As I’ve previously reported, France stands on the front lines of Europe’s struggle against the Salafi jihad, with numerous violent incidents in the country in recent years perpetrated by terrorists who radicalized while they were at home, not abroad. The urgency of the situation has been clarified by the revelation that French national Mehdi Nemmouche, who murdered three Jews in Brussels, was a notorious torturer for the Islamic State while he waged jihad in Syria. Reports that Nemmouche had much bigger plans, including a terrorist attack on the Champs Élysées parade on Bastille Day, have hardly calmed nerves in Paris.
Calmness is not in order in France now, as the number of its citizens waging jihad in Syria and Iraq, mostly on behalf of the Islamic State, is without precedent. While earlier jihadi campaigns in Bosnia in the 1990s or in Iraq a decade ago, for instance, attracted a few dozen French nationals apiece, the current wars in the Middle East have involved nearly a thousand French citizens — 942 in Syria over the last two years, according to French intelligence, which tracks the involvement of these fighters as best it can. Paris believes that about 350 French citizens are waging jihad in Iraq and Syria at present, and French security services are simply overwhelmed by the number of extremists — known jihadists, would-be jihadists, plus returning jihadists — they need to track.
This dire situation is clarified in a new interview in the Parisian daily L’Opinion with Marc Trévidic, a counterterrorism magistrate with long experience in dealing with jihadists. Known for his frank talk about terrorism, Trévidic minces no words, portraying French intelligence, police, and courts as “disarmed” in the face of a new and more dangerous domestic extremism scene that is now directly tied to Syria and Iraq, as well as the Islamic State. His recent words to the media paint a disturbing portrait:
Everything is different these days! Before, would-be jihadis had a smattering of instruction. There is no religious background now; it is the image that wins them over. The appeal is to their feelings, not to their intellect. The explosion is due to the Internet. The youngsters we have to deal with are overexcited, not intellectually radicalized … The profiles are completely disparate. Some are impossible to check out. Never before have we come up against women and minors! Before long, the only age group missing will be the very old…
Neither is Paris equipped, legally or operationally, to deal with the hundreds of jihadists, seasoned in battle, who are returning home:
We can no longer sift them or monitor them as before to find out what their intentions are. We are forced to arrest them as soon as they set foot in the country. We need to know what they have been through. On the whole, they have been through horrendous experiences. We lack the evidence needed to probe them properly. However, some of them are potentially dangerous, all the more so in that they are forced into waging an individual jihad in the attempt to escape detection.
“We lack teeth,” explained the frustrated judge, as the legal system is simply not equipped to handle so many extremists, including large numbers of teenagers without prior criminal history. Trévidic leaves little doubt that France is facing a terrorism threat without precedent in its history, with hundreds — and soon thousands — of radicals that intelligence has difficulty tracking and the police and courts have difficulty arresting and keeping in custody before they kill innocents, as happened in the Merah and Nemmouche cases. The threat is the same in most of Western Europe, and most of those countries are even less equipped to deal with it than France is.
This week Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine became overt for all the world to see. Since February, Moscow waged a semi-covert campaign that I term Special War, with the initial aim of taking Crimea. This succeeded almost bloodlessly thanks to confusion in Kyiv. Over the past six months, inspired by Crimean success, Russian strategy has focused on creating and preserving Kremlin-controlled pseudo-states, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics,” which are in fact subsidiaries of Russian intelligence.
This, however, is a far more ambitious goal than the Crimean operation, and resistance has mounted. In recent weeks, Ukrainian efforts to retake territory around Donetsk and Luhansk in what Kyiv calls the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) have gained momentum, and this week Moscow sent troops across the border more or less openly since the alternative is the defeat and collapse of its proxies in southeast Ukraine. That Putin will not allow, and it’s difficult to see how he could, after months of stoking fiery Russian nationalism over the Ukraine issue, with casual talk of “Nazis” ruling in Kyiv ready to inflict “genocide” on ethnic Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk.
There is no doubt that hundreds of Russian armored vehicles and thousands of troops are operating in southeast Ukraine now. Dead Russian paratroopers are coming home for burial and NATO has shown satellite imagery that leaves no doubt that the Russo-Ukrainian War, which began in the winter, has become a full-fledged conflict this summer. As I write, the city of Mariupol on the coast of the Sea of Azov is preparing to defend itself against an expected Russian onslaught this weekend. If Mariupol falls, a land corridor to Crimea will open up and the war will likely grow wider, fast. Certainly Russian tanks provocatively flying the flag of Novorossiya, which was the Tsarist-era name for south and east Ukraine — a term that Putin himself has picked up recently — gives a clear indication of what the Kremlin wants.
The next few days will be decisive in determining if Russia’s war against Ukraine remains limited or expands significantly into a major conflict that will imperil European security in a manner not witnessed in decades. The course that Putin has plotted is described ably in an article today in Novaya Gazeta, the last Kremlin-unfriendly serious newspaper in Russia, by Pavel Felgenhauer, a noted Russian defense commentator. “We are still a half step from full-scale war,” he states, explaining why:
War will happen if the current alignment does not achieve the strategic goals that Moscow is setting itself. The strategic goal, as Putin has been saying since April, is a stable ceasefire. In order to achieve it, it is necessary to achieve a military balance on the battlefield: To rout the Ukrainian forces, throw them back from Donetsk and Luhansk, and consolidate the territory that the insurgents are controlling. Donetsk People’s Republic representatives have repeatedly stated that they want the complete withdrawal of the Ukrainian troops from the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk.
To date, Moscow has shown restraint, Felgenhauer notes, committing only a few thousand Russian troops to battle in Ukraine, rather than the tens of thousands it could deploy. But that may not last:
The main battle now will obviously take place around and within Mariupol. Unless the Ukrainians are driven back, a real war will begin. Furthermore, there will be an air war on all of Ukraine’s territory. Then tens of thousands of Russian military will intervene. They will try to achieve air superiority and throw the Ukrainians out. In an extended version, perhaps, this will not only be from the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Time, that trickiest of strategic concerns, is not on Putin’s side any longer, as Felgenhauer observes accurately, between weather and the Russian military’s conscript cycle:
There is not much time left. Fall is approaching. The short hours of daylight and low clouds will complicate the matters for the air force. It will have difficulty supporting ground troops — pilots in Su-25 ground-attack planes need to see the targets on the ground. In addition, starting 1 October, it is necessary to conduct a new draft and begin the demobilization of those conscripts who are stationed on the border as part of the artillery battalion groups. It is specifically for these reasons that the question must be resolved now.
We will know in a few days, then, if Putin has achieved his relatively limited military aims in eastern Ukraine. If he does not manage a quick win, there is every reason to think Ukraine and Russia will become embroiled in a protracted war for which neither Moscow nor Kyiv is ready.
Despite the impressive tenacity shown by Ukrainian volunteer units in the ATO, the overall condition of the country’s military remains lamentable, thanks to a generation of political and financial neglect after independence from the USSR in 1991. Moreover, too many Ukrainian senior officers retain Soviet-era habits of sloth, drunkenness and thievery, which has led to protests this week by citizens angry at military corruption and poor support for the men who are fighting and dying in the southeast. While the courage of Ukrainian troops is not in question, the competence of the military system certainly is.
There is ample reason to doubt the staying power of Ukrainian forces against a genuine Russian onslaught in the southeast. How badly things are going with the Ukrainian military in the field was laid bare in a recent interview with Serhiy Chervonopyskyy in the Kyiv daily Obozrevatel. A highly decorated veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Chervonopyskyy heads the country’s Afghan War veterans’ association and has observed the situation around Donetsk and Luhansk. He’s not impressed:
Many military leaders show a criminal lack of professionalism. Which, as always, is compensated for by the heroism of the ordinary soldiers. Afghanistan veterans are fighting in Donbas, working as instructors, delivering humanitarian aid, freeing captives, living in the battle zone. In the [Afghan veteran's association] we receive a lot of information, particularly from experienced men who know more about war than just what you see in films. We can make an objective assessment of the situation.
