Small Wars Journal

Where We're Good

Where We're Good:

Why violent extremist organizations don't really operate with impunity

by Greg Grimes

A great deal of ink has been spilled on highlighting the difficulties in fighting global extremist movements, organizations that seem frustratingly amorphous and intractable. We know who the bad guys are; why are we having such trouble eliminating them? The recent extermination of Osama bin Laden makes it a good time to point out how much we do have working in our favor.

We won't defeat violent extremism directly; it will be defeated by the combined influence we have over the conflict ecosystem. In fact, the constellation of governments that care about defeating extremism exert a great degree of influence through their ability to shape that ecosystem. Like anyone, extremists have to function within the constraints of their environment and many of those constraints are imposed by us, the counter-extremist (CE) forces. These environmental shapers are most easily seen in actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the concepts apply globally. Extremists are forced to devote a great deal of energy and resources to overcoming environmental obstacles that the counter-extremists control. While none of these elements are new, they speak to the inter-relatedness and complexity of the counter-extremism effort. It is also recognized that this assessment highlights only a handful of elements, but they are valid and powerfully impactful.

Travel. CE forces control ease of movement through border restrictions and documentation. Crossing at an official border station is perilous for the extremist whose face is on the wanted posters. Modern biometric security measures are easily applied, even in infrastructure-challenged environments like Iraq and Afghanistan. The extremist takes a great risk in attempting to cross borders at official checkpoints, a difficulty that forces them into arduous border penetrations that are often physically challenging or require negotiating jealously guarded private or tribal lands. The risks are magnified the further they travel and the more borders they must cross. Once the extremist moves out of the home turf where he enjoys some degree of protection, movement risks exposure. This applies to movement of every sort, including airports, trains, etc., and it applies to intra-country and international movement as well.

Communication. Much has been of the fact that Osama bin Laden completely gave up the use of cell phones and radios, resorting to personal couriers for his communications. It is no secret that the US and many allies have the ability to intercept virtually any electronic emission and track it down. Extremist's find themselves having to juggle disposable phones and laptops at best, unable to establish an electronic communications network with confidence. We, the CE's, can bring this scrutiny to bear on any target we choose. In effect, we completely control the airwaves in the extremist's environment. The mere awareness of our capabilities in this arena forces the extremist to lose out on the advantages of common electronic communication.

Media. Much has also been made of Al Queda's effectiveness in publicizing their cause in the global media. Yet they face the same problem that we do: they, too, have no ability to counter the opposition's (our) message. They are not able to prevent the release of news that their bombs, yet again, killed more Muslim women and children than infidel soldiers. The extremist cannot control the press any better than we can. However, we have the advantage of credibility through repetition. After seeing it enough times in enough different places, people begin to accept that at least the U.S. doesn't plant bombs in mosques and indiscriminately blow up civilians. Their inability to control any message but their own incurs the same 'disadvantage' on them as it does us.

Information Sharing. Our freedom to move and exchange information is an enormous advantage. We have an unparalleled collection, analysis and transmission structure that allows cross-analysis and fusion of collection efforts. Electronic analysis of the many varied streams of information we're able to collect is so advanced as to be inconceivable to the extremists. Better yet, our information can be moved and shared in near real-time.

Collaboration. The governments and agencies that make up the counter-extremist structure all have some degree of shared interest in stopping these violent organizations. Though motivations may vary significantly, from preserving human life and rights to merely preserving an existing rulership, the CE's do have enough common ground for cooperation. The interest in defeating extremism allows armies and police forces to be brought to bear, for governments to collectively focus their unwelcome glare on targeted organizations.

Funding and Resources. This is probably our greatest advantage. No extremist network can compare with our depth of men, money and materiel. Depth of resources is what really allows us to keep the pressure on, to operate with true persistence. It's costly to field the effort, but we have the ability and the will to do so. As for funding, the extremist has to either deal with an international financial system that has very few dark corners left, or resort to other methods of moving funds that are costly, inefficient or restrictive. Physically moving currency is difficult; money is heavy and bulky. Electronic transactions of any sort can be tracked. Moving value in the form of commodities (cars for resale, real estate, etc.) has its own logistical headaches. Inability to freely use the international banking system is a tremendous limitation for the extremists.

Ultimately the counter-extremists dictate much of the extremist's operational environment. The obstacles that we, the CE's, shape into that operational environment sap energy, funding and manpower. The consistent effort required to overcome these obstacles erodes the extremist's momentum. We recognize that corruption, inefficiency and simple cultural differences among the CE's interfere with a perfectly seamless integration of our advantages. But even a less-than-perfect effort at these shapers greatly disadvantages the extremists. Terrorist or insurgency movements, like any organization, seek efficiency of effort; forcing them onto the most inefficient pathways ingrains waste, miscommunication, delay and frustration into their organization. In contrast, we have the key advantages of depth of resources, freedom of movement of resources and information, and multi-national/multi-lateral support.

The death of violent extremist groups comes from slow strangulation, not from any single strike. No single factor described above will stop extremist organizations but, taken together, they hobble and exhaust them. This is the essence of our current graywar : a sustained effort at tamping down the low-grade fever of extremism until it is extinguished. It doesn't hurt to remind ourselves that we have some significant advantages in an otherwise frustrating fight.

