Sebastian Gorka: A New American Strategy

A New American Strategy

(Dr. Sebastian Gorka, September 6, 2013)

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About the speaker

Sebastian Gorka, Ph.D. serves as the Major General Matthew C. Horner Distinguished Chair of Military Theory at Marine Corps University where he provides courses and lectures on Irregular Warfare. Previously he was Associate Dean of Congressional Affairs and Relations to the Special Operations Community at National Defense University.

He is an internationally recognized authority on issues of national security, irregular warfare, terrorism and democratization and has testified before Congress and briefed the CIA, ODNI, NCTC, NIC, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. His website,, is a collection of his national security commentary and analysis. He served as a subject matter expert for the Office of the US Attorney in Boston for the Tsarnaev trial.

Dr. Gorka is an Adjunct Professor with USSOCOM’s Joint Special Operations University where he serves as Lead Instructor for the Special Operations Combating Terrorism (SOCbT) course, as well as the interagency and senior/executive counterterrorism courses. He is also an Adjunct Professor in National Security at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, and is a regular instructor with the US Army’s Special Warfare Center and School in Fort Bragg and for the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division.


Sebastian Gorka:

It is quite an experience, as a professor of strategic irregular warfare, to follow a lecture by your wife, discussing the center of gravity of Islamism so I can highly recommend it. Okay. Thank you. Thank you for sticking through this day. Let me begin with the… the legal vagueries of giving a presentation. That’s a photograph from Egypt quite recently. And it’s supposed to illustrate that we may want to reassess our strategy. And I have to make a statement that nothing you are about to hear necessarily represents the views of the Department of Defense or other U.S. government agencies. This is Dr. Gorka’s personal analysis and opinions, nothing else. Good.

I’m a baby of the Cold War. I grew up in the Cold War. It was the formative period of my life. My parents escaped Hungary during the anti-Communist Revolution of ‘56, my father escaping from a Communist prison. He’d been given a life sentence for being a pro-democracy activist. I dearly miss the Cold War. It was really easy and simple. But one thing we do not remember enough- And if you do not have Diana’s book, you must get a hold of Diana’s new book because it is priceless in demonstrating how similar the current threat environment is to that which we lived through for more than four decades.

The important thing that I wish to always remind my officers and my students of is that whilst we may have had 25,000 nuclear warheads on either side of that standoff, whilst we may have had the Cuban Missile Crisis, Korea, Panama, you name it, the fact is that on the night of November 9, 1989 the one shot was fired from one barrel either from an AK-47 or an M16… The Berlin wall came down how… ? Because we executed an ideological victory. We economically bankrupted the Soviet Union because of our preeminence military, but fundamentally, when President Reagan stood up in Berlin in front of the Brandenburg gate and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” that had nothing to do with nuclear weapons. It was a message that look at you. You need a wall to keep your citizens in, not to protect them but to stop them [from] leaving.

So the Cold War for me is fundamentally an ideological victory and an ideological conflict and I am convinced of the fact that today despite 9/11 being the most successful terrorist attack of a physical kinetic nature in the modern age, this is predominantly an ideological war. Don’t take my word for it. How about our favorite target, our high value threat, the head of Al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahri? This is directly from the enemy: “I say to you that we are in a war and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.” This man understands that this is about shaping perceptions, about narrative, about what can and cannot be said about the world of the threat and we need to recognize this fact.

Now I’m going to use some technical jargon and I’ll unpack it and explain it but I know we have people here from the Special Operations community, from the IC, and from the FBI and so forth. Let me just give you a… warm feeling inside after all that you have heard today. Two years ago, I wrote an article with David Kilcullen [whom] you may recall was General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency advisor, a very bright Australian officer.

One of the things we did in that article is we took the data from something called the Correlates of War database. It is a fascinating unclassified database run by a university which has collected all the pertinent data from every war since Napoleon… all of them… crunched them into one database with the details of where it started, how it ended, who was involved, how many casualties, and methodologies. It is a huge amount of information. We just wanted to crunch one issue, one point, onto a view foil, onto a graphic.

And as you will see here, the point we tried to make is if you look at the database, the big box so the… bounded large box is all wars since Napoleon. According to this database, it’s 460… 460 wars since Napoleon. What’s really fascinating is the tiny little red box. Less than 20% of all conflicts since Napoleon Bonaparte has been conventional – has been nations fighting nations, soldiers fighting soldiers. 380 out of 460 are irregular conflicts such as fighting terrorists, fighting insurgents, fighting tribes, fighting clans, so for all of you out there who work irregular warfare, do special… counter-terrorism, special forces, do not worry. You do not have to look for another career just yet.

