Concepts of grand strategy generally stress the requirement of governments to outline clear strategic goals, and to ensure that all elements of national power are co-ordinated by ministers and senior officials (civil service and military) to achieve them. In recent history, one state achieved the apparent success of devising a ‘total’ strategy and of establishing a bureaucratic framework to implement it. That state was South Africa, governed at that time by the apartheid regime of the National Party.

Up until 1974-1976 the National Party had established and reinforced a system of white minority rule in South Africa itself, as well as an illegal colony in Namibia. Pretoria had withstood international condemnation of racial oppression and also the generally ineffectual insurgencies of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO). However, the April 1974 military coup in Lisbon led to the end of Portuguese imperial rule in Angola and Mozambique, and the takeover of power by two national-liberation movements (the MPLA in Luanda and FRELIMO in Maputo) with a pronounced hostility to white minority rule. The downfall of Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was also imminent.

To add to Pretoria’s troubles, the failed South African military intervention in Angola in 1975 (Operation Savannah) led Fidel Castro to send a Cuban expeditionary force to aid the MPLA, and Cuba maintained a sizeable task force in Angola until 1991. Moreover, the MPLA’s victory in the Angolan civil war encouraged greater anti-apartheid militancy and activism within the black majority in South Africa, as demonstrated by the popular rising in Soweto in April 1976. The National Party’s response to this combination of external and internal crises was shaped by the Defence Minister and (after 28th September 1978) President, P. W. Botha, aided by the high command of the South African Defence Force (SADF).

South Africa’s 1977 Defence White Paper was influenced in part by the writings of the French strategist, General Andre Beaufre. It presented an apocalyptic image of a ‘total onslaught’ by the Soviet Union and its allies – including Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, the ANC and SWAPO – to effect a Communist takeover of South Africa, aided by anti-apartheid activists and movements both within and outside the country. In response Pretoria would adopt a ‘Total National Strategy’ that would harness all means at its disposal to defend apartheid and undermine its enemies. The result was the militarization of South Africa’s domestic and foreign policy, encouraged by Botha, General Magnus Malan (his successor as Defence Minister), and the head of SADF military intelligence, Lieutenant General Pieter van der Westhuizen, a thuggish securocrat who could very well have provided Hollywood with one of the villains in Lethal Weapon II.

There was a self-serving and disingenuous rhetoric to ‘Total National Strategy’; the apartheid regime had continually claimed to be the defender of the nation against Communist tyranny, recognising that this helped both rally the white community’s support, while also cajoling the Western powers (notably the USA, Britain and France) to treat it as a Cold War ally. The aspirations outlined in the White Paper did not prevent inter-departmental squabbles from erupting between the SADF, police, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the National Intelligence Service. Nonetheless, ‘Total National Strategy’ did reflect the very real sense of paranoia that affected the white elite, in particular the politicians and policy-makers of the de facto War Cabinet, the State Security Committee (SSC).

What did this new strategy mean in practice? Firstly, it involved a campaign to destabilise the ‘frontline states’ that were backing the South African and Namibian national liberation movements, with Angola and Mozambique as the principal victims. Both countries became the target of South African aggression. Angola itself was subjected to eleven major cross-border incursions by the SADF between May 1978 and December 1988 which were ostensibly directed against ANC and SWAPO bases, but which also involved punitive strikes against the Angolan armed forces. Furthermore, Pretoria waged proxy wars against Maputo and Luanda, arming and equipping the UNITA insurgency led by Jonas Savimbi in Angola and the RENAMO movement in Mozambique, thereby exacerbating two civil wars which devastated both countries.

The second part of ‘total strategy’ involved state terrorism, involving the assassination of apartheid activists abroad, and death squad violence against domestic opponents conducted by the police (with its C-10 unit) and the SADF’s ‘Civil Co-operation Bureau’. The barbaric killings conducted by these ‘third force’ units were investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee set up after the apartheid regime’s fall, as were the covert efforts by the police and SADF to instigate internecine violence in the black townships between the ANC and its political rival, Inkatha.