Chervonopyskyy minces no words, finding fault with nearly everything about Ukraine’s military, save the soldiers themselves, citing poor logistics, outdated weaponry, abysmal staff work, plus a dysfunctional medical system that does not care for the many wounded properly. The Russians seem to know when the Ukrainians are coming, not only due to numerous Russians spies, but because Ukrainian troops, officers too, use their mobile phones constantly in the combat zone, creating a bonanza for Russian military intelligence, which is listening in. His verdict is harsh: “in recent years the army in our country has been systematically destroyed. Unlike Russia’s army.”
Chervonopyskyy leaves no doubt that Ukraine’s military needs root-and-branch reform that is nearly impossible to achieve while it is at war. Too many officers engage in profiteering while soldiers die without necessary supplies, including ammunition. Repeated offers from Afghan war veterans to assist the war effort have been rebuffed in Kyiv:
Our generals, colonels, and other commanders, of whom there are too many, are very frightened of appearing incompetent in front of us, as we understand military matters well. They are more frightened of this than of losing soldiers or suffering a defeat. Again it is a question of professionalism.
As long as this lamentable situation continues, it is unrealistic to expect the Ukrainian military to successfully defend their country against attacks by some of the best units in the Russian army, the demonstrated heroism of Kyiv’s soldiers notwithstanding. Ukraine is fighting for its life now, and the utmost seriousness is required to prevent defeat at the hands of Putin’s soldiers and proxies.
But we must not find fault only with Ukraine. It is far from encouraging that Western leaders, including the White House, will not use the word “invasion” in connection with Russian moves. Such institutionalized escapism in the West does not discourage Russian aggression, rather it encourages more of it. Putin is playing va banque now, his two options are a quick win in the southeast of Ukraine or a protracted conflict: backing down is not an option in the Kremlin anymore, and only naive Westerners think it is.
Sanctions will have no short-term impact on Russian behavior at this point. Vaunted Western “soft power” has been run over by Russian tanks. The decision for war has been made in Moscow, and it will be prosecuted until Putin achieves his objectives or the cost — rising numbers of Russian dead — becomes politically prohibitive. Putin knows that the Russian public, heady after the nearly bloodless conquest of Crimea, has no stomach for a costly war of choice with Ukraine, their “Slavic brothers.”
If the West wants to prevent more Russian aggression and save Ukraine from further Kremlin depradations, it must offer Kyiv armaments, logistics, training, and above all intelligence support without delay. Nothing else will cause Moscow to back down. Only by arming and enabling Ukraine’s military can the West make the cost of Putin’s war prohibitive for Russia. Ukraine’s defense ministry and armed forces require major Western aid to transform its underperforming military from bad Soviet habits to real fighting capability, but that is a long-term enterprise. Right now, Kyiv needs direct military aid. If NATO does not provide it, a wider war for Ukraine becomes more likely by the day, with grave consequences for the European peace that NATO has preserved, at great expense, for sixty-five years.
Compared to France, Germany, or Britain, Italy’s problem with domestic jihadism is relatively modest, yet it is growing fast, thanks to the wars in Syria and Iraq. A new report in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s paper of record, based on current intelligence from Italian secret services, paints a disturbing picture of rising radicalism.
At present, according to the latest intelligence in Rome, some fifty Italians are fighting with the Islamic State (IS — get my assessment of that dangerous group here), of whom a shocking eighty percent are converts, not immigrants or born Muslims. Many go abroad to wage holy war after a surprisingly brief period of conversion and radicalization. They are very young and come mostly from northern Italy. The Salafi jihadist scene in Italy is fragmented regionally and a key role is played by what Italian intelligence terms “liaison officers,” the individuals who facilitate the recruitment of new holy warriors and get them to the war zone. Over 200 of these “liaison officers” are currently being monitored by the security services. They play a critical role, and here the Italian experience is different from most European countries, as Corriere della Sera explains:
Our intelligence considers them to be very dangerous because they have returned to our country after a period of training in secret bases, mostly in Afghanistan. They are a totally new phenomenon, going against the trend by comparison with other European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Belgium. In those countries most of the jihadists recruited — and they are far more numerous than Italy’s jihadists — go directly to fight as volunteers in the theaters of conflict. In Italy the opposite occurs. Most of them stay behind to offer logistical, organizational, and recruitment support on our soil, which is considered a nerve center. This, among other reasons, because migrant integration and intake policies are making it increasingly difficult to identify, among the poor wretches who land on our shores, those individuals who are returning from Syria or from Libya with leading roles and who are capable of acting as a focal point for new recruits.
Those recruits are very young, mostly between eighteen and twenty-five years of age, and so far exclusively male. To date, ten Italian jihadists have been killed in Syria. Nearly all have been recruited via the internet:
Indoctrination takes place with pervasive and rapid techniques which prompt these kids to take the crucial step of departing for war theaters in a very short time. These powerfully manipulative psychological techniques have been tried and tested in the training camps for young suicide bombers in Pakistan. When the IS’s recruits are ready, they can rely on liaison officers to organize their transportation, which is often a one-way journey only.
Although some jihadists come from Rome and Naples, most are from the north, with high extremist activity being noted by Italian intelligence in the Brescia area, along with the cities of Turin and Milan, as well as Ravenna and Bologna, the Padua area, and the Valcamonica region, while Cremona is a particular hotspot for would-be jihadists, because the Bosnian extremist Bilal Bosnić, who heads IS recruitment in his country (see my analysis here) has spent time there and is very popular due to his fiery sermons urging holy war against the West and “infidels.”
Neither can the jihadist problem in Italy be separated from the migration crisis that is facing the country, as intelligence reports conclude than many of the 200 “liaison officers” working in the country have arrived illegally, mixed in with the economic migrants who are flooding southern Italy. For the secret services, detecting the criminals in the mix has been nearly impossible so far.
The barbaric murder this week of the American journalist James Foley by a British jihadist has served as a tragic reminder of the gravity of the global threat posed by the Salafi jihad movement. For the first time in years, the Western public, seeing the horrific images of Foley’s butchering, has been confronted with the reality of our enemy. Those who thought the death of Osama bin Laden three years ago signaled the beginning of the end of his vile cause, a view championed by the Obama administration, were naively mistaken. Bin Laden’s demise was, as Churchill said of British victory at El Alamein, “the end of the beginning” of the struggle against the Salafi jihad movement.
And a movement it is, rather than an organization; those who apply Western, military-style organizational charts to it, in the manner beloved by intelligence analysts everywhere, are and have always been wrong. It shares an ideology but operates differently depending where it goes: there is tactical flexibility nested in severe ideological rigidity. Al-Qa’ida (AQ) never had a monopoly on the global jihad movement, and its slow, predictable decline under the uninspired leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri has opened the door to the even more extreme jihadists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). While AQ is far from dead — its Yemen-based franchise in particular, AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), remains very dangerous — it’s evident that the center of gravity in the global jihad movement has shifted to the fanatics of the Islamic State and their self-proclaimed Caliphate.
The struggle between AQ and the group now calling itself IS goes back a decade in Iraq, beginning with Sunni resistance to the U.S. invasion in 2003, and, given the gradual decline of bin Laden’s faction, it was perhaps inevitable that the even more murderous IS would win out. Its message of uncompromising holy war against all enemies, from “infidels” outside the Muslim world to the many “apostates” within it, appeals to the basest human instincts and is intoxicating to angry young men who pine for murder, martyrdom, and glory. IS embraces the extreme Salafi vision — they are takfiris to use the proper term — of jihad for jihad’s sake, a fanatical fantasy of “pure” Islam that invariably kills more Muslims than “infidels.” The takfiri tendency lies in the DNA of the Salafi jihad movement, and has burst forth murderously on many occasions, most horrifically in Algeria in the 1990s, where the local AQ affiliate, the Armed islamic Group (GIA), was expelled from the “official” movement for its indiscriminate killing, just as IS was recently. The only difference now is that the world has noticed, with horror, the mass killings of innocents perpetrated by IS murderers in Iraq. True “shock and awe” in Iraq has been delivered by masked fanatics rallied around a black flag, not the U.S. military.
