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A Bookend to the Destruction of Mosul: The Great Mosque of Nur ad-Din destroyed by ISIS

June 23, 2017

On July 24, 2014 ISIS carried out its first widely publicized destruction of a cultural heritage site in Mosul by blowing up the Shrine of the Prophet Jonah. It was early in ISIS’ campaign of cultural destruction, and the group’s propaganda arm had not yet mastered the slickly produced videos it would later use. Amateur cellphone videos of the demolition quickly spread through social media and news outlets. The Shrine of the Prophet Jonah was far from the first piece of cultural heritage that ISIS destroyed, but it was the first to receive widespread publicity in western media.

Almost three years later, ISIS has lost control over most of Mosul as Iraqi forces steadily advanced through the city despite heavy casualties. The civilian death toll has been even higher. For the past two months, fighting has been confined to the Old City where a few hundred ISIS holdouts are making a last stand in the narrow streets and alleyways, holding the civilian population hostage as a shield from airstrikes.

The minaret of the Great Mosque of Nur ad-Din in Mosul as it appeared in 2013. Photo by Faisal Jeber. (source)

A major focal point of ISIS’ defense has been the Grand Mosque of Nur ad-Din (also known as the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri). It was here that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave his infamous speech declaring the re-establishment of the caliphate in July 2014, making the mosque invested with heavy symbolism for the group and its ambitions.

Iraqi forces first advanced near the mosque in March, advancing into the Old City before being driven out by ISIS counterattacks. Iraqi special police forces launched another offensive in June, advancing to within 50 meters of the mosque by June 21. As the Iraqis closed in, ISIS blew up the mosque. Iraqi forces now occupy the rubble.

A Long History

The Great Mosque stood over Mosul for 845 years. Perhaps foreshadowing its modern history, the Great Mosque was born of war and conquest. Its construction was commissioned by Nur ad-Din, emir of Aleppo and second son to Imad ad-Din Zengi. His father had extinguished the Crusader kingdom of Edessa in 1144, and after his assassination in 1146 the son continued his legacy by attacking Crusader-held Antioch. When the Armenians of Edessa revolted and attempted to rejoin the Crusaders Nur ad-Din massacred the entire Christian population of the city. Strongly opposed to the Crusader presence in the Holy Land, Nur ad-Din sought to unify all Muslim rulers in the Levant against the Crusader states.

In this he was partly successful, ruling over much of the Levant and wielding considerable influence in Egypt. In 1170, his younger brother the emir of Mosul Qutb ad-Din died. He was succeeded by his son Saif ad-Din Ghazi II, but the real power behind the throne was wielded by Qutb’s Christian vizier Fakr ad-Din Abd al-Masih (whose name meant “Pride of the religion, servant of the Messiah”).

Nur ad-Din responded by besieging Mosul. Fakr ad-Din surrendered the city on the condition that Saif be allowed to keep his throne. Fakr ad-Din was permitted to go into exile in Aleppo on the condition that he convert to Islam and change the latter half of his name to Abdallah (“servant of Allah”). Nur ad-Din then set about repressing Christianity in Mosul, where Christians formed a large minority. Whereas earlier rulers had been tolerant Christianity, Nur ad-Din prohibited the construction of new churches and required Christians and Jews to wear distinctive clothing (a belt for Christians, and a red piece of cloth on the shoulder for Jews) and imposed increased jizya tax on non-Muslims.[1]

Nur ad-Din spent only 24 days in Mosul, but in the time he was there he also made plans for building a new mosque. Responsibility for its construction was committed to a Sufi sheikh named Omar al-Malla, to whom Nur ad-Din was said to have entrusted the job because he was a pious man who would not oppress anyone while building the mosque, even though as a result its construction may be less efficient. Nur ad-Din also granted shops and farms to provide the religious center with revenue.[2]

The Mosque of Nur ad-Din prior to its 1942 demolition and reconstruction. (source)

The mosque was completed by 1172 or 1173, shortly before Nur ad-Din’s death in 1174. Some scholars interpret the structure as heralding the end of religious tolerance and the beginning of a new era of Muslim dominance in Mosul.[3] Regardless, Nur ad-Din’s lifelong project had been successful: his conquests paved the way for his nephew Saladin to defeat the combined Crusader armies at Hattin and recapture Jerusalem in 1187.

