Small Wars Journal

COIN in a Tribal Society

During a recent e-mail discussion concerning Iraq's tribal society William (Mac) McCallister provided several insights as well as a briefing presentation on his methodology for tribal structure analysis and a reading list for executing counterinsurgency in a tribal society. The reading list follows his e-mail.

I have been studying and working with various tribes in Iraq for the last four years plus and am currently serving as the "tribal" advisor for II MEF in Anbar. Concerning recent commentary on US forces as a "tribe" - it is old news as far as I am concerned.

We are and have been a major if not the major "tribe" for the last four years. Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, was referred to by Iraqi Sheikhs seeking an audience to pledge their loyalty and seeking patronage as the "Sheikh of Sheikhs" when they came to the palace in search of a meeting. I personally participated in coordinating a meeting with 400 Sheikhs and CPA officials for a traditional "tribal meeting" in Hillah four years ago.

We are engaged in a counterinsurgency in a tribal society. It has taken us four years to realize that we must execute operations within the existing cultural frame of reference. To quote T.E. Lawrence - Irregular warfare is more intellectual than a bayonet charge.

I've attached a reading list for executing counterinsurgency in a tribal society. Also attached is a PowerPoint brief that describes a methodology I developed on structure analysis to assist in gaining an appreciation for the operational environment.

The methodology is now in use in Anbar province and in the process of being "socialized" among the incoming MEF staff and commanders scheduled to replace the units currently serving in Anbar.

Reading List for Counterinsurgency in a Tribal Society

Researched and Compiled by William S. McCallister


The design and execution of a counterinsurgency campaign in tribal society must reflect the opponent's cultural realities, his social norms and conventions of war and peacemaking. The fight in Anbar province is a "clash of martial cultures" and reflects two divergent concepts of victory and defeat and "rules of play". The conventions of war and peace for both sides are based on unique historical and social experience and are expressed in each side's stylized way of fighting and peacemaking. The central tenet in the design and execution of counterinsurgency operations is that it must take into consideration an opponent's cultural realities so as to effectively communicate intent.

The study of the "tribal terrain" is a challenge. The reason - comprehensive research materials on Iraqi tribal organization, tribal diplomacy, and the art of tribal war and peacemaking are sparse. The majority of reading materials therefore are general and regional in nature and require "reading between the lines" to gain an appreciation for tribal organizing principles, cultural operating codes, and the tribal art of war and peace. The material is intended to assist the student of the tribal art of war and peace in developing an analytic structure for assessing personal experiences, observations and unit after action reports. The ultimate objective is to assist the warfighter in assessing the effectiveness of counterinsurgency tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) and cultural criteria to determine why certain approaches succeed or fail.

The reading list is organized into four major sections - Psychological Dimensions and Human Factors, Tribal Dynamics, the Arab Art of War, and Additional Readings.

Psychological Dimensions/Human Factors


The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer.

This book deals with some peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. Highlights certain essential characteristics which give all movements a family likeness.

Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies by Special Operations Research Office of the American University.

This book contains a detailed description of the organization and operations of underground movements with special attention to human motivation and behavior, the relation between the organizational structure of the underground, and the total insurgent movement.

The Multiple Identities of the Middle East by Bernard Lewis.

This book deals with the critical role of identity in the domestic, regional, and international tensions and conflicts of the Middle East today. It examines religion, race, and language, country, nation and state and shows how imported Western ideas such as liberalism, fascism, socialism, patriotism and nationalism influenced Middle Easterner's ancient notions of community, self-perceptions and aspirations.

Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq by Hanan Makiya.

This book describes how Saddam Hussein's "Ba'athist" Iraq was established, ruled and maintained by fear. The Ba'athist developed the politics of fear into an art form, one that ultimately served the purpose of legitimizing their rule by making large numbers of people complicit in the violence of the regime. The Iraqi Ba'athists were a wholly indigenous phenomenon, and the longevity of their rule can be understood only against the background of public acquiescence or acceptance of their authority. This book gives the reader an appreciation for the "ideology of violence" inherent in the numerous anti-Iraqi forces such as the 1920th Revolutionary Brigade and Iraqi insurgent groups affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQIZ).


A Theory of Fundamentalism: An Inquiry into the Origin and Development of the Movement by Dr. Stephen C. Pelletiere.

The New Totalitarians: Social Identities and Radical Islamist Political Grand Strategy by Dr. Douglas J. Macdonald.

Martyrdom Operations and Their Apocalyptic Imagery by Professor Charles Strozier and Fabienne A. Laughlin.

