War on a New Planet: Reimagining Conflict and Leadership in the Time of ISIS

by Ali Minai

Network1The terrible terrorist attacks by ISIS in Paris on November 13 have understandably generated a great surge of opinion and analysis – some of it insightful and some just opportunistic. It is precisely at times like these that the volume of immediate response threatens to obscure deeper issues, and for a problem as deep as the threat of jihadi extremism, this is truly dangerous. While people are still reeling from the actual attacks and decision-makers are reaching for the most obvious – and frequently bad – choices, it is critical that policy-makers move towards a more realistic understanding of the conflict they face, and not make things worse than they are. Of course, history suggests that this likely to be a vain hope – especially since the proper course is far from clear. This motivation behind this article is not to prescribe specific actions, but to provide a general perspective that may trigger further thinking.

Following the Paris attacks, President Hollande of France declared, “France is at war!” Similar pronouncements have been made by world leaders, analysts and pundits since 9/11. Some see the conflict with jihadi terrorists as a “clash of civilizations”; others as a “battle of ideas”, pitting modern liberal democracy against a regressive ideology. Yet others have declared it to be a “battle for the soul of Islam.” Those wedded to conventional geopolitics see it in terms of military engagements, covert operations and counterinsurgency. There is some element of truth to all these characterizations, but only in the sense that the five blind men of India had some part of the truth about the elephant. What has remained largely unacknowledged is the terrible truth that this is the first war of its kind – a brand new thing never before seen in history, and therefore one for which there is no prior wisdom. It is the first great conflict of the age of globalization, and its phenomenology reflects that of a complex, nonlinear, self-organizing networked world. To make an imperfect analogy, it is to ordinary warfare what quantum physics is to Newtonian physics. It is a war where things don't add up normally, where distant events can be strangely entangled, where common sense may be a liability, and where the very geometry of comprehension is distorted.

A New Kind of War

One way to measure the complexity of a system is to consider the number of moving parts. By this measure, most wars in history – even the great wars – have been relatively simple, with a clear designation of the combatants at any given time. Not so in a networked world, where each actor is related to every other through many paths with different valences and at different time-scales. The enemy of one's enemy is not necessarily a friend, and the friend of an enemy not necessarily an enemy. Indeed, the very distinction between “friend” and “enemy” has become uncertain, which is why Western politicians given to simplistic rules are thrashing about trying to decide where Iran or Saudi Arabia or Muslims or NGOs or even their own governments are friends or foes. This confusion is also reflected in strategy – not because the strategists are foolish, but because they are working from rules developed on a different planet.


Battle-of-Agincourt, miniature taken from l’Abrégé de la Chronique d'Enguerrand de Monstrelet, XVe siècle, Paris.

Wars from late medieval times to, say, 1990 were fought by states or rebel groups. Leaders made decisions and set policies on behalf of all citizens and group members, and except for a few dissidents or traitors, everyone followed the leader. The identities of the combatants were clearly defined. That is how the Greeks, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Europeans, Indians, Chinese and Mongols fought. That is how the two world wars were fought. But that was a different world when states ran the show. Now, thanks to the Internet, each individual can be their own state, with their own news service, their own economy and their own private foreign policy. Most individuals and states have not realized this yet, but many have – and the jihadi militants are among them. Every state today is effectively a multiplicity of increasingly autonomous individuals and groups maintaining a simulacrum of unity. That is why it no longer makes sense to say that a particular country is on a particular side in the war – there are always groups that are on the other side, and unlike fifth columnists of the past, possess actual power of action. The only exceptions to this are a few totalitarian states with draconian controls over Internet access, but not for much longer. ISIS and Al Qaeda are waging their war in this new world without boundaries, exploiting its features much more effectively than governments. In the inexorable emergence of a new world, the jihadists sense an opportunity to create a new order closer to their hearts' desire by striking multiple countries – France, Lebanon, Mali, Russia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Turkey in the last month alone – that have resisted cooperation for parochial reasons. The time it takes these countries – and others such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India, the United States and China – to overcome their local frictions is the proverbial window of opportunity for ISIS and its sympathizers.

