The Arab Spring: The graveyard of terrorism

Eugenio Lilli, PhD Candidate, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and Chair of the KCL US foreign policy research group. Follow me on Twitter @EugenioLilli and on

Soon after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in early 2011, Al Qaeda tried to take credit for the popular revolutions that were upsetting the Arab world. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri claimed that the Arab Spring was a direct consequence of the September 11th terrorist attacks a decade earlier. Al Qaeda and other likeminded extremist groups depicted the objectives of the revolutions as in line with their rejection of the status quo in the region of the Greater Middle East. Despite their efforts, such groups had a marginal role in the initial phases of the revolutions. In fact, economic, political, and social grievances, and not violent extremist rhetoric, were the main reasons that brought the people into the streets. At the time, many observers (including myself) argued that the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the Arab Spring seemed to have fatally discredited the extremists’ argument that only violence could achieve significant change in the Arab world. After all, two weeks of peaceful mass protests in Egypt had driven Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out of office; something that extremists like al-Zawahiri had failed to achieve after decades of armed struggle.

What is the situation in late 2014?

In this post, I collected maps from recent reports produced by the US Congressional Research Service to provide a picture of the major current extremist threats in the regions of the Greater Middle East and Africa.

The first map refers to the area of the Levant and to the activity of groups such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State. (click on the maps to enlarge)


The second map illustrates the situation in the Horn of Africa and the operations of Al Qaeda affiliates there.

Horn of Africa

The third map is about the areas of North and West Africa and the activity of local extremist groups.

West and North Africa

After having seen these maps, what is your opinion about the popular argument of early 2011 that the peaceful nature of the Arab Spring had undermined the extremists’ narrative that only violence could bring about change in the region?

I would like to hear your comments.


The Ghraib Escape

Prisoner of War escapes have been in the news quite a bit over the last week or so. First up, hundred of inmates escaped from the infamous Abu Ghraib jail, including (apparently) lots of senior al-Qaeda members. To perhaps compound the headaches of American counter-terrorist policy types, 250 Taliban were liberated from a Pakistani jail yesterday. All in all, it’s been a bad week to be a prison guard. But those weren’t the only escapes in the news. The passing of Colonel Bud Day, who endured torture at the hands of North Vietnamese captors, made quite a bit of the fact that he was awarded a medal of honor for escaping capture. Here in Britain, we re-run World War 2 POW breakouts by watching The Great Escape on telly every Christmas, even if Steve McQueen’s bike jump never actually happened. If you happen to live in London, the V&A’s Museum of Childhood is currently running an exhibit on War Games where you can see how we turned the escape attempts from Colditz into a board game.

It’s a curious, but I think perfectly reasonable, position to take that we deplore ‘their’ breakouts and celebrate ‘our’ own ones. But after all, if our culture celebrates continued resistance to ‘the enemy’, why should we expect ‘them’ to be any different? The Abu Ghraib breakout now makes Guantanamo closure political suicide, even as the prisoners are adding to Obama’s failure to make good on his campaign promise to do so by hunger striking in protest. One argument says that the military just aren’t cut out to run extended detention. Another might be that even though the legal character of POWs hasn’t changed, the concept and practise definitely has. Maybe recognising the inherent contradiction in our attitudes towards ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’ might help us work on the latter two issues.

Anyway, I’ll leave this with John McCain’s remarks on the death of his friend, Colonel Bud Day:

Those who knew Bud after the war could see how tough he was. But, my God, to have known him in prison – confronting our enemies day-in and day-out; never, ever yielding – defying men who had the power of life and death over us; to witness him sing the national anthem in response to having a rifle pointed at his face – well, that was something to behold.


The Boston Bombings and the Gamification of the News

All screenshots are of reddit’s Boston Update threads from the night of April 19/20, 2013

‘Gamification’, apparently, has been a key Silicon Valley buzzword for several years without fully breaking through to the mainstream. This was news to me, but it gave a word to something I was pretty sure I’d seen going on in the media coverage of last month’s bomb attacks on the Boston Marathon.

As always, in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, various media battled for attention. Cutthroat journalism is as old as the industry, but an array of factors synthesised here in an interesting way. Firstly, the Boston Marathon was a digital, media event from the start. It captured greater attention for being the first major terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11, but it was also the first such attack since the mainstreaming of various forms of ‘new media’ and the ubiquity of camera-equipped mobile phones. The public and amateur media were immediately involved in the investigation, not just as spectators but ‘crowdsourcing’ law enforcement and journalism. Helping things along, the ‘story’ progressed from start (the attacks) to finish (the arrest) in just one working week, which meant constant developments and little time to lose interest.

All these factors conspired to create a hyper-competitive media ecosystem. The rush to break news translated into mistakes among professional and amateur media alike, but that same self-interest led outlets to leverage their strengths and rely on competitors to fill the gaps left by their weaknesses. There wasn’t time to independently verify. Novel information was generated continuously, and by following multiple sources, news consumers were put at the bleeding edge of the action. Individuals could follow the story in real-time while integrating themselves into the coverage through their posts, comments and tweets. The virtual crowd first helped search for the bombers, then ‘participated’ in their capture.


It’s the professional media’s job to keep an audience informed and up to date, but why did so many amateurs devote so much time to unravelling the story? Based on anecdotal evidence as a participant and observer in that process, I’d venture that they got so involved because, after recovering from the initial horror of the attack, participation in the coverage was, well, fun. The news became a form of interactive entertainment – it became a game.


