Jihadist Battlefield Miracles

I recently heard something fascinating that I wanted to share.  A couple days ago I gave a talk at the National Defense University on the Salafi jihadists (al Qaida and their ilk) and how they assessed themselves and the global struggle in which they are engaged. Part of my talk discussed how the jihadists believe that God is on the battlefield with them, not merely protecting them, but actively taking part in combat.  I mentioned that stories abound about God shooting down American fighter planes with lightning bolts, about God sending ravenous beasts to the battlefield to eat the enemy, and other such miraculous events.  At this point, a woman in the class raised her hand to talk about her experience in Iraq.  Unfortunately, I never got the chance to talk with her one-on-one, but she mentioned that while she’d been there, apparently in some sort of public affairs capacity, stories had circulated about some wolf-like creature that would roam the battlefields.  It or they were allies of the jihadist insurgents and its/their targets were Americans.   

I found it interesting that these stories, which obviously originated with the jihadists themselves, came to the attention of the U.S. military not through intelligence means or interrogations of captured jihadists, but rather through the Iraqi media.  As I mentioned, such stories are staples in the jihadist world, but this was the closest I’d ever personally come to them, and it really brought the whole issue home to me.  I’d be very interested in hearing from others, via email or the comments link below, who might have similar stories or know more about the event that this student mentioned to me.          

By way of background, Abdullah Azzam, the founder of the Maktab al-Khidemat and Osama bin Laden’s mentor wrote a book about miracles in the Afghan War.  In its English translation it runs to 80 pages.  Here is one story that will serve to give its general flavor:       

Arsalaan narrated to me:… The tanks attacked us and they were about 120 in number. They were assisted by a mortar and many aircrafts. Our provisions were exhausted.  We were convinced of being captured. We sought protection from Allaah by means of Du’a. All of a sudden, bullets and shells rained upon the communists from all directions. They were defeated. There was no one on the battlefield besides us. He said: They were the Malaa’ikah (Angels.)  

Prof. David Cook wrote an article several years ago about how some of these sorts of stories manifested themselves in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002.  He characterizes them as part of a “disconfirmation” process that the jihadists use to come to grips with their setbacks.

One, of course, should not believe that all Arabs or all Muslims believe this sort of story.  For instance, Abdelkader Tigha, the author of Contre-Espionnage Algerien: Notre Guerre Contres les Islamistes, which is about the authors experiences during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, mentions that he and the other members of the Algerian counterespionage service would hear these stories when they filtered back home from Afghanistan and would laugh at them and anybody silly enough to believe they were actually true.  To me, this only makes more interesting the student’s story that the Iraqi media itself was promulgating this tale.  Tigha says that Algerian mosques would distribute glossy magazines containing tales from Afghanistan.  A loose translation of what he says (on p. 23) would be:         

Each story was more incredible than the last.  The young jihadists recounted the miracles they had seen.  One of them, full of imagination, invented the story of the dogs which, wandering upon the scene of an ambush, passing amongst the corpses, devoured only the bodies of the Russians but did not touch those of the mujahidin.  On another page, one could read the edifying story of the mujahid slaughtered by the Russians.  When the Russians approached him to take his weapon, our supermujahid sprang up and machine gunned the Russian soldiers, killing them all.  God could do anything, was the conclusion.  Make you die and bring you back to life….This propaganda was at the root of a massive departure of young Algerians to Pakistan.        

It may be worth noting that similar stories circulate or have circulated in other societies.  A former colleague of mine wrote a book that dealt with similar phenomena in modern sub-Saharan Africa.  And, of course, then there are the “Angels of Mons.”  During 1914 and 1915 there were any number of British soldiers who said that they had seen (or that a friend of theirs had seen) a St. George and a host of angelic archers appear during the Battle of Mons and repel the Germans who were about to overrun the British Expeditionary Force.  It turned out that this story came from a short story called “The Bowmen” written by Arthur Machen a Welsh author of horror and fantasy fiction.  “The Bowmen” first appeared in late September 1914, a month after the battle, but that didn’t stop soldiers and citizens alike from believing it was all true and in fact, “remembering” the incident.  Machen recounts (pp. 11-12) how in the retelling, the story came to be circulated that German corpsed pierced by arrows had been found on the battlefield.  Machen had actually thought of including this thought in his story, but rejected the idea.  I can’t resist quoting him on this:

I rejected the idea as over-precipitous even for a mere fantasy.  I was therefore entertained when I found that what I had refused as too fantastical for fantasy was accepted in certain occult circles as hard fact.

