During the late Cold War period, strategic culture emerged as a comparative analytical framework in strategic studies and nuclear deterrence policymaking. Strategic culture examines the collective, long-term shared understandings on why adversaries may use violence to achieve strategic objectives. An under-theorised aspect is the possible existence of strategic subcultures: organisational or institutional coalitions that prioritise and shape the pathway into violence, and the specific operational contexts in which violence may be used.
Terrorist organisations are a national security threat for Australia. This thesis advances a new causal theory of strategic subcultures in terrorist organisations. It draws on current debates in two sub-fields: the fourth generation of strategic culture theory-building, and the terrorism studies analysis of terrorist organisations. Responding to these current debates this thesis focuses on how terrorist leaders formulate strategic objectives, allocate resources, and recruit and mobilise followers for campaigns.
A modified form of process tracing is used to examine two qualitative case studies: Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Three causal mechanisms are examined: the cultural transmission of religiously motivated belief systems for violence; the social learning that occurs between terrorist organisation leaders and followers; and folklore myths and narratives that shape internal worldviews. Combining these three causal mechanisms provides a rationale for strategic subcultures: it develops organisational counter-power to enhance the long-term survivability of terrorist leaders and their ideologies.
Both terrorist organisations were unsuccessful in achieving their long-term strategic objectives. Aum Shinrikyo used Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist cosmology to influence its renunciates whilst also hiding a covert, compartmentalised research program into biological and chemical weapons. ISIL used insurgent warfare to capture – and then lose – territory, people, and resources in Iraq and Syria. Both were motivated by apocalyptic worldviews that failed translationally in practice. Understanding these failure sources may help develop effective counter-terrorism policies and strategies.
This article explains how al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-trained Nigerian militants split from Boko Haram and formed a new group called Ansaru in 2011 after consulting with AQIM. Ansaru leaders however reintegrated with Boko Haram and transferred their specialized skills in kidnappings, suicide bombings and media to Boko Haram and contributed to the group’s conquest of territory in 2013. Al-Qaeda did not benefit from these conquests because Ansaru leaders switched loyalties and helped arrange Boko Haram’s pledge to Islamic State in 2015. This article exploits primary source documents from AQIM, Islamic State and Boko Haram and contributes to the literature on splits and mergers and knowledge transfer between terrorist groups and al-Qaeda-Islamic State competition.
The Jamestown Foundation’s Jacob Zenn has a new article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism journal on how the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant provided ideological and media assistance to Boko Haram. Zenn’s contributions on the two groups are a step towards a broader and deeper analysis of strategic subcultures that may arise in terrorist organisations due to collaboration, knowledge transfer, and strategic rivalry.
Kings College London’s Abdullah Bin Khaled Al Saud has a new article in Terrorism and Political Violence journal on Islamic State’s activities in Saudi Arabia. The abstract:
The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) has never ceased targeting, verbally and physically, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While it might be easy to know why, it is harder, but more important, to understand how. Since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of a wilaya (province) in the land of the two Holy Mosques in November 2014, thirty-two IS-linked terrorist operations took place in Saudi Arabia. Based on primary source materials produced by IS, and an examination of its footprint in Saudi Arabia, this article explains the calculus behind IS’s strategy and objectives in Saudi, shows the main themes of its narrative and how it tailors its strategic communications campaign to the specific historical and social context of the country, and illustrates how it tries to exploit and claim the Saudi religious heritage. The article also examines to what extent IS’s activities and operations reflect its rhetoric and purported strategy, describes the structure it adopts inside the Kingdom, and demonstrates why the momentum of its violent campaign has faltered in recent months.
Shannon C. Houck, Meredith A. Repke, and Lucian Gideon Conway III have a new article in the Journal of Policing, Intelligence, and Counter Terrorism about effective terrorist propaganda. Here’s the abstract:
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) became an increasingly powerful terrorist organisation in a relatively short period of time, drawing more recruits than its former affiliate, Al Qaeda. Many have attributed ISIL’s successful expansion in part to its extensive propaganda platform. But what causes terrorist groups to be effective in their communication to the public? To investigate, we examined one aspect of terrorists’ rhetoric: Integrative complexity. In particular, this historical examination provides a broad integrative complexity analysis of public statements released by key members of ISIL and Al Qaeda over a 10-year period when ISIL was rapidly growing as a terrorist entity (2004–2014). Findings revealed that (a) ISIL demonstrated less complexity overall than Al Qaeda (p < .001) and (b) ISIL became increasingly less complex over this focal time period (p < .001), while Al Qaeda’s complexity remained comparatively stable (p = .69). Taken together, these data suggest that as ISIL grew in size and strength between 2004 and 2014 – surpassing Al Qaeda on multiple domains such as recruitment, monetary resources, territorial control, and arms power – it simultaneously became less complex in its communication to the public.
American University’s Tricia Bacon and Georgetown University’s Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault have a new article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism journal on the break between Al Qaeda and Islamic State. The article’s abstract:
Employing counterfactuals to assess individual and systemic explanations for the split between al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), this article concludes that individual leaders factor greatly into terrorist alliance outcomes. Osama bin Laden was instrumental in keeping al Qaeda and ISIS allied as he prioritized unity and handled internal disputes more deftly than his successor, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although a troubled alliance, strategic differences between al Qaeda and ISIS were not sufficient to cause the split. Rather, the capabilities of al Qaeda’s leader determined the group’s ability to prevent alliance ruptures.
