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The Seemingly Quixotic, but Remarkably Effective, Journey of a Small Band of Extreme Islamists And Why It Seems As If They Are Winning, When They May Not Be

Over the past weeks the news has been dominated by the discussion of the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS, The Islamic State of Iraq and as­Sham/Syria) through Iraq, the apparent ease with which this has occurred, and the virtual absence of any concerted resistance from an Iraqi military that was trained and armed through an expensive and arduous US military program. The common narrative in the Western media has been centered around the extremism of ISIL, their supposed military prowess, the “threat” that the organization poses domestically to the United States, and the potential for US military intervention in response. There have been other voices, largely in the think tank community, that have been attempting to inject an element of nuance, through a discussion of the constellation of fighting forces on the ground, a discussion of the political history behind the recent uprising, and some of the possible regional dynamics at work, but these have been largely ignored. This seems to be a result of the opacity of the entire discourse, the density of the recent history in the area, and the complexity of the situation on the ground. However, without this sort of background the current events seem to have sprung from nothingness.

As the dominant narrative goes, the US military drew down forces from Iraq in 2010 after succeeding in their mission to stabilize the political structure that resulted from the US invasion and occupation of the country in 2003. There are clearly issues with this narrative, issues that are clear to anyone that has been following events in Iraq closely for the past decade, but even where doubt about this narrative has persisted there is still a sense that the past few years have been relatively stable in Iraq. Hidden by this narrative is not only the political resentment that has been accelerating since 2010, culminating in a protest and occupation movement that was violently dispersed in the early part of 2014, but also the quiet reorganization that has been undertaken by a number of insurgent groups, as well as the dynamics of a region that is characterized by false borders that traverse vast swaths of open desert, a region that has been in a process of political upheaval for the past three years, particularly in Syria and bordering regions of Iraq. To really understand the media phenomena that is now termed ISIL we have to first be clear about some points. Primary among these is the multiplicity of forces that are arrayed within Iraq, specifically the tribal councils, most importantly in the rural north and east of the country, Kurdish groups, and the myriad of organizations participating in the current insurrection, which has largely, though inaccurately, been attributed completely to ISIL. But before discussing ISIL and the current array of forces around Iraq we will return to a period before ISIL or any of its previous incarnations existed, to May 22, 2003, when Paul Bremer signed Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 2 disbanding the Iraqi military and placing 400,000 people with arms and military training out of work. This move is widely considered to have set the stage for the Iraqi insurgency against the US occupation forces, beginning a trajectory that would move from resistance to occupation through sectarian civil war, the founding of Al­Qaeda in Iraq and the sectarian militias, the collapse of AQI from US counterinsurgency, the Anbar Awakening (a movement which had much to do with American funding of employment) and the betrayal of the Awakening members by first the US and then the Maliki regime.

It is in this background that we can understand how a small organization, less than 5,000 fighters by most estimates, has come to be the most dominant military force in an area roughly the size of Indiana in which there are tens of thousands of insurgents and any number of regime forces, and how they could launch a lightning strike of such speed and ferocity. Without this background it would almost seem as if ISIL is an invincible force, impervious to defeat, with unlimited resources and numbers that vastly outweigh the actual levels of force that they are able to deploy. ISIL is very adept in the use of guerrilla tactics, and many fighters within their ranks have previous experience in insurgent conflict in Iraq, Syria, or Chechnya, among other places, but it is not possible to understand the dynamics of the current conflict without examining their tactics through one essential lens; they are really good at projecting force, expanding capacity and moving through space quickly. This approach, though highly effective currently, generates a widely dispersed force dependent on other elements for its success. The strategy becomes difficult to maintain after a common objective dissipates, and makes impossible the inevitable attempt to move on to constitute the state. State building requires occupying, holding and policing space, and much higher concentrations of force than ISIL is currently able to mobilize. But before moving ahead in this analysis it is important to establish events starting from March 19, 2003, a day many of us who were active at the time remember, the day that Shock and Awe began in Iraq.

