Poking Fun at Terrorists

Ubiwar had a posting a couple days ago about a British film called Four Lions that played at Sundance and which pokes fun at suicide bombers.  You can find The Guardian‘s article on the film here.

In the words of the reviewer for IndieWire, the film revolves around a “cool-headed young leader in possession of the intellectual drive to get the job done, and a brutish pundit whose incompetence continually dooms the group’s plans. ‘I’m the most Al-Qaida of all,’ he insists.”  Of course, this is a well-established comedy mechanism.  Think Jeeves and Wooster or Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

On the other hand, there is an underlying truth to this construct with regard to the jihadist world.  I’ve long been enamored of the idea of the distinction and tension between instrumental and expressive warriors in the jihadist world and I think it can be seen almost anywhere you look in among the terrorists.  It’s an idea that I owe originally to Jeff Cozzens.  West Point’s CTC also used the idea in their “Harmony and Disharmony” paper.

A couple of closing thoughts.  First, assuming a distributor picks up this film and it gets some traction, I wonder what the reaction on the forums will be.  Second, I wonder if there is any chance that this film could make terrorists “uncool” in their own young male target demographic, at least in the UK, where the movie is set.  Or am I being too optimistic?

Published in: on January 25, 2010 at 3:06 PM  Comments (1)  

Algeria’s Dirty War against the Jihadists

I have recently read La Sale Guerre (The Dirty War) written by Habib Souaïdia and published in 2001.  The book is one man’s memoirs of the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s.  Souaïdia received a commission in the Algerian army in the 1992 and became a paratrooper.  Before falling afoul of the authorities in 1995, he was involved in numerous operations against the Islamists: the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) and their even more radical splinter group, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group, a Salafi Jihadist group).

Souaïdia recounts numerous horrifying stories of torture and abuse carried out against people suspected of being “tangos” (terrorists) or even against Algerians who should not have been suspects by any reasonable standard.  He also writes that numerous killings (often of prisoners) that were publicly attributed to the Islamists were, in fact, carried out by the Algerian security forces, either the military itself, or the intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité or DRS, more commonly known as the SM for Securité Militaire.  In some cases, the military, he says, would kill Algerians and dump their bodies where they would easily be found.  Then, they would never say anything when the media attributed the deaths to the Islamists.  In other cases, the special services would actually operate in disguise as Islamists.  Finally, he says, in some cases the SM infiltrated genuine terrorist groups and were able to control them.

There is no doubt that Souaïdia is sincere in what he wrote, and it is all very plausible.  The problem is that while he himself witnessed torture and some extrajudicial killings of suspects, his other allegations really boil down to hearsay.  As a lieutenant, of course, he was not privy to the counsels of the Algerian leadership.  Though as a paratrooper, he served in a fairly a high-status community, he did not serve in the most elite units that allegedly did the bulk of the dirty work.  In fact, while reading this book I was often reminded of the U.S. Army Rangers in Blackhawk Down.  You may recall that the Rangers were an elite group and were involved in some special high-speed stuff but all the really difficult or spooky stuff was left to Delta Force while the Rangers were left watching and wondering from the sidelines.

What Souaïdia did have, however, was a widespread network of other lieutenants who had been in his class at the Algerian military academy.   Many of his horror stories, including most if not all of the claims of the security services operating disguised as Islamist terrorists come from “a friend from my class” or other such sources.  Furthermore, he sometimes he recounts stories that he heard later from fellow prisoners who had been in the army.  All he is able to provide by way of personal corroborating evidence is the fact that his and other Army units were sometimes ordered to desist when they made contact with a band of terrorists.  He explains these events by saying that the terrorists who were allowed to slip away must actually have been government agents or fellow soldiers.  Other times, all Army units out in the field would be ordered to stay in place and not move until further notice.  This must have happened, he concluded because the more secret parts of the security apparatus did not want to be interrupted carrying out particularly dirty work.

Despite Souaïdia’s general lack of direct evidence, the story should certainly not be dismissed out of hand.  In fact, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that

First, and most importantly, veterans of the so-called jihad in Algeria have long made similar claims in their own literature.  For instance, Abu Musab al-Suri, in his Call to Global Islamic Resistance, argues precisely this. It is a convenient claim for the jihadists to make as the operations of the GIA were (or appeared to be) so radical and so profoundly unattractive to the population of Algeria that the movement was an utter failure.  Just because it is a convenient claim does not mean that it’s untrue, however.  I cannot immediately think of another group within the Jihadist world that is accused of being under the control of the “apostate” security services.  The jihadists usually reserve this sort of accusations for groups with whom they have religious differences.  Even the Taliban, whose links with the Pakistani ISI are well-documented, does not come in for accusations of being under the control of the ISI, despite the fact that the ISI is not well-loved in the jihadist community.

