Acceptable Targets: A Tale of Two Terrorist Attacks

In the past month, the world witnessed two headline-grabbing terrorist attacks. The first was a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston by a lone white male, killing 9. The second is a trio of simultaneous strikes in France, Tunisia and Kuwait, each perpetuated by one or two individuals, killing at least 54. The Charleston shooter claimed he was motivated by a desire to start a race war. The Islamic State (Daish) claimed responsibility for the attack in Tunisia, and have produced propaganda calling for terrorist attacks during Ramadan; the other two attacks may have a connection to the Tunisian strike too.

One attack generated lasting international controversy. The other has faded from social media. The latter was inspired by the world’s foremost threat to international security, whose ideology continues to inspire people to mass atrocities and whose religion is practised by over a billion people worldwide. The former was done by a mentally unbalanced individual who sought refuge in an ideology shunned by the world, even in its place of origin.

One would think the larger, deadlier attack would generate more controversy. Incredibly enough, this is not so.

The disparity is even more stunning when you look at the consequences of the attack.

The Charleston shooter generated a media firestorm concerning racism in America, with people calling for the removal of the Confederate Battle Jack. The controversy had people swarming in to defend or suppress freedom of speech, condemn the former Confederate States of America — an unrecognised country that lasted for all of four years — and tear down the Battle Jack, and creating memes expressing extreme disapproval of the flag and the South. On the political front, politicians and celebrities jumped all over themselves to push for even greater gun control measures, and to press the state government of South Carolina to take down the Battle Jack flying over the State House. Apple has removed every American Civil War game from its app store because these games have an image of the Battle Jack, while Amazon and Walmart have de-listed the flags of the Confederate States.

The latest attacks generated all of…nothing. No fiery speeches or articles about Arabic or Muslim prejudice. No calls for gun control — but then, the attacks took place in countries where guns are highly restricted or outright illegal. The flags of the Nation of Islam, Palestine, the Ottoman Empire, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Oman, and other Islamic organisations and nations that supported the slave trade for centuries and international jihad for decades are still sold openly. Never mind that the majority of the slave trade from 8th to the 19th century has facilitated and institutionalised by black Muslim empires in Africa and the Middle East. Games that let the player take on the role as the ruler of Islamic states which supported slavery and conquest, such as the Civilization series, Age of Empires, Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis III and IV, are still on the shelves. No calls to ban Islam or demolish mosques.

From a political perspective, it’s almost as if the second attack never happened. But then, the first attack is an acceptable target.

Politics and Narratives

These two examples are illustrative of a wider principle: that of the narrative. The ideologies of gun control, white guilt, hatred for the American South and other related ideas predominate in the Western-influenced world. When a terrorist attack happens to fall into the narrative generated by these ideas, the power brokers, politicians, influencers and supporters will hustle to dance on the future graves of the unburied dead to push their agenda. They’ve become so powerful that corporations will either bow to pressure or take pre-emptive moves to avoid offending them. The ideologues jumped on a tragedy and turned it into a political victory, as they have done for every controversial shooting and act of terror that they could twist to their ends. As long as pressure tactics and media saturation work in their favour, they will continue to press for their vision of a better world — not with guns or bombs, but with memes and words and peer pressure.

And if another tragedy occurs that does not fall into their narrative, don’t expect them to do any more than mouth words of condolences.

The deck is stacked in their favour. White on black slavery, proliferation of guns, racial tensions and conflict, these are all acceptable targets to the international media. It creates a narrative of conflict, which drives controversy and therefore eyeballs and advertising revenue. Inconvenient facts — the slave trade being driven by blacks and Muslim empires, the first gun control laws being aimed at blacks, the ties between the KKK and the Democrat Party, Islamist-inspired terrorists killing people and gaining more territory than any other cause since the 21st century — are swept under the carpet. The media will gladly support the ideologues as long as they see profit in doing so; left unchecked, they will dominate the politics of Western-influenced civilisation and turn a blind eye to such inconveniences as reality.

How Daish will Adapt

What really concerns me is what groups like Daish will do next. By now they must have noticed the relative lack of impact the triple attacks had versus the Charleston shootings, never mind that these attacks killed over six times the number of victims across a much larger area. They would adjust their strategies accordingly.