I’ve watched the global jihad movement closely for years, both as a security practitioner and a scholar, and I’ve analyzed its metastasis as it’s moved from region to region. I’ve written books about its strategy and operations as well as its growth in the 1990s into a worldwide phenomenon. Since 9/11, I’ve witnessed two American presidents wage war against the global jihad movement in a rather similar manner, contrary to much public fuss about the differences between Bush and Obama-style counterterrorism, and from the outset I’ve maintained that the U.S. approach is deeply flawed and doomed to fail. My sharper critiques of American counterterrorism strategy have been largely confined to secret and off-record discussions inside the government, within the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Intelligence Community (IC), as well as with key Allies. As I am now leaving government employ, I am free to speak my mind. This is a start.
Let me state unambiguously that this is a war that the West must win. Our Salafi jihadist enemy is a threat to virtually every country on earth, including Western ones. Their vision is fanatical and uncompromising. They are a foe who must be killed off through attrition. There is no room for negotiation or dialogue. We must face the reality that our struggle against these fanatics will last decades, not years; everybody currently waging this war will retire before the job is done.
Winning the war will require the full effort of Western governments, working with each other and partners across the Muslim world. This is a two-front war, against Salafi jihadists who struggle against the Muslim world, and also against the fanatics in our midst who reside inside the West itself. For years, we’ve heard facile statements that America embraces a (bad) military-focused approach to counterterrorism while Europeans stick to a (good) law enforcement model. This view was arguably true a decade ago but is wholly false today, with all Western governments now employing police, militaries, and above all intelligence to combat the Salafi jihad wherever it finds sanctuary.
First, the external front. Here there is some good news. In the first place, the very fanaticism of IS and its make-believe Caliphate will ultimately undo it. Without exception, Salafi jihadists who embrace takfiri methods sooner or later wind up alienating the great majority of Muslims around them. While Iraqi Sunnis have allowed IS to play a vanguard role in their broad-based uprising against the Shia-run regime in Baghdad which they hate, eventually mainstream Sunnis will sour on IS butchery visited on co-religionists. Yet this should not overly comfort us, as it will be years, not months, before most Iraqi Sunnis realize they fear IS fanatics more than Shia.
Yet the war against IS in Iraq will be aided by the fact that we have many allies and partners in the struggle who are eager to put the “boots on the ground” that we do not wish to. Kurdish militias are fighting for their lives and Shia militias may be able to show the stamina in battle that the U.S-raised and trained Iraqi military so humiliatingly failed to against IS. We are already assisting Kurds, and more help is needed, with the proviso that DoD should supply weapons, logistics, and some intelligence — and no more: let locals fight in the manner they know how to. The collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of lightly armed fanatics, with whole divisions fleeing before an IS battalion, illustrates that the U.S. military, having wasted years and billions of dollars on Baghdad’s security forces, is thoroughly incompetent at building Middle Eastern militaries. We need to stop pretending otherwise and let the Iraqis, who are quite competent at killing, get on with fighting the fanatics.
Here U.S. and Allied airpower will be decisive, as long as it is applied properly. For years, I dined out on my oft-stated belief that if the Salafi jihadists wanted to destroy their cause, all they had to do was 1. embrace takfirism as a strategy, and 2. set up physical sanctuary somewhere, the Caliphate they pine for. Which is exactly what the Islamic State has done. I believed this because takfiri views are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who find them repugnant and barbaric, moreover setting up shop in any place for very long would be an open invitation to be crushed mercilessly by American airpower. I had assumed, naively, that no U.S. president would hesitate to dispatch AC-130 gunships to annihilate any jihadists foolish enough to control large swaths of territory.
Let me be clear: Attriting IS out of existence in Iraq — and Syria too — where they have erased the Allied-drawn state boundaries of the post-World War One settlement, will not be quick but it can be done through proper application of Western airpower tied to proxy forces on the ground. Indeed, this is the sort of fight the U.S. military today is ideally suited for. Since 9/11, the DoD and IC have honed their terrorist-killing acumen, with secret warriors of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), guided by time-sensitive intelligence, becoming the bane of jihadists in many countries. They have no equal at what they do in secret. The JSOC-IC combination will be critical to destroying IS, one deadly raid at a time.
Just as important will be airpower, delivered through both manned and unmanned platforms. As yet, IS has only rudimentary air defenses, and U.S. and Allied air forces can deliver hammer blows to their battalions without serious losses on our side. Contrary to what activists tell you, the U.S. military goes to great lengths to avoid civilian deaths, what we euphemistically term “collateral damage,” in its use of airpower. We must understand that IS will use civilians as shields, as HAMAS has done in Gaza. This must not deter us. IS leaders (high-value targets or “HVTs” in the trade) must be killed wherever they are, regardless of whose house they are hiding in. After enough airstrikes, Sunnis will seek to expel IS from their midst for fear of our lethal reach.
The virulent extremism of the Islamic State — they represent to the Salafi cause roughly what the Khmer Rouge did to Marxism-Leninism — means that nearly everybody will want to partner with the West to some degree in fighting it. Once they see the seriousness of our intent, certain Gulf states whose support for IS has been important to their growth will quickly reconsider their position. Even Russia could be a valuable partner in the fight against IS, while Putin’s friends in Damascus are very eager to eliminate this existential threat to the Assad regime. Iran must be handled carefully, as Tehran will be an enemy of the West as long as it is ruled by the mullahs, but they are deadly serious about destroying the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. To wax Churchillian again, the British prime minister famously said that if Hitler invaded Hell he would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons, and that nicely sums up Iran’s place in the loose anti-IS coalition too.
I have been a frequent critic of post-9/11 American beliefs that there is a military solution to every problem, a viewpoint that has caused much heartache for the United States and many foreigners in recent years. In the long run, the wave of Salafi radicalism that has shaken the Muslim world in recent decades will burn itself out. Islam has seen similar waves before. But we would be naive to expect it to recede anytime soon, and the wave may not have crested yet. Moreover, political problems across the Middle East that have assisted the rise of extremism, for instance the sectarian stupidity of the Baghdad government that emerged under U.S. tutelage, leading to a Sunni rebellion with IS at its head, are largely beyond the West’s control to repair or even ameliorate. A Bosnian-style partition of Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish entities, devolving power on ethno-sectarian lines while maintaining a notional Iraqi state, looks like an even better idea now than when Vice President (then Senator) Joe Biden proposed it in 2006 (whatever my criticisms of Bosnian dysfunction, that country looks like Switzerland compared to Iraq now), but we ought not believe that politico-economic reform in the Muslim world, however welcome and necessary it may be, offers any short term solutions to the problem of Salafi jihadism. Right now the sole remedy to the challenge presented by the Islamic State is crushing it with brutal force.
The issue, then, is intent. We have it in our power to destroy IS in Iraq and Syria, and although that attrition-based strategy will not achieve success quickly, ultimate victory over at least this part of the Salafi jihad movement is assured as long as we pursue the struggle with patience and vigor. Will, not way, is our problem. President Obama’s take on the jihadist enemy has never inspired confidence in the counterterrorism community, and his reaction to the rise of the Islamic State does not reflect the seriousness of the threat we now face. While none can fault Obama for a lack of ardor for certain aspects of the war that he refuses to call a war, as the death of Osama bin Laden and hundreds of lethal drone strikes during his presidency attest, his unwillingness to confront the ideological aspects of the struggle has been troubling to many who wage that war. Obvious White House squeamishness about the “I-word,” coupled with idiocies like terming the massacre of thirteen U.S. soldiers by Nidal Hasan, Army psychiatrist turned self-styled jihadist, an incident of “workplace violence,” bespeak a fundamental lack of seriousness about the struggle we are in. While we must always be careful about delineating Islam from Islamism, and I have been sharply critical of those who do not, pretending that Salafi jihadism is not what it actually is only helps the enemy.
