Small Wars Journal

Talking to Tyrants, Sharpening Axes

Tue, 12/08/2015 - 11:21am

Talking to Tyrants, Sharpening Axes

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 spawning beast. This is because terrorism isn’t a global entity, it defies space and time by living in human imagination. We have neglected the philosophical underpinnings of terror that inspire hate because they float, like a dandelion’s seeds, settling in the minds of the world’s youth. Under the right conditions, these seeds will either 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.

A new strategy increases the resources available to our counter-terror operations, who have proven themselves so effective at destroying near-term, existential threats. These threats include, but are not limited to the command and control elements that plan and direct spectacular attacks against American civilians and interests. 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.

The 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[ii]. Pakistan, which encourages and sponsors many of these madrassas also explicitly organized and supported the Taliban, and likely continues to do so surreptitiously[iii].

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[iv].

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[v]. 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. Every terrorist has likely had a coke and a smile, been mesmerized by Star Wars, or been exposed to any number of influential and stimulating emanations from our city on the hill. 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 overwhelmingly apparent that contemporary terrorists and their aspirants are voracious consumers of social media and online content. Whereas our military employs cyber operations to manipulate this content, it is also constrained by law 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.

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. We must continue to pluck the weeds, but the only way to a long term respite from terror is to disrupt the ideologies that cultivate it, and that lies in the realm of ideas.

End Notes

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

[ii] Richard Holbrooke,



[v] The founders of Abu Sayaff, the Janjali brothers, studied Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia


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.