Of course, that story of the Angels of Mons was current nearly 100 years ago and is remembered precisely because it was so anomalous…


New Books Pertaining to Intelligence/Security Services and the Middle East

Three books that have caught my eye recently.

Routledge has an interesting sounding book coming out at the end of May under the somewhat awkward title of A History of the Egyptian Intelligence Service: A History of the Mukhabarat, 1910-2009.  It is written by Owen Sirrs, a former official of the Defense Intelligence Agency whose specialty there was Iran, so he doubtless brings a good professional approach to the work.  I’m very curious to see what he’s able to put together, as sources have got to be extremely scarce, at least for the post WWII era.  If this book is even half-way decent, it will be great progress toward filling an enormous gap.  Very very little has been written about modern Arab intelligence services.  Yaacov Caroz, a former senior official of the Mossad did write a book in the 1970s called The Arab Secret Services.  Caroz’s volume is OK for spy stories if you’re into that sort of thing, but it largely lacks an analytic perspective.  It’s also not very well organized.  Accordingly, I have high hopes for this new work.  As is usual the cost of this book is preposterous, $125, but I’m hoping that there will be a cheaper paperback edition as there usually is for Routledge books.

I have recently purchased Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.  Here is the publisher’s blurb about it:

Based on his reading of top-secret files of the Israeli police and the prime minister’s office, Hillel Cohen exposes the full extent of the crucial, and, until now, willfully hidden history of Palestinian collaboration with Israelis–and of the Arab resistance to it. Cohen’s previous book, the highly acclaimed Army of Shadows, told how this hidden history played out from 1917 to 1948, and now, in Good Arabs he focuses on the system of collaborators established by Israel in each and every Arab community after the 1948 war. Covering a broad spectrum of attitudes and behaviors, Cohen brings together the stories of activists, mukhtars, collaborators, teachers, and sheikhs, telling how Israeli security agencies penetrated Arab communities, how they obtained collaboration, how national activists fought them, and how deeply this activity influenced daily life. When this book was first published in Hebrew, it became a bestseller and has evoked bitter memories and intense discussions among Palestinians in Israel and prompted the reclassification of many of the hundreds of documents Cohen viewed to uncover a story that continues to unfold to this day.

As a result of my work on American intelligence during World War I, I have become quite interested in the use of intelligence and security services to surveil and control potentially hostile populations.  Now, many scholars look at this sort of issue, but they primarily approach it from a civil liberties perspective, often with the assumption that intelligence and security services are intrinsically bad.  (See, e.g. the work of Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones.)  I’m unwilling to call intelligence and security services evil or venal as a going-in assumption.  Rather, I think they tend to have the same moral value as the governments they serve.  I’m also interested in how these services think about domestic threats: are apparently oppressive security services that way because they have plausible concepts of potential threats to national security that require such measures?  Or are they truly motivated by all the class, racial, ethnic, and other sorts of considerations that scholars so often talk about?  I’m hoping that Good Arabs will stimulate my thinking on these topics.

Finally, on a different note, the legendary political scientist Robert Jervis has a book coming out entitled Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War.  Here is the publisher’s blurb on this book:

The U.S. government spends enormous resources each year on the gathering and analysis of intelligence, yet the history of American foreign policy is littered with missteps and misunderstandings that have resulted from intelligence failures. In Why Intelligence Fails,Robert Jervis examines the politics and psychology of two of the more spectacular intelligence failures in recent memory: the mistaken belief that the regime of the Shah in Iran was secure and stable in 1978, and the claim that Iraq had active WMD programs in 2002.

The Iran case is based on a recently declassified report Jervis was commissioned to undertake by CIA thirty years ago and includes memoranda written by CIA officials in response to Jervis’s findings. The Iraq case, also grounded in a review of the intelligence community’s performance, is based on close readings of both classified and declassified documents, though Jervis’s conclusions are entirely supported by evidence that has been declassified.