Its most famous feature was its minaret, towering 60.5 meters (198 feet) over Mosul. Before its destruction it was the tallest minaret in Iraq.[4] Soon after it was built the minaret started to lean to one side, most likely due to the effect of heat from the sun causing mud bricks to expand and contract. It began to lean further to one side after the Iran-Iraq war when Iranian bombs ruptures sewage lines and softened the ground around the tower. By the early 2000s a muezzin no longer dared to climb to the top of the tower to sound the call to prayer.

The leaning minaret gained the nickname al-hadba, “the hunchback,” and legends grew that it gained its bend from bowing to Muhammad, or that the prophet had stepped on it while ascending into heaven.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declares ISIS’ caliphate established from the mihrab of the Great Mosque of Nur ad-Din, July 4, 2014.

The rest of the mosque was demolished in 1942 and rebuilt in a more modern style. Only the hunchbacked minaret and the mihrab (which was itself reused from an earlier mosque in 1170) survived from the mosque of Nur ad-Din. It was this same mihrab which served as the background for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s first public appearance in which he declared that ISIS had re-established the caliphate.

Who Was Responsible?

Oddly, while ISIS has generally had no qualms about publicizing their destruction of antiquities, the group’s Amaq news agency claimed that an American aircraft had destroyed the mosque by dropping a bomb on it. American military spokesmen quickly denied the claim. The Iraqi military quickly released video footage taken from a military drone which shows the moment the mosque was detonated:

The video clearly shows squibbing all along the minaret, indicating that explosive charges were placed inside the structure. The entire mosque and minaret detonate nearly simultaneously, indicating a controlled demolition from the inside timed using detonator cord rather than a collapse from the shockwave of a bomb blast.

All claims that the mosque was destroyed by an airstrike are false and seem to be an attempt to stir public opinion against the United States and the Iraqi government.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the destruction of the mosque by ISIS “a formal declaration of their defeat.” In many ways its destruction serves as a symbolic bookend to ISIS’ three year control of Mosul. An occupation which began with declaring a caliphate ends with the destruction of the site where that caliphate was declared. An occupation which began with destroying one of Mosul’s most visible and famous landmarks ends with destroying the last famous landmark still standing.

Update: ASOR and National Geographic have released satellite photographs of the Great Mosque of Nur ad-Din taken before and after the destruction. The green dome of the mosque and a few sections of the building are still standing, but the rest is rubble.


[1] Yasser Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul 1170-1172,” Annales Islamogiques 36 (2002): 339-341.

[2] Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul,” 339, 342-43.

[3] Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul,” 348-352.

[4] Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul,” 351; “Al-Hadba Minaret,” World Monuments Fund (, accessed June 23, 2017); “Manara Jami’ al-Nuri al-Kabir,” ArcheNet (, accessed June 23, 2017); “Jami’ al-Nuri al-Kabir,” ArcheNet (, accessed June 23, 2017); “Architecture c. 900 – c. 1250,” The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Article © Christopher Jones 2017.

Nimrud Damage Assessment

November 23, 2016

Following the recapture of the ancient site of Nimrud by the Iraqi Army’s 9th Armored Division on November 13, a steady trickle of news photographers have arrived at the site. As with Palmyra last spring they have come intent on showing the world the state of the ancient ruins demolished by ISIS. Unlike Palmyra, they have also interviewed locals about their relationships with the sites and filed stories focused on the lives of the people in the nearby towns who were persecuted by ISIS.

Although not comprehensive, their photographs and videos allow us to get an idea of the scale of the damage to the site.