So, what is gamification? Described in a white paper by gamification firm Bunchball:

At its root, gamification applies the mechanics of gaming to nongame activities to change people’s behaviour. When used in a business context, gamification is the process of integrating game dynamics (and game mechanics) into a website, business service, online community, content portal, or marketing campaign in order to drive participation and engagement.

It means exactly what it sounds like: transforming behaviours and activities into games. In its best-tested sense, gamification refers to ‘checking in’ at your local coffee shop via FourSquare, or an airline’s frequent flier program.

Its apparent success as a marketing and educational tool has prompted conversations about gamification across many fields and disciplines. Gamification proponents are fond of predicting their strategy’s eventual conquest of everything; regardless, it’s probably safe to speculate that most industries with a web presence have at least given gamification a thought.

So far, attempts or proposals to gamify the news have been fairly unconvincing. Actual examples include Mashable Follow and the short-lived Google News Badge, simple competitive ‘games’ that award badges based on articles read. These models don’t seem to have succeeded in boosting traffic or time spent on the sites.

Another approach is taken by video game consultancy Auroch Digital’s Game the News project, which produces short games based on current events. According to its website, GTN’s games are designed to help people understand and contextualise the news. However, this emphasis may make GTN’s product more of an educational tool than a gamified news source. Whether or not news consumption can be gamified thus remains an open question.

A problem for gamification in general, and gamification of the news in particular, is that developers overwhelmingly fall back on ‘the same shitty game’, as lamented by game developer Elizabeth Sampat. She continues:

Using badges and leaderboards and offering toothless points for clearly-commercial activities isn’t a magic formula that will engage anyone at any time. Demographics are different, behavior is different— things that will work to motivate users of product X will not work to motivate users of product Y. And no one is motivated by badges.

Gamification mostly produces ‘mobile-type’ games, played more often but less intensively and requiring only minimal attention. In a lot of cases, that makes sense. But news consumption requires a sustained focus – and, as such, different incentives. Of course, a massive proportion of games aren’t played for points. So, why not apply some of those other models of ‘game dynamics and mechanics’ when gamifying new industries?

A key concept in videogame design is how to induce GameFlow – Swetser and Wyeth’s [2005] model of enjoyment in games, based on Csikszentmihalyi’s [1989] concept of ‘flow’. Swetser and Wyeth describe GameFlow as emerging from eight core elements: concentration, challenge, skills, control, clear goals, immersion, and social interaction. While points may or may not be present, the incentive is the experience itself.

‘GameFlow’ may offer a better strategy than points-based systems for engaging users in fields that require sustained attention. Recent research (along with common sense) indicates that non-mobile (i.e. PC and console) games significantly outperform mobile games in terms of ‘GameFlow’ experienced. If the objective of gamification is to keep people engaged, online, and consuming, surely it makes sense to explore beyond mobile, points-based games?

But what does all this mean in practice? In our case, specifically, can the concept of ‘GameFlow’ be applied to the news? And what does any of this have to do with Boston?


I believe that Boston demonstrates the subtle, endogenous ‘gamification’ of the news: There were no badges to earn or points to win, but a coherent narrative arc and the nature of the media involved fostered a competitive, interactive environment that produced coverage while maintaining an intense focus on the story and immersed participants in a state of GameFlow.

The ‘game’ transcended the puzzle-solving – amateurs were playing the role, if you like, of the rookie cop, with all the speed and information and confusion that implies. The pace and comprehensiveness of the coverage fostered this dynamic: participants literally could see live scenes from multiple angles; follow the steps of the Boston police, even from across the globe, via police scanner live-streams; they were the first to hear new leaks and leads. This sense of being ‘in the action’ was cemented by social engagement at sites like reddit, where people could analyse that information within a large, informed community.

Following Swetser and Wyeth, let’s evaluate Boston in terms of GameFlow’s key criteria:

Concentration: Boston gets high marks for concentration by providing many attention-worthy stimuli from a variety of sources, while allowing participants to personally contribute or engage in line with their own interests and abilities.


Challenge: Following from the above, challenges were self-assigned and thus matched for ‘player’ abilities. Some participants actively worked to uncover new leads, piece together information, and uncover fresh sources, while others participated ‘collectively’, or passively. The pace of the action moved quickly enough that there were few opportunities for frustration, with new challenges continuously replacing the old.

Skills: The skillset required for participation at the most basic level was intuitive, beyond an understanding of computers and social media. For this reason, players were able to jump right in; those new to communities like reddit could observe until they got the hang of things. However, as the ‘game’ progressed, skills were honed. In order to get maximum enjoyment out of the experience, participants had to assemble the best and most diverse array of media inputs, and to process and analyse new information as quickly as possible. ‘Points’, after all, were available via upvotes/downvotes, retweets, and other forms of peer recognition.


Control: While participants had less control over the action than they would in a videogame, a videogame is scripted, whereas in Boston potential existed to ‘shape the game world’. Participants were highly aware of their influence on the investigation (sometimes overestimating it) and keen to ‘beat’ the professional media to the punch. Despite pushes within online communities to follow certain strategies (for example, scouring marathon photos for suspicious faces), participants controlled their own actions. Meanwhile, pressure from the amateur and professional media did influence law enforcement behaviour during the crisis. Notably, that pressure forced the FBI to release images of the two suspects on Thursday evening, in an attempt to stem vigilantism and to maintain control of the images and narrative, setting in motion Friday’s manhunt.

