Belmont Club

Assassin's Screed

When president Obama compared ISIS to the Crusaders he got the analogy wrong. First, their goals were different. “I don’t think the president knows very much about the crusades,” Thomas Madden, a historian at the University of St. Louis, told ABC News. Madden said “the initial goal of the Crusades was to give back lands to Christians that had been conquered, due to Muslim conquests.” Secondly, the characters don’t match up.  Today’s core conflict is not between two rival civilizations, but about which militant branch gets to rule the world.

According to German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer, who spent ten days embedded with ISIL in Mosul, the view that he kept hearing was that ISIL wants to “conquer the world” and all who do not believe in the group’s interpretation of the Koran will be killed. Todenhöfer was struck by the ISIL fighters’ belief that “all religions who agree with democracy have to die”, and by their “incredible enthusiasm”—including enthusiasm for killing “hundreds of millions” of people.

The present conflict began in Jimmy Carter’s term. As the Council on Foreign Relations explains “under Khomeini … the transformation of Iran into an agitator for Shia movements in Muslim countries seemed to confirm centuries of Sunni suspicions that Shia Arabs answer to Persia”.  That the Wahabis could not abide on a whole spectrum of doctrinal, national and geopolitical levels. It revived the old antagonisms resulting in a de facto sectarian civil war thinly disguised under the veneer of “anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, and anti-American frameworks”. The real action is Muslim vs Muslim: World War M. “Ethnic cleansing by Sunni and Shia jihadis is leading to a partition of the Middle East,” according to the Independent. “Terror and counter-terror … may make it impossible for them to live together ever again.”

The real analogy between today’s shocking headlines and the Crusades concerns the mode of fighting. The most striking aspect of the present conflict is the absence of large-scale conventional military operations. When the president said “You know, when I said no boots on the ground, I think the American people understood generally that we’re not going to do an Iraq-style invasion of Iraq or Syria with battalions that are moving across the desert.” The irony is that applies to ISIS as well. According to the CIA, ISIS “can ‘muster’ between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters” — about two divisions — across all of Syria and Iraq.

Instead or refighting Desert Storm the military model adopted by both groups is that of the historical Assassins. Recall how “lacking their own army, the Nizari relied on these trained warriors to carry out espionage and assassinations of key enemy figures” — including Conrad of Monferrat. As Jefferson Gray of History Net writes: “by conventional standards, the Assassins should have been no match for the superior conventional military power of any of their many enemies,” but:

Near the end of the 11th century, the charismatic and ruthless Hasan-i Sabbah forged this small, persecuted sect into one of the most lethally effective terrorist groups the world has ever known. Even the most powerful and carefully guarded rulers of the age—the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs, the sultans and viziers of the Great Seljuk and Ayyubid empires, the princes of the Crusader states, and emirs who ruled important cities like Damascus, Homs, and Mosul—lived in dread of the chameleonlike Assassin agents. …

Fanatical and disciplined, Hasan-i Sabbah and his successors were brilliant practitioners of asymmetric warfare. … Perhaps the most consequential of the Assassins’ killings was their murder of Conrad of Montferrat. Conrad, a wily and charismatic northern Italian lord who was Saladin’s match as a military commander, had just been selected as the new ruler of the Crusader kingdom of Acre. His premature death in April 1192 ended any possibility of a further revival of Christian fortunes in the Holy Land after the leaders of the Third Crusade returned to their realms in the West.

Obama’s own response has been straight out of the pages of history, not the actual ones but the video game version of it.  In Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed the nemesis of the Muslim secret armies is an equally conspiratorial group called the Knights Templars. What Obama has done, as Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times explain, is bring the Templars back to life.  All across the world it is the SOF versus the Jihadis.  There may not be boots on the ground but there are secret bases corresponding to the expeditionary castles of old.

The Obama administration long ago showed its inclination to rely on Special Operations troops and clandestine missions as an alternative to large wars of occupation. But the spread of the Islamic State over the past year — from its hubs in Syria and Iraq to affiliates in Africa and South Asia — has led the White House to turn to elite troops to try to snuff out crises in numerous locations….

The White House is now considering a Pentagon proposal to maintain at least one base in Afghanistan … as a hub for Special Operations troops and intelligence operatives throughout Central and South Asia, part of a larger network of bases the Pentagon is envisioning in part to tackle the Islamic State and its more than half-dozen affiliates in countries like Libya, Egypt and Yemen.

Today the world is the scene of a global campaign of targeted killings. Newsweek describes the return of the body count. “You know it’s a different kind of war,” Mark Thompson writes, “when the Pentagon spends several minutes running down a list—by name, occupation and date of demise—of 10 Islamic State leaders it says it has killed over the past three weeks.”