Nimrud Citadel

Nimrud’s citadel has been visited by Max Delaney and Safin Hamed from the AFP, Ari Jalal of Reuters, a film crew from the BBC, and photographers from the Iraq Press Agency. Their cameras all tended to be drawn to the same scenes, suggesting these are the most obvious points of damage to the site.

The Throne Room Gate, Northwest Palace

The gateway to the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II’s Northwest Palace was reconstructed by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities in 1956. The project involved reconstructing a section of the walls and several arches. Original sculptures, including two large and four small lamassu and a number of reliefs, were installed at the arches and along the walls of the structure.[1]

Throne room gates shortly after their reconstruction. From New Light on Nimrud, p. 50.

Throne room gates shortly after their reconstruction as seen from the outside looking south. From New Light on Nimrud, p. 50.

Plan of the reconstructed throne room. From New Light on Nimrud, p. 50.

Plan of the reconstructed throne room. From New Light on Nimrud, p. 50.

Videos posted online by ISIS in April 2015 showed its fighters attacking the reliefs inside this gate with sledgehammers, power tools and earthmoving equipment and piling the pieces of reliefs in a large pile outside the entrance to the palace. This attack took place on or around February 26, 2015 as indicated by many of its perpetrators also appearing in the infamous video of the destruction of the Mosul Museum while wearing the same clothing. Satellite photographs taken for ASOR on March 7, 2015 showed that ISIS destroyed the low wall between the two reconstructed arches in order to provide access for the bulldozer and also showed the pile of relief fragments.

On or around April 2, ISIS returned and blew up the Northwest Palace with several large barrels of ammonium nitrate wired together with detonator cord. The damage was also visible in ASOR’s satellite imagery from April 17, showing heavy damage to most of the structure. The eastern gateway was destroyed, but the western gateway still stood.

Nineteen months later, the large pile of relief fragments remains in place, as does the western gateway, albeit denuded of most of its reliefs and all of its lamassu.

Above: View of the western gateway with the large pile of relief fragments in the foreground.

Read more…

The Mafia, Looted Antiquities, and the KGB

October 19, 2016

This week the Italian newspaper La Stampa published a bombshell article in which journalist Domenico Quirico posed as a “rich Torino collector” in order to investigate the trade in looted artifacts smuggled from Libya. Quirico met a man in a butcher shop near Naples who he believed to be connected to the mafia and was shown a bust of a Severan emperor for sale for €60,000 and shown pictures of a much larger statue head being sold for between €1 million and €800,000. Artifacts were said to come from Leptis Magna, Sabratha, and Cyrene and been smuggled through the Italian port of Gioia Tauro. With American art markets under increased scrutiny, they generally go to buyers in Russia, China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

More surprising was the claim that this smuggling was part of a triangle of illicit trade, in which artifacts are smuggled from Libya to Italy while the mafia in return buys weapons from black market arms dealers in Moldova and Ukraine and delivers them to ISIS in Libya.

Parts of this story are implausible. ISIS has never controlled any of the archaeological sites mentioned by Quirico’s source (they control only the town of Sirte and made a brief appearance in Sabratha), and most of the sites have been under guard since 2011. The link to ISIS seems unlikely. But could other rebel groups be trading in an artifacts-for-weapons scheme? Possibly, but other aspects of the story give reason to be skeptical.

Quirico goes even further than his contact, claiming that this trade is actually under the control of the Russian intelligence services, who have maintained links with both Chechen and Uzbek Islamists and former Iraqi Baathists now serving in the ranks of ISIS. He further alleges that during the Cold War the KGB traded weapons to the Palestinian Liberation Organization in return for looted artifacts, which were then kept in a secret museum in Moscow before they were gradually given away as gifts to various important figures.

His source for this is “security consultant” Mario Scaramella, a figure who has gained some notoriety as a purveyor of wild accusations regarding the Russian intelligence services. Repeatedly rejected for employment by the Italian intelligence service, Scaramella turned to chasing excitement by hanging around the edges of dangerous games being played by the world’s spy agencies.