Tribal Dynamics

This section focuses on Iraqi tribalism, such as tribal organizing principles and the dynamics that coordinate and regulate the behavior of intra- and inter-tribal and state relations. The readings are intended to introduce and facilitate further study of the complex relationship between tribes and the central government. This section is divided into seven sub-sections; tribal organization (principles and cultural operating codes), concepts of shame and honor, tribal warfare (causes of and how the tribe organizes for war), Islamic rulings in warfare which form the basis for the conventions of tribal war, concepts of truce in Islamic sources, tribal diplomacy and patronage.

1. Tribal Organization


Tribes and Power: Nationalism and Ethnicity in the Middle East edited by Faleh A. Jabar and Hosham Dawod.

This book is a compilation of papers presented at the 1999 ICF sponsored "Tribes and Power" seminar conducted at the School of Politics and Sociology, Birkbeck College, London University. The reader will gain an appreciation for the "tribal factor" which has not only been strengthened but has become decisively manifest in Iraq. Saddam Hussein reinstated an already active tribal value system and their tribal networks in mobilizing allegiances and in an attempt to restructure modern political social institutions. Tribal networks have not only endured but have taken new and varied forms.

The Emergence of States in a Tribal Society: Oman under Sa'id bin Taymur, 1932-1970 by Uzi Rabi.

The author presents a historically detailed but theoretically nuanced study of the evolution of Oman under the leadership of Sa'id bin Taymur. The book details the creation of a Unified Tribal State, an administration that unified Oman while negotiating with powerful tribal forces within Omani society. This book provides the reader with a theoretical framework to structure U.S. military -- tribal relationships in Iraq.

Power Point Presentation

Tribal Analysis Strategy, Iraq by William S. McCallister.

2. Concepts of Shame and Honor


Honor: A History by James Bowman.

Research draws from a wealth of sources across many centuries to illuminate honor's curious history in Western culture. The author stresses that Western concepts of honor are different from that found elsewhere in the world.

Acquaintance with our own culture of honor is indispensable for understanding the tribal honor/shame culture of the Islamic world.

3. Tribal Warfare


Declaration of Tribal War by the Southern Confederation of Tribes.

The Iraq Insurgency: Anatomy of a Tribal Rebellion by William S. McCallister.

Victory in Iraq, One Tribe at a Time by Amatzia Baram.

The Role of Tribes at the Council on Foreign Relations website.

Strategic Implications of Communal Warfare in Iraq by W. Andrew Terril.

4. Islamic Rulings on Warfare


Islamic Rulings on Warfare by Youssef H. Aboul-Enein Sherifa Zuhur.

Just War: An Islamic Perspective by Imam Sayed Moustafa Al-Qazwini.

Islam and the Theology of Power by Khaled Abou El Fadl.

5. Concept of Truce in Islamic Sources


"The Concept of Hudna (Truce) in Islamic Sources" by Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway (Preliminary Article).

Rituals of Reconciliation: Arab-Islamic Perspective by George E. Irani and Nathan C. Funk.

6. Tribal Diplomacy


The Political Language of Islam by Bernard Lewis.

This book traces the development of Islamic political language from the time of the Prophet to the present and highlights the difference between Western political thinking and theory and clarifies the perception, on-going discussion, and practice of politics in the Islamic world.


The Code of Hammurabi translated by L.W. King.

Babylonian Law--The Code of Hammurabi by Claude Hermann Walter Johns.

Islamic Mediation Techniques for Middle East by George E. Irani.

Negotiating in the Bazaar by Moshe Sharon

Islamic Army in Iraq Pursues Strategy of Negotiation and Violence by Lydia Khalil.

Distrust Breaks the Bonds of a Baghdad Neighborhood in Mixed Area, Violence Defies Peace Efforts by Sudarsan Raghavan.

Important Islamic Terms, Concepts and Definitions at the Living Islam website.

7. Patronage


Hereditary Republics in Arab States by Brian Whitaker.

Legal and Judicial Reform in the Arab World: A Primer by Sharif Ali Zu'bi and Zeid D. Hanania.

The Arab Art of War

Arab insurgency history and theory draws on its own unique dynamic and historical experiences. An appreciation for our opponent's cultural perspective on insurgency warfare is key in tailoring our own counterinsurgency campaign. Three Arab insurgency models are of particular interest: Algeria, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Intifada. The inclusion of the "Battles of Islam" during the time of the Prophet Muhammad in this section is intended to give the reader an appreciation for the tribal warfare "ideal" and similarities to classical insurgency concepts. Also included in this section is the work of Sayyid Qutb, regarded as the architect and strategist in the development of modern Jihadi Salafi ideology. He has been cited as the figure that has most influenced the al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.


The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Conflict by Dilip Hiro.

This book details the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq conflict; the longest conventional war in the 20th century. The Iran-Iraq conflict was rooted in the competition and rivalry between Iran and Iraq going back to the days of the Ottoman Turkish empire (1517-1918) and the Persian empire under the Safavids (1501-1722). This book gives the reader a historical appreciation of present-day Iraqi politics and Iranian intervention in Iraq. The nature of this competition and rivalry remains unaltered, only the context in which it occurs has changed.