The future will be more Al Qaedas, more Al Shabaabs, more AQIMs, more al Nusra fronts, not less, despite the fact that the Pentagon… a very high ranking officer at the Pentagon made a statement at an unclassified conference a year ago, stating the following, “Afghanistan and Iraq are the anomaly. We’re going to get back to real war,” meaning you know tanks fighting tanks, dogfights between jet fighters… the data does not demonstrate that the next war will look like Korea or World War II. It’s going to be messy and ugly and it’s going to involve ideology because this is how they attack us most effectively.

Now, that’s the good news. Let’s go back to the bad news. Nine years ago… Eight, nine years ago… the 9/11 Commission in America actually understood this war better than we understand it today. If you haven’t read the 9/11 Commission report I recommend it to you. Yes, it’s 600 pages long, but it is really an uncommon government document for its honesty and its truth-speaking. And remember it was by Democrats and Republicans together. And it’s all available online. At least read the 20 page executive summary.

When it was written – just a few years after 9/11 – we understood as a nation that we must defeat an ideology. We cannot kill our way out of this war. It is not predator strikes and Special Forces actions that will provide us with security. It is counter-ideology because we will not win this physically. Technically, we need to recognize something very interesting [that] has happened in the last 13 years since 9/11. I’m going to go a little bit into my technical field but bare with me. It’s just one slide.

If you want to be a bad guy, if you want to be a bin Laden, if you want to be a Lord Resistance Army, a Boko Haram, a Taliban, there are two ways to be an insurgent, two schools, two theories. Okay? There’s the Che Guevara approach to irregular warfare and there’s Mao. These are the two big schools and let me just summarize what they entail.

Mao has some guidelines; haircuts, snazzy berets on all the t-shirts, yeah? His message – and if you’ve seen with Benito del Toro you’ll see it in the movie – is that in a resistance fight against a government it is the individual leader of the insurgency that mobilizes the people through his own catalytic behavior. He rides out into the hinterlands on his harley, hair waving in the breeze, he makes a few speeches and then the peasants say ‘wow, he’s cool, I’m going to drop my pitchfork and grab a gun’.

There is the focoist school from the Spanish for focal point, you know, the individual as the catalyst. Mao had a different theory. It’s technically called people’s war. Mao said no, it is not about me, it is not about my cabinet. I need to go out into the countryside and I need to agitate. I need to create propaganda. I need to recruit cadre. I have to go out and create a grassroots movement and build – this is his big value added – a counter-state, a shadow government.

You saw exactly this in Afghanistan with the Taliban because the Taliban were doing what out-governing Karzai, yeah? They went to providing services, justice, courts that were you know 24-hours. If somebody stole you’d go… There would be a sheikh, an emir come in, deal with it, give you justice, he is out. If you are waiting for Kabul to give you justice, don’t hold your breath, yeah? So out-governing the government. These are the two schools. Only one of them is correct. Can you guess which one? Mao, yeah. This man… handsome on all the t-shirts, died at the age of 39, a loser. This individual – short, fat, and ugly – not on the t-shirts, died in his bed at the age of 79 as the Premier of China. Ok? This is rubbish. This works. Ok?

Now, who cares, you know? You just had Dr. Gorka’s lecture on IR theory… one interesting point about it. You can make a pretty solid argument that bin Laden was a Guevarist. He read the wrongs books. Thank the lord. He believed… Look at 9/11. He believed that by making three, big, symbolic strikes against our economic, our military, and our political headwaters, the Ummah would rise up in a catalytic moment and destroy the West: absolutely focoist, Guevarist. And of course, he was wrong because people go, ‘Oh wow, that is really cool. Two buildings came down. Let me just sacrifice my whole life and my children in your honor’. No, it doesn’t work like that. People do not get generated and encouraged to do things like that so easily.

But if you look at the last thirteen years- If you haven’t passed, like Stephen Ulph, to go onto the Internet to, especially the dark web, to read the jihadi chat logs, the chat rooms, the discussion, the debates, you will see a fascinating discourse develop. Al Qaeda and the threats we face are starting to understand Mao. They are starting to understand it is not just about blowing stuff up and shooting people, and one of the greatest examples they have of all of this is, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ikhwan Muslimin.

And they look at the Ikhwan Muslimeen and they say, ‘Oh my gosh, those guys actually won control of Egypt without blowing anything up. How could they do that?’ Yeah? The indirect approach, the Maoist approach, the softly, softly attitude to gaining power- and I show this one photograph and I can share it with you later but I’ll explain it to you.

The important thing to note here is who this person is. That is Secretary Clinton when she was still the most senior diplomat in the U.S. government, checking out, shaking that person’s hand who you maybe never have heard of until two weeks ago when he was arrested by the Egyptian military. That individual is Muhammad Badiah.