The moral implications of ‘total strategy’ should not be forgotten. Thousands died in township violence in the late 1980s-early 1990s, and the wars in Angola and Mozambique cost an estimated million deaths. Both countries were further impoverished as a consequence of the civil war and RENAMO – South Africa’s proxy – became notorious for its atrocities against Mozambican civilians. Yet there were also counter-productive consequences of Pretoria’s strategic decisions which the SSC were never able to resolve.

Firstly, with reference to the efforts to coerce the frontline states, Pretoria’s aims were contradictory. Was the objective to force Luanda and Maputo to abandon support for the black liberation struggle in South Africa and Namibia, or to achieve regime change? With Mozambique, the diplomats of the DFA believed that they had achieved a significant success with the Nkomati Accords of 16th March 1984, in which Botha and his counterpart Samora Machel agreed to stop supporting each other’s internal opponents. South Africa had forced its neighbour to stop backing the ANC, but van der Westhuizen’s military intelligence service continued to arm RENAMO regardless. In Angola, there was a mismatch between Pretoria’s appeals to President Eduardo dos Santos for mutual restraint, and the attacks by SADF special forces against strategic targets such as the Cabinda oil-fields. A US State Department mediator remonstrating with van der Westhuizen complained that the raids ‘tell the MPLA that you want to kill them, not do a deal’. The SADF intelligence chief’s reply – ‘I agree’ – demonstrated the lack of co-ordination in Pretoria’s Angolan policy.

Secondly, the proxy wars with neighbouring powers carried with it the risks of escalation. This was demonstrated by the Cuito Cuanavale campaign of September 1987-March 1988, when Pretoria responded to an Angolan government offensive against UNITA by sending a brigade of 3,000 troops across the Okavango River. An initially successful onslaught in which the SADF mauled the MPLA’s army culminated in an inconclusive siege of the government outpost of Cuito Cuanavale. Furthermore, in November 1987 Castro decided to reinforce the Cuban task force in Angola, raising its strength to 50,000 troops. The influx not only enabled the Cubans to reinforce Cuito Cuanavale, but also launch an armoured drive Southwards towards that threatened Namibia with invasion. US and Soviet mediation in the summer of 1988 averted a South African-Cuban clash, and SADF veterans maintain that the Angolan campaign of 1987-1988 was a victorious one for them. But the fact remains that by June 1988 South Africa was on the verge of fighting a total war.

Finally, the ‘third force’ operations of C-10 and the Civil Co-operation Bureau in South Africa itself threatened to undermine the rule of law itself. The SADF and police death squads became complicit in organised criminal activities such as ivory smuggling and arms trafficking, and the instigation of internecine violence between the ANC and Inkhata threatened to plunge the country into outright anarchy. By the time of Nelson Mandela’s release on 11th February 1990 the survival of white minority rule had become a lost cause. The only question was whether apartheid would perish with an apocalyptic race war, or whether South Africa could make a largely peaceful transition to democracy and majority rule. Thankfully, South Africans ended the latter rather than the former, but this was no thanks to the securocrats of the SSC.

So ‘total strategy’ was a failure, and anyone looking at South African history between 1978 and 1994 is entitled to ask him or herself why the National Party could not have avoided over a million futile deaths and all the atrocities associated with them – in South Africa and also neighbouring states – by waking up and smelling the coffee a lot earlier than it did. Yet there is a more fundamental point about strategy itself that can be gained from studying the latter years of apartheid: You can articulate a clear objective for implementation, and provide a clear institutional framework for the means of state power to be employed to achieve it. But it will be of no avail if the basic premises behind your strategic goals are fundamentally flawed.

Image: South African paratroopers on patrol in Namibia during the border war. Picture taken from Wikipedia Commons, posted by en:User:Smikect.

Were the Attacks in Paris and Brussels an Intelligence Failure?

