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Strategic Culture and Violent Non-State Actors

Edward David Last wrote a 2018 PhD at the University of Southampton on strategic culture, Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb:

Last, Edward David (2018) Strategic culture and violent non-state actors: a comparative strategic cultural analysis of Al-Qaida and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. University of Southampton, Doctoral Thesis, 602pp.Record type:

While strategic culture has traditionally been applied to states, this work adds to the emerging literature applying strategic cultural approaches to VNSAs. This analysis goes beyond these ideational approaches by also incorporating the concept of practices. In contrast to Alastair Johnston’s (1995a; 1995b) conception of strategic culture I concur with Colin Gray (1999b) that behaviour cannot be disentangled from culture. Indeed, narrative and behaviour, in the form of practices, are mutually constitutive of strategic culture (Lock 2010; Neumann and Heikka 2005). This study consists of a comparative strategic cultural analysis of two Salafi-Jihadist violent non-state actors: Al-Qaida-central and its franchise, AlQaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), employing concepts of strategic narrative and strategic practices.

AQIM, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat or GSPC, rebranded as an Al-Qaida franchise in 2007, leading to speculation of a change from its Algeria-centric agenda to an anti-Western agenda. However, this has not been the case. Rather, AQIM has undergone a process of regionalization, expanding its operations beyond Algeria into Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Indeed, the study finds that while their strategic narratives share a number of common themes they are expressed in differing strategic practices. As such, the two organizations have distinct strategic cultures and differing strategic priorities. AlQaida prioritizes the battle against the far enemy, i.e. the West, whereas AQIM prioritizes the struggle against the near enemy, i.e. local regimes, deemed apostate, in the Maghreb-Sahel, primarily Algeria and Mali. Indeed, Al-Qaida primarily employs strategic practices of terrorism against Western civilians, whereas AQIM primarily employs guerrilla practices targeting local security forces.

Last’s PhD parallels my 2020 Monash University PhD that developed a new strategic culture framework for terrorist organisations, although I looked at Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo. I look forward to reading Last’s dissertation when it becomes available in June.

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Harnessing Protest Potential

The perceived threat posed to Russia from so-called colored revolutions–popular uprisings attributed by Moscow to malign sponsorship by external forces–has become a central theme in Russian security discourse. This article analyses how colored revolutions came to be characterized as a specific threat to national security and how they continue to shape Russian thinking about the changing character of conflict. It explores Russian perceptions of the threat from colored revolutions, using the concept of strategic culture as a framework to analyze these perceptions through an analysis of the Russian military theoretical literature and strategic documents. The article establishes that concerns about non-military means of destabilization reflect continuities in Russian strategic assumptions about adversaries and how they seek to achieve their national objectives. It also reveals the perpetuation of specific narratives about the country’s vulnerability to foreign interference.

This Contemporary Security Policy article by Kings College London’s Dr Tracey German takes on a new urgency with the current election protests in Belarus.

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Farrell on Military Adaptation

Professor Theo Farrell has a new article in the Journal of Strategic Studies on military adaptation in Afghanistan. Here’s the abstract:

Existing studies focus on explaining how militaries adapt in different ways to the challenges of war. However, organisation theory suggests that competition and normative pressure will lead overtime to convergence within particular business and policy sectors, as optimal ways of organizing and operating are learned and emulated. I examine this dynamic in the context of the conflict between the Afghan Taliban and the British Army. That there should be convergence in modes of operation or organizational form between these two very different opponents seems most improbable. Yet, as this article shows, convergence did occur as the conflict wore on.

Farrell’s convergence hypothesis has implications for Blue Team versus Red Team strategic cultures: adversaries and enemies can be closely studied and mirrored in terms of their organisational design (or strategic subcultures).

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Two New Research Projects

Monash University conferred my political science PhD on 29th April 2020.

I am now focusing on the following two new research projects:

Project 1Formal Models for Strategic Culture, Foreign Policy and Crisis Decision-Making: this project will develop new formal models and process tracing tests of strategic culture (the use of force) to inform decision-makers in defence and foreign policy institutions.

Project 2 – Computational Strategic Culture and Decision Elite Subgroups: this project will integrate computational social science methods (such as agent-based modelling) with the corpus of fourth generation literature and the study of decision elite subgroups (in terrorist organisations, and in the political economy context of hedge funds, central banks, and white collar crime).

I also have recently launched a subscription-based newsletter on my research program.

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Kremlin Winter

On my reading list is historian Robert Service’s recent book Kremlin Winter: Russia and the Second Coming of Vladimir Putin (New York: Pan Macmillan, 2019). It’s important to contextualise the current debates on disinformation, misinformation, hybrid war, and political war in the context of Russia’s renewed power projection, and Russian strategic culture which uses asymmetric tactics. Service’s analysis of current history will help with my on-going research agenda.