Clear goals: Goals were unambiguous at each stage. Initially, the goals were to 1. Establish what had actually happened; 2. Identify the casualties; and 3. Identify potential suspects in the bombing. As 1 & 2 were achieved and the FBI released stills of the suspected bombers, the goal changed to 4. Identifying the two men in the photos. Within a few hours, that also had been accomplished, and at this stage – the start of the manhunt – the goals progressed to 5. Piecing together what had happened (and what was happening); 6. Discovering who these two young men really were, trying to understand their histories and possible motivations (and trying to place them at the scene) and 7. Apprehending the suspects. This final goal, of course, was outside participants’ powers, but their immersion in the events made them collective stakeholders.


Feedback: The speed and variety of media sources provided constant feedback for participants. Because of its collective nature, progress in the search and manhunt directly translated into perceived individual progress. Any individual misfires were corrected by the progressive nature of events.

Immersion: The almost-cinematic narrative structure to the events of April 15-19 drove immersion in the ‘story’, and it was intensified by participants’ ability to follow events in real time via a range of media sources. ‘Deep but effortless involvement’ took place during the initial search, but was most notable during the manhunt stage, with many participants following all or most of its 23 hours. Time was altered, as was the relative importance of everyday activities. For people living in greater Boston, it was the only show in town, as police shut down the entire city to expedite their search. This drastic move heightened the sense of emergency, urgency, and historicity.

Participants became viscerally and emotionally involved in the ‘game’, even developing a degree of empathy for the protagonist of the manhunt, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Much of the manhunt period was passed by digging up information on the Tsarnaev brothers, and by late afternoon a narrative had been constructed – true or not – which cast late elder brother Tamerlan as the arch-villain and Dzhokhar as the kid brother he brainwashed. Participants wanted Dzhokhar to get caught and punished, but they didn’t want him killed, deepening immersion as the story entered its denouement.


Social interaction: The final element of GameFlow was fulfilled by the nature of the coverage. On Twitter, blogs, news sites and especially forums like reddit and 4Chan, following (and contributing to) the news was a group activity. Participants competed, cooperated, and argued; in-jokes and camaraderie emerged. This collectivity was a key part of how the experience was so ably gamified. Participants identified as part of a broader team including law enforcement officials. Milestones in the investigation and search became victories for the participants, and failures were mitigated by their collective application.


One benefit of GameFlow-based gamification is that it lowers the bar for participation. You can ‘play the game’ passively, as I did: by following the various sources and conversations, without personally contributing. In a points-based game, passive actors are excluded – and passive actors tend to make up the majority of users.

This said, I have absolutely no idea how (or even if) this type of gamification could be applied strategically, and it seems fairly obvious that it could never be used for every story. Participants gamified the Boston case from the bottom up, and the ‘game’ was driven by achieving a participatory critical mass. Even in those big events where high numbers are likely, no single media source could provide all the tools and information needed by ‘players’. There may be some things news organisations could do to facilitate user-initiated gamification, but it’s hard for me to conceptualise how it could be actively implemented.

Still, the Boston experience suggests that the news can be gamified. Putting aside the challenges of implementation, the GameFlow model may be a better fit than the points model for other industries eyeing the gamification trend. If there is a general recognition that gaming strategies are effective at engaging users, surely it makes sense to heed Sampat and broaden the scope beyond that ‘same shitty game’?


While the question of ethics is largely outside the scope of this post, it’s worth considering what implications gamification – top-down or bottom-up – may have for the news media more generally.  The Boston case raised several dilemmas. On multiple occasions, professional and amateur media publicly identified innocent men as suspected terrorists. Faulty leads abounded, but the information the media got right was equally problematic: with so much in the public domain, the integrity of police operations was under constant threat.

Was Boston an outlier, or are we are in the midst of a shift towards faster, collaborative, interactive but less reliable reporting? And if so, can we contain the disorder ‘gamified’ breaking news produces on the ground?



The Hermès Insurgent: Camouflage and Culture in War

Concerns over the potential for disorder, as well as the regular requirements for such events had the MPS out in force on Wednesday for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. Should I feel guilty that I experience a bit of intellectual giddiness when life presents a research opportunity? Clearly I spent several hours observing the deployments as well as the interactions between police and public.

Here’s the thing – I lingered, loitered and studied. How were different officers kitted out? [1] How many officers were deployed to cover a piece of territory? What was their demeanor? [2] What were the visible specifications of the vehicles used for the public order detail kept on standby in the event of violence? By all standards this behavior ought to have sparked some mildly suspicious curiosity by the police. If I were a male I’m certain there would have been a conversation, some officer sent to ascertain my intentions. But who is going to worry about a woman with an Hermès scarf? (Let’s be clear, I own only one and I had to ask a friend to give me lessons in what to do with it.) And you can be quite certain I don my camouflage intentionally – I don’t need to be making law enforcement nervous, thank you very much.

More important than musings on my field research, there are two issues that come to mind. The first concerns expectations regarding who is a threat. The second has to do with how culture is used in war. And finally, a cautionary comment on our reliance upon technology in war. (Or, if you prefer the imagery of comic superheroes and Hollywood, we have here the Hermès Insurgent and the Burqa Commando taking down SkyNet. [3])

With respect to identifying threats, be they at the tactical or national security level, we tend to operate according to expectations. Obviously, it is not my intention to warn against the dangers of scarf-clad insurgents. But 9/11 is not that far in the past, and that event proved that things which we take for granted as safe or normal can in fact become part of the calculus of war. When we become too comfortable about what is threatening we risk being caught looking in the wrong direction when the next threat arrives. This is not to promote paranoia or silly security regulations, but simply to act as a reminder to question these assumptions from time to time.