Now, one thing you need to know about the MB, the Muslim Brotherhood, is that it is a very slippery organization. The only way it has survived after 90 years of illicit activity, persecution by the Egyptian regime, you name it. They have been made illegal by numerous countries throughout the region. The only way it has survived is by creating a dual command structure, a binary command structure, a front-man and a real headquarters command structure.

For example, Muhammad Morsi is a nobody. He is a suit. He is like Ahmadinejad was in Iran. He is the front-man who takes all the flak and, you know, gives all the interviews. The real mastermind behind the MB for decades has always been the individual who bears the title of ‘Supreme Guide’. Not the head, not the President, not the Prime Minister, not the Secretary General, the Supreme Guide. And the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood until two weeks ago was Muhammad Badiah.

Now, let us have a look at this photograph in its context. This photograph was taken just a matter of weeks before the… first ever free elections in Egypt… ever. And our Secretary of State is giving full press coverage, face time to the supreme guide of the MB, saying, “Oh wow, yes, you are our interlocutor. Let’s recognize you as a legitimate actor”. Pretty useful, right?

But at the same time this individual, while he is having press coverage and press conferences with U.S. diplomats at the Secretary level, gives an interview in Arabic to a local newspaper that funnily enough never gets translated into The New York Times or The Washington Post and he says the following. This is the literal translation of two sentences from that interview for the local Egyptian and Arabic audience. Remember [this was] three weeks before the election, the first election ever [held that was a] free election… says, “The Caliphate is now possible. The Caliphate is now imminent.”

And you need to understand the weight of that. He is saying the theocratic absolutist empire of Islam is now possible again and it’s just around the corner because that’s what Caliphate means: theocratic empire, not Jeffersonian Republic as some people might think. And what happens three weeks later? Seventy percent of the seats in that election to Parliament go to the MB and the even scarier Salafists.

Now, praise be the Egyptian people, it only took them twelve months to realize what was going on, yeah? I mean that is pretty amazing. If you look at the region in total, it took them twelve months to realize Morsi is a dictator in sheep’s clothing and the military got rid of him.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of Sisi because there have been some issues with what he has done since then but the fact is the Egyptians recognize the truth about the MB and as Frank has said in his show again and again and again and I really would like to, with his permission, would like to use this and encourage everybody to use it: “If the Egyptian people can reject the Brotherhood there, why can’t we reject them in America?” You know, copyright Frank Gaffney. So that is the nature of the beast.

Again, do not take our words for it. Go to primary sources. I always say go to primary sources because it is hard to argue. How is this for a primary source? It is from an unclassified SOCOM report that was released by West Point CTC. Let me go back. What did Clapper say about the MB? [It’s] a ‘secular’ organization, not violent, cool dudes, right?

Well… [unintelligible] …closely because he was a member and all [of] his lieutenants have been members. This is fascinating. Whether it is Musab Zarqawi, Zawahiri, all significant AQ leaders were first members of the MB. This is what he says about the MB, “Current conditions have brought on unprecedented opportunities and the coming of Islamic governments that follow the Salafi doctrine is a benefit to Islam.”

So do not believe the hype. They are very happy about the Arab spring, very happy. “There is a sizeable direction within the Ikhwan that holds the Salafi doctrine so the return of the Ikhwan and those like them to the true Islam is a matter of time.” The MB, the Ikhwan, is coming back to us, to the Salaf, to the true Muslims. They are not a competitor. They are just people who are more slowly evolving towards Salafism, fundamentalism.

I am going to share because I am stuck on Egypt now. I know Syria is the flavor of the day – two minutes – Egypt is more important than Syria by fact, by fact. A very great person you know, a very brave young lady decided to go to Egypt during the removal of Morsi as an American and she brought home some photographs. Photographs that you will not see on CNN or even Fox.

This is from the Egyptian street. This is an Egyptian, in English, holding up a sign saying, “This is not a coup.” We are getting rid of a dictator. That is not a coup. This sign… fascinating, ripped in English: “Obama, stop financing terror in Egypt.” Who are they talking about? The Ikhwan. Stop supporting the Brotherhood government because every dollar you send to them supports terrorism. Fascinating. Not even in Arabic, in English, for us and we don’t even get to see it in the media. The next one I just think is priceless. They know our culture so well – our pop culture – [unintelligible] “We know what you did last summer.” This is the Egyptian people. Yeah?

Same difference, right? So, they understand the threat there and they’re trying to make us wake up to it. Yeah? Eight thousand miles away. And as my wife said we’re just sprinting with our blindfolds on. Last point: let me take you to the super strategic level.

