Skip to content

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.

Read more…

Is Cultural Heritage Protection Another Form of Nation-Building? A Review of “The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency” by M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones

June 21, 2016

M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones, The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles and Paradoxes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 262 pp.

The past fifteen years have seen an explosion in the academic study of insurgencies, producing a voluminous amount of publications whose consensus has been distilled into the United States Army Field Manual 3-24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies as well as the British Army Field Manual Vol. 1, Part 10: Countering Insurgency. Military officers such as David Petraeus, David Kilcullen, and H.R. McMaster became academic and media stars. The United States military deployed dozens of anthropologists to Afghanistan and moved counterinsurgency to the forefront of military doctrine as it reconfigured its forces to fight insurgencies.

BookCoverThis thoughtful albeit sometimes polemical work by M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones seeks to deconstruct some of the unacknowledged assumptions supporting contemporary counterinsurgency (COIN) theory. They begin by questioning whether “insurgency” is even a useful category for analysis. Many definitions of insurgency focus on an asymmetrical relationship between the combatants, but the authors point out that all wars involve unequal combatants and that trying to match one’s own strengths against an opponent’s weaknesses is basic military strategy. Others define an insurgency as an attempt to challenge a government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force, which would mean that all governments are constantly in a state of counterinsurgency whenever they enforce their own laws.

Imprecise definitions lead to very different conflicts being lumped together under the category of “insurgency,” grouping campaigns such as the French war in Indochina which were essentially made up of set piece battles between standing armies alongside more diffuse conflicts in Malaya or Northern Ireland as well as international terrorist campaigns like that waged by Al-Qaida. (p. 3-33)

According to Smith and Jones, by downplaying the essential differences between various conflicts COIN theorists seek to describe a general theory of insurgency and then develop a set of best practices which can then be applied to defeat any insurgency, anywhere. The problem is that wars are products of very specific circumstances, and one-size-fits-all theories tend to miss vital details. The authors spend an entire chapter debunking supposed “British expertise” in counterinsurgency, arguing that British victories in Malaya, Palestine, Kenya, South Africa, Northern Ireland and elsewhere were achieved through the common colonial method of finding a local faction opposed to the insurgents, giving them a lot of guns, and letting them do the dirty work. (p. 35-44, 86-87, 123-148)

While the authors’ own presuppositions lead them to contend that “skepticism should be practiced towards all grand social science theorizing in general,” (p. 184-185) their most trenchant observations concern the nature of COIN itself. COIN, they argue, pretends to be an apolitical set of “best practices” for defeating an enemy but is actually a deeply ideological enterprise rooted in American Cold War era modernization theory.

Originating in the age of the Kennedy/Johnson administrations’ “best and brightest,” Cold War modernizers “assumed that a rationalist, technocratic state could solve all social and economic ills.” All societies moved from superstition to reformation to enlightenment. Pluralist democracy in its mid-twentieth century American form could be universalized. Modernization meant industrialization, rationalization, secularization, bureaucratization, and a quest for efficiency which saw non-Western traditional social systems as obstacles to be overcome. (p. 57-92)

This infamous PowerPoint slide illustrated the impenetrable and incomprehensible complexity of contemporary counterinsurgency theory.

This infamous PowerPoint slide became a symbol of the impenetrable and incomprehensible complexity of contemporary counterinsurgency theory when it surfaced in 2009.

The underlying assumption was that modernity has civilizing, democratizing and secularizing effects which can be brought about through economic and technological modernization. Democratic peace theory, “Golden Arches” peace theory, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and most The World is Flat-style globalization theory all spring from this line of thinking. So, according to the authors, does COIN. The goal of COIN is to create and strengthen a legitimate government which effectively provides services and security to its people, thereby cutting off support for the insurgency. To this end the United States Army spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan on infrastructure projects, schools and economic development. “Buried within Western counterinsurgency thinking,” the authors have asserted elsewhere, “was an ideology that successful nation building would conduce to a liberal democratic end of history.”

