Games of War and Peace V: Space Invaders

It has been a while since I posted an entry in my “Games of War and Peace” series, but I just came across a quote in Stephen Ulph’s Towards a Curriculum for the Teaching of Jihadist Ideology that brought back memories…


The epigraph to Ulph’s Introduction quotes from Rosie Cowan and Richard Norton-Taylor’s piece, Britain now No 1 al-Qaida target – anti-terror chiefs from the (UK) Guardian of 19 October 2006, and I’ve added a couple of earlier paragraphs for context:

Even though the police and M15 have disrupted terror plots and groups influenced by al-Qaida, they describe the networks as very resilient.
They say there is a frightening number of young men willing to step up and replace those who have been arrested or gone to ground.
“It’s like the old game of Space Invaders,” said one senior counter-terrorism source. “When you clear one screen of potential attackers, another simply appears to take its place.”

I don’t think there’s a deep strategic insight there, the way there may be with Mao and the game of Go, although the question of what drives the continuing recruitment of those young men is an important one.

But I’d like to ask — what other game-related insights do you find of value in understanding contemporary jihadism?

8 thoughts on “Games of War and Peace V: Space Invaders”

  1. the person “working the controls” has unlimited “lives” to play with. the jihadi on the ground is a proxy for the “player” who never is in real risk.

  2. CJM:

    That may be — but there’s still the question of what actions (of theirs, of ours) maximize or minimize recruitment…

  3. if you want to minimize recruitment, offer surplus young males all of the narcotics , video games, and sex they desire — and the last thing they will think about is fighting. short of that, create a “grand project” that makes the same surplus males feel needed by society. whether the project is actually useful is besides the point.

  4. IMHO, what drives these young men is the traditional combination of religous devotion, culture and testosterone. But the “religious” part is not generic, it is specific to the religion. Else we would have Unitarian terrorists as well as Islamic ones. But religions are always embedded in cultures with which they interact in complex ways. As a devout religious person myself, I think I understand, at least in principle, what motivates these young men. If I believed what they believed and had been nurtured in a culture which also believed it, then I would very likely be doing what they are doing. The whole point of any religion is to do God’s will. If one believes that this invovles blowing up airplanes full of people, then the devout believer will almost naturally be led to do this. Contrarily, if one believes that it is God’s will to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and comfort the afflicted, then the devout believer will be doing these things instead. The testosterone just adds some kick to it all. So how do we fight this? It has been said that one who will accept death (become a martyr) to accomplish his mission cannot be deterred. This is true, but it is not the whole story. If the would-be martyr is convinced that he is doing God’s will, then he truly cannot be deterred. But how does he know he is doing God’s will? It is here that the believer’s notion of God and His relationship to the the world becomes critical. To make a long argument short, the Islamic terrorist believes that the evidence of doing God’s will is the fact that those on God’s side are winning. (In its early centuries, Islam was nearly always victorious and this has not been forgotten among Muslims.) So we de-motivate the would-be terrorists by continually defeating actual terrorists in ways that have great cultural impact. In our case, that means not just winning but inflicting humiliating defeats. Recall the pictures of Saddam Hussein undergoing a dental exam. Brilliant. I hope the guy who thought of it got a medal. So what kind of pictures are we sending to the terrorist world? Airports that look like intake at a maximum security prison. An acknowlegded killer found not guilty of the killings everyone knows he committed. A tedious and Kafkaesque debate about the intricacies of allowing trimphalist Muslims to build a mosque at ground zero. In short, we are losing a war that we could and should be easily winning, given our culture and history. Some specific ways we could be doing better: find the terrorists at the airports by actually looking for terrorists instead of this insane needle-in-the-haystack-hope-we-find-the-weapon-don’t-stigmatize-anyone approach we use now. Then prosecute them vigorously and publicly. Since both winning and being seen to be winning are important, don’t bring to trial flaky cases. Lastly and most important we need to man up as a culture. There is far more that is right about our culture and history than is wrong. If we don’t believe and act on that, then no one else will either and we are doomed to defeat no matter what else we do. HTH