The Russian Connection

From left to right: Vassily Mitrokhin, Paolo Guzzanti, Mario Scaramella, Oleg Gordievsky, Alexander Litvinenko. (all pictures from Wikimedia Commons).

From left to right: Vassily Mitrokhin, Paolo Guzzanti, Mario Scaramella, Oleg Gordievsky, Alexander Litvinenko. (all pictures from Wikimedia Commons).

Our story begins in Moscow in 1972, when the Soviet KGB began the process of relocating its headquarters from the overcrowded Lubyanka in the center of the city to a new building in the suburbs. The job of moving the massive files of the organization’s foreign intelligence directorate fell to one disgruntled archivist named Vassily Mitrokhin, who had been demoted to a career dead end in the archives a decade and a half earlier and there had grown increasingly disillusioned with the Soviet system. For twelve years until his retirement in 1984 he plotted his revenge on the system by making handwritten copies of the files, smuggling them out in his clothes and stashing them in his dacha in the countryside. There they remained until March 1992, when he boarded a train for Latvia, walked into the British Embassy and turned the entire stash over to Her Majesty’s Secret Service.[1]

The existence of the archive became public knowledge following the publication of the 1999 book The Sword and the Shield, leading many former Soviet turncoats in the West to begin sweating profusely. Among many other things, the book revealed that a major source for Soviet espionage in Italy in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a university professor code-named UCHITEL who was responsible for passing along information about the Tornado fighter jet as well as other military and aerospace projects.[2]

The identity of UCHITEL has never been determined, but in 2002 Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi launched a commission headed by senator Paolo Guzzanti which spent four years attempting to prove that Berlusconi’s predecessor and political rival Romano Prodi was UCHITEL. Prodi had been both a university professor and Minister of Industry during the years UCHITEL was most active. In 1978 Prodi claimed to have learned through a Ouija board where a leftist terrorist organization was holding former prime minister Aldo Moro hostage,  a story he is widely believed to have invented in order to protect a source associated with left-wing militants. But other than these entirely circumstantial items the commission failed to find anything linking Prodi to the KGB.

So Guzzanti turned to Mario Scaramella, then a relatively unknown environmental lawyer, to dig up additional dirt on Prodi. Scaramella first pestered Oleg Gordievsky, another former KGB agent who had spied for Britain during the Cold War, for years seeking information tying Prodi to the KGB, information which Gordievsky insisted did not exist.

Read more…

House Homeland Security Committee Releases Report on ISIS Financing

October 14, 2016

This week, the United States House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Michael McCall (R-TX) released a report titled Cash to Chaos: Dismantling ISIS’ Financial Infrastructure. The report attempts to give an account of ISIS’ funding structures based on briefings, meetings with federal officials, press reports, and open source document analysis.

Much of the report focuses on ISIS’ major sources of funding from oil, black market commodities, nationalized industry, extortion rackets and kidnapping for ransom. However, the report also discusses the role of antiquities trafficking in ISIS’ funding and makes several recommendations in that regard.

While everyone can agree that countering ISIS’ financing is a key part of defeating the organization, effectively doing so requires accurate information in order to properly allocate resources. Unfortunately, with regards to its treatment of antiquities trafficking this report fails spectacularly in accurately assessing the problem.

For its information about antiquities trafficking, the report relies almost exclusively on reports from major media outlets such as the New York Times, Guardian, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Unfortunately major media outlets have frequently been the purveyors of inaccurate information on this topic, and this has negatively impacted the report.

The report correctly identifies Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan as major transshipment points for antiquities smuggling. However, experts on the Syrian antiquities trade generally believe that much looted material either moves east rather than through closely monitored auction houses in London and New York, or that it is kept within the region in hopes of selling it in a few years when suspicions die down.

