World War III?

By Anjum Altaf

America declared a War on Terror in 2001; France did so formally in 2015; Britain, Germany and a number of other countries had become partners sometime in the interim. Are we then in the midst of a third world war without quite realizing it simply because this war is so different from its predecessors in so many ways? All the familiar markers are absent – the war is not between nations, it is not fought with heavy artillery, it doesn’t have adversaries who sign or adhere to treaties, it doesn’t distinguish between soldiers and civilians.

What kind of a war is it? One must characterize its nature in order to fashion an effective battle plan. What we hear often is that it involves non-state actors that are fanatics motivated by evil ideologies. These are plausible components but as yet insufficiently imagined as to how and why they come together. As a result, responses remain mired in old paradigms – fighting yesterday’s wars except that they are against some evil non-state enemies who possess mysterious powers to draw resources and adherents to murderous causes.

As an alternative, consider a characterization that relies on melding two phenomena with which we are separately quite familiar – cults and guerilla warfare. Cults need little by way of introduction. Many examples come to mind – that of Jim Jones in the 1970s was a major story of the time. Their main characteristics are the ability to draw adherents to esoteric causes willing to follow a leader even to their deaths. However, cults did not engage in wars with states, domestic or foreign, at any serious level.

Guerilla warfare gained significant recognition during the Vietnam War as a strategy that avoided the deployment of heavy equipment or the commitment of large numbers of troops. Rather, it relied on hit-and-run tactics, ambushes, and exhaustion by attrition, both physical and psychological. It is said that the mighty British army was defeated through guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan in the 19th century as was the powerful American military in the 20th century in Vietnam. True or not, guerrilla armies did wage battles against the state but only in geographically confined areas.

Imagine now a combination of these elements – a cult that wages guerilla war against a state or states – and we have a fairly good description of Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Such a combination has become super-charged and potent beyond limited terrains by revolutions in technology. A cult located in the caves of Afghanistan or the badlands of Syria can now mount guerilla attacks in New York, London, Madrid, and Paris and can bring down planes in Egypt. The cult can draw adherents from all over the world willing to give their lives for a cause. And the cult can have members that do not need to be physically together to participate in its activities. They can be distributed all over the world, including deep inside territories that the cult has marked out as targets.

How does one fight a cult whose members are geographically dispersed but globally connected, one that has decided to employ guerilla warfare without concern for civilian lives? How does one neutralize a cult that now has the ability to cripple life by waging a War of Terror in locations that were never before within reach of a traditional guerrilla army?

Every strike draws a greater flow of adherents to its cause. Every loss of a volunteer in the field inspires a score of fresh would-be martyrs. Every provocation limits the freedoms of those it wants to hurts. Every assault increases the probability of drawing its opponents into a fight on its home territory to its advantage.

It is improbable that such combined, globally-linked, cult-cum-guerilla armies can be defeated by a War on Terror reliant on old military strategies like sending troops into Afghanistan or Iraq. Modern societies, cities, and systems are too open to be fully secured against random acts of terror without losing the very openness that is their strength and attraction. Closing the borders is not an answer when cult members can be anywhere and citizens of any country. Relying on ‘hearts and minds’ stratagems doesn’t work in buying off people who are ready, willing, and wanting to die. Technologically sophisticated precision strikes create more enemies than they eliminate.

A start might be made by unbundling the phenomenon into its two components, assessing their relative importance, and addressing each with methods best suited to the task. The capacity of a guerrilla army can definitely be weakened by military means, perhaps at great cost, but even then the payoff would remain limited if all it aims for is one major incident every five years or so while sustaining a climate of fear throughout the period. Drying up the flow of adherents to the cult might perhaps be the more cost-effective way to diminish its strength but military means offer no support in that regard.

A renewed focus is needed to understand who are the individuals being drawn to these cults and why. It is not sufficient to label them brainwashed or to apprehend a few and punish them severely given that they start off prepared to die. There is need to figure out what predisposes them to be susceptible to such brainwashing that they leave families and friends for unknown quests with very high probabilities of death.