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Announcing the Release of the First Annual Issue of Insurgencies: A Journal of Insurgent Strategy

Since the announcement of Insurgencies by Little Black Cart around a year ago the impasse that this project formed in response to has deepened. We would like to say that this is not the case, but over the past year it has become clear that the impasse that was generated after the fall of the Occupy movement has begun to solidify into a stasis. But, at the same time there is something hopeful in this impasse. As the impasse begins to solidify as a terrain of engagement the traditional attempts to answer the question of “What is to be done”, attempts which all too often replicate the same staid formulas of the past, have begun to be seen for the absurdities that they are. This absurdity has not only become clear in the sense that former assumptions have been shown to be farcical, but in the sense that the entire concept that there can be a singular answer to this question, a general tactical approach that can be adopted regardless of the variances in the dynamics of engagement in different times and in different spaces, has not only been shown to be impossible, but damaging in its very assumptions. In the collapse of what was, the possibilities for something else can arise; the impasse is necessary, though frustrating and potentially painful.

In this collapse a new discussion has begun, one that recognizes the problems of former attempts to work through past impasses, one that is beginning to be serious about moving past activism, one that is beginning to attempt to navigate this indiscernible space. It is in this tendency that we are attempting to engage. This issue will be an attempt to not only engage in this discussion, but to push forward the concept of the discussion itself, to deepen the impasse and the crisis that this causes for the traditional, activist/movement-centric forms of engagement that tend to dominate this discussion, and to widen the space for rethinking what engagement is. It is only in this process of tearing apart, of deconstructing the terms of engagement as they have existed, whether as traditional rally and march forms that have passed for action and engagement for all too long, or the replication of similar assumptions in the attacks on symbols that had come to replace this form for many of us, that we can see the internal dynamics of these forms of engagement and the assumptions that have led us into impasse after impasse. It is only in this process that we can begin to understand the hazards that we must navigate, not merely as the tips of the icebergs that we must move around, but also as that which exists under the surface, the assumptions that have proven, time and time again, to be our ruin.

In this we do not promise nor intend to provide any answers to how to move beyond the impasse, and anyone that claims to do so is engaging in pure sophistry. Rather, this journal intends, at this point in time, to merely open the question further, potentially identify some pitfalls, and contribute to the process of orientation that we all must undertake if we ever hope to continue the struggle.

Insurgencies is available from Little Black Cart.

Two Pieces on Surveillance

Surveillance // Panopticon // Security Culture // Paranoia

Why hammer out concepts–be it speculative, critical, or pragmatist–if there is a meta-authority overseeing it all? Why conspire in the light?….We need to develop dissident knowledge of how to bring down drones, detect sensors, hack servers, distort GPS signals, and disrupt Google by fooling its algorithms. Forget the next innovation cycle. If the common hacker’s paranoia informs us correctly, we lost the war years ago and are surrounded. Soon we will be called to surrender, one by one.

–Geert Lovink “Hermes on the Hudson: Notes on Media Theory after Snowden., April 4, 2014.

A culture of security is one which enhances an organization’s capacity to determine its interests and act on them in spite of another organization’s opposed interests. Corporate workforces and law enforcement agencies both cultivate cultures of security, as do management teams, investment rings, smugglers, unions, militia men, and academic researchers. All of these cultures are supposed to control flows of information (trade secrets, exclusive suppliers, price indexes, strategic plans, etc.) and restrict communication in furtherance of an organization’s interests.

Among dissident circles, the term Security Culture has been popularized as a response to the absence of organization and shared organizational interests. Security Culture carries a few hard and fast rules (don’t talk to cops, need-to-know basis, interrupt gossip, etc.) which have established a rough outline of best practices when daily life and sensitive operations overlap or are indistinguishable.