Dr. Emmanuel Karagiannis

During 2015-2016, ISIS cells and ISIS-inspired lone wolves launched a series of terrorist attacks against European cities. On 13 November 2015, a group of ISIS assailants launched coordinated attacks on civilian targets in central Paris. They killed 132 people and injured 352. It appears that there were three teams of nine gunmen. Three suicide bombers attacked the national sports stadium during a friendly match between the national soccer teams of France and Germany. Then attackers shot at people outside several cafes and restaurants. Finally, gunmen entered the Bataclan concert hall and killed tens of people before detonating their suicide vests. Most of the gunmen were Belgian or French citizens. Next day ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks.

According to Edoardo Camilli, the Paris attacks constitute an intelligence failure for three reasons. First, there was a failure in the detection and prioritization of threats. Some of the ISIS attackers were known to French authorities; yet, they clearly failed to identity these individuals as an imminent threats. Second, their surveillance was inadequate and ineffective. The French authorities had information about Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who masterminded the attacks, but they did not manage to monitor his moves in France and Belgium. Third, the assailants were able to travel freely across the Schengen Zone. Member states failed to share information and coordinate their efforts. Moreover, the Turkish authorities gave information about Omar Ismail Mostefai, one of Bataclan bombers, to their French counterparts but it was ignored. Most of the perpetrators had fought in Syria and Iraq as members of ISIS. To sum up, the French security agencies had enough information about the perpetrators, but they failed to take action.

Following the Paris attacks, Belgian authorities decided to raise the terror alert to the highest level. On 22 March 2016, however, a group of ISIS-affiliated assailants attacked the city of Brussels. Two suicide attacks occurred at the airport and one at the Maalbeek metro station. As a result, 30 people were killed and more than 300 were injured. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. The two suicide bombers attacking the airport were Najim Laachraoui and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, both Belgian citizens of Moroccan origin. Soon it became clear that the two attacks were linked. Again, most the assailants had either travelled or attempted to travel to Syria.

Like with Paris, most analysts have described the Brussels attacks as an intelligence failure. Krishnadev Calamur has blamed the fragmentation of the Belgian intelligence community for the apparent failure to prevent the attacks; for example, the capital city is served by six different police forces. The Belgian capital had already witnessed an attack against the Jewish museum in May 2014; the perpetrator was a French national of Algerian origin who had spent some time in Syria and had been recruited by ISIS. Despite its long experience in dealing with terrorism, the Belgian intelligence community apparently failed to prevent the attacks.

Could the attacks have been prevented? Did they constitute an intelligence failure? There is no easy answer to these questions. The Paris attacks did not only lead to the tragic death of tens of civilians, but also signified the end of terrorism as we know it. While jihadi groups have attacked non-military targets in Europe again and again, this is the first time that multiple soft targets were hit in an unprecedented series of assaults. For instance, the London and Madrid bombings targeted the transportation system. To a certain extent, the Paris massacre resembles more the 2008 Mumbai attacks than any terrorist attack we have seen before. Despite tactical differences (e.g. the use of suicide vests in Paris), the two attacks were based on the same strategy: small teams of heavily armed jihadis simultaneously attacking many people in order to maximize casualties.

The multiple attacks against soft, but high-profile, targets in Paris indicate a level of organization and sophistication that clearly took the French authorities by surprise. The country’s intelligence community functions on a basis of a Cold War model that is largely outdated. For many decades, intelligence agencies focused almost exclusively on foreign governments. As a result, the classic intelligence cycle that cannot cope with the complexities of transnational Islamist networks. Human intelligence is usually poor and perpetrators increasingly use encrypted technology to communicate. Geospatial intelligence is not much helpful either. Most of the assailants had European passports and were members of local Muslim communities. Thus, there were able to benefit from open borders and utilized family networks to organize attacks.

The tragic events inevitably raised questions about interstate intelligence cooperation and border controls, the EU’s refugee policy, and eventually the whole project of European integration. The Brussels’ bombings came to confirm what many Europeans suspected after the November 2015 Paris attacks. The EU has failed dramatically to protect its citizens from terrorism. Many European countries dealt with terrorism before, although not always effectively. However, the Irish Republican Army, the Basque ETA, the German Baader-Meinhof group, the Italian Red Brigades and the Belgian Cellules Communistes Combattantes had either limited capabilities or avoided, most of the times, the intentional targeting of civilians.

