Wednesday, 25 February 2015

John Key and the fight against Islamic terrorism 3.0

Prime Minister John Key on Tuesday confirmed New Zealand defence personnel will deploy to Iraq to assist in an international effort against Islamic State (IS) and to help civil reconstruction in the country.

The upper limit of deployment time in Iraq, according to Mr Key, is set at two years and the government will revisit that everry nine months. He said New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel will not engage in combat inside Iraq. Instead the NZDF mission will consist largely of training local security forces and facilitating provincial reconstruction in recaptured regions of Iraq.

NZDF will operate on the border of Salahaddin and Baghdad provinces where Australian and US soldiers and support staff are already assisting in other non-combat roles. Mr Key also confirmed that New Zealand’s Special Air Service will not deploy under the broader US-led Operation Inherent Resolve command structure.

It would partially be a mistake to characterise the government’s announcement as a commitment of New Zealand troops to a war. The environment NZDF will enter is not a war in the conventional sense; it is more complicated.

The NZDF will be operating in a failed nation-state, in the middle of a religious conflict, implicitly on behalf of one sect of that religion, reporting to a government with more affinity to a neighbouring country than its own, fighting against a non-state militant group operating largely from another neighbouring country and as part of an international coalition of which no two partners share the same goals for the conflict.

This is modern conflict. The campaign in Iraq against Islamic State is part of a new form of warfare in which conventional forces assist local governments in building capabilities to defend against a union of international terrorist groups with transnational criminal syndicates.

The trick will be in figuring out how to fight these groups in specific, legally defined geography. Non-state actors such as IS do not recognise international norms. Short of declaring the abolition of borders to chase a highly mobile enemy around the world, developed countries will struggle to declare decisive victory unless the underlying causes of unrest are addressed.

New Zealand’s recent military history of building rapport with local forces ideally suits it for the complexities of Iraq. The crucial factor for New Zealand’s deployment will be in maintaining a distance from the military actions of the coalition. Local Iraqis will divide those countries killing the Islamic State from those assisting only in humanitarian and reconstruction efforts.

Mr Key’s decision to limit New Zealand’s deployment to a non-combat role is wise, but is only possible because of the choices made by the US to shoulder the bulk of the combat responsibilities.

That the Islamic State acts barbarically is certainly true but it is a poor reason to militarily intervene in another nation. Plenty of militant groups are barbaric but get no attention from international coalitions.
Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria

However, Mr Key’s rationale that fighting IS will help limit its worldwide spread has merit. The group already considers itself a pseudo-nation state and is attempting to delegitimise the states inside which it operates.

Syria is now a country only in the sense that it exists on maps. But the maps will change. In a sense, the government in Baghdad is similar as the country represents a loose collection split along religious and ethnic lines. Given the upheaval in the region over the past 20 years, Syria and Iraq are in the early stages of transition to new representative forms. Both may still occupy seats at the UN in the short term but will fundamentally alter over the long term.

Those transitions will be dangerous and bloody. When a nation state transitions, the central authority of the country often dissolves. This creates a vacuum into which non-state actors such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State arise. What worries strategic planners in Washington and Wellington is not so much the threat these groups pose to local populations as it is the danger of allowing IS safe havens to plan and conduct attacks against transnational targets.

Both Syria and Iraq are teetering on the edge of becoming staging grounds for non-state actors as Afghanistan was and Somalia and Yemen still are. What Mr Key is trying to achieve is the stability of Iraq’s central government. A collapse of Iraq’s government would be directly detrimental to New Zealand’s security.

Mr Key also chooses an opportune time to join the fight against the Islamic terrorism. We are now a long way from the first iteration of transnational Islamic terrorism. The present jihadist movement will offer more observable success for the New Zealand government’s military effort, even if fighting it won’t fix the underlying problems. The evolution of Islamic terrorism has developed through three distinct phases over the past decade.

Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda Prime, pre-2001, can be considered Islamic terrorism 1.0. The group was cerebral, patient, theological and rigid. It practiced highly sophisticated operational security. It was relatively well-funded but did not possess high income flow.

