A Blueprint for Asphyxiating Jihadism

The Problem

By now it should be obvious that the application of brute force, by itself, is insufficient in the effort to defeat jihadism. Similarly, while state intelligence organs have proven effective at disrupting threats to domestic security and adding new names to shiny-white balls in the drone strike lottery, the jihadist problem still persists. It persists. And it persists because we have failed to apprehend the nature of problem.

In more ways than one, this non-apprehension stems from our tendency to glean information through computer screens instead of through people – a symptom of our preference for technologism (as exemplified by the “death from above” problem-solution continuum) instead of humanism (an in-depth understanding of old mate Akhmal and his problems). As a result, and in light of the fact that jihadist terrorism is much worse (by several orders of magnitude) then it was even five years ago, it seems that we still don’t know why cultural facts on the ground in faraway places are manifesting as effects elsewhere.

Indeed, what our misadventures attempting to defeat insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated is that our inability to understand the cultural environments in which we operate renders instantly useless any and all efforts we might make as counter-insurgents.

In this war, knowing who to kill can be less important than knowing who not to kill. A given target on the Joint Prioritized Effects List might yield indices of “1” on a threat association matrix but that same target might also be a swing-voting imam, siding with the jihadists not because of any ideological affinity he has with them but because he is engaging in a survival maximisation strategy – collaborating out of necessity. 

If we had only known this before we droned him into oblivion, we might have slipped him a few greenbacks, done his speech-writing for him and used his sermons against the bad guys.

By contrast, the current industrial killing machine approach, as exemplified by the upthrust in direct action raids conducted by JSOC et al, has yielded limited results cohering with Stan McChrystal’s characterisation of “insurgent algebra” as “ten minus two [insurgents] equals twenty, or more, rather than eight (10-2≥20)”.

In many ways then, the logic for being better-informed (and perhaps more selective) in our bomb-dropping is numerical – we have a limited amount of ordnance to fire at any given location and we know we can’t and don’t want to kill everybody in that location because our desired end-state is neither genocidal nor Sisyphean. Ergo, it follows that we need to be better informed. But we cannot be better informed until we go and get informed.

Likewise with the view that aid dispensation is a cover-all panacea, we cannot expect the mere building of infrastructure in Afghanistan’s mountainous “land of unrestraint” (yaghistan) to capture the hearts and minds of a tribal population who have a culturally-engrained suspicion of cities (shahr) .

Neither can we expect the Sunni of Anbar to fight for us “out of gratitude” for the armed social work we once conducted in the past. “Hearts” (and well-building) can be valuable to us, yes. But hearts are not nearly as valuable as minds. Furthermore, without observing and understanding the “cultural mind” that is driving the phenomenon of militant jihadism, as it is occurring on the ground, the best strategy we will ever be able to hope for in our hopeless war of attrition is two 5.56mm in the heart and one in the mind.

It is clear then that what is required to defeat jihadism is a detailed, even ethnographic, understanding of any future terrain where this ideological conflict is likely to take place. It is not enough to simply draw causal links between jihadism and incorporeal factors like “grievances”. Nor is it enough to attribute the blame for jihadist recruitment on vaguely-defined ontological states like “poverty” or vaguely-described “charismatic recruiters” and “madrassas”.

Further questions need to be asked by people involved in field research. What are these “grievances”? Where did they come from? What is the nature of local “poverty”? If there are “charismatic recruiters” in Saudi-funded madrassas on the AfPak border, which ones in particular are churning out the bad guys? Why these ones? What is the cultural terrain in which these “bad madrassas” are ensconced?  In short, what are the “roots” of the so-called “roots of terrorism”?

Female CST-2 member speaks with Afghan child

“Right, but before we blew up your school did you like to go?” (Source: Sunnyinkabul.com)

Up to now, we have largely relied on arcane computer-plotted metrics like “significant kinetic effects” to tell us what the violence looks like rather than walking around, talking to people and finding out what the violence is actually doing. By relying on the quantitative data we are missing out on the qualitative description – the somatic inputs which inform us about the totality of cultural life and the dispositions and allegiances of the people.

The Practitioners

As far as seeking to better understand the problem, the US Army Human Terrain System represented a step in the direction. But it was a dismal failure. Putting uniforms on social scientists and asking them to “do anthropology” in the context of a military operation-cum-occupation is laughable. One can not be a “participant-observer” if one is dressed like Terminator in a town where the favoured dresscode is a kaftan or a dashiki.

Once the boots are on the ground stamping out a big footprint, it may actually be too late for anthropologists to do traditional ethnography. Indeed, if Iraq is anything to go by, it may be too late to do anything at all (2017 update: I take that back. Send in the anthropologists to survey the mess in Mosul and Raqqa).