Conflict is no longer monolithic. It is not about Axis versus Allies, communism vs capitalism, it is a patchwork of violent nonstate actors and rogue regimes with shifting allegiances and alliances against literally everybody else. Case in point, America might support Saudi Arabia to guarantee the flow of Saudi oil, but members of the Saudi royal family supported al-Qaeda to attack the United States, and al-Qaeda’s successor, Daish, is now invading Saudi Arabia. In a chaotic and anarchic environment, VNSAs make their mark through propaganda of the deed, establishing legitimacy through conducting spectacular attacks that seize the attention of the world media.

Daish will learn that an attack that can be twisted to serve the narrative of gun control and white guilt will leave a far longer and lasting impression on the West than a mass terrorist attack in their name. Daish will know that their attacks won’t trigger these hot-button issues in Western minds, so they have to compete in three ways.

The first is to amplify their message. Killing over six times the number of victims isn’t enough to drown out the noise of a hot-button strike. In line with their virulent anti-Western brand of viciousness, Daish will likely develop novel ways to gruesomely kill large numbers of people, work with local partners or send infiltrators to access faraway targets, and go for symbolic and infrastructure targets — the former to amplify the brand, the latter to generate greater havoc.

The second is to choose timing. Daish will pay greater attention to the international news cycle. During Ramadan the world media will pay a little more attention to Muslim affairs, but they have learned that hot-button strike will trump this extra media attention. VNSAs have the advantage of choosing when and where to strike. Groups like Daish will step up attacks to coincide with events of major significance that tie into their brand (Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, anniversary of their self-proclaimed caliphate, etc.), or delay attacks to let other messages clear from the news cycle and social media networks.

The third is to exploit the news cycle by dominating the narrative before anyone else. The Charleston shooting generated so much controversy partially because the ideologues jumped all over the event and captured so much media attention, without even waiting for the bodies to cool. Daish and VNSAs will likely study this. In future attacks, I expect terrorists to start claiming responsibility once they have confirmation that the attack is complete, and for their sympathisers to start flooding the airwaves with propaganda and activism. They will use Western notions of freedom of speech against the West, claiming that their messages of hatred is protected speech.

These strategies are not even limited to Daish. Other groups, now and in the future, will do the same thing, to different degrees. Daish simply enjoys primacy of place since it has effectively replaced al-Qaeda as the world’s number one boogeyman for the time being. But at the local level, groups will use such tactics to dominate local political spheres, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or the cartels in Mexico. Terrorism will become increasingly sophisticated, and will use the technology and norms of the West against it.

What can be done?

The first step is to not reward terrorism. Terrorists, be they lunatic mass shooters or rational VNSAs, want to generate publicity through their operations. Therefore, after every strike, the media should report the facts while giving the perpetrators no attention whatsoever beyond noting which group was responsible for the hit. At the level of the individual, people need to start tuning out when the ideologues crawl out of the woodwork, or else call them out for jumping the gun when the facts are not in yet. It means refusing to play by the rules of the 24/7 news cycle, and instead waiting for days or weeks, waiting until the facts come in.

The second is to pay attention to global trends. It says much about the world when a mentally unbalanced individual who kills nine people in the name of a dead country generated much more attention than a clear and present threat to the world that aims to overthrow the weak states of the Middle East. People need to understand the real problems they are facing, and prioritise their time, attention, energy and resources accordingly. Ideologues will want to paint their pet cause as THE pressing threat to civilisation: ignore them, and look at the real problems the world faces.

The third is to pay attention. It has never been easier for individuals to sow chaos and kill people en masse in the history of mankind. People can no longer count on intelligence services to reliably intercept terrorists before they strike, and the military and police can only respond to an attack in progress. People need to start looking out for lone wolves, terrorism indicators and other threats — and those so inclined need to step up and study the skills needed for a mass casualty event.

War has changed. It is no longer fought on battlefields with clearly-defined combatants. It will be fought on the Internet and in the printing presses, by soldiers and civilians, in streets and homes everywhere in the world. There are no longer non-combatants, just people who can fight back and people who cannot, and people who believe messages and people who do not.

The Appeal of the Islamic State

Yesterday The Middle Ground published an opinion piece titled A Young Muslim on ISIS. While it approaches the Islamic State (henceforth called Daesh here) from the perspective of a Muslim, the writer makes a few generalities that don’t hold up. Crucially, he says:

“My sense is, if you add a dash of ignorance and a sprinkle of mis-education to a person with violent traits, you get a self-radicalised individual. And if you add the zest of youth and thrill to the mixture, you get the most dangerous kind of self-radicalised individuals.”

