My contribution in the excellent magazine Prospect to the public conversation in the UK last week about bombing Syria in the wake of this week’s parliamentary vote. It tries to explore what exactly kinetic military campaigns can do to counter terrroist oranization, using a few historical examples to outline some successes.
Will Bombing Ever Get Rid of Islamic State?
This week’s vote to bomb Syria brings to mind a question: can hard power destroy terrorist groups? While it often may not be able to completely eradicate the groups’ ideologies, hard power does have a role in countering terrorist organisations. Historically there have been a number of successes in using it to degrade and even destroy them. This success comes in three main forms: decapitation, eradication or targeted applied force. Yet while all three can cause a group to be substantially degraded, the reality is that often the underlying causes and problems remain, meaning that while the group can be temporarily displaced, it is often not completely destroyed.
The first approach is decapitation, whereby a terrorist group is struck in such a way that its leadership is eliminated. A prime example of this is the Shining Path group in Peru that in 1992 was dealt a deadly blow when its leader Abimael Guzmán was captured by Peruvian authorities. While in the immediate wake of the strike the group’s violence increased, over time the group degraded and gradually faded away. Elements linked to it mutated into a criminal organisation, but the group has now largely disappeared from public concerns.
The second approach is a razed-earth military campaign, destroying the group, its territory, and membership with no mercy or quarter. An example of this is the campaign waged by the Sri Lankan government after the breakdown of talks in 2006 with the Tamil Tigers which led to an aggressive military campaign and the defeat of the group in May 2009. Using an aggressive land and air war, the Sri Lankan government slowly pushed the group back until it was cornered and ultimately collapsed. Many thousands were captured, while others were killed with a few hardcore figures managing to flee the country. But since then, while the aspiration to freedom still remains amongst some Tamils, the organisation is no longer able to assassinate state leaders and control territory.
The final approach is a sharper touch, using aggressive bombing, remote drones and a special forces campaign. This model was deployed in the immediate wake of the attacks on September 11th, 2001 by the United States in Afghanistan to remove al Qaeda and the Taliban. While the initial campaign involved an aggressive push to crush the movement in Afghanistan, it led to al Qaeda largely shifting across the border in Pakistan’s badlands. Here, after some lag, the campaign continued—with an aggressive approach to targeting leadership cadres, support networks and disrupting supply lines and camps. This was undertaken using drones, intelligence assets and the occasional use of special forces. The result was a campaign that slowly drove core al Qaeda underground and led to the elimination of much of its senior leadership. While it did not eradicate the group, and its ideology has taken root in numerous other places around the globe, these days when people talk of the threat from al Qaeda, they tend to be talking about its many affiliates, rather than the core. This stands in stark contrast to the group in the mid-2000s when it was directing repeated large-scale plots against western targets from its base in Pakistan.
The important point is that in each of these cases, the groups and networks were not necessarily completely eradicated, but rather were squashed. In some cases the ideology continued to hold some attraction and sway elsewhere. This is an important detail to remember, as it highlights the fact that a hard power campaign is unlikely to be the complete solution to the problem of a terrorist organisation. It may appear a cliché, but it still holds that it is the hearts and minds of a population that need to be won if a terrorist ideology is to be permanently eradicated. So a long-term solution to the problems that a terrorist group is an expression of (that usually include a perception of grievance founded in bad governance and/or inequality, combined with individual sense of grievance), is also going to be required to ultimately make sure the group completely goes away. Nevertheless, a hard power response can considerably degrade a group’s capability and transform it into a very different problem.
There are two key lessons that need to be drawn from this for the current campaign against Islamic State (IS). The first is that decisive action is required if force is being used to deal with a group. It has to be a concerted and focused effort that does not let up until the group has been squashed. Second, the ideology usually does not also go away, but rather it mutates in other directions. This has already been happening to some degree with IS, and is likely to be accelerated if they lose their territory in the Levant, but nevertheless, the brand loses a great deal if it loses its heartland. The Tamil Tigers and Shining Path may still have some fanatical adherents, but they are unable to mobilise in the same way as before now the group has been so dramatically hit. Al Qaeda stands in a different rung given its affiliates’ and networks’ persistent ability to launch attacks globally in different contexts. But it is also the case that the push back on the group allowed IS to rise and in some ways occupy the space al Qaeda used to be in—a shift that was in part due to the heavy hammering that the core organisation took.
The final key point is that the true longer term success of these campaigns can only be secured if an equal soft power campaign is launched to win over the populations in the affected territories. Ultimately a terrorist group will only be removed from an environment if they are unable to have a supportive population to operate within. In all of the aforementioned cases, subsequent to the hard power responses, a concerted effort was made to win over populations and this helped reduce the permissive environment for the group. This is the key to long-term victory over IS—and in the Levant this means making Sunni populations currently living under the group’s thumb feel as though the alternative governments they have on offer are ones that represent them. A bombing campaign will help start to dislodge the group’s mystique and power, but a long-term strategy also needs to win over the population.