The Paris Attacks And The Logic of Insurgency

Excerpt:

At its most basic, insurgency is a strategy of violence used by the weak-most often a nonstate organization-against the strong, normally a government. To have any chance of success, insurgents must goad counterinsurgents into mistakes. This plays out in several ways. Osama bin Laden’s grand strategy was to provoke the U.S. into over-extension with the 9/11 attacks, thus allowing al-Qaida to attract recruits and supporters angered by U.S. military action while imposing great political and financial costs on the U.S. To an extent, this worked, although al-Qaida suffered more losses than it expected and was unable to take advantage of the successful aspects of its strategy.

Insurgents also provoke security forces in order to compel people who were undecided or neutral in the conflict to pick a side, hoping that more of them than not will be so angered by government actions that they will cast their lot with the insurgents-and that some former government supporters will be disillusioned. Just as Mongol warriors used to feign a retreat to draw their enemies into an ambush, what appears to be a firm military response by the government actually becomes a political misstep playing right into the hands of the insurgents.

So how do the Paris attacks follow this logic? Because insurgents are weaker than the government, they need help from the other side, even if it is unintentional. Whoever planned the Paris attacks is counting on this.

The Paris Attacks And The Logic of Insurgency

http://www. worldpoliticsreview.com/ articles/14873/the-paris- attacks-and-the-logic-of- insurgency

A suspected Yemeni al-Qaida militant holds an Islamist banner as he stands behind bars during a court hearing in state security court in Sanaa, Yemen, April 23, 2013 (AP photo by Hani Mohammed).

By Steven Metz, Jan. 16, 2015, Column

Even before the smoke cleared from last week’s horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, people were struggling to make sense of them. Because the initial victims were associated with Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine known to deride Islam, attention fell on questions of free speech and whether it should be limited when religion is involved. But even if the belief that Islam is being insulted influenced the killers at a personal level, the al-Qaida strategists who claim to have directed the Charlie Hebdo attack had other goals. For them, the notion of blasphemy is useful propaganda, but their objectives are much bigger than punishing cartoonists.

In 2004, Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, who went on to be a key adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq and an architect of U.S. thinking about counterinsurgency, proposed an innovative perspective on what had, by that point, become known as the Global War on Terror. Islamist terrorism was, Kilcullen argued, “best understood as a global insurgency, initiated by a diffuse grouping of Islamist movements that seek to re-make Islam’s role in the world order.” This insight still applies today. To understand jihadist organizations like al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State (IS) first requires understanding the core logic of insurgency.

At its most basic, insurgency is a strategy of violence used by the weak-most often a nonstate organization-against the strong, normally a government. To have any chance of success, insurgents must goad counterinsurgents into mistakes. This plays out in several ways. Osama bin Laden’s grand strategy was to provoke the U.S. into over-extension with the 9/11 attacks, thus allowing al-Qaida to attract recruits and supporters angered by U.S. military action while imposing great political and financial costs on the U.S. To an extent, this worked, although al-Qaida suffered more losses than it expected and was unable to take advantage of the successful aspects of its strategy.

Insurgents also provoke security forces in order to compel people who were undecided or neutral in the conflict to pick a side, hoping that more of them than not will be so angered by government actions that they will cast their lot with the insurgents-and that some former government supporters will be disillusioned. Just as Mongol warriors used to feign a retreat to draw their enemies into an ambush, what appears to be a firm military response by the government actually becomes a political misstep playing right into the hands of the insurgents.

So how do the Paris attacks follow this logic? Because insurgents are weaker than the government, they need help from the other side, even if it is unintentional. Whoever planned the Paris attacks is counting on this.

One form of unintended help comes from Islamaphobes and right-wing anti-immigrant groups. Immediately after the murders, far-right nationalist parties like France’s National Front, Germany’s Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West and the British Independence Party grabbed the spotlight, suddenly seeming much less on the political fringe than they had even weeks earlier. Outright Islamophobia inched toward the mainstream in some segments of the Western media. Jihadist leaders know full well that mounting hostility toward Muslims fuels their narrative of an historic global war between Islam and the West.

The second sort of unintentional help for the strategists of insurgency comes from pundits and opinion-shapers in the West, including the U.S., so enraged by the attacks that they advocate extreme retaliatory violence and increased military action. The jihadists know that if this comes to pass, some of their foot soldiers may die, but that a wave of new recruits will be inspired to join them.

After the Paris attacks, journalist Michael Deacon wrote, “Here’s a theory. Terrorists aren’t offended by cartoons . . . they merely pretend to be offended by cartoons.” This allows them to increase domestic hostility and violence toward European Muslims, thus hindering the latters’ ability to be both European and Muslim and forcing them to decide which aspect of their identity takes priority. While the perpetrators of the Paris killings were simply disposable tools, those inspiring them from Yemen, Pakistan or wherever the strategists of al-Qaida lurk today intended to spark both a broad anti-Muslim backlash and a violent government response. They wanted to make every Muslim believe that they are involved in a global war.

Al-Qaida’s strategists likely had other, more inward-looking motives as well. Often insurgencies are not a unitary, centrally controlled movement, but a polyglot of groups united only by their desire to destroy the existing order. Each of these groups must simultaneously weaken the government and jockey to increase their own influence and power within the insurgent coalition.

With IS getting most of the press for the past year, al-Qaida may have felt the need to inspire or stage something that would recapture the spotlight and reinforce its position as the senior partner in the transnational jihadist insurgency. What better and cheaper way to do that than inspiring dispensable stooges to stage an attack that would galvanize world attention? In fact, current reports are that al-Qaida paid the terrorists a mere $20,000. Tragically, then, those murdered in Paris were stage props, pawns in a game of jihadist one-upsmanship.

Insurgents tend to develop tactics and operational methods as they go along. Being much more flexible than governments and state security forces, they try many different things, both violent and nonviolent, and then simply repeat what works and abandon what doesn’t.

Unfortunately, Paris worked for the insurgents. It got them attention. It stoked anti-Muslim feeling. It moved Islamophobia a little closer to the political mainstream in the West. And it cost little. Given this, the logic of insurgency suggests that there will be more Paris-like attacks, perhaps many more if they continue to generate the political and psychological effects that the insurgent strategists sought.

Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.

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