When you’re at war, it’s not enough simply to pick up a gun and start shooting. The other side will be doing the same thing. Of course you want to be tough and show you won’t be bullied. The trouble is, so do they. To succeed in war, you need to know certain things.
You need to know your enemy: Who are they? What are their resources? What are they after and what will make them stand down? How deep is their bench?
You need to know your weaponry: What have you got? What can and can’t it do? How long will it last? What are its possible risks and side-effects?
You need to know your strategy and end-game: How do you want things to end up? What would victory look like? What’s the most you can realistically hope to get? What’s the minimum you’d settle for?
You need to know your tactics: What can you do with your available resources to move you toward your end-game? Among your various options (there’s always more than one), which will move you closer and faster to your goals? What are the risks of each? What risks are acceptable? Knowing all that, what’s your next step, and the next three steps after that?
There’s still plenty we don’t know about the terrorist drama in Paris this week, but there are several things we can learn from it already.
The first has to do with the so-called war on terror. We can drop the “so-called.” There is a war going on.
The second has to do with understanding the enemy. During the early stages, there was a lot of media speculation about whether or not the Charlie Hebdo killers were connected to “a group like” Al Qaeda or ISIS. Question: Are Al Qaeda and ISIS really that similar?
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a point, in his Wednesday night sympathy message to the French people, of linking those two jihadist organizations to the terrorist organizations confronting Israel on its southern and northern borders, the point being that France and Israel are battling the same threat, namely the “terrorist fanatics of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.” He said “radical Islamic terrorism knows no bounds, and therefore the struggle which must know no borders.” Question: Is it really a single struggle?
The answer to both questions is no. Islamism is a broad term that denotes an ideology aimed at bringing the Muslim religion into political power. It has several variants with sharply different goals, strategies and tactics. Jihadism is one of those variants.
As the research director of Israeli Military Intelligence, Brigadier General Itay Brun, explained to an international seminar in Herzliya last June, Israeli intelligence — views the Islamist threat confronting Israel as consisting of at least distinct wings. One is the Shi’ite-led “radical axis” of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. Another, separate one is the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which includes Hamas. The third — and most intractable, he said — is “global jihad,” as represented by Al Qaeda and the Syrian-Iraqi based ISIS.
The goals of the three are not the same. All of them speak of jihad, or religious struggle. That usually means struggle against non-believers to expand the reach of Islam. But that’s a basic principle of Islam, not unique to Islamist radicals. All speak of caliphate, but that too is a broadly accepted idea in Islam. To say that they share those goals is like saying that Jews believe in restoring the Temple in Jerusalem. Some Jews take that metaphorically if at all. Others see it as symbolic of a genuine goal of restoring Jerusalem. Some take it literally, but wait for God’s intervention. A few are actively preparing.
Among the Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood is a religious-nationalist movement operating in various countries (especially Egypt and Jordan) that seeks to impose religious law in the country. Hamas is a particularly violent branch because it sees its country as Palestine — all of it, including Israel — and therefore wants to drive out the Jewish-Israeli “invaders” by waging an Algerian-style revolution. Hezbollah is essentially an arm of Iranian intelligence, which aims to defend and expand the influence of the Shia version of Islam within the Muslim world and believes it’s under attack from the West because of its beliefs. It’s worth remembering that Iran has troops in Iraq fighting against ISIS, and Hezbollah is actively fighting against ISIS on its western front in Syria to shore up the Alawite regime of the Assad family.
As for the global jihad groups, they’re are actively trying to pick up where Muhammad and his followers left off centuries ago — reestablishing the ancient caliphate, expanding the borders of the Islamic world and, most controversially, returning to the purist medieval rules of Islam (hence ISIS’s defense of slavery, polygamy and so on).
But the global jihad movement itself isn’t a single phenomenon anymore. ISIS and Al Qaeda are not the same. In the last few months observers have seen increasing evidence of a hostile competition between ISIS and Al Qaeda, based on their essentially different strategies. Al Qaeda conducts high-profile terrorist attacks against targets in Muslim states as well as their Western allies, in hopes of demoralizing current Muslim leadership and forcing a return to first principles. ISIS, by contrast, even though it grew out of a Iraqi affiliate of Al Qaeda, now concentrates on capturing and holding territory in order to reestablish the caliphate here and now.
In recent months, close observers have detected a growing and increasingly hostile competition between the two jihadist movements.
Here’s a good roundup of the current state of the rivalry between the two movements — which jihadist organizations in which countries are following which of the two streams. It’s by the Somali-born, Arizona-based journalist Hassan M. Abukar.
Some commentators have suggested that the Kouachi brothers’ story shows that the two jihadist movements aren’t too different, since elder brother Said trained in Yemen in 2011 but then this year they visited rebel-held Syria, which we commonly associate with ISIS. But Al Qaeda has its own Syria operations. Agence France Presse today quotes the British domestic intelligence service MI-5 as warning that Al Qaeda groups in Syria are planning more “mass casualty attacks” in the West in the coming months.
And the younger brother, Cherif Kouachi, told a French radio station before he died, according to Reuters, that the Charlie Hebdo attack had been financed by Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Harvard international law professor Noah Feldman, an expert in Islamist politics who helped draft the post-Saddam Iraqi constitution, wrote in Newsday on Wednesday that the Paris attack showed signs of reflecting the competition between Al Qaeda and ISIS. He argues that Al Qaeda leaders are alarmed at the attention and support ISIS is winning from young Muslims around the world through its daring tactics. He writes that the Paris attack could be part of an effort by the Yemeni-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to recapture some headlines and show that the older movement is still in the game.
… a possible hypothesis emerges: This is an old-style, al-Qaida jihadi attack against a Western capital designed to create global attention - and its major aim is to compete with the new style of sovereignty-creating jihadism that has been so successful for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.The phenomenon that is Islamic State hasn’t just been a surprise to Western observers. It’s caught the traditional jihadi terrorist organizations by surprise, too. Islamic State has created a new paradigm for attracting international Muslim sympathy and support. The al-Qaida affiliates are playing catch-up - and Wednesday’s attack should probably be understood as an attempt to get back in the headlines and draw attention away from Islamic State by using the old techniques.
On the other hand, the third terrorist killed in Paris today, Amedy Coulibaly, who took over the Hypercasher kosher market, is quoted in the Reuters report as having “claimed allegiance with the Islamic State and said” — Reuters doesn’t say to whom he said it — that “he had jointly planned the attacks with the Kouachi brothers.”
And in fact, Reuters reports, “Police say they were all members of the same Islamist cell in northern Paris.”
So there’s still a lot we don’t know. All the more reason to think before we act. Not to refrain from acting, but to act intelligently. Winning takes not just courage and determination, but brains.
Which brings us to our other three questions: weaponry, strategy and tactics. That’s for another day. Watch this space.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).