Confusing a “Revolution” with “Terrorism”
Eric C. Anderson
That the world should be so simple Washington could “bin” offshore challenges in a small set of categories that expedite planning and policy options. The Cold War dichotomy made life in the Pentagon a much simpler affair. You were either “communist” or you were not. In the wake of Gorbechev’s failure, you were a “rogue” state, or not. Osama Bin Laden only served to further add a category, “terrorist,” or not. This dichotomous sorting process made it relatively easy to explain policy options to the American electorate and direct the expenditure of taxpayer blood and treasure. Iraq, “rouge,” Afghanistan and all things al-Qaeda “terrorism.” Respond appropriately. Iraq meant deployment of large conventional force and time spent with boots on the ground. Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, pin-point targeting and late night visits to remote locales with black helicopters and US Special Forces. But what happens when the problem does not fit into the bins?
Welcome to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), otherwise known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State.[i] The new caliphate—Washington’s latest “terrorist.” Pull out the drones, tag the troops who can arrive without drawing attention, and fly 2,700 sorties in 30 days. Mission achieved. Well, maybe not.
What happens when your “terrorist” has 30,000 armed recruits, is occupying territory the size of West Virginia and has proclaimed an ideology that includes establishing a formal government with an identified constituency and offers a school curriculum? What does it mean when they control the regional wheat supply, are poised to do the same with fresh water, and essentially own the electric power grid? Are they still “terrorists”?
Webster might have thoughts to the contrary. I certainly do.
The ability to challenge an existing regime with an organized armed force, focused on sustained operations, occupying terrain and imposing a new government might be more appropriately declared a “revolution.” And requires a very different response than rooting out “terrorists.” Ask King George. Ask Louie the 16th. Ask Batista. Ask the former Shah of Iran.
Revolutions are hard. They do not succumb to link-analysis—find your individual adversaries via who they communicate with—or precision strike. A movement with thousands of men and women under arms is not terrorism that can be rooted out by flying remote control missions with armed, unmanned airframes from Nevada or Idaho. This requires a “presence,” and not one that is “rented”—see the Hessians—but rather is ready for a sustained engagement that demonstrates a willingness to die in the name of preserving a competing ideology. Welcome to Iraq and Syria. Welcome to Yemen and Mali. Welcome to Somalia and Nigeria. It appears we are on the cusp of a brave new world that will make your skin crawl unless medieval judicial standards were a ready practice in the adjacent neighborhood. And Washington is seemingly unwilling to embrace this new reality.
Not that one can blame decision makers for seeking the most cognitively straightforward assessment. The human mind is, in most cases, attuned to avoiding complexity and employing proven solutions. We seek familiar patterns and recoil when things deviate from the expected. Newspapers call this “headlines.” In the Intelligence Community it is called “indications and warning,” a means of preparing the policy maker or war fighter for events that might not turn out as desired. Welcome to ISIS.
That is to say, we are witnessing an evolution in the threat environment confronting the U.S. Intelligence Community, policy makers, and war fighters. The terrorism-focus that largely predominated in our campaign against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Sunni uprisings in Iraq is being outpaced by a transition in many of these organizations’ modus operandi. In the case of certain al-Qaeda elements—particularly al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In each of these cases the primary focus no longer appears random acts of terror intended to disseminate a message that otherwise might be ignored or forgotten. These groups, and very specifically ISIS, have stepped from terrorism into revolutionary movements. That is to say, they are busily engaged in the process of seizing territory, establishing a form of governance, implementing a new ideology, and brutally putting an end to opposition and the old regime.
One could argue we are witnessing a return to the French Revolution—a violent uprising that may give way to Robespierre’s “Reign of Terror”—in this case the imposition of a draconian version of Sharia law. Just as the monarchies of Europe were not prepared for the “new” France, despite having witnessed the American colonialists break with Great Britain, we now contend the U.S. National Security apparatus is not recognizing the implications of powerful entities willing to declare the rise of a new caliphate. This is a problem—unlike terrorism—that cannot be addressed with the intellectual tools or kinetic options that seemingly succeeded in decapitating Bin Laden’s vision for al-Qaeda.
To explain the depth of this problem and facilitate an understanding of the type of organizations emerging in this new threat environment, this text will focus on the rise of ISIS by outlining the events that gave rise to its formation, examining its ideology and governance strategy, and then turning to a consideration of its potential courses of action. In accomplishing that task we also hope to lay out the implications for the U.S. intelligence, policy, and war fighting communities. Ultimately, the goal is to make clear we are witnessing the rise of new non-state actors who appear to have little interest in observing the dictates of, or even maintaining, the Westphalian system that shaped existing international mores and modes of behavior.
A Brave New World?
The U.S. national security apparatus periodically needs a call to heed the sea changes taking place within the Westphalian “system.” In the opening round of the Cold War it was George Kennan’s long cable from Moscow, subsequently published under a pseudonym in Foreign Affairs. Kennan’s argument that: “The possibilities for American policy are by no means limited to holding the line and hoping for the best. It is entirely possible for the United States to influence by its actions the internal developments, both within Russia and throughout the international Communist movement…”gave rise to the policy of “containment” and led to a U.S. Intelligence Community, Defense Department and national security strategy suited to the perceived greatest danger—Moscow’s global ambitions.[ii]
Kennan’s ideas had greater staying power than even the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—the term “containment” periodically appears in Chinese literature evaluating Washington’s approach to Beijing’s reappearance on the global stage—but was poorly suited for the world that emerged during the 1990s. So, seemingly, was the U.S. national security collective. The Intelligence Community shed employees and went in search of a mission; the Defense Department worried a threat of suffering deep budget cuts; and, politicians sought to realize a “peace dividend” in the face of an apparently much more benign threat environment. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda would bring an end to that perceived erosion in attention, capabilities and policymaker imagination.