COL Greg Grimes is assigned to the Joint Irregular Warfare Center of USJFCOM.


Ken White (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 10:41pm

Xin Loi. The 9:29PM is my timed-out entry...

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 10:29pm

<b>Eugnid:</b><blockquote>"...old mistakes are repeated as if they were never learned."</blockquote>Oh, the mistakes were learned alright -- that's why they're being repeated.

As occurs in every generational change -- and every war. No sweat. After the first couple, you get used to it... :>

Also ponder the ego bit; the one that says "I'm smarter so that would not happen to <i>me</i>" or "If <i>I</i> had been in charge, there would have been none of that..." ;)

That ego thing has killed more American in more wars than any enemy. It also points out all the flaws of others as a default operating mode. Until we can tune egos, those drills will unfortunately continue.

Eugnid (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 7:19pm

I've just been going over hundreds of Vietnam documents and am stunned at how old mistakes are repeated as if they were never learned. Where's the progress?

Bill C. (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 5:41pm

Should we be discussing a "conflict ecosystem" in which a conflict exists between these two parties:

a. The foreign intervening power who, through its employed and supported host-nation government, is attempting to (1) do away with the previous governing and social arrangements of the society (the status quo) and (2) institute a new political, economic and social order in its place; one that, if adopted, would offer fewer problems for and more utility to the foreign intervening power and its partners.


(2) An insurgency consisting of individuals and groups who feel threatened and alienated by these new and unwanted political, economic and social arrangements -- that have been determined for them by others. Herein, on this side of the wire, we also find much of the general population who, likewise, disagrees with these foreign-led initiatives; as the strength, vibrancy and staying power of the insurgency makes unmistakably clear.

Herein, one might suggest that, in these circumstances, it is the insurgency that holds the clear and distinct advantage -- and not the government -- in that the it is the insurgency's purpose that is more in keeping with the wants, needs and desires of the general population.

Thus, should we come to understand that in these circumstances also (insurgencies) -- as in other venues of "war" -- the will of the subject population will often have to be overcome by an extensive and unrelenting expenditure of time, blood and treasure; in that these populations, also, are unlikely to give up their freedom, their independence and their uniqueness (and succumb to "transformation" and "incorporation" at the hands of the foreign intervening power) without a substantial fight.

Thus, what we appear to not fully understand is: What the foreign intervening power may offer (the "chains" of modernity, connectivity and dependence upon the foreign power and its system) may be viewed by the general population of these nations as being of considerably less value than that which the it (the population) presently perceives that it already has (to wit: freedom, independence, and uniqueness).

Bottom line: Thus, we should not expect the population to be willing to make the trade (what we want them to have for what they value more) unless we are prepared to compel them by force of arms to do so. Other "convincing" methods would seem less likely to work.


Fri, 05/13/2011 - 7:29pm

The article's sub-title is 'Why violent extremist organizations dont really operate with impunity' almost defies belief. Yes, the 'environmental shapers' apply globally and to far more organizations / movements etc than violent extremist organizations (VEO).

Try substituting known criminal organizations for the VEO that have continued to operate, many with remarkable resilience and profitability. You would reach a very different conclusion.

Nor do you need to look far - cocaine suppliers to the USA for example. Or the global movement of 'dirty' money, which continues to flow whatever the rhetoric of state control.

Returning to VEO, how about applying the model to the Greek November 17th group, which survived for so long? Or the better known groups ETA In Spain and PIRA in Ireland / UK which were active internationally.

Nor should we overlook VEO activity in those parts of the global where the impact of the electronic era is minimal and modernity to use a simple label exists. Take the LRA in Uganda and vicinity as the example.

Finally this lack of modernity would have applied to Afghanistan until relatively recently and still does to some observers.

Bob's World

Fri, 05/13/2011 - 3:48pm

"Extremists are forced to devote a great deal of energy and resources to overcoming environmental obstacles that the counter-extremists control."

Thank god the "counterextremists" have not had to devote a great deal of energy and resources as well! I think it is safe to say we spend well over a million for every dime spent by the "extremists."

(Ok I used to think that "VEO" was the silliest, term in rampant usage by the West. A bit a name-calling that avoids why these organizations feel compelled to act out in ilegal ways for disagreeing with a status quo that has been determined for them by others. Now I can put "counterextremist" down as the new word at the top of that list, right next to "conflict ecosystem.)

And for what it worth, I am having a hard time to think of any insurgency in the course of recorded history where the government did not hold the advantage as well in all of these areas, like "never losing a battle" in Vietnam, such advantages are largely moot. The insurgent at the national level, or the "violent extremist" at the neo-international level need not have an advantage in any of these areas to prevail.

Such advantages are not how one wins or loses in such conflicts; it is the one who wins the competition for the support of the populace. Once the populace resumes control of governance, such conflicts typically calm down fairly quickly. Fancy new titles for ageless dynamics don't help much either. Sorry. feeling a bit cynical today. I've been working at SOCOM again and they are using these same conventions and I just can't see how they help do much more than support our own self-rationalization that we are the "good guys."