America’s New Strategic Reality: Irregular World War
Jeff M. Moore
Congressman Devin Nunes (R-CA 22nd District), Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CBS’s Face the Nation this past Sunday that ISIS posed a severe and pending threat to the United States. The FBI, on June 17th, told ABC News that it’s in the midst of attempting to disrupt ISIS operations in all 50 states, an historic first for domestic terror threats. This follows similar and recent warnings about ISIS from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and former CIA head Mike Morell. While all these warnings are prudent, none have provided the strategic context behind the threat environment, which is this: America is embroiled in an irregular world war with Islamist jihadists. If it doesn’t rise to the occasion and confront the threat more effectively, America runs the risk of international strategic decline.
This war is indeed global. Every region on earth is bearing the brunt of Islamist jihad terrorism and insurgency: Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, etc. Even areas that haven’t seen jihadist attacks as of late like Latin America have at least seen Islamist jihadist intelligence, financing, and logistics activities.
As for “irregular war,” in basic terms, it means wars without front lines, fighters without uniforms, terrorism and political warfare as tactics, and counter-status quo political and/or religious goals. It is the opposite of a conventional battlefield such as WW II in Europe where uniformed Allied armies battled Nazi armies for key terrain on well-designated battlefields.
The Islamist jihadist threat has much in common with the Nazis in other areas, however.
Islamist jihadism is a radical, political-religious ideology defined by a Muslim Brotherhood founding father named Sayyid Qutb. In his book, Milestones, Qutb asserts that an ultra-conservative, political version of Islam should rule the world, and that Islamism cannot co-exist with democracy and capitalism. War on all non-Islamists, says Qutb, is a religious duty to clear the way for his version of a perfect, holy society. ISIS, al Qaeda, and like groups all over the world follow this philosophy. Even when they disagree over leadership issues such as the apparent ISIS-AQ spat, they still adhere to the same end goals.
Sound cartoonish? It's happened before. Adolph Hitler did it. His autobiography, Mein Kamph, laid out the core ideology of the Nazis. He inspired millions into battle and the genocide of over 10 million.
In this global irregular war, however, instead of a Hitler figurehead as the center of gravity, the driving force is an ideology – Islamist society under a Caliphate. And it’s now a deadly fad that’s caught on like wildfire.
Regarding military forces, instead of a single, unified army like Hitler’s SS troopers and Wehrmacht, the Islamist jihadists have four types of forces all over the globe.
First are the major terror and insurgent groups with global or regional caliphate goals like ISIS, AQ, and Southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiyah.
Second are country-specific insurgencies such as Somalia’s al Shabaab, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Philippines’ Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and Pakistan’s Taliban. These organizations fight for their own version of Islamist jihad, and some have pledged allegiance to ISIS or AQ over the years.
Third are the highly networked terror cells such as those that carried out the 2005 Tube bombings in London, the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, and the ISIS-inspired militants that were planning attacks in Malaysia in April.
Fourth are the lone wolves, the individual jihadists such as Oklahoma man Alton Nolen who in September 2014 beheaded a female coworker, and Mohamed Mohamud who in 2010 aimed to bomb a Portland Christmas gathering. Scores of fighters like these seem to materialize all over the world on a monthly basis now.
And it’s not just the “West vs. Islamists,” either. There’s scores of Muslim countries involved in this fight, too. Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Kazakhstan, the UAE, and Yemen are all fully engaged against Islamist jihadist fighters in some form or another.
What’s it all mean?
First, the Obama administration doesn’t understand the threat. National Security Advisor Susan Rice told a crowd at the Brookings Institution in February 2015, “Still, while the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or during the Cold War.”
ISIS and its cohorts, aside from their irregular nature, are just like the Nazis. They are driven by a radical cultural and politico-religious ideology. Their end goal is to subjugate others under this ideology. They use terrorism and gruesome violence as a tool as demonstrated by their mass executions to “cleanse” society of their enemies. They’re violently intolerant of “incompatible” social and cultural norms. Finally, they intimidate and murder their own kind. This is exactly what the Nazis did.
It's also important to note that AQ killed more Americans on U.S. soil on 9-11 than the Nazis ever did.
Second, if you don't understand the threat, you can’t plan defensive and offensive ways to mitigate it.
Third, since America’s foreign partners and allies see no leadership coming from Washington on this global irregular world war, they’re forced to go it alone.
To be sure, it’s a good thing when other countries ante up and fight the Islamist jihadists so America doesn't have to expend excessive blood and treasure. But it’s a bad thing when America won’t coordinate and lead a global irregular counterattack when it both could and should. America is the only country with the international clout, technology, and counter terror/counterinsurgency know how that can rally so many diverse partners against this Nazi-like threat reborn. Merging this prowess with partner nations’ local knowledge would make a powerful force multiplier.
What to do? In WW II, President Roosevelt met with his counterparts such as Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Charles de Gaulle through various conferences to plan policy for countering the Nazi onslaught. More than feel-good regional conferences packed with scores of diplomats and photo ops, these small groups of leaders decisively defined the threat and set end goals to defeat it. This would be appropriate now.
Also in WW II, America and the UK established a Combined Chiefs of Staff of their top military officers to coordinate the war. A similar command – beyond global Special Forces coordination – would be appropriate. Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and like countries would be necessary participants. Aside from decisive military and covert action, top priority should be given to worldwide, counter politico-religious warfare.
But it all begins with defining the threat. If that doesn’t happen, the counterattack won’t begin, and we’ll just float along from crisis to crisis, applying half measures and saying we’re not at war when we certainly are. Tackling this global irregular threat takes international defense and security savvy, realpolitik capabilities, and seeing world as it is, not as politicians want it to be.