Arguably, the next fundamentally formulative document for the national security community as a whole was the 9-11 Commission Report. In a document totaling 585 pages, the report’s authors called for a new national security strategy, a revision of the Intelligence Community’s operating procedures—to include establishing a Director of National Intelligence—and a press for the policy makers to seek greater unity in their efforts. Broad ambitions, but for a nation engaged in a Global War on Terror,” a clarion call that resulted in significant changes.
The 9-11 Commission Report, in many senses as aspirational as Kennan’s work, created a national security apparatus that seemed to be remarkably adept at defeating terrorists before they could execute attacks on the homeland. It also appeared to lend cohesion to National Security Council deliberations that facilitated a “whole of government” approach to addressing al-Qaeda and other untoward actors who came to the fore in Afghanistan and Iraq. What it did not do, however, is prepare the Intelligence Community, policy makers, or war fighter for the emergence of non-state revolutionary entities with the ability to seize large swaths of territory—think of ISIS in Syria and Iraq or AQIM in Mali.
This article will attempt to start that conversation. While I harbor no delusion of being as smart as George Kennan nor as broadly staffed or experienced as the 9-11 Commission, it now is time to begin the intellectual transition away from the War on Terrorism and turn to the threat of increasingly powerful non-state actors that could begin redrawing national boundaries and challenge the international norms that have prevented World War III. The last line is not in jest—given the religious identification of these non-state revolutionaries, there is a very real possibility of igniting a conflict that pits Islam against any other competing religion. A recipe for disaster.
What is Terrorism?
We are perhaps best served by starting with what is terrorism. Sadly, even in the wake of spending over a decade battling “terrorism” there is no agreed upon definition. Suffice it to say, at one point the Intelligence Community even classified its definition and refused to share with the general public. So here’s what one will find in explaining the phenomenon we have been battling since the anarchists started their campaign at the end of the 19th century. Given the consequences of Arch Duke Ferdinand’s assassination, it should not be surprising the first official—that is outside a dictionary—definition appeared in Article 1.1 of the League of Nations' 1937 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Terrorism. In that document, the collected wise men declared “acts of terrorism” were “criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public.”[iii] What’s missing here, of course, is why the act of terror was committed in the first place.
This is no minor oversight. As more than one author has noted, “one man’s terrorist is another’s revolutionary.” Or, as attorneys pithily remark, good luck in separating “terrorist organizations” from “liberation movements.” Please recall that Osama Bin Laden and the nascent Taliban were celebrated mujahedeen—freedom fighters—before they launched an assault on the West for the perceived endless infidel presence in the home of Mecca and Medina. In any case, the Soviet Union spent a decade attempting to crush “Charlie Wilson’s War.” A just campaign from Washington’s perspective, a terrorist nightmare according to Moscow. This suggests a requirement for further refinement of our terms.
In 1991, Edward Luttwak, then the strategy chair at the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Stuart Koehl, a professional military analyst, jointly published The Dictionary of Modern War: A Guide to the Ideas, Institutions and Weapons of Modern Military Power. A hefty tome, weighing in at nearly 700 pages, the book is an effort to precisely define the history, issues, and tools confronting Washington and the Western world. These two prestigious authors, however, apparently have difficulty in discerning the difference between a terrorist and revolutionary. Here’s their definition of “terrorism:”
The use of violence against civilians by covert or clandestine organizations for political purposes….By bombings, shootings, kidnappings, hijacking, and assassinations, terrorists seek to lower public morale, reduce confidence in official authorities and institutions, obtain concessions, and force governments into acts of repression which they hope will lead to a popular revolt.[iv]
Helpful, in that we are led to believe this is not a state-actor or uniformed force, but a bit confounding in that the term revolt inherently implies revolution, and the targets, “official authorities and institutions” are two of the three areas Chalmers Johnson—as we shall see—constitute the type of change a revolutionary is intent on accomplishing.
Back to the United Nations. In 2002, that body set about drafting the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism. Accordingly, the diplomats suggested—they have still not agreed in a vote—that terrorism is identified when:
1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person, by any means, unlawfully and intentionally, causes:
(a) Death or serious bodily injury to any person; or
(b) Serious damage to public or private property, including a place of public use, a state or government facility, a public transportation system, an infrastructure facility or the environment; or
(c) Damage to property, places, facilities, or systems referred to in paragraph 1 (b) of this article, resulting or likely to result in major economic loss, when the purpose of the conduct, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.
Again, the problem is how to discern between the terrorist and the revolutionary, and who gets to make that decision. Which drives us forward to 2004. Here we find the United Nations Security Council engaged in a semantic waltz that comes up with the following word play in Resolution 1566:
Criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature.