In this war, counter-terrorism policies that depend only on the instruments of the unitary state are guaranteed to fail – either by failing to destroy the terrorists' vision or by destroying the societies they are trying to protect. Either way, the terrorists achieve their goal. To counter the threat effectively, the world has to move past notions such as sovereignty, citizenship, national interests and alliances between states, and develop a new post-geographical idiom of geopolitics that sees the world as it really is. This transformation is the true challenge of leadership in the world today, and all those who stand in its way are part of the problem rather than the solution.

A New Weapon of Mass Destruction

A critical aspect of leadership in the war against jihadi terrorism is to understand its nature. The use of terror as a weapon is older than history: All armies rely on it to defeat their enemies. But the modern form of terrorism used by militant Islamists is a new phenomenon – one that was not possible in a pre-globalization world without mass media. That world was flat, where fear travelled at the pace of a mule, or perhaps a fast horse. The world today – contra Friedman – is anything but flat, and modern terrorism is made possible only by this hyper-connected, high-dimensional brave new world. In this world, terrorism is as potent a weapon of mass destruction as any nuclear or chemical weapon was in the old world, but, for all its violence, its main targets are not bodies but minds. As a physical weapon, it is quite limited compared to nuclear bombs, able to kill only a few hundred or, at most, a few thousand at a time. But as a weapon aimed at minds, it is exceedingly efficient, wreaking destruction on a global scale with little investment. As with other weapons of mass destruction, it destroys its targets in many different ways, and continues to do so long after initial deployment. Like nuclear weapons, it causes mutations – in mindsets. Like chemical weapons, it leads to chronic disorders – of thinking. And like biological weapons, it sows infections that travel far and remain latent for years – in entire societies and populations. It can make people lose their ideals, their values and their reason, driving them to do things that, in fact, are exactly what the wielders of the weapon want; things that make the terrorists stronger and civilized society weaker. Jihadi terrorism is a killer app for the mind, turning people on all sides into zombies.

To understand why terrorism such as that practiced by ISIS works, we have to first separate it from its pale predecessors. Even late 20th century examples of what was labeled as terrorism – such as the actions of the IRA or the Tamil Tigers – were nothing like what we see today. First, in those cases and others like them, the tactic was used for a limited, well-defined goal, and was essentially an extension of warfare to a new dimension. This remains true today of many militant groups in various parts of the world that specific countries regard as “terrorist”, and it is this fact that has given rise to the notion that “One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter”. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are no one's freedom fighters! Their goal is not to liberate an area or humiliate a power; it is to remake the world. As such, they have invented a new weapon of mass destruction, and over two decades or so, learned to deploy it with increasing sophistication – though not without a lot of unwitting help from their targets. The potency of this weapon derives only from its use as a means to change the world. As a weapon for fighting an army or liberating a country, it is almost useless because of its poor resolution. It relies on the infrastructure of a globalized world and works only on a global scale. It assumes the existence of a globally connected economic network that can be targeted anywhere, a global system of social networks that can be accessed anywhere, and a global news media that is omnipresent, hypervigilant and driven by the sensational. It relies also on a public that no longer sees itself as natives of villages and towns, but as Skypers, whatsappers, travelers, immigrants, world-dwellers. And it counts on the fact that more and more of humanity lives in cities, and usually far from whatever roots they had – living in mentally precarious situations where they can be terrified or recruited as needed. In other words, it counts on a global society that has lost whatever stabilizing features it once had and is now a great, far-from-equilibrium complex system with no clear boundaries and no fixed contexts.

By now, most thoughtful people understand that the war against jihadi terrorism is not just a contest of physical force. We often hear that it is also a “battle of ideas”. However, that is too superficial a reading of the situation. Indeed, the main battlefield in the war is mental, but the battle is at the much deeper level of instincts, emotions and beliefs, i.e., those things that shape our values long before they are turned into ideas and expressed in language. The terrorists are engaging with our lizard brains, and that is where they must be met.

The terrorists realize that their best chance of creating a new world order lies in the destabilization of the old one – not in any specific way, but simply to produce a cauldron of chaos in which an infinity of new orders suddenly become possible – perhaps even leading to a phase transition. They think that, with divine help, they can control what then emerges from this chaos. They may even believe for religious reasons that an order that favors them is foreordained. The fact that they are almost certainly wrong about this final outcome does not invalidate their initial insight. And recent history suggests that they are learning. Al-Qaeda perpetrated 9/11 as an open-ended action to destabilize, to create a historical “hinge moment”, where the direction of history could change. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, but they had no strategy to control the aftermath, which has engulfed them ever since. ISIS learned one important lesson from them: The necessity of a vision. They found this vision in something that sits deep within the historical memory of Muslim civilizations: The idea of a Caliphate. And – unlike Al-Qaeda – ISIS realized that a Caliphate would be credible only if it was more than an abstraction, if it actually possessed territory and had an economy. The world is only now coming to terms with the romance of this idea for many Muslims across the world, but it was not hard to predict.