President Obama’s penchant for golf, particularly at inopportune moments, has received much criticism of late, with even what might be termed the court press reporting frankly on its negative impact on public perception, including scathing op-eds. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that the president is tired of the hard job of being Commander-in-Chief. Certainly his public comments on the Islamic State lack the dire tone emanating from some senior administration officials. This week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke of IS in alarming terms as a threat “beyond anything that we’ve seen…They’re beyond just a terrorist group.” General Martin Dempsey, DoD’s military head, stated that IS possesses an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision” and the group “will eventually have to be defeated.” It’s an open secret in the Pentagon that such blunt statements reflect widespread concerns in DoD and the IC that President Obama is not taking the current threat seriously enough. At a minimum, the president must inject his national security staff, which I’ve never found talented or inspired, with purpose and seriousness, while antics such as disclosing failed top secret counterterrorism operations to score political points are unworthy of the presidency and must cease at once.
It is hoped that, confronted by the rising madness and violence of IS in Iraq and Syria, Obama will find the ability to pursue the war against Salafi jihadism with the required vigor, as well as to communicate to the public the nature of the threat we face, including the reality that the struggle will be long and difficult. The Islamic State can be crushed in what remains of Obama’s second term, while defeating Salafi jihadism itself is a generational enterprise, but refusing to use the time between now and January 2017 to fight IS with all the means at our disposal will not only give the enemy time to grow and metastasize further, it would amount to presidential dereliction of duty. If President Obama does not possess the will to wage this war that has been forced upon us, he should consider devoting himself to golf full time and stepping aside in favor of Joe Biden, who has demonstrated some quite sensible views on terrorism over the years.
That said, the war against IS inside the Muslim world is only part of the struggle we now face, and in many ways it’s the easy part. That James Foley’s killer is British (his identity has been established by British intelligence but not yet released to the public) has focused attention on the painful fact that a considerable number of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria are from the West. British citizens are estimated to represent a quarter of the roughly 2,000 Europeans fighting with IS at present. Numbers of Westerners in IS ranks are difficult to estimate and the true figure is likely 3,000 or more. Additionally, since many jihadists go to Syria or Iraq for a few months and return home, leading to a high turnover rate, the number of Westerners who have fought with IS in the Middle East exceeds 5,000 and is rising fast.
Going to Syria or Iraq to join IS is very much in vogue among radical Salafis across the West. Getting there is easy, especially for Europeans: Turkey’s looking the other way about the movement of thousands of foreign fighters through the country en route to the jihad is a key factor here. The fanatical IS message resonates among an alarming number of European youths: in a recent poll, sixteen percent of French had a “favorable” view of IS while three percent admitted to having a “very favorable” view of the Islamic State. Warnings from dissenting experts that extremism among European Muslims is considerably more commonplace than it’s politic to admit fell on deaf ears on grounds of political correctness, but have been proved wholly correct. It’s fashionable among hardline European Salafis to go to Syria or Iraq to fight, though in reality most of them spend far more time hanging out than actually engaging in combat. Many of their rest centers, safely away from the front, are surprisingly lavish, leading to the Syrian war being memorably termed a “five-star jihad” in extremist circles.
Historically, only five to ten percent of foreign fighters engage directly in terrorism when they return home, but that figure is cold comfort given the unprecedently vast numbers of Westerners who are going to Iraq and Syria. Some returnees have already engaged in terrorism in Europe, while it is obvious that even effective European security services are overwhelmed by the numbers of jihadists coming back. French intelligence is monitoring some 300 persons, one-third of them women, with links to the Syrian jihad; as they require 24/7 surveillance, this is a daunting task for even the best resourced and most technically capable security services. Some European intelligence agencies, seeing “huge growth” in jihadist numbers, admit to being deluged by potential terrorists. Britain’s security services are likewise overwhelmed by the numbers of jihadist targets they must monitor, a situation that was hardly helped by the massive leaks by Edward Snowden, which the head of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, scathingly called a “gift” to terrorists.
Moreover, for every returning jihadist who plots terrorism, ten or twenty more veterans engage in furthering the cause through proselytizing, preaching, fund-raising, and generally radicalizing and preparing the next generation of angry youths for jihad. Those who have actually gone to Syria or Iraq, where they have learned to butcher innocents, have enormous cachet among the wannabes back in Europe, who find their message of vitriolic hate toxically enticing. I have been warning for a decade that the West, particularly Europe, functions as a de facto safe haven for many Salafi jihadists who make up what I call the Sixth Column. We have seemingly forgotten that the 9/11 plot was hashed out more in Hamburg, Germany than in any Muslim country. It is long past time for the West to deal with this threat seriously.
There is no single profile for who abandons life in the postmodern West to join the Salafi jihad, particularly its most virulent brand. Some are rabidly pious Muslims, but many lack a firm foundation in matters Islamic, and a surprisingly large number of Western jihadists seem to have scant interest in anything theological: many join for the hate and the camaraderie, a need to belong, not the belief. They are consumed by rage and frustration and seek out a belief system that justifies acting out their evil urges — not the other way around. Many are ne’er-do-wells who have spent time in prison and possess unstable family backgrounds, but the son of privilege who abandons a life of comfort to wage jihad abroad is a Salafi cliche for a reason. Many are born Muslims who revert to a faith they never seriously practiced in their youth, while others are converts. Most are young, with many still in their teens, but the nearly middle-aged are not unknown in jihadist ranks either. Their psychology in many cases resembles that of a spree killer more than any popular conception of an arch-terrorist, while their ideology — a cut-and-paste version of Qutbism, dumbed-down for the online generation, that thrives on hate — is astonishingly consistent worldwide. Women often play an important role behind the scenes in radicalizing their men and keeping them that way.
One trend that is clearly visible among Western jihadists is the prominence of online recruiting and propaganda. Most young Salafis today enter the movement virtually, becoming markedly radical before ever meeting another extremist in the flesh. The time required to become dangerously extreme has shortened noticeably, no doubt due to the prevalence of online jihadism, the digihad, if you like. Back in the 1990s, most Westerners who “joined the caravan” (to use the movement term) were radicalized gradually, over months and even years, slowly turning their backs on their old life, while it is now commonplace to see young men who decide to abandon normalcy in favor of the jihad after only a few months of radicalization, and sometimes only a few weeks. All this makes it increasingly difficult for Western security services to track would-be terrorists, or to differentiate the merely extreme from the positively dangerous.
While the United States has been fortunate in many ways compared to Europe, possessing a Muslim community that is proportionately smaller and far less radicalized than in much of the European Union (EU), there is no reason to think that this will last forever. Americans are fighting with IS abroad too and some will return home with jihad still on their minds. The FBI, with the Intelligence Community, has done a commendable job since 9/11 keeping the domestic terrorism threat largely under wraps, aided by the fact that most of America’s homegrown jihadists to date have been frankly inept, some of them almost comically so. That, too, is a trend that is unlikely to continue indefinitely.
America has no room for comfort as it confronts the Salafi jihadist threat. The enemy’s desire to strike the United States directly remains as great as it ever was, while the fact that we functionally do not have border security means that any terrorists who seek to enter the country illegally will have no more difficulty than the millions of Latin Americans who have infiltrated without detection. Moreover, the large numbers of extremists possessing EU passports (and Canadian too: about 130 Canadians are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq), who are able to enter the USA without a visa, mean that attacks on the country can be handled by foreigners easily.
What, then, is to be done? Legal changes are in order if we are serious about defeating this enemy. Some European countries have recently criminalized going abroad as a foreign fighter, or facilitating that, and this is something that all Western countries should adopt promptly. While this will not cease jihad tourism, it will certainly complicate matters for would-be holy warriors. Westerners who do engage in jihad abroad should be deprived of citizenship and told to not come home, ever. While free speech is to be defended, it should at least be asked if engaging in jihadist propaganda ought to be criminalized (as, say, Holocaust denial has been in much of the EU). At a minimum, those who engage in material support of any Salafi jihad-related activity should face severe legal penalty.
In the United States, this also means we must end our security-theater act and get serious about stopping terrorism. The terrorist threat to our airlines is as great as it has ever been, as Attorney General Eric Holder recently admitted, citing his “extreme, extreme concern” about the threat emanating from Syria. The TSA is equal parts laughingstock and nuisance and needs to be wholly revamped into a serious security agency, relying on profiling rather than making life difficult for countless innocent people every day. “America doesn’t have an airline security system, America has a system for bothering people,” said the former head of security for El Al, Israel’s national airline, and seldom have truer words been spoken.