Best practices are fundamental to the Insurgent, who frequently operates without clear structures of command and communication, enjoys limited operational awareness, and can hardly imagine an everyday life divorced from sensitive operations. The Insurgent, however, should not be confused with a dissident or “common hacker,” as Lovink puts it, and the conflation of Security Culture with Operations Security carries heavy tolls.

Before it has a chance to protect our shared interests, Security Culture without organizational imperatives invites paranoid speculation into our attempts to determine what shared interests we might act upon. Without shared interests to balance security protocols we lose doubly, once for refusing to trust one another and ourselves enough to build power, and again for failing to connect with our comrades who lose patience with our dedication to self-policing and exclusivity.

From the Insurgent’s perspective, policing limits possibility, and possibility is a condition to be exploited and multiplied.

A common hacker is familiar with the State’s unscrupulous pursuit of persons who register on their threat spectrum, but hasn’t learned enough about the State, capital, or policing to glean how that spectrum might be composed.

A “common hacker” is also familiar with an illimitable list of methods for gathering information in the digital age. The list is illimitable (instead of just long) because known unknowns breed unknown unknowns. Assuming that such an unlistable list is in the possession of a meta-authority, and distributed to just the right hands at just the right times to prevent an eco-warrior from spiking a tree is a paranoid and debilitating procession of thought.

A “common hacker” has noticed that American people discover another egregious violation of their civil liberties and rights to privacy every few years. A common hacker assumes that this is evidence of a meta-authority orchestrating a grand coup or seizure, but an insurgent understands that managing crisis and maintaining business as usual are the only organizational imperatives shared between every federal agency and every corporate interest in the first world.

From a common hacker’s perspective the end is nigh, from the insurgent’s, it is ongoing.

It is closer to the ISIW’s business to hammer on concepts than to hammer them out. Not so much to shape or refine them, but to see what they’re made of.

We propose that the umbrella category of Surveillance, while of great concern to issue-based electoral debates, has little to offer our understanding of Insurgency. It’s a test to see the forest for the trees, but effective policing does not follow from increased surveillance, nor does frightening our friends into placidity make us safer, stronger, or smarter than we were ten years ago.

We understand most flavors of Anarchist and many political dissidents would like to contribute to decentralized resistance to policing, but every headline and announcement with regard to State and corporate surveillance, every leak, every stuttering admission, every investigative report, every sting, every declined opportunity to comment…too often these messages reinforce the common hackers’ paranoid conception of the State (or whatever) as an omniscient and cohesive entity, one for which every badge, snitch and suit is directly employed. Security Culture could be a clever precondition for minimizing risk while building decentralized resistance to policing, broadly, but it manifests more often as a herd mentality, offering its most vulnerable constituents as sacrifice while the herd reproduces itself.

The Paranoid’s shadowy network, the telos of the global Panopticon (a solitary warden who controls an entire prison) has an analog under CCTV. It is characterized as the omniscient and personified puppet master who is so often invoked in dissident circles. The growing reception of onlookers—Facebook laborers and survivalists alike—have assigned some marketable celebrity to the act of pointing cameras at rifles, trying to get a better close-up. Look how shiny, their boots.

Our inquiry must favor concepts which invite indiscernibility, opacity, camouflage, and noise in order to assess the State’s logistical capacity to stifle dissent, and the Insurgent’s opportunities to further attack those capabilities. The following two pieces address dragnet data capture, information gathering, intelligence gathering, and the deterrent effects of associating contemporary surveillance techniques with the edifice of the Panopticon.

These concepts are broken and reassembled within conceptual categories more useful to the Insurgent.

Please note that the following pieces do not address communications forensics, targeted intelligence operations, or profiling, among other considerations commonly associated with Surveillance. We eagerly await your contribution on those topics.

The first of the two articles, Panopticons Then and Now, is included after the jump. The second, Some Thoughts on the Limits of Surveillance, is available as a PDF and will also be published in our upcoming journal Insurgencies, available on October 1st.