A vague hand wave at attempting to categorize particular forms of activity as outside the realm of politically acceptable…so long as you are a member of the existing governmental structure and frown upon upstarts who would replace the status quo with a different version of governance. Then revolution becomes a “criminal act.”
Washington, as one might suspect, has had its own problems in defining terrorism. Here is the official Federal Bureau of Investigations solution:
18 U.S.C. § 2331 defines “international terrorism” for purposes of Chapter 113B of the Code, entitled “Terrorism:”
International terrorism" means activities with the following three characteristics:
- Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law
- Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping
- Occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum
And then we have the Department of Defense:
The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.
Followed by the State Department—which buries this in an annex to its annual report on terrorism:
Section 2656f(d) of Title 22 of the United States Code defines certain key terms used in Section 2656f(a) as follows:
(1) The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country;
(2) The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents; and
(3) The term “terrorist group” means any group practicing, or which has significant subgroups which practice, international terrorism.
Not satisfied with this collection of definitions—but with a nod of approval for the Department of Defense approach—in his seminal text, Inside Terrorism, Bruce Hoffman offers his own effort at delineating the difference between such activity and criminal or revolutionary movements.
To that end, Hoffman argues terrorism can be identified through five key attributes:
1. Terrorism is political in aims and motives
2. Terrorism is violent or threatens violence
3. Terrorism is designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions
4. Terrorism is conducted by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or cell structure—whose members wear no uniform or insignia
5. Terrorism is perpetuated by a subnational group or non-state entity[v]
Hoffman goes on to contend we can now define terrorism as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence.” And, he seeks to refine the definition by contending terrorists seek to have “psychological effects beyond the immediate victim,” “[one] designed to create power where there is none,” or, he continues to “consolidate power where there is very little.”[vi]
The bottom line, any organization that engages in armed revolt against an existing regime can almost automatically be characterized as a terrorist plot. But is that helpful? Well if one wants to circumvent or avoid the War Powers Act this is good stuff. Congressional blessing for employment of the Department of Defense’s impressive capabilities is typically hard to acquire. The last official United States government declaration of war against a foreign power took place in 1942. There has been subsequent Congressional approval of the use of force—recall the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution or the January 1991 Congressional vote approving military action against Saddam Hussein. But Bin Laden and al-Qaeda created a new problem, how to go to war with a non-state actor? The solution was the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed as Senate Joint Resolution 23 by the United States Congress on 14 September 2001.
There is little argument this was an expedient and widely accepted means of meeting an immediate threat. The bill passed in the House of Representatives with 420 ayes, 1 nay and 10 not voting. The Senate was equally cooperative, 98 ayes, 0 nays, 2 present/not voting. Very similar legislation was rolled out for the subsequent 2003 attack on Iraq. Introduced in Congress on 2 October 2002, in conjunction with the Administration's proposals, House Joint Resolution 114 passed in the lower chamber by a vote of 296-133, and passed in the Senate by a vote of 77-23. The White House had a powerful political tool in its kit and was unlikely to abandon the option, regardless of comments made on the campaign trail.
Which Begs the Question—What is a Revolution?
But what happens if you are confronting a revolution. Let’s return for a moment to the issue of cognitive processing. Depending on one’s education and upbringing—culture, entertainment, national myths, religion—terms take on mental images that are hard to eradicate or override. Ask Americans about terrorism, and visions of the collapsing Twin Towers in New York flash through the psyche. Ask them about revolution, and a picture of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson pass through the synopsis. For intelligence analysts, this “background” tends to engender “mirror imaging” or flash evaluations. No need to ponder through this, “I know what ‘terrorism’ is and is not.” In the same vein, “I know what a ‘revolution’ is and is not.” Think, however, if you were born and raised in Cuba after Castro came to power. Now what is a revolution? Take the same perspective and apply it to an Iranian born and raised after 1979. What is a revolution? What does it accomplish? Who are the heroes?
This renders important the definition of “revolution” for academics, intelligence analysts, policy makers, and war fighters who must motivate forces in dangers’ way. Academics want an “ivory tower” value-free term. Intelligence analysts should seek the same, but are often influenced by their audience—policy—to come up with something more communicative to the desired reader. (Analysts seek approval from the audience, just like novelists.) And the war-fighter wants visions of George Washington or Simon Bolivar. So what do we get?
Semantically, we run into the same problem apparent during an investigation of what constitutes terrorism. Thomas Jefferson was famous for writing to James Madison, that, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” Jefferson, however, does not spell out what that rebellion would look like. Interestingly, Alexis De Tocqueville is equally vague in Democracy in America. The closest he comes is in Volume Three of the tome, when the following appears:
Every revolution enlarges the ambition of men. That is above all true of the revolution that overturns an aristocracy. …. In this first exaltation of triumph, nothing seems impossible to anyone. Not only do desires have no bounds, but the power to satisfy them has almost none. In the midst of this general and sudden renovation of customs and laws, in this confusion of all men and all rules, citizens raise themselves and fall with unheard of rapidity; and power passes so quickly from hand to hand that no one must despair of seizing it in his turn.[vii]
This at least offers hint at the strum and angst associated with revolution, but I highlight the fact De Tocqueville is particularly focused on the toppling of the ancien regime and suggests the new would-be rulers are more than a bit chaotic in their bid to establish a new order. This chaos is suggestive of an opposition that is not completely in synch on their ambitions or end state. Also of note, De Tocqueville free admits such revolutions can come the barrel of a gun and may not always end in a democracy—leading one to suspect he is looking back on the French revolution as much as he is discussing the outcome of George Washington’s efforts.