Now European governments face a new type of terrorism which seeks to inflict massive casualties on the population for two main reasons. First, the European public opinion has been identified as the Clausewitzian ‘Center of Gravity’, namely the source of strength and legitimacy for governments in Europe. ISIS’s actions aim at the repetition of the ‘Spanish scenario’, that is, the electoral defeat of politicians who favor military action against militants – like it happened with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar following the 2004 Madrid bombings. If this never happens and there is more European military involvement in the Middle East, then a clash of civilization between the West and Islam could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By targeting civilians, ISIS also hopes to spark a racist backlash against Europe’s Muslim communities and thus gain more recruits. It is essentially a win-win situation for the group and there are no easy solutions to that.

Under such circumstances, European government must lower their expectations for the prevention of violent attacks. The simplicity of the Nice and Berlin attacks have revealed that there is no effective way to prevent a determined individual from committing an act of mass murder. In fact, there is an endless list of soft targets that that can be hit by terrorists. If there is a lesson to be learned from the 9/11 events is that the evil of terrorism cannot be defeated with security measures alone. Contrary to the public’s perceptions, jihadi terrorism has been a phenomenon primarily concerning the Middle East. Successful attacks against Europeans have been the exception, not the rule. There are several factors that count for this. First, intelligence agencies have been largely effective in preventing attacks. Following the Paris and Brussels attacks, ISIS lost valuable human assets. It is not a coincidence that most recent attacks were conducted by lone wolves. More importantly, jihadi groups have been unable to recruit significant numbers of European Muslims. The huge majority of them remains law-abiding and peaceful.

Intelligence failures can be determined by the lack of information or the lack of information accuracy, which determines a distortion of the analytical process. This can occur either through ignoring or through the mistaken interpretation of data. The analysis of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels suggests there is a new form of terrorism, leading to an unpredictable intelligence failure. The asymmetric character of jihadi attacks means that the success of combatting terrorism no longer relies just on the magnitude of available resources. Unlike other fields, the identification of the causes of errors of intelligence activity is especially difficult, given that their main resource – information – is difficult to quantify. Thus, one can legitimately ask the question – are we talking about a failure of the intelligence services or of a failure of public policies that determine the direction of action of these organizations?

Image: Bataclan memorial. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thinking the Unthinkable over ISIL

This is the third in a series of posts to come out of the Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC) organised Round Table titled ‘Decoding IS [DAISH] – Retrospect and Prospect’, which took place on 8 February 2016. The Round Table covered issues concerned with the evolution, regional linkages, strategy and tactics, as well as the future prospects of IS [DAISH].


Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the war in Syria have focussed on managing the conflict between the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and the multi-faceted Syrian opposition. On 22 February, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) announced a ‘cessation of hostilities’, brokered by the US and Russia, to begin five days later. When it comes to ISIL, the statement of the ISSG specified that:

Military actions, including airstrikes, of the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic, the Russian Armed Forces, and the U.S.-led Counter ISIL Coalition will continue against ISIL, “Jabhat al-Nusra,” and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council.

In other words, the diplomatic effort has attempted to ring-fence the war against ISIL and the less prominent threat of the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. But, what if the numerous parties mentioned in this statement simply cannot wage a concerted war against ISIL? Indeed, the war effort against ISIL comprises of a messy patchwork of competing interests. Russia wants to back Assad, as does Iran, through it’s urging of Hezbollah to deploy there. Iran also wants to deepen its influence in Iraq, which has been in the ascent since the US-led Coalition toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Turkey wants, above all else, to remove the Assad regime and check Kurdish gains, while the Kurds fight ISIL to safeguard their territory and to boost their autonomy. Western countries may implore others to focus their efforts against ISIL. But fighting ISIL is rather far down the list of priorities for others.

