Where Mind-Space subsumes Battle-Space: ISIS and Al-Qaida Terrain

Peter Leahy, courtesy of The Australian,  31 May 2016, where the title is “We need a political plan on the war on terror” and where there are 28 comments so far

An increasing range of reports suggest that Iraqi and Syrian forces and their respective coalition partners are closing in on Islamic State and its caliphate and that it will soon be ejected from the territory it has occupied for the past few years. The destruction of the caliphate will not be easy, nor will it signal victory in the so-called war on terror. The caliphate may go but the ideology behind it will remain. Victory against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will be only a small gain in a much larger, more extensive and lengthy war. Nor will it do much to calm the maelstrom enveloping the broader Middle East.


Modern military theorists tell us that we have entered the era of Fourth Generation War. In this type of war, the state has lost its monopoly on war and violence and conflicts are between cultures, not states. In addition, the legitimacy of states is challenged, wars are undeclared, the rules of war are dispensed with and the battle of ideas is more important than the battle for territory. Sound familiar?

In the case of the Middle East, violence is everywhere and it is clear that cultural, read religious, differences are driving much of the fighting. We are witnessing a war within Islam and for the moment, a war over which form of government is to be adopted across the region: Sharia, authoritarian, monarchical and in a small number of cases secular and democratic. By the presence of our troops in the region, we are involved. The impact, at home, is that we have accepted as normal the lengthy deployment of our troops in foreign wars and are no longer surprised by reports of actual or potential terror threats in Australia.

An important aspect of Fourth Generation War is the recognition that the mind space is more important than the battle space.

We know that the ideology of the radical Islamists is incredibly strong — witness the suicide bombers. The loss of territory, while a setback, will not cause Islamic State to change its strategic aims. The ideology will remain and will go elsewhere with its fighters.

Promising alternative locations already exist in the so-called grey area states, such as Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, northern Nigeria and there are early indicators of trouble in Bangladesh. Even if the caliphate is lost, Islamic State will remain incredibly dangerous. And don’t forget that Islamic State is only part of the problem.

It is just one group of many and it is the upstart who broke away from al-Qa’ida, became more brutal (hard to comprehend) and in an impatient and premature rush established a caliphate. Do you remember al-Qa’ida? It is waiting in the wings with a long-term view and a patient approach. It harbours the same basic ideology but with a different method. For it the task is, over time, to establish a number of Islamic states and then amalgamate them into a caliphate.

Islamic State may have stolen al-Qa’ida’s thunder but the latter is still out there, as are many other groups spread across the globe who harbour the underlying ideology.

Do the radicals have a strategy? You bet they do. They know what they want and have a long-term view — they are engaged in a cosmic battle between good and evil. In case you are unsure, we are the evil ones. They are operating on multiple fronts including in our homelands, where they assault us daily with propaganda exhorting their followers to join their fight or attack us at home. They are adaptable and can accept defeat to pursue the campaign in new areas. They are flexible and change their tactics to suit dynamic battlefields.

Contrast this to what is happening in the coalition approach to the war on terror. We are nowhere as near to having a coherent strategy with a long-term view of what we want to achieve and how we are going to resource and prosecute such a strategy. In the middle of an Australian election campaign, when you might expect some talk about vision and strategy, we have heard more about Johnny Depp’s dogs than we have heard about the shape of victory in the war on terror. Nor have we heard much about how long our troops will remain in Afghanistan and Iraq. Just what is the exit strategy? There is not even the trite expectation that we anticipate the troops home by Christmas.

What hope is there of any political acknowledgment that, in the war on terror, we will be fighting multiple wars on multiple fronts for a very long time to come? In the meantime, our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are on a set and forget strategy. We can do better by them and an election campaign is a good time to start talking about our war aims and what victory looks like. We might even do better than that and start talking about the ideas behind the threats we have sent our troops overseas to confront.

Peter Leahy is director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra and was chief of army from 2002 until his retirement, as a lieutenant general, in 2008.





Leave a comment

Filed under accountability, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, arab regimes, australian media, authoritarian regimes, foreign policy, fundamentalism, historical interpretation, Islamic fundamentalism, jihad, law of armed conflict, life stories, martyrdom, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, propaganda, security, self-reflexivity, suicide bombing, Taliban, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, vengeance, war crimes, war reportage, world events & processes

Leave a Reply