And

ISIS’ version of Islam offends my senses, just based on the fundamental principles of ethics and morality. It just feels wrong, and I am certain that for many people, that feeling outweighs any other feeling of isolation or marginalisation they may face in their current communities. Religious differences aside, there is something inherently wrong about killing and torture. There is something inherently wrong about raping women and children. There is something inherently wrong about slavery. There is something inherently wrong about stripping someone of their dignity and worth on the account that they don’t share your religious beliefs. Everything about the tenets ISIS preaches goes against the natural order. Contrary to their mission, I don’t think ISIS is more concerned about ‘saving Islam’ than it is about its own political and personal agendas.

I am aware though, that there are many who genuinely believe they are ‘saving Islam’ and to that I would ask “from what exactly?” Islam does not need any more saving than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism does. If there is anything or anyone that Islam needs saving from, it is ISIS, because I don’t think any group has been more successful at tarnishing the image of the religion in this 21st century.

While the writer’s sentiments are understandable, they are sentiments. They are feelings and they do not necessarily offer any greater insight into Daesh, its appeal, and the phenomenon it embodies. Women have joined Daesh for the express purpose of being wives — not combatants. Yet they are self-radicalised individuals who learned about Daesh over the Internet. Further, while Daesh may feel wrong to the writer and offends his sense of morality, its ideas certainly do not feel wrong to its adherents.

Daesh cannot and must not be seen in isolation. It must be seen in the context of transitional violent non-state actors and civilisations.

Violent Non-State Actors in Transition

This is an invented term I will use to describe violent non-state actors that are in transition to becoming a state or something in between, by taking on the functions of a state in part or in whole. In modern times, there are multiple examples we can look at.

Mexico’s long and bitter drug war have left the federal government weakened and local government nonexistent. Drug cartels have moved in to occupy these territories. Some rule with an iron fist, bribing authority figures and assassinating the incorruptible. Others are more benevolent, establishing welfare programmes and donating regularly to charity. As John Robb argues in Brave New War, the cartels intend to hollow out the government but not to replace it. They are seeking a space where they can conduct their business in peace, using Mexican sovereignty as a shield against foreign (read: American) military intervention.

Since 1996, the Palestinian territories have held elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. The first election went to Fatah, which was riddled with corruption and caught in a conflict with its archrival Hamas. This led to widespread poverty and chronic underdevelopment. Hamas took on the functions of state, building schools and organising drought relief missions, in the place of Fatah. Hamas won the 2006 elections, transforming from a guerilla organisation into a legitimate political authority.

Even in the West, non-state actors are undermining the authority of the state. The Shariah Project deployed Shariah patrols to East London in 2013, confronting passers-by and demanding that they conform to Shariah law. Swedish police have ceded control of 55 zones to Muslim criminal gangs. Violence from Mexico’s cartel wars are spreading to the American border regions, moving illegal immigrants into America and embedding among these immigrants a network of spies, lieutenants and other facilitators.

Seen in this context, Daesh is no different. During the Syrian civil war, the secular nationalist forces battled the remnants of the loyalist military, while radical Islamic fighters shored up their power. The Americans destroyed the central governments of Iraq and Afghanistan during their invasions, and they have not created adequate replacements, leading to a void filled with insurgent groups. The Islamic radical groups banded together, forming Daesh and its allies. Now Daesh is seeking to expand into Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and are developing the infrastructure of a state: they are minting their own currency, enforcing laws, and building schools. Daesh is becoming a true Islamic State.

As Daesh expands into Kurdish lands, they have triggered a backlash. The Kurds are a people without a nation, but in modern history they have been pushing for a state of their own. Daesh’s invasion of Kurdish lands prompted many people of Kurdish descent to travel to Kurd territory to fight Daesh. Other non-Kurdish volunteers have also volunteered to join the fight. While there is no Kurdistan per se, one outgrowth of the war in Iraq was the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is pressing for independence from Iraq, but is endangered by Daesh, and the Iraqi military seems powerless to stop Daesh. A successful defence of Iraqi Kurdistan could be the impetus for a Kurdish nationalist movement — one that encompasses Kurdish lands in Turkey and Iran.

Common to these phenomenon is the failure or nonexistence of states. By failing to provide core services to the people — security, food and water, infrastructure — they lose the loyalty of their citizens. Disenfranchised, these people turn to different identity circles that would provide a sense of community and necessities.

