Small Wars Journal

Coca Cola, Allies and Terror

Sun, 12/13/2015 - 3:56pm

Coca Cola, Allies and Terror

Robert Murphy

“Purify your soul from all unclean things. Tame your soul. Convince it. Make it understand. Completely forget something called “this World.” Pray the supplication as you leave your hotel, when riding in the taxi and entering the airport. Pray the supplication before you step aboard the plane, and at the moment of death. Bless your body with verses of scripture. Rub the verses on your luggage, your clothes, your passport. Polish your knife with the verses, and be sure the blade is sharp; you must not discomfort your sacrifice.”

-Final instructions discovered in baggage of a 9-11 hijacker[i]

America’s approach to the threat of global terror has been one dimensional and strategically ineffective. We have slaughtered thousands of terrorist leaders and their adherents with staggering efficiency, yet have failed to be effective in destroying the beast that spawns them. This is because terrorism isn’t a global entity, it defies space and time by living in human imagination[ii]. We have neglected the philosophical underpinnings of terror that inspire hate because they are politically and socially unpopular to tackle. The conditions we either control or dismiss will determine if these ideas take root or turn into dust.

America must assault the ideologies of terror with the vigor and effort of the targeted assaults on Bin Laden and Al Zarqawi. The contemporary anti-terrorism strategy has largely been a military endeavor, and must expand to harness the power residing in American culture and intellect. Without an accompanying informational line of effort, resourced to provide a commensurate level of effectiveness, the military’s effort will be politically expedient and emotionally gratifying, but nothing else.

A new strategy must capitalize on the success of counter-terror (CT) operations through an increase the resources available to our CT organizations, who have proven themselves so effective at destroying near-term, existential terrorist threats. These threats are far more existential than those posed by threats best addressed by conventional forces. Therefore, defense budget prioritization must be oriented on enhancing CT readiness and capability. Relative to conventional warfare requirements, and given their limited scope, counter-terrorism organizations and their supporting entities are a cost effective means to protect ourselves, and deny the victories essential to terrorist recruitment.

This resource prioritization proposal is not, nor should be, a ‘this or that’ dilemma. This recommended prioritization does not advocate the complete siphoning of resources to conventional forces, but an adjustment based on a comparison of the frequency, likelihood and consequence of CT risks compared to conventional risks, and an assessment of which tools most successfully address them.

America’s assault on the ideologies that advocate terror begins with a sober assessment of our own activities to determine which are contributing to the expansion of terrorist ideology. America supports activities and regimes that fertilize otherwise dormant seeds of terror. We encourage harmful ideology through inaction and hypocrisy. We allow weeds to flourish in neglected corners of the earth and express surprise when they flower.

America allies itself and provides military support to nations like Saudi Arabia, whose ultra conservative, Wahabbist madrassas proliferate the globe and generate legions of fanatically anti-western youth[iii]. Pakistan, which encourages and sponsors many of these madrassas also explicitly organized and supported the Taliban, and likely continues to do so surreptitiously[iv].

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are relatively simple examples. Less flagrant examples include our support for governments in Africa, Central and South America and in Asia. The analysis of our policies toward foreign states and leaders must also account for the type of hypocrisy that contributes to resentment of America’s actions. Any legitimacy regarding our obsession with removing Assad from power in Syria is perverted  by our open support of totalitarian regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, most of the ‘stans, Chad, Rwanda, Uganda, to name a few[v].

Our inaction in preventing Iraqi sectarianism to divide their security forces largely negating any gains made in increasing their capacity and capability.  Our further inaction to stem the growth of ISIS, as they steamrolled their way through Mosul and Ramadi revealed our true reliability as security partners, simultaneously enhancing ISIS’ esteem among an Arab youth intrigued with the group, and discouraging the commitment of necessary security partners. At least we are consistent. The Shi’a and Kurds who rose up against Saddam after the first gulf war, and Ngo Dinh Diem can attest to that.

America also consistently chooses to ignore the places on our earth not illuminated by our immediate vital interests. Somalia, for example, got our attention as a hotbed of piracy and famine, but not to the extent that we appreciated it as fertile ground to raise Al Shabaab. So too the Philippines, where the conditions of weak centralized government control and a pre-existing Islamic militant group spawned Abu Sayyaf[vi]. Both Al Shabaab and Abu Sayyaf have succeeded in expanding terror beyond the boundaries of their remote bases.

Adjusting our foreign policy is not sufficient; America must weaponize its intellect and culture. We assume that our way of life is so good, it sells itself. This is cultural hubris and what proponents of critical thinking would label as mirroring. A kid growing up in one the Saudi funded madrassas in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area will need more than a Coke and Star Wars to pull him off the Quranic diet that has left him with a permanent rug burn on his forehead.

Our military has deployed anthropologic research teams to support an historically unimaginative attempt to win hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve discovered that tribal populations like clean water and electricity, conveniently forgetting that these same populations exist, and have existed without either. Having read volumes of Human Assessment Team reports[vii], one consistent theme appears; Americans ignore the unpleasant social truth that a majority of those we interact with in the world really don’t care about nor understand our focus on individual liberty and egalitarianism. Yet we are inspired and encouraged by the purple fingered goatherd in a form of perverse confirmation bias that has misdirected our intellectual energies.