The problem is that COIN is preaching the virtues of modernization to people who have already considered and rejected it. Militant Islamist ideology developed as a result of contacts between the Islamic world and modernity since the nineteenth century. Its major thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb spent significant time living and studying the West. Its followers have already taken a long look at what the modern West has to offer and decided that they want none of it. And because COIN unconsciously reflects ethnocentric Western value judgements which rank economic and material concerns above spiritual and religious ones, it is doomed to fail. (p. 57-103)

Is Heritage Preservation an Exercise in Nation Building?

While Smith and Jones limit their criticism to COIN theory, it is worth considering how closely the assumptions made by the cultural heritage enterprise align with the assumptions underlying contemporary COIN theory. Is current dialogue about antiquities preservation, replete with calls for greater education and normative claims about the value of cultural heritage, rooted in the same sort of assumptions about modernity and the end of history?

For example, UNESCO director Irina Bokova stated in June 2013 that “protecting the heritage of the world’s cultures concerns us all” because “cultural heritage can serve as a powerful tool to reinforce mutual understanding, social cohesion and ultimately, world peace.” In December 2014 she said there was “no purely military solution” to the war in Syria but that “to fight fanaticism, we also need to reinforce education, a defense against hatred, and protect heritage, which helps forge collective identity.”

Or consider the remarks made in September 2013 by Anne C. Richard of the U.S. State Department on the importance of Syria’s cultural heritage for nation-building:

When we help protect heritage sites or preserve cultural objects throughout the world, we also support a nation’s efforts to restore its national identity. Citizens of all ethnicities, faiths, backgrounds, and economic stations can feel the pride and sense of national unity that comes with that.

We are also supporting the potential rebirth of an economy which, at one time, accounted for 12 percent of Syria’s gross domestic product and generated more than 6.5 billion dollars a year. In fact, 11 percent of the workforce was employed as conservation professionals, teachers, tour guides, museum curators, hotel owners and employees, travel agents, bus and coach drivers, and shopkeepers.

It is not new to point out the colonialist origins of the field of ancient Near East scholarship (Bahrani 1998); the use of the ancient past as a tool for building the modern state (Baram 1991; Hamilakis 2007); how the concept of “universal heritage” actually empowers the state at the expense of local interests (de Cesari 2010; Meskell 2005); nor is it new to promote the use of cultural heritage as a tool for economic development (Hassan, de Trafford & Youssef 2008).

What may be overlooked, however, is that some of these ideas of universal heritage may be rooted in the same assumptions as counterinsurgency theory. Strengthening national capabilities to ensure a desired outcome for the protection of cultural heritage. Using heritage as a tool for economic modernization, which in turn is hoped to bring about social and political modernization. An assumption that all normal people value heritage in the same way that Westerners do and thereby heritage should be preserved by establishing national museums and government ministries as duplicates of those in the West. An assumption that all cultures will develop in this general direction. These assumptions may not all be faulty, but they should be examined.

One of the largest unexamined assumptions relates to the nature of ISIS itself. Jobs and education alone are not the solution to the ideology of an organization which counts in its ranks tens of thousands of people who left life in the west to join the Islamic State. ISIS is not made up of undeveloped primitives, it is made up of people who took a long look at modernity and decided they preferred a modern mythological version of a seventh-century caliphate.

All of this is meant as a caution, not a prohibition. A reminder that whenever we hear another UN official talking about the self-evident need to protect “the universal heritage we all share” or promoting pictures of government officials all over the world holding #Unite4Heritage signs, it may serve us well to be cautious about assuming that these values are quite as universal as the international organizational class claims, or that other people will prioritize them as highly as educated people in the West.

Special thanks to Columbia University Press for providing a review copy of this book.

Further Reading:

Bahrani, Zainab. “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and World Past.” 159-174 in Archaeology Under Fire: Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Baram, Amatzia. Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq, 1968-1989. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

De Cesari, Chiara. “World Heritage and Mosaic Universalism: A View from Palestine.” Journal of Social Archaeology 10, No. 3 (2010): 299-324.

Hamilakis, Yannis. The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology and National Imagination in Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Hassan, Fekri, Aloisia de Trafford and Mohsen Youssef, eds. Cultural Heritage and Development in the Arab World. Alexandria, Egypt: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008.

Meskell, Lynn. “Sites of Violence: Terrorism, Tourism and Heritage in the Archaeological Present.” 123-146 in Embedding Ethics. Oxford: Berg, 2005.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.