Yet the long-term way to defeat, rather than merely deter, Salafi jihadism, is through intelligence and covert action, not war in any conventional sense. While pummeling IS kinetically in Iraq and Syria is a necessary first step, it is only the beginning. The military defeat of the Islamic State by Western airpower and commandos, aided by local proxies, will set the stage for the strategic defeat of their movement. What must follow is a version of what I term Special War, tailored for counterterrorism, combining offensive counterintelligence, denial and deception, and long-term manipulation of the jihadists leading to their collapse and self-immolation.
That strategy is the topic of a forthcoming blog post ….
Back in 2007, my book Unholy Terror ruffled quite a few feathers by pointing out the unpleasant truth that, in the 1990s, Bosnia-Hercegovina became a jihadist playground and a major venue for Al-Qa’ida, thanks to malign Saudi and Iranian influences. This was off-message, to put it mildly, to critics eager to defend failed Western (especially American) policies in the Balkans, as well as the usual coterie of jihad fellow-travelers and Useful Idiots, plus those eager, for personal reasons, not to have anyone look too deeply into where Saudi money goes in Europe.
However, my essential message — that Islamist extremism, though a largely imported phenomenon in Bosnia, has put down local roots and is likely to metastasize further due to that country’s intractable socio-economic problems — has been proven sadly accurate over the last seven years. For years, the debate over Islamism in Bosnia, and Southeastern Europe generally, was divided between security practitioners on one side and academics and journalists on the other, with the former group, which actually understood what was happening on the ground, being concerned about growing radicalism, while the latter bunch was generally happy to avert eyes from obvious signs of trouble, and to hurl accusations of bias and “Islamophobia” at those who pointed out what was happening.
But recently even many academics and related wishful-thinkers have been willing to concede that Bosnia indeed has a rising problem with Islamist extremism. In early 2013, the International Crisis Group, a major NGO that can be considered a standard bearer of Western received wisdom about the Balkans, admitted that there actually is a problem, indeed a “dangerous tango” of Islamic radicalism and nationalism in Bosnia. This was progress of a sort.
By the benchmark of terrorist attacks, Bosnia is not a major hot-spot, there having only been a few, fortunately not very deadly, jihadist terrorist incidents in recent years, such as the blowing up of a police station in Bugojno in 2010 and a shooting attack on U.S. Embassy Sarajevo in 2011. Yet there is little comfort in this, as security experts know. In the first place, Bosnian radicals tend to go abroad to cause mayhem. Their country is viewed as a European safe haven by extremists, a place to build networks personal, ideological, and financial (often routed through Austria too, since Vienna is the de facto hub of Islamist extremism in the region) to support the jihad elsewhere, including in Europe. It is, in other words, a staging base — Iranian intelligence takes a similar view of the country — and it’s off-message for radicals to conduct terrorism in Bosnia, which only brings unwanted scrutiny to their activities.
For years, corrupt Bosnian officials have looked the other way about rising extremism in their midst. Even when they are arrested, known radicals tend to have charges mysteriously dropped or, in a worst case, they “escape” from prison under unexplained circumstances. Here Saudi money and Iranian influence, which have been nurturing clandestine networks for nearly a quarter-century in Bosnia, play a malignant role. Honest Bosnian cops and spies, who do exist, customarily can do little to change this situation, in no small part because Western countries, who could help significantly, are usually reluctant to admit how serious the problem is. Thus you have top Bosnian security officials saying one thing to Western diplomats and media, and something very different — the painful truth — behind closed doors. Welcome to Sarajevo.
The Syrian civil war and the bloody disintegration of Iraq, with the prominent role of foreign fighters in those awful conflicts, have concentrated minds in Bosnia, as in many European countries. Reliable estimates place the number of Bosnians who have gone to Syria and Iraq to wage holy war in the low hundreds since 2011, with about seventy in the region right now. Among them is Nusret Imamović, the country’s leading Salafi jihad propagandist and a minor media gadfly, who went to Syria late last year to bolster the troops in the field. It bears noting that Imamović supports Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qa’ida-backed jihad faction in Syria, not the more radical Islamic State (IS), leading to a schism of sorts in Bosnian extremist circles, since younger Balkan radicals tend to back IS and seek to join its ranks.
Many Bosnian Muslims were shocked on August 7 when Emrah Fojnica, a twenty-three year old Bosnian IS fighter, blew himself up in a suicide attack in Baghdad. Along with two “brothers” from Saudi Arabia and Libya, Fojnica strapped on a bomb vest and walked into a crowded market, killing twenty-four civilians, among them eleven women and six children, two of them infants. As suicide bombing is all but unknown in Bosnian extremist circles, questions arose about what was going on, particularly when it was revealed that the dead man’s father openly celebrated his son’s “martyr’s death.” Further, it emerged that the younger Fojnica was well known to Bosnian authorities and had been arrested in connection with the 2011 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, but was acquitted of terrorism charges for no apparent reason.
It has been difficult for Bosnian authorities to stem the flow of would-be jihadists headed to Syria and Iraq, not least because Turkey makes it so easy for extremists to transit its territory without hassle. And to be fair to Sarajevo, no European country has yet built a working system to prevent radicals from making for the Middle East with jihad on their minds. It was taken as a positive sign in the spring when Bosnia implemented a new law to punish citizens who go abroad to wage jihad with real consequences, including up to ten years in prison. At last, something was being done, or so it seemed.
In Bosnia, however, signing a law into effect and actually implementing it are two different things. As revealed in new reports in the Sarajevo newsmagazine Slobodna Bosna, which has a long history of excellent investigative journalism on extremism and corruption in Bosnia, some fifty Bosnian jihadists have returned home from Syria and Iraq over the last two months, i.e. since the new law has been in effect, yet not a single one of them has been arrested. Worse, Bosnian authorities have not even brought a single jihadist in for questioning, even though their identities are known to Bosnian security agencies, not least because the Balkan IS contingent openly boasts about its exploits on Facebook.
Moreover, Salafi propagandists continue to exhort young Bosnians to wage jihad abroad, with regular paeans to the new “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS leader, both online and in Bosnian mosques, all of which is said to be illegal, but apparently is not in actuality. Just this week, Bilal Bosnić, the leader of the pro-IS faction among Bosnian radicals, told his followers to join the IS in battle, with no reaction from the authorities.
In the meantime, Salafi-related violence continues to rise in Bosnia. In early August, Damir Delić, a street criminal who turned to religious radicalism in an all-too-common pattern, led police on a Hollywood-style high-speed car chase through downtown Sarajevo, with shots fired at police, and the police eventually subduing Delić with a gunshot to the leg. He was known to authorities, being notorious in his Sarajevo suburb for assaulting young Muslim women on the street who were not dressed according to Delić’s view of modesty. As Bosnians return home, fresh from the killing fields of Iraq and Syria, where they have learned to decapitate and blow up innocents, we can expect thugs like Delić to have a new generation of collaborators and teachers.
This rising tide of violent extremism can be combated successfully. Last week, authorities in Kosovo conducted a series of raids across the tiny country that arrested forty suspected radicals who had fought in Syria and Iraq. This sent a strong message that extremism will not be tolerated and the law will be enforced. Relative to population, forty jihadists arrested in Kosovo is like Germany hauling in 1,800 or Britain arresting 1,400. Prishtina deserves praise for taking a tough stand on this important issue. This is something all Europe should emulate. Kosovo is every bit as mired in poverty and corruption as Bosnia, and perhaps more so. The issue is one of will, not funding or foreign assistance. Until local authorities find the strength to confront the problem of radicalism in their midst, it will continue to metastasize.
The rise of the Islamic State in all its murderousness as a major power in the Middle East will impact Europe too, given the large numbers of Europeans who have joined its ranks. IS-style mayhem is headed to the West: it can only be delayed, not stopped altogether. Bosnia stands on the front line of Europe’s resistance to IS madness, and it is time that this reality is recognized before it is too late.
The brutal murder this week of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State (IS) has focused Western minds, at long last, on the serious nature of the jihadist threat emanating from the Middle East, particularly Iraq and Syria. No longer are top officials mincing words. Yesterday U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel dispensed with euphemism, describing IS as “whole new dynamic … as sophisticated and well-funded as any organization we’ve seen.” When asked if IS represents a “9/11-level threat” to America, Hagel explained that this group “is beyond anything we’ve seen.”