Turning to culture and war, there is often a lot of hand wringing that our (the West) freedoms, laws, ways of life – that is our very culture – allow our enemies to take advantage of us in our own countries. I’m not sure I can even agree with this (Gitmo), but  if it were the case, we should simultaneously recognize that culture is a strength and weak point for all parties.

To wit, you could get a lot of mileage out of weaponising the Burqa.

Okay, weaponise might give the wrong impression. I do not propose the deployment of veiled suicide bombers. But I could see an intelligence gathering value in neighborhoods and regions where this practice is expected. Like me to the London police, a veiled figure is assumed to be non-threatening. And it might not be too far to contemplate the stealthy deployment opportunities this camouflage provides. Rotary wing aircraft are an obvious insertion platform for Western forces. And before you scoff, can you really argue there is much difference between this and learning the woodland skills necessary to move unnoticed in that environment? I certainly cannot.

Better still the particular upside to such a practice is that it would likely spell the end of the garment’s use. Quite frankly I can’t think of a better or more fitting end to this bit of barbarity.

In anticipation of a critique of my cultural insensitivities, I have two responses. First, I will remind that terrorists and insurgents have used this cultural dress to tactical advantage. The sanctity of the outfit has already been sullied from within its own community. Second, the demeaned place in society for women that this garb represents gives me a certain license. There is historical precedent for one to be adamant and mildly aggressive in the face of wrongs. William Lloyd Garrison provides the model, in his fight against slavery: “I am in earnest; I will not equivocate; I will not excuse; I will not retreat a single inch; and I will be heard.” [4] So, with my apologies to the women who might choose this garment, I cannot get behind you on this. Full face coverage is a bridge too far.

Finally, I would like to point out that with very little investment I have proposed to thwart or replace billions of dollars worth of technologically based military and security equipment and training. The recent “tipsheet” found in Mali suggests that Al Qaeda’s thinking is not dissimilar. Clearly we are spending too much for what technology can realistically do. More worryingly, I fear many overlook the shortcomings and rely too much upon technology and the quantification it demands. These are dangerous blinders to choose given that our preferences are so obvious.

As for me, I’m just going to keep on looking innocuous.



[1] On The Strand, none were in high-visibility jackets. It made for a more pleasant view, which must have assisted to keep the tone of things low key.

[2] Afterwards, in front of the King’s Strand Campus -which was beautifully quiet and peaceful without the usual traffic – the mood as they continued to police the route for the occasional vehicle returning from St. Paul’s was light. I watched one constable from the Bromley area (if I read the identification correctly) chat with two women, one younger the other grandmotherly. They had a grand old time, joking, laughing and exchanging pleasant views on the events of the day and life. His supervisors would pass by and smile, offering no indication they thought he should stop. As I will discuss in my next piece for the riots as military history on the British Model of Policing, those sorts of interactions can be seen as bulwarks in a model dependent upon the consent of the public.

[3] Yes, I was channeling Doctrine Man!! as I wrote this bit.

[4] I feel honoured to quote a famous Bostonian in this week that my fair New England city has taken such a beating. And by using Garrison’s words in this matter of injustice, I too “lift up the standard of emancipation in the eyes of the nation, within sight of Bunker Hill and in the birthplace of liberty.” Although from New York, I have many roots in New England, of which Boston is in many ways the central city. I have always felt an affinity for it. [The Inaugural Editorial, William Lloyd Garrison, “The Liberator,” 1831.]


Military History and the London Riots

In general I deplore attempts to make parallels to war; let’s be clear at the outset, I am quite certain that neither [American] football nor business are “just like” it. However, in the case of the August 2011 riots in London the points of correspondence are adequately similar to justify the comparison. This is the first piece in a series on the process of examining the riots as military history. [1] I expect, as I am crossing intellectual boundaries by applying military history to domestic law enforcement, and blurring functionalities by comparing police work with military operations that some will balk. Therefore, in this one I intend to explore the conceptual basis which sustains my view that the disorders which rocked London (in spirit if not in fact) over four days deserve analysis as if they were a piece of military history, while also assuaging concerns that such an effort will muddy scholarly or professional waters.

Circling the potential terms of chaos and war in urban terrain has been part of working out the relevance of this subject to war and military history. [2] Contemplating the urban environment as a malignantly fertile context for conflict in the future begins to answer the question of why the subject of the disorders deserves attention from this quarter. If I have made a decent case regarding urban mayhem, then as a view to a possible iteration of future warfare this event and others like it have security implications beyond the world of public order policing. Taken from the alternative perspective, if at least part of warfare is changing, then it is worth shaking up the work of military history as well.

As a piece of military history the disorders work particularly well. Collected together and cast as a unified event – a battle – the issues and events which are of concern read remarkably consistent with the typical material. From the various formal reviews, 08/11 was shaped by matters of: command and control; tactics; terrain; doctrine and training; logistics; communications; intelligence; personnel mobilisation. This is the rogue’s gallery of issues which confound planners and commanders and shape war. More to the point, they are the military historian’s bread and butter. Add the conditions imposed by the context and it is not difficult to see these events as urban warfare.