What if, in years to come, the piecemeal war effort against ISIL fails to roll back the group’s control of territory, and perhaps only manages to keep it under pressure and contained? Will ISIL then have to be spoken to? Contemplating negotiations with ISIL means thinking the unthinkable (a term coined by Herman Kahn during the Cold War). The idea is as much abhorrent as it is unfeasible to envisage, given the scattered territory controlled by the group, the violence it uses to manage its rule, and the hatred it engenders amongst so many around the world. A group so wedded to nihilistic violence and an apocalyptic vision, with a seemingly maximalist desire for expansion, surely could never be spoken to. This is certainly true, but one must not assume permanence in the situation as it is today. The question, therefore, should be rephrased. Could ISIL ever become a fixture on the map of the Middle East? The kind of permanent entity, seemingly impervious to being dislodged and degraded by military pressure, that others have no choice but to work around?

There are no prospects for this at all in the short or medium term. The West wants to destroy ISIL, not talk to it. Moreover, ISIL does not appear to want to exist in a world of states. But, in decades to come, if it can withstand the military campaign against it, ISIL, or its forebears, may need to be dealt with in ways that extend beyond aerial bombing. The unthinkable may be no less palatable in ten or fifteen years from now. But if ISIL still exists, it may become important to consider.

As I argue in an Adelphi Book, which is forthcoming in summer 2016, the perceptions held of armed groups can experience enormous transitions if they manage to perpetuate their existence for decades. Certainly, when Hezbollah carried out a suicide bomb attack on US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, or when the Taliban came to global prominence after abetting al-Qaeda’s September 2001 attacks, nobody could have assumed the continued existence of these groups today. Few would have thought that Hezbollah would become part of Lebanon’s government. Or that the Taliban would absorb the punishment of a fifteen-year NATO military campaign, only to be the subject of an overture by the President of the USA for reconciliation talks.

There is currently no path and no prospects for ISIL to ever achieve any kind of status of this nature. It is absurd, off-putting and defeatist to even contemplate such a future. But that is precisely what thinking the unthinkable asks of us. If the civil war in Syria fails to abate, and the UN effort in support of Security Council Resolution 2254 fails to make progress, efforts to eradicate ISIL’s hold over territory in Syria will be hindered. This, tragically, is not so unthinkable. The patchwork nature of the anti-ISIL campaign is ISIL’s to exploit.

Image: Secretary Kerry Chats With UN Secretary-General Ban Before Hosting the International Syria Support Group Meeting in New York City, 18 December 2015. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Palestine 1945-48: the Information Campaign and the Limits of Influence


In the past information, influence or non-kinetic psychological aspects of conflict had a supporting function to the physical, kinetic aspects; today it is seen as central. Militaries have done ‘influence’ for years, but there is a dominant view that in the current information environment all actions, deeds and words are scrutinised in a way that was not the case in previous epochs. Tactical level incidents have the potential to create negative strategic effects, vulnerabilities which adversaries exploit. The information environment is a significant shaper of the conflict space, acting as a force enabler or multiplier. As contemporary adversaries seem to understand, information can be an effective tool in the hands of the weak, even acting as a force equaliser, as a principal means of affecting the strategic centre of gravity: the will to fight.

The inherent political and psychological nature of fighting and countering insurgency means that information and strategic communications aspects are critical. Bard O’Neill argues insurgency is a political legitimacy crisis, ‘a struggle between non-ruling group and ruling authorities in which the non-ruling group consciously uses political resources … and violence to destroy, reformulate or sustain the basis of legitimacy of one or more aspects of politics’. The identification and remedy of the sources of insurgent discontent and persuading the people that they would gain more by supporting the ruling authorities than they could obtain from the insurgents becomes pivotal to achieving success. The information campaign therefore becomes central to countering insurgency. None of this is new. My examination of how the British government used an information campaign to support its counter-insurgency efforts and to reach a solution to the problem of Palestine can offer insights that may be relevant today.

Palestine 1945-48

Historical examples and analogies should always be used with care, yet this case study offers insights into the challenges of conducting a strategic information campaign to support both a political process and counter-insurgency in the context of an international struggle for legitimacy that was on the front page of newspapers during this period.

