What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Thomas Hegghammer on the big impact of small footprints

For its excellence I need to recommend this article by Thomas Hegghammer with wholehearted support of its analysis and a longish excerpt that I want to include here. It also nicely adds to what I was discussing a couple of days ago, in reaction to an article by Leah Farrall. Here is what follows when U.S. departure supposedly (according to Farrall) weakens the cause of jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"The killing of al Qaeda operative Abu Ali al-Harithi by a CIA drone in Yemen in 2002 was certainly controversial, but it did not become a major symbol of Muslim suffering, because there was no civilian collateral damage and no images of the incident. Likewise, drone strikes in Pakistan have been unpopular, but Islamabad's complicity gives Pakistani officials an incentive to keep photographers away from the aftermath.
By contrast, a future Taliban-dominated government would do everything in its power to amplify the visual impact and exaggerate the collateral damage of American operations. It would use diplomatic and other channels to build international political pressure on the U.S. to stop its attacks. There would be calls on Washington to offer concrete evidence and justification for each major attack, which would be hard to do without sharing sensitive intelligence. Meanwhile, al Qaeda would hide among civilians. For the Taliban, plausible deniability would be easy to establish: after all, Kabul cannot prevent Arab tourists, charity workers and preachers from entering the country. With the small footprint approach, al Qaeda will have a safe haven in Afghanistan, albeit a somewhat less open one than in the late 1990s.
So what if al Qaeda has a few more safe houses? Hasn't the Internet rendered physical safe havens less important? Actually, no. This is a misconception based on inverse technological optimism and a superficial understanding of online jihadism today. Cyberspace can admittedly be a place to meet, indoctrinate, and teach weapons techniques. But websites do not allow organizations to desensitize recruits and break down their natural human barriers to the use of violence. It is one thing to rant online about killing infidels, it is something else to slit their throats (which is why the 9/11 operatives practiced on sheep and camels in the camps).
Moreover, websites cannot build deep personal trust between recruits in the same way camp life does. A strong esprit de corps dramatically increases a group's fighting capability (which is why our own militaries spend so much time cultivating it). Moreover, the Internet has recently become much less hospitable to individuals wishing to do more than access jihadi propaganda. Advances in intelligence gathering have increased the risk of detection for inexperienced internet users. Around the world, hundreds of people have been arrested for terrorism-related online activities. During the eight years that I have followed the jihadi Internet, forum participants have become much more paranoid and considerably less likely to volunteer personal information. The Internet is a formidable propaganda tool, but no safe haven."
By the way, as to the importance of safe havens, and to have some conflicting views (with mine, for example), also recommended is this post from the past by Patrick Porter, at KoW.

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