The article is an interesting use of the counterfactual method for causal inference of explanations. The authors’ focus on Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri contrasts with other explanations such as Will McCants’ focus on Islamic State’s apocalyptic belief system.
RAND has a new research paper out on Islamic State’s economics:
At its peak, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) controlled vast portions of territory in Iraq and Syria with several million inhabitants. ISIL’s territorial ambition and desire to conduct state-like governance over this territory are integral to its global ideological appeal. By examining ISIL’s impact on local economic activity in Iraq and Syria, this report seeks to assess the effectiveness of ISIL’s governance over its self-styled caliphate.
This report leverages remote sensing data and commercial satellite imagery to offer a unique, data-driven look inside areas controlled by the Islamic State. It paints a bleak picture of economic life under ISIL, replete with shortages of electricity, massive refugee flows, reductions in agricultural output, and upticks in violence all associated with ISIL control.
At times, ISIL was able to build a dense governing apparatus that helped maintain stable local commercial activity, particularly in its strategic capitals in Raqqah and Mosul. At other times, ISIL mismanaged key resources or sought to punish its citizenry rather than govern it. However, this report suggests that decaying economic conditions in ISIL-held territory are also a product of ISIL’s inability to insulate its territory from opposing military forces. Outside pressure against ISIL successfully prevented the group from realizing its governing ambitions across significant parts of its caliphate, with major consequences for its ability to support functioning local economies.
This report is important for those trying to understand the group’s impact on local populations in Iraq and Syria, for those seeking to counter its financing or conduct post-conflict stabilization, and for broader efforts to understand the economic impact of insurgent governance.
I’ll likely be citing it in my in-progress PhD chapter on Islamic State.
Washington and Lee University’s Seth Cantey has a new article out in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism on negotiating with Al Qaeda and Islamic State:
This article argues that prospects for negotiations with al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) have been undertheorized. Drawing on nearly two thousand pages of primary source material – all issues of Inspire and Dabiq magazines published at the time of writing – it examines these groups’ statements about their motivations for violence, their objectives, and their views about the possibility of dialogue with the West. It finds stark differences in all three areas and suggests that assumptions that have prevented theorizing about negotiations with these groups should be revisited.
Strategic culture deals with strategic bargaining situations. Its potential use in negotiating with terrorists remains under-explored. Cantey’s article is a first step to further theorising.
A few research notes from my PhD thesis draft:
- The journal International Affairs may be a source for Russian perspectives on Jack Snyder’s original conceptualisation of strategic culture, and the SALT nuclear arms reduction talks. In particular, a comparative US-Russia historical perspective is needed.
- Robert Jay Lifton and Haruki Murakami’s interviews with Aum Shinrikyo renunciates provide possible secondary data to identify possible hypnotisibility. The APA Division 30 definition of hypnotisibility (2014): “An individual’s ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or behavior during hypnosis.”
- Coercive persuasion sequelae in Aum Shinrikyo and Islamic State would be coded as Other Specified Dissociative Disorder in DSM V (following the work of Robert Jay Lifton and Edgar Schein).
- A social psychological perspective suggests that the renunciates were sensitised to Aum Shinrikyo’s leader Shoko Asahara from Aum propaganda such as media reports, books, and short anime films. Haruki Murakami documents how Aum renunciates often provided the labour for this media to be produced and disseminated.
A summary of my in-progress thesis from my mid-candidature review documentation:
Terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State pose a national security threat to Australia. Terrorist organisations that are able to grow in members and resources, and consolidate their power over a longer period of time require different policymaking responses from counterterrorism, defence, and national security experts. This thesis contributes to: (i) a new understanding of how such terrorist organisations formulate their strategies, allocate resources, and engage in decision-making to plan and conduct terrorist operations; and (b) the development of a new strategic cultures framework using case studies of Islamic State and Japan’ s Aum Shinrikyo.
Professor Tyler Cowen (Average Is Over; The Great Stagnation) has posted at his Marginal Revolution blog an email I wrote him about the parallels between Islamic State and the momentum investment strategy in response to an earlier post.
The comments got trolled with posters misunderstanding how momentum strategies actually work; describing strategic culture as a folk theory; and critiquing my graduate school experience via Leo Strauss and the Sokal affair.
There are several parallels between Islamic State and momentum investing:
1. Islamic State has grown rapidly in terms of its mujahideen membership; control of parts of northern Iraq and Syria; and its power projection.
2. Islamic State has outperformed its peer jihadist groups in terms of the impact of its terrorist campaign.
3. Islamic State has persisted over time despite efforts by Iraq, Turkey, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, Australia, and France to end it.
4. Islamic State has exploited weaknesses in its enemies through a sophisticated psychological warfare strategy.
5. The Obama Administration may have initially underreacted to Islamic State as a national security threat.
Rapid growth; persistence over time; outperformance of peers; and arbitrage of behavioural biases is observable in momentum strategies for equity stocks.
I thank Tyler for posting my comment and also Gary Antonacci (Dual Momentum Investing) for his insight that momentum strategies rely in part on behavioural biases that are ubiquitous.