Gwynne Dyer: Terrorism 101 offers lessons in how to respond to ISIS

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      There was a time, as recently as 25 years ago, when military staff colleges around the world taught a reasonably effective doctrine for dealing with terrorism. Then it was forgotten, but we need it back. It would be especially useful in dealing with the terrorist state that has recently emerged in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

      The doctrine was painfully worked out back in the decades of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, when terrorism was one of the world’s biggest problems. Most of the time, the strategy worked, whether the threat was the urban terrorists who plagued most Latin American countries and a number of big developed countries, or the rural guerrillas who fought the governments in many African and Asian countries.

      The key insight was this: terrorist movements always want you to overreact, so don't do it. The terrorists usually lack the popular support to overpower their opponent by force, so they employ a kind of political jiujitsu: they try to use the adversary’s own strength against him. Most domestic terrorism, and almost all international terrorism, is aimed at provoking a big, stupid, self-defeating response from the target government.

      The Red Army Faction terrorists, for example, hoped that their attacks would provoke West Germany’s democratic government into severe repression. This was known, in the works of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, as “unmasking the repressive tolerance of the liberal bourgeoisie”—and once the West German government had dropped its mask, the RAF terrorists believed, the outraged workers would rise up in their millions and overthrow it.

      But we never found out if the workers would actually do that, because the West German government refused to panic. It just tracked down the terrorists and killed or arrested them. It used violence, but only in legal, limited, and precisely targeted ways. The same approach ended the terrorist campaigns in Italy (the Red Brigades), Canada (the Quebec Liberation Front), Japan (the Japanese Red Army), and the United States (the Weathermen).

      In Latin America, by contrast, the “urban terrorists” did succeed in the first stage of their strategy. Their attacks drove the military in Argentina, Brazil, and a number of other countries to seize power and create brutally repressive regimes. But even this did not cause the population to revolt, as the terrorists had expected.

      Instead, “the people” kept their heads down while the military regimes destroyed the revolutionaries (together with many innocent bystanders). Extreme repression can also eventually succeed as a counterstrategy to terrorism, but it imposes a terrible cost on the population.

      International terrorism has a somewhat better record of success, mainly because these terrorists are not actually trying to overthrow the government they attack. They are merely trying to trick that foreign government into using massive violence against the countries where they really do want to take power. The attacks of the foreigners will outrage and radicalize the local population, who will then give their support to the local revolutionaries.

      The most successful operation of this kind was 9/11, a low-cost attack that incited the United States to invade two entire countries in the region where the revolutionaries of al-Qaeda hoped to replace the local governments with Islamist regimes. The local population has been duly radicalized, especially in the Sunni-majority parts of Iraq, and 13 years later an “Islamic Caliphate” has taken power in the northern and western parts of that country.

      Osama bin Laden would have condemned the extreme cruelty that the new Islamist state has adopted as its modus operandi, but in essence it is the fulfilment of the grand strategy that he worked out after the Russians left Afghanistan a quarter-century ago. He could not have predicted that the strategy’s greatest success would be in Iraq, for he had no allies or followers there before the U.S. invasion, but he would still take credit for it.

      So now that Osama bin Laden’s vision has finally taken concrete shape, how should we deal with it? (“We” in this case is practically every regime in the Arab world, most of the other Muslim countries, and all of the NATO countries, with Russia and China in supporting roles). ISIS’s behaviour is abominable, but is there any better option than simply bombing it from a great height?

      Rule one in the old antiterrorism doctrine was don't overreact, and it still applies. That means as little bombing as possible, and only of strictly military targets. Preferably, it would mean no bombing at all except in specific areas where ISIS troops are on the offensive.

      It means not letting yourself be lured into more extreme action by the public beheading of innocent hostages and the other atrocities that ISIS stages to attract a certain kind of recruit. Indeed, it means not launching a major ground offensive against ISIS (for which the troops are not available anyway), and waiting for events to take their course within the "Islamic State".

      Regimes as radical and violent as this one rarely survive for long. The revolution will eat its children, as so many have before, and it will happen a lot more quickly if they don’t have a huge foreign military threat to hold them together.



      Uncomfortable truths

      Oct 5, 2014 at 12:40pm

      US-NATO Proxy War in Iraq and Syria: US Financing and Training of “Moderate” ISIS Rebels in Syria

      Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

      Wealthy oil magnates are funding ISIS

      Let's not forget GW Bush created this nightmare by invading Iraq and then dismantling the army there. Essentially, GW Bush paved the way for chaos and ISIS thrives in chaos.


      Oct 5, 2014 at 4:22pm

      He's right. I felt incredibly uneasy when Obama was tricked in to going ape-shit by the Tea Party Republicans and suddenly vaulting ISIS from a "junior varsity basketball team" into the greatest threat the world has ever seen. I can see those young, Muslim men with psychopathic tendencies, booking the next flight to Turkey. They've now found a reason to exist. Way to go guys. Let the Sunnis and Shia fight it out amongst themselves. They've created their own disgusting mess (centuries ago) and if they want to slaughter each other, then all the power to them. We should keep our noses out of their affairs.