Westerners seem particularly concerned that the butcher of James Foley is a Briton named “John” who is part of a group of jihadists from the United Kingdom who are fighting for the IS, where they are termed “The Beatles” by fellow fighters. In truth, the British capital has been known as Londonistan for nearly twenty years among counterterrorism professionals, due to its notorious status as a major hub of the global jihad, thanks to lax British laws that have long permitted extremists to find sanctuary there. If the tragic murder of James Foley causes the Western public to finally wake up to the extent of the threat they face at home, which is growing acute thanks to the unprecedented numbers of Westerners who have gone to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad, his death may not have been in vain.
However, it is good to keep in mind that this problem is hardly confined to the United Kingdom. France and Germany in particular have serious troubles with extremists. While London deserves its reputation as a jihadist’s playground, Vienna is running in second place, and has been for some time, though this is seldom realized outside Central and Eastern Europe. For years, as I’ve written about extensively, Vienna has served as the de facto base for Islamist extremists from Southeastern Europe, a place to recruit, raise and hide funds, and radicalize, thanks to Austria’s permissive laws and weak enforcement mechanisms. It’s an exceptional terrorist or Salafi radical in Bosnia who has not spent some time in Austria. It says something that the most notorious Salafi mosque in Vienna is located directly across the street from a major military base.
Yet a series of arrests this week is causing a new look at this serious problem, which is long overdue. Two days ago, Austria police arrested nine Chechens, ranging in age from 17 to 32; eight men and one woman, all were in the country legally as refugees and asylum seekers. They were planning to wage jihad with IS in Syria but, as is rarely the case, were stopped by authorities before they left. Four suspects were arrested in Vienna, while the other five were picked up in Klagenfurt, the capital of the Alpine state of Carinthia. Yesterday the Vienna group was placed in pre-trial detention, due to flight risk, and proceedings were instituted to withdraw their asylum status; a similar decision is expected from a Klagenfurt court today.
As I reported last month, Austrian officials have been warning the public about the extent of the problem, with the country’s domestic intelligence agency, the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung - BVT for short), has grown unusually blunt by the standards of tight-lipped Viennese functionaries in its choice of words:
Religiously motivated extremism and terrorism – above all of Islamic character – as well as Salafi-jihadi groups continue to present a great potential threat…The number of young radicalized followers of violent Salafism continues to rise. In this context, the conflict in Syria is of urgent relevance for Austria, since systematic efforts are being made within [Austria] to radicalize and recruit people for the war in Syria…The conflict in Syria has become very popular among violent extremist Salafis. The spectrum of recruits to the conflict in Syria is broadly ethnically diverse. The motivation, however, seems to be uniformly jihadi.
The BVT’s latest unclassifed terrorism assessment explicitly noted that people from the Western Balkans — especially Bosnia but also Kosovo, from families who came as refugees during the war-torn 1990s — constitute a high percentage of Austria’s would-be jihadists. According to the BVT, about a quarter of the foreign fighters traveling from Austria to Syria hold Austrian citizenship: “their families come from Southeast Europe and the Western Balkans.” The BVT assesses that more than one hundred Muslims left Austria last year to go to Syria; about sixty of them are believed to be in the war zone now. The rough figure for Germany for the same period is estimated at 320 (which, given that Germany has ten times Austria’s population, indicates the gravity of the domestic extremism problem facing Vienna).
Moreover, a new report in the Viennese daily Der Standard clarifies why Austria is having such a difficult time getting a handle on this worrisome issue. In particular, the BVT faces tight legal restrictions on intelligence collection. The agency is not permitted to search profiles in social networks for clues, despite the fact that Facebook and Twitter are the most important source of information about what foreign fighters are doing: it may only do so based on a direct suspicion and with a court order. If the BVT finds nothing that would require further investigation, everything must be deleted after six months. “When someone blows himself up, then we are the ones to be blamed: we should have known,” rues an anonymous Austrian security official.
Determining what possible foreign fighters are doing is difficult and Turkey is easy to get to from Vienna, a short flight away. A holiday and a jihad mission to southeastern Turkey look similar in many cases. As Der Standard notes, “Occasionally, someone boasts on his Facebook profile, sometimes clues come from foreign intelligence services — but in many cases no one knows before.” Austrian laws define terrorism and the support of it very narrowly. In a typical case, a Turkish citizen who is said to have been the middleman for the arrested Chechens, a jihad facilitator who was helping them get to Turkey, has been reported to the police, but is still free.
There is a large Chechen community in Austria and more than half of the foreign fighters with an Austrian connection in Syria come from the Caucasus region, usually possessing legal residence in Austria; the rest of the jihadists are of Bosnian or Turkish origin.
Vienna’s biggest concern now is the challenge of returnees from Syria and Iraq. In the words of the BVT: “When fighters return from the crisis zone, their practical combat skills, traumatic experience, and behavioral changes plus, potentially, radicalization brought to perfection represent a considerable security risk for Austria” Although historically only five to ten percent of jihad returnees get directly involved in terrorism once they return home, many of them serve as proselytizers and founders of new radical centers. “Even a small number of fiercely determined former Syria fighters pose a risk,” says Gilles de Kechove, the EU’s Counterterrorism Coordinator. “Lone wolves” are a perennial concern, based on recent terrorist incidents in Europe, while the ominous threat of organized groups of experienced jihadists perpetrating terrorism worries the BVT and every security service in Western and Central Europe.
The report ends on a downbeat note, reflecting the reality that Austria remains far from entirely serious in its attitudes towards the rising radicalism in its midst:
Deradicalization strategies in Austria are anything but fully developed. A telephone hotline for dropouts and their relatives has long since been announced — and shelved. Apart from the prospects of success of such an idea — Islamism experts in Germany are critical of a similar project there — there are not enough civilian organizations that are able to carry out such an opt-out program together with the ministry. Now, hopes are that the go-ahead will be given in the fall.
For decades, Austria has taken a laissez-faire attitude towards spying and worse conducted on its soil. Not for nothing has Vienna been regarded as the world capital of espionage, a status it retains with literally thousands of spies working in the city on the Danube. As long as such espionage is directed at third countries, i.e. not Austria, the BVT and other Austrian security agencies have tended to look the other way. Even Islamists have long had a surprisingly free hand in Austria, as long as their nefarious activities were directed elsewhere.
Now there are thousands of radicals in Austria, some of them extreme enough to wage jihad abroad, and possibly worse. What they will do when they return home is something that should cause deep concern in Vienna. The option of looking the other way and avoiding the issue, which has been the customary Austrian approach, is defunct. It would be wise of Austrian politicians to recognize this, as continuing to avoid it will only worsen this serious problem.
[This is the beginning of a new blog series, 100 Years Ago, I'll be posting to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.]
Exactly a century ago today, on 19 August 1914, Austria-Hungary suffered a shocking battlefield defeat at the hands of Serbia, delivering the Allies their first victory of the Great War. This unexpected defeat occurred in the mountains of northwest Serbia, with Austro-Hungarians forces sent back into Bosnia in a ragtag state after suffering a sharp local setback that quickly unraveled the entire Habsburg invasion of Serbia.
Vienna invaded “Dog Serbia” in mid-August to avenge the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Belgrade-backed assassins in Sarajevo on 28 June. Although Austro-Hungarian intelligence did not have a complete picture of the background to the assassination — there remain unanswered questions even today – they knew enough that it was time to settle accounts with troublesome little Serbia, which had been an ever sharper thorn in the side of the Dual Monarchy for a decade.
Throughout July, exasperated Austro-Hungarian generals sent letter after letter, pleading for action. Many senior officers worried that diplomats would find a peaceful solution to the crisis that engulfed Europe after the assassination of the heir to the Habsburg throne. Typical was General Michael von Appel, commander of the Austro-Hungarian XV Corps in Sarajevo, who expressed his “feverish longing” for war “to finish off those murder-boys (Mordbuben)” in Belgrade: “God grant us only that we remain steadfast…oh that we could march forth, we’re only lacking faith…just let it go (nur los lassen) – we’ll take care of the rest.”