Only the reallocation of resources to a concerted effort that yields a more attractive alternative for such individuals might abort the slide into the global war that was triggered by the game-changing strike on the twin towers in 2001.

Anjum Altaf is Provost of Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan. He would like to thank Kabir Altaf for suggesting the cult as a central element in the characterization presented above.

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12 Responses to “World War III?”

  1. Vikram Says:

    It will all peter out as fertility rates drop.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: The relationship is not clear to me. Could you elaborate?

      • Vikram Says:

        To begin with, I do basically agree with the various scholars and commentators that locate the roots of Islamist/terrorist as one of the myriad outcomes of colonialism. But I think fertility rates act as the critical combustible agent.

        Almost everyone was colonized by industrialized Europeans. In the Middle East, colonial powers rarely overthrew extant political structures there, but just bought rulers off (similar to princely states in India) to access resources and control strategic locations. This definitely limited political development. And the lack of a credible, representative politics IS the fundamental reason for these conflicts.

        I think the anti-Western/American rhetoric and actions of violent Islamist groups in the Middle East is mostly posturing. They are hitting targets in the West just because they can, and create a spectacle. After all, even Hindu extremists, who are nowhere near as violent as these groups regularly put out stuff about the ‘harmful effects of Western culture’ and ‘cleaning India of Western influence’.

        The establishment of even one constitutional republic in the Middle East with peaceful transfers of power between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ or whatevers would have been the decisive game changer. Bush and Co. tried to take that gamble with Iraq but got the details wrong, and now the situation is even more difficult than before.

        How does all this tie in fertility ? I would say that once political development is limited, platforms for expressing dissent and opposition constrained, violence is an outcome (although not necessarily a dominant one). Like all violence with the exception of individual self-defence, political violence is essentially a criminal activity, and the links between crime and excess fertility is well documented.

        This link stands out clearly if one reads about the life of Ajmal Kasab or these ISIS fighters ( It is not necessarily physical poverty that results from being the nth kid in a huge family, but a mental one. Distance from parents, neglect, the need to feel wanted and admired, all these come together with a political culture vulnerable to violence in an explosive way. It is quite clear that high fertility societies will have more young men getting caught up in this volatile mix.

        In India, I feel this sequence is most clearly seen in Assam. The sudden feeling among Assamese youth of being marginalized by Delhi and swamped by Bengalis/Muslims, misguided excess males taking up arms only to lead to a cycle of violence and utter devastation ( A strong state was able to contain the violence of ULFA, and once the fertility rate dropped, the ULFA violence subsided, despite the core political issues remaining unresolved.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Vikram: Look at Figure 3 in this article:

          It shows fertility rates in the various regions of the world. Almost everywhere the rate has dropped from the 5-7 percent range in 1960 to the 2-3 percent range in 2010 – Assam is not unique. So, if violence or terrorism were related to fertility rates they should have been much higher 60 years ago. Also, in 2010 the highest fertility rate is in Sub-Saharan Africa (5 percent) compared to Middle East and North Africa where it is about 2.5 percent. So, if fertility had such a direct correlation terrorism in SSA should have been much higher than in MENA.

          Fertility could be one variable in the story but there are many other variables that could have a more significant impact.

          • Vikram Says:

            Violence worldwide was much higher 60 years ago, and SSA has been much more violent than MENA on an average. Also, note that access to weapons in SSA is lower because the various violent groups in MENA are funded via oil money (directly or indirectly).

            Fertility definitely isn’t a causal factor, it just enters into the mix explosively once conflict reaches a critical point. And once the transition to low fertility is made, the conflict isn’t as violent.

            Which parent is going to let one of their two children or their only child be neglected or go fight some vague war?

  2. Faizaan Qayyum Says:

    I agree with a lot of your analysis… But perhaps we also need to look at why a lot of these incidents seem to originate from and find support (ideological or otherwise) among followers of one religion more than others.

