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The Endless War? CT in the Early 21st Century

Spring / Summer 2015 Features

The Endless War? CT in the Early 21st Century

The Endless War? Counter-Terrorism in the Early 21st CenturyHow to attack jihadist terrorism’s fallacies frontally, while calibrating state machinery and societal resilience for success

The only endless wars are the ones fought over ideas. Wars of treasure, of territory, and of prestige and power all find their destructive finales. The 21st century conflict with jihadist terrorist groups, set in motion by the 9/11 attacks, threatens to become an endless war – but only if the right set of responses by states and societies threatened by terrorism cannot be found.

The latest round of searching for these right responses has been set off by the recent wave of terrorist attacks: in Ottawa in October 2014, in Sydney in December 2014, in Paris and then in Copenhagen, respectively, in January and February of this year. This wave of attacks has led to concerns that the global community faces some new kind of terrorist threat, and that it is somehow unprepared to meet it, despite more than a decade of deadly experience with jihadist attacks and enormous investments in intelligence and security measures.

The sense of being unprepared feeds on an alarmist impulse that inflates the terrorist threat, connects disparate attacks to build a picture of upward trending terrorist violence, and feeds on the notion of a growing mismatch between new terrorist capabilities and existing counter-terrorism powers. The cumulative impact of such alarmism is to demand that something new be done – and as a matter of urgency. Often this something new will take the shape of proposals for new legal powers or new social policies. Alarmism can be a force for some good – a kind of nervous system jangling – but only if harnessed to a proportionate response designed to improve counter-terrorism effectiveness, rather than to make matters worse.

In periods of heightened alarm and reactive impulses, it is easy to miss the bigger picture that should inform counter-terrorism. That bigger picture needs to be based on an understanding of the strategic notions that underpin jihadist terrorism, and of the exploitable fallacies that they contain, fused with an appreciation of the key ‘pillar’ capacities of counter-terrorism.

Before alarmism is allowed to dictate any agendas for change, it is also important to recognize the significance of societal responses in places that have come under recent attack. Anyone who has lived in a city subjected to unexpected terrorist violence – as I did in Ottawa in October 2014 – will know the sinking feeling of disbelief, the shock of death tolls, the voracious media reporting, and the sense of something unfolding beyond one’s control. But one will also know how quickly normalcy comes flooding back in, and how magnificently well societies can respond, without any orchestration, to shock. In Ottawa, in October of last year, it was the silent public vigil at the National War Memorial attended by thousands, the mounds of flowers and mementos to honour a young soldier, Corporal Nathan Cirillo, slain while on ceremonial guard duty by a terrorist – who was in turn killed shortly after he entered the Parliament buildings close by. In Paris, it was the «Je suis Charlie» campaign and the reclaiming of the city by Parisians in solemn procession down the great boulevards. In Sydney, it was a social media campaign – “I’ll ride with you” – designed to proclaim solidarity with Australian Muslims who might feel threatened by any kind of backlash against the killings at the Café Lindt in Martin Place. All of these responses were indicators of a real societal resilience – embedded rather than built. Societal resilience, especially its spontaneous demonstration, is a key guarantor of success in counter-terrorism, and indeed a sign that the counter-terrorism battles of the 21st century should not degenerate into an endless war.

Societal resilience is a foundation for counter-terrorism success. But it cannot stop – only absorb – terrorist attacks and terrorist threats. Knowing the enemy is, as always, critical. The performance of state intelligence systems thus becomes key to counter-terrorism success and the avoidance of endless wars. These systems typically analyze threats to security by attempting to understand both the intentions and capabilities of threat actors. When dealing with state actors, capabilities – especially of the hard power variety – can be captured and measured with a reasonable prospect of success by intelligence systems deploying an array of collection techniques. The intentions of state actors can morph from puzzles – whose clues lie in official statements, unofficial pronouncements and signalling, ideology and historical tendencies – to mysteries, where unpredictability, chance and the prospect of surprise might reign. With terrorist groups, however, the balance of difficulty between measuring capabilities and intentions is often stood on its head. Intentions – particularly on the part of jihadist groups – are often broadcast and are a central element of the reputation, status and recruiting power of a particular terrorist entity. Terrorist capabilities, for their part, become the hard question, as they are amorphous, disaggregated, and small in scale. Surprise lies in wait here.