A more contemporary academic effort to parse out “revolution” begins in 1962 with a paper published in Political Science Quarterly. Titled “Revolution: A Redefinition,” the author, Peter Amann, opens with the admission, “There is no ‘true’ definition of an abstraction”—in this case “revolution.”[viii] Nonetheless, this is a political scientist at work, so Amann makes a stab at wrestling with the alligator. His first step is to set forth conditions for a revolution—starting with a sovereign state, “a political organization exercising, or able to exercise, a monopoly of armed force, justice and administration over a given area and population. Add to that, he continues, the argument this monopoly on power “depends largely, not on the consent of the governed, but on their habit of obedience, whatever its motive.”[ix] So we have moved beyond De Tocqueville’s focus on aristocracy and can now take aim at all forms of the governmental status quo. And arrive at a definition of revolution, “a breakdown, momentary or prolonged, of the state’s monopoly of power, usually accompanied by a lessening of the habit of obedience.” As for the duration of such events, “revolution prevails when the state’s monopoly of power is effectively challenged and persists until a monopoly of power is re-established.”[x]
I hasten to point out at this stage Amann makes no qualifications concerning the revolutionaries’ attire (recall Hoffman’s definition of “terrorism” included an assumption such groups would be without uniform) nor does he spell out or subscribe particular tactics to a revolution. Rather Amann declares the revolutionaries may vary from small groups to a large element of the population and that the “most obvious hallmark” of their deserving the title is the exercise of military force.[xi] Amann does not spell out what constitutes “military force.” Is it shooting at Red Coats from behind stone walls? Is it fighting Batista from the hills and jungle? Or is it direct symmetric contact with the armed forces protecting the status quo? All tactics are fair game in such a situation—but one thing is clear, the revolutionaries are seeking to create fear and exploit same by operating in an environment where there is little to no power, or they would already be out of business. So perhaps Hoffman has not saved us with his definition of “terrorism,” as Amann’s “revolution” looks remarkably like the same phenomena.
So let’s move forward with the conversation, turning now to Chalmers Johnson’s text, Revolution and the Social System. As a political scientist, Johnson sought to define revolution as change, effected by use of violence, to a government, regime, or society.[xii] (Back to Tocqueville.) The phraseology is important here. As a subsequent scholar explains, “society” is community collective consciousness concerning means of cohesion, “regime” is the existing political power arrangement—from constitutional to monarchy—and “government” is the bureaucratic institutions used to exercise political power. More importantly for our conversation, “violence” is differentiated from “force.” “Violence,” we are told, is force “used with unnecessary intensity, unpredictability, and usually destructively.”[xiii] Now Johnson’s definition of “revolution” takes on a much broader scope, particularly as to Hoffman’s contention that “terrorism” is identified by the “creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence.” Seems that Johnson’s “revolutionaries” do exactly the same thing.
Revolution and the Social System becomes, arguably, more helpful in separating “terrorism” from “revolution” in Johnson’s six typologies of a revolt. The first, Jacquerie, finds the peasants massed outside the walls with torches and pitchforks at the ready.[xiv] In this form of revolution, Johnson argues, the mass is acting in the name of the church and king with the intent of removing local or national elites—i.e., the Taliban. The second, Millenarian Rebellion, trods down a similar path, but adds an inspirational leader with a utopian dream—think Mullah Omar, Osama Bin Laden or al-Baghdadi.[xv] The third type, Anarchistic Rebellion, is a reactionary response to change, harkening back to the “good old days.”[xvi] Potentially, the Salafist
movement in Egypt.
Which brings us to Johnson’s fourth “revolution” typology, Jacobin Communist. This he defines as: “A sweeping fundamental change in political organization, social structure, economic property control and the predominant myth of social order, thus indicating a major break in the continuity of development.”[xvii] In his 1966 essay, “Theories of Revolutions,” Lawrence Stone decrees this is a “very rare” phenomenon that can only occur within “a highly centralized state with good communications and a large capital city, and its target is government, regime and society.”[xviii] Rare, perhaps in 1966, but what we have now watched, at least transitorily, occur in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and possibly Tunisia. The same may be underway in Nigeria and Yemen. The problem here, of course, is that Chalmers Johnson’s label—Jacobin Communist—pulls the analyst off target. We mirror image Marx, not the Prophet Mohammed.
Type five is the Conspiratorial Coup d’Etat.[xix] This falls in the realm of work done by Edward Luttwak, who penned Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook.[xx] It only falls into the “revolutionary” category as such events may cause fundamental change in society, regime and government. Consider, for instance, Qaddafi coming to power in Libya or Saddam Hussein taking the reins in Baghdad. Finally, Johnson holds out for Militarized Mass Insurrection. In this case we are looking for a guerilla war founded on an ideology not military strategy, as the revolutionaries are dependent upon popular support and solace.[xxi] Here we find examples like Mao in China, potentially the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
All of which is to say, Chalmers Johnson offers a clearer perspective on what might be considered a revolution and overlays the academic’s heuristic devices, but then opens the door to pulling the ISIS campaign into his fourth typology. Leaving us again to beg for a definition of “revolution” that steps clearly outside the boundaries of “terrorism.
