The worm of paranoia begins to eat into even the hardest adversary. An example is a Twitter post last week displaying an Islamic State leaflet offering a $5,000 reward for information about “crusaders’ agents” in the ranks.
Maybe Western spies are secretly burrowing into the Islamic State right now. But then maybe the leaflet is a fake, intended to induce the fighters to doubt their comrades. The point is that the jihadists can’t know. Either way, the worm turns.
The leaflet got me thinking about one of the little-discussed aspects of the U.S.-led campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State — namely the role that can be played by “unconventional warfare.” These are the Sun Tzu arts of battle — the tricks and feints and deceptions that can make adversaries weaken themselves, question their doctrine and doubt their leaders.
These unconventional operations can be far less costly in money and lives than kinetic action on the battlefield. Rather than a wild spray of bullets from an Apache helicopter gunship (which often creates as many enemies as it kills), these tools can subtly encourage an adversary to attack itself. In using such deceptive tactics, it must be said, the U.S.-led coalition would be emulating Russia’s “green men” infiltration in Ukraine.
A few celebrated cases illustrate how devastating such a campaign can be. In the late 1980s, the Abu Nidal Organization was shattered by internal disputes that were encouraged by the intelligence services of the United States, Britain and Jordan. “Arabs Say Deadly Power Struggle Has Split Abu Nidal Terror Group,” read the November 1989 headline in the New York Times. The schism was no accident. Sources tell me that members of the terrorist group were fed information that led them to suspect colleagues of stealing their money, their girlfriends and their power.
By the end, the group had basically self-destructed. World War II provides a string of celebrated cases of deception and manipulation. Perhaps the best known was the British “Double Cross” operation, described in a 2012 book by Ben Macintyre. The British managed to control and manipulate every German agent who was sent to spy on them. They weaved a tapestry of lies that convinced top German commanders that the D-Day landings would come in Calais, rather than Normandy. Another masterful deception involved floating a British corpse ashore on the German-occupied Spanish coast; the dead man was carrying what appeared to be top-secret letters describing an allied plan to attack Germany through Greece. The operation was meant to conceal the allies’ real plan to attack through Sicily. This masterpiece of lying also worked, as recounted in Macintyre’s 2010 book, “Operation Mincemeat.” Maybe it’s the spy novelist in me looking for a future plot, but I hope the United States and its allies are thinking how to operate “unconventionally” in Iraq and Syria in ways that undermine the Islamic State. This is a terrifyingly brutal group that lines up scores of fighters whose loyalty is suspect and shoots them. In the short run, such intimidation enforces a torturer’s version of discipline. But in the long run, it’s a mark of vulnerability. No one would choose to live under such a regime forever.
One of the few public discussions of how unconventional warfare might be useful against the Islamic State came in an Oct. 20 post on War on the Rocks, my favorite military blog. Clint Watts, a former Army officer and FBI special agent, describes various ways to encourage dissension and division. “Try to put a wedge between [the Islamic State’s] Iraqi dominated leadership and its foreign fighter troops,” argues Watts. Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Iraq’s Nineveh province, told me in an interview Monday that friction between foreigners and locals has already begun among the jihadists in Mosul, along with tension between Turkmen and Sunni Arab members of the group. Watts also suggests encouraging rivalry between the criminal thugs gravitating toward the Islamic State and the group’s core of religious zealots. And he proposes sending infiltrators (or reports of infiltrators) to make the extremists “paranoid about spies” in their ranks. Such double-agent tactics have worked in Somalia and Algeria, he says. Finally, the Islamic State will be undone by its own brutality, which destroys popular support. Watts writes: “Military actions against terrorist groups such as airstrikes make martyrs of jihadi leaders. . . . But truly eroding [the Islamic State’s] appeal will come by turning [ its leaders’] image . . . from martyrs to villains.”