Foreign fighting: escaping the cheese bell
August 2, 2021 11:52 PM   Subscribe

Thomas Hegghammer on the Cheese Bell Theory of foreign fighting: "that foreign fighting provides strategic depth - and hence longevity - to movements that would otherwise crumble under domestic repression."

"Functioning states are like cheese bells in the sense that they crush all minor forms of rebellion inside their jurisdiction. Rebel groups that are caught inside the bell tend to get dismantled, while those that can leave — for example by coming and going as foreign fighters — stand a better chance of survival."

You may be thinking - what's a cheese bell?
posted by russilwvong (19 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
So basically the idea is: people have to train somewhere out of reach. They bring those skills elsewhere, empowering further conflict. Devoid of achieving a global panopticon, we should restrict the flow of people to volatile areas outside the existing panopticon, so that they don't become trained fighters and sustain conflicts.

This is sort of a book review for some Brookings (and former RAND) guy's book, so I'm not fully surprised it's a very hawkish centrist technocrat "put in x, get out y" kind of analysis that fails to consider why things are the way they are and just focuses on fixing the localized symptom with whatever legislative or military knobs exist.

This article mentions non-jihadi foreign fighting as a minority of total foreign fighters but it's unclear if the goal would be to effectively ban all foreign fighting. Would there be a whitelist? Would the French Foreign Legion be allowed, or the YPG International? Would WWII or Spanish Civil War volunteers have been stopped?
posted by JauntyFedora at 1:22 AM on August 3 [5 favorites]

I don't really understand the cheese bell metaphor. It's either a porous membrane through which violent actors pass, or a protective seal. Who lifts the lid?

W/r/t 'foreign' fighting, I don't think it really grasps that there's no such thing—never will be such a thing—as a purely self-supporting force that doesn't have links to some kind of State, or proto-State. Nor is there any such thing as a State that doesn't have an interest in violence outside its borders. There's always a political or social movement, or more typically an intelligence agency, suggesting aims, paying bills, supplying skills, giving cover and excuse. So yes; in a complex modern technological State all our acts are surveilled, but some people's acts get either blind eyes, or enthusiastic thumbs-up, from the agents of the State who would be surveilling...
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 1:54 AM on August 3 [2 favorites]

Indeed, as we can see right here in the good old USA, with BLM groups being monitored while actual right wing terrorist groups infiltrating the police and military.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:19 AM on August 3 [14 favorites]

Right wing groups may be infiltrating the police and military but they are also bring surveilled. See e.g. the first section of this On The Media episode.
posted by ropeladder at 4:23 AM on August 3

Are right-wing (which is to say, in this context, white supremacist) terrorist groups infiltrating the police and military, or are the police and military recruiting from right wing terrorist groups? Or is the question academic at this point?
posted by JohnFromGR at 4:45 AM on August 3 [13 favorites]

This week's episode of This American Life about the right-wing terrorist training camp in Vermont and how slow authorities have been to respond to it was terrifying. Maybe it's already been infiltrated and is acting as a honey pot to surveil other right wing activity, but that's hardly any consolation for the neighbors who have to put up with the gunfire, explosions, threats, and intimidation.

Regardless of the super obvious weapons violations, connections to known terrorist organizations, and repeated threats against neighbors, they've had the dude on blatant zoning violations for years and it seems like they're only now just getting around to taking the easy, apolitical, way of closing down a fucking terrorist training camp in Vermont.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:47 AM on August 3 [1 favorite]

The discussion seems relegated to jihadi fighters. However, among the widely variable conditions that support foreign fighters, the common requirement is that their operations be held in established war zones. So, typically, they leave one country to train in another to fight in a third country, where a war is already in progress.

Terrorism itself is not a significant part of their plans, so Byman's book (and these essays) center on jihadists' strategies and tactics as models. Rank and file recruits surviving their "tours" can fade back across some international border, where their brother and sisters in arms may elevate them into the ranks of permanent cadres for the jihadist cause. A single, but important, factor is this: There is no war to be lost.

