Book Review: Rules for Rebels – Max Abrahms

Max Abrahms writes a very interesting and a very engrossing book. I could not let go of the book once i started to read it until I had finished it. How can you put down a book which claims to provides ‘rules’ for militants to succeed, and more so if it is so lucidly written? Some of the key takeaways from the book are;

1. The book challenges many of the truisms (or should I say gospels) held about terrorists and the strategies adopted by them. It also challenges the ‘understanding’ of ‘experts’ and ‘academics’ of this phenomena of terrorism and it’s political effectiveness. The book is deeply researched and the author has studied a plethora of terrorist organisations and their activities. The book carries forward from Saul Alinsky’s 1970 seminal work, ‘Rules for Radicals’ which specified how community protesters could seize powers from the established political elites.

2. The most important contribution that Max makes to terrorism/militancy literature is the importance he assigns to the role played by leadership in these movements. Max argues that this has been under-theorized and I wholeheartedly agree with him. In my myriad readings of terrorism/militant literature, while one finds much reference to their history, ideology, strategy, activities, but the systematic and in-depth study of the militant leadership, their decision making style, personality traits and their world view etc. is more often than not, dealt with in a perfunctory manner. Max argues that the leadership and its quality, plays an important role in the success and longevity of any militant movement.

3. Max argues that there are three basic rules that any militant group and it’s leadership needs to follow if it wants to survive or have any hope of succeeding in the achievement of its political objectives. These are;
(1) If possible, renounce terrorism as an instrument to achieve its political objective. However, if that is not possible, use violence selectively and not indiscriminately. Don’t kill innocent civilians and if violence has to be used, keep it restricted to selected targets like the military or instruments of government. Max argues that leaders like Mandela understood this well and restricted their violence to sabotage, refraining from attacking civilians. Even the guidance literature of Taliban issued to its operatives stresses on not attacking civilians.
(2) Create a highly centralized structure with a ‘clever’ leadership at the top which educates the lower cadres to think strategically, rather than tactically, prohibits them from committing senseless violence, and also manages to discipline wayward operatives. It is also important to vet the members before they are formally inducted, for that helps in maintaining discipline and ideological commitment. Max gives the example of Hezbollah where the top leadership under Nasrullah follows these practices, making it it a highly potent militant organisation.
(3) Maintain the ‘brand’ of the organisation in the eyes of the civilians and international community by maintaining a moderate image. In case the lower level operatives do indulge in an act of terrorism involves reputational costs to the organisation, the first strategy is to what Max calls, Denial of Organisation’s Involvement (DOI), but if the proof is too overwhelming of the organisation’s involvement, clever leadership indulges in what he calls, Denial of Principal Intent (DPI) wherein the organisation apologizes for the mistake and distances itself from the act or publicly punishes the wayward operative.

4. The most interesting and satisfying read for me was Max’s analysis of the ISIS; its strategy and its success. The rise of ISIS intrigued me and I tried to educate myself of the rise of this so called Caliphate. I always found its strategy and ideas bizarre and always thought they had failure written all over them. How could such a nihilist organisation succeed in the long run was always something that I questioned! But there were many scholars (you can find their name in the book, am too small a fry to name these bade log) who found their nihilist and indiscriminate violence and their slick videos which publicized their gory beheadings as a brilliant strategy tool which generated a fear psychosis in their opponents as well as enthused the radical Islamists’ to join them. Max through his research proves how wrong these scholars were! He argues that the large swathe of land over which the ISIS established control was mostly sparsely populated desert. Secondly, when they captured Mosul and al Baghdadi proclaimed the Caliphate in the al Nouri mosque, it was not as if they took the city after a fight, but because the Iraqi army flee and the local population, sick of the sectarian policy of the Iraqi government, welcomed the ISIS as their saviour. However, when the ISIS degenerated into a nihilist organisation resorting to killings around the globe (stupidly taking responsibility of any violence happening anywhere around the globe; Max illustrates the case of bombing in USA where the perpetrators were not even Muslims but ISIS jumped to take credit), global political opinion against them hardened, leading to the creation of and international coalition against them. This coalition comprised of even those countries who were normally on the opposite sides in most other matters, like Iran and the USA. No way any group would have been able to survive such global onslaught. He brands al Baghdadi as a ‘stupid’ leader. (Personally, this was this nacheez ka thesis too, and I felt happy and vindicated after reading the book  )

5. Another thesis of this nacheez with which Max seems to agree with, is that attempts at restricting ‘social media’ content of organisations like ISIS on social media platforms like FB and Twitter is self defeating. International disgust against such brutalization does more harm to these organisations than inciting people to join them. Max is right when he argues that one should not stop ones adversaries from committing mistakes. The American public opinion turned totally against the ISIS and public position hardened, only after the video of the brutal beheading of James Foley was released by ISIS and it got wide publicity. Banning terrorist literature prevents people from understanding their mind, world view and strategy. I don’t think that helps in devising a suitable strategy against these terrorists! How can you fight a disease effectively if you don’t know enough about the disease? I have been looking for the 78 page manifesto of the Christchurch shooter, (to understand what made that monster do what he did, what he feels, his worldview etc through a first hand account and not through the filtered eyes of journalist and experts) but alas, the intelligent guys (?) have decided to wipe it out of the net. Now only important think-tank walas will have access to it, and they will keep giving unchallenged fundas to people!!

6. The most hilarious and (for me a feeling of deja vu with researchers and especially journalistic analysis) has been the way Max has taken down the changing interpretations of the ISIS phenomenon by experts, especially when writing about its effectiveness. He clearly highlights their cognitive bias, wherein they modified their arguments with each changed circumstance, changed their goalposts but refused to accept that the theories they posited were incorrect. Two illustrative examples from the book,
(a) When Bush attacked Iraq in 2003, these scholars said, well this is what AL Qaeda ‘exactly’ wanted. Similarly, post the Madrid bombings, when Spain withdrew from Iraq, the same scholars said again, ‘well this is what Al Qaeda ‘exactly’ wanted’. 
(b) The ISIS was considered to be successful because they had created a proto-state, but now that they have been routed, they still say ISIS is successful for they have now dispersed in the deserts. Max quotes Shadi Hamid when ISIS captured territory, “They are not your terrorists of the mid 2000s that are blowing up things and just killing innocent civilians…they actually hold and control territory.” After their implosion he writes, “The Islamic state may be defeated. But their legacy will be long lasting. ISIS has set the gold standard for extremist groups.” So suddenly the measure of success was no longer the Caliphate but a so called legacy.
(Does this ring a bell about how many big names in Indian journalism report? )

7. Max also refers to the impact that targetting leadership of miltiant groups does to the organisation. His research shows that decapitation strikes on senior leadership leads to increase in attacks on civilians in comparison to hard military targets. This is because leadership becomes more diffused and the lower level leadership is more guided by thoughts of revenge and does not have the vision to think more strategically. States then need to think hard before they embark on a strategy of leadership elimination. Killing leaders only helps when leaders sanction indiscriminate violence.

All in all an excellent read. Loved reading it. Maza aaya!!

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