Milestones by Sayyid Qutb.

In true Salafi style, Qutb re-analyzed the Quran to draw inspiration for present day Jihadi Salafi ideology. He studied the methods the Prophet Muhammad and his jamaat (movement) used to realize their own jahili society. Sayyid Qutb believed that God had revealed his plan to Muhammad in a specific sequence (hence 'Milestones' or 'Signposts' on the Road), which the contemporary jamaat needs to follow if it is to restore the Muslim world to its past glory.


Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Algeria by Constantin Melnik (April 23, 1964).

Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency by Roger Trinquier.

Islamist Terrorism in Northwestern Africa: A "Thorn in the Neck" of the United States? by Emily Hunt.

The "Islamist Terrorism in Northwestern Africa" article introduces the Algeria based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)". The GSPC is a radical Algerian network, allied with al-Qaeda. Although relatively unknown in the United States, the GSPC represents one of the top terrorist threats in the northwestern corridor of Africa with connections in Europe, as well as aspiring militant groups in the United States.

Hezbollah (Power Point Presentation) by Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies (C.S.S.).

Hezbollah by Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies (C.S.S).

Hezbollah Command Leadership: It's Structure, Decision-Making and Relationship with Iranian Clergy and Institutions by Magnus Ranstorp.

An understanding of Hezbollah's structure provides a greater insight into the organization, function and roles of the Organization of the Martyr Sadr (OMS) and its military wing Jaysh al-Mahdi and its links to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah's External Support Network in West Africa and Latin America by Douglas Farah.

The Palestinian Intifada: An Effective Strategy? by James F. Miskel.

Hamas and Hezbollah: The Radical Challenge to Israel in the Occupied Territories by Dr. Stephen C. Pelletiere

Insurgency in Iraq: A Historical Perspective by Dr. Ian F.W. Beckett.

Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency by Dr. Max G. Manwaring

The Battles of Islam at the Official Classical Islam website.

Inclusion of this website is intended to promote the study of warfighting and diplomacy during Islam's formative years, as well as to encourage discussion as to the Prophet Muhammad's exploitation of insurgency tenets in Islam's ascendancy and defeat of larger, more powerful tribal confederations. Present day Salafist operations in Iraq and around the globe parallel Muhammad's strategy of conquest. A closer study of Osama Bin Laden's strategy and operations of al-Qaeda point to similarities with the Prophet Muhammad's exploitation of classical insurgency concepts. An appreciation for the linkages over time provides insight into the strategic blueprint, ideational foundations, policy choices, and tactics, techniques and procedures of the Salafist "Islamic State of Iraq".

Additional Readings

Tribal power is inversely related to the strength of the central government. When the central government is strong, tribal power is diminished. The core competencies of a functioning state are its military, police, civil service and judicial system. In a tribal society, when the central government is weak or non-existent and unable to fulfill its responsibilities, the tribal system will assume this function. The following articles are provided to assess the ability of local government to realize its core competencies and to monitor the strength of tribal power.


State Collapse and Ethnic Violence: Toward a Predictive Model by Pauline H. Baker and John A. Ausink.

Failed States, Collapsed States, Weak States: Causes and Indicators by Robert I. Rotberg.

War Making and State Making as Organized Crime by Charles Tilly.


William S. McCallister is a retired military officer. He has worked extensively in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. While on active duty, Mr. McCallister served in numerous special operations assignments specializing in civil-military, psychological and information operations. He is a published author in military affairs and tribal warfare and has guest lectured at Johns Hopkins University and presented numerous papers at academic and government sponsored conferences such as the Watson Institute, Brown University; Department of the Navy Science and Technology and DARPA; and the Central Intelligence Agency. He has also appeared as a guest on National Public Radio (NPR). Mr. McCallister is currently employed as a senior consultant for Applied Knowledge International (AKI) in Iraq. He continues to study current events in Iraq in tribal terms, including the tribal art of war and peace, tribal mediation processes, development of tribal centers of power, and tribal influence in political developments. He has applied his study of tribal culture in assessing Iraqi reconstruction efforts, as well as insurgency and counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and the Global War on Terror.


An excellent briefing and a very good reading list. My compliments to Mr. McCallister! I would suggest, however, that while this is excellent for Iraq and some other parts of the Muslim world, he may want to broaden the reading list out somewhat to include other potential areas of conflict which are not primarily Islamic, but are tribal. The following works, while somewhat out of date, may be useful.

Max Gluckman,
1965 Politics Law and Ritual in Tribal Society
1966 Custom and Conflict in Africa

E.E. Evans-Pritchard
1969 The Nuer