By George Friedman
The United States has been at war for nearly 15 years. The primary purpose of the war was to end the threat of terrorism posed by jihadists. The war has taken various twists and turns, and many of the operational choices have been questioned and are questionable. It can be said, however, that regardless of views on Iraq or Afghanistan, the fundamental strategic goal has not been achieved. Islamist terrorism remains active in Europe and shows its hand occasionally in the United States. The shift to Europe from the United States might have been the result of U.S. operations, but it might also be a shift in terrorist strategy for the moment.
At its heart, the United States’ strategy was to identify terrorist groups and destroy them. The assumption was that terrorism required an organization. Progress in this strategy meant identifying an organization or a cell planning terror operations and disrupting or destroying it. Since terrorist organizations are relatively small at the operational level, the strategy has resembled police work: the first step is to identify the person active in the organization. Having identified him, send drones or SEALs to capture or kill him.
Operationally, the strategy worked. Terrorists were identified and killed. As the organizations were degraded and broken, terrorism declined – but then surged. These endless intelligence and special forces operations may have been brilliantly carried out, but the strategic goal of the United States has not been achieved. The war is not being won and a stalemate is equivalent to a loss for the United States.
The essential problem has been a persistent misunderstanding of radical Islamism. It is a movement, not an organization. Or to be more precise, radical Islamism is a strand of Islam. How large or small it is has become the subject of a fairly pointless debate. Its size is sufficient to send American forces halfway around the world and it is capable of carrying out attacks in Europe and the U.S. Whether it is a small strand or a giant strand doesn’t matter. What matters is that it cannot be suppressed, or at least has not yet been suppressed.
One of the problems in American thinking is that it still draws from the U.S.’ experience with European and Palestinian terrorism prior to 1991. These groups were heavily influenced by the Soviet model and created organizations that were to a great extent hermetically sealed. The organizations had three characteristics. First, although sympathizers might be recruited with a careful vetting process, membership in the organizations was formal in the sense that you either were a member or you weren’t. Second, the organizations protected themselves by staying, to the extent possible, at arm’s length from any movement. They were obsessed with preventing penetration. Finally, they were heavily compartmentalized so that members and operations were known only on a need-to-know basis.
These organizations were intended to be sustainable over an extended period of time. But they had a flaw. If they could be penetrated (however difficult it might be) by informants or electronic monitoring, the entire organization could unravel. Either it would be completely destroyed through operations or the sheer paranoia of knowing it was penetrated somewhere would cause internal conflict or lead it to become inert.
In some cases, these organizations had no movement supporting them or the movement was so thin that it was not an issue. This was particularly true with European terrorists. The Palestinians had a substantial movement, but it was so fragmented and penetrated that the organizations distanced themselves from the movements. These organizations were over time broken by Western security services and bitterly factionalized to the point that the different factions could be used against each other.
For 15 years, the operational focus for the U.S. has been the destruction of terrorist organizations. The reason for this is that destroying a particular group creates the illusion of progress. However, as one group is destroyed, another group arises in its name. For example, al-Qaida is being replaced by the Islamic State. The real strength of Islamist terrorism is the movement that the organization draws itself from and that feeds it. So long as the movement is intact, any success at destroying an organization is, at best, temporary and, in reality, an illusion.
In addition, because there is a movement, the main organization can organize terror attacks by sending individuals who know little of the details of the organization to carry out operations. But because the movement consists of individuals who understand what needs to be done, jihadist organizations do not have to recruit people to carry out attacks or teach them how to do so. The complexity of 9/11 was never repeated and the level of simplicity has increased over time. That means that members of the movement who have never had contact with the organization can carry out attacks. From the point of view of the organization, these are ideal attackers. They cannot be traced back to the organization, they are not under surveillance and there are sufficient models for them to draw on without needing to ask for advice.
In the old model, all attacks were coordinated by the central organization. In the new model, most organizations have no contact with the people organizing operations and attacking the center will not diminish the attacks. Of late, there have been absurd discussions about whether particular terrorists had contact with other terrorists, or whether they had been “radicalized.” I assume this means the person was persuaded to become a terrorist. In a movement, you are aware that there are others like you and who think like you. You do not need formal attachments to respond to the ideology of the movement.
However, the idea of jihadism has permeated the movement and Muslims are aware of this. Most may reject it but others embrace it. You don’t need a training program to absorb what is all around you. If an individual doesn’t know anyone who is part of this ongoing movement, there is enough on the internet, or enough speculation in the media to draw a map for anyone who wants a map drawn. The idea that if a Muslim shoots 20 people, but has had no contact with a terrorist organization, he might not have done it for ideological reasons might be true. But it forgets that he does not need contact with a mentor to plan an attack, especially a relatively simple one. The movement and the atmosphere is filled with the idea.
The movement is not an organization any more than conservatism or liberalism is. There may be organizations attached to it, but it is more of a social tendency. However, its members still communicate with each other. There are leaders in all these movements, although there may not be managers.
This tendency in Islam makes the movement difficult to defeat. It cannot be surgically removed. Some members of the movement don’t wear a uniform. It is also impossible to attack the movement without attacking Islam as a whole. And attacking Islam as a whole is difficult. There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world and any of them can believe in radical jihadism. And the believers in jihadism are serious people, moved by their own fate. We would like to dismiss them as fools. If they were, they would be easy to defeat.
It is obvious that the conventional special operations approach hasn’t worked and won’t work. It is also obvious that a general war on Islam is impossible. What is left is difficult but the only option. It is to bring pressure on Muslim states to make war on the jihadists and on other strands of Islam to do so as well. The pressure must be intense and the rewards substantial. The likelihood of it working is low. But the only way to eliminate this movement is for Muslims to do it. They may not want to, and they may fail if they try. But more drone strikes and announcements that another leader of some group has been killed won’t work. Our options are down to having to “live with it” or fomenting a civil war in the Islamic world. In the end, we might wind up with “live with it” anyway.