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Debunking USA Terrorism Strategy: Rules for Rebels by Max Abrahms

Without any doubt Max Abrahms’ Rules for Rebels: the science of victory in militant history should be on the bookshelf of every intelligence analyst and terrorism expert and anyone waging war against a government. Sadly, it is doubtful it will impact government policy of nations like the United States.

Rules for Rebels systematically lays out the three basic rules for rebel leaders.

  • Learn the difference between legitimate power and terrorism and terrorism will hinder your goals.
  • Build a centralized organization, with effective leadership, that restrains the lower level members from using terror as a tactic.
  • If individuals or affiliate groups commitment terrorism then rebel leaders should immediately distance themselves from the act of terrorism.

Through out the book, Abrahms makes a strong case that terrorism does not work for legitimate rebels. Acts like civilian hostage taking or purposed attacks on civilians drive governments to extreme and hinder any negotiation position. The most current example is the Islamic State which he confirms President Obama’s view: they were the “JV” team of terrorists.

Hezbollah is used as an example of a group that transitioned away from terrorism–if one believes it bombed the Argentine Jewish Community Center–to an effective fighting force solely focused on the state of Israel and defense of Lebanon. In this transition, Hezbollah gained political legitimacy and political cover. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is another example of the same impact as well as South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC).

However, for this to be an effective position, the rebel leaders need to control the message. Governments increasingly are incorrectly labeling rebels as terrorists. Abrahms calls this effort “Lumpers”, governments who want to lump all acts of rebels in the terrorism category. The United States is the largest ‘lumper”. Rules for Rebels demonstrates that Al Qaeda lost its effectiveness by its lack of centralized control and second by its use of terrorism.

The core effort for an effective leader must be to built an organization that bridges the gap between the professionalism of the leadership and individualized priorities of the rank and file. Abrahms calls this the “principal-agent” problem. Rank and file are usually less educated than leaders and less politically motivated. The solution is to build a high level of control and education towards the rank and file, much like a standing government army would attempt.

However readable the first two-thirds of the book, Abrahms saves the real message for the last third. The United States’ policy of “decapitation”, selectively assassinating leaders, usually by drone, is both ineffective and and counterproductive. Abrahms clearly demonstrates, by citing examples like the Taliban, that decapitaiton had limited impact and gave rise to increased violence in Afghanistan and did not halt Taliban recruitment. Israel’s targeting of leaders of the Al Aqsa Brigade in the Second Intifada had the same impact and led to increased civilian death.

Rules for Rebels is that rare academic study that hits the problems of today with a frontal assault with both clarity of writing and research.

Rules for Rebels published by Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-881155-8