Counterinsurgency in the Modern Age: An Interview with Bruce Hoffman

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Boko Haram Acryl Painting, courtesy Debora Bogaerts/flickr

This interview transcript was originally published by the Harvard International Review on 19 February 2016.

Looking at other terrorist groups that we have seen, what makes the command structure of ISIS different from Al-Qaeda or others?

I do not think that it is that different. I think that because in several iterations it is a variant of Al-Qaeda to begin with, it has a very similar structure as Al-Qaeda. It has the same sort of melding of theological justification with operational command, finance, outreach, media. I think the problem that we are finding with this decade as opposed to the previous one is that the learning curve of terrorist groups has shrunk, and in that sense, Baghdadi [of ISIS] has been able to put together an operational structure that perhaps has existed with other groups. So, as facile and unsophisticated as governance by ISIS over the territory it controls may be, it is still governing them even though it has had no preparation. These people are not trained bureaucrats, with the exception of some former Saddamists, but Baghdadi has learned from the mistakes of previous terrorist groups, which has made the group more formidable.

Given that ISIS and Al-Qaeda have more of a global focus compared with various separatist groups like ETA and the IRA, how is this reflected in recruitment strategies?

They are global and universal as opposed to the much more limited pool of recruits that the IRA or ETA could summon. According to the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security in the report they released in October, ISIS has some 25,000 foreign fighters drawn from some 85 countries, which is a little less than half of the countries in the world. I think this is firstly because of its appeal to the Ummah [the global Muslim community], and the Sunni Muslim community as a whole, although a very small dimension of it, given the size of the worldwide population that practices Sunni Islam. I think they have been able to very effectively – more than any other terrorist group in history – seize on modern media. This includes social media in particular, but also the Internet in general as a means to attract recruits and to burnish ISIS’ credentials as the most ruthless and also seemingly the most efficient and most successful terrorist group out there. This has really set them apart from nationalist separatist groups that often really relied upon tightly knit communities and connections through friends and family. These connections also play a role with ISIS, but they are casting a much wider, international net that then has national and local components, whereas separatist groups usually just have local components that they draw upon.

If ISIS is using more sophisticated social media and other digital methods, what does the subsequent counter-insurgency look like? How are governments responding to this new challenge?

They’re responding poorly. The proof is in the pudding that when you have 25,000 foreign fighters, obviously counter-radicalization is having no effect, especially if you’re attracting people from 85 countries throughout the world. What they’ve done is create a very flat, expansive, and broadly appealing message, which I think has become less religious, and looking at a classic study of terrorism, has much more to do with the Frantz Fanon The Wretched of the Earth-style cathartic value of violence and the self-satisfaction of striking a blow against a more powerful oppressor. The empowerment of violence is very much a theme that they have effectively harnessed by marrying it with social media, so, they’re using an old theme but with cutting-edge 21st century technology. Arguably governments are maybe coming to grips with Internet communications and online magazines just at a time when the game was completely changed by ISIS’ reliance on and effective use of social media. To me, this is a paradox that a lot of the social media is invented in the United States in Silicon Valley, and we’re constantly caught flat-footed. What’s going to be marketed 18 months from now is already being developed by Silicon Valley, and to my knowledge, there’s no one in government that’s looking at that and trying to anticipate how terrorists might use it and harness it. So in that sense, counterinsurgency has to be very different than it was in the past, because as General Petraeus realized in Iraq, the information operations component of it is absolutely pivotal, and is where we’ve been the most remiss. I would argue that the horse is out of the barn in that we’re not going to develop the kinds of programs that are going to stop people from joining ISIS. The way now to defeat ISIS is to defeat them on the battlefield, and then it will be critical to have a very robust counter-violent extremism or counter-radicalization program to prevent the rejuvenation or the regeneration of the group.

Seeing the huge number of foreign fighters in the Middle East, what does the process of a local insurgency turning a global insurgency look like?

