A Quick Note on Religion and Insurgency

In reply to Dave Kilcullen's post on religion and insurgency:

The problem is that the insurgency in Iraq and elsewhere is fueled, if not based on an Islamic jihad. The element most intransigent and so far impervious to counter methods is the suicide bomber who believes that he goes to heaven for killing men, women and children in the name and the cause of an extreme religiosity.

The counterinsurgency (COIN) manual was based on selective abstracts from past insurgencies that were at base political movements, where the allegiance of the people could be swayed by one side or the other. In Iraq, no Sunni is going to convert and become a Shiite, or vice versa. Granted, the Baathists behind the curtain believe they can manipulate the jihad extremists, but AQI has displaced them as the field leaders. And AQI does intend a caliphate based on its interpretation of religion.

The COIN manual was based on a different model, one that does not apply to the root cause of the insurgency - a radical religion whose adherents are not susceptible to having their hearts or minds won over.

Many of the TTPs in the COIN manual do apply. But no country has written the manual for eradicating the virulent disease of Islamic jihad based on a twisted interpretation of religion, God and the kingdom of heaven.

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I have to agree with the polite and reasonable Mr. Kilcullen.

As was taught to me, counterinsurgency is about creating a situation where the members of the community can give themselves permission to first trust your motives and then support your activities. It matters not wether their motivation is political or religious.

I think Anbar is an example of how "God can switch sides."

This comes from an April 4, 2007 story by Bing West and Owen West:


Imagine the surprise of the veteran Iraqi battalion last November when a young sheik, leader of a local tribe outside Ramadi, offered to point out the insurgents hiding in his hometown. 'We have decided that by helping you,' he said, 'we are helping God.'

"For years, the tribes had supported the insurgents who claimed to be waging jihad. Now, citing the same religion, a tribe wanted to switch sides. Col. Mohammed, the battalion commander, accepted the offer. 'The irhabi (terrorists) call themselves martyrs. They are liars,' he said. 'I lost a soldier and when I pulled off his armor, there was the blood of a martyr.'

You can find more in this post: http://prairiepundit.blogspot.com/2007/04/god-switcheds-sides-in-anbar.html

The art in Iraq is separating the True beleivers" of al Qaeda from Iraqis who can be persuaded that there is a better way.

Dave can you communicate a bit about the alternatives people have instead of signing up to Jihad?

Who else in Iraq is selling futures?

Bing, these are all good points, but let me give you a few datum points --

I dont doubt that some AQI/AAS members, and other members of neo-Salafi groups are relatively more immune to traditional hearts and minds than some previous insurgents. But in point of fact many countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia) have had considerable success in de-radicalization and de-programming this type of extremist. So it may be that hearts and minds requires a significantly different approach from the "bread and circuses" style of the 1960s, but it still seems to work if done right. Treating these people as irredeemable just encourages them to fight to the death. Like any other human being, they respond to a psychological "out" with weakened resolve.

Moreover, as you know yourself, pan-Islamic neo-Salafi groups like AQ are numerically an extremely small component of the opposition here. The vast majority (more than 90%) of fighters are not Salafis. For example, three of the leading Sunni insurgent chiefs, Abdullah Janabi, Ibrahim Izzat al-Duri and Harith al-Dari, are not salafi at all but Sufis with close Baathist connections both before and after the invasion. All were members of the fedayeen Saddam and linked through sufi brotherhoods (tarikh) rather than being AQ-oriented. Nowadays, they talk the talk as a means of mobilizing support. But they fight for a return to their position of power and privilege, not for religious ends as such.

Most insurgent leaders belong to the old oligarchy. Behind the curtain of religiously-named "front" organizations is a network of individuals with links back to the old establishment, who call the shots. Tribal shuyukh are key here, and while the salafists served their purpose they treated them as useful idiots. Now the tribes realize AQ are leading them on a path to destruction, this has changed rapidly.

Also, in fact, Iraqis actually do change sects relatively frequently. Here is an extract from a recent study by an Iraqi expert: "Many tribal leaders determine the branch of worship for their members... changing from one sect to another among Iraqis does not require anything else besides declaration of intent and following the practice of the new sect. The sectarian conversion has taken place all the time in Iraq and has been a common practice for people to become Sunni when moving to live in a prominently Sunni areas or vice versa."

Thus, while some salafis may be immune to traditional hearts and minds, and many Iraqis will obviously respond much more favourably to overtures from other Iraqis than from foreigners, religious identity is neither fixed nor particularly fanatical.

This is not a true jihad and we need to be extremely careful to avoid giving these ex-Baathist mafiosi a free kick by subscribing, consciously or otherwise, to their propaganda.