War on terrorism
WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG: Previously, we took a cursory look at the warfare capabilities of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran in a potential war with the U.S. All these enemies would wage conventional third generation warfare (3GW) conflicts for the most part. Now, let’s take a look at the war against terrorism, or GWOT (Global War On Terrorism), a term first coined by President George W. Bush in 2001.
A war against terrorism is an unconventional form of warfare. It’s a modified fourth generation warfare (4GW) conflict by theocratic groups without borders, against a nation-state. The U.S., however, will use fifth generation warfare (5GW) weapons and tactics against them on the battlefield. While GWOT has very broad implications, we’ll focus on the primary terrorists groups in the Middle East.
This is a very complex and lengthy topic, so the best way to approach it is chronologically. The first major terrorist organization on the scene was al Qaeda, formed in 1988. Then, the Taliban was formed in 1994 with ISIS forming in 2011. These are the “big three.” There are a number of alliances, conflicts, affiliates, and offshoots around these terrorist organizations, but we’ll get to those along the way.
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Terrorist group origins
al Qaeda (“The Base”) is a Sunni terrorist organization formed by Usama bin Laden (UBL, a Saudi), Muhammad Atef (an Egyptian), Abdullah Azzam (a Palestinian), and some other Arabs, when they were fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The headquarters of the organization was wherever UBL was located at the time (Afghanistan, Sudan, or Pakistan). UBL was killed in 2011, and Ayman al Zawahiri took over the top spot. Zawahiri’s location is referred to as al Qaeda Central (AQC), while other affiliates have their own designation (AQI in Iraq, AQIM in Algeria, AQAP in Yemen, al Nusra Front (JaN) in Syria, al Shabaab in Somalia, and a few more). Total number of al Qaeda fighters, in all their affiliates, might be about 20,000. Accurate numbers are nonexistent, so this is an estimate from sources on the web.
Funding for al Qaeda came from UBL’s fortune, wealthy Saudis, and other Sunni donors in the beginning. Today, it comes from donors, mosques, charities, ransom for kidnaping, and protection payments. Since al Qaeda has been replaced as the top terrorist organization by ISIS, their financial fortunes have diminished. Zawahiri is not a charismatic fundraiser like bin Laden.
After 9-11, Taliban in Pakistan refused to turn-over UBL to U.S. authorities (Taliban and al Qaeda were allies), and that’s what started the Afghan war in 2001. al Qaeda is unique as a terrorist organization in that they focused globally, primarily against the U.S. However, their decentralized structure seems to be changing that. Their affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and Algeria are becoming more independent in funding and target selection, and have their own local agenda. Also, al Qaeda’s strategy did not involve capturing and holding cities or regions of countries in the past, making them evasive. Today, al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP) has grown into a primary threat. The al Nusra franchise of al Qaeda is a proxy for the U.S., fighting against the Assad regime in Syria.
If you want more history about this group, read “Dirty Wars” by Jeremy Scahill (2013), and “Ghost Wars” by Steve Coll (2004).
Taliban (“students”), another Sunni terrorist organization, was formed in 1994 by Mohammad Omar and some religious students from Pakistan, after the Russians left Afghanistan (1989) and the Russian-installed Najibullah regime collapsed (1992). The country was in civil war and warlords controlled different regions. Omar grew in power and fighters, gained control of the country, and created the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996, installing harsh and repressive Sharia law. Pakistan supported Omar with financing, weapons, and supplies to establish a friendly regime in their neighboring country. al Qaeda supplied foreign fighters. Omar pulled together members of the different ethnic groups (Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pashtuns, and Hazaras) in a governing council.
After the September 11 attacks, the U.S. demanded that Taliban deliver UBL and other al Qaeda leaders residing in Pakistan for prosecution. Omar refused and that initiated the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan one month later, in October. U.S. and coalition forces, along with the Northern Alliance of warlords, drove Omar and Taliban into Pakistan by December 2001. And Burhanuddin Rabanni (a Sunni) was installed as president of the country. He was assassinated by Sunni Taliban in 2011. Tribal fealties are greater than religious loyalties, it seems. Hamid Karzai (Pashtun Sunni) took over until retiring in 2014. Taliban tried to assassinate him four times during his tenure. He was replaced by Ashraf Ghani (Pashtun Sunni), the present leader.
Omar, the Taliban founder and leader, died in 2015 from tuberculosis. He was replaced by Akhtar Mansour, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in May 2016, in Pakistan. The new leader of Taliban is Haibatulla Akhundzada. A Taliban resurgence is now underway, taking ground from the Afghan military forces in certain regions. Before the Afghan war, estimates of Taliban fighters numbered about 60,000. The war and continuing operations killed 30,000. That makes their strength today at about 30,000. That’s the best estimate on the web.
