Small Wars Journal

The MEF Engagement Model and Al Qaeda

Tue, 07/24/2007 - 5:08am
The MEF Engagement Model and Al Qaeda

William S. McCallister

The London Times story "Al-Qaeda faces rebellion from the ranks" provides me an opportunity to further explain the usefulness of the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) engagement model (briefing here) and its application not only when conducting counterinsurgency in a tribal society but in the fight against al-Qaeda. It is also a tool that may explain (in social system terms) the dynamics of the alleged power-struggle within al-Qaeda and its motivating factors (in terms of cultural operating codes and coordinating messages).

Baseline Assumptions

1. Al Qaeda is "tribal".

2. Behavior of individual members governed by tribal ethos i.e., cultural operating codes and coordinating messages.

3. Micro-motives determine macro-behavior of the system as a whole. Simple rules govern play.

4. Al Qaeda network is a "living-breathing organism". It shapes and is shaped by the environment.

5. The network is NOT hierarchical. Leadership in this system, as in tribal society, is based on the "ability to attract and keep followers" vice "ability to enforce".

Cultural Operating Codes

1. Shame/Honor.

2. Segmentation of tribes.

3. Patronage.

4. Territory.

Coordinating Messages

1. "No stability without us".

2. "What have you done for me lately...what will you do for me tomorrow?"

Below is an example for the application of the model by way of comparison.

The Dulaym tribal federation in Anbar was shaped by Saddam to fit the needs of his patronage/security system. With the removal of Saddam the federation entered into a period of transition and realignment (there is opportunity in chaos). The various sub-tribes of the federation began to jockey for position as new centers of power within the federation (system) started to emerge. This competition or realignment phase is on-going as we speak and will in time reach, in Gertrude Bell's words, its own "splendid equilibrium" ("When the tribes are at their best they live in splendid equilibrium").

Dynamics of the System / Model

Power holders do not and can not hold mutual or agreed ambitions and so are in perpetual and violent competition as they test one another. A commitment to one by definition incurs opposition of an ally's rival. It is impossible in practice for a power holder to have an assortment of clients, and therefore parties fluctuate between loss and gain. All members of the system are employing the same tactics of seeking more powerful sponsors, recruiting others and countering potential challengers by all means available such as conspiracy, assassination and murder (assassination is akin to a no-confidence vote and murder an accepted mechanism to maintain a semblance of competing party membership parity). Any power holder will switch sponsorship if advantage can be gained and is vulnerable in turn by an internal challenger whom might switch sides if it benefits him. The system is self-regulating and places constraints on the incumbent and challenger alike. The moment the challenger initiates action and begins to eliminate rivals, he begins to encounter opposition. The stakes increase until failure to deal decisively with a rival becomes tantamount to one's own death sentence. The system/model is not populated with "moderate" actors and is in a constant state of flux. The various actors continuously assess their relative power position in relation to their allies and opponents. They strengthen relationships with select allies, let others lapse; and mobilize new ones to keep their networks operational. Conflict is the norm and an accepted part of the system and serves as a means to activate and evaluate relationships.

The current emphasis in the media on the Abu Risha tribal leader Sheikh Sattar as the leader of the Al Anbar "Awakening" does not take into consideration that he and his followers are members of a larger social system. In accordance with the model outlined above, he is subject to the "self-regulating" tendency of the system as a whole, in this case the Dulaym Federation and by extension the other tribal federations such as the Shammar, etc throughout Iraq. We monitor this dynamic closely in Anbar province and do not assume that he is the key component of the awakening movement in Anbar much less of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq in general. He is one of the main catalysts in the movement but remains subject to the laws of the system at large.

A similar view can be taken in regards to the rise of Zarqawi within the al Qaeda network before his death. He too was subject to the same dynamic outlined above as are the numerous "independent" leaders of the network today. The alleged power struggle within al Qaeda in my opinion therefore is part and parcel of the system as a whole and subject to the same laws and principles we are experiencing in Anbar province in our interactions with the Dulaym Federation.

What are the implications for our fight against the al Qaeda network? It may not necessarily take a network to fight a network but rather a "virus". While I do not advocate that the "network versus network" paradigm (tank against tank) should be abandoned outright, I do strongly urge the development of appropriate "viruses" to target the network within the cultural frame of reference of its individual members.

Despite the myriad and contradictory accidents that push history this way and that, there stands behind the entire confusion a meaningful pattern and progression, a deeper historical process that is constant in its action. Recognizing past patterns provides a semblance of predictability of possible future outcomes and assists in the development of indicators to measure progress towards a potential outcome while still firmly rooted in the present. Even in a historical process influenced by random chance, law-like patterns can still emerge. History and chance are fully compatible with the existence of law-like order and patterns. The challenge is to recognize the general in the particular and the eternal in the transitory.

William S. McCallister is a retired military officer. He has worked extensively in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. While on active duty, Mr. McCallister served in numerous special operations assignments specializing in civil-military, psychological and information operations. He is a published author in military affairs and tribal warfare and has guest lectured at Johns Hopkins University and presented numerous papers at academic and government sponsored conferences such as the Watson Institute, Brown University; Department of the Navy Science and Technology and DARPA; and the Central Intelligence Agency. He has also appeared as a guest on National Public Radio (NPR). Mr. McCallister is currently employed as a senior consultant for Applied Knowledge International (AKI) in Iraq. He continues to study current events in Iraq in tribal terms, including the tribal art of war and peace, tribal mediation processes, development of tribal centers of power, and tribal influence in political developments. He has applied his study of tribal culture in assessing Iraqi reconstruction efforts, as well as insurgency and counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and the Global War on Terror.


Discuss at Small Wars Council


I think the analysis is somewhat overblown and abstract. There are other forces at play, now, in particular the existence of a central government which is selected formally by democratic means. The current compromise with sectarian or tribal blocs is unstable and will gradually or quickly erode under the pressure to actually perform. This provides a kind of power base for the Sattars of the world which is distinct from the traditional system; specifically, the ability to bridge the needs and wishes of a populace and the power levers and structures of a formal central government (and/or provincial government, as elections for those proceed.)

So the dynamics of tribal dominance and power-playing will probably fall into a degree of eclipse as it becomes clear they cannot access resources and make enduring agreements with wider communities inside Iraq. It will be telling if Sattar makes a move to become an "independent" player in the democratic mode. This would signal that evolution is proceeding apace.