There is not yet a thesis for this study. Not only is that not a problem but it would be inappropriate at this juncture. However, the beauty of history is that it provides a basic thesis starting point by asking three essential questions of the events: what happened, why, and so what. From here, further questions emerge from the research. By asking new questions of the materials and the events they portray different conclusions will emerge. Whereas history is bounded only by the curiosity of the investigator, this analytical approach diverges from those used in the various official reviews. Each has its defined remit and, no criticism intended, bureaucratic-cultural bias. I have no such constraints, and so am inspired by the new analytical space that is possible. [3]

For many reasons I am taking law enforcement as the primary perspective for now. For the most part it is simply the case that I began by reading the materials related to this side of the narrative first. Of course, I must admit that they also remind me of standard military documents, which provides yet another connection with military history. Although it leaves a gap in the story, approaching such an event from the perspective of one party is not uncommon in military history. [4]

A focus on law enforcement means we are concerned with institutions, bound by laws and conventions, guided by doctrines, and informed by customs, culture and traditions. Keeping this in mind is critical to the analysis. First and foremost is that the role that the UK police are meant to play in public protest imposes a critical boundary. Based upon their duty to serve the law, it falls to the police to sustain the right to free expression and facilitate protest. This is in addition to their policing model which relies upon public consent. [5] And it is not my wish to suggest or imply the need to change this, and neither do I think that their proper role is to oppose or confront or fight protestors. I think the role of the police as protector of such activities is a stance to be respected and furthered. I like it philosophically as well as tactically, especially as it fits with my general views on COIN in a people-centric conflict.

And let us be clear, putting these events into the terms of warfare – and from there to be analyzed as a piece of military history – is not to mistake the fundamental differences between war and public order. Whereas war, battle, combat tend to rely upon it, in this case we must be very clear that violence or force are not necessarily to answer in such events. Neither do I mean to suggest the rioters or looters be viewed as an “enemy” in the sense which is normally used in war. While it is clear that they did play the role of opposing combatant at time, and at certain points in the analysis will be discussed as such, this is not asserted as a value judgement.

The historical importance – to London, the UK, to ethnic, cultural, and social issues – will have to await future consideration. Scholars of generations hence will have to decide that. However, as the city is becoming the critical locus of societies and humanity, how well we can understand these events on their own is increasingly more important to future security. Military history provides an excellent for vehicle to further that understanding.



[1] These pieces will be posted to both the Kings of War and Small Wars Journal blogs. Each have different audiences, both of which I am interested to reach.

[2] Robert Killebrew’s piece on the future of the US Army in the aftermath of a decade of war sustains the basic thesis I was heading towards. First, he argues that armies no longer have a monopoly on the use of force or war, and that new actors will blur lines between crime and war. Second, he notes that there is serious tension between authority and the forces of chaos, especially with respect to who controls critical terrain. (“Rebuilding the Army – Again: Lessons and Warnings from the Post-Vietnam Era,” Armed Forces Journal, March 2013.)

[3] I also wonder at how the events are understood. The popular conception has been informed and formed by the video imagery and news coverage at that time. The glut of visual information available these days gives the false impression of knowledge, but in this particular case the pictures not only did not tell the full story, they often told an incorrect one. On the other, the official reviews do offer more accurate information, but they do not provide a narrative that a wide audience (even within the law enforcement and defence communities) will follow.

[4] And the best military history recognizes these gaps. A one-sided approach may result from not having the luxury of equal knowledge of both sides or for the purpose of simplification of the narrative. In this particular instance, pulling together the right quality materials to tell story of the other side (the rioters and the looters) requires more time. In any case, I am not concerned for the research at the moment.

[5] The HMIC reviews of policing and the G20 protests in April 2009 (“Adapting to Protest”) and modern public order policing in the UK generally, (“Nurturing”) are abundantly clear about the role of law enforcement in protest. Similarly, the HMIC review of the policing and the riots (“Rules of Engagement”) has much to say on the matter of public consent for policing methods and actions.



Implying War

I owe the Faceless Bureaucrat my thanks for blazing the trail on the topic of what constitutes a state of war. (1) Is Kings of War on something of an existential trip? I am not at all certain I am qualified to answer that, but at the very least there is an urge to get back to the roots of our subject to consider, what is war?

The overwhelming response to the “Casus Chaos” post (both on this comment board and off) hinged upon the issue of what followed. The scenario only amounted to war if it were accompanied by some declaration by a legal entity. I wonder at the strength of this requirement.  So I want to use this piece to explore further what constitutes war with respect to the role legal declarations play, as well as the intent and tactics of combatants. If we consider how these aspects of war can evolve as a shifting international landscape changes the terms of geopolitics it may in fact be that the casus chaos becomes war.


Addressing first the sense that a declaration of war was necessary to give meaning to actions and events, I understand and empathize with the historical logic of this. And I cannot deny that it is also rather comforting to rely upon the enemy to do us the favour of announcing his identity, location, and intentions.

But who really believes we can expect logic and comfort from war? These are not characteristics for which it is generally known. (2) Furthermore, the only constant in war is that it changes. As historians have chronicled the modern decline in the importance of set piece battles to war, perhaps it is time to consider whether a similar fate awaits set piece wars as well. Ramping up one’s economy and armed forces and sending the troops off to war is costly in every respect. More importantly, it also may be of increasingly less service to policy.

Thus, although the proper and formal declaration of war has been the norm for the past so many centuries, there is more than enough room to argue that this standard may be on the wane. Doubt this? When was the last American declaration of war? How many conflicts has the US been party to notwithstanding? Yes, let us be clear, declarations of war are not really the sine qua non of war, certainly not across its broad spectrum of types.

