The View From Olympus 10: 4GW Strengths and Weaknesses


Al Shabab’s assault on a Kenyan shopping mall illustrates some of the strengths of Fourth Generation Islamic forces. One, they can carry out acts of terrorism that undermine a state’s enthusiasm for war against them. Second, and more dangerous in the long run, they can push a government into responding to terrorism by moving toward a national security state. Why is that more dangerous? Because a national security state regards every citizen as a potential threat and treats them accordingly. That undermines the state’s legitimacy, and Fourth Generation war is above all a struggle for legitimacy.

I probably don’t need to point out that 9/11 and subsequent (minor) incidents of terrorism have brought a growing national security state to America. It is not a coincidence that Americans express ever-increasing detachment from and hostility toward their own government. Who can try to board an airplane without feeling like a suspect? That diminution of the US government’s legitimacy is a bigger victory for al Qaeda than the damage and casualties inflicted on 9/11.

But if we step away from the horror show generated by incidents such as that in Kenya, we can see a larger narrative of the weakness of most Fourth Generation Islamic entities (there is one exception; Hezbollah): they cannot govern.

In Egypt, a year of government by the Muslim Brotherhood was so disastrous that the people widely welcomed a coup. The September 16 New York Times reported of the funeral of a leading Islamist killed by the military, a funeral in a small, rural town, that

It is customary for the community to gather behind the family for the procession to the graveyard. Mr. Abdel Aal, however, was greeted with epithets—someone called him a dog, someone else an infidel. One family even held a wedding at the same time, something unheard-of.

“Pure” Islam’s failure to govern is weakening Fourth Generation Islamic organizations throughout the Middle East. The French succeeded (for a time, anyway) in Mali because the puritanism of the 4GW Islamic fighters had alienated their local allies. In Syria, that same puritanism has brought popular demonstrations against al Qaeda-allied forces in towns they control, even though demonstrators are often beaten or shot. Al Shabab was driven out of Mogadishu and other Somali cities because the locals so loathed its puritanism that they welcomed foreign troops, something that seldom happens. The American “surge” in Iraq only succeeded because al Qaeda in Iraq had alienated its local Sunni allies, again by its “pure” interpretation of Islam.

The first rule of politics—and like all war 4GW is political, though not wholly so—is “Don’t lose your base.” Over and over again, Islamic 4GW forces win militarily, but then lose because they alienate their base.

Why do they keep repeating this mistake? I suspect they do so because they cannot not do so. The kind of people they recruit as fighters are overwhelmingly puritans. Who else but a fanatic will become a suicide bomber? You cannot tell puritans to moderate their behavior, and the behavior they impose on others, because that would instantly make them “impure.” If the leadership of an Islamic 4GW organization tells its fighters not to enforce their version of Islam, they desert to another, more “pure” 4GW entity. Because of the ever-fractionating nature of 4GW, there is no lack of alternatives.

Puritanism is ever thus, and cannot be otherwise. An exchange between a Royalist and a Puritan during the English Civil War in the 17th century comes to mind. The Cavalier said to the Roundhead, “Ours are the sins of men; drinking and wenching, but your sin is the sin of the Devil; spiritual pride.”

All this is an old story in the Islamic world, and should come as no surprise to those who make American foreign policy, except that they are children who believe they can make the wold anew. In a monograph titled “Terror’s Mask: Insurgency Within Islam,” (Johns Hopkins University APL, May, 2002) Michael Vlahos laid out the age-old cycle. Islamic puritans arise, who accuse the local Islamic rulers of “corruption.” They create and lead a movement to restore “pure” Islam, and succeed in taking power. They then discover that pure Islam cannot govern, and have to compromise. That makes them “corrupt” so the cycle begins anew.

The fact that one 4GW Islamic entity, Hezbollah, has not fallen into this trap should draw our attention. Could this have something to do with the fact that it is Shiite and the others are Sunni? Not being a scholar of Islam, I don’t know. But it is a question scholars of Islam could usefully investigate.

In the meantime, repeated failures of Sunni 4GW entities to govern tells us what we should do to defeat them: leave them alone. They will alienate their base and destroy themselves, if we just give them time to do so. If we intervene, the usual result will be to push the locals toward the puritans in order to oppose us. Even where foreign troops have been welcomed, their welcome usually wears out quickly, and their support for one or another local “government” undermines that government’s legitimacy.

To borrow a wonderful phrase from Admiral Raphael Semmes CSN, we should leave be “the cockatrice’s egg that hatched forth the Puritan.” The cockatrice will foul its own nest soon enough.