The next significant academic attempt at this problem comes in 1972, when Isaac Kraminick publishes “Reflections on Revolution: Definitions and Explanation in Recent Scholarship.” Kraminick opens his discussion on the subject with the apt warning: “There are few concepts over which there has been so much contention as that of revolution…Few things are so ambiguous.”[xxii] That admonition laid before the reader, Kraminick plunges in, coming away with what appears to be a refined definition of the central concept. His first stab comes in the form of guiding historians seeking to separate “simple” internal social strife from a sea change. To that end, he suggests we consider a revolution as something with, “a particular direction and purposive orientation to the change; a novel structuring of society, a new and millennial order must be sought.”[xxiii] As examples he offers the “great historical revolutions”—English, French, Russian—and modern—China and Cuba. He also notes “revolution is a cultural phenomenon involving fundamental changes in norms and values.”[xxiv] This looks mightily like what we are seeing with the ISIS campaign, a transition from the sectarian, nondenominational “liberal democracy” in Iraq or Assad’s dictatorship in Syria, to a secular regime guided a council seeking to meet the dictates of the Koran as they understand the words of the Prophet.
Kraminick, however, is not finished, six pages later, he adds further elucidation. Focusing on the political elements within such a sea change he argues, “Revolutions are the substitution of one governing elite for another….Revolution is thus an event primarily found in the political arena; governments, elites, and the masses are the players and power is the fruit of victory.”[xxv] We would note he does not restrict the players to uniformed forces or other established governments or states. Rather, that these are simply potential participants. ISIS has its own elite, al-Baghdadi, a spiritual head with a PhD in political science, and a number of formerly well-placed Baathist party members who are suspected of serving to guide the military campaign. As for the masses, 30,000 armed militants did not only come from the upper crust of Iraqi or Syrian society—to say nothing of the foreign fighters who have drifted in from Europe and even the United States.
Not surprisingly, Kraminick steers us back to that now-departed seer, Samuel Huntington. Drawing upon Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies, Kraminick offers the following quote from the Harvard professor:
A full-scale revolution involves the destruction of the old political institutions and patterns of legitimacy, the mobilization of new groups into politics, the redefinition of the political community, the acceptance of new political vales and new concepts of political legitimacy, the conquest of power by a new, more dynamic political elite, and the creation of new and stronger political institutions.[xxvi]
Given this definition, it is easy to argue there was no revolution when Saddam was removed from office. Instead, the existing elite, to use a very broad sense of the term, assumed governmental functions and went about practicing politics in a manner Saddam would have surely recognized. ISIS threatens to undo all of that and bring in a new crop of leaders, cultural values, and a very different justification for recognizing its political legitimacy.
Let’s move on by returning to Luttwak and Koehl’s Dictionary of Modern War. While they do not provide an explicit definition of “revolution,” the two scholars make this observation on what they find to be “revolutionary war:”
Armed conflict between a government and opposing forces, wherein the latter rely mainly on guerrilla warfare and subversion rather than formal warfare. The revolutionary side operates by establishing a rival state structure which embodies a political ideology, and which is intended to replace the existing order….the covert ‘administration’ collects taxes, conscripts, and information—all of which can be extracted from the population even if the government is in apparent military control of the area in question. These resources are supplied to the guerrilla arm, which strives to erode the government’s control and undermine its prestige. That in turn facilitates subversion (propaganda + terror) to extend the reach of the covert administration, which sustains the guerrilla.[xxvii]
This is ISIS in practice as we know it today. And raises a vexing observation. Following this definition of “revolutionary war,” one is drawn to conclude terrorism is a tactic employed by revolutionaries, it does not, ipso facto, make them terrorists.
This conversation is briefly resumed in 1996, when Clifton Kroeber publishes an essay titled, “Theory and History of Revolution.” Plowing through a mountain of academic writing on the subject, he comes to the conclusion most definitions have employed the following three terms: “brief,” “violent,” and “successful.”[xxviii] (It seems losing revolutionaries are not allowed retain the honorific adjective in histories written on their efforts—was Che Guevara a “terrorist” or a “revolutionary”? Depends on if you are asking Hollywood or Washington.) One can argue if “brief” is truly a fitting term—recall our own revolution took eight years and Mao was on the road much longer than that—nonetheless, we are on to something here, particularly the catch phrase “violent.” In any case, Kroeber steers us to a much simpler definition with few modifiers or semantic qualifications. “Revolution and revolutions,” he argues, “signify all demands, suggestions, and attempts at radical change—and, in addition, all unplanned changes equally basic.” He goes on to observe, “Revolutions signify drastic, fundamental changes in their full depth, duration, and complexity.”[xxix] Now we have arrived at the situation in Iraq and Syria as ISIS pushes toward Baghdad.