When it comes to estimating the value of antiquities looting to ISIS the report relies on outdated information, misrepresented statistics, and discredited figures. For example, the report states that:

Before the rise of ISIS, Syria’s antiquities and cultural heritage industry generated more than $6.5 billion annually and accounted for 12 percent of the country’s gross domestic product; thus, even if ISIS captured only a fraction of the market, it could have seen a windfall well into the tens of millions. [p.9]

The $6.5 billion figure comes from remarks made by State Department Assistant Secretary Anne Richard in 2013. It refers not to sales of antiquities but to the entire tourist industry of Syria, and was mentioned by Richard in the context of highlighting the importance of cultural heritage to postwar reconstruction. Since ISIS’ caliphate is a rather unattractive destination for foreign tourists, one can surmise that the fraction of this market captured by ISIS is zero.

Furthermore, the report goes on to say:

In one region in Syria, ISIS reportedly generated $36 million in revenue, partly attributed to its peddling of black-market antiquities. At one point, U.S. officials judged that ISIS was probably reaping over $100 million a year from such illicit trading. [p.9]

The often-repeated $36 million figure comes from Martin Chulov’s reporting in The Guardian. The figure has been widely questioned on this site and elsewhere. Chulov took his figure from captured documents shown to him by an Iraqi intelligence officer. It appears to show income from looting or ghanima, which in ISIS’ terminology means the expropriation of money and property from local populations. Looting of archaeological sites is classified as the extraction of al-rikaz or a “natural resources from the earth” akin to oil, gas, minerals and precious metals. Profits from digging are taxed at a 2o% to 50% rate, unlike ghanima which is expropriated wholesale.

The $100 million figure comes from a February 2015 report in the Wall Street Journal, citing “unnamed U.S. officials.” This is contradicted by figures provided by the US State Department, who estimated in September 2015 that ISIS “has probably earned several million dollars from antiquities sales since mid-2014.”

My own research based on available open source data concurs with this figure, estimating that ISIS has made a few million dollars from antiquities and that taxing looters accounts for less than one percent of the organization’s budget.

Unfortunately, the congressional staffers who wrote this report seem to have simply searched for reports published in major media outlets without critically examining them. Much of the media coverage of archaeological looting in Iraq and Syria has been drive by sensationalism. With reports like this there is a very serious danger that sensationalized articles and bogus figures could drive policy recommendations with regards to prosecuting the war against ISIS.

As it is, the report only makes modest recommendations with regards to policy. It argues that:

Domestic and international law enforcement agencies have not put high-enough priority on tracking black market sales of cultural artifacts and antiquities, which have become a significant source of terrorist revenue. [p. 4]

In response, the report recommends:

The Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security should, in coordination with INTERPOL and other relevant international organizations, as well as auction houses, spearhead a new initiative to crack down on illegal trade and trafficking in cultural property and antiquities in the United States and abroad. As part of this effort, various stakeholders should strengthen regulations that restrict the movement of artifacts smuggled out of warzones and take aggressive action to recover and return items to their respective countries of origin. The Committee is supportive of the approach taken in H.R. 2285 (Rep. William Keating [D-MA]), the “Prevent Trafficking in Cultural Property Act,” and urges the Senate to act on this bipartisan House-passed measure as soon as possible.

All of this is fairly common sense material, some of it partially accomplished earlier this year when Barack Obama signed a bill banning the importation or sale of archaeological material from Syria. The Prevent Trafficking in Cultural Property Act is mostly concerned with providing proper training to Customs and Border Protection in cultural property issues.

These are both worthwhile and commonsense efforts. The potential danger lies in if the publicity given to antiquities looting eventually causes a disproportionate amount of resources to be dedicated to stamping out this source of funding, which could better be used against larger sources of revenue. Nearly everyone can agree that the only long-term solution to the threat posed by ISIS is for the group to be defeated as rapidly as possible. We should then all hope for resources to be spent in the most optimal way to bring about this goal.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

ISIS Embraces Critical Scholarship of the Bible?

August 16, 2016

The fifteenth issue of ISIS’ English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq spread across the internet this month. This issue focused on an extended critique of both western secularism and Christianity in attempt to convince westerners to convert to Islam and join the Islamic State.