No Habsburg general was chomping harder at the bit to crush Serbia than Oskar Potiorek (left), Bosnia’s governor-general, on whose watch the murder of Franz Ferdinand had taken place. It happened before his very eyes, as he was sharing the limousine with the ill-fated archduke and his equally ill-fated wife Sophie when they were gunned down by Gavrilo Princip. An accomplished careerist, Potiorek was desperate for a war to avenge his failure to protect the archduke and settle scores with the hated Serbs. Regrettably for Austria-Hungary, Potiorek looked more impressive on paper than in reality. He had never seen battle and, while he excelled at gaining powerful connections at the Viennese court, his military skills were questionable, and his actual time commanding troops had been limited. To make matters worse, Potiorek lived hermit-like in his Sarajevo palace, apart from his troops and even most of his generals, taking scant interest in his command. Appel considered his superior to be “no judge of character, a resident of Mars,” while another exasperated general compared the isolated Potiorek to the Dalai Lama!
Once the war he wanted came, with Austro-Hungarian mobilization on 1 August, Potiorek implemented what turned out to be a deeply flawed war plan. Although the traditional invasion route into Serbia, which had been executed several times by Habsburg forces over the centuries, involved a drive on the capital Belgrade, on the border with Hungary, Potiorek instead placed the bulk of his forces, the 5th and 6th Armies, on the Drina river (see map), where they would attack into mountainous northwestern Serbia. There would be a supporting attack to the north, around the city of Šabac, by the 2nd Army, but that would be brief as, due to a desperate shortage of troops, that army would need to leave Serbia by 18 August to reach Galicia in time to take on the Russians.
While Potiorek cannot be blamed for the fact that the Austro-Hungarian Army lacked the men and weapons to wage a two-front war with any hope of success — that was the fault of the General Staff chief, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, who refused to craft an overall war plan that matched the Dual Monarchy’s actual military potential in 1914 — he bears full responsibility for the fact that the invasion of Serbia that August took little account of the difficult terrain or Serbia’s lack of decent roads. Neither were the 5th and 6th Armies deployed close enough together to support each other in the offensive. It was a recipe for a slow slog across the Drina and potential disaster.
On paper, the armies were roughly evenly matched, with Potiorek’s invasion force possessing 282.000 riflemen, 10,000 cavalry, and 744 guns, against Serbian strengths of 264,000 riflemen, 11,000 cavalry, and 828 guns. However, these figures are deceptive. First, the departure of the 2nd Army beginning on 18 August would deprive Potiorek of one-third of his force. In addition, Serbia boasted tens of thousands of irregulars, guerrillas known as komitadji, who would support the main army with constant harassment of the invader; for Habsburg forces they proved more than nuisance. Above all, while Potorek’s army was untried — as Austro-Hungarian forces had last seen battle in 1882, suppressing a revolt in Bosnia-Hercegovina, no officer below the rank of general had ever heard a shot fired in anger — Serbia’s army boasted extensive combat experience, having been recently blooded in the fierce Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.
Serbia’s soldiers were motivated to defend their homeland, and they knew the terrain intimately (a prewar exercise at Serbia’s war college had posited an Austro-Hungarian invasion across the Drina), helped by the fact that Colonel Alfred Redl, a senior Habsburg intelligence officer who was unmasked as a traitor just a year before the Great War, had passed top secret war plans to the Russians, who shared the relevant ones with their Serbian allies. No less, Serbia’s army was in some ways better equipped than the invader. While the forces were comparable in small arms, Serbia possessed an advantage in artillery, which was a particular Austro-Hungarian weak-point due to chronic underfunding of the military. In most classes of field guns, Serbia possessed more modern and longer-ranged artillery than Habsburg forces did.
Nevertheless, Potiorek was brimming with confidence when his army crossed the Drina on 12 August. Faith in an easy victory over the despised Serbs, mere Balkan peasants, was widespread in Vienna. Many officers predicted “a brief autumn stroll” (einen kleinen Herbstspaziergang) through Serbia, while the chief of the Balkans operational group on the General Staff assessed, “we’ll be able to chase off the Serbs with a wet rag.” This was not a failure of intelligence. In the years before the war, Austro-Hungarian military intelligence, the quaintly named Evidenzbureau, had a good understanding of Serbia’s military potential. Its 1913 assessment of the Serbian Army was remarkably accurate in its depiction of Belgrade’s forces, including its powerful artillery; it was anything but dismissive of the little country’s military. Similarly, the June 1913 report by Major Otto Gellinek, the Habsburg military attaché in Belgrade, concluded that Serbia’s military had a great deal of recent combat experience and modern weaponry, and deserved to be taken seriously, especially when fighting in defense of its own soil. None of this made much of an impression on Potiorek, or most Habsburg generals, who ignored intelligence that they did not wish to see.
In most places the Drina was shallow enough for the infantry to ford it, though artillery and supply trains needed bridges. Austro-Hungarian forces encountered only sporadic resistance at the river’s edge — it was clear the Serbs were holding back and planning to defend inland — but the terrain made the advance into enemy territory slow and arduous. The main drive was made by the 5th Army, whose combat units were inside Serbia by late on 13 August, headed for the city of Valjevo. But between them were fifty miles of hills and mountains with few decent roads, and thousands of komitadji. From the moment they crossed the Drina, Habsburg forces were harassed by Serbian irregulars. They were a menace to Austro-Hungarian supply units especially, with the result that logistics broke down almost immediately once Potiorek’s forces entered Serbia. The 5th Army’s lead division in the advance, the 21st Infantry, received some water but no food on 13 August; some food reached its infantry on 14 August but no water; by 15 August only a single battalion had established functioning field kitchens and almost no water made it to the infantry; on 16 August neither food nor water reached the division’s combat units, and things did not improve the following day. For the 21st Division, marching up hills in hot summer temperatures, crisis was reached almost immediately, not least because it belonged to the Landwehr, roughly equivalent to the U.S. National Guard, not the regular army, and its thirty-something reservists were in no shape for the hard slogging up Serbian hills under the beating August sun.
Habsburg forces had little idea where the enemy’s main forces were, and units of Prague’s VIII Corps advanced blindly through forests and over hills: they would find the Serbs by meeting them in battle. It was the hard luck of the unready 21st Division to get the assignment of taking Cer Mountain, a thickly wooded 2,300-foot-high ridge that overlooked the valleys of the Drina and Jadar rivers and stood as the major obstacle in the path of the 5th Army’s march on Valjevo. On the morning of 14 August, the mostly Czech troops of the 21st Division began their hike up Cer, a rugged and roadless plateau nearly twelve miles long and four miles wide, dominated by undulating hills and ridges, with vast cornfields beyond.
By midday, many Habsburg infantry, lacking water, had collapsed from heat exhaustion, and the 21st Division’s march up Cer was slow and vulnerable, as most of its artillery was left behind, unable to make it up narrow mountain tracks. Rear-area units and infantry alike suffered regular sniping from komitadji, but there was no sign of the main Serbian force as the division advanced ponderously. By the morning of 15 August, the 21st Division’s forward elements were ready to climb Hill 630, the highest of the peaks on the Cer plateau, located at its eastern edge, undeterred by short, sharp attacks by guerrillas. By the late afternoon the division’s lead battalion, from the 28th Landwehr Regiment, had reached the summit of Hill 630. After a brief rest the 21st Division’s commander, General Arthur Przyborski, wanted the tired infantry to get on their feet and advance farther but a rainstorm caused a delay, and soon the order came for the troops to hunker down for the night. Given their exhaustion, there was no other choice. Sentries were posted and the Habsburg infantry, strung out all along the eastern edge of the Cer plateau, went to sleep, without food or water.
The first soldiers of the 21st Division to die in the battle for Cer, some killed in their sleep, never knew what hit them when Serbian forces opened fire at close range at 1 a.m. on 16 August. Radomir Putnik, Serbia’s generalissimo, a hard veteran of many wars, was a skilled tactician who devised a cunning plan to turn back the Austro-Hungarian invasion, waiting for Habsburg forces to advance inland and become spread out to strike back with great force. Vienna might have been spared Putnik’s plan as the sixty-seven year old general was on Habsburg soil when the war broke out, taking the cure at a Bohemian spa. Putnik was briefly interned, but was soon released as a soldierly gesture by Emperor Franz Joseph, a stickler of the old school who thought it dishonorable to detain Putnik under such circumstances, thus allowing him to return home to defeat the Habsburg Army.