Having said that, let me be clear. In and of itself, counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) is, at the very least, theoretically sound. Clear, hold, build. It does work – or it least, it can work. But it only works if it is executed by a group of practitioners who are well-informed enough such that it can be said they have a mastery of the cultural terrain and a thorough understanding of the socio-political forces driving the conflict. The agents of British empire were only able to execute successful counterinsurgencies after hundreds of years of deep immersion in the cultural environments they occupied – much of which involved sending explorers and ethnologists like Francis Younghusband and Richard Burton out to the periphery of imperium in order to bring back the cultural information and whispers of rumblings in the hills. Comparatively, 6-month military rotations whose aim is to work through a list of people to kill is pathetic.

This century has seen the US leading the ham-fisted fight against jihadism. But if the rise (or perhaps, “the scent”) of Donald Trump is symptomatic of a necrotic rot and general decline of a once great America, the responsibility for preserving Western civilisation against the very real threats which menace it will increasingly fall into the hands of smaller powers – Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, Denmark, even New Zealand.

Everyone knows the UN is broken but other multilateral institutions, like the International Criminal Court, can be leveraged and incorporated into the defence policies of small powers. We now have an international legal instrument to prosecute our enemies (war criminals all of them) – what need is there to have the Americans lock them up in Guantanamo? We now have a refuse station to deposit the trash – so why not bring Ahmad Al-Mahdi and “Caliph” Al-Baghdadi and Abubakr Shekau (and Joseph Kony, for that matter), kicking and screaming to the Hague where we can handcuff them in their underpants to the handrails outside.

There’s some argument to be made that local judiciaries function as better truth and reconciliation mechanisms than bureaucrat-heavy global courts – but what better proof can we provide to Muslim victims of suffering that we are on their side then by dressing-down the jihadists of the world before the international press? (2017 update: we might also dress down the Rohingya-killing Aung San Suu Kyi’s of the world, too).

In all likelihood, small powers will be crucial in the next phase of this war even if an examination of recent history shows that the foreign policy decisions of countries like Australia are symptomatic of a delusion where a small power thinks itself a great power. We are the truck drivers and logisticians for America’s theme park in Iraq’s Emerald City. We supplement our big cousin’s Air Force with a few extra fighter jets (which we buy off him for exorbitant prices). Secretly however, we all know that a country like Australia (with a population of 20 million) or Canada (whose landmass is largely a frozen waste) will never be able to join the global superpower club.

And really, we don’t want this anyway. We don’t want to conquer Afghanistan and install a glorious empire which will last a thousand years. We don’t want to occupy Iraq and raze all the mosques and make barbecues and the production of maple syrup mandatory. In principle (and I stress “in principle”), our main interest is in self-defence while peace-keeping and atrocity-prevention is also a shared goal. We are really just pre-emptive isolationists. For all intents and purposes, the “pre-emptive” component of this outlook involves surgically removing the little cancers in the world which are threatening to spread. In order that these cancers will never bother us.

Jihadism is one such cancer. And as with any cancer, it can be treated early or treated too late. One can cut the polyp out with a scalpel or one can wait till it becomes carcinogenic. One can pre-empt the spread or one can wait until it spreads, choosing instead to confront the problem with a bag-full of toxic chemicals (hyper-conventional military force) which is just as likely to destroy the rest of the body as it is to force the body into remission.

So how to cut out the cancer? Here’s a blueprint.

The Blueprint

A few years ago, a popular model was put forward to describe why complex adaptive systems like terrorist networks are so difficult to destroy – a model which juxtaposed decentralised systems with other systems whose command is centrally-controlled. The metaphor used was “the starfish and the spider”.

A spider, as we know, is reasonably easy to kill. Crush its invertebrate body between your fingertips and all its legs – its subsidiary parts – will cease to function. The hierarchical institutions of nation-states often look like spiders. Kill the mad king, his knights surrender. Or, in the world of today, if a drone is ready to be fired and the President is in a meeting the whole operation comes to a standstill because the chain of command is temporarily paralysed.

The starfish however, doesn’t need centralised command and control (C2). There is no singular brain running the show but a series of nerves running along the ambulacral surface of each individual arm. If any individual arm is cut off the arm regenerates. Each arm is, in effect, autonomous – decentralised.


A starfish regenerating an arm

Unlike with the spider, there is not one nerve centre to destroy but many waiting to grow back. And the biological analogy holds true to reality – organisations like Al-Qaeda and the “lone wolf” cells operating at the periphery of the Islamic State are demonstrative of the starfish model.

To unpack this further there are other congruent examples we could take from Greek myth – eg: if we were to contrast the regenerative heads of the Lernean Hydra with the single-minded Delphic Python (the classic mythological serpent – “cut off the head and the body dies”). There’s plenty of images to thickly-describe this phenomenon.