Clearly, then, we must accept that the absence of a formal declaration need not mean that war – the continuation of policy by other means – does not exist. Returning to the scenario put forward in “Casus Chaos,” there must be a point when such acts rise to the level of war, in fact if not in law. Were a country to discern the intentions of a state or other entity after six months of such a low level siege, where calculable economic and other harm has been done, it would be justified claiming them as acts of war and responding in self-defence. Nevertheless, in such a world where the line between war and peace is made faint or blurry, apprehending the proper state will be difficult.

To assert a changing character of warfare, generally, would argue for flux in the objective of war as well. Whereas, for example, territorial acquisition (or defence against its loss) will necessarily announce the state of war, such brazen intentions may no longer be the norm.

Undeclared wars of low level chaos would serve incremental objectives. War as an act of weakening the enemy could look very different than what we have come to expect. Moderated attacks upon infrastructure, markets, confidence, and so forth will not devastate, but over time they will shift the balance of international power.

Such warfare could be used to shift a negotiating calculus prior to treaty talks. It may also do nicely for political and regime change. (3) Or it may be that a small country wants to punish a larger, stronger one. Obviously it could not confront the other on the conventional field of battle – and has no theatre in which to conduct an insurgency. However, incremental warfare is well within the capabilities of any entity. (4)

If we alter the nature of war in these ways, then the tactics and strategies can change as well. Within undeclared incremental warfare, military activities will look different from what we are used to. Sorry, I can’t afford a cruise missile, so I’ll make my military point with ten Suburbans crashed at various critical nodes. Why spend billions building bombers or missiles when a vehicle – and a used one at that – will do? Arms races will become about who can do more with less.

The easiest and cheapest activity is havoc, particularly in urban terrain. As societies collect into heaving masses of soft targets with massive potential energy for injurious chaos, the potential strategic effectiveness of the activity increases. With chaos the city can be made to crush itself with relatively little effort.

And why not? Warfare on the cheap aimed at the critical strategic core of an opponent – its people, its home and its wealth – using the weight of its own fragile mega-cities against itself seems eminently sensible to me. It is a far more sophisticated application of precision to warfare than simply getting a bomb to land in the right place.

In sum, if historical trends are driving things to a point where declared war no longer serves the needs nor is necessary, perhaps it is because war no longer necessarily requires the clash of armies to serve policy, because war is becoming about incrementalism, moderate acts that shift and shape the behaviour of an opponent or those who might be watching. That is, we are in a paradigm shift. [Please, someone smack me for writing that.] If this is what war looks in then chaos tactics are in.

In which case, we need to rethink everything. (5)



(1)    The rise of the super-hero pundit is fascinating. I wonder if there is a secret annual conference? Does the Faceless Bureaucrat know Doctrine Man!!? The questions, oh the questions.

(2) No, war is smart, bitter, tempestuous (though also occasionally dull), and, perhaps I will be chastised for such lightness, it has a wicked sense of humour. You may definitely want to drink with war (once!), but you would never bring it home for dinner.

(3) Let’s be honest, I would do this to China – if my intent were to bring about regime change there. Historically the central authorities have not fared well in the face of dispersed chaos.

(4) Who doesn’t think it’s possible that Mexico or Columbia might consider allowing the cartels to survive because as bad as they are at home, they are a significant cost to the US. (Can Al Qaeda rent Cartel logistics?)

(5) If I seem giddy at the prospect it is only for the intellectual repast such a change would present, a Las Vegas buffet of material and issues to consider.


Casus Chaos or Belli?

So, urban mayhem has been on my mind lately.

I’ve been reading up on the 2011 riots here in London and across the UK, particularly the official, service and government reviews. Coming from the perspective of sources in military affairs, it has been a comfortable foray into a familiar-seeming alphabet soup of agencies. In the medium to long term I want to do a military history of the disorder in London specifically. I knew the application of Clio to the subject was viable when I read a footnote in one of the reports which discussed the diversity of shield tactics for use in public order policing. The echoes of ancient warfare cannot be ignored.

However, at the current moment I am circling the contours of modern urban mayhem and conflict. Here my concern is with the implications of tactics, and one in particular, so I will throw the following question or concept out there for consideration:

At what point does a traffic accident become an act of war?

With a relatively small number of vehicles and trucks most of Manhattan’s river crossings can be choked off with relative ease using auto accidents. Jack-knife tractor trailers on the bridges, and take out fellow travellers in the tunnels and it’s done. These blockages would also have the further effect that the cascading failure caused by the traffic stoppages leads inexorably and tragically to gridlock across the city.

Manhattan is an island. It lives and dies in the short to medium term on the viability of a limited number of low through-put bottlenecks. I have, on terrible evenings, spent hours driving up and down Brooklyn or eastern New Jersey trying desperately to find a route through or around the island. And those were occasions where just a normal bit of bad news in a few spots had led to 2-3 hour back-ups to access the bridges and tunnels. A person could weep at such moments.

It must be clear, then, that the threat posed by intractable traffic jams should be a significant concern. And Manhattan is not the only city in the US or beyond which is in such potential peril. Whether the tactic as outlined here were used against only a few targets each week over the course of several as part of a slow-building disabling of a city or implemented against all as an asymmetric shock and awe opening to a larger campaign of attacks, in either case it clearly amounts to an act of war. But it could take time for this to become evident. And in any case, what do jets and tanks and soldiers matter against the unknowable guy in any vehicle who’s about to bumper cars in the Holland Tunnel? For that matter, what could law enforcement do? Without intentionally closing these bottlenecks and thereby committing an act of managed self-destruction, there are few courses of action which can mitigate the threat.

