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.