We have a history of leveraging Hollywood, among others, to help sell what we offer. Our reluctance or inability to do so as a nation has resulted in an inappropriate and overwhelming demand on our military public relations efforts, who are restricted by law and by resourcing from producing content in the volume and quality required to win hearts and minds. Moreover, we’ve missed an opportunity to engage an ambivalent, yet powerfully influential segment of our society, as partners in this war.

It is evident that contemporary terrorists and their aspirants are voracious consumers of social media and online content[viii]. Whereas our military employs cyber operations to manipulate this content, it is also constrained by law[ix] and resources. A joint effort between our nations’ security apparatus, the entertainment industry, commercial marketing organizations and online service providers is a critical element to eroding support for the ideologies that inspire terror.

A well organized effort to identify the social and cultural entry points into a terrorist’s recruitment population, combined with the slickness produced by the entertainment industry’s marketing and production arms would undoubtedly help eradicate terrorism’s base.

Our special operators and their supporting cast are doing a magnificent job keeping the barbarians away from the gates, but the odds of eventual success are in the terrorists’ favor. Success for a terrorist is ridiculously easy; a bomb that explodes at the first layer of any security system is sufficient to generate intimidation.

America must build a team that augments preventative CT operations with smart foreign policy and an informational blitz that dilutes the philosophical pheromones that attract so many of the World’s youth to terror.

End Notes

[i]  Aslan, Reza (2009) How to Win a Cosmic War,  NY,NY: Random House

[ii] Contemporary radical Islamists, for example, are devoted to establishing an anachronistic Islamic society. Salfism’s very name attests to this. Socialist groups in Central and South America and Africa are similarly devoted to Marxist societies popular in the early 20th Century.

[iii] Richard Holbrooke,



[vi] The founders of Abu Sayaff, the Janjali brothers, among others, studied Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia in a seminary funded by the Saudi government.

[vii] Not always composed of Anthropologists, the HTT’s use of anthropology’s methodology was central to their operations. This author acknowledges the significant contributions HTT’s have made to our  awareness of attitudes towards operations, but made little impact in our strategic appreciation of what was necessary to secure the loyalty and respect of native populations. We must go beyond cultural guidebooks for our Soldiers.

[viii] Weimann, Ganriel (2015) Terrorism in Cyberspace: The Next Generation, Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Columbia University Press



About the Author(s)

Robert Murphy graduated from The Citadel with degrees in History and French. He graduated from the US Army’s Advanced Military Studies program, commanded an infantry company in combat, and served as the special assistant to the Commanding General, US Army Europe. He is a professional strategist.



Tue, 12/15/2015 - 11:37am

Our way of life may not have the same appeal it once had. In many countries we are now seen as a country of plutocrats, with the super rich pulling all the levers of control. In the interest of national and international security, we need to address the extremes of wealth that plague our economy.

I believe he's looking back at the WWII and early Cold War-era products produced by the film industry. But Hollywood's relationship with the government is far different now, and more importantly, what exactly is it we're trying to "sell"? A pretty consistent profile has emerged from recruits -- for one reason or another disillusioned and isolated, they're often looking for something bigger than themselves to give them direction. The extremists come in with the message, "submit to us, and we will tell you everything you need to know and do for glory and reward." Our message of individual freedom and implied responsibility and self-discipline does nothing for these folks.

Bill M.

Sat, 12/19/2015 - 12:00am

In reply to by Tropiccid

Thank you for the clarification. Your argument makes perfect sense now. As for Hollywood popular culture, there is at least two sides to that coin. I'm thinking of young rebels in West Africa who repeatedly watched Rambo, Terminater, and other such classics that influenced their behavior. That points to the power of Hollywood to shape behavior norms, so I think your ideas are worth pursuing.


Fri, 12/18/2015 - 2:29pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill, you correctly point out the failure of logic in my article. However, I'll say that failure is a result of poor organization as I wrote.

My perception of America's hubris has to do with the policies our government undertakes that are hypocritical, inconsistent or neglectful. Based on my extensive global travel and having lived the preponderance of my life overseas, I am convinced that American popular culture is as popular as ever. Between Hollywood, Apple and Disney I think we can find enough that is overwhelmingly appealing about America to boost our popularity among the world's youth, at least to the extent that they may balk at supporting our destruction. I think we can also offer an alternative, albeit commercialized, worldview to isolated populations who may believe that mysoginy, suicide bombing and other savage acts are the only acceptable norm.

So, to recap, we need to (1) boost our counter-terror capability to address near term threats, and support our long term strategy through (2)wiser, consistent foreign policy that doesn't foment hate for America and (3) leveraging the marketing and entertainment capabilities resident in the US, for which we have plenty of experience.

Thanks for your review!

Well written, but the logic was difficult to follow. The author first made valid comments on our cultural hubris, then suggests we leverage Hollywood to show those who may aspire to become terrorists what we have to offer? When it comes to cultural hubris on steroids Hollywood certainly comes to mind. Obviously I missed the author's intent.