Consideration of what asymmetry will bring us next tends to focus on nightmare scenarios (the rogue nuclear weapon, chemical and biological horrors, and other familiar weapons of mass effect) and spectacular attacks upon standard pieces of important infrastructure. Less thought is given to what one could call ‘papercut’ tactics. I worry that such standard approaches might be dangerous if something as mundane as traffic can be turned into a weapon.

But I really want to know what others think. So, pass this along and let me know.


‘Muslim Patrol’ as provocation strategy?

Many of our UK-based readers will be familiar with the so-called Muslim Patrol videos posted online earlier this month. The videos feature some young Londoners, presumably Muslim, approaching and intimidating passers-by for drinking alcohol or dressing the wrong way in what they claim are ‘Muslim areas’. The videos are filmed in Whitechapel, east London, whose population is 40% Bangladeshi, and have made an immediate splash not just in London but further afield. Understandably, many of those watching the videos have expressed outrage. Far more problematically, some also perceive this harassment campaign as the latest evidence of Europe’s gradual take-over by ‘non-Europeans’ and nasty foreigners.

This raises the question of what the producers of these videos were trying to achieve. Maybe the young men in the videos earnestly believed that they were helping to create ‘Muslim zones’ or maybe they just wanted to harass a few locals — but why videotape this effort and post it to Youtube? Now, many idiots post videos of their crimes online – why is something of an eternal mystery – but I suspect there may be something deeper at play here. There is little evidence to support this hypothesis, but is it possible that these videos were meant as the opening gambit of the age-old provocation strategy, a tried and tested insurgent method to polarize societies and gain popular support?

In its traditional context, the provocation strategy involves the use of violence by aspiring insurgents to goad state authorities into an overreaction. That overreaction adversely affects relevant populations (targeted because they are thought to sympathize with or shelter the likely perpetrators). Attacked by the state, this population becomes increasingly alienated and starts to look for alternate sources of protection, power and legitimacy. The insurgents then step in, with an empowering message whose anti-state tenor and call to action will now begin to resonate.

In this case, the violence is limited to harassment and intimidation, but the vied-for effect is still polarization and popular support. Most viewers of these videos will feel affronted and share with the victims the sense of being under attack. Among those already resentful of Islam, immigrants or integration, the videos will trigger a more pernicious reaction. The narrative here is of Western governments bending over backwards to appease those who – quite clearly (as the videos would seem to show) – want to subvert ‘our’ country and civilization. Within this narrative, the state cannot be relied upon to defend Western values: it is consumed by political correctness and cowardice. We are under attack and we – the people – must respond.

Returning to the provocation strategy, some of those who react this way play the role traditionally assumed by ‘the state’. They are affronted by the threat to their order, their values, and react. Much like a state has difficulties locating the perpetrators of an insurgent attack, the respondents in this case will also struggle to discriminate – to target only the individuals responsible. Instead, one can well imagine the larger community taking the brunt, due to preconceived opinions about its complicity and the problems it represents. The response might take the form of graffiti on a nearby mosque, racist abuse or intimidation. Under attack, some of the community will look for new sources of protection and strength, at which point the radicals step in with an appealing frame and narrative. Suddenly the need for ‘Muslim spaces’ may not seem so ridiculous after all. Polarization has been achieved.

If that was indeed the intent (and it very well may not have been), how did it play out in practice? It is really too early to tell, but it would seem as if the London authorities and the Islamic community reacted in exactly the correct manner. The authorities have taken steps to arrest the people featured in the videos, which acts as a deterrent and provides catharsis for those – victims and viewers – who felt threatened or affronted. The Muslim community immediately denounced the videos and made it clear there is no space for this type of behaviour in its midst.

But undoubtedly, there are also those who will eagerly use this as another anecdote of social disintegration and weaponize it to meet racist or xenophobic ends. Youtube has pulled the original videos, but they are still being circulated – now by users and accounts with anti-immigration, anti-Muslim agendas. Some right-wing rabble-rouser in the United States calls the Muslim Patrol video ‘the most important political video of the year’ and calls for ‘an end to all immigration from Muslim nations, including North Africa’ to save ‘our Western civilization’. One of the Youtube accounts with the most views for the video in question declares itself as  ‘opposed to the systemic genocide of our people through massive non-European immigration and integration.’ Les extrêmes se touchent, as they say, and in this case as in many others they even work in close symbiosis – much as they do in their mutual promotion of the Clash of Civilizations.

The whole episode points to the need to respond discriminately, appropriately and carefully to deliberate provocations by fringe elements. Caution does not equal accommodation, but allows for an assessment of the threat before blindly walking into the trap being set. Although this post may very give too much credit to those who spawned the Muslim Patrol videos, it is also necessary not to take this type of provocation at face value – to condemn it, yes, but also to ask why it is taking place and what it seeks to achieve.

Three interesting post-scripts to this tale:

  1. Whereas it may in fact be the white population of Whitehall that feels under threat by a growing Muslim population, the Bangladeshi population has declined over the last ten years from 51 to 40 per cent. That’s not to say that this trend is spread more widely.
  2. Anyone attempting to draw conclusions for the United States from this or other European episodes should first consider the recent report by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. Its findings, that Muslim terrorism in the U.S. was “practically nil” in 2012, provide sorely needed context to the US discussion of radicalization, Islam and homegrown terrorism. No doubt one can quibble with the methodology but really, no matter how you slice it, reports such as these should help defuse some of the ungrounded paranoia and fear that surrounds the discussion of Islam in America.
  3. Finally, in a sense, the above analysis resonates with a previous post of mine of the Muhammad cartoons. Again, who is provoking whom and what are the dangers of confusing our audiences?