However, as others have noted, it is not the territory but the vision of the Caliphate that ISIS is really pushing. A moth-eaten state with limited resources in the heart of the Syrian desert is of little consequence in the old model of a state-based world, but with ISIS, it is just an address for a much larger enterprise – much as multinational corporations use small offices in the Bahamas or the Cayman Islands for tax purposes. Like these corporations, ISIS markets its products internationally, and these products are fear and hope, hate and love, loyalty and vengeance, solidarity and xenophobia, submission and exaltation – feelings that lie much deeper than mere “ideas”. As Scott Atran has noted very astutely:

“….Al Qaeda, ISIS and related groups pose the greatest threat as the world's most dynamic countercultural movement, one whose values run counter to the nation-state system represented here in the United Nations, and to its Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Contrary to what most people think, ISIS whispers to all of us, stroking our ancient grievances, ancestral hatreds, the need for meaning in life, the promise of vengeance and redemption. Each of us hears what we already crave, and we respond without thinking – some with violence, others with fear or prejudice. What ISIS understands better than most is that the new world of global communication gives them direct access to the minds of individuals everywhere in a way that was not possible even a few decades ago, that they can exploit human nature through the global system to achieve exactly the ends they want. And – crucially – this applies not only to the bombers and fighters they recruit to their cause, but also to the rest of us who respond instinctively and emotionally to the violence these recruits perpetrate. The nature of this response is critically important. Those who react to terrorist attacks by abandoning bedrock principles are being “radicalized by ISIS” every bit as much as the young men being lured to fight in Syria.

As these lines are being written, governments in Europe and in many states within the U.S. are proclaiming their desire to exclude Syrian refugees. There are calls to monitor all Muslims, set religious tests for refugees, and close down all mosques in the United States. In the aftermath of tragedy, such ideas will resonate with large segments of the population, inevitably leading politicians everywhere to move in the direction of curtailing civil liberties. Right wing ideas will receive new sustenance, and inclusive societies will become ever so slightly more polarized – making it that much easier for ISIS to recruit its next set of suicide bombers or soldiers within Western countries. There will be more airstrikes in Syria and Iraq and, if ISIS is fortunate, even a ground invasion that will enmesh national armies in an Iraq-style quagmire for another decade. In other words, almost everything ISIS most desires is likely to happen to some degree. One can argue whether it is wise for ISIS to desire these outcomes, or if they will even survive them. I believe that they probably will not, but the seed they have planted will almost certainly survive and bring forth an even more poisoned harvest. And all this because the goals of ISIS are aligned almost perfectly with the responses of our primeval natures, and because globalization has given ISIS access to our collective minds!

As noted recently by Atran and Hamid, ISIS is offering the world – especially its most vulnerable youth – a concrete vision of “finding a sense of meaning” through pristine brutality. The counter-strategy must equally offer a concrete vision grounded in the values of humanism and individual liberty. Unfortunately, all we see so far are calls for military invasions, carpet bombings, xenophobia and curtailment of civil rights. If that is to be the extent of the civilized world's response, ISIS is getting what it wants.