Guess who the terrorists are in this picture.

With this model in mind our task is thence to figure out ways in which to kill these “starfish” given that our current strategy (the drone-strike lottery) is having a limited net effect on the battlespace. As stated earlier, the fundamental problem with our approach to this conflict, has been our inability to understand the taxonomy, the anatomy and the reproductive capacity (that is, the nature) of the starfish – so, in many ways, the problem comes down to a problem of information and intelligence collection.

The nature of the information-space today is different to what it was during the Cold War. This is because unlike during the Cold War (when information was scarcely-available and jealously-guarded by those who held it) today’s “globalised” world is defined by what the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls “trajectories of disjuncture”. Information is no longer hidden, here and there, it is everywhere, available to everyone. It is no longer the purview of spies in the employ of the government. It is ripe for the picking by anyone – journalists, lobbyists, soldiers with blogs, hobbyists surfing the internet. Small Wars Journal, after all, is run part-time by a retired Marine out the back of his food truck. Much of the information (but not all) is already out there, at one’s fingertip, waiting to be apprehended.

Traditional intelligence organisations still fulfill a set of vital and specific functions. They collect high-level information which circulates through diplomatic circles; they analyse specific sets of information as it pertains directly to government policy; and, crucially, they deliver advice to policy-makers. But the world is far too big, the desertscapes and mountain ranges where jihadism is metastasizing are far too expansive for a bevy of urbane and taciturn bureaucrats to apprehend the nature of the problem as it appears on the ground. There is simply not enough paper in the Amazon to write all the risk assessment summaries.

Michael Nagata, the Japanese-American general who was until recently the head of the US Army’s program to fund Syria’s rebels, argued that in the fight against jihadism it will “take a network to defeat a network”. Following this logic then, the government (a centrally-controlled spider) is going to need help from the outside. This is where the private sector will likely be of some use.

Unlike a modern nation-state, there is no inevitable form which an entity in the private sector need adopt. Businesses like eBay have made billions by wresting control from central authority figures and placing it in the hands of the masses – by becoming thriving profitable starfish. Others, like Apple, have come to symbolise innovation in transcendental ways.

In general, and for good reason, there is a healthy suspicion of handing any kind of role in the War on Terror to the private sector. Indeed, apart from the problem of accountability there is a similar suspicion (if not a lack of trust) of the motivations of those in the business world. Just look at the controversies surrounding the free-reign that private military corporations like Blackwater have had over diplomatic security in Iraq. On this point, Machiavelli said “the lion”‘s share of what needed to be said about the problems posed by mercenaries in his writings on the condottieri in 16th century Italy.

In some cases however, specific and limited outsourcing of government war-time tasks to the private sector might be indispensable rather than inimical. Contractors are profit-minded which means, if they are paid according to outcomes, increased efficiency in the use of time and resources. Consider, as a heuristic comparison, the time it might take an individual military contractor to board a plane to the UAE and take up a job training Arab forces (as many retired Western soldiers have done) versus the time it might take an Australian military unit, even a special forces unit, to do the same. There’s almost no comparison.

The main problem with outsourcing, of course, will always be the issue of accountability. But insofar as the government holds the purse strings the private sector will always be behind to its pay-masters. Ultimately, contracts can be written how governments want. And laws still apply to individuals. Furthermore, with a degree of separation between the public and private sectors comes an additional, and useful element of deniability for the government. A condottiere does not carry a government ID card – therefore the government cannot be burned at the stake for the condottiere‘s shortcomings.


The condottieri, the gentlemen-mercenaries of Italy

Ultimately then, given what has been discussed about our cultural knowledge-gap and given the future role which smaller, devolved, government-affiliated but private entities might play, one could conclude that our order of battle (particularly in the sphere of information-gathering and intelligence-collection) needs a complete restructure. And it starts, of course, with government itself.

The current force pitted again jihadism behaves much like “the spider” – where a single-minded body controls eight independent and often knock-kneed arms (*cough* Sovereign Borders). But as the war evolves, it is increasingly clear that what is required to asphyxiate jihadism, once and for all, is an organism that more closely resembles a jellyfish.

To biologists, jellyfish are known as medusae, named for the chthonic snake-haired monster from Greek mythology. A medusa typically takes the form of an umbrella. In this metaphor, the upper surface (the exumbrella) is the figurehead of governance (an influencer but not necessarily a decider of the mundane and everyday) which encompasses everything. The exumbrella is in turn supported by a pulsating hydroskeleton (a more efficient, flexible bureaucracy) and a tangle of toxin-delivering stingers (the military, especially the special forces).