In the current environment, we face a significant divide between two different kinds of global jihadist strategic thinking. Understanding terrorist capabilities and aligning counter-measures depends on understanding this strategic divide. One strategic direction is a direct legacy of the concepts propounded by Osama bin Laden during his time as founder and leader of Al Qaeda. That strategy was rooted in the idea of Al Qaeda as a vanguard jihadist organization that would draw others in the Muslim Ummah to its cause and provide direction, organization and assistance to allied groups prepared to swear bayat (loyalty) to the Al Qaeda cause and its leader. Al Qaeda’s ability to function as a central directorate for global jihad was dependent – as bin Laden had long recognized, starting in the period of development in the Sudan in the early 1990s – on the organization being able to operate from a physical safe haven. The ultimate, if temporary, success of the bin Laden strategic model was the 9/11 attacks mounted from Afghanistan against the so-called ‘far enemy’ – taking advantage of Al Qaeda activities and groups spread broadly around the world, with the Hamburg cell a notable example.

The successor to the bin Laden strategic vision is, I would argue, ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), with its self-proclaimed caliphate and its efforts to secure and administer territory across a broad swath of Syria and Iraq, while also building itself up as the new global jihadist vanguard – even to the extent of trying to bind bin Laden’s former deputy and current head of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to its will and direction. The current threat posed by ISIS echoes the threat once posed by bin Laden’s Al Qaeda – the threat of a jihadist organization under strong and capable leadership, able to control territory and resources, and disposed to use these to direct external attacks and inspire followers. To the extent that ISIS is able to expand its reach by drawing to its cause jihadist groups in territories as far flung as Afghanistan, Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, it may ultimately exceed the threat once posed by Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

But while ISIS may aspire to a command and control strategy for global jihad, there is a competing vision at large. Its most famous proponent is an Al Qaeda ‘renegade’ and jihad theoretician named Abu Musab al-Suri. Al-Suri, or Nasar, was captured in a police raid in Quetta, Pakistan in October 2005, and may be currently held in secret detention by the US authorities, who had issued a reward of US$5 million for his arrest. Al-Suri’s influence did not end with his arrest or dissipate in the mysterious circumstances of his life since 2005. He established a remarkable presence on jihadist websites, culminating in the appearance of a long online manifesto (some 1,600 pages) entitled The Global Islamic Resistance Call. The illuminating study of al-Suri by the Norwegian scholar, Brynjar Lia, in the book Architect of Global Jihad contains an excerpt from al-Suri’s Internet book that takes us to the heart of his theory of jihad.

In this work, al-Suri argues that jihad must take two forms, which he calls the “individual terrorism jihad” and the “jihad at the Open Fronts.” The former is, he believes, a precondition for the latter: “The jihad of individual or cell terrorism, using the methods of urban or rural guerilla warfare, is fundamental for exhausting the enemy and causing him to collapse and withdraw, God willing. The open front jihad is fundamental for seizing control over land in order to liberate it, and establish Islamic law, with the help of God. The individual terrorism jihad and guerilla warfare conducted by small cells […] paves the way for the other kind (Open Front Jihad), aids and supports it. Without confrontation in the field and seizure of land, however, a state will not emerge for us. And this is the strategic goal for the Resistance project.”

While al-Suri’s strategic vision may be seen at work in ISIS’s effort to conduct its own ‘open front jihad’ in Syria (al-Suri’s birthplace) and Iraq, it has also been proclaimed as a guiding doctrine by ISIS competitors, such as the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) published excerpts from al-Suri’s The Global Islamic Resistance Call in the first issues of its magazine, Inspire.