Civilisation, the State and the Islamic State

Using Samuel Huntington’s definitions, a civilisation is the broadest possible grouping of people along linguistic, cultural, historical, genetic or other markers. A state, by contrast, is a political entity that exercises control over a given geographical region. Therefore, a civilisation can contain multiple states, a civilisation can be a single state, and large states (as in the case of empires) may encompass different civilisations. Daesh is that strange animal of a single-state civilisation, a distinction usually held only by Japan, India and China.

Daesh is based on ultra-fundamentalist views of the Qu’ran, effectively transposing the worldview of Qu’ranic times into the 21st century. Being in the Middle East, it has a heavy Arabic cultural influence, and as it happens many Muslims are either of Arabic descent or else are familiar with Arabic. The last great Islamic civilisation, the Ottoman Empire, dissolved in 1922. Through propaganda and deed, Daesh promises a return of a golden age of Islam and the formation of a new Islamic civilisation. Its numerous military successes give sympathisers and believers hope that this dream would come true, and Daesh’s efforts to build a statea long Qu’ranic lines signal that it is serious about building both a state and a civilisation.

Contrast this promise and hope with modern society. The lynchpins of the modern economy are under fire everywhere: the Euro faces the possibility of Greece exiting the monetary union, capitalism is seen to have led to ever-expanding wealth inequalities, jobs are perceived to go to foreigners who demand lower wages than locals. Police and military personnel face heavy scrutiny, and even the slightest hint of impropriety leads to accusations of racism/sexism/prejudice, which are inevitably followed by outrage, media circuses, apologies and resignations. Identity and gender politics threaten to divide people along arbitrary identity markers, taking states with them.

To impressionable minds, Daesh promises hope and society promises victimisation. China has long suppressed Islam in Xinjiang province, and consequently many Muslims are travelling to support Daesh. Malaysia and Indonesia are nominally Muslim states, but despite their racial and religious politicking they do not promise victory and a golden age like Daesh, leading idealists who seek a ‘true’ Islamic state to the Middle East. In the West, where immigration policies are liberal and integration is optional, entire communities see themselves as Muslims but not necessarily citizens of the state they live in. When they hear of Daesh’s victories, they feel more obliged to support their fellow Muslims than the state they do not feel loyalty to.

Daesh’s appeal lies in portraying themselves as Good People. And Good People can justify any number of atrocities to themselves because they believe they are in the right. This is further compounded by Daesh’s Arabic roots and cultural influence. Being tribal based, Arab societies are sometimes described as amoral familist in nature. In effect, morality is defined by the impact on the tribe: if something supports the tribe it is good, and if it harms the tribe it is evil. Amoral familism treats everybody outside the tribe as strangers at best and enemies at worst, and since terrifying the world will increase the standing of the tribe, atrocities like beheading captives and raping slaves are not only permissible but a moral imperative.

Now the question is: what can we do about Daesh?

Daesh brands itself as an Islamic state and the inheritor of Islamic civilisation. It is therefore incumbent on the Muslims of the world to reject the brand of Islam Daesh represents, and to actively participate in civic affairs. It is not enough to shout down distasteful ideologies; people need also to build societies along their preferred ones. In the First World, this means adopting the norms of racial and religious harmony and tolerance, rejecting prejudice and working in tandem with all peoples to build a society based on common values.

For everybody else, this is a call to unity. Violent non-state actors emerge where the state is weak or nonexistent. Daesh is merely the most high-profile VNSA at this time. As states crumble, other VNSAs and transitional NSAs will emerge. To prevent this, states and civilisations have to remain strong. This means rejecting the politics of division and identity, of isolating the extremists and working together with the reasonable people along the rest of the political spectrum. It means cohering as a nation, a people, a civilisation, and to build a better world.

For people in Singapore, this means rejecting the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other model. We cannot define ourselves primarily as Buddhist, Indian, Malay-Muslim, Christian, whatever. We must define ourselves as Singaporeans. In effect, to be one people, one Singapore. Most of all, it means participating in the community of nations, rejecting the extremists and the rogue states, and to be ready to defend ourselves against those who would do us violence with as much violence as we can muster.

Singapore's hybrid warfare strategy is lacking

The media reported that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is adapting to new threats posed by hybrid warfare, defending against conventional and unconventional threats from state and non-state actors. Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Han described hybrid warfare as the “exact antagonist” of Singapore’s total defence strategy, seeking to undermine the target’s defences in civil, economic, social, psychological and military spheres.  To meet this threat, the Navy will replace its Patrol Vessels with Littoral Mission Vessels, while the Army will phase out its fleet of V-200 armoured cars with new Protected Response Vehicles. The SAF will also raise new units for cyber defence, and explore other technologies.

