The Return of the Skull Mask

a person wearing a skull mask

Old fans of the blog may recall that I ran a series once that highlighted instances of soldiers across the globe wearing the now ubiquitous “skull mask.”

It was – and still is – a weird phenomenon.

The December issue of the “Sentinel” (Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point) ran an article titled The Iron March Forum and the Evolution of the “Skull Mask” Neo-Fascist Network.

It’s a fascinating deep-dive into the origins of a disaggregated global extremist network. This isn’t a topic I normally spend a lot of time researching, but I found myself pulled into the research. It’s well done and one of the most “academic” papers I’ve read recently.

There were a few things that stood out which likely have application and relevance in others areas.

Some excerpts:

On the way that online communitites can forge strong bonds – over time – through shared interests. Fandom?

Specialized online communities, whether focused on Traditionalist neo-fascism or on model trains, aggregate groups of people with shared interests and values, and facilitate the formation of both personal relationships and collective identities through sustained interaction over time, requiring only that members share a common language.

Another example:

A group of users on the U.S. East Coast organized an online tabletop role-playing game group in which Iron March users played Dungeons & Dragons and a Star Wars game together.

On the challenge of translating online activity into real-world activism. This is something I’ve seen before (Egypt).

Offline activism was strongly encouraged by Iron March leadership, but members of the Iron March community appear to have been alienated from existing local neo-fascist organizations because of ideological differences, intra-movement conflict about tactics, and cultural differences between members of established neo-fascist organizations and young people steeped in internet-based subcultures.

The above – concerning internet-based subcultures and their inability to mesh with established “real world” communities reminds me of another research paper I recently read. This one is titled Gen-Z & The Digital Salafi Ecosystem. It explores the ways that internet meme culture – specifically alt-right meme culture – is being appropriated and used by a younger generation of “digital salafists.”

I’m skeptical if any of this means anything if significance. But I’m sure it means something.

Both paper are fascinating and relevant to anyone studying modern underground extremist movements.


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The Chattanooga Shootings and the Era of Persistent Conflict

soldiers silhouetted in vietnam
Forever War

Forgetting we are at war has become very easy. Although we still have troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it feels as though those two conflicts have been tucked in, put to sleep, and we’re tip-toeing out the door, trying not to wake them up.

For those who have served, last week’s shooting in Chattanooga did not come as a major surprise. While the media quickly shifted to searching for the “why,” looking for rock-solid connections between this or that terrorist group and the shooter, many veterans instinctively knew it was tragically just another SIGACT in the Global War on Terrorism, to resurrect that dying phrase.

In 2008, when I was in New York City attending college, a bomb was thrown at the Times Square Recruiting office. Just another SIGACT.

I remember waking up early one morning when I was attending school in Egypt and reading the news about the Fort Hood massacre, where MAJ Nidal Hassan murdered 13 people at an SRP site at Fort Hood, Texas. In the same year, there was an attack on a recruiting station in Arkansas that saw one soldier killed and another wounded.

Then, as now, I didn’t wonder about the motive.

The term “era of persistent conflict” has been thrown around a lot in the past decade, and honestly, I’ve mostly ignored it as another buzz-phrase that’s shuffled out to further obscure whatever it is we’re actually talking about. A throw-away line in a speech that keeps the timer ticking down to zero. That, and I wasn’t sure that we really were facing an era of persistent conflict.

It sounds, dreary.

Then, the other day, I read this piece by David Kilcullen. As a refresher, Kilcullen is the former Australian Army Officer who wrote “The Accidental Guerrilla.” He advised General Petraeus in Iraq and is one of the important figures in devising the counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. He’s not infallible, and he has his detractors, but it is hard to argue he’s not an important voice on violence in the 21st century (Given their penchat for preaching that the world is getting safer, I’d be curious to think about what the folks at On Violence are going to think of this post).

We’re living in an era of persistent conflict. This isn’t my insight – you can read it in the latest concept documents of half a dozen western militaries. But it doesn’t seem to have hit home, for the public or some policymakers, that the notion that this can all end, that we can get back to some pre-9/ 11 “normal,” is a fantasy. This – this instability, this regional conflict surrounded by networked global violence, this convergence of war and crime, of domestic and international threats, this rise of a new aggressive totalitarian state from the rubble of the last war – is the new normal, and it’s not going to change for a very, very long time. There are no quick solutions: we need to settle in for the long haul.

For some reason, this opening paragraph resonated with me. I think it’s the idea of returning to “some pre-9/11  normal” that got me. I can’t even imagine what that would be like anymore. It does sound like fantasy. So maybe, it’s just time to accept that we’re really in it for the long haul.

But the truth is, that doesn’t mean it has to be miserable.

As Kilcullen says, there is a convergence of war and crime, of domestic and international threats, and that is the new normal. I’m going to take a stab in the dark and guess that the shooter in Chattanooga felt like he wanted to belong to something greater than himself, and by attacking members of the military – who are symbols of the state – felt like he contributed to something global, something cosmic.

It happened, and is happening, and if we’re to belive Kilcullen, will continue to happen. The policymakers, in their talk about “persistent conflict,” are aware of it. On an anecdotal level, despite the slowing deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the operational tempo remains high. Train, Fight, Reset. Over and over again. Even in 2015.

Generally speaking, I think what’s important is that there has to be some expectation that these things are going to happen. Not every event can be predicted or prevented. The critical element is how we react. Do we over-correct and batten down the hatches? Or do we mourn and resolve ourselves to presevere our way of life in the face of unknown threats?

I know that for a military that is struggling to find the next mission, understanding that nothing is over, and that we are indeed in an era of persistent conflict, provides a training focus going forward. In the face of budget cuts and a shrinking force, it’s sometimes hard to see what the purpose is.

But if you’re looking through the wide lens, you can see it.


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