This blog has previously examined how the increasingly ideological and post-state nature of modern war is creating a situation where scholarship will be increasingly appropriated by armed groups and the purveyors of ideological arguments will frequently become targets. The new issue of Dabiq provides an interesting opportunity to examine an instance of such appropriation in action.

Its centerpiece is a fifteen page article titled “Break the Cross.”Although the article is unsigned, it was obviously written by a native English speaker who appears to be familiar with critical scholarship of the Bible and early Christianity as well as a very basic reading knowledge of Hebrew and Greek.

Upon closer examination, however, the article’s sources appear largely culled from public domain books and other material freely available on the internet. Assuming that the author of this piece is located within territory held by the Islamic State, this may be due to a lack of available resources. Reports that ISIS has burned libraries in the territories it controls could further limit the accessibility of knowledge to the group’s researchers.

The article cites only two very out-of-date scholarly sources by name to support various textual arguments related to the Bible: Strong’s Concordance (published in 1890) and Adam Clarke’s 1831 Commentary on the Bible (making full use of the author’s 19th-century antisemitic prejudices).

The rest of the article’s sources are more obscure but can be revealed through some internet sleuthing. The article discusses – correctly – the semantic relationship between various names for God in Semitic languages (p. 49 in Dabiq issue #15). But then the author gives the name for God in “Chaldean” as 𐎛𐎍 , utilizing a Ugaritic font which happens to be found in the English language Wikipedia page for the Canaanite god El instead of the Akkadian signs for the equivalent noun ilum. (Ugaritic fonts, being alphabetic and therefore containing far fewer signs, are better supported than Akkadian cuneiform fonts on most computers).

The author commits a similar error in discussion of the word בַּר , which means “son” in Aramaic. The author, wishing to argue that Jesus’ contemporaries referring to him as the “bar of God” in their native language could mean something else besides “son of God,” appears to have looked up the Hebrew word בַּר in Gesenius’ 1846 Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon and found that it means “beloved” or “pure” (p. 56). The two are different words, in different languages, and derived from different roots (The Hebrew בַּר is derived from the verb בָּרַר , while the Aramaic has no clear triconsonantal root).

It has often been said that atheists merely believe in one less God than religious people, and many of the arguments the author uses against Christianity can be found on many skeptic websites. Arguments that the Gospels were written at a late date (p. 50), that the date of Christmas was an appropriation of the birthday of the god Sol Invictus, or that the Comma Johanneum is not original to 1 John 5:7-8 (p. 53) are readily found while browsing the online atheist community.

Other arguments are more specific to the online Muslim apologetics community. A number of the Dabiq author’s arguments seem derived from those presented on the website Answering Christianity, maintained by American Muslim apologist Osama Abdallah. Most of what Abdallah writes is standard mainstream Islamic apologetics, albeit in a less polished internet format. Abdallah renounces violence and attempts to spread Islam by peaceful persuasion only, and his website argues that ISIS was created by the CIA and Mossad to discredit Islam.

Nevertheless some of his arguments have now been appropriated by ISIS, including arguments that Simon of Cyrene may have been crucified instead of Jesus as evidenced by Gnostic writings (p. 54-55), that Muhammad was the prophet promised in Deuteronomy 18:18 (p. 59), and the argument that the Greek word parakletos in John 16:7-11, generally taken by Christians to refer to the Holy Spirit, was originally written periklytos, “the admirable one,” and therefore also refers to the coming of Muhammad. (the latter argument was originally made by Muslim convert David Benjamin Keldani in his 1928 book Muhammad in the Bible).

All that this shows is how the work of a great number of people unconnected to and unsupportive of ISIS and their goals has been collated and redirected for the purpose of recruiting people to join the Islamic State.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, everyone is now an expert. And since everyone is now an expert, even a brutal and thuggish organization occupying a stretch of landlocked, mostly undeveloped desert land in the Middle East can now throw together seemingly sophisticated scholarly-sounding recruiting pitches based on amateurish misinterpretations of hundred-plus year old extremely outdated but free and public domain source material.

