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No substitute for knowing your enemy

If you're not an avid reader of The New Yorker, make this week an exception. The edition features a profile by George Packer on one of the West's finest strategic minds - an Australian, no less - who is quietly making a name for himself in the US as a critical player in the war on terrorism.
Meet David Kilcullen, a 40-year-old former Australian infantry commander who likes nothing more than getting dirt on his boots as he switches between the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan and the US Department of State in Washington. Embarrassed by the attention, Kilcullen told The Australian that he is just one member in a small team, led by Hank Crumpton, the state department's counter-terrorism chief, blazing a new trail in the war on terror. That team appears to have a deceptively simple message for the Bush administration: there is no substitute for knowing your enemy.

Knowing your enemy means recognising that the "war on terrorism" is a political label. In strategic terms, the battle needs to be understood as a global counterinsurgency. As Kilcullen told The New Yorker, a terrorist is a "kook in a room" whose aim is to instil fear in the civilian population. Insurgents have a grander motivation, outlined by senior al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri after the 9/11 attacks as a jihad that would ultimately deliver "the earth-shattering event, which the West trembles at: the establishment of an Islamic caliphate".

While we seem to understand al-Qa'ida's ultimate goal, its strategy has been less understood. Al-Qa'ida's global insurgency depends on exploiting local grievances within Muslim populations across the globe and recruiting them to the broader jihad cause. And to do that, al-Qa'ida relies on the wonders of modern communications. Understanding your enemy means recognising that they are engaged in a potent information war.

Kilcullen told The Australian by telephone from Washington: "Al-Qa'ida's main effort is being made in an area that we are only beginning to recognise as part of the struggle. It's armed propaganda.

"The things that they do are all designed to support an information message. They are using information as a weapon."

The aim of jihadists may be a medieval caliphate. But theirs is a very modern marketing strategy, as they try to integrate motley groups with local grievances into global jihad. Like a Christmas shopping brochure, there is something for every potential jihadist. Beheadings of infidels in Iraq are videotaped, edited for effect and broadcast across media platforms. We see them on YouTube, but on terrorist websites viewers can click on the "Donate" icon to send money to finance infidel deaths. There are fortnightly al-Qa'ida propaganda bulletins (Sawt al-Jihad), magazines for the girl jihadist (al-Khansa), fortnightly online training manuals (al-Battar). Online blogs and password-protected chat rooms are also linking up disparate groups to fight the global insurgency.

The Global Islamic Media Front, a jihadist mouthpiece, has released computer games (Night of Bush Capturing) and, for those who prefer comedy, there's Jihad Candid Camera. But this is no joke. According to the SITE Institute in the US, the Global Islamic Media Front calls on the sons and daughters of Islam to join the information jihad to attack America's "weak point".

And, to date, information has been the West's weakest link. Kilcullen says it is a mistake to see information as soft. In counterinsurgency and other forms of counter-terrorism, it's not soft. He says that some of the most lethal types of activity that you conduct are about getting in at the grassroots level and competing for influence with the enemy. It's not about a media strategy, it's about winning people over by influence. It involves persuasion and dissuasion.

How you do that comes back to knowing your enemy. It is where anthropology meets warfare. Kilcullen, who has a doctorate in political anthropology - his dissertation focused on the Darul Islam conflict - has outlined a "ladder of extremism" that aims to inform our responses to different groups. At the top is the small tier of al-Qa'ida operatives and other leaders of the insurgency who are so committed to the cause that winning them over is not an option. "You've got to destroy them," Kilcullen says in The New Yorker, "but you've got to do it in such a way that you don't create new terrorists."

Down a few rungs are alienated Muslims who join radical groups because they feel disenfranchised by the political process. These people, according to Kilcullen, can be won over to our side by counterinsurgency. He uses the Cold War as an analogy where aggrieved workers were encouraged to join anti-communist trade unions. It was about preventing communist infiltration and providing workers with an alternative, legitimate means to pursue their grievances instead of communist revolutionary warfare.

And further down the ladder is the broader Muslim community who are both potential allies against radical Islam and, again, potential targets of subversion by the enemy. At a private dinner in Sydney a few months ago, Kilcullen said it is wrong to think of Muslims as innately prone to radicalisation. Islam is a secondary factor. Those who are radicalised are drawn into the Islamist web through social networks, deliberately targeted and manipulated by those further up the ladder. Breaking those radical networks and replacing them with alternatives is vital.

But that depends on two things. Muslim communities must recognise and own the problem that exists in their communities. And non-Muslims must work with them to build up trusted networks, providing better alternatives to radicalism. It's here, at the grassroots, that the battle of ideas needs to be fought and won.

In The New Yorker, Kilcullen describes the present conflict as a "new Cold War, but it's not monolithic". As he explores in a series of influential articles, it means distinguishing between terrorism, subversion and radicalism, with each strand demanding different responses. Failing to do that only fuels the jihadist cause. He also warns that if the Cold War analogy holds, "then right now we're in, like, 1953". There is a long way to go.

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