Uncertain COINage


Military manuals do not often attract readers from outside of the profession of arms, and the publication of the US Army/US Marine Corps’ manual on counter-insurgency (FM3/24) by the University of Chicago Press ten years ago was one of those rare occasions where military doctrine gained an audience beyond the armed forces. FM3/24 attracted wider attention because of Iraq, and the protracted insurgency in which US and Coalition forces had become embroiled after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime (March-April 2003). The US armed forces (the Army in particular) had focused almost exclusively on inter-state warfare, and as a result they were collectively unprepared for the challenges of occupying and pacifying Iraq following Saddam’s fall. Abu Ghraib, Haditha, the two battles of Fallujah, mounting American military casualties, and an increasingly disastrous sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis forced the Army and Marines to rethink their approach to counterinsurgency (COIN). The adoption of FM3/24 – and the ‘surge’ of troops into Iraq in 2007-2008 – appeared to herald a ‘COIN revolution’ in American military thinking, and indeed one of its authors (General David Petraeus) became a household name as a consequence.

Britain also had a reality check over Iraq, and subsequently Afghanistan too. Before 2003 there was an academic and professional consensus that the British Army had an instinctive talent for COIN, based on their experiences fighting guerrillas and terrorists from Palestine in the 1940s to Northern Ireland (1969-1998). The experience of peace support operations (PSO) in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone appeared to provide added justification for this myth, with squaddies being supposedly attuned to the complexities of ‘hearts and minds’; possessing the inherent ability to both cow potential adversaries while winning over the local populace with ‘soft posture’ patrolling and the ‘cultural understanding’ that came from phrase-book chit-chat. The increasingly violent occupation of Basra (2003-2007) and the ferocious fighting experienced in Helmand showed that in fact the British armed forces were no more masters of COIN than their superpower allies were.


British colonial police on a patrol in Malaya, April 1949, picture taken from Wikipedia Commons, originally from BBC Hulton Picture Library.

The myth of a ‘British way in counterinsurgency’ – relying on the judicious and humane application of minimum force and ‘hearts and minds’ – has been comprehensively debunked by David French, Karl Hack , Huw Bennett and other historians who have pointed out that the UK’s COIN history was far bloodier and more brutal than received wisdom admitted. The Kenya Emergency in particular was a ‘dirty war’ in which British colonial forces committed particularly egregious atrocities in order to crush the Mau Mau. David Ucko  has also pointed out that the distinctions drawn between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘democratic’ models of COIN also fade with closer scrutiny. Dictatorships may use overwhelming force and terror to crush internal rebellions, but have also used popular mobilisation and the ‘carrot’ of development and socio-economic reforms to build support for their regimes.

Nonetheless, American and British doctrine aspires to match democratic norms and contemporary ethics with COIN, and both FM3/24 and AFM1/10 (its UK equivalent) draw a distinction between ‘enemy-centric’ and ‘population-centric’ operations. In the former, the government side uses maximum force and exemplary violence to smash the insurgents and to terrorise the civilian population into obedience, whereas the latter stresses the protection of the populace from violence, the adoption of reforms to address the grievances that led to the insurgency, the recruitment and development of indigenous security forces able to defend the population, and a policy of reconciliation to negotiate a political solution to the conflict. Both the US and British militaries currently express a preference for the latter over the former.

The distinction is, however, to a considerable degree an artificial one. No state fighting an internal foe can follow a purely ‘population-centric’ approach, not least because it is very difficult to do state-building and war-fighting concurrently. It is both humane and strategically sensible for Western militaries to exercise ‘courageous restraint’ (to use Stanley McChrystal’s term), and to be discriminating in targeting (say) the Taliban rather than Afghan civilians, but there is the risk of forgetting that there is an enemy that has to be fought and beaten. With my own research on Oman, it became clear that Sultan Qaboos’ much-vaunted development of Dhofar was subordinated to a largely military effort by the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF), their Iranian allies and their British advisors to defeat the Popular Front guerrillas. The civil affairs effort and socio-economic reforms had to wait until the ‘adoo’ (enemy) had been driven into South Yemen, and were no longer in a position to offer an armed challenge to Qaboos’ regime. Insurgents are also more often than not part of the indigenous community, and their relatives and clan may not be receptive to appeals to rally to the government’s side. With reference again to Dhofar, the Popular Front still had a base of sympathisers within the local community even after their formal defeat in December 1975, and the province was by no means ‘at peace’ even after Qaboos declared the insurgency over.

