Lesson Learning in the Indonesia Jihad

Some interesting thoughts are emerging from the Salafi Jihadist community in Indonesia.  In April, Indonesian police special forces did a number on a recently discovered jihadist training camp in Aceh.  These jihadists were a new group styling themselves as “Tanzim al-Qaeda Indonesia for Serambi Makkah.”  “Serambi Makkah” apparently means “the front porch of Mecca.”  (The International Crisis Group (ICG) did their usual bang-up job in describing the background and the government round-up.)  Though the jihadists were mostly killed and arrested, the ICG assesses that enough survived to reconstitute.

An interesting part of this reconstitution process is a multi-part essay entitled “Reflection on Aceh Jihad 2010” that is circulating on the web.  (Part 1 and Part 2.  For those who want the Bahasa Indonesian originals, try here and here.  Apparently more is forthcoming.)  This essay is very much in the instrumentalist tradition of Salafi jihadism.  Drawing on guerrilla warfare theory, its whole tone is one of frank self-criticism in the interest of improving the performance of the jihad.  “If the Aceh jihad 2010 could be [defeated] by the enemies only in a matter of weeks, it means that we must do some evaluations, what was wrong.”  As earlier precedents for such self-criticism, the author refers to Abu Musab al-Suri’s work, both his book about the jihad in Syria and also his 2004/2005 Call to Global Islamic Resistance.  (For the latter, see here and here.)

The author notes that after the roundup there had been a great deal of discussion of this newly emerged group and its unceremonious end.  General public opinion, the author says, fell into several general camps.

  • The first is the conspiracy theorists. These people said that the Tanzim al Qaeda Indonesia (TAQI) was a sham created by the Indonesian president to distract attention from a recent banking scandal.  Or, they said, that this somehow had something to do with enhancing security for President Obama’s now-postponed visit to the country.  The author argues that “A conspiracy theory in its essence is a mechanism to ‘blame’ the enemies by closing the eyes to the reality that the movement of a resistance in the midst of the Islamic ummah is real and cannot be refuted.”  He ridicules those who say that the Jews or the CIA or the Indonesian intelligence service control everything.  These conspiracy theorists are the captives of the mindset of inferiority inflicted upon the Muslims by the colonial powers.  Furthermore, the author argues, these conspiracy theorists forget that we have Allah on our side and that he can, for instance, blind America’s air defense systems when it is necessary to do so.
  • The second group is the Neo-Murji’ah.  These people, mostly Salafis, believe the Indonesian government’s line and slander the mujahideen as  khawarij.
  • Finally, there are those of the Middle Path who support the mujahideen.  These people apply the term “terrorist” to the mujahideen but they do it with “love.”  Nevertheless, and here is the important point, they do not look on the activities of the mujahideen and TAQI as flawless.

Having thus indicated the limited social bounds within which TAQI must maneuver, the author then goes on to critique the group’s performance.  “Jihad requires a ‘trigger’ which could attract the Islamic ummah to unite in a massive number. If the igniter is not strong enough, the society won’t be motivated to support jihad. The fact is that the executors did not think well about this igniter.”  TAQI relied on the inherent attractions of jihad and martyrdom, but it was not enough.  By contrast, the essay says, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had the “igniter” of a foreign occupation to help him when he went to Iraq.  Moreover, TAQI did not have the support of the people in the surrounding areas of the countryside.  To these people, TAQI’s ideals of jihad and martyrdom appeared “absurd.”

Rather than confronting these shortcomings squarely, however, the author claims that too many people are blaming the enemy for the failure of TAQI.  This makes little sense.  He compares the situation to a soccer game.  If the Brazilian team beats the Indonesian team whose fault is it?  It’s not the Brazilian team’s fault, rather it’s the the fault of the Indonesian team for not playing well enough.  “The attitude of always blaming the enemies is a stupidity which will be laughed at by the world. A childish sentimentality.”

