Insurgencies: the song remains the same Why Ranil is wrong about ‘terrorism’
Posted on August 15th, 2017

BY Rathindra Kuruwita Courtesy Ceylon Today

War is thus more than a mere chameleon, because it changes its nature to some extent in each concrete case. It is also, however, when it is regarded as a whole and in relation to the tendencies that dominate within it, a fascinating trinity (wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit).

– Carl von Clausewitz

Speaking at the Interpol conference on countering terrorism and terrorism related transnational crime in Colombo last week Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Minister of Law and Order Sagala Ratnayake spoke of the threat faced by radicalization and terrorism.

According to the dynamic duo, the nature of insurgencies has changed fundamentally, and technology has changed the way insurgents conduct their operations in an unrecognizable manner. The Prime Minister insisted that the war with the LTTE is likely the last of its kind and unlike in the past terrorists engage in crime to finance their operations, while Ratnayake followed up stating that with new technologies and social media people can get radicalized in minutes and there is no need for a person to be there to radicalize someone. And of course yours truly who was there listening in was ‘literally shaking,’ did you get it? No? Ok then, at these outrageous statements from two men who are key decision makers on national security.

The song remains the same

Of course from time to time insurgents change the way they operate and use whatever technologies that are available. No one sane is saying that the Tyrolean rebels, the peasant rebels fighting against the occupation of their homeland by the French and Bavarian troops and Mao’s Eighth Route Army were doing the same thing or are even comparable. But once you skim through the differences in tactics, techniques and ideologies, one can always find remarkable similarities between conflicts of all epochs. This is especially true when it comes to insurgencies which are pretty much community based initiatives.

I am not surprised that people like Wickremesinghe or Ratnayake believe that technology holds the key to understanding radicalism or that technology will be able to provide an answer to terrorism. Both are neo liberal technocrats and such people often loathe to think of the ‘human element,’ which is always messy and complicated and has no technological answers.

But humans are key to understanding conflict and I will attempt to explain the concept of Clausewitz’s fascinating trinity, which explains underlying causes of any conflict and these factors need to be addressed to dismantle or counter radicalize.

Clausewitz and his fascinating trinity

For me Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz is the most important strategic thinker the world has seen, ever. Despite being a product of the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, the ideas of Clausewitz are still relevant and have inspired military geniuses from Moltke, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder not his stupid nephew Helmuth Johann Ludwig to Mao.

If anyone is interested in strategy and military affairs I recommend them to read his On War, a book I read at least once a year when I feel that I am losing my edge reading through hundreds of crappy war reports by Main Stream Media. Anyway the above mentioned idea on the fascinating trinity is one of his most interesting and important ideas.

Clausewitz’s fascinating trinity comprises of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force;

the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason. “The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the Commander and his Army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the Commander and the Army; but the political aims are the business of government alone” from On War Howard/Paret translation.

Let’s apply this to the ISIS. The terror outfit draws its support from young men who have been influenced by Salafism and Wahhabism who believe that kuffar (non-believers), especially Shia, must be subjugated and destroyed (primordial violence, hatred, and enmity).

It made a name for itself through a string of victories by exploiting the weak Iraqi Army in the summer of 2014 through a series of bold initiatives (the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam). ISIS leadership has also taken a number of decisions that makes no sense tactically, i.e. the suicidal attack on Kurds in Kobane in late 2014 which bled the ISIS and is now seen as a turning point of the war in the Levant, and goes against the ideology not destroying Suleyman Shah’s (the father of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire) tomb in 2015, although they have destroyed all other tombs in their territory, because they did not want to risk the destruction of its alliance with Turkey (an instrument of policy). These aspects can also easily be applied to the LTTE or Naxalites of India or the Afghan Taliban. To be more precise just like the LTTE wanted a separate State for the Tamils, the ISIS wants to carve out a State for Sunni Muslims, if Wickremesinghe sees a difference between the objectives of the two groups he is not seeing things properly.

No investments

I have pointed out repeatedly that the funds reserved for capacity building of the military has remained the same in the last few years and this runs contradictory to the continuous lip service paid for the importance of countering radicalization. War is a chaotic system, infinitely complex in its variables and conditions. While a significant number of people tend to overestimate the importance of weapon systems, drooling over the pages of Jane’s Defence Weekly, history has shown that while the advancement of weapons change how wars are fought, leadership, training, morale, and most importantly, political strategy dictate how wars are won.

Sri Lankan Army did not win the war against the LTTE because it had better hardware; the war was won due to superior training, morale, intelligence and numbers. These are the same aspects that will allow us to be on top of the current security landscape, where the biggest threats are radicalization, smuggling, and cyber-crime; what is required is superior training and accurate and actionable intelligence. While procuring aircraft is attractive what is required is better troop training, i.e. on cultural sensitivity, language skills, surveillance, technical courses on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and geographic profiling and information gathering and so on, and infrastructure and training for our intelligence services. Therefore, it is quite disheartening to see that the government has not understood the threats the nation faces and what needs to be done to address these challenges.

Rathindra holds an MSc in Strategic Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore, and can be reached via

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