Britain had been granted the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1922 which allowed Britain to fulfil her strategic aims of access to the Suez Canal, the creation of a land bridge from the Mediterranean to Iraqi oilfields and to prevent French ambitions drifting south from their position in Syria and Lebanon. Britain was responsible for creating ‘such political, administrative, and economic condition as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home … and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion’. As Mandatory power in inter-war Palestine, Britain strove to accomplish institution building and attempted to square the circle between two communities who each believed Palestine belonged to them. Britain was accused of being pro-Arab and pro-Jew simultaneously and faced growing inter-communal violence, which culminated in the Arab Revolt (1936-9) against Jewish immigration and land purchases. By the end of the Second World War the Palestine Mandate had become costly politically, militarily and economically. In the 1944 US election both Republican and Democratic candidates supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The impact of the Holocaust and the refugee situation in Europe also gained the support of international opinion for a Jewish state. Within Palestine, British security forces had to deal with an increasingly perilous situation: a Jewish uprising against the British and widespread inter-communal violence.

In Palestine the competing strategic narratives pitted the victims of the Holocaust who had no alternative than to take up an insurgency against the country that stood in the path of saving the remnant of European Jewry, versus a Britain which was doing its best to achieve a political settlement in the interests of all the inhabitants of Palestine and in accordance with its international responsibilities.

Between 1945 and 1948 the British government tried to implement a long-term policy over Palestine which would preserve British political, economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, while influencing day-to-day decisions over the future of the Mandate. The government favoured an agreed solution to create an independent Palestine as a unitary state, which would guarantee British military facilities and maintain Arab goodwill, on which Britain’s general position in the Middle East was predicated. But there was no clear plan. Instead there were broad policy assumptions – that any settlement leading to independence had to be agreed, and agreed not just between Britain and the Arabs and Jews living in Palestine, but also a settlement that would be supported by the United States and states in the Middle East.

Domestic and International Opinion

Domestic opinion in Britain had to be convinced not to oppose the government’s efforts to reach a solution and that the sacrifices were worth it, but the main target audiences of British information efforts were abroad. British policy in Palestine had to reconcile the differing objectives and opinions of three constituencies: Arab, Jewish and American. Optimally, the information campaign sought to persuade each constituency to consider compromise rather than rigidly holding to its goals. Failing that, it tried to maintain Anglo-Arab and Anglo-American friendship by a damage limitation exercise. The prosecution of counter-insurgency on the ground therefore involved the security forces trying to hold the ring until a political settlement could be achieved.

The Political aim

Most counter-insurgency doctrine stresses the primacy of the political aim. In Palestine the British had a clear political aim: a settlement that was compatible with wider British strategic interests, the preservation of the Anglo-American relationship, and Britain’s position in the Middle East. This was not a clear political aim in narrative terms that could be articulated in a way that could have undermined the insurgency. Britain consistently presented herself as the ‘neutral’ arbiter and honest broker in dealing with this unwanted international responsibility. In reality Britain pursued its own national self-interest. It was not just having a clear political aim, but having one that was credible, that could be translated into a meaningful outcome and set of activities on the ground.

The government was conscious of the ingredients of a successful information campaign and attempted to conduct one, albeit with mixed results. Officials correctly understood both the insurgents’ aims and how they would exploit British vulnerabilities. British persuasion efforts urged the merits of compromise – that Palestine alone was not the answer to the problem of Jewish Displaced Persons, that Britain had responsibilities to two communities in Palestine, not just one, and that there should be a peaceful settlement of the issue rather than terrorist violence or criminal illegal immigration.

The problem was of the policy, not the information campaign. The tempo of the events on the ground was greater than the British ability to deal with them in a way that would ensure the British version of events dominated in the perceptions of what was occurring. Thus the British information effort was often on the defensive, reacting to events rather than proactively controlling how they would be received.