Welcome to 21st century war.

Deep Maneuver, Robot Warfare, and You

July 19, 2016


In a previous post, I proposed that people who are seen as purveyors of ideologies which give support to armed conflict are increasingly becoming targets in modern warfare.

Technology allows this to happen. The revolution in artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomous weapons systems coupled with big-data analysis has the potential to create a digital panopticon which also has the ability to reach out and strike.

This also has the potential to give states an edge against decentralized networks in 21st century warfare.

Robot Warfare

Fielding a fully autonomous robotic army will likely be possible only for a major power. This could make robot warfare the future of war between major powers. Such wars will be limited conflicts fought primarily for interest rather than ideology.

Two scenarios could play out. The first would be a limited struggle over disputed territory such as the Spratly Islands, where each side could feed robot weapons into battle at a steady rate with little risk to any of its own personnel and little chance of serious domestic opposition to the war. Such conflict could go on forever, or at least until the equipment losses for one side or the other became prohibitively expensive.

The second would be a clash between automated armies over some inhabited territory such as the Korean Peninsula or the Baltic states. This is a much more dangerous kind of robot warfare. Once one side’s army is destroyed they now have two options: Surrender, or continue the fight with a human army (likely using lesser quality equipment due to cost, or waging guerrilla tactics).

If they choose to fight on, there will be a strong incentive for the party with an intact robot army to launch a countervalue strike, that is, to attack whatever the enemy values the most. This would serve to minimize their own losses and compel the enemy to quickly surrender.

Possible targets of a countervalue strike could include the civilian population, civilian infrastructure, the food supply, or symbolic, ideological or cultural sites.

Deep Maneuver Warfare

The other possibility involves a tactic called Deep Maneuver. Deep Maneuver refers to the ability of an autonomous system to position itself for an attack weeks, months or years in advance and then activate at just the right moment.

One example of such a weapon is the famous Stuxnet virus. The virus propagated itself through computer systems and removable media, remaining benign until it installed itself on a specific type of computer which controlled the centrifuges used to enrich uranium for Iran’s nuclear program. At this point the virus activated, took control of the system, and spun the centrifuges until they broke down.

Another was the Soviet Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, which was originally designed to put a nuclear warhead in orbit where it could circle the earth with unlimited range and be suddenly de-orbited onto a target with no advance warning. This weapon was judged to be so potentially destabilizing that it was banned from space under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and finally deactivated from earth under the SALT II agreement.

Deep maneuvering could allow robotic weapons to penetrate all aspects of an enemy country and position themselves for a surprise attack against everything at once.

Such an attack would likely target key infrastructure and economic nodes in order to trigger an economic collapse. Cultural heritage sites of tourist or economic importance could become targets, just as they are for terrorist attacks today.

Cultural heritage sites also form nodes in an ideological economy. Destroying sacred sites causes extensive social disruption and furthermore makes statement proclaiming the superiority of one’s own ideology over that of whatever was destroyed.

Such an attack could take several forms:

  • Drones loaded with explosives position themselves days or weeks in advance. At a designated time they swarm cultural and historic sites during peak tourist hours and detonate their payloads. Unlike a suicide bombing or mass shooting, this does not require a commitment to death from those who carry out the plot.
  • A virus is programmed which propagates across the internet and erases material which is ideologically opposed to the organization which created the virus. This could include attacking projects seeking to digitally recreate or preserve cultural heritage objects which the group has destroyed. A similar program designed to scrub the internet of ISIS propaganda has been proposed by the Counter-Extremism Project and has received White House backing.
  • Micro-drones loaded with small explosive charges identify all the ideological leaders of an opposing group, track them, and then strike all at once. The group is instantly decapitated.

Unlike robot warfare between great powers, all of these scenarios may well be within the capabilities of non-state actors within the next fifty years.

