The Struggle against Global Insurgency

By Cox, Daniel G. | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Struggle against Global Insurgency


Cox, Daniel G., Joint Force Quarterly


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Since 9/11, it has become commonplace for scholars, politicians, and military thinkers to refer to current U.S. military and diplomatic actions as being part of a larger "war on terror." This is an extremely imprecise characterization of the current conflict. What the United States and, in fact, the world are facing is more properly dubbed a global insurgent movement that emanates from al Qaeda at the international level and that slowly seeps into legitimate (and illegitimate) national secessionist movements around the world. What follows is an argument in support of the claim that al Qaeda is essentially the world's first attempt at a global insurgency.

According to General Wayne Downing, USA (Ret.), "terrorism is a tactic used by Salafist insurgents to attain their strategic goals, which are political in nature." (1) Indeed, terrorism is a tactic--and one cannot wage war on a tactic. Though this is a correct but superficial criticism, it has never led to any meaningful discussion regarding the implications of this point or what it is that the U.S. military is actually combating. Only a few authors have asserted that al Qaeda is an insurgency, and even fewer have made the connection between al Qaeda's terror tactics and a larger global insurgency movement.

Audrey Kurth Cronin was one of the first scholars to hint that al Qaeda is a global insurgency, writing soon after 9/11 that it was aiming not so much at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or even the United States, but was instead aiming to destroy the U.S.-led global system. (2) David Kilcullen claims that the West is facing a "global jihad," which is much more akin to a global insurgency and has as its chief aim the imposition of a worldwide Islamic caliphate. (3) One of the newest entries into this field of argumentation is Dan Roper, who is not only one of a new breed of scholars who clearly sees the folly of declaring war against a tactic, but also one of the few to argue that the U.S. Government and military are facing a global insurgency and to provide some concrete policy recommendations. (4)

This article seeks to expand on this embryonic line of argumentation, but in order to establish al Qaeda as the first global insurgency, a review of the definition of insurgency and its link to terrorism must be conducted. Next, al Qaeda's rhetoric and demands are briefly examined. The article concludes with an analysis of al Qaeda's strategy for fomenting global insurgency through its exploitation of failed and failing states and of (often legitimate) domestic insurgencies around the world.

Insurgency and Terrorism

David Galula, in his seminal work Counterinsurgency Warfare, defines insurgency as "a protracted struggle conducted methodically, step by step, in order to attain specific intermediate objectives leading finally to the overthrow of the existing order." (5) Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, defines an insurgency along similar lines as "an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict." Frank Kitson expands on these notions, emphasizing that the successful insurgent generally starts with little power but a strong cause, while the counterinsurgent has a near monopoly of power but a weak cause or reason for holding that power, which the insurgent levers against the counterinsurgent over time until those in power are ousted. (6) Bard O'Neill adds three types of insurgency, which he dubs "anarchist," those wishing to overthrow government but not replace it; "egalitarian," those attempting to replace the current government with one that emphasizes distributional equality; and "traditionalist," those bent on replacing corrupt modern society with a mythologized distant past that emphasizes traditional values often rooted in fundamental interpretations of religion. (7)

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The relationship between insurgency and terrorism is not without controversy.

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