In dealing with the rise of the "foreign fighter" elements, modern nations use their technological advancements to identify and track the movement and their individuals. It's obvious that some emergent technology will be useful to these fighters (cell phones, computers, fire-and-forget missiles), but the edge will always belong to the state. However, agility inherent in asymmetry favors the guerrilla. Anyhow, it matters not a whit whether the nation is autocratic or democratic--countermeasures trend toward the panopticons of our future. (Somewhere in our future, our grandchildren may be comforted by knowing their government has dedicated to each of them a drone with facial recognition that hovers over them as they go about their day.)

As an aside, this differs from our (American) trend that sucks the individual's identity (via credit cards and other tracking efforts) into a sort of Brownian demographic where the emphasis is not who you are but what you do, thrusting us into the inevitable Orwellian Sorry. Got carried away

On a broader scale (apparently beyond the scope of Byman's book and these essays) I wonder if established nations' incursions might involve some aspect of this "foreign fighter" trend, those which we call by such terms as proxy warfare fought on an asymmetrical battlefield, or training exercises undertaken by special units, or indeed outright clandestine operations. In fact, America's participation in the last several of its wars has been pretty much like that--we send our military forces in pursuit of political objectives, usually without bothering to declare war. I suppose a general invasion such as our walk in the park in Iraq might be applied to this formula. After all, we formed a loose coalition of warfighters to invade a country that was pretty much minding its own business, slaughtering its citizens according to its own lights.

Maybe the actual distinction would be that modern wars have become less existential efforts than commercial events. We fight for money, and they fight for some moral imperative. They have Foreign Fighters to further their cause, and we call our fighters soldiers. I am open to the idea that my geezerhood has wrapped me in cynicism, but it seems to me they all get their guns from the same places.
posted by mule98J at 8:58 AM on August 3 [3 favorites]

I agree with FdG above, the author uses Cheese Bell as if this is a clear metaphor that supports the book he's reviewing's description of what is happening, when it doesn't seem to help clarify anything at all.
I wonder how he would analyze CIA activity over the past half century? It seems to tick the exact same boxes. Same goes with Eric Prince's Blackwater, no?
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:01 AM on August 3 [2 favorites]

I had to look up a picture of "cheese bell" as I thought I knew what it was but this: "Functioning states are like cheese bells in the sense that they crush all minor forms of rebellion inside their jurisdiction." made me think it was some kind of cheese making device that crushed cheese.

I think if he had fleshed out the metaphor with say, a mouse it might work better. Mouse trapped inside cheese bell gets to eat a little cheese but soon dies of oxygen starvation whereas if the mouse can get out of the cheese bell he can eat other un-belled cheese. Still doesn't work because even if a mouse can resist eating cheese a mouse in a cheese bell doesn't have long to live.
posted by Pembquist at 11:05 AM on August 3 [1 favorite]

Hasn't this been the case since the anti-colonial conflicts of the 50s, 60s, and 70s? I'm thinking mainly of the NLF, who maintained enclaves in Cambodia and Laos for training and resupply, even before the start of major conventional incursions from the North, but I'm also thinking of the ANC/MK bases in Angola and Zambia, or ZIPRA and ZANLA activities in Zambia and Mozambique.

Of course, in each of these examples (not to mention those in Central America which were oriented towards the other end of the political spectrum), it also helped to have a sponsor in the form of one or more large, developed state actors.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:32 AM on August 3 [1 favorite]

The crossing of territories and the evasion of the state transcend violent armed/fundamentalist conflict-- cf. Deleuze & Guattari's Nomadology (pdf) and its description of groups that successfully challenge and defy the state apparatus.
posted by Richard Saunders at 12:01 PM on August 3 [1 favorite]

No, foreign fighting is more like a Strawberry Huller in that it removes something from the center of one place, the strawberry, so it can go somewhere else, like the trash or a compost heap.

Much better simile.
posted by Naberius at 1:33 PM on August 3

It's a cake dome, not a cheese bell.

I get the idea that a lack of agency at home drives you away from positive community engagement and toward radical violent acts -- so to evade panopticular surveillance you go away, to come back changed and ready for physical violence. I don't buy it fully -- if you've been chased away from home because you can't engage as a peer in community and those in power can't be reasoned with, you'll stay away.