Danger On The High (PM)C’s

A piece last week on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today Programme’* on a critical development in military affairs was broadcast as if it were a mere curiosity. In it, Typhon founder and CEO Anthony Sharp discussed with the announcer how his new firm would distinguish its business from the rest by deploying its own navy to provide maritime security to its clients. That is, he was describing a private navy operating on the high seas.

Don’t get me wrong. I am well aware of the historical antecedents to such a development. Letters of Marque,** privateers, commandeering are just a few of the more recent iterations of what has been a long-standing practice of blending private maritime assets, expertise and interests with public necessity – both in wartime demand and peacetime lean.

Nor am I naive about the importance of the threats to global trade in too many of the chokepoints for shipping. Or the rigors of military service in support of maintaining the security of passage. I have no doubt that it would be quite helpful to add more assets in support of the mission at sea. Although as one navy officer pointed out to me, the answer to the problem of piracy is to be found back at home on land, not at sea. Thus, these maritime activities will only ever serve to fight the piracy already in existence; they cannot, however, eliminate it.

Nevertheless, let us be clear: this most recent experiment in private military capability in land warfare is quite young and its results remain challengeable.*** But whereas the essence of the contracting business in landpower does not exceed the tactical or operational, a navy, even a small one, is a beast of another order, a strategic asset, even if one only in its infancy. In contemporary conflict this is new territory for enterprise-based armed forces.

And yet, there is very little discussion at the level of national security, policy, strategy, or military affairs generally regarding the implications of this emerging trend.****

Therefore, how about this as an idea. Before this phenomenon replicates itself beyond control, why don’t we have a discussion of the issues involved. Because these folks won’t operate in a vacuum. States will inevitably come to bear a degree of responsibility for the actions of these companies or the tragic consequences of a failed gig.



A minor edit was made in the 4th paragraph based on the tweet by Adam Elkus – when I speak of military contracting in landpower, I am speaking of it as an iteration of a recurring trend in warfare. In my mind this was obvious from the references to the historical precedent in naval warfare, but clearly from the text that understanding was not so clear.

* See also this other interview with Sharp.

** At my paranoid worst, I wonder at the confluence of the rise of these firms at the moment of widespread state austerity. Will governments see the opportunity to sell off bits of their authority as the legitimate holders of military power to the highest bidder?

*** In terms of military effectiveness, the quality of the product in such areas as contested logistics leaves much to be desired. Additionally, Halliburton’s and Blackwater’s bills from OIF do not sustain the assertion that contracting is the more cost-effective option. Finally, the linkage between these assets and strategic risk is uncertain – for example, contractor casualties can cause either too much or too little response.

**** I understand that these subjects are the meat of much thought within the academic and analytical fields concerned with the privatization of military capabilities. However, as important as these may be in their own right, the subject transcends its specialized focus and demands attention in broader, more general quarters.


Europe’s big problem is that Breivik is not the alpha or omega of terrorism but squarely in the middle of a readily apparent trend to the worse

In Norway the trial of Anders Breivik who killed 77 people last summer has begun. Over the last couple of days he has been giving testimony in his defence arguing that he was acting for the good with a ‘preventive attack against state traitors‘ who themselves were guilty of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Nordic race enacted through aggressive multiculturalism and mass immigration. It has been hugely discomforting to survivors and families of victims, and Norwegian society more generally. The courts have placed restrictions on reporting of Breivik’s ‘day in the sun’ and there is consternation, as Daniel Bennett observes at the Index on Censorship, of the ethics of journalists propagating his views and political agenda. There is an understandable temptation to declare him insane, which may or may not be the case. That would be tidier for practically everyone, except Breivik; but the law is as it is and due process in Norway, as it should be in all democracies, means that even heinous terrorists get a fair trial. In the Telegraph today Dan Hodges captures the essence of the problem:

But there is something faintly sickening, not validating, about the process unfolding before our eyes. For one thing, I find its sterility demeaning. The cramped, featureless courtroom. Brevik seated casually at the table between his attorneys, looking like a man taking part in a civil custody hearing, rather than someone on trial for 77 murders.

It’s an environment that appears to be framing Breivik, not cowing or reducing him as I’d hoped. There is no banality of evil on display here. Breivik actually appears quite an imposing figure, his physicality if anything enhanced by his calm, softly spoken interventions.

That’s not how this was supposed to be. We were supposed to grow in proximity to him, not the other way around.

He concludes, again quite understandably, that it would have been so much better if ‘they’d just killed him‘. It would be interesting to generalise from that point to the wider ongoing debate over ‘targeted killing’ which we’ve talked about on KoW before, see Adam Stahl’s Pro et Raffaello Pantucci’s Con. But that’s not my main interest today which is, rather, to stick to the case at hand. The Oslo bombing and Utoya shootings on 22 July 2011 really struck me because they occurred at a time when I was just beginning to grapple with the impact of connectivity (the Web, basically, but not just the Web) on domestic security, the prospects of ‘revolution’ particularly in Europe, and the whole phenomenon of ‘super empowerment’ which, it seemed to me, was manifesting before our eyes in a pretty uncongenial way. A few weeks before the attacks I wrote a post here entitled ‘Revolution! Is anyone really up for it?‘ After the attack I hesitated to say what I was thinking. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions before brooding a lot more on the evidence.

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