Finally, a nod to the most recent attempt to separate revolution from terrorism. The most recent version of the US Army’s Field Manual 3-24, “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies,” seeks to avoid this definitional nightmare by instead focusing on “irregular warfare,” “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s).” As an “insurgency,” it is described as “a struggle for control and influence, generally from a position of relative weakness, outside existing state institutions.”[xxx] One could contend this is just intricate verbal sparring, but there is a point to be taken from these two definitions, neither implies a fundamental change in regime, society or government within the conflict. But even the US Army cannot avoid eventually pigeonholing “revolution.” In Chapter Four of the guide to solving the American armed services’ seeming most perplexing problem of the 21st Century we are told:
A revolution is a popular insurgency with plans to overthrow a government and transform its society and government from one form of government to another. Revolutions generally evolve from a rebellion, but in revolutions popular support comes in the form of a fully mobilized population, which differs from simply passive or active support. A fully mobilized population is part of a revolution and it is generally seeking fundamental lasting change in a society’s political, economic or social order.[xxxi]
Oh, to be fair, a “rebellion” is defined a scant ten lines above this statement. A “rebellion (also known as an insurrection),” according to the US Army, “may be fomented by a group that challenges state control.” The difference between “revolution” and “rebellion” is that the population only offers “passive” support to the latter.
Now we are back to splitting semantic hairs. The US Army’s definition of “revolution” is remarkably similar to that offered by Chalmers Johnson, but we must be able to discern between a “passive” and “full mobilized” population or we will be looking to counter a “rebellion.” Reading a bit further, it would appear one wants to be confronted with a “rebellion” and not a “revolution.” “Rebellions,” the US Army holds, are illegal acts that can be prosecuted as a crime by virtue of the fact they are an effort to “incite, assist or engage in violent acts against a constituted government.” “Revolutions,” on the other hand, are a far more dicey proposition as this type of conflict requires an effort to “reintegrate the mobilized population and not only reintegrate members of the insurgency.”[xxxii] Two things to immediately take away from the US Army doctrine here, first, there is no mention of “terrorism” in either “rebellion” or “revolution,” and we have no idea of how to decide what qualifies as a “passive” versus “fully mobilized” population. The operational planner is on his or her own for that decision.
Time to return to the situation in Iraq and Syria for a moment. Within the Sunni population in both nations we find a disenfranchised population who see little purpose in acceding to the existing regime. I could contend the two sitting governments at least safe-guarded their property rights, but that was a tenuous guarantee at best. Neither Baghdad nor Damascus was holding out the promise of equal representation within the “democracies” they supposedly practiced, so “civil rights” were also tenuous for the Sunni. Perhaps, then, they are no longer “passive,” but instead a source of support for the opposition—willingly or unsubtly compelled. This explains the 30,000 under arms working for ISIS and strongly nudges an analyst toward employing the term “revolution” as opposed to “terrorism;” making al-Baghdadi a modern-day George Washington, a situation that causes cognitive dissonance in capitols from Riyadh to Washington.
A Potential Way Forward
In conversations with policy makers and war fighters it quickly becomes clear they have little patience for the academic or intelligence community’s preoccupation with factual minutia and contentious debates over terminology. “Tell me what time it is, don’t build me a clock,” was a favorite phrase of one now-retired National Intelligence Officer. Inevitably, the analyst would forget this guidance and resume a description of cutting gears and tuning movements, a course of action that frequently ended with yelling in the front office and demands for more “competent” persons to work the problem. Having no desire to go in search of a new occupation, I recommend the following as a definition of “revolution.” It is a movement of sufficient size to form a shadow government, challenges the existing regime with a new ideology, seeks to replace the sitting government and presents an alternative to standing cultural or social norms. This is the American “rebellion” the French revolution, Lenin coming to Saint Petersburg, Mao finishing the “Long March,” and Castro riding a jeep into Havana. In contemporary times it could have been the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood’s failed bid to rule in Egypt, AQIM in Mali or Ennahda as it struggles to govern in Tunisia.
In contrast, “terrorism” is the employment of violence intended to shock a target population by a group or organization that is not positioned to serve as a national governing body in the event these activities result in a collapse of the ruling elite. Here we have the 19th Century Anarchists, West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang, Italy’s Red Brigades, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Carlos the Jackal), Timothy McVeigh, and al-Qaeda as originally crafted under Osama Bin Laden’s tutelage. These are organizations with a political message but no apparent thought to long-term staying power. They would clear the way for a new government and perhaps a different social order, but do not seemingly want to be responsible for the mundane task of constituent services and diplomatic niceties. Which begs the question, what is Hamas or Hezbollah? A revolution or terrorist organization? Questions that are beyond the scope of this work, but illustrate the difficulty in drawing clear lines between “revolution” and “terrorism.” For political reasons it is sometimes more expedient or convenient to have fuzzy definitions—at least so long as one is not drawn into the possibility of having to kinetically dispatch or dispel the “trouble-makers.” “Revolutions” suggest a need for heavy munitions and boots on the ground—an operational plan that requires winning hearts and minds. “Terrorists” imply a more transitory target,[xxxiii] normally handled by police forces and discrete use of explosives.
And so we are back to the dilemma of where to “bin” ISIS/ISIL/the Islamic State. This is no minor concern, as the Washington Post has ably demonstrated for its readership. In the week following beheading of two journalists and the Obama administration’s debate over ramping up airstrikes, the newspaper started almost every article on ISIS with the adjective “terrorist.” The reporters were in good company. Here’s what the President of the United States called the Islamic State on 10 September 2014: “Tonight I want to speak to you about what the United States will do with our friends and allies to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.”[xxxiv] But look what happens in the week following the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s testimony before Congress.