I have been a victim of everything my wife discussed. I teach FBI. I teach DOD. I am now every time I go to Quantico required to submit my slides to a nameless censorship body, which will tell me which slides I can use and which slides I can not use. The FBI is not allowed to know. [It] isn’t allowed to know the identity of the person at DOJ who does the censorship and if I disagree there is no appeal. I am not allowed on base. No appeal. And I have got a PhD in this and I would love to argue with the guy about, ‘Really? Why can’t I talk about jihad?’ That is still in place today.

But where does all this come from? One slide to explain it all. A very senior official in the NCTC, National Counter-Terrorism Center, was sent to the UK on an exchange program to analyze the British way of dealing with radicalization, Islamic jihadism. Timing really is everything. He was there just at the point when Britain was waking up to the fact that all of their CT counter radicalization policies were bankrupt and actually empowering the Brotherhood – yeah? – the bad guys. And he was looking and ‘oh, you did this, you did that,’ taking notes and he leaves the UK to come back to Washington just as the UK is about to completely get rid of their approach and revamp it. This is contest and prevent policies.

So he has got the wrong recipe book. He comes home and is promoted to the White House to be Senior Advisor on counter=terrorism issues and this bad recipe is what we are living now in America ‘cause he said – and you can check this stuff online – he said, “In the world of Islamism, people who wish to create a Caliphate, there are three separate groups. There are the purists” – yeah, on the left, the purists – “who believe purely in Da’wa, in proselytization and teach it. They are in the Ivory Tower. We are going to preach and talk about Islam and sooner or later people are going to join us.”

Then we have here, separately, the political Islamists who say Friday in the mosque is not enough. We have to actually get out there and fight the political fight. We have to create organizations, win elections, and so forth. Classically, of course, this is the MB, so there are the preachers, the purists, and the MB.

Finally, the tiny, tiny fraction are the wild Islamists, the people who say politics is never going to get us where you want to go. You have got to pick a gun, build an IED, and we have got to get the Caliphate together through the use of force. The argument of this senior policy individual is that these are three, hermetically separated organizations, have nothing to do with each other, and that American lives can only be saved by negotiating with the Islamists.

That is why Ambassador Paterson has to go and shake Badiah’s hand: because it is the political Islamists who can stop the killing of Americans. Despite the fact as I said every senior AQ leader and high value target is formerly, first a member of the Brotherhood. Of course, the reality is this: it is a complete, overlapping Venn diagram and there is no hermetically separated purists, from politicians, from violent terrorists. Okay. Concluding slide.

This is the only message I like to give. After all the words this is the only thing that counts because in DC nobody will tell you this. The fact is… We obsess on this. Our 25-meter target in U.S. government for the last twelve years is the kinetic threat. Gotta stop the next 9/11. We gotta make sure there are no IEDs on the streets of Baltimore. That is the threat. Send us troops to destroy the kinetic opposition despite the fact that the non-violent jihadists, the stealth jihadists that Frank and others have so bravely written about, out number the violent jihadists by factors of thousands.

And the real point is they both have what? The same strategic goal. Undemocratic theocracies from Washington to Cairo. Yeah? The same, same intent. They may argue amongst themselves and I’m sure they do argue but the arguments are almost exclusively about timing and tactics. You see Qaradawi saying, ‘hey, Islamists in Europe, hang on, slow down, yeah? Because they’re going to wake up to…’ Timing, not tactics. Okay.

This is… I’ve been asked to finish. This is my conclusion. I’m here to talk about the approach ahead for U.S. strategy. A couple of point we can expand on in the Q&A. This is what I think, Dr. Gorka personal opinion, has to happen. As a nation, we must think and act strategically. We have not for about twenty years; Democrats or Republicans. This requires prioritization of interests. Is Afghanistan more important than Syria? Is Iraq more important than Egypt? You have to make these decisions. That is called strategy.

Saying we are going to do everything is impossible even for America. All actions must be based on the understanding context. If you get this wrong, your plan is not worth anything. And as a result, for example, the Middle East and North Africa must be understood to be a whole. You cannot solve Syria without dealing with Iran. You cannot solve Egypt without understanding Saudi Arabia. Yeah? These are not sui generis compartmentalized issues except in the White House. We must have a broader concept of warfare.

Now, this is getting into a little terminology here. We must do political warfare and special warfare. This is the terminology used in Fort Bragg. And it must become a national function. Not done in Fort Bragg or in Tampa. But political warfare and special warfare must be done in Washington.

There should be a JSOC, joint special operations command, for special warfare, meaning political, economic, and legal tactics. There must exist a national strategy for special warfare, yeah? …for the broadest understanding of attack. And lastly, we must begin aggressive psyops and I mean psyops – I am not going to use the phrase MISO, which is anathema… ‘military information support operation’, what a politically correct load of rubbish – psychological operations, including things such as supporting reformers, so there you have it.