Second, the former Algerian defense minister, Khaled Nezzar, brought suit in French court against Souaïdia and lost.   Le Procès de “la sale guerre” (The ‘Dirty War’ Trial) recounts this trial in some detail.  I hope to lay hands on it and have a look.

Third, in 2003, two years after Souaïdia’s book came out, former Algerian colonel Mohamed Samraoui wrote his own book, Chronique des années de sang (Chronicle of the Years of Blood) making similar charges.  In fact, he claims that the GIA was actually a creation of the SM.  (Note that even if true, this does not mean that every act of the GIA happened at the behest of the Algerian government.)  The problem is that it’s my understanding that Samraoui was serving as Algerian military attaché in Germany at the time.  If this is true, then again, there might be questions as to the access of our source.  This book is also on my to-do list.

Fourth, a memoir published in 2008 by an Algerian sergeant named Abdelkader Tigha again makes similar allegations.  See his  Contre-Espoinnage Algérien: Notre Guerre Contre les Islamistes for discussions of “faux groupes Islamistes.”  I have not read this book (yet), but the blurbs about it cause some raising of eyebrows.  The story apparently involves him being chased around the world by his former employers after he flees the horror.  Jason Bourne may make good fiction, but I’m always skeptical about such stories in the real world unless the involve the Iranians or Stalin’s KGB.  I actually have a copy of this book in hand.  In my copious free time, I’m sure I’ll read it and post about it.

Fifth, The Observer in Britain reported in 1997 on a defector from the Algerian service who made similar allegations.  Here, too, there is a slight problem.  The officer also said that Algeria was helping the Iraqis with their WMD program, and we know how that worked out.

Sixth, the sorts of activities which Souaïdia and Samraoui allege have long pedigrees.  Many countries and groups have conducted “pseudo-operations,” using friendly groups which pretended to belong to the enemy camp.  The most famous, of course, were the Selous Scouts of Rhodesia, but the British, French, Portuguese and, of course, the Soviets in Afghanistan (see pp. 137 and 115fn) have all been known to do it, too.  Readers interested in a careful study of the topic, should look here.

Let us assume that the Algerian government actually did what it is purported to have done.  Obviously, there was an appalling moral and humanitarian cost.  On the other hand, the government appears to have inflicted a very serious defeat on the jihadists.  The GIA became so utterly alienated from its base, the people, that it was unable to survive.  Furthermore, the stories of penetration can only have engendered suspicion within the GIA, given the generally conspiracy-prone nature of the jihadist world.  The question, then, is whether there are other less appalling ways of making our present jihadists adversaries appear odious to their target population and whether there are other ways of making the members of the movement not trust each other.

It seems to me that a good start in understanding the history and its implications for the future would be for someone to pull together a sober, comprehensive analytic piece bringing together all these strands.  Who wants to write this journal article?

Conference: Conspiracy Theories in the Middle East and the United States: A Comparative Approach

This conference in Germany next year sounds extremely interesting.  And they’ve got a cool poster to advertise it (above).  Here is the 1.5 meg version.

Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 5:29 AM  Leave a Comment  

Wartime Domestic Surveillance and Civil Rights Abuses

No reasonable person can deny that there have been civil rights abuses during the present war on terrorism (or whatever we are calling it).  In fact, all wars lead to over-reactions and abuses of some kind or another.  That said, it is not at all clear to me that the recent domestic abuses—as bad as they are—stack up unfavorably against other similar incidents in American history.  I am furthermore skeptical that there is a predisposition in the United State polity or in its government to stick it to Muslims, per se.  Rather, I think that Muslims today are simply the latest “hyphenated Americans.”  Sadly, other hyphenated Americans have gone through similar travails during previous periods of national security stress.

The encouraging side of this story is that after and despite past abuses, the United States survived recognizably intact as the United States.  In fact, arguably, it grew stronger and developed to be actually more in consonance with its expressed values.  While continued vigilance is necessary in our age to keep the Government in check, I think that historical experience suggests that we shouldn’t rush to predict the end of the American way of life.

In the course of my research on American intelligence during World War I, I have had occasion to take a look at some of the domestic surveillance efforts undertaken in 1917 and 1918.  The similarities are striking.  So, too, are the ways in which the surveillance efforts of the time went beyond what the U.S. Government has done in recent years.  Finally, I note that even during that nightmare period for domestic surveillance and the trampling of civil rights, there was a healthy debate underway within the governmental agencies about the propriety and limits of such activities.  Herewith, a small portion of what I’ve been working on….

During 1917 and 1918, religious denominations and clergymen often came under suspicion if their utterances seemed too pacifistic.  Sometimes these groups saw which way the wind was blowing and bent with it.  The Seventh Day Adventists, for instance, agreed to withdraw from sale some 135,000 copies of ‘objectionable books’ and the publishers ‘volunteered to revise these books to meet the approval of the [War Department’s Military Intelligence Division (MID)] and to change them from anti-war to pro-war documents’.