(I've recently thought about the bible's parable of the prodigal: what of their family and community drives a child to prodigality?)

I think it's a huge stretch, though, to say that UK children groomed to go to Afghanistan and Libya for the purpose of freeing Palestine or installing pure and uncorrupted custodians of Islam's holy sites (the recruiting call says this) will then come back to use bloody hands to change the UK -- there remains a greater unfinished cause overseas, failed because the how and the what could never achieve or justify the why of the cause.
posted by k3ninho at 3:47 PM on August 3 [3 favorites]

Cheese Bell is a dish best served cold.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:35 PM on August 3

The crossing of territories and the evasion of the state transcend violent armed/fundamentalist conflict-- cf. Deleuze & Guattari's Nomadology and its description of groups that successfully challenge and defy the state apparatus.

Interesting to see others have thought about how this might work outside of jihadis, because that was also my first thought - we know that a lot of the Charlottesville organisers are now dead, for instance, and what if there was a way for them to get out of the country when the heat was on them to somewhere else where they could meet like-minded people, develop their skills, and come back refreshed and ready to create genuine change in their communities? These tactics don't seem to be limited to extremists; there was a lot of cross-pollination in the union movement in the early 20th century that's largely fallen by the wayside, and I can see the cross-pollination going on in the far right these days.

Fighting for "freedom visas" for people in other countries doing good work that we'd prefer to not get crushed by their repressive states might be an achievable goal for the left that would allow us to start building a resilient international movement.
posted by Merus at 9:26 PM on August 3

Another less comprehensive but still very important means of gaining habituation to War in time of peace is to invite into the service officers of foreign armies who have had experience in War. Peace seldom reigns over all Europe, and never in all quarters of the world. A State which has been long at peace should, therefore, always seek to procure some officers who have done good service at the different scenes of Warfare, or to send there some of its own, that they may get a lesson in War.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:26 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]

It took me a moment to realize that the author might be aiming for a cloche, or bell jar, which is used to protect small plants, and is sometimes called a cheese bell. A gardener might have a whole row of these cloche's, each glass dome protecting a single plant. As a metaphor that could work as it relates to a transparent but effective dome of protection. I think his point is that the modern state has recently become an incredible at one part of policing, surveillance, which is a reactionary form of internal control. Which is to say, the state can't prevent a group coming together and committing terrorism or a major crime, but the state is very effective, if motivated, to track down and prosecute after such an act. I understood his point is that the modern capacity for technical surveillance is the dome of protection, and that dome enables the state police to exert it's traditional methods of social control and punishment. Not an ideal metaphor.

I can think of many examples; the FLQ in Quebec, IRA in Ireland, even the Weatherman in the US, these were all groups that were able to sustain terrorist campaigns for years. Now there is essentially no modern equivalent in the West, but that only partly because that definition of terrorist organization is often too constrained. I think the proto-fascist milita groups that folks here are joking about being part of the police demonstrate societies blind spot to these forms of terrorism. However, this blind spot also means these radical rightwing groups don't need to escape the state's panopticon and by acting as pseudo agents of the state these militia's are embraced or tolerated. So Hegghammer's point still largely stands, but he could certainly better account for this growing threat in the 'west'.

In terms of addressing the "foreign fighter' question, which is largely defined by Jihad, I found the article to be a decent update to my own readings in IR from over a decade ago. He doesn't get into the reasons but the evidence supports his point that other radical groups simply aren't sustaining this sort of operational and organizational structures. Beacuse, yea, other radical religious groups and cults, like Aleph in Japan, or accelerationsist Christians, like the militias, just don't operate abroad like this. In fact his counter examples to his argument, the Kurdish allies and (cough) Russian nazis (cough) forces in Ukraine just demonstrate how uncommon it is. I think the conclusion that modern radical Jihad exists because it avoids state repression through as operating as a foreign fighting force is a pretty sound argument. It's too bad he choose a confusing metaphor, because the larger points about state control and systemic radical violence are insightful.
posted by zenon at 12:31 PM on August 4

The cheese bell is made of glass.
posted by clavdivs at 7:32 PM on August 4

This cheese bell: it vibrates, yes?
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 12:57 PM on August 5

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