In the spirit, then, of self-criticism, it is necessary to choose the proper yardstick for success “because choosing the wrong yardstick would make a defeat seem as victory.”  Among the inappropriate and misleading yardsticks that the author examines and rejects are dying as martyrs, inflicting casualties on Indonesian government forces, getting arrested (? perhaps he is being sarcastic), and producing slick Al Qaida-style propaganda.   “Therefore, the yardstick for the success must be agreed[upon by us is] the sustainability of its jihad the support from the Islamic ummah and the ability to weaken the enemies until they are defeated.”   TAQI couldn’t do it this time, so more serious preparations are needed for next time.  In a passage remarkably reminiscent of the expression that “the Lord helps those who help themselves,” the author goes on to say, “True, we are not burdened by Allah with the obligation of defeating the enemies, but it cannot be denied that the Shari’ah of jihad is the best tool that Allah provides for us to defeat the enemies.”  The fundamental rule of this shariah is, “jihad surely results in victory if done right.”  In other words, Allah will be the one who provides victory, but he expects us to chip in ourselves.  He will withhold our victory until we do it right.

Doing it right, in the author’s opinion, means answering a fundamental question:

One of the stiff debates that is spreading amongst the jihad activists is; is jihad seen as a means to achieve victory or an objective and the last terminal from a series of servitudes to Allah? Though this debate does not stick out to the surface in the form of oral dispute, but it is reflected in the choice of actions.

In other words, are we in it to win it?  Or are we in it just to gain the glory of jihad and then bed down with the 72 virgins?  (As I have argued elsewhere, jihadist elites are endlessly wringing their hands over those who want to just do it and thereby implicitly ignore victory.)  Those who intend to win have to do certain things, the author says.  These include conducting dawah in “parallel” with jihad and providing social services.  In particular with regard to dawah and jihad, “both have to be done simultaneously, none is to be favored over another.”  Those who aren’t aiming to win, furthermore, neglect all the “little things” that also contribute to success.  “Jihad requires the support of da’wah, the funds, journalistic, communication and technology experts and other kind of expertises. It requires the continuity of the human resources that will carry the burden of this jihad.”

Though I’m disturbed that such clear thinking is going on in the jihad world, in a strange way it is sort of refreshing to read something this sensible, something that isn’t the same old tiresome diatribe about the Jews or a bombastic call to jihad. This is a very sensible critique and one which most jihadist groups would be well served to heed.  Given that fact, I rather think that the author should be identified and at the very least watched if a sound reason to bring him in can’t be found.  (The only attribution on this piece is a note that it comes from the “elhakimi” blog with which I am not familiar.)  I have long believed that keeping Salafi jihadists in a “just do it” mode, “unencumbered by the thought process,” can be a key step toward their defeat.  Essays like this move the jihadists in the wrong direction, as far as I’m concerned.


Human Terrain System/Anthropologists in War

Go check out Thomas Rid’s very insightful post over at Kings of War about the continuing controversy over the military’s use of social scientists (a tiny percentage of whom are anthropologists) in conducting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It’s the best thing I’ve seen on the topic and the comments are also well worth reading.  Rid compares anthropology to medicine–both professions share the ethical imperative to “do no harm”–and concludes that anthropologists’ rhetorical use of that imperative doesn’t necessarily have the implications in a war zone that they expect.

If I may be allowed to riff on the topic for a minute, a number of things continue to disturb me about the concern that so many anthropologists have expressed over the Human Terrain System (HTS).

  • Rid cites the network of “Concerned Anthropologists” as arguing that involvement in the Human Terrain System is unethical not only for anthropologists but for other social scientists, as well.  This claim strikes me as overreaching to the point of academic imperialism.  Surely each social science should be entitled to determine its own ethics.
  • The anthropologists want to impose their narrow understanding of their ethical imperative to “do no harm” on the U.S. military.  However, in active operations the military does not have “do no harm” as an option.  Every action–including inaction–leads to some group of people dying.  Make no mistake, if the military ceases using social scientists there will be people who will die as a result, a few of them Americans, the  others not.  They will have real names, real faces, they’ll just be faces that no anthropologist will ever see.
  • I’m concerned that anthropologists have been so good at public relations that lazy journalists writing about the HTS go straight to anthropologists for comment.  This leaves the impression that anthropologists speak for all social scientists.  Judging by the lack of protests by political scientists, economists, geographers, psychologists, and others, they don’t speak for all social scientists.
  • I can’t escape the feeling that the anthropologists’ concern is heavily informed by the unpopularity of the Iraq and Afghan wars.  Would they be similarly reticent to give advice to, say, a small Amazonian ethnic group suffering attacks by the Brazilian Army?  Would they be similarly reticent to give advice to Allied armies fighting the Nazis and liberating concentration camps?  War is a political act, the Prussian tells us.  Do anthropologists require their members to recuse themselves from other political issues?  If not why not?  Other forms of politics can lead to death, suffering, and oppression every bit as real, albeit usually less visually dramatic, as can war.

