically impossible.
Ryan highlights a number of ways in which security services can manipulate or utilise the Internet to their advantage by either spying on radical websites or chat rooms, or by actively exploiting such sites ‘to promote division and disharmony’ (p. 11). However, he hits a wall when it comes to precisely identifying the solution to the problem of online terrorism or terrorists’ use of the Internet. His conclusion, that ‘soft responses based on improved knowledge and better use of the opportunities provided by the Internet will serve Europe better than hard responses based on censorship’ (p. 14), is rather vague, and could easily be expanded to apply to any sensible counter-radicalisation strategy – a reality that is at the root of why the current terrorist problem is so hard to eradicate. While an aggressive policy of pursuit and detention will protect us, the problem of terrorism will only go away when the ‘improved knowledge’ of which Ryan speaks has been disseminated and absorbed comprehensively throughout society – a day that may or may not be coming any time soon.
Nevertheless, Ryan is right that the battle over the Internet is critical in terms of countering the terrorist threat effectively, especially in Europe, but also further afield. What is particularly intriguing about Ryan’s approach, developed with the European Commission in mind, is that it is inherently transnational in character, something that is essential when dealing with an actor that defies the Westphalian world order. While the EU hardly encompasses the entire online universe, seeking an EU-based solution raises some of the transnational problems that would be encountered in attempting to tackle online terror issues globally. For example, a ‘filtering’ approach, as currently practised by China or Saudi Arabia, would be impossible in the EU, not just because this approach is harmful to democracy, but also because filters could, according to Ryan, damage the commercial viability of the Internet (p. 86). Furthermore, for the government to be able to maintain an effective filter, all Internet traffic would have to pass through a few portals, which could become targets in themselves. Ryan cites an instance from the year 2000 when Saudi Arabia was literally off the Internet for 17 hours when the ‘single proxy server’ used by the country suffered a network failure. Comprehensive Internet failure can also occur when targeting specific websites or pages, something seen earlier this year when Pakistan attempted to block some ‘blasphemous’ video clips on YouTube, leading to a near global blackout of the site.
Regaining information superiority
Given the world’s growing dependence on the Internet, such tactics are clearly unsustainable. Thus, the end goal of any online counter-radicalisa-tion strategy should be to ‘make the Internet a hostile environment for … those who seek to radicalise young people, spread messages of hate and plan mass murder’.8 But how to deny terrorists access to one of the most convenient tools with which they appear to be implementing Abu Musab al-Suri’s global dispersal strategy remains an unresolved issue. In contrast, when approaching terrorists or insurgents in a more traditional battlespace, the lesson from Libicki et al.’s Byting Back is that getting not just warfighters but also governments and the public to make more and better use of technology is crucial in ‘regaining information superiority’ in the battle against the second of the global jihad’s ‘heads’, the regional al-Qaeda affiliates. The fundamental point of this book, part of a larger RAND series examining counter-insurgency, is that allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are failing to maximise the potential technological benefits they could be leveraging in countering insurgents on the battlefield.
In Afghanistan there are now some 5 million Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards in a population of 30m,9 while the company Zain claims to control 70% of the Iraqi market with just under 7.9m customers in a nation of 27m.10 For the authors, the inTSURsed use of technologies such as mobile telephones on modern battlefields provides counter-insurgency practitioners with a tool ripe for exploitation. Not only could such technologies permit tracking from a ‘big brother’ perspective, they could also allow individuals to contribute up-to-date information on local conditions to such things as ‘national wikis’ (Wikipedia-style webpages), which would help counter-insurgent forces better understand the terrain in which they were fighting. By allowing for different levels of access to such pages, intelligence information could also be included, as well as small pieces of embedded recorded film captured from cameras attached to soldiers’ weaponry. Finally, all SIM cards could be traceable to specific individuals by way of a national registry. According to the authors, strategies like this constitute ‘an integrated counterinsurgency operating network’, which they see as an underused tool in the battle to overcome insurgents. Successful counter-insurgency, they argue, ‘requires understanding the human terrain’ (their emphasis), knowledge best acquired through the TSURtive deployment of extant technologies.11
While the approach advocated by Libicki et al. seems sensible, its practical application would be difficult. Leaving aside the logistical problems of tracking SIM cards accurately, maintaining equipment,and getting locals and warfighters to update wikis both regularly and accurately, the theoretical basis of such an approach could easily TSURte what the authors themselves describe as an ‘information age police state’. As they quite accurately point out, ‘in counterinsurgency, the primary field of battle is the minds of the active citizenry’ (p. 3), and while citizens undoubtedly would prioritise personal security over much else, states are usually loath to relinquish power, and it would be hard to exactly define the point at which a sectarian insurgency had been eradicated and therefore the system could be dismantled. Furthermore, the globalised nature of the information-rich world in which we live means that ‘insurgents’ connectedness also gives them a sense of being at one with an oppressed Muslim community worldwide’ (p. 6). Events can instantly become global, and inTSURse and strengthen the interplay between the three types of terrorist cell.