      Brian Marlatt

      Oct 5, 2014 at 6:18pm

      In this instance I can't see that the usually insightful Gwynne Dyer is on the mark at all. This isn't "terrorism" in any sense related to the models he describes accurately. It isn't the invasion of Iraq he so properly opposed and described in his 2003 writings. This is something unseen since Mao or perhaps Pol Pot. It has holy war and revolution written all over it and it has modern arms, armies of a revolutionary kind and it knows how to take the holy war home to those who intervene. It has the nature of an regional, international, viciously revolutionary war with all of the trappings of holy war - jihad - and terrorism wrapped up around Madame Dufarge, the Reign of Terror, Bolshevik intolerance of all but "true believers" and more than a touch of medieval cruelty. Not pleasant to think on.


      Oct 5, 2014 at 6:53pm

      Let me get this straight. The Anglo-Americans invaded Iraq to depose an evil but secular dictator who had his people under control and was using oil revenues to give his people one of the highest standard of living in the middle east. The Americans then install their governor to disband the Iraq army and privatize the once socialist Iraqi economy. This causes unemployment and the former rule of law which leads to an insurgency against the occupiers. Violence and chaos further triggers a Shia-Sunni civil war and the occupies loose control. Al Qaeda in Iraq rebrands and joins the free for all.
      Meanwhile, the west foments a revolution in Syria, using the cover of the Arab Spring, a popular revolution against Arab dictatorships. American train jihadists in Jordon, Saudi Arabia and Qatar fund and arm the jihadists to fight in Syria and Iraq, Turkey is a staging area for foreign jihadist mercenaries to infiltrate into Syria and Iraq. The corrupt and incompetent Iraqi army trained and equipped by the US collapse without a fight. The Wahhabi Saudi inspired jihadists proclaim an Islamic caliphate and turn against their mentors as the world is horrified with their barbarous tactics. The Americans, Anglos and regional Arab dictatorships all panic and decide to wage a high tech areal assault on swarming Dervishes but are unprepared to face them man to man. This is Certainly a sad case of unintended consequences, blowback and damage control by Imperial meddlers. Needless to say, crusader blood will be spilled because the Caliphate will not be conquered without western infantry. As Dyer says, they are mishandling it badly but "waiting for events to take their course within the Islamic state" will not solve this problem either. More shit is on the way this is not going to blow over without a blood bath. All of this was unnecessary and could have been avoided were it not for incompetent revengeful Westerners meddling in places they had no right to be. Oil the curse of the Middle East!


      Oct 5, 2014 at 8:43pm

      "ISIS’s behaviour is abominable, but is there any better option than simply bombing it from a great height?"

      We could start by stop giving them arms and training. We might also stop buying their oil and looted Syrian antiquities. Does Iraq have any left?

      "This is something unseen since Pol Pot."

      Don't forget that Pol Pot's terror was only ended by an invasion by Vietnam. Thailand and the US supported PP's "government in exile" till the end.

      "Not pleasant to think on."

      Yes and they want you to stop thinking

      S. Morgan

      Oct 5, 2014 at 8:45pm

      Please read Robert Fowler's recent column in the Globe & Mail. It comes as close as it gets to what we all intuitively know is both coming and required.


      Oct 5, 2014 at 9:20pm

      The problem here is WE are the problem not the solution.

      The notion that we are the benevolent policeman walking the global beat who is supposed to intervene in every dispute to keep the world safe for democratic values is ludicrous- no one else in the world believes that "if we don't save those people, no one will."

      The west should shut up, back off and mind its own business. Pressure on extremist muslims should come from international moderate muslims.


      Oct 5, 2014 at 9:53pm

      "But is there any better option than simply bombing it from a great height?"

      We use rubber bullets and other non-lethal ammunition. Is there 'sleeping-gas' ordnance that could put a town to sleep all at once? I realize that scenario would still require ground troops, but it has potential to safeguard more innocents than indiscriminate bombing.

      That's old news right, and we just don't try? Anyone?

      I Chandler

      Oct 5, 2014 at 10:26pm

      Dyer: "The most successful operation was 911, an attack that incited the US to invade two countries..."

      We might be better prepared for them next time - A ‘High Rise Safety Initiative’ has 100,000 New York residents signing a petition calling for a new investigation into the collapse of WTC7. British British PM David Cameron said these people are just as dangerous as ISIS:

      Where did these nasty guys come from? It's sad to see how easily political narratives in US media can be purchased:

      USA Today reported on a Saudi secret memo, which revealed that they sent death-row inmates to fight , in exchange for commuting sentences. Ex-FBI ,Coleen Rowley looks at whether the American death-by-drone is any less horrific, with some victims crawling about with severed limbs, and at how people are being manipulated into believing that more U.S. bombing is the answer to such terrorism, when most military experts admit that it won’t work:

      Dyer: "Don't Overreact. That means as little bombing as possible, and strictly military targets."

      As Obama would say (after he talks to God), 'Let's bomb some folks' - The White House has confirmed it has relaxed standards aimed at preventing civilian deaths for US airstrikes in Syria.
      Glenn Greenwald writes that when it comes to American public opinion, It's as though the neocons, ISIS and the US media work in perfect unison to achieve the same goal: fully terrorize the public.
      Greenwald also writes about about Fake terror threats used to Justify bombing Syria:

      Pat Crowe

      Oct 5, 2014 at 10:43pm

      Let Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia clean up their neighbourhood.