That’s the path the Pentagon is now following. Picking off individual leaders—whose names are unknown to all but a handful of Americans—shows how important the U.S. believes decapitating ISIS is to eventual success against the jihadists. “Any organization that sees its middle and upper management degraded in this way is going to lose some of their synergy,” Warren said. “It’s difficult to command and control an organization without the command and control personnel.”

Targeted killings, according to Jonathan Masters of the Council on Foreign Relations, have become a “central component of U.S. counterterrorism policy”. Consisting of “drone strikes” and “kill/capture missions” it is like the real-life version of the video game, except that according to the Obama administration, targeted killings are not even assassination.

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination. In the Department’s view, a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban. Similarly, the use of lethal force, consistent with the laws of war, against an individual who is a legitimate military target would be lawful and would not violate the assassination ban.”

Whatever that distinction can possibly mean, it is undeniable that military manhunts have been part of operations from the dawn of history. But historical manhunts, like Alexander’s pursuit of Darius or the P-38 interception of Admiral Yamamoto, were usually part of a larger campaign. President Obama’s international campaign of “lawful killing” marks the first time that manhunts have become the war in itself. As Rachel Stohl observed in the National Interest “those critical of the U.S. drone program are quite reasonably asking whether strikes—particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen—are achieving measurable gains beyond an estimated four thousand deaths of largely unidentified males … without a reasonable and clear metric, it is impossible to determine whether strikes should be continued.”

In other words, one should ask if the SOF and drones — if the Knights Templars — are doing any good.  But the point from a political perspective is not whether they are doing any good as much as whether the president is seen as doing something.  And he is doing something, even if he is not quite sure what it is.

Interestingly, it was not the Templars who brought about the downfall of the Assassins but the Mongols. These nomads succeeded where the Knights failed by undermining the basis of the Assassin’s power.  Too uncivilized to know better they just tore out the sect by the roots.

in the time of Genghis Khan’s first invasion of the region … the Assassins flourished in the power vacuum created by Genghis Khan’s defeat of the Turkic sultan of Khwarizm …

some chroniclers wrote that the Grand Master sent a delegation to Karakorum ostensibly to offer submission to Mongke Khan, but actually trained to kill him. The Mongols had turned them away and prevented the assassination, but because of it Mongke Khan decided to crush the sect permanently and tear down their fortresses.

Today the modern Mongols, AKA the American energy industry, may be coming to the rescue of Obama. The Washington Post reported that “plunging crude oil prices are diverting hundreds of billions of dollars away from the treasure chests of oil-exporting nations, putting some of the United States’ adversaries under greater stress. … Robert McNally, director for energy in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council and now head of the Rapidan Group, a consulting firm. ‘It’s not good for Russia, that’s for sure, and it’s not good for Iran.'”

It would be a great stroke of luck for the administration if the Red Staters tore out the enemy’s roots.  The New York Times describes how not only Iran, but Saudi Arabia is being impoverished by cheap oil. “Pressured by low oil prices and costly wars in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia announced a sharp reduction in its 2016 budget on Monday to control a worsening deficit, which is steadily draining the kingdom’s financial reserves.”

The official Saudi news media reported that the Finance Ministry would cut spending, adopt new taxes and reduce price subsidies for fuel, water and power.

The cost of some grades of domestic gasoline, among the first to be affected, could rise as much as 50 percent, a potentially unsettling spike in a country where mass transit does not exist and cars are a basic necessity.

The Saudi stock market fell 3 percent in early trading on Tuesday, with Saudi Basic Industries, the biggest petrochemical producer, tumbling 8.3 percent.

Quite against the odds the administration might soon be able to proclaim: “see how our focus on sequestering carbon worked?” It would be ironic if low oil prices paralyzed the militants on all sides and won the strategic victory that Obama’s “targeted killings” have so far failed to achieve. But the present situation is full of ironies, not the least of which is a president upbraiding Christians for their sense of moral superiority while simultaneously engaging in a global campaign of “targeted killings”.

Obama’s analogies have a way of missing the point so almost entirely they are almost profound.  The real danger now is that falling oil may collapse the conflict ‘too fast’ for Western leadership to cope with the fallout. “The bigger impact of low oil prices is the delegitimization of the gulf monarchies, so paradoxically, a sustained oil crash is actually a plus for ISIS,” said Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer.  A still bigger plus for ISIS is the intellectual poverty of Western leadership. It is too stupid to understand either “strategy” or “victory” but smart enough to like “targeted killings” and doctoring the narrative.

The elites of the modern West might be inclined to agree with Vladimir Bartol, whose 1938 novel about the Assassins, Alamut,  inspired the video game.  The maxim of the novel is supposed to be Hassan-i Sabbah‘s, the founder of the Assassins dying declaration, “nothing is an absolute reality, all is permitted”.

“Nothing is an absolute reality, all is permitted”. What today’s politicians can never understand is that the opposite is actually true.  Everything is real.  All must eventually be paid for.

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