It would be overreach to suggest that al-Suri’s doctrine of individual jihad binds together the unconnected recent activities of terrorists in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris and Copenhagen, and gives them an overall strategic purpose. The greater likelihood is that none of the terrorist perpetrators had ever heard of al-Suri or read his manifesto or been in any way guided by it. Still, the aftermath of their attacks lends credence to a next generation of terrorists who may now find strategic purpose in individual attacks.

The challenge of “individual terrorism jihad” will be measured in the future against its operational pace. Any cascade of such attacks will be dangerous. However, it is important to note that al-Suri’s strategic rationale for “individual terrorism jihad” is itself rooted in a fallacy – namely that it can cause the exhaustion and collapse of entire societies. And yet the societal resilience on display – not just in the face of recent terrorist attacks, but in all the instances of modern jihadist terrorism, large and small, since 2001 – is a fundamental refutation of the premise. Individual terrorism achieves no strategic objective on its own. This is because it is small in scale and disaggregated, and cannot on its own overcome the resilience demonstrated to date by various societies. (Individual jihadist terrorism also depends on the inspirational effects of an attempt to seize and create jihadist states abroad. Denying such ambitions undermines whatever allure individual jihadist acts might have.) Of course, the problem lies in a potential escalatory cycle in which individual jihadist attacks, if they go unchecked, provide encouragement for other ‘lone wolf’ jihadists and propaganda value for terrorist causes; and also, to be sure, if societies subject to sporadic attacks overreact either domestically or in their international behaviour.

The fear of an endless counter-terrorism war is rooted in the notion that jihadist terrorism can be sustained against all counter-measures, both at home and abroad; that it can gain longevity; and that it can raise its campaign to the level of long-term, ideological war. That path can only be achieved through significant counter-terrorism failures in the aggregate. Preventing all jihadist terror attacks cannot be the real goal. Instead, what is critical is to sustain good counter-terrorism capacity in order to deprive jihad terrorism of any prospect of longevity.

Counter-terrorism starts at home. Its methods can be extended and adapted to embrace overseas fights – whether to aid regimes under threat or to counter jihadist groups seeking to fight their way to the possession of a state. Its capacity rests on five pillars: a strong legal regime; good surveillance and intelligence capacity; good threat assessment and warning ability; effective engagement with vulnerable communities; and public knowledge and legitimacy. While this might be seen as a near-universal architecture, individual states will bring to the table different combinations of strengths and weaknesses among these pillars. It is therefore important to understand what might be the principal contribution of each pillar and how these pillars interconnect to deal with individual jihad terrorism.

Legal regimes provide proper mandates for police and intelligence agencies, identify terrorism as a special and serious crime, prioritize and provide sanctions against different forms of terrorist criminality, try to have a deterrent effect, and often dictate the terms of the rehabilitation of offenders. More broadly, they define and protect rights. A legal regime reaches into every other pillar of counter-terrorism. It is, rightly, the first pillar. But strong legal regimes are not enough. They have to be matched to resources and a willingness to utilize criminal sanctions, and they have to meet the test of public legitimacy.

Surveillance and intelligence capacity serves to identify threats, and assists in preventing attacks by interventions, through disrupting plots and facilitating arrests, and also by aiding in the capture of suspects and the mitigation of damage in the aftermath of successful attacks. Surveillance capacity begins with lawful mandates, but requires skilled resources, high levels of technological ability, and an ability to separate ‘signals’ (real threats) from ‘noise.’ Surveillance is a ‘shared good.’ To be effective, its practices and intelligence haul must be shared among government agencies, between government and relevant private sector organizations, and among states. In a threat environment shaped by the overlap between individual jihad terrorism and ‘open front’ conflict, with the connector being the two-way flow of foreign fighters, the targets of surveillance are in global motion, both physically and virtually.

Bref, too little surveillance is debilitating; too much, on the other hand, stresses the legal regime, backfires with vulnerable communities, and undermines public legitimacy.