(Photo credit: U.S. Air Force)

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

The Deadly War of Ideas

July 5, 2016

Just before 2:20 in morning of April 23, 1999 a B-2A Spirit bomber slipped undetected through the night air at 40,000 feet towards downtown Belgrade.

A B-2A refuels from a tanker on its way back to the United States after a bombing mission over Serbia. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ken Bergmann)

A B-2A refuels from a tanker on its way back to the United States after a bombing mission over Serbia, April 1999. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ken Bergmann)

The plane had taken off from Whitman Air Force Base in Missouri more than fourteen hours earlier and crossed the Atlantic while refueling multiple times in midair. As a stealth aircraft the B-2A was one of the few aircraft trusted to fly above the heavily defended Serb capital. From its high perch over the center of the city the bomber dropped a single 2,000-pound GBU-31 GPS-guided bomb. The intended target had been programmed into the bomb before it was dropped.

Below, the staff of the government-operated Radio Television of Serbia were hard a work at their studio headquarters preparing for the next morning’s broadcast. The bomb slammed into the production room, shearing off one side of the building and collapsing several floors. It was a precision strike. A historic church located mere meters away from the studio sustained only a few broken windows. Inside the studio sixteen staff members were killed and sixteen more injured.[1]

That morning the world awoke to find that the war of ideas in the Balkans had now merged with the shooting war.

RTS was only knocked off the airwaves for a couple of hours before broadcasting resumed from a secret location. In terms of civilian casualties it was the single deadliest strike on Belgrade of the 78-day war. In a press conference given by NATO to defend the attack, Colonel Konrad Freytag of the German Air Force argued that the building “housed a large multi-purpose communications satellite antenna dish” and that it was being used as part of the Serb military communications network. Yet the same time NATO spokesman Jamie Shea promised “there will be no sanctuary for those aspects of the regime which are spreading hatred and creating this political environment for repression.”

The gutted RTS studio in Belgrade. (source)

The gutted RTS studio in Belgrade. (source)

The United States had first proposed targeting Slobodon Milosevic’s propaganda arm on April 12, but the French had vetoed the strike due to concerns that bombing civilian targets would only strengthen Milosevic’s political position. But as the war dragged on with little visible progress NATO began to expand its targets to include more and more civilian infrastructure. Strategic bombers flying from bases in the United States were never integrated into the NATO command structure, allowing USAF commanders to bypass French objections and attack whatever targets they desired. A few nights before the RTS bombing another plane had bombed the headquarters of Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia. On that same night two electrical power stations in Belgrade were bombed. Later targets would include businesses owned by Milosevic associates such as cigarette factories and fertilizer plants.[2]

RTS had long played a sordid role in supporting Milosevic’s brutal policies in the former Yugoslavia, broadcasting false reports of massacres and even claiming that Bosnian Muslims besieged in Sarajevo were feeding Serb children to hungry lions at the zoo. British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued the day after the RTS bombing that state-controlled media “is the apparatus that keeps him [Milosevic] in power and we are entirely justified as NATO allies in damaging and taking on those targets.”[3]

Amnesty International’s Balkans expert labeled the attack a war crime and “a deliberate attack on a civilian object.” A report issued by Human Rights Watch concluded that “Even if one could justify legal attacks on civilian radio and television, there does not appear to be any justification for attacking urban studios, as opposed to transmitters.” Stopping propaganda which supported the Serb war effort did not offer “the ‘concrete and direct’ military advantage necessary to make them a legitimate military target.” The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia declined to prosecute, having determined that the station was a legitimate target if it was attacked for its dual purpose for relaying military communications but that if the station was attacked solely because it was broadcasting propaganda this might constitute a war crime.[4]

Yet both reports added another caveat, allowing that a studio might be considered a legitimate target if it broadcast nothing but incitements to genocide. Both reports cited the role of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in promoting the 1994 Rwandan genocide as a situation where targeting a radio station could be justified solely based on the content which was being broadcast.

But who decides when that line has been transgressed?

Fast forward to 2010.

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