M.L.R. Smith also reminds us of the problems of terminology. The special forces of state armed forces all practice ‘guerrilla’ or ‘irregular warfare’. The Cold War-era term of ‘revolutionary war’ doesn’t allow for conflicts where there is a popular rebellion against a radical regime; as was the case with the Vendee in Revolutionary France in the 1790s, the Christeros in Mexico in the 1920s, or the Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s. Scholars have yet to provide a precise and commonly agreed definition of the difference between an ‘insurgent’ and a ‘terrorist’; in Syria now, the Assad regime uses this term to describe all of its opponents. Distinctions between insurgency and organised criminality were blurred with the racketeering of Republican and Loyalist gangs in Northern Ireland both during and after the ‘Troubles’, and with the current terror campaign by the Mexican drug cartels.

Much is made of the ‘narrative’, and its value almost as a war-winning weapon in convincing the local population to back your cause. Yet a ‘narrative’ revolving around a better future, and of peace and prosperity for all, will lack conviction if no one believes you can deliver it. The Taliban were not popular in Afghanistan even during the height of the NATO intervention, and it is clear that the majority of Afghans fear their return to power. Yet this has had no appreciable effect on their campaign at all. They are still in a position to destabilise the country and discredit its government, particularly now that the majority of NATO forces have returned home.

It is also perhaps worth asking whether COIN should still be discussed as a distinct type of war. The presumption with ‘guerrilla warfare’ is that insurgents are materially weaker than government forces, but the Viet Minh in Indochina in the early 1950s, UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) in Angola in the 1980s, and the Eritrean and Tigrayan rebels who overthrew Mengistu’s regime in Ethiopia in 1991  all acquired the means to wage ‘conventional’ land warfare – including armour and heavy artillery – whether this was captured after battle or supplied by a foreign patron.

Insurgencies can involve ‘regular’ military forces, particularly in the context of a proxy war, and there are historical examples that precede the Russian intervention in Ukraine. The ‘confrontation’ in Borneo (1962-1966) started with British forces fighting indigenous rebels in Brunei, and ended with an undeclared war with cross-border raids by the Indonesian military and the SAS. During the latter phases of the Dhofar war the Marxist-Leninist regime of South Yemen had committed 250 soldiers to fight the SAF, and by the autumn of 1975 there was a clear risk that the Popular Front revolt could lead to all-out war between Oman and South Yemen.

The presumption that insurgencies can be hermetically sealed within a state has been disproved not only by the current wars in Syria and Iraq – involving Syrian and Iraqi regular forces and militias, Kurdish peshmerga on both sides of the old Sykes-Picot frontier, Daesh, Hezbollah, the Russians, the various Syrian rebel groups and the US-led Coalition – but in Southern Africa in the 1970s-1980s. The apartheid-era South African Defence Force (SADF) conducted COIN against the military wing of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) during South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia, but the SADF also conducted cross-border raids into Angola to destroy SWAPO bases in that country, while Pretoria backed UNITA’s struggle against government forces (FAPLA) in the Angolan civil war. The culmination of this multifaceted struggle came with the battle of Cuito Cuanavale (August 1987-March 1988), pitting SADF and UNITA against FAPLA and a Cuban expeditionary force. The South Africans may have been originally fighting the SWAPO insurgency, but they ended up fighting a ‘conventional’ war.

In summary, we should remember Carl von Clausewitz’s description of war as an act of violence in which the belligerents intend to compel their foe to submit to their will, and his observations that combat is a reciprocal process, and that wars are fought for political objectives. Clausewitz also stated that it was necessary to understand every conflict you waged on its own terms, and that ‘the first, the grandest, and the most decisive act of judgement which the statesman and general exercises is rightly to understand in this respect the war in which he engages, not to take it for something, or wish to make it something, which by the nature of its relations it is impossible for it to be’.

As Clausewitz put it, ‘[everything] is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult’. It would be highly dangerous for governments and their armed forces to be seduced into the logic of ‘clear, hold, build’, and to assume that they can fight a ‘pure’ and binary (government v insurgents) campaign that does not account for the possibility of proxy warfare, internecine conflicts involving multiple actors, state failure, and the potential for either escalation or metastasised violence across borders. Indeed, the characteristics of current conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere suggest that the terminological distinctions between COIN, PSO, ‘stabilisation’, and ‘major combat operations’ are potentially becoming increasingly less relevant.

Image: Yemeni Army soldiers, August 2011, via the Al Jazeera Creative Commons Repository.

Saudi Arabia and its anti-terror alliance


On 14 December 2015, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, called a press conference and announced the formation of a new thirty-four nation-strong Islamic military alliance that would be dedicated to countering the threat of terrorism around the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

But the reaction to this initiative was mixed.