In terms of the battle for the dominant strategic narrative, Zionist ‘legitimacy’ beat the British honest broker. The insurgents made any British attempt to hold on to Palestine morally and economically unacceptable and it was impossible for the British to look good in the process.

Target audiences and agendas

Countering insurgency requires an end state that can be clearly articulated to all audiences and that can also be translated into a campaign on the ground. As Palestine shows us, this is made almost impossible if both or all the protagonists are of equal importance and have what are in effect zero-sum aims.

In Palestine the British identified key target audiences correctly. The regional audience was crucial. It was believed that British political, economic and strategic interests in the Middle East depended on the maintenance of Arab goodwill and the compatibility of British and Arab interests, particularly in the context of growing Arab nationalism across the region.

The Jewish audience in Palestine represented a population of nearly 600,000 and the active membership of insurgent underground organisations was approximately 45,000 in the Haganah, 1500 in the Irgun, and 300 in the Lehi. These numbers belie the real challenge that faced Britain. While the British information campaign sought to marginalise the insurgent extremists and build an alternative moderate majority, in practice for most of this period the distinction did not exist. This is not to say that all Jews supported the terror campaign, and indeed at times it was seen as counter-productive by the Jewish Agency. However, the British never really understood the nature of political Zionism and the general support for illegal immigration, the one thing that united the Jewish community. Again, the audience was correctly identified, but its agenda was misunderstood.

British public opinion was a less critical audience and no British election would ever be decided in the merits of the Government’s handling of Palestine. Where British press, public and parliamentary opinion did play an important role was as pressure on Britain to withdraw from Palestine because expectations raised by the information campaign were not met and the sacrifices made were questioned.

Again it was correctly identified that the US was the most important audience because it was the power broker with the power to either help or hinder Zionist aims. Britain tried to persuade the US to use its influence to get the Zionists to compromise. But Britain was vulnerable to American policy as she was dependent upon American economic aid.

Maintaining Legitimacy

If an insurgency is primarily a battle for legitimacy, an information campaign can only work if the legitimacy of the counter-insurgents can be successfully demonstrated and defended. This is why tactical mistakes such as acting outside the law or civilian casualties are own goals and a free gift to the insurgent’s information campaign, reinforcing perceptions of illegitimacy. Today it is recognised that a counter-terrorist strategy needs to be holistic, addressing both the causes and the symptoms of terrorism. But how do you address very real grievances without ‘delegitimising’ your own counter-insurgency strategy? In Palestine, denying Jews a state was not perceived to be internationally legitimate.


Information campaigns, influence and narratives are not new areas of activity. But they are difficult areas and even more challenging today because of the proliferation and immediacy of the media, sources of information and opinion. The limits of the information and strategic narratives need to be understood. A strategic narrative is not a substitute for policy. It will not succeed unless it is credible and supported by action and political will. While strong enough to withstand a temporary setback, it is not a panacea or an alternative to a strategy which is ill-conceived.

The target audiences for the counter-insurgent’s information efforts need to be thought through carefully, identifying whose perceptions count in the battle for legitimacy and who can materially affect the success or failure of the insurgency. An information campaign needs to be coherent, ideally a simple and credible ‘truth’ or ‘truths’ based on facts that can be transmitted and reinforced to all target audiences. It should support the wider political process, which in turn should reinforce the government’s credibility and reputation as the legal government, while the campaign should also undermine the insurgents by representing them as a criminal minority. Moreover, the campaign should persuade the wider international community that the state’s political aims are legitimate; its methods are both legal and moral; and that it is intent on promoting a political settlement that addresses the expectations of the moderate majority. This is the ideal, but information alone cannot deliver success. As the case study of Palestine shows, it is also easier said than done.

For more detail see the author’s, ‘Palestine 1945-48: Policy, Propaganda and the Limits of Influence’, in Greg Kennedy & Chris Tuck, British Propaganda and Wars of Empire: Influencing Friend and Foe 1900-2010 (Ashgate, 2014), pp.71-95

Image: British paratroopers enforce curfew in Tel Aviv following the King David Hotel bombing, July 1946 via wikimedia commons.

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?