Where does Taliban get their money? They supply 70-90 percent of the world’s heroin and they are a major supplier of hashish and smuggled western cigarettes to the region. They also own emerald mines in Pakistan and some marble quarries. They tax any people under their control, kidnap people for ransom, and extort protection payments from contractors in the country. And, Pakistan still supports them with weapons, equipment, and supplies. Taliban is a proxy for Pakistan in Afghanistan.
If you want more detail about this group, start by reading “First In” by Gary Schroen (2005). Then, read “Jawbreaker” by Gary Berntsen (2005).
ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), sometimes referred to as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), is a Sunni terrorist organization. Abu Masab al Zarqawi (a Jordanian) formed the group as al Tawhid in 1999, in Jordan. Zarqawi merged his organization with al Qaeda in 2004, becoming al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). He was killed in 2006 by a U.S. airstrike in Iraq and AQI was merged with other terrorist groups into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006. This new organization was run by Abu Omar al Baghdadi — believed to be an Iraqi — and Abu Ayyud al Masri, an Egyptian. Both were killed by a U.S.-Iraqi raid and bombing mission on their safe house in Iraq in 2010. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, an Iraqi, then become the leader of ISI. In 2011, Baghdadi moved some of his insurgents into Syria’s civil war, to the al Nusra Front (an al Qaeda affiliate that operates as a proxy for Saudi Arabia). In 2013, he declared the unification of al Nusra and ISI into ISIS, without the approval of the al Nusra leader (al Julani) or the al Qaeda leader (Zawahiri). Zawahiri ruled against the merger and al Qaeda cut all ties to ISIS and Baghdadi in 2014. Shortly afterwards, Baghdadi declared Iraq and Syria as the caliphate, with religious, military, and political authority over all Muslims worldwide, and announced himself as caliph. Then, he began to take cities in Iraq and Syria in the name of the caliphate.
Baghdadi, a Sunni, claims that he is a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, which is weird. The Sunni believe that the leader of the Muslim world must be decided by consensus, since Muhammad appointed his trusted aid, Abu Bakr, to rule after his death in 632 AD. The Shia believe that the leader of the caliphate must be a direct descendant of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and the husband of his only surviving child, Futima. So, Baghdadi’s claim, having authority by being a direct descendent of Muhammad, is more in line with Shia beliefs than Sunni.
ISIS grew rapidly after the U.S. defeated Saddam Hussein by military force and expelled all of his Ba’athist party officials from government office, and then removed the Ba’athist commanders and soldiers from Iraq’s military. They were trained, irritated, and joined Abu Bakr’s ISIS, to fight in Iraq and Syria. Unintended and unforeseen consequences from U.S. military and administration leader’s decisions supported the growth of ISIS. Today, according to official estimates, ISIS has about 19,000 to 25,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. Some estimates run as high as 80,000 supporters and sympathizers worldwide.
ISIS’ strategy is to take and hold territory for the caliphate. They make millions of dollars per day by selling oil and gas from captured regions, donations from Qatar and Kuwait, taxes and tolls on captured territory inhabitants, organized crime, looting the banks, and protection payments. As we have seen, they do not hold hostages for ransom. They don’t need the money, so they behead them and post the videos on the internet. They are the best funded terrorist organization today.
Hezbollah and Hamas
There are two more groups worth mentioning. Hezbollah is a Shia terrorist organization, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, created by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in 1982 after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. They focus against the state of Israel and their primary supporter, the U.S. Hamas is a Sunni terrorist group founded in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a Palestinian, and they focus on Israel and the US. Like Hezbollah, they do not recognize the State of Israel and want Jerusalem and Israel returned to Lebanon and Palestine. Neither group recognizes the 170 references in the Bible about the “promised land” belonging to Israel. If you want to see all the declared terrorist organizations, go to the Department of State website <http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm>.
An intelligence-based war
As the U.S. and coalition forces have badly weakened al Qaeda in battle, pushed Taliban back into the mountains of Pakistan, and bombed ISIS into decline in Iraq and Syria, the groups have moved terror cells into Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, and Europe (Paris, Belgium), radicalized and motivated followers to undertake attacks in the U.S. (Ft Hood, San Bernardino, Orlando), and expanded internationally. The one thing that stands out about the war on terrorism is that, for the U.S., it’s an intelligence-based war more than a weapons-based war. We must spend more resources on intercepting communications, monitoring suspected terrorists, and using HUMINT (human intelligence) from captured terrorists to thwart their plans. In December 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of 34 Muslim countries to fight terrorism in the Middle East. Iran and Syria were not invited to join.
As you can see, from the countries using and funding terrorist proxies to fight against their enemies, and the constantly fluid alliances between countries and terrorist groups, the mess we have now is probably better than the mess that’s coming.
In our next installment, we’ll take a look at the the capabilities of the nations that could wage a nuclear war.
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