To set the stage, let’s return to General Dempsey’s remarks. He is sitting before the Senate Armed Forces Committee on 16 September 2014 following a request to explain how the administration plans to defeat this new threat. In his response we find this description of ISIS:
I want to emphasize that our military actions will be part of a whole of government effort that works to disrupt ISIL financing, interdict the movement of foreign fighters across borders, and undermine the ISIL message...
ISIL will ultimately be defeated when their cloak of religious legitimacy is stripped away and the populations on which they have imposed themselves reject them. Our actions are intended to move in that direction.
This will require a sustained effort over an extended period of time. It is a generational problem. And we should expect that our enemies will adapt their tactics as we adjust our approach.[xxxv]
The terminology Dempsey employs to describe the Islamic State looks remarkably familiar to the verbiage used to define a “revolution.” There is no discussion of “terrorism,” this is about “messaging,” stripping away “legitimacy,” and a “generational” problem. In other words, we have something very different than the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq; this needs more than an F-16 pilot with good intelligence and smart munitions.
President Obama seemingly made the same transition within a ten-day period. Speaking with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes 28 September 2014, the President described the Islamic State as: “sort of a hybrid of not just the terrorist network, but one with territorial ambitions, and some of the strategy and tactics of an army.”[xxxvi] This verbal footwork came a little late in the game. On 23 September 2014, a day after the US air campaign began over Syria, the Washington Post was no longer starting its articles with the “terrorist” Islamic State, but had moved its readership on to the term “political Islam.” This transition brings its own baggage.
“Political Islam,” one quickly discovers upon wading into the literature, is one of the most nebulous terms an academic or journalist can employ to define a public movement or organization. In a book published in 1997, Political Islam,” Joel Beinin and Joe Stork offer this attempt at explaining the phenomena:
We term the movements examined in this volume ‘political Islam’ because we regard their core concerns as temporal and political. They use the Koran, the hadiths (reports about the words and deeds of Muhammad and his companions), and other canonical religious texts to justify their stances and actions.[xxxvii]
Not terribly helpful. “Political Islam” in this context is anything that is window dressed with the terminology or mythology of the Koran and related writings? Yes, that does indeed seem the case. Writing on the same subject six years later, Graham Fuller declares, “I use the terms ‘political Islam’ and ‘Islamism’ synonymously.” He then goes on to state, “An Islamist is one who believes that Islam as a body of faith has something important to say about how politics and society should be ordered in the contemporary Muslim world and who seeks to implement this idea in some fashion.”[xxxviii] Other academics offer similar vague pronouncements.[xxxix]
We are stuck in an endless “do-loop” here in the sense “Political Islam” is like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of “pornography,” “I know it when I see it.” To wit, I offer the following, “political Islam” is the practice of justifying one’s form of governance by arguing your ideology is based upon the Koran and other Muslim foundational documentation or mythology. The reason for taking such a course of action is entirely logical. As Moorthy Muthuswamy writes in Defeating Political Islam, “If an individual wants to capture, control, and rule a land and its people; it is hard to think of a better way than to declare oneself so close to the almighty God as to be the sole purveyor of his ‘revelations’.”[xl] Taken from this perspective, the ISIS decision to wrap themselves in the cloak of the Prophet makes complete sense. The revolution they are bringing is made more palatable for the masses as it is justified in the name of Muhammad and Allah. This appeal to a higher authority worked for the leaders of the Muslim conquests from 634-750, and for the Christian Crusaders three hundred years later.
Which brings us back to the issue of how to respond the Islamic State?
In response, we point to an article Alireza Doostdar, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote in early October 2014. Using the quirky title, “How Not to Understand ISIS,” Doostdar bids caution in trying to “bin” the Islamic State as yet another example of Islamic revival and fundamentalism. Doostdar is not dismissing the influence of “Salafi Islam” on the movement, but he notes there are other factors at play. For instance, “What we call ISIS is more than just a militant cult. At present, ISIS controls a network of large population centers with millions of residents, in addition to oil resources, military bases, and roads. It has to administer the affairs of the populations over whom it rules, and this has required compromise and coalition-building, not just brute force.”[xli] Furthermore, he continues, lacking a “good grasp of the motivations of those who fight for or alongside ISIS” we have simply subscribed to an argument it is driven by religion. But, he notes, ISIS emerges from a decade of “war, occupation, killing, torture, and disenfranchisement” in Iraq, and more recently in Syria. Thus, he argues, we should not be surprised by the ISIS brutality—it is not Islam that brings forth this behavior, “it is a whole ecology of cruelty spread out over more than a decade.”
Doostdar further complicates the situation in his attempt to unearth the allure for foreign fighters who join ISIS. He admits it could be visions of the utopian caliphate, but it is equally possible they are motivated by “compassion for suffering fellow humans or of altruistic duty.”[xlii] This is an unsettling proposition for Western audiences that have been shocked by beheading clips on U-Tube and television footage of an entire town being subjected to apparently random shelling. This is “compassion” or altruism?” Again we return to the issue of relative definitions and personal perspective. What seems compassionate to one—dog ownership—may be cruelty to another—for example, members of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals.