In both cases, Jervis finds not only that intelligence was badly flawed but also that later explanations analysts were bowing to political pressure and telling the White House what it wanted to hear or were willfully blind were also incorrect. Proponents of these explanations claimed that initial errors were compounded by groupthink, lack of coordination within the government, and failure to share information. Policy prescriptions, including the recent establishment of a Director of National Intelligence, were supposed to remedy the situation.

In Jervis’s estimation, neither the explanations nor the prescriptions are adequate. The inferences that intelligence drew were actually quite plausible given the information available. Errors arose, he concludes, from insufficient attention to the ways in which information should be gathered and interpreted, a lack of self-awareness about the factors that led to the judgments, and an organizational culture that failed to probe for weaknesses and explore alternatives. Evaluating the inherent tensions between the methods and aims of intelligence personnel and policymakers from a unique insider’s perspective, Jervis forcefully criticizes recent proposals for improving the performance of the intelligence community and discusses ways in which future analysis can be improved.

A couple years ago someone gave me a sweatshirt with the slogan on it: “So many books, so little time.”  Oh yeah.

Published in: on February 26, 2010 at 2:28 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Saddam’s Scorecard from Desert Storm

The latest issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies is out with an article that Kevin Woods and I wrote, entitled “Saddam’s Perceptions and Misperceptions: The Case of Desert Storm.”  “Victory” is not an objective concept.  Both sides to a conflict can claim it and it is a pretty well-known fact that Saddam thought that he won Desert Storm.  However, captured documents were able to give us a great deal of insight into the details of that perception.  We go on to argue that the lessons Saddam learned in 1991 served him very badly in 2002-2003.

Saddam did not deny that his forces had suffered some defeats during Desert Storm.  However, he took a holistic view of victory and his conclusion here was much more positive.  He argued that America’s failure to remove him from power was a clear victory for Iraq: “After [America’s] experiences with us, which did not achieve its ends regardless of [our] withdrawal from Kuwait, they might wonder how much force they need to deploy this time to achieve what they failed to do the last time,” he told his commanders in 1992.   Given the complete identity in Saddam’s mind between himself and the state, if he were still in power then he had clearly not lost.  From this, it was a short step to ‘victory’, particularly for a man who saw one aspect of this war as personal: Saddam versus President George H. W. Bush.  It appears that he made this step, noting before a group of Ba’ath party members in January 1993, “all the world is now saying, ‘man, why are we afraid of so much?’  Bush fell and Iraq lasted!”

There is also reason to believe that Saddam may have viewed the missile strikes against Israel as a major success, just as his missile force commander claimed in his 1998 book Forty-Three Missiles on the Zionist Enemy.  In the mid-1990s, Saddam maintained privately that Israel had intended to expand into Arab lands, but that the missile strikes made them realize “that they cannot play their games with us.”  In other words, he believed the strikes had deterred “Israeli aggression,” whatever the precise damage they might have inflicted.  Indeed, while most of us thought the damage that Iraq inflicted on Israel was negligible, the Iraqi General Military Intelligence Directorate reported otherwise.  In 2001, they claimed that Iraqi missiles hit:

  • The Israeli Ministry of Defense
  • The main communications station in Tel Aviv
  • A power station
  • A gasoline refinery and a technology institute, both in Haifa
  • The Haifa naval base
  • Haifa and Tel Aviv ports
  • Ben Gurion Airport
  • The Dimona nuclear reactor

Saddam also found a way to turn the dismal Iraqi performance in the air war into a victory.  Or, perhaps it would be more correct to say that the Iraqi Air Force found a way to massage the data to tell him that.  The Iraqi Air Force concluded:

  • Of all combat and specialized planes, 75 per cent were “rescued,” though this did not include aircraft destroyed by Coalition ground forces or in the post-war civil uprisings. The study noted that by contrast, the Egyptians had lost 70 per cent of their air forces in the 1967 Arab–Israeli War to Israeli air forces that were much weaker than those available to the Coalition in 1991.
  • The Air Force also “rescued” 92 per cent of all air weapons, including 98 per cent of the “expensive guided weapons.”
  •  The Air Force saved 76 per cent of the ‘very expensive electronic war equipment’.
  • “The losses in [air force] personnel amounted to .096 percent and it is a small percentage.”