Anyway, go read Thomas’ piece.

Why the Jihadists Have an Image Problem Too

…or at least one of the reasons.  They produce lovely bits of good news like this:

Some months ago, al-Shabaab in Somalia ejected the UN World Food Program, claiming that it was engaged in espionage.  Revolution Muslim commented on this fact in March and again, this time in video form, in April.  Al-Shabaab was concerned that the WFP was engaged in espionage on behalf of the United Nations.

My first reaction upon hearing this story was unbridled amusement.  The United Nations is well-known for being so tied in knots that it can’t even agree that intelligence activities–let alone espionage as such–should be conducted even for the most humanitarian of purposes.  The notion that it would be using the World Food Program for espionage purposes was really funny.

Upon reflection, I decided it was rather less funny.  It depends in part on your definition of espionage.  If espionage is the acquisition of any information whatsoever–and the Revolution Muslim essay puts it rather into that context–then I suppose they may have a point.  Furthermore, the jihadists believe that the United Nations is un-Islamic and implacably hostile to Islam.  Now, these two assumptions are both wrong, but they are not unreasonable given the basic Salafi jihadist worldview.  The result is, however, that the jihadists have to explain to hungry people why it is better for them to starve than to have food from the infidels.  Given that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has survival at the very bottom level, this is probably a hard sell, even if hungry non-jihadist Somalis don’t actually talk back to al-Shabaab about it.

Revolution Muslim goes on to argue that not only is the WFP engaged in espionage, but that the provision of aid keeps Somalia unable to develop its own agriculture and economy and thus keep it powerless and subservient to the outside infidel world.  Now, I don’t know anything about development economics, so I don’t know if this is a sound argument or not, though I have heard the general claim (not specifically with respect to Somalia) it from people who aren’t crazy.  Whatever the underlying truth, however, again imagine how this doctrinal point would go over with Somali parents desperately trying to keep their starving children alive.

The United States and its partners certainly have serious problems getting their own message across, particularly when words and deeds don’t seem to line up.  That said, we are blessed with an enemy who’s pretty good at alienating people, as well.

Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 1:47 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Fog of Modern War

Wikileaks has acquired and decrypted (!) a copy of a tape of an Apache helicopter attacking and killing two Reuters reporters in Iraq in 2007.  The Apache crew thought that the photographers were carrying weapons when what they were really carrying was camera equipment.

The video has gone truly viral by now, (predictably it has made its was to jihadist websites: here and here and here) but I strongly recommend Anthony Martinez’ commentary (which is what I linked to above) on the tape.  Anthony has personal experience with these sorts of engagements and offers an expert assessment on his blog.  Aside from some stray mistakes that he points out, like the Wikileaks annotation not understanding what a Bradley IFV crew was saying when it said “drop ramp,” and referring at one point to HMMWVs as Bradleys, he also notes that the Wikileak people failed to notice that there really was a guy in the video near the photographers with an AK and another with an RPG.  Anthony rightly takes the Wikileaks people to task for not pointing out that fact.  On the other hand, he also notes that he’s very troubled by the fact that the Apache engaged the van that came to pick up a wounded survivor.

What do we have here?  We have a non-governmental organization affecting the public debate by:

1)  Engaging in activities that we would normally think of as those of intelligence agencies (acquiring the tape from an anonymous source in the US military and then figuring out how to decrypt it); and

2)  Publishing a one-sided annotated version of it, at least in part because of their own technical ignorance, that is being seen around the world and negatively affecting the war effort.