    The article I have quoted is by NFP in Dawn. We need to watch out for people like the maulvi sahib mentioned in the article – and France and the US and Germany and Russia can’t all combine to do that for us. This effort has to be indigenous – also because any external support for such efforts would be seen as the oft-quoted “Yahoodi saazish” that is somehow out there to destroy all signs of a nonexistent “Ummah”.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Faizaan: What is your hypothesis regarding the reasons for “why a lot of these incidents seem to originate from and find support (ideological or otherwise) among followers of one religion more than others”?

      • Faizaan Qayyum Says:

        Honestly, I don’t know. I’m so clueless that it would almost be stupid of me to even try to form a hypothesis. Clerics seeking influence? Illegitimate governments seeking legitimacy?

        Perhaps it is the general lack of writ or enforcement power that most Muslim-majority states suffer from today?

        There was no ISIS, after all, under Saddam. No Al-Qaeda either. Libya was’t being torn apart by militias until international coalitions bombed the government out of Gaddafi’s hands. Not quoting these two regimes as examples of governance or democracy or economy, but just wondering if their iron-fists had a role to play in curtailing the phenomenon of militant extremism. Ataturk in Turkey is also a relevant example.

        At the same time the general volatility of Afghanistan (the structure of the Taliban state being quite different from modern states and governments) and ease with which people like Lal Masjid’s Maulana Abdul Aziz (of the burqa fame) continue to make pro-ISIS statements somehow lend some credibility of banana states allowing, if not encouraging, the creation of what you have called “brainwashed” people.

        Even if we were to pin these problems on weak states, our attention must then go towards the fact that there IS room for certain religious texts to be interpreted in ways that encourage carnage. Can that be true for all religions? Perhaps. Why, then, do they seem to recur only in Muslim societies? That is again a question I can’t grasp fully.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Faizaan: Perhaps you can use this opportunity to learn how to formulate and validate hypotheses. Why don’t you start by putting together a set of plausible explanations and then test each in turn against temporal and cross-sectional evidence and also against some sensible counterfactual propositions. Think of how doctors start with a number of plausible diagnoses and then test to rule out those that are not real.

  3. ramblinginthecity Says:

    I do agree with you. This is war at a mega scale, with new rules and codes, and no familiar markers. We may choose to not call it WW III precisely because it is so unlike the previous two. For one, the first two considered the Western world the centre of the universe; the rest of the world was indirectly involved with colonialism being the major conduit for involvement. Today’s world is not so neatly apportioned. Multiple imaginations and nomenclature co-exist. I find this fascinating.
    I also agree, in part, to your suggestion of finding better outlets for those attracted to an ideology of violence. However, I fear that in a world that is severely stressed on many fronts (conflicting ideologies and politics, climate change and looming food scarcities), in a world that is recognising the inherent disequality of human existence, violence will continue to be the most potent political tool for the petty minded.
    There may be many who recognise common values of humanity and compassion, but there are very few who can rise above the parochialism and insecurities of their specific situations. How, then, can we create a global community that can counter all ideologies that disagree with the use of violence, WITHOUT the use of violence? That’s the real question, for me.

  4. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Consider this very similar analysis by Stephen N. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University:

    “When a shocking event like the Paris attacks occurs, we know how the world will respond. There will be dismay, an outpouring of solidarity and sympathy, defiant speeches by politicians, and a media frenzy. Unfortunately, these familiar reactions give the perpetrators some of what they want: attention for their cause and the possibility their targets will do something that unwittingly helps advance the perpetrators’ radical aims.

    “What is most needed in such moments is not anger, outrage, or finger-pointing, but calm resolution, cool heads, and careful thought. What happened in Paris is an untold tragedy for the victims and deeply offensive to all we hold dear, but we must respond with our heads and not just our hearts. Here are five lessons to bear in mind as we reassess the dangers and search for an effective response.”

  5. Vikram Says:

    “After completing his education from the Dar-ul-Uloom seminary at Deoband, Sanaul asked his father for Rs 80,000 to go to Saudi Arabia for further studies. His father refused, leading to a quarrel that ended with Sanaul being slapped by his uncle for misbehaviour. My son left the house in anger and never came back. We can’t imagine how he would look like now,” she said.

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