The key distinguishing feature between the jellyfish and its older arachnid self is obnoxiousness of presence. While the spider is intrusive – a blot in one’s surroundings, a menace, something to be feared – the jellyfish is confidential, cordial almost, barely noticed as it pulsates seamlessly through the environment. In battle, however, a medusa is just as lethal as the spider. The semi-transparent Australian Irukanji, the smallest of the box jellyfish, is also the most deadly of the box jellyfish, despite being the size of a fingernail.

Again, and crucially, the jellyfish is not intrusive – it does not meddle, disrespectfully and contumeliously, in the same way that the spider does. Jellyfish do not hide behind the fortress walls of the Camp Russell’s of the world (see SOTG-Afghanistan), hunkering down in a maze of HESCO, browbeating those caught in its web about the virtues of democracy. Jellyfish simply “bloom” – reproducing seasonally and in large numbers when the sunshine increases – in a way which, crucially, never disrupts the ecosystem.

Instead of hiding and occasionally killing – like stonefish consuming bottom-feeders on the seabed – they replicate. The focus is not on opportunistic consumption but ally-creation

Still though, the bloom hunts. And there is yet prey to hunted.

So, the bloom goes forward. And swimming with, amongst and at the vanguard of this bloom will be other carnivorous hydrozoa – sworn into the service of the medusan public but privately employed – at an arm’s length. Hydrozoa like the Portuguese Man o’ War. The Man o’ War distinguishes itself from the bloom jellyfish in that it is not one organism comprised of many cells but colonial organism made of many individual organisms called “zooids”.

the fleet

The fleet moves

In principle, the privately-contracted Man o’ War is independent from the bloom and this independence can be useful to the bloom. The Man o’ War remains accountable to the bloom, who feed it the bloom’s scraps, but it complements the bloom because its structure – with its many “zooids” – is different to the bloom. These zooids can produce themselves at random through a process called “direct fission” – redeploying copies of themselves instantaneously.

As the bloom and the Man o’ War approach the juvenile starfish, teams of these zooids break away and descend upon the prey. The zooids attach themselves to the prey’s exterior – problematising the nature of the prey, fissioning further to create more zooids – “local” zooids – who can map the prey’s centre of gravity, assisting with the uncreation of the prey by thickly describing the prey. The zooids prepare the battlespace for the rest of the bloom by showing the bloom where the prey’s weaknesses are; what the prey subsists off; contextualising the prey as the right prey within an entire seabed of prey in a way which complements the inputs gathered by the bloom’s sensory organs – the bloom’s spooky spy-feelers.


A zooid. Microscopic. Deadly.

Having colonised the prey’s crusty back, the zooids weigh the prey down and the prey is consumed by the bloom. Then, the bloom moves on, in search of more prey, with the auxiliary zooids swimming in front, disappearing silently into the deep.

This is the blueprint for the slow asphyxiation of jihadism and one need get behind it, before the chronology overtakes us. It does, of course, require money. Or more precisely, the reallocation of money away from direct-action, droney-droney, pointy-shooty measures.

In a statement directed at his government pay-masters, General James Mattis, the Warrior-Monk of the US Marine Corps put the issue of allocation of resources rather succinctly: “if you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.

Applying Mattis’ logic, if Western governments with vested interests in the problem of terrorism don’t properly fund ground-based, human-conducted research which seeks to grapple with the problem in the places where it is metastasizing then those same governments are going to need greater funding for missile research. In any given location, by the time the jihadist problem requires a military intervention, then it is too late.

The key to “defeating jihad” is a re-structuring of the intelligence sector and in part a devolution of certain functions to the private sector (getting behind the mercenary zooids) to assist with collecting more information about the problem. A knowledge gap persists. And we need to fill it.

Take the rise of jihadism in Mali for example. Jihadism has been spreading, and rapidly so, over the last two years. Right now, of course, everyone is paying attention to ISIS  because ISIS is in vogue. ISIS are the badass bandidos with all the fancy videos and media attention. But while Iraq and Syria are now firmly in the clutches of jihadism, a new group – the  Force de libération du Macina (FLM) – is growing in central Mali. Before, jihadism was just a problem in the far north of Mali, a fad amongst a few Arab traders and disaffected nomadic Tuareg. Now, for the first time, FLM is targeting settled Fulani in Mali proper, wooing them to jihadism with nostalgic dreams of long-since forgotten caliphates. This is where the zooids will prove indispensable. Send in the zooids. Let them find out what’s happening in the Sahara. Indeed, what is happening in Fulani Mali? What is the problem? Why is the cancer spreading?

james mattis

James Mattis

1 thought on “A Blueprint for Asphyxiating Jihadism

  1. Pingback: We are winning but The Horror will continue | Dispatches from the Periphery

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