Surveillance feeds assessment, which involves making sense, both strategic and tactical, of the threat environment. Here, the technology of 21st century surveillance – so much of it sniffing the web and listening in on mobile devices – gives way to technology-assisted human judgement, rooted in carefully honed expertise on terrorist groups, on individual actors, and on the history, language, culture and religions of regions beset by terrorist conflict. Without good assessment, expensive and resource-intensive surveillance is often useless. Without good assessment, surveillance does not know where to look, or look next. But, of course, without sufficient surveillance capacity, assessment is just guessing.

Community engagement supports surveillance and is also an alternative to surveillance where surveillance has no right to be. But it is much more than that. Community engagement involves a mutual contract between the state and affected and vulnerable communities to assist each other in pursuing a common goal: ensuring that jihadist terrorist thinking does not take hold; if it does start to take hold, to attempt to dissuade and offer better alternatives; and if it cannot be stopped in the first instance, to offer a capacity for rehabilitation. The onus is not on the community to heal itself without help; nor is it on the state to step in unilaterally. The essence is a delicate compact. However, without real community engagement, counter-terrorism will founder. And even with engagement, individual jihad terrorism will adapt to community watchfulness and interventions. (Typical forms of adaptation will involve silence, deception, and ‘sleeping.’ But even these forms of discipline will drive the embrace of jihad further to the margins and reduce the appeal and chances for success of individual jihadism.)

Public legitimacy and knowledge are too rarely identified as critical elements of counter-terrorism – perhaps because they are taken for granted. Citizens demand high levels of safety and security from their governments. Still, beyond this it is important to note that in order to support counter-terrorism, citizens need to have a capacity to understand threats to national security, and to understand the nature of government powers and responses. Public trust that the government is responding well to terrorism threats and not abusing its power in doing so, or not unnecessarily intruding on civil liberties and privacy rights, has to be constantly earned through government efforts at public education and information flows, and backstopped by independent mechanisms to review the activities of security and intelligence agencies.

Counter-terrorism capacity may be focussed on dealing with domestic threats, but it manifestly relies on global connections to be effective. Burden sharing on threats and targets, intelligence sharing, the sharing of technological capacities for surveillance and data management, and attention to best practices all contribute to global connectivity among counter-terrorism partners.

Where do the gaps typically lie? The answer will, of course, vary from state to state. Mature counter-terrorism states possess all five pillars of the counter-terrorism architecture to a reasonable degree. Most Western democracies have had enough time and experience since 9/11 to rise to this standard. But in dealing with the twin threats of individual terrorism jihad and ‘open front’ jihad, a new onus is going to be placed, in my view, on three key areas: enhanced, technologically driven surveillance of global communications; much improved threat assessment and warning; and public legitimacy and knowledge. These priority areas may well fly in the face of conventional thinking, which, as we have seen in Canada, the UK and France, tends to reach for new legal powers to deal with heightened levels of threat. It also flies in the face of adverse public reactions to the Snowden revelations about global electronic surveillance. Little attention is usually paid to the functions of threat assessment and early warning, despite their obviously critical function, and in many systems such capabilities are relatively under-resourced (certainly compared to the resourcing of intelligence collection). Public demand for greater awareness of terrorism threats is not much in evidence, nor is there any kind of sustained debate about the importance of public legitimacy in conducting counter-terrorism operations.

Identifying and rectifying counter-terrorism capability gaps in a systematic rather than purely reactive and alarmist way is critical to success. Understanding the reinforcing nature of each counter-terrorism pillar is essential to setting goals and defining the limits of reform in a world where the perfect counter-terrorism state will never – and should never – be found. But thinking about the inevitable limits on an imperfect system is not counsel for despair – and this is because counter-terrorism’s imperfections are more than matched by the strategic fallacies at the heart of jihad terrorism.

Al-Suri’s advocacy of ‘open front’ jihad is rooted in the assumption that terrorist groups can win conventional battles to control states. Yet jihadist terrorist groups cannot fight their way to building a state – that is, unless states and societies decide not to fight back. If there is one lesson engraved on the global security consciousness by the 9/11 attacks, it is the necessity to never allow a terrorist entity to enjoy a safe haven from which to operate or to enjoy some of the attributes of a state in terms of resources and protections. This is true whether one refers to Al Qaeda as a state within a state in Afghanistan, or to the proclamation of a caliphate by ISIS (perhaps to be followed soon by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria). It follows that talk of a ‘containment’ strategy, borrowed from the Cold War era, is nonsense, as the balance of potential force between any jihadist group and the international community overwhelmingly militates against the success of any ‘open front’ jihad.