While the incident had lamentable consequences (two dead reporters, two dead children, probably some other dead innocents), it does appear to have been justifiable in that there do appear to have been some bad guys present.  [Correction.  The children survived.  I regret the error.] That said, the Apache crew made a mistake in misidentifying camera equipment as weapons.  This is precisely the sort of thing that Clausewitz tells us happens in war all the time.  People make mistakes in real life and they make them even more so in wartime, when time is short, when adrenaline is flowing, when people are in danger, when people are tired, when looking at small black and white video screens, etc.  (Malcolm Glad well in his book, Blink, has a good discussion of some of these phenomena in the context of police shootings.)  The incidence of this sort of thing can be reduced but it can never be eliminated.  EVER.  Unless there is no war and I’m not going to hold my breath for that.

The problem is, that such incidents can have strategic effects.  As one commenter a jihadist site put it:  “After publishing this video.  Some ppl in my country said ‘I hate america and I support what Al-Qaeda is doing”

Welcome to modern war.  Have a nice day.

Published in: on April 7, 2010 at 3:41 AM  Comments (7)  
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The Latest from Anarchist News

Anarchist News has some interesting recent articles.

First, they reprint (almost certainly without permission) an article from the New York Times about flash mobs in Philadelphia.  What makes the Philadelphia flash mobs interesting is that they’ve been engaging in violence, albeit low-level violence: vandalism, pushing people around, etc.

I’ve been wondering for a long time when this was finally going to happen.  (Or DID it happen recently in Iran?  That’s not clear to me, perhaps some readers know.)  In any event flash mobs seemed to me the sort of thing that disgruntled and/or maladjusted people could not leave forever to people who only want to recreate Backstreet Boys’ choreography.  The comments on the article include a variety of different perspectives over how these youths are setting a good example (or not) and whether they require an anarchist “vanguard” to point them in the right direction.

Second, Anarchist News has a story about how three masked individuals, apparently radical vegans, attacked a speaker at the recent 15th Annual Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair with pies made from hot sauce and cayenne pepper.  (Youtube has many postings with video of the incident.  See e.g. here.)  The speaker who was speaking about the dangers of veganism and who herself is not an anarchist, apparently went to the police about the matter.  Anarchist News asked its readers for information about the attack and the perpetrators and said they would pass the information along to the woman who was attacked.

This led to a very lengthy discussion in the comments section.  Some people castigated Anarchist News for in effect going to and cooperating with the police.  A number of them said that a more appropriate response would simply be to find the perpetrators and beat them.  Other people seemed much less adamant on the point.  Another major theme in the thread is whether it is acceptable to attack women and children.  Some said this is beyond the pale while others argued that it was sexist to accord women exemption from attack when they deserved it.  Also many posters express a great deal of disdain for vegans in general.  The whole thread shows an impressive lack of conceptual coherence in anarchism, at least as represented by Anarchist News’ readers.  In fact, the whole thread ended generating so much more heat than light that one commenter indicated that the FBI wouldn’t need to mount “COINTELPRO” operations against the anarchists because the anarchists were so highly skilled at infighting and rendering themselves ineffectual.

Left Bank Books near Pike Place Market in Seattle (photo: schwartzray)

The third piece that caught my eye was of rather more personal interest.  Left Bank Books, a longtime landmark of Seattle’s Pike Place Market area will  have to close for up to three months for “earthquake retrofitting.”  There is concern that they may not survive.  While it would be more than fair to say that my politics do not accord with the politics of the proprietors, I will be sad if the store doesn’t make it.  Not only is it an integral part of one of my favorite areas of my favorite city (I grew up in the Seattle area) but I’ve spent a lot of money there.  Most of the books I own dealing with Marxism and radical leftism I purchased there.  The very earnest people there were always willing to sell me books about the Baader-Meinhof gang and such.  I have often wondered if they would have sold me books had they known that I’m an alum of the CIA.  Speaking for myself, I have a hard time disliking anybody who sells me books.  In addition, of course, though I admit to frequenting Border’s Books, I do lament the almost complete disappearance of independent bookstores.  Every independent bookstore has its own vibe and when it’s gone that vibe can never be recaptured.  On those grounds alone, I hope that Left Bank Books survives.