This round of upgrades would likely enable the SAF to keep pace with military developments. It is also unlikely to matter in the event of hybrid warfare.

Dr Ng’s description of hybrid warfare is not wrong. He was framing it in terms relevant to Singapore’s Total Defence strategy. However, hybrid warfare isn’t solely, or even predominantly, military. Hybrid warfare is fought predominantly in non-military spheres.

The terrorists of the world have pointed the way. Palestinian terrorist groups made their mark by choosing strategies to provoke Israel into repeated overreaction, making the latter appear to be the oppressor in the conflict. Insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan fight from villages and cities, forcing Western forces to choose between mass collateral damage or dramatically reduced fire support. Islamist propaganda consistently paints the West as the Dar al-Harb, the House of War, by playing up immoral Western activities and portraying them as aggressors. Terrorists and their sympathisers use social media to amplify these actions, portraying their cause as just.

And yet, what is clear is that state actors have consistently been playing to the tune of non-state actors. Islamist terrorist groups want Israel to engage in widespread destruction; the Israelis obliged through collective punishments, bombing terrorists in dense urban areas, and further isolating Palestine. The Americans continue their policy of launching Hellfires at terrorists from UAVs, blowing up more civilians than combatants in the process. They have done everything to make themselves look like the bad guys, and every little to correct that perception.

When state actors embrace the tools of subversion, their access to greater resources and population bases leave them more tools. The Russians in the Ukraine began their campaign by infiltrating large numbers of masked, deniable gunmen into the Crimea, paving the way for the main forces. In the early days of the conflict, the Ukrainian military failed to respond decisively to the militia in their midst, and the Western European powers had no strategic impetus to intervene. This made it extremely difficult to eject the Russians when they came in force.

But the principal tool here is not military power. The first wave of irregulars were largely unopposed. That was because the Russians had succeeded in swaying the Russian-ethnic majority of the Crimea to their side. Moscow painted the Ukrainian government as Western puppets, and appealed to their shared cultural history to win their support. The people of the Crimea elected their own pro-Russian government, repudiated the state of Ukraine and acceded to the Russians. Because of this popular support, the Russians secured their campaign objectives with minimal bloodshed and without triggering World War III.

The Chinese Assassin’s Mace concept took hybrid warfare several steps further, discussing the use of economic warfare, propaganda, and asymmetric warfare. For instance, suppose the Chinese decide to invade Taiwan. The United States threatens to intervene. In response, Chinese hackers black out the West Coast and inserts a virus that knocks out the New York Stock Exchange. If the US makes a move, the Chinese promise to cut power to the rest of the nation. A blackout is not, strictly speaking, an act of war, nor is crashing a stock exchange, but these moves would undercut any appetite for intervention without firing a shot. If the Chinese wish to fight at the moral level, they would precede the invasion by engineering a crisis in Taiwan, perhaps a false flag operation that paints the mainland Chinese community at risk of deportation or oppression by an aggressively nationalist government.

Singapore’s hybrid warfare strategy focuses on countering military threats, and in the future cyberwarfare threats. While periodic modernisation upgrades are almost always useful, Singapore’s obsession with technology mirrors that of the Americans — and despite American technological supremacy they have not won the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military strategist William S. Lind repeatedly pointed out that fourth generation warfare, the open source warfare embraced by non-state actors, is fought principally on the moral level. The opening moves are designed to secure the moral high ground, and follow-up moves to keep the target from wresting that position away. In doing so, the target loses the support of the people and the world, and eventually loses the will to fight. This is seen in the battlefields of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Hybrid warfare, as embodied by the Russians, began and continued the same way, with the Russians communicating the same consistent message undermining the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government and affirming their common ground with the Crimea. While there will nevertheless be military operations at the physical level, these operations are subordinate to, and superceded by, combat at the moral level. Case in point, the US military won nearly every battle in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, but by failing to win the hearts and minds of the people they failed to win the wars.

With hybrid warfare fought at the moral level, what is the SAF’s response?

Trick question. The SAF is optimised for military conflicts. Hybrid warfare is a moral confrontation. The SAF does not have much of a role to play in fields that do not concern external aggression, disaster/terrorist response, foreign aid, or incidents that require military deployment.