Individual jihad terrorism rests on the strategic fallacy that the states and societies against which its attacks and venom are directed are weak, corrupt and rotten – and this because they do not represent the kinds of states that jihad terrorists wish to see erected in their place. However, strategic fallacies do not, in and of themselves, end the threat: ‘open front’ jihad feeds on instability, political chaos, and more generally on the body of failed states and bad governance. At the same time, it exposes itself to counteraction through the exercise of military power, diplomatic action and development assistance; and it exposes itself to the challenge of governance and public support, where it will always be fatally weak.

Individual jihad terrorism feeds on the web. The web provides space for inspirational messaging, propaganda, recruitment, training and expertise, and financial flows. The web is – like it or not – a facilitator of terrorism. It is also a free and open space and needs to be defended as such, for that is its value. Nevertheless, a way must be found to check the exploitation of the web by jihad terrorist attack planners and the creation of dark spaces for operational purposes. The web posits its own endless war possibilities; and yet we need to be less concerned about terrorism propaganda on the web – which will be ultimately self-defeating without strategic successes – and more about the operational communications that feed attacks.

Successful counter-terrorism needs its own workable, legitimate strategy for dealing with the web. On the surveillance side, this means legitimate powers to surveil the web. It means having the technological capability to stay abreast of changes to web-based communications technologies in order to avoid the development of a dark-space web closed off to surveillance. It means, to be sure, developing a lawful capacity to shut down that tiny proportion of web-based communications that involves serious terrorist activity. While these capacities are in the making, they remain a work in progress both in terms of the advancing technological capabilities that allow for hidden and encrypted communications and the surveillance challenges of detecting true signals amid the bountiful noise on the web. But the objective should be clear: to deny easy and uncontested access to the web as a force multiplier for individual terrorism.

Avoiding the Endless War

In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks in January 2015, the Belgian authorities moved to break up a terrorist cell that was apparently planning attacks on police targets in Brussels. One individual identified as a possible mastermind for the plot is a jihadist once based in Syria who goes by the name of Abou Omar El-Belgiki (‘the Belgian’) in online postings. Like other Europeans who have joined the foreign fighter stream to Syria, he has been used for recruitment messaging. In one such video message from 2014, he appealed to young Muslims in Europe, who lead a life of “humiliation,” to join him in conducting jihad. He argued that only violent jihad could end their troubles, saying: “You will find this only in your religion, only in jihad. Is there anything better than jihad or a martyr?”

The best way to avoid endless terrorist war is to ensure that the answer is: of course there is something better – much better – than jihad and martyrdom. Without demonstrated successes in achieving its strategic objectives, jihad will wither and die. Counter-terrorism’s ultimate goal is not to stop every attack or to find a magic solution to prevent all individuals from being drawn to jihad, but to deny jihadist terrorism any longevity: by halting efforts to create jihadist states; by preventing most terrorist attacks; by sanctioning terrorist crimes; and, to be sure, by demonstrations of great societal resilience when attacks do occur. Individual jihad terrorism, as al-Suri recognized, will have little effect unless it is tied to the bigger aim of achieving the jihad state through ‘open front’ conflict. States and societies will have to demonstrate strong and sustainable resolve to never allow the emergence of such jihadist states and statelets.

Finally, successful counter-terrorism also involves political dialogue and action in a democratic space – this in order to deny and counter the narrative of Muslim humiliation and the validity of violent jihad, and indeed to legitimate security measures. But this is not a war of ideas. A war of ideas should have no hold. For jihadist strategies are not sufficient in and of themselves to elevate terrorism to an endless war of ideas. And such a war will have no hold unless faulty counter-terrorism strategies, at home and abroad, allow it.


Wesley Wark is Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa.


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