There is much more along these general lines, but suffice to say that Saddam simultaneously believed that he had met his objectives and the United States had not and that, furthermore, the US military had shown itself to be, if not a paper tiger, certainly less fearsome than it appeared.

Kevin and I then argued that these perceptions of the 1991 allowed Saddam to be much more sanguine about the threat he faced in 2002 and 2003.  The documentary record, at least with regard to Saddam’s personal views, is rather more sparse toward the end of his rule.  However, interestingly, he was quite clear and honest in his public pronouncements; they line up nicely with what appear to have been his private beliefs.

In 2002-2003 Saddam also labored under a security calculus that ordered his threats as follows: (1) internal threats (a coup d’etat, the Shia); (2) regional threats (particularly Iran and Israel); and (3) a US/UK conventional military force.  He had been well served to date by organizing his security apparatus to contend with that hierarchy of threats, but he failed to realize in 2002-2003 that things had changed.  He was the victim of his own lessons-learned.

I know that further work is going on with the captured Saddam records.  There are two additional books beyond this and a couple of articles in the works.  (I was involved with one of the books but none of the other projects.)  Hopefully they will see the light of day, as I think they have the potential to make important contributions to the fields of military and diplomatic history and, furthermore, provide useful fodder to political scientists who deal with international relations.  There is much to be learned about and from Saddam’s Iraq.

Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 2:46 AM  Comments (4)  
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A Military History of the Zombie War

I am browsing amazon.com looking at books on “military history.”  Amazon advises me that their third best-selling military history book at the moment is World War Z:  An Oral History of the Zombie War.

I’m ashamed to admit that though I’m pretty good on military history, my knowledge of the apparently important Zombie War is non-existent.  I guess I need to buy the book.

By the way, expect a real posting tomorrow, I just couldn’t resist this before I went to bed.

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 5:36 AM  Comments (2)  

Morally Reprehensible People Aren’t (Necessarily) Stupid

I’m watching on C-SPAN a book talk by S. M. Plokhy on his new book Yalta: The Price of Peace.  The talk is going on in a small-room format at Harvard University.  A woman in the audience has just challenged Plokhy’s belief that Stalin was very intelligent by arguing that nobody who killed so many people as Stalin did could possibly be intelligent, that murder was incompatible with smarts.

This is not an isolated incident.  I was immediately reminded of a book review I once read of a work on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, I think it was Charles Shrader’s The Muslim-Croat Civil War in Central Bosnia:  A Military History, 1992-1994, which criticized Shrader for speaking highly of the military capability of the Bosnian-Croat forces, despite the fact that they were (according to the reviewer) on the wrong side of the moral divide.  I also recall how often Saddam Hussein has been called “incompetent.”  Jeffrey Record, John Robb, among others have done this.

(On Saddam: I believe he was a man of remarkable capabilities.  Not many people I know could have clawed their way to the top of such a murderous political system as existed in Iraq and survived there for 25 years. Admittedly, his performance against the United States wasn’t exemplary, but he optimized his military and security apparatus to deal with what, reasonably enough, appeared to him as more proximate threats: internal challenges, and Iran and Israel.  For great explanation of this, see the works of my friend Kevin Woods: this and this.)

I am hard-pressed to think of a more dangerous mistake than assuming that those of whom we do not approve must be stupid.  Laymen can, perhaps, be forgiven for making such mistakes but those of us who think about security-related topic must never, ever engage in such flabby, self-righteous thinking.  To do so is to court disaster.  Whenever one is inclined to assess a foreign leader as stupid, ask how he/she got into his/her position.  Consider what the incentive structures operating on this person are.  Whenever one is inclined to think a foreign military force incompetent, mentally put American uniforms (or the uniform of your choice), and see if they still look incompetent.

Certainly there are stupid leaders and there are incompetent military forces, our adversaries are not all ten feet tall, but let’s be judicious in our contempt–unless we actually enjoy unpleasant surprises.

Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 7:49 PM  Comments (3)