Arguably I would say that there are no local insurgencies anymore, which has been one of the major failures of the Obama administration’s conceptualization of this challenge, because they always said that this was a local threat that was confined to the Levant and Mesopotamia. I never saw how this would be the case in the Information Age and when they were consciously recruiting fighters from throughout the region and then from Europe and eventually from other places. The son of Imam Samudra, who was one of the 2002 Bali Bombers, was just killed this fall fighting for ISIS, showing that this is truly a global issue. Even if we did believe that ISIS was a local insurgency, you have to look at what sustained and transformed Al-Qaeda over the past decade was the emergence of the affiliates and associates- Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, etc.- otherwise Al-Qaeda would have disappeared without the ability to build these alliances. So I think it was always inevitable that various terrorist groups would self-identify with ISIS and that by their identification, even if ISIS didn’t want to become an international group, would transform ISIS anyway and internationalize it as we’ve seen with the bombing of the Russian plane in the Sinai. ISIS was never going to remain local because of social media and also because of this affiliates and associates phenomenon, and I think all terrorist groups realize that they’ve got to become global if their going to survive and have an impact.

What do you think the best-case scenario is at this point? Is total eradication a possibility, or are we looking at containment or something else entirely?

I’ve been saying this for some time, and for obvious reasons, it hasn’t gotten much resonance. Since about 2010 I’ve been arguing that we’re seeing the television cable show, The Wire, come to life in terrorism, in that as bad as Avon Barksdale and Russell “Stringer” Bell [a drug lord and his henchman] were in the first seasons, they were nothing compared to Marlo Stanfield who is much worse and much more ruthless. Back in the period in 2010 before Bin Laden was killed, I said that the next generation was going to be even more extreme and more violent for the simple reason that we have become locked into a cycle of violence that has led to revenge and retaliation; the empowerment of violence is becoming as important as the cause itself, which to me is the embodiment of ISIS. As a terrorism specialist, I would say that I deal more in worst-case scenarios than in best-case scenarios, but the worst-case is that we should start thinking about what the son of ISIS will be. ISIS has had a global appeal that has been so significant- in 12 years in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda never attracted 25,000 foreign fighters- that defeating ISIS, as I am confident we will do, will end the threat. The threat has simply gone too far in the past decade and a half. There may have been a time right after 9/11 that killing Bin Laden and really eliminating Al-Qaeda in South Asia might have dealt a death blow, but we failed to do that, and what we see is a recurrent manifestation of even more extreme versions of Al-Qaeda.

Looking at the recent flare-up in Saudi-Iranian relations, do you think that there is a specific action that the US should pursue? Should President Obama be rethinking traditional alliances?

The problem is that the President rethought our traditional alliances in the first place, because all of our closest allies in the Middle East were against the Iran Deal, and they saw a conscious tilt to Iran, which I think is behind the execution of a cleric that no one would have heard of otherwise. It was not just Saudi Arabia: Israel, Jordan, Egypt and our other closest allies really lack confidence in US leadership, so I think it is going to take a change in administration; I do not think that there is anything that can be done in the next year. The Middle East is just going to continue to get worse. The other conceit was that the events in the Levant and Iraq could somehow be controlled or isolated by viewing it as a local phenomenon, but Russia’s intervention has completely destroyed that. The emergence of the quadripartite alliance between Iraq, Iran, Russia, and Syria has also completely frustrated our efforts. At this stage, any pretense that we can control or influence these events is gone with this administration, and it will take a change of administration whether or not its Democrat or Republican.

What does 2016 hold for the fight against ISIS and for counterterrorism in general?

I worry that the attacks in Paris and the Sinai were just a harbinger. Within just a handful there were three separate attacks that were completely different. One was a massive car bombing in Beirut, the second was the downing of a Russian commercial airline- the first successful attack of this sort since 9/11, putting aside poor security at Sharm el-Sheikh airport the bomb was actually quite clever- and then finally, the Paris attacks. Tragic as San Bernadino was, the reality is that it is small beer compared to those three attacks done by professional terrorists. I also think that each time professional terrorists see the response of the United States, whether it is to the Boston Marathon bombing or San Bernadino, they have to be thinking to themselves that if this is what a bunch of amateurs can do- completely spin the country up and wrest the presidential debate in a different direction- imagine what professionals could do. They understand the vulnerability and the susceptibility of the United States to terrorist violence. Just the fact that the previous four presidential elections really did not focus on terrorism and now terrorism will play a major role in the 2016 election, from the point of view of a terrorist that is a tremendous success. Terrorism only works if it affects your target audience, and its clearly affecting people in the United States especially when you have presidential candidates arguing about blanket bans for Muslims entering the United States or whether or not to take Syrian refugees- all sorts of issues that would not be as acute in the past as they are today.

Bruce Hoffman is a globally recognized terrorism expert, Director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, and award winning author.

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