There is currently no evidence of any blueprint as to its incorporation, operation, or evolution. Nor is it clear how anything approaching a meaningful, joint military organisation could be forged between the thirty-four countries. Embarrassingly, the foreign ministries of Pakistan and Lebanon subsequently denied that they have even signed up to any such organisation, while the Malaysian minister of defence refused to contribute troops to the venture.

This is not the first time that leaders in Saudi Arabia have made grand announcements on the hoof.

In March 2015 Saudi announced that Pakistan was joining the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which was news to the Pakistani parliament that subsequently rejected the overture. Similarly, in 2011 King Abdullah al-Saud invited Morocco and Jordan to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) without consulting any leaders involved. The fact that Muscat, the capital of Oman, a founding GCC state, would have been closer to Shanghai than Morocco’s capital Rabat, seemingly did not strike King Abdullah as problematic. The plan was abandoned in an embarrassed silence in due course.

Another basic problem for the putative alliance is that it includes neither Iraq nor Iran. These are pivotally important states that are crucial to achieving the purported aims. Without these Shia-dominated states, Saudi’s new alliance is wide open to accusations that it is sectarian in nature or even that this is little more than a new, institutionalised way to combat and contain Iran.

The scepticism pervading the announcement of this new military alliance is, therefore, unsurprising and warranted. Indeed, this announcement is better seen as political rhetoric rather than organisational reality.

The announcement attempts to signal that Saudi Arabia is eager to take the leading role fighting terrorism. This comes after years of criticism that seems to have peaked in recent months with unflattering comparisons between the actions of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State, insinuating or plainly claiming that Saudi Arabia has played a key role in the emergence of Islamic extremism in the MENA region.

Yet as fashionable a refrain as this is, it is not necessarily a statement of the obvious.

It is true that Saudi Arabia has long exported its austere, intolerant version of Islam around the world and supported armed Islamically-based resistance movements such as the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s. But it also exported its particular Islamic creed to India, Professor Bernard Hakyel notes, where little subsequent Wahhabi-based extremism has arisen.

The motivations underlying the bouts of extremism that are currently rampaging around the MENA region are complex. Though some of Saudi Arabia’s historic (or current) policies may play a role therein, it would be far too simplistic – and simply not proven thus far – to charge that the state is the root cause of modern-day Islamic extremism.

It is also possible to interpret this announcement as Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to further burnish his reputation at home and abroad. Without much pedigree, he was elevated to Minister of Defence, third in line to the throne, head of the state oil company ARAMCO, and head of the state’s most important economic council.

But despite launching a war in Yemen of unprecedented scale, it is Mohammed bin Nayef al-Saud, the Crown Prince and Minister of the Interior, who enjoys the more prominent reputation at home and abroad (particularly in Washington DC) as the architect of Saudi Arabia’s relatively successful domestic counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorist policies of the late-2000s and 2010s.

Mohammed bin Salman’s rise is a testament to his political skill among the elite in Riyadh, backed by the support of his father, the King. Without the decades of experience traditionally assumed as necessary to rule even ministries in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman must instead find other ways to reinforce his place and his legitimacy.

His unique selling point is his age with which he can signal the start of a new type of politics in the Kingdom that can chime better with Saudi’s population, two thirds of whom are under the age of thirty. A key strand of this must be reformulating the Saudi approach to terrorism and extremism – at the very least making explicitly clear his commitment to countering them effectively, no matter what their origins.

The young prince may yet forge some alliance; certainly, he has proven capable of undertaking ventures of unprecedented scale, as he demonstrated with the war in Yemen.

But this policy announcement did not get off to a promising start.

The lack of planning evidenced by just how quickly the alliance frayed within the first 24 hours carries strong hints of traditional, preparatory-work-free policy announcements that tend to not come to fruition. And on this topic above all others, neither the Saudi government nor Mohammed bin Salman can afford such befuddled, ill-conceived pronouncements.

Image: Air Strikes in Yemen, May 2015, via wikimedia commons.

The Political, Religious, and Everyday Allure of Islamic State’s Utopianism

This is the second in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015. Subsequent posts will come out on Wednesdays and will cover topics such as the motivations for joining IS and the responses by the Kurds, Turkey, and Iran to the rise of the Islamic States. An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


In late February 2015, in the face of the extreme violence of Islamic State, President Barack Obama declared that the group should not be referred to as Islamic, because doing so gives it legitimacy and reinforces its world view of a war against Islam. He along with many political leaders declared that the ‘West’ is not opposed to Islam but a perverted form of it. The Islamic State, Daeesh, or ISIS, however situates itself not only as a fighting force but as a Utopian religious and political project. As a Utopian project it offers a critique of the existing world, a solution, and action to make it all possible.