The real question is: what is the government’s response?

Hybrid warfare attacks the foundations of the state. The state’s first move must be to shore up its foundations and occupy the moral high ground before the threat approaches. The state must show that it represents the will of the people, that has the good of the people at heart, that its power is legitimate and non-state actors simply wish to destroy everything the state stands for.

Now consider this: Alex Au was fined $8000 for contempt of court. Lawyer M Ravi, famous for being of the few (or only) lawyers who will take on political and human rights cases, was suspended from the bar while he was representing politically-charged cases in court. The government continues to sue people for defamation, with Roy Ngerng the latest. The PAP Internet Brigade is still active. The White Paper on Population became policy even in the face of mass opposition. Thaipusam celebrations were slammed for being “too noisy”, and Parliament recently passed a bill prohibiting alcohol consumption in public without public consultation. As for the mainstream media, regardless of its failings it is safe to say that it will always publish the government’s point of view.

With its penchant for dropping the hammer on dissidents and bloggers, passing laws without warning or public consultation, and a sympathetic ‘nation-building’ press, can the government say it has the moral high ground?

Between the Points of the Pen and the Sword

The pen is mightier than the sword only as long as it takes for the swordsman to get within range of the writer. At which point the former will be free to make an example of the writer, and write his own message with the writer’s pen and blood.

As the tragedy in Paris has shown, it is not enough to say that people should be free to exercise their right to free speech. Free speech is lip service unless that speech is defended against all that seek to silence it — be they terrorists, militaries, or governments foreign and domestic. While Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue, depicting an image of the Prophet Muhammad, may be seen as a symbol of defiance, it is also guaranteed to provoke Muslim extremists — the equivalent of a wounded matador, alone and unarmed, waving a crimson flag in front of a blood-maddened bull.

The world is seeing a clash of cultures. France has a long and storied history of satire and political irreverance in the grand tradition of Voltaire; to these jesters, everybody and everything is fair game for insults and criticism, and they are not required to pay a high social cost for their words. Muslim extremists, on the other hand, brook no dissent and tolerate no slight towards the symbols and articles of their faith, and will not hesitate to turn their ire on anyone who contradicts these values. This is especially pronounced among people from honour- and tribal-based cultures in the Middle East, for whom every insult must be returned with blood or blood money.

The language of satire, or indeed any kind of intellectual discourse, is not necessarily universal. Some brands of writing appeal to some people, others will offend those same people, and published ideas do not necessarily influence everyone they come into contact with. But violence is a universal language, and any given degree of violence has predictable first- and second-order effects on the target. Left unchecked, the extremists will win.

The modern terrorist employs fourth generation warfare to achieve strategic effects. One of the key principles of fourth generation warfare is to control the narrative. Extremists with the capacity and willingness to do violence in addition to spreading propaganda are going to seize the narrative. Whenever they encounter organisations that criticise them, insult them, or otherwise publish ideas contrary to what they stand for, extremists will target them for assassination and destruction. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is just the latest and most public of a long and lamentable history of violence against journalists and writers. The individual shooters may be motivated for any number of reasons, personal or ideological, but the strategic effect would be to punish and terrorise people who disagree with the extremist ideology, publicise their own ideology and demonstrate their power to the world.

News organisations, and by extension societies, targeted by such extremists will tend towards two courses of action. The first is to cease and desist publishing ‘inflammatory’ or ‘provocative’ material, either out of a sense of self-preservation or some misguided notion of respect for diversity. In which case the terrorists win the war of ideas, since they will be the only ones publishing inflammatory, provocative and therefore eye-grabbing content. The second is to puff up their chests and continue publishing provocative material. People will naturally laud these acts and naturally let the whole world know — and, naturally, the extremists will redouble their efforts and continue targeting such people and organisations until their staff are intimidated into resigning or until they are annihilated.

Between the jester with a pen and a terrorist with a machine gun, bet on the terrorist.

The next question, then, is what can be done in the wake of the Paris attacks. The easy approach, of course, is to condemn everybody that publishes offensive material — either of all kinds, or more commonly, offensive to Muslims. While benevolent, this is misguided. Terrorists do not care about offensive material — they just want to be the only ones offending people.

