Summary: ISIS was stronger than al Qaeda. The next jihadist group – there will be another – will be stronger than ISIS. Here is the reason why. We are not ready for them. This is a follow-up to We celebrate the death of a foe. It shows our weakness.
“What does not kill him makes him stronger.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche in Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is (1888).
AQ: The Mark One modern jihadist group
Al Qaeda is a militant Sunni Islamist multi-national organization founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and other Arabs during the Soviet-Afghan War. It became a loose global network, with some degree of central control and financing – but decentralized operations.
The attacks on 9/11 were its master-stroke, one of the more successful military operations in history – and one of the most cost-effective (details here). How we reacted to it put America on a new path.
The response to 9/11 by the nations of the world crippled AQ. The US took the lead, although I suspect the Saudi Princes contributed much or most to this program after jihadist terrorism in the Kingdom (with some AQ involvement) increased after 2004). It became a franchising outfit. But without control and support from a strong central HQ – like McDonald’s provides its local stores – most sputtered out.
A generation of recruits were brought into the war, trained, and gained experience. Some of the most competent survived and the incompetent were killed or captured. They learned much from AQ’s experience. Some of them carried their knowledge and experience to their next employer.
The Islamic State: the Mark Two version
ISIS, AKA the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is the Mark Two version of an Islamic jihadist organization. Originally founded as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in 1999 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2003 it joined the fight against the US and its allies in Iraq – and decentralizing in order to survive the harsher environment. The organization’s leaders pledged allegiance to AQ in October 2004.
ISIS grew in numbers and power far beyond AQ at its peak. But its leaders wanted to rule. So they boldly but prematurely took ISIS from a stage one insurgency (building strength, gaining allies, waging 4GW) to stage two – holding territory. In stage one the guerilla is invisible, moving through the people like a fish through the sea (chapter 6 of Mao’s On Guerilla Warfare). Moving to stage two, however, gave its enemies – and they made a lot of enemies – a target to attack.
They were crushed (but, like al Qaeda, not eliminated).
Mark Three jihadists
The surviving members of ISIS will take their lessons and experience to the next organization. Other jihadists are watching and learning as well. Somewhere from this will come the Mark Three jihadist organization. It will be better than AQ and better than ISIS.
I doubt that we are learning to fight the jihadists as rapidly as they are learning to fight us.
Darwin’s Ratchet makes them stronger
“We know that the Darwinian Ratchet can create advanced capabilities in stages – it’s a process that gradually creates quality – and gets around the usual presumption that fancy things require an even fancier designer.”
— William H. Calvin’s The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996).
My first posts about the Iraq War in Sept 2003 and Oct 2003 discussed the Darwinian Ratchet (possibly its first mention in military theory). We kill insurgents, but this spurs recruitment of more while alienating the local population (a pattern that we now understand but we still repeat). I showed an even worse effect: we culled the pack of insurgents – eliminating the slow and stupid while clearing space for the more fit insurgents to rise in authority. Hence the by now familiar pattern of a rising sine wave of insurgent activity: successes by the security forces, a pause in activity, followed by another wave of activity – but larger and more effective. To which we reply with more killing.
We lock ourselves into a “Red Queen’s race” in which we must run ever faster just to stay abreast of our enemies in the Long War. Since they learn faster and try harder (it’s their land), we fall behind. This helps explain our inexplicable (to us) defeats in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. Richard Dawkins explains its effects: “As the generations unfold, ratcheting takes the cumulative improbability up to levels that – in the absence of the ratcheting – would exceed all sensible credence”.
Darwin’s Ratchet makes each version of the jihadist movement stronger than its predecessors. See more about it here.
There will be a Mark Three jihadist group. We are not ready for it. We will never be ready so long as our response to each group is mindless killing.
This is a follow-up to We celebrate the death of a foe. It shows our weakness.
For More Information
Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
- The Fight for Islamic Hearts and Minds.
- A look at al Qaeda, the long war – and us.
- Why we lose wars so often. How we can win in the future.
- Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on the West to win big.
- How I learned to stop worrying and love Fourth Generation War. We can win at this game.
- A top jihadist explains how to win the Long War.
Two books about the Islamic State.
The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution by Patrick Cockburn.
Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate by Abdel Bari Atwan.