Offensives, Ground Taken and the Assumptions of Frontal Conflict

All too often when insurgencies are analyzed on the ground, there is a tendency to focus the analysis on narratives of frontal warfare, of direct clashes of linearly defined forces that take and hold space. In doing so we fundamentally damage our ability to understand the dynamics of insurgency, as well as the particularities of what is occurring on the ground. In this narrative we are making two basic assumptions. The first is of unitary organizational fighting separated from the dynamics of the terrain, and everyday life within that terrain, along the lines of traditional state war machines. Secondly, we are assuming a form of analysis that only focuses attention on positive space, or the space in which a clash occurs between these linear forces. In doing so we ignore the importance of movement, uncertainty, connection to terrain and the avoidance of frontal confrontation that tend to characterize effective insurgent actions, which tend to occur in situations of disadvantage.

This narrative is not just something that characterizes media discourse or think tank reports, but has also come to infect radical analysis, and is somewhat responsible for the current tactical impasse that we find ourselves in. There is a tendency to essentialize a concept of the “we”, to assume an organizational unity based on political identity, which not only enforces the identification of the “we” as a unique site of political action, ignoring the forms of resistance that occurs within everyday life, but also generates a dynamic in which struggle is conceived of as a frontal conflict between the unity of the “we” and the unity of the state. In this narrative we isolate ourselves from the dynamics of the terrain in which fighting occurs, and also neglect to understand the nuances of fighting here and now, in this space at this time, on a microscopic level. Rather than a focus on fighting and what it looks like in our own particular situations, an analysis that requires an understanding of the movements of police force in an immediate sense, we end up framing conflict through the lens of conceptual frontal clashes, and generating a situation in which we are necessarily at a tactical disadvantage.

This report will take a look at the ways that this narrative of frontal warfare has played itself out in reference to the Syrian insurgency, specifically in relation to the recent three-front government offensive that has been underway since November. Within this dynamic the narrative of frontal warfare has become absolutely irrelevant, even though it is still held on to by most media and think tank analysts. We will show how when this narrative is abandoned a very different picture of the situation on the ground emerges. From this analysis we can begin to identify the latent aspects of this framework of analysis within North American radical movements, and begin to chart a way out of the dead end of frontal conflict.

Full Report

What Are We Doing Here?

Welcome to the blog for the Institute For The Study of Insurgent Warfare. We will be using this space to provide more consistent analysis than an annual journal will allow. We will focus on analysis of terrains of conflict around the globe, independent of the conceptual politics involved, on a material and tactical level. With analysis ranging from the security implications of international trade agreements to the dynamics of conflict in virtual networks, from police tactics to the movements of insurgencies globally, we aim to provide regular analysis, release reports and provide overviews of conflicts that are present in the news, mainstream or otherwise.


As we have mentioned in other documents, we feel that a material analysis of the dynamics of insurgency is essential to begin to plot a way out of the current tactical impasse that radicals, specifically in the United States, are currently mired in. This requires breaking the question of insurgency down to its material dynamics, these moments where conflict becomes apparent and acute, and separating this question from the question of why we may, on a particular level, decide to enter into conflict with the state, or enter into the insurgent.


There is no single answer to this impasse and the questions that it poses. Rather, we have to begin at an earlier point; rather than beginning with the attempt to answer the question What Is To Be Done, we have to begin by constructing a different plane of analysis. To discuss doing is to discuss action, and to discuss action is to discuss something that occurs within the particular dynamics of particular moments, fully embedded within these dynamics and the terrains that they structure. As such, to the degree that these terrains of conflict are particular and singular, no unitary, true, universal response is possible. In even attempting to develop a single response to this question we come to obscure the dynamics of conflict that exist in the ground, here and now, where we live and where we fight.  Without focusing on this plane of doing, this plane of actually fighting, we cannot even begin to discuss what fighting looks like, or what the planes of engagement will be. The best we can do here is to provide ways of making sense of the dynamics of phenomena of conflict, what is done with this analysis is up to you.