Sometimes debate with al Qaeda works

Brian Michael Jenkins:

In Yemen three years ago, Islamic scholars challenged a group of defiant al-Qaeda prisoners to a theological debate. "If you convince us that your ideas are justified by the Koran, then we will join you in the struggle," the scholars told the terrorists. "But if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence." The scholars won the debate, the prisoners renounced violence, were released and were given help to find jobs. Some have since offered advice to Yemeni security services – a tip from one led to the death of al-Qaeda's top leader in the country.


But armed force alone cannot win this war in the long run. In the continuing campaign against al-Qaeda and the insurgency raging in Iraq today, political warfare must be an essential part of America's arsenal.

Few Americans understand political warfare, which in its broadest sense, may encompass everything other than military operations, from assassination to political accommodation. Reversing Clausewitz's famous dictum that "war is the extension of politics by other means," political warfare is the extension of armed conflict by other means.

Political warfare does not focus exclusively on enemies who are at large or end with their capture. It targets those on their way in to enemy ranks, those who might be persuaded to quit, and those in custody. Political warfare sees the enemy not as a monolithic force, but as a dynamic population of individuals whose grievances, sense of humiliation, and desire for revenge, honor, status, meaning, or mere adventure propel them into jihad and resistance.

Political warfare accepts no foe as having irrevocably crossed a line, but sees enemy combatants as constantly calibrating and recalibrating their commitment. It sees every prisoner not merely as a source of operational intelligence, but as a potential convert. Political warfare is infinitely flexible and ferociously pragmatic. It accepts local accommodations to reduce violence, offers amnesties to induce divisions and defections, and cuts deals to co-opt enemies.


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