The root issue with which both Ryan and Libicki et al. are grappling is how to control the information environment that insurgents and terrorists have proved very adept at manipulating to their advantage without exerting too much control and thereby reducing the Internet’s functionality and deterring individuals from using it, or encouraging them to find ways around the safeguards. There is such a wealth of information online, and the virtual world lends itself so conveniently for any of the three identified groups to coordinate and carry out their acts, that it is hard to imagine they will not attempt to find some way to utilise it. However, any attempt to control them could very well undermine the freedom that the Internet encapsulates, and the deep connectivity of our societies, thus handing a victory to the terrorists whose goal all along was to destroy our way of life.
To effectively eradicate the current strain of internationalist terrorism captured under the broad heading of al-Qaeda, we will have to disaggregate the three expressions of terrorism and address their root causes separately. Unfortunately, terrorists have recognised there is strength in numbers, and are ultimately pursuing an agenda that, in al-Suri’s words, seeks ‘to mobilise the masses around the banner of jihad, to ignite Fallujah-type insurrections in every Crusader country, a global Intifada whose fighters should train, equip, and fight on their own, united by nothing more than a common ideology’ (Lia, p. 316). To counter this will require a strategy that will not simply stamp on each of these disparate insurrections, but will deprive them of the kindling they need to ignite in the first place. Thus, we return to the problem that so many counter-terrorism experts come up against, which is how to effectively persuade young people (no matter where they may be) that the globalist millenarian ideology offered by al-Qaeda and its disparate parts is less appealing than the humdrum or deprived environment in which they find themselves. In other words, how does one ’empower the end user’? And even more importantly, how does one know when this has been successfully done? These three books all offer detailed analyses of different aspects of the modern anti-terrorist battlespace, and consider the difficult question of what can be done to win the battle; unfortunately, they all succeed in proving that there is no silver bullet.
Philippe Errera, ‘Three Circles of Threat’, Survival, vol. 47, no. 1, pp. 71-88.
Ibid., p. 74.
Rohan Gunaratna and Anders Nielsen, ‘Al Qaeda in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan and Beyond’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, vol. 31, no. 9, 2008, pp. 775-807.
Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, Al Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records, The Harmony Project, December 2007, http://ctc.usma.edu/harmony/pdf/CTCForeignFighter.19.Dec07.pdf.
Guido Steinberg, ‘The Islamic Jihad Union: On the Internationalization of Uzbek Jihadism’, SWP Comments, April 2008, http://www.swp-berlin.org/en/common/get_document.php?asset_id=4883.
Audrey Kurth Cronin, ‘Cyber-mobilization: The New Levee en Masse’, Parameters, Summer 2006, p. 81.
For a definition of the ‘4Ps’, see the British Home Office website, http://security.homeoffice.gov.uk/counter-terrorism-strategy/about-the-strategy/.
‘Press Statement issued jointly by Ministers of UK, Finland, Germany, Portugal, Slovenia, France and the Vice President of the European Commission’, 16 August 2006.
Jon Boone, ‘Upwardly mobile in Afghanistan’, Financial Times, 2 June 2008, http://us.ft.com/ftgateway/superpage.ft?news_id=fto060220081539062870.
‘A New Beginning: Zain in Iraq’, 6 January 2008, http://www.zain.com/muse/obj/lang.default/portal.view/content/About_us/Worldwide_Presence/Iraq.
A recent BBC report seems to indicate that a strategy very similar to the one outlined by the book is being tried out in Afghanistan. ‘New Media Plan to Combat Taleban’, BBC News, 10 October 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7662549.stm.