Al Qaeda Prime also did not have a goal to form its own nation state, instead focusing on destabilising Arab states and attacking the “far enemy” of Western nations. The group was small with high mobility, confounding the efforts of Western intelligence for years until after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Islamic terrorism 2.0 was a natural evolution following the degradation of al Qaeda Prime. US and coalition forces broke the jihadist group but also scattered its ideology. Franchise al Qaeda groups subsequently appeared in Somalia, Yemen, Algeria, Nigeria and elsewhere. Linking the franchise groups was the ideology of jihad but that is where it stopped. Very rarely could franchise groups conduct al Qaeda Prime-style transnational attacks, even if they wanted to. They all announced global ambitions but their true focus was regional.
Spread of jihadist phases

Islamic terrorism 2.0 is also characterised by the encouragement of grassroots attacks. It introduced into the movement the leveraging power of social media. As the first decade of the 21st century wore on, the ability to use the internet gave franchise al Qaeda groups a direct line to disseminate propaganda and instructions.

The result was a sharp uptick in small attacks across the world. But this increase in jihadist attacks was offset by a decreasing efficacy and operational success as greater numbers of passionate but incompetent terrorists heeded the call to action.

The current transition is toward Islamic terrorism 3.0 embodied by the Islamic State. The influence of al Qaeda’s message is dissipating. Both al Qaeda and IS use Islam as a political ideology with a utopian goal of converting the entire world. IS sees itself as the usher of Islamic armageddon and will do anything to reach that utopia, whereas al Qaeda considered attaining that utopia a distant goal. IS has built on al Qaeda’s groundwork by attracting the fervour of a new generation of sympathisers.

Islamic terrorism 3.0 is also less about transnational terrorism than it is about militancy and the administration of a pseudo-state. To IS, al Qaeda is its grandparents' jihadist organisation. The battle for influence between al Qaeda and the Islamic State is in controlling the hearts and minds of Sunni Muslims. Al Qaeda and its franchise groups are unlikely to disappear soon but it has been left in the dust.

IS will be easier to degrade than al Qaeda because it presents itself as a semi-conventional target. Battle damage will be relatively simple to assess with exploded tanks and dead fighters. But IS will prove to be impossible to destroy just as al Qaeda was. The New Zealand government should therefore emphasise its focus is on stabilising the Iraqi government. Should the Iraqi government exist after the two-year deployment, Mr Key will be able to boast measurable success.

However, the effort to uphold the Iraqi government may be ethically questionable for many New Zealanders. Already the Iraqi government has drawn criticism from international bodies for its treatment of Sunni citizens after the government recently retook the Diyala province close to where the New Zealand forces will be based.

According to reports, government troops committed atrocities, raising sectarian tensions. The central government remains highly unpopular in northern Sunni-dominated Iraq because it is largely controlled by Shiites. Also, Iran is widely suspected to be manipulating the government of Iraq.
Control of terrain [Syria]: Islamic State (black),
Regime (red), Rebels (green), Kurds (Yellow)

The deployment of NZDF to Iraq will appear to be an implicit support of Shiites over Sunnis. Mr Key’s wish to position a diplomatic contact in Baghdad for communication could be viewed by Iraqis as New Zealand’s legitimisation of the current Shiite government. This will complicate the process of reconciliation and reconstruction in Iraq, hopefully not significantly.

Ultimately the realities in Iraq must be changed. For those people already committed to IS, the immediate strategy for the coalition is to remove them from the battlefield. This means killing or capturing them. The longer they can plan and prepare, the worse the security situation becomes for the world. This is the central lesson of the War on Terror.

The US and its allies has become extremely good at removing high-level terrorists and militants from the battlefield. The most dangerous job on the planet is now a second- or third-tier Islamic jihadist leader. But where the West has been less effective is in affecting the production rate of those people wishing to kill innocents in five, seven or ten years’ time.

Unless the coalition in Iraq change the conditions on the ground, it will be killing people forever. It must work with friendly governments in the region to boldly take on the issues that create groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

This task will be difficult but it will be crucial to ending this fight. What confounds this task is the fundamental differences between the Islamic world and the West. Simply put, the two worldviews have no common language with which to discuss the divide due to radically divergent histories. Stopping Islamic terrorism 4.0 will be largely impossible from the outside. The true change drivers must be local.

New Zealand’s approach represents part of the way forward. It must support and facilitate the fledgling reformative ideas in the Islamic world, no matter how tentative. The government in Iraq may be riven by sectarian and religious divisions but, importantly, it has retained a facade of democracy despite great pressure.

That achievement is rare in a region dominated by monarchies and authoritarian regimes. Egypt is also championing influential Islamic clerics and scholars who wish to reinterpret the central tenets of Islam to better fit with modernity.

New Zealand’s fight against Islamic terrorism is presently wisely structured. Unless changes occur in Iraq, its contribution will simply advance an evolution to Islamic terrorism 4.0. Right now, it’s all about turning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. But that will be an enormously difficult task.

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