The project is predicated on a binary political world view in which Muslims’ suffering is ignored and deliberately inflicted upon them by non-Muslims. The solution Islamic State offers is a Caliphate -not only a safe haven but a realisation of God’s will. This ‘State’ is to be governed by God’s laws (Shari’a) . It declares that all Muslims have a duty to move to its territory and if they cannot, to offer their lives in sacrifice. Islamic State’s imitation of the modern state, while simultaneously upholding historical structures and practices, such as slavery and beheadings confirms that there is nothing theologically inevitable about the Caliphate. Specifically, Islamic State’s construct of statehood is not grounded in the Qu’ran despite their appeal to a Prophetic tradition. But, it is rooted in a tradition of revolutionary Islamic political thought, beginning with the medieval thinker Ibn Taymiyya and developing from Jamal al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Abul Ala Maududi, and Sayyid Qutb who debated the colonial condition. These writers compared the unfair and increasingly invasive political systems they lived under to a condition of jahiliya (ignorance of pre-Prophetic knowledge and life) and consequently justified a violent jihad to overthrow it. The current quest to overcome this state of ignorance, and to enter into a ‘world of peace’ (Islamic State) that is pure and perfect, not only requires fighting against the ‘camp of kufrs’ (the West), it also leads to the expulsion of deviant faiths (such as the Yazidi and other minorities, and the Shia), and removal of corrupt leaders. Islamic State draws on these complex traditions of Jihad and Caliphate and reduces them to a fundamentalist totalitarian quest for perfectionism and purity.

Islamic State combines this ideology with mundane and modern pragmatic concerns of local politics and welfare to generate legitimacy. Significantly, the dehumanising of opponents is also rooted in sectarian politics concerned with access to resources and security – Sunnis living in Iraq and Syria have not had security since the fall of Saddam Hussain nor under Assad’s regime. IS’s offer of everyday security, quick (albeit unforgiving) justice, social services and welfare for Sunni Muslims is a reasonable trade off against any disagreement over IS’s vision and Utopia – especially if they are further rewarded for their cooperation through access to the spoils of war. Unlike Al Qaeda, Islamic State embraces the trappings of a modern state: a monetary system, police, taxes, military and governing councils of populations. The group is not acting like a terrorist organisation, nor a military, but a totalitarian government.

The appeal of Islamic State is greater than their political critique and offered solution, but is also created by the journey to that solution. This path is presented as exciting and adventurous and simultaneously filled with righteous suffering, and may lead to martyrdom. Therefore if Islamic state or individual members don’t realise Utopia within this world, it will be achieved in the next. Violence is glorified as heroic, Muslim, and manly. This path offers a break from the mundane and seemingly dull and disengaged life offered to young recruits from the West living in an age of austerity. As Dr Emmanuel Karagiannis alongside me at the Rise of the Islamic State roundtable highlighted, this idea incorporates a jihadi macho masculinity and the possibility to assert an otherwise emasculated manhood through acquiring warrior status. In an allegedly post-heroic age these men can have God, gold, and glory. For young women of Europe and North America their agency is also realised by IS; they actively reject both local community values and orthodox interpretations of Islamic traditions, and those purportedly on offer by liberal democracies. Contra to presentations of these women as love stricken naive girls who have been duped by the evil Islamic state, as per the imagery of the ‘Jihadi bride‘ or ‘sex slave‘, their social media outputs show conscious decision-making based on both private and public-political concerns. This combination allows for the veneration of motherhood, giving them social power, and exalting the family as the political and religious structure of the state. The personal is political and the political is personal.

Situating Islamic State as Utopian demonstrates that any separation or expulsion of religion from politics and international relations of IS in our analysis is flawed. Furthermore gender analysis in religion and politics leads to a more holistic understanding of IS. The lure of Islamic State is threefold. First it offers a challenge to existing politics that resonates especially in the absence of alternative credible and accessible critiques. Second, this critique is combined with a solution – an Islamic State, open to all who they consider to be correctly believing Muslims. Third, this new project will create a Muslim ‘good life’ through a particular version of Shari’a, thereby providing meaning and purpose to everyday politics and activity. These three components are essential elements of Utopian social dreaming: critique, solution and action. The challenge to Islamic State must therefore address all three. The beginnings of such a challenge in the West can be seen in the open letter by ‘Sara’ for Inspire which questions the reality of Islamic State’s ‘good life’; the humour offered by the Italians in reply to IS’s threats that undermine its ability to strike fear; and the outing of ‘Jihadi John’ thereby demystifying both him and their violence.