Freedom of speech must by necessity carry the freedom to offend. Puerile humour, the kind that Charlie Hebdo specialises in, is of course likely to offend people. But so can well-researched, thought-out white papers. It is only a question of audience and likelihood. Scour the Internet long enough and you will find flame wars and heated debates over everything from PC vs Apple vs console, the exact role of prebiotic starch in digestion, interpretations of the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 9mm vs .45. it is impossible to judge with any degree of accuracy how controversial something will be, and to say that materials that appear to offend a given class of people (such as Muslims) is to treat that class of people as infantile subhuman creatures, driven entirely by base emotions, guaranteed to explode into tantrums and violence when triggered. Beyond the inherent prejudice involved, refusing to publish offensive material is little more than appeasement, and appeasement is not a viable survival strategy when faced with barbarians who wish nothing less than the destruction of civilisation.

Another easy approach is to enhance security measures in the name of counterterrorism. UK Prime Minister David Cameron is calling for new laws to break into encrypted terrorist chatter. Actual enforcement may prove stickier: it would require the government to either pre-emptively ban encryption protocols it cannot break, or private corporations to give the government unilateral access to confidential communications between innocent clients. It is easy to justify such an approach by claiming that it will save lives. The problem is that terrorists do not kill for the sake of killing; they are interested in mass casualties only insofar as they inflict terror on the target population. Terrorists kill civilians to degrade the values of society, in the case of Paris freedom of speech. Security measures that sacrifice freedom in order to fight terrorists who aim to subvert freedom are doing the terrorists’ work for them.

Fourth generation warfare is a sophisticated series of tactics and strategy to exhaust and hollow the state, tempting it into self-destruction. Countering 4GW requires similar sophistication, combining both the pen and the sword.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, upholding freedom of speech, and the freedom to offend, must still be paramount. At the policy level, neither the state or the industry should pass laws or regulations, formal or informal, that suppresses anybody’s right to say anything. The only exception should be made for speech that incites or enables violence.

While states have a duty to protect their people, the greater the power a state has the greater the potential for abuse. Counterterrorism laws and policies that further increase the power of the state must include clauses for checks and balances, such as an oversight committee, requirements for warrants, and strategies that enable as precise a targeting method as possible to minimise the chances of innocents being caught in the dragnet. While swords are useful when faced with an enemy, it must be remembered that swords have two edges.

At the individual level, I think people should give some thought about the material they read and critique. This is not to say their tastes should fit mine, rather that it is useful to think about the effects of publishing something, be it in praise or condemnation of an idea. It is equally useful to make a distinction between crass or offensive material and material that promotes critical thought. All public speech, either in favour or as critique, will promote an idea to whoever happens to be the audience, followed by how the speaker frames and interprets that idea. One’s personal taste is entirely personal, but one does not need to critique every offensive thing either. Publicity is the oxygen of ideas and memes; to defeat them, I think starving them of attention would be the best approach. This would mean supporting and publicising speech that affirms the values that underpin civilisation, and ignoring that which do not — and, perhaps, by rhetorically savaging those that undermine it with the goal of discrediting the underlying ideas.

But beyond the level of the pen, people and organisations have to take personal security seriously. I will grant that this tends to be more useful against criminals than terrorists, but people who publish the kind of speech that offends terrorists are statistically more likely to be targeted by such people. Remaining a soft target exposes them and their families to death and fates worse than death — and turns them into a message for their colleagues and fellow citizens. Further, it is increasingly unlikely that the police will be able to respond in time to a defeat a terrorist attack unless they happen to be in the vicinity. People who dare to dance with the devil must be ready to defend themselves, with violence if necessary. That means seeking training from competent professionals, establishing a security plan, hiring skilled protectors, and other such measures. I suspect in the long term, only people and organisations that can bear the cost of enhanced security measures will be free to criticise terrorism and its adherents without fear of death or ruin.

Fourth generation warfare combines the pen and sword, the former through propaganda and the latter through terrorist violence. It is not enough to pick one or the other in response. Society has to choose both, the former to spread the memes that affirm civilisation and undercut those that undermine it, and the latter to deter and defeat those who would use the sword against it.

Media and the Maturation of Fourth Generation War

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W. B. Yeats, the Second Coming

2014 closed on a bloody note, and a few days into 2015 the spectre of terror rose its head again. In the space of days and weeks the world saw a hostage crisis in Australia, another in Belgium, executions of police officers in America, mass abductions in Nigeria, and yesterday the assassinations of cartoonists in France.

It’s not the end of the world, but we can see it from here.

