ISIS in 21st Century Warfighting: Agile, Antifragile, Asymmetrical…and Generational

The big buzzword in academe, industry (especially software) and the military now is “Agile”.   US military has hired the Scrum software guy to try to modernize the brute-force-lumbering-behemoth that is current US military doctrine.  And USG also hired Dr. Yaneer Bar-yam, the pre-emminent complexity theorist in the country, to come up with ways to counter emergent islamic insurgencies.  But superbad juju for the US– insurgencies like the Islamic State are are already agile.  And sadly for Dr. Bar-yam, the Islamic State is also emergent.  Any complexity theorist worth his salt (and trust, Dr. Bar-yam literally wrote the book on complexity) knows that top down control systems fail against emergent process.

This Wired article nicely summarizes the US problem– the internet has reversed the flow of power accumulation.  Disruption rules–read chaos.

More broadly this disruption has made it harder to protect the world’s largest superpower.  Enemies of the US were once mainly hulking nation-states.  But the biggest tech breakthroughs of the past decade–smartphones, social networking, cloud computing, drones–have put the tools of warfare into anyone’s hands, including terrorists, militant groups like the Islamic State, and hacker collectives for hire by authoritarian governments.  As Moses Naim wrote in The End of Power, “In the 21st century power is easier to get, harder to use–and easier to lose.”

But IS is already agile.  For example, in Idarat al Tawahhush (the brilliant schematic for the field-build of a caliphate) Nājī specifies that battlefield commanders must also be able to govern.  Transform instantly for task– the very definition of agile.  Sadly, the moral arc of the universe doesn’t bend toward justice– it bends toward entropy– but IS is cleverly designed to exploit entropy, to gain from disorder.  Chaos makes IS better— it is the growth medium where antifragile hydras thrive.

Brute force fails against asymmetrical warfighting, like 20th century paradigms fail against 21st century paradigms evolved and adapted to counter them.  But IS greatest strength IMHO is generational warfare.  IS leverages regional youth population demographics for a depthless pool of recruits.  Like Nājī explains, even if IS is defeated in this generation, future generations will continue to fight.  In order to “degrade/destroy” IS the US must fight technology, demographics, and a wholly alien ideology that seduces youth from all demographics in all countries– a transcendent memetic plague of incredible power and penetration– Islam.

Pax IS is inevitable in MENA and the Subsahara…US is fighting a war it can never win.  One good economic shock will collapse the US economy–and then the “barbarians” will rush the gates.  Evry empire falls when its reach exceeds its grasp.  Sic semper empire.





5 thoughts on “ISIS in 21st Century Warfighting: Agile, Antifragile, Asymmetrical…and Generational

  1. Just as the humiliation of the Mongol invasions led to the first Salafist revolution, so the humiliation of European Imperialism has led to the second.

    Just as then it’s a reversion to first principles.

    Accordingly IS return to the Rashidun in both ideology and tactics. The roving warrior bands analysed by Nibras Kazimi are the new ghazis, the terrorist attacks in the West by raiding bands are the new razzia.

    Just as with the original ghazis, the effect of this “emergent Islamic insurgency” is to create a zone of chaos (tawahhush) into which the Islamic empire expands.

    The existing states – like the Byzantines – are physically strong but mentally weak, often corrupt or unable to use their tremendous on-paper power. The shift in tactics – your emergent process – has outflanked them and left them unable to respond effectively.

    The question is whether this “memetic plague” will run into the same counter-measure it did when Islam first emerged; Christianity. The old faith was able to mutate, taking on strains of Islamic DNA, eventually leading to the Crusades (the first of which was highly emergent).

    This failed to recapture all the lost territory but did eventually succeed in containing Islam. How much will be lost this time?

    Fossils of this “Crusaderist” ideology remain – largely in symbols; like the Caballeros Templarios in Mexico – but it’s functionally extinct. But it can be reborn; the anti-balaka movement offers one small hint at such a possible future.

    Africa, especially that below the Sahara, will be the crucible for this.


    • Emergence requires local substrate. Even the Crusades were still an attempt to impose topdown control systems on local emergent processes.
      Its why they ultimately failed. Pax Americana is as weak as the Byzantines– involved in nonlinear system collapse.
      Evry empire falls when its reach exceeds its grasp.
      Inshallah we will see the age of Pax Islamica in MENA at least. 🙂


      • Have you considered analyzing why the original Islamic emergent event – the Arab Conquests – ultimately failed to completely conquer Christendom? And why Christendom was able to reverse or contain those conquests in some areas? Comparing it to today might be interesting…


      • no– not relevant
        global connectivity, the internet, social media and cell phones have changed everything
        like I said– the weapons of war are accessible to all now
        and the regional youth bulge insures a constant resupply for the next 20 yrs– US cant kill/convert enough to make a dent


  2. […] lot dated.  Extremely 20th century.  So I decided on a DIY to convey some of my understanding of 21st century warfare in general and of how the Islamic State uses terror in particular.  I asked a western analyst what terrorism […]


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