So how do we respond to ISIS? It will take more than kinetic shock and awe. The argument this is a revolution suggests a hearts and minds campaign, a sustained presence on the ground, and a plan for the future. Nation building has to be part of the dialogue. We are now in a “whole of government” problem and the Department of Defense is but one tool in the repair kit. The alternative option is to let ISIS carve its own space within the Middle East. To establish the Caliphate and be weighed down with the administrative burden of governing and providing constituent services so as to maintain a veneer of legitimacy. (Recall al-Anbar revolted against al-Qaeda in Iraq when its members “over-stepped” the tribal leaders’ bounds, ISIS will likely find the setting no easier to control.)
This latter option is enticing. It would save billions of dollars that are currently being expended on munitions and aviation fuel. However, it sets a discomforting—to say the least—precedent. If ISIS wins in Syria and Iraq—essentially trifurcating Iraq and carving away half of Syria—what message are we sending to AQAP in Yemen, to AQIM in Mali, to al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria? Does this open the door to a Confederation of the Caliphate that then seeks to follow in the footprints of the 7th Century Muslim conquest? These are the questions one should ask as you proceed through the essays that follow. We are on the cusp of a “brave new world” and the paradigms that served us so well in the Cold War and Global War on Terrorism may no longer be an appropriate framing mechanism.
D (dal in Arabic د) stands for Dawla = state
A (aleph in Arabic ا) stands for islamiya = Islamic
'E (ein in Arabic ع) stands for iraq = iraq
Sh (sheen in Arabic ش) stands for Sham = Levant
[ii] George Kennan, July 1947, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations, Washington DC, p. 581.
[iii] League of Nations 1937 “Convention for the prevention and punishment of Terrorism.”
[iv] Edward Luttwak and Stuart Koehl, 1991, The Dictionary of Modern War: A Guide to the Ideas, Institutions and Weapons of Modern Military Power, Harper Collins, New York, p. 609.
[v] Bruce Hoffman, 2006, Inside Terrorism, Columbia University Press, New York, p. 40.
[vi] Ibid., pp. 40-41.
[vii] Alexis De Tocqueville, 2000, Democracy in America, edited by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 600.
[viii] Peter Amann, March 1962, “Revolution: A Redefinition,” Political Science Quarterly, Volume 77, Number 1, The Academy of Political Science, p. 36.
[ix] Ibid., p. 38
[x] Ibid., p. 39.
[xi] Ibid., p. 43.
[xii] Chalmers Johnson, 1964, Revolution and the Social System, Hoover Institution Studies, Stanford, p. 3-26.
[xiii] Sheldon Wolin, January 1963 “Violence and the Western Political Tradition,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.” Pp. 15-28.
[xiv] Johnson, pp. 31-34.
[xv] Ibid., pp. 35-39.
[xvi] Ibid., pp. 40-45.
[xvii] Ibid., pp. 45-49.
[xviii] Lawrence Stone, January 1966, “Theories of Revolution,” World Politics, Volume 18, Number 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 163.
[xix] Johnson, pp. 49-57.
[xx] Edward Luttwack, 1968, Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
[xxi] Johnson, pp. 57-68.
[xxii] Isaac Kraminick, 1972, “Reflections on Revolution: Definitions and Explanation in Recent Scholarship,” History and Theory, Volume 11, Number 1, Wiley, p. 26.
[xxiii] Ibid., p. 30.
[xxiv] Ibid., p. 31.
[xxv] Ibid., p. 36.
[xxvi] Ibid., p. 37.
[xxvii] Luttwak and Koehl, p. 487.
[xxviii] Clifton Kroeber, 1996, ”Theory and History of Revolution,” Journal of World History, Volume 7, Number 1, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, p. 24.
[xxix] Ibid., p. 25.
[xxx] ___, May 2014, FM 3-24, MCWP 3-33.5, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, Headquarters, Department of the Army, p. 1-1.
[xxxi] Ibid., p. 4-1
[xxxii] Ibid., p. 4-2.
[xxxiii] We recognize “transitory” is a relative term in this context. As Audrey Kurth Cronin documents in How Terrorism Ends Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist
Campaigns (Princeton University Press 2009), a terrorist movement can survive a full generation of more than 20 years.
[xxxiv] ___, 10 September 2014, “Transcript: President Obama’s speech outlining strategy to defeat Islamic State” Washington Post,” Washington.
[xxxv] ___, 16 September 2014, “TRANSCRIPT: Dempsey testifies to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Islamic State,” Washington Post, Washington.
[xxxvi] Barrack Obama, 28 September 2014, “President Obama: What America Makes Us,” CBS, New York.
[xxxvii] Joel Beinin and Joe Stork, 1997, Political Islam, University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 3-4.
[xxxviii] Graham Fuller, 2003, The Future of Political Islam, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, p. xi.
[xxxix] For instance see: Charles Butterworth, 1992, “Political Islam: The Origins,” Academy of Political and Social Science,” Volume 524, Sage Publications, pp. 26-37; Charles Hirschkind, 1997, “What is Political Islam?” Middle East Report, Number 205, Middle East Research and Information Project, p. 12-14; and, ___, 2010, Political Islam from Muhammad to Ahmadinejad, edited by Joseph Skelly, Preager Security International, Santa Barbara.
[xl] Moorthy Muthuswamy, 2009, Defeating Political Islam, Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, p. 54.
[xli] Alireza Doostdar, 2 October 2014, “How Not to Understand ISIS,” Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago, p. 2.
[xlii] Ibid., p. 3.