By mid-August, Putnik was ready to counterattack, with his 2nd Army, led by General Stepa Stepanović, a fierce warrior with extensive battle experience, quietly approaching the Austro-Hungarians around Cer. Two infantry regiments, more than 6,000 riflemen, advanced quietly in the darkness through cornfields and fell upon the lead elements of the 21st Landwehr Division without warning as they slept. Chaos accompanied the Serbian bayonet charge, and in the darkness Austro-Hungarian officers and NCOs tried to rally their groggy soldiers; many were cut down before they could form any coherent defense. Serbian infantry kept coming, as reinforcements surged from the corn, and Habsburg platoons, then companies were overrun and melted away in the darkness. Habsburg officers fell quickly, including Colonel Joseph Fiedler, commander of the 28th Landwehr Regiment, who died while trying to form his sleepy soldiers into a defensive line.
Before long the 21st Division’s command staff was in the thick of the melée. Rifle in hand, General Przyborski rallied his startled soldiers as Serbian bayonet attacks grew closer. At one point in the desperate fight, Przyborski had only twenty soldiers around him, but the position held, although the general counted among those wounded. Several hundred yards west of the divisional command post, the 6th Landwehr Regiment was fighting back with bayonets and even hand-to-hand, as the enemy had used the darkness to infiltrate between Habsburg companies. Adding to the confusion, the Serbs employed Austro-Hungarian bugle calls for deception purposes. The regiment’s 3rd Battalion nearly buckled under the strain, but the 1st Battalion, roused from sleep, arrived in time to prevent a Serbian breakthrough. Yet losses were steep, as Serbian rifle and machine gun fire was concentrated and accurate. This meeting engagement, which went on bloodily until dawn, was more a series of firefights than a coherent battle, and casualties on both sides proved steep. The division’s 41st Brigade formed a lager around its commander and his staff, which withstood repeated Serbian bayonet assaults.
By dawn on 16 August both sides were exhausted, so Stepanović committed a third infantry regiment to the fight and moved his artillery, which had been delayed by muddy roads, into position. Two batteries deployed forward, close to Habsburg positions, firing over open sights and inflicting heavy losses, their shells tearing frightful gaps in the closely deployed defenders. It was a one-sided artillery duel, as Austro-Hungarian gunnery was overwhelmed. Most batteries had been kept too far back, or were under attack themselves as Serbian infantry and irregulars kept advancing. The 21st Division’s guns were mostly out of range, but the neighboring 9th Division’s batteries offered some fire support. Yet Habsburg infantry-artillery cooperation was haphazard at best, and a high level of confusion paralyzed coordination; in the chaos, many battalion commanders simply did not know where their companies were. For several hours that morning, the 21st Division ceased to function much above the company level. Przyborski’s two brigadiers did not know where he was, or even if their commanding general was alive.
By late morning, positions had stabilized as exhaustion brought the encounter battle to a close. Word travelled up the Habsburg chain of command about the extent of the 21st Division’s losses, particularly the shattered 28th Regiment. 5th Army command, hearing ominous initial reports and fearing a debacle which threatened to unravel the whole front, wanted the division to withdraw. Yet while the 21st Division was in chaos, the neighboring 9th Division was holding fast. The Serbs had taken grave losses too: its lead division in the attack lost forty-seven officers and nearly 3,000 men, and in its 6th Regiment all four battalion commanders and thirteen of sixteen company commanders were dead or wounded. Potiorek, too, worried about the whole Drina line collapsing, so on the afternoon of 16 August the 21st Division began a slow retreat back to the river. Serbian King Peter watched the day’s happy events from a nearby hilltop.
The retreat was disorganized, in part because komitadji and Serbian cavalry harrassed Habsburg forces every mile along the route back to the Drina. Throughout 17 August, the 21st Division repelled enemy attacks great and small, while some units began to fall apart under the pressure; disorder among supply trains was universal, and logistics were in free fall. As the Habsburg 6th Army was too far to the south to support the ailing 5th Army, there was no choice but to declare a general retreat from Serbia. There was little to celebrate on 18 August, Emperor Franz Joseph’s birthday, not least because that day the 2nd Army began to disengage the Serbs in preparation for its rail journey to fight the Russians in Galicia.
Knowing the Austro-Hungarians were retreating, Stepanović pushed harder. Habsburg troops were tired, hungry, and thirsty, as the struggle for supplies was going as badly as the fight with the Serbs, but the retreat was orderly at first, considering the difficult terrain. Yet chaos spread, unit to unit. Afraid of being massacred by komitadji – rumors were rife of knife-wielding women hacking apart Habsburg wounded – the jumpy troops stayed alert and close together. By the time the 21st Division began reaching the safety of the left bank of the Drina in Bosnia late on 19 August, battalions were showing serious weariness and morale was flagging. Some units simply fell apart as they neared the Drina. Egon Erwin Kisch, a noted Prague journalist — he had broken the salacious story of the Redl spy scandal a year before — witnessed the retreat as a reserve NCO in a Czech regiment of VIII Corps, and he was shocked by how rapidly things had gone wrong: “a boisterous horde fleeing in thoughtless panic towards the border,” his shattered battalion led by a mere subaltern, its companies led by sergeants. “The army is defeated, on a lawless, wild, hasty retreat,” he lamented to his diary.
The 21st Landwehr Division had been badly bloodied in the short but intense battle for Cer. It lost one-third of its infantry, about 4,000 men, as casualties. The 28th Regiment, which was shattered on the slopes of Cer, lost 1,700 men, over half its strength. Losses among infantry officers were “nearly colossal,” reported 5th Army command. The 6th Landwehr Regiment, which fought hard, preventing the 21st Division’s defeat from becoming a total rout, lost its colonel commanding, four majors, fifteen captains, and thirty-three subalterns, in all over two-thirds of its commissioned ranks.
By 24 August, no Austro-Hungarian troops remained on Serbian soil. The “brief autumn stroll” had ended in disaster. Vienna lost more than 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded, and missing in the brief campaign, winning nothing but an appreciation for Serbian tenacity and martial skill. Over four thousand Habsburg prisoners of war, forty-six artillery pieces, and thirty machine guns had been left in Serbian hands. Serbian casualties of 16,000 were considerable, but there was no mistaking that this had been an historic defeat for the House of Habsburg. The loss of prestige for the army and the monarchy was vast, and its diplomatic implications in the Balkans were frightening for Vienna.
For Oskar Potiorek, this was a personal disaster too. Furious at the ignominious collapse of his invasion, he sought a scapegoat, finding one in the battered 21st Division. He put the beaten division under special martial law and sought “cowards” to put up on charges of desertion, officers included. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed in Sarajevo before weary Habsburg soldiers faced the firing squad, but Potiorek shifted blame to the mostly Czech soldiers who fought and died at Cer, rather than accept any responsibility himself for flawed plans and worse execution. Austria-Hungary had sent unprepared forces into battle, lacking supplies, against a crafty and motivated enemy in easily defensible terrain. The outcome could have been predicted but, in a fit of aggression and wishful thinking, was not.
Cer, though rarely heard of outside the Balkans, thus became the first Allied victory of the Great War, as well as the first of many Habsburg defeats. While Austria-Hungary and its polyglot army would hold on to the bitter end in autumn 1918, losing seven of the eight million soldiers it mobilized for the war as a casualty of some sort, the highest loss rate of any belligerent in the war, the opening defeat at Cer was a black mark on Habsburg arms that endured. The shame of sudden defeat at the hands of little Serbia was a blow from which Viennese prestige — and Potiorek’s too — never fully recovered.
[Note: The full story of the Cer disaster is told in my forthcoming book The Fall of the Double Eagle: The Battle for Galicia and the Demise of Austria-Hungary, Summer 1914, which will be published next year.]