  5. CJM writes:

    offer surplus young males all of the narcotics , video games, and sex they desire

    Arafat supposedly used a subtler version of the same idea when he needed to demobilize fighters he’d trained for Black September – he threw a party in Beirut for a hundred or so of them and a like number of girls and made them an offer:

    The hundred or so Black Septemberists were told that if they married these women, they would be paid $3,000; an apartment in Beirut with a gas stove, a refrigerator, and a television; and employed by the PLO in some nonviolent capacity. Any of these couples that had a baby within a year would be rewarded with an additional $5,000.

    That’s according to RAND’s terror expert Bruce Hoffman, quoting a one time senior al-Fatah commander in All you need is love.

    Whether you can simply make endless supplies of sex, drugs and video gaming available to anyone who claims to want to be a terrorist – and if so, how – would be another question.

  6. Mike:

    You write “As a devout religious person myself, I think I understand, at least in principle, what motivates these young men. If I believed what they believed and had been nurtured in a culture which also believed it, then I would very likely be doing what they are doing.” That comes pretty close to my own point of view. But here’s the thing – you also write, “the ‘religious’ part is not generic, it is specific to the religion” – but just how do you define that religion – Muslim? Sunni? Salafi? Wahabbi? – and how do you determine who exactly fits which definition?

    That’s a complex question, and one that some of our best scholars have been working on. Notable attempts include:

    Quintan Wiktorowicz, A Genealogy of Radical Islam
    Quintan Wiktorowicz, Anatomy of the Salafi Movement
    Thomas Hegghammer, The Ideological Hybridization of Jihadi Groups

    But getting back to your original point about growing up in a particular culture, with which I’m also in considerable sympathy, it gets more subtle than that.

    The evidence suggests that a Christian who had been nurtured in Catholic Italy shortly before the time of the Fifth Crusade could have become a man of peace like St. Francis of Assisi, who visited the Sultan Malik al-Kamil in a spirit of humility, discussed matters of religion with him courteously, and was sent back from “behind enemy lines” under the Sultan’s guarantee of safe passage – or one like Cardinal Pelagius of Urbano, who had been too much the warrior and too little the strategist to accept the proffer of peace made to him by al-Kamil, and then tried to dissuade St. Francis from visiting the Sultan on the grounds that Francis would almost certainly be killed…

    All of which is just the sort of material I’m trying to get to grips with here at ChicagoBoyz, and on Zenpundit…

  7. Charles:
    It is indeed more subtle than my truncated for publication post indicates. Religion is ultimately lived by individuals in a community and it is that concrete experience that defines practically what the religion is. Other individuals in other communities are likely to read the same book and come up with something altogether different. The Koran, though more homogenous than the Bible, is still subject to widely varying interpretations which are perpetuated by distinct communities. Your example of St. Francis is wonderful. In his own time, he was seen as a reformer and was often opposed because of it. Even today, Franciscan spirituality is far from universal amongst Catholics (not criticizing, just noting the fact). My own thought is that we should be reacting to specific behavior as opposed to a set of beliefs which may or may not be held by any particular group. This approach has the great advantages of simplicity and clarity. We care not what others believe, only how they behave. Those who wish to live in a 7th century bandit culture should be free to do so, as long as they do it somewhere else and keep it to themselves. Those who wish to live in our community should be welcome no matter what their objective religion is provided that they behave peacefully towards the rest of us. Ie that they fit in. If their religion does not permit this, then they need to not come here and we need to exclude them if they try.

  8. @Mike,

    “Then prosecute them vigorously and publicly. Since both winning and being seen to be winning are important, don’t bring to trial flaky cases.”

    Mike Lawfare is a loser.

    Trust me, I played this silly game in Iraq 06/07. If we bring the Lawyers, we might as well surrender. Or become some kind of hermit kingdom. Neither one of which is going to happen.

    The battlefield is not a courtroom.

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