As a tactic, terrorism is as perennial as warfare itself, but it was during the 1970s that international terrorist groups began to be seen by the Western powers as a global problem. Atrocities such as the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics massacre in September 1972, and other ‘spectaculars’ such as the hijacking of passenger aircraft gave the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Carlos the Jackal, the Red Army Faction, ‘Black September’ and the Japanese Red Army international notoriety. The aftermath of bomb, rocket and gun attacks, not to mention prolonged stand-offs between hostage-takers and security forces were naturally the focus of media attention, and also the inspiration for filmmakers. Furthermore, major incidents put pressure on governments to either concede to the demands of the terrorist groups concerned or to risk the execution of hostages by defying their captors.

I wrote about the British official response to the rise of international terrorism during this era in an article recently published in International Affairs, which can be downloaded here. Until the Munich massacre British policy on counter-terrorism was focussed on Northern Ireland, but after September 1972 the government of Edward Heath was forced to begin contingency planning for a similar emergency on UK soil. The results included the designation of the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) as a crisis management centre. Successive Prime Ministers convened COBR to deal with a succession of emergencies both domestic and foreign, particularly because it has conveyed the impression of a decisive response to a threat to public safety. More recently, David Cameron has used COBR in response to the murder of British hostages by ISIS in Syria, and also the possible spread of Ebola from West Africa to the UK.

More controversially, British contingency planning forty years ago also devised measures for calling in military support in response to terrorist incidents which were beyond the control of the civil authorities. Armed police units had resolved hostage crises such as the Balcombe Street Siege in December 1975 (as shown in the Youtube clip above), but Munich and other future emergencies (notably the hijackings of Air France Flight 139 on 27th June 1976 and Lufthansa Flight 181 on 13th October 1977) indicated the likelihood that the intervention of the British armed forces could be required, either in a hostage rescue mission or to pre-emptively deter attack on key targets such as airports and the North Sea oil fields. The counter-terrorist Pagoda Troop of the 22nd Special Air Service and M Squadron of the Special Boat Service both draw their origins from the contingency planning and exercises of the 1970s. Likewise, the deployment of troops at Heathrow in response to a reported al-Qaeda threat in February 2003 followed precedents set by repeated instances in 1974 when the Army was sent to patrol the runways of the same airport – this time to deter Palestinian terrorists from shooting down airliners with Strela surface-to-air missiles.

During my research I discovered that the planning process was often affected by inter-departmental quarrels within Whitehall. During the mid-1970s the Ministry of Defence, Home Office, Department of Energy, and the Scottish Office were at odds over which agency was ultimately responsible for the security of the North Sea oil terminals. A second problem involved the difficulties of conducting an anti-terrorist operation overseas, not just because of the cuts that the armed forces had experienced in the 1974-1975 Defence Review, but because of the possibility that terrorist groups might benefit from the protection offered by sympathetic governments – the German and Palestinian hijackers who took Air France 139 were given sanctuary and military support by the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin. The prospect of carrying out an Entebbe-style rescue similar to that launched by the Israelis was not welcomed by Whitehall officials, and the recent murders of David Haines and Alan Henning by their Islamic State captors demonstrates that overseas hostage rescue remains an insurmountable challenge for the UK.

One key difference between the contemporary environment and the 1970s was that the involvement of the armed forces in domestic counter-terrorism aroused genuine concerns over civil liberties and the constitutional order. Britain in the early 1970s was in a condition of political and economic turmoil due to the ‘oil shock’ that followed the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973, the energy crisis and the ‘three day’ week, and industrial unrest. For critics on the left, troops patrolling Heathrow had sinister connotations, particularly at a time when former Army officers like General Walter Walker and Colonel David Stirling were suspected of raising private armies. The official response to Munich and other terrorist acts therefore aroused fears that Britain would experience a military coup similar to Greece in 1967 and Chile in 1973.

The fear of tanks in Whitehall diminished during the decade, and indeed provided the comic buffoonery exhibited by ‘Jimmy Anderson’ (Geoffrey Palmer) in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Nonetheless, the implications of introducing the military to counter-terrorism in the 1970s remain pertinent today, not least because we have yet to resolve one of the most fundamental of them; once you have brought the armed forces into the fight against terrorism, how do you de-escalate and withdraw them?