An especially effective aspect of the ISIS approach – whether by design or accident – is the way it exploits existing systems of government. Autocracies are, as always, limited by the imaginations of the autocrats, which are never very fertile, but democracies too face a crucial problem. Democracy is essentially a mechanism for institutionalizing normative decision-making, allowing the collective will to override the whims of tyrants and monarchs. The unspoken assumption in this is that the averaging process of democracy would cancel out excesses in all directions, leading to a moderate course in government. This is indeed a vast improvement over all other systems of governance seen through history, but the “averaging heuristic” has a fatal flaw: Human decision making is a highly nonlinear process and averaging does not necessarily lead to a middle course. In stressful situations, complex systems with positive feedback loops can gravitate to all-or-none outcomes representing extremes. This is how even the best of democracies can produce instances such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and McCarthyism. Until the advent of truly global, ubiquitous mass media, this could be checked to some degree through the discretion of “wise” leaders (e.g., Roosevelt's support of the Allies prior to Pearl Harbor), but in the modern era, leaders of democracies have virtually no discretion. Public opinion and looming elections are at the core of their decision-making today. With a reasonable knowledge of human psychology and a modest investment in resources (including a few individuals hankering for a short-cut to paradise and its virgins), an organization like ISIS can readily press the right buttons in the minds of voters, have the response magnified by the media – providing the crucial positive feedback – and achieve their goal of discrediting liberal humanist values. We are watching this jiu-jitsu trick unfolding before our eyes today as American politicians (for the record, almost all Republicans) line up to turn their backs on helpless refugees in the name of security. The genius of 21st century global terrorism is to align its goals with human nature. Natural human responses driven by fear, anger, loss and group solidarity are, therefore, likely to play into the terrorists' hands, as a few commentators have already pointed out.

A New Geopolitics

So what is to be done? Give up democracy and trust in “wise” men and women? That would be an even greater victory for the terrorists. Give in to anger and invade Syria, hoping to wipe ISIS off the face of the Earth? Perhaps, but that will not kill the vision promoted by ISIS. Rethink alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan where the jihadi ideology has more support? That would only create a larger space for ISIS and its progeny to prosper in. There are no ready answers, but one thing should be clear: Just as ISIS has developed a strategy that thrives on disorder, so must those opposing it. This attribute – recently named antifragility by Nassim Taleb – is an essential feature of successful processes in complex systems. In such systems, any process or strategy based on explicit, detailed planning is doomed to fail simply because the behavior of the system is deeply unpredictable. To succeed, a strategy must be opportunistic, exploiting the disorder freely available within the system rather than seeking to protect any specific fragile order. It will need to be open-ended rather than goal-driven, and necessarily involve many detours, backward steps, and re-evaluations. Individual decisions within such a strategy may be inexplicable or even apparently counter-productive. Above all, the strategy must be inherently dynamic – seeking to shape the flow rather than preserve a status quo, and trying to actively exploit the chaos created by the terrorists before they can exploit it.

In the short term, it may be possible to use limited actions to keep the current system from reaching a tipping point. This is a practical, less disruptive approach, but it temporizes rather than solving the problem. A system as complex as human society, with its layers of culture, history, religion and geopolitics, is likely to return to the edge of crisis in any case – especially with other impending problems such as climate change.

Devising and executing a strategy to counter jihadi extremism will require not only immense wisdom in leaders, but also flexibility – since many initial choices will be incorrect; self-confidence – since results will only appear slowly; and, above all, imagination at least equal to that of the adversary. From the public at large, it will require patience, maturity, and trust in each other and their leaders. War, intelligence and surveillance may well be part of the strategy, but most of it will have to be political and psychological – just as it in on the other side. Surely, it is beginning to dawn on world leaders that leadership in the age of globalization is a completely different thing than it was even within relatively recent memory. The challenges of our time – not just jihadi extremism, but also climate change, extreme poverty, demographic stress, pandemics – will all require radically counter-intuitive decisions. Even more critically, geopolitics will need to move past the idea of nation states and national interests, and focus on global interests. On a connected planet, we all survive or perish together. Neither terrorism nor temperature knows national boundaries, and the decision-makers of the world will have to think at the global level. The vertical silos of nations will have to be replaced by a horizontal division between those who seek a better world and those who do not, be they terrorists, polluters or human traffickers. Ultimately, all powers, including the US, Europe, Russia, China, Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India and the rest, will have to act together and forge consensus policies against all these challenges. Petty rivalries and historical grievances will have to fall by the wayside. People will need to become citizens of their states of mind rather than of nation states. Of course, this idea is not without precedent. The vision of a world without boundaries has previously been espoused by old ideologies such as Christian and Muslim theocracy, and by the modern ideology of global Communism. Each time, it has failed in the face of human compulsions. A critical challenge for the leaders of the new world is to arrive at a more inclusive, more resilient, and more inspiring vision of united humanity that does not degenerate into a mirror image of its adversary, and to educate those they lead in this new vision of the world. Given the experience of history, there is little reason to be optimistic. But without this geopolitical transformation, humanity will surely reach the brink of multiple catastrophes in fairly short order, and the societal dispensations that emerge after that will make today's problems seem like child's play.