Lutherans, however, were a particular target, because their Church had many German followers and purportedly ‘contained many elements of disloyalty and activity in behalf of the enemy’.  Ironically, widespread Lutheran pacifism stood in sharp contrast to the ‘Prussian will to power and…spirit of unscrupulous warfare’.  Nevertheless, this did not spare the Church from close scrutiny.  Not surprisingly, the military’s concern was greatest with regard to pastors preaching to servicemen at military camps, but clergymen in purely civilian life also were investigated.  In one of many such cases, private citizens of Chambersburg Pennsylvania reported their pastor, the Reverend J. C. Nicholas, to the MID on the grounds that he refused to include prayers for the success of the American Expeditionary Force in his Sunday service because he thought this would be dictating to God.  It did not help that Nicholas had denounced Selective Service, had opposed contribution to the Belgian Relief Fund, and had only contributed one dollar to the Red Cross.  The National Lutheran Commission subsequently appointed him as a camp pastor at the Newport News point of embarkation and the MID kept him under close observation, but could find no excuse to have him removed.

With regard to actual espionage, the MID was greatly concerned by the fact that the Lutheran church collected detailed information on a routine basis from its camp pastors about how many Lutheran soldiers were at their camp, how many were coming and going and where they were going to.  This information could be used to develop a detailed order of battle of the Army and to discern when units were embarking for France.  The question was whether this information was making its way to Germany.  Ultimately, apparently after the war, MID concluded that though the church had gathered data ‘that they did not need to possess’ and which should have been held within the US Government, ‘no satisfactory evidence’ existed that the church’s gathering of information was done at the behest of Germany or exploited by Germany, rather that the church had done this for its own pastoral purposes.  This did not mean that no Lutheran pastors had violated the law.  In fact, at least eight were interned or convicted under the Espionage Act.

In late July, 1918, MID’s domestic security section, MI-4, which had been following Lutheran matters for some time, did a review of what it knew about the subject.  It brought to bear three officers to investigate clergymen and camp-pastors.  Another officer weighed  evidence gathered through censorship and still another studied the ‘general motives of the church and its propaganda’.  These officers ‘set in order a mass of data that amply demonstrated the potential danger from German sympathizers in the Lutheran denomination and even cast some doubt upon the good faith of the church as an organization’.  Word of this soon made its way to Congress and the Church itself.  Neither was pleased and the impression grew that ‘Military Intelligence was seeking to discredit the entire church’.  In fact, however, the views of the investigating officers were not shared by all of their superiors and the classified 1919 MID official history recorded that the views of the investigating officers were not even fully shared even by their immediate superiors, and the ‘MID had no united opinion that could warrant any drastic policy in an exceedingly delicate matter’.

In fact, when in August 1918 the MID took a comprehensive look at the problem of Lutheran pastors it found that of some 9800 pastors, only about 200 should be considered suspects and even that number was ‘in need of further reduction’.   Furthermore, some of the evidence against even the 200 was ‘exactly of the kind that has been exploded in previous instances’.  In fact, the MID history concluded that while the ‘full extent’ of the ‘pernicious influence’ of Lutheran ministers on the population could not be computed, but it was now clear that ‘the Lutheran clergy on the whole were not a fertile source of pro-German agitation’.

After the war MID admitted in its official history that the German-speaking communities were by-and-large a ‘happy disappointment’ to the ‘prophets of evil who had feared wholesale insurrections or insidious intrigues’.  Indeed, some of the most German areas, such as Milwaukee, ‘made themselves almost amusingly conspicuous by an Americanism which, whether genuine or not in spirit, was satisfactory in its outward manifestations’.

Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 5:53 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Library of Congress Book Scanning Project

A fine project underway at the Library of Congress that should make historians everywhere happy. It is fitting, I think, that this story appeared on Christmas Eve.

I do wonder, however, what the degree of overlap is with those books scanned by the Google Books project.

Washington — Nearly 60,000 books prized by historians, writers and genealogists, many too old and fragile to be safely handled, have been digitally scanned as part of the first-ever mass book-digitization project of the U.S. Library of Congress (LOC), the world’s largest library. Anyone who wants to learn about the early history of the United States, or track the history of their own families, can read and download these books for free.

“The Library chose books that people wanted, but that were too old and fragile to serve to readers. They won’t stand up to handling,” said Michael Handy, who co-managed the project, which is called Digitizing American Imprints.

“Many of these books cover a period of Western settlement of the United States — 1865–1922 — and offer historians a trove of information that’s otherwise tough to locate,” he said.

Many of the newly digitized LOC works contain hard-to-obtain Civil War regimental histories and county, state and regional information relating to specific people, their occupations and families, and other details that are important for historians and genealogists.

The books themselves end up in the Internet Archive (most famous for the Wayback Machine) where they can be found alongside full texts from a variety of other collections.  You may search these here.

Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 4:52 AM  Leave a Comment