A state is commonly (albeit not quite completely) defined as a political organisation with a centralised government that maintains a monopoly on violence in a given territory. With the advent of new information communication technologies and the growing paradigm of open source warfare, that monopoly on violence is being challenged. The logical extension is that the power of the state will fade away, and the traditional world order defined by state actors will be replaced with a multipolar world defined by the expansion and growing importance of non-state actors and empowered individuals. The method of this transition is what is known today as fourth generation warfare.

First seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel and Chechnya, 4GW is defined by a blurring of lines between combatants and civilians, war and politics. Today it is mutating even further: the line between terrorism and crime is growing hazy, with one feeding into the other as seen in the case of the Mexican cartels and Palestinian smugger/terrorist groups; the deed becomes propaganda and propaganda fuels deeds; and gaining public legitimisation is as important a goal as securing territory.

War never changes. War is violence designed to compel an opponent to fulfil the actor’s will, and violence seems eternal. On the other hand, war has changed. The means and purposes of waging war has changed, as well as the temporal goals and identities of the actors. Anybody can make war with the right tools, motivation and mindset.

Today, there seem to be three prominent kinds of 4GW actors. The first are transnational terrorist groups, loosely connected over the Internet and social networks, that aim to overthrow or replace the state. These groups include Boko Haram and the Islamic State. While their goals are ideological, they borrow criminal activities and methods to keep themselves going, such as front organisations, smuggling and money laundering.

The second are transnational criminal organisations that aim to hollow out the state to secure a space to conduct criminal activities. The most prominent example are the Mexican cartels. While driven by profit, these groups use terrorist methodology to secure its goals. The cartels are loosely organised, use atrocities to terrorise the people in their territories, and challenge the state by targeting or corrupting the military and police.

The last are lone wolves who attack seemingly at random. These people have a huge array of motivations: workplace dissatisfaction, anger at the police or government, the creation of a caliph, or just plain mental illness. They adopt criminal mindsets, either obtaining weapons illegally or turning off-the-shelf products into weapons. They use terrorist methodology to gain maximum publicity, hitting soft targets and boasting on social media, relying on news cycles to gain their spot in history.

Central to all three actors is the use of media to conduct propaganda of the deed. They perform the deed, and they use media of all kinds to transform it into propaganda. They can count on the media to rapidly propagate news of their attacks across the world. This leads to three distinct media strategies.

First, 4GW actors will use the 24/7 news cycle to generate maximum terror. A sufficiently large and resourceful group will strike rapidly and retreat just as quickly, creating maximum impact for global publicity. Then they regroup and do it again, and again, and again. Think the Paris or Mumbai shooters on a larger scale. Alternatively, following a terrorist attack, fellow travellers or non-connected 4GW actors will use the increased focus on insecurity and fear to amplify press coverage of their next attack to create the perception of an unstable world. They may also conduct operations that synergize with each other, deliberately or otherwise. The chain of attacks I described above, for example, imply just that. These attacks need not be exclusive; in fact, one can happen alongside the other.

Second, 4GW actors will rely on operational pauses. When there is too much heat for the actors to operate, when competing groups have generated too much white noise and drawn too much attention away from their ideology, 4GW actors will retreat and halt operations for a time. They will wait until the news cycle clears and the local environment returns to a calmer state, and then strike again for maximum impact. This is the hallmark of the Islamic Caucuses Emirate, and it would likely be adopted by other groups in the future.

Thirdly, larger and more powerful 4GW actors will attempt to influence the news cycle. They want the media to portray them as an unstoppable force to be feared and respected, building up their credibility. They will likely make contact with media organisations that portray them favourably, or at least allow foreign correspondents a glimpse into their life. There was a reason why the Islamic State allowed a German journalist to chronicle them instead of turning him into a hostage. These actors will also target media organisations that portray them in an unfavourable light to intimidate everybody else. Think of the attack on Charlie Hebdo yesterday.

The newspaper is no longer just a newspaper; it is also a newsmaker. The mass media will become increasingly important targets, either of influence or coercion or both, in the coming days. Non-traditional media outlets and personalities will likely also be targeted: celebrities, blogs, social influencers, ordinary people with extraordinary reach. The days of traditional warfare and state protection are gone; a brave new war is coming, and anyone can take up the sword.

If, through your death or through your tweet, you can help a 4GW actor advance the cause, you will be a target. There is really only one answer to this. Stand up and be counted against the barbarians, or make your peace with the chain and the grave.