The journey towards a better understanding of counterterrorism first needed to pass through the general principles of strategy. What Clausewitz learned from his experience in the Napoleonic Wars may not appear to fit the struggle against al Qaeda, but that's what makes a good theory: even if circumstances change, the core principles still provide a guide to action. I hope the theory/practice format of this blog has proved the universal efficacy of the principles, levels, and dynamics of strategy.
Now that we're ready to dig into the specifics of terrorism and its cousin, guerrilla warfare, we fact the usual, unavoidable, question: what do these words mean? For the last few years, we've heard the words terrorists, terrorism, and terror countless times, but it's obvious from the amount of noise and confusion in these discussions that the basic terminology isn't clear to speakers and audiences alike.
The roiling, frothing mass of emotion and politics surrounding these words doesn't make it any easier to see their real meaning. Terrorists attacks are horrifying, whether they kill a single individual or 3,000 people. Of course, these attacks are designed to generate horror, in the hopes of terrifying the enemy into submission. The natural evolution of terrorism is to find ever more inventive ways to generate the maximum amount of horror--and in the process, making it increasingly harder to have a level-headed discussion of the topic. If your friends or loved ones have died in a suicide bombing in a bus, or have been held hostage on an airliner, it's difficult to have a calm, open-minded discussion about how to combat terrorism.
Difficult, yes, but necessary. It's time for Americans to put aside their shock and horror evoked by 9/11 and start making rational judgements about what works when you're fighting al Qaeda, and what doesn't. In fact, "getting over" 9/11 is long overdue--and vital in a presidential election year.
We all know the way in which partisans of political causes use words like terrorism and fascism to arouse the passions of their audiences. We've all heard the phrase, "One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter"--but the problem goes deeper than what this maxim implies. If the list of groups on the State Department's yearly report on global terrorism constitute the enemy, then that mosaic of accused terrorist shapes our own understanding of what terrorists look like and what they do. It isn't merely our own worldviews that put this group (say, the Basque group ETA) in the terrorist frame while leaving others (for example, the FARC in Colombia) out of the picture. The public debate over terrorism overtly and covertly shifts the way in which we think about terrorism. The face of terrorism today may be Osama bin Laden's, but only ten years ago, it was Timothy McVeigh's.
As I argued in an earlier post, terror, terrorism, and terrorists are very different things. Therefore, the war on each of them will be different not only in scope, but in kind. A battle to eliminate a small group of radical Islamists is far different from changing global attitudes about any use of violence and fear for political effect.
Terrorists also are not identifiable by their politics. Everyone from the Christian Identity movement and the Ku Klux Klan to the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weathermen fit the definition of terrorist--and these are just the American groups. Some terrorists are the mortal enemies of a regime, such as the IRA, the Red Brigades, or the Al Aksa Martyr's Brigade. Others are the eager allies of the government or some ruling faction, such as the infamous Arena death squads in El Salvador's recent civil war.
There is also no clear dividing line between terrorists and other kinds of combatants. As I've mentioned earlier, the same group might look like a terrorist one year, and guerrillas the next. Before the National Liberation Front (NLF) in South Vietnam became famous for being consummate jungle warriors, they started their campaign against the South Vietnamese regime with a wave of assassinations. Some groups employ terrorist and guerrilla methods at the same time, and even shift some of their efforts into conventional military operations.
If you took all these observations about terrorism together, you reach at least one important conclusion: terrorism is a combination of particular theater, operational and theater strategies. And that's all it is.
It's worth chewing on that last point for a while. Terrorism is not a particular political cause. In fact, it's not even always revolutionary. Asking, "What creates terrorists?" is therefore a lot like asking, "What made Norman Schwarzkopf adopt a maneuver strategy during DESERT STORM?" Terrorists aren't the product of a bad seed, nor are they necessarily wed to this approach for all time. Terrorism, therefore, exists because people making strategic decisions conclude that it will work--much like Allied military planners in World War II decided to emphasize maneuver over attrition, or vice-versa, at different points in the assault on Fortress Europa.
Without this perspective, it's impossible to make sense of what al Qaeda wants, and why it's willing to go to horrific extremes to get it. I recommend you read their translated handbooks, speeches, manifestos, interviews, and other statements. Terrorists like bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are not ciphers. On the contrary, they want to be understood. They're usually eager to bend your ear, telling you perhaps even more than you ever cared to hear. As Konrad Kellen, a RAND specialist in counterinsurgency who interviewed members of the Baader-Meinhoff group once told me, "That's the thing about terrorists--they just won't shut up."
Al Qaeda's grand strategy, in a nutshell, is (1) eject corrupting Western influences from Muslim nations and (2) ensure that all Muslims are subject to their version of shari'a law. What this means at the theater level, al Qaeda leaders will tell you, is cementing an Islamist revolution in a pivotal Middle Eastern country. From this base of operations (one of the reasons why they chose the name al Qaeda, which means the base in Arabic) they can then move to future phases in their campaign to mobilize and transform the Muslim world. Everything else--their hatred of the United States and Israel, the interest in finding a "friendly" country like Afghanistan or the Sudan, their fascination with the World Trade Center as the nerve center of neo-imperialism--flows from this grand and theater strategy.
Terrorists and guerrillas are both looking for a way to win a war on the cheap, since their enemies--more often than not, governments--are far more numerous and better armed than they are. The different styles of "asymmetric warfare" (a nice term that embraces both terrorism and guerrilla warfare) are, therefore, what these groups believe to be a necessary choice. At the grand and theater levels of strategy, these groups have not given up; at the operational and tactical levels, they need something that works. Centuries of successful examples, from the original Assassin cult to the PLO, provide encouragement.
Terrorism, as an operational strategy, is designed to take a particular course of action: give the Palestinians a state; get the British out of Northern Ireland; give the Basques autonomy or independence. In the terrorist's worldview, however, the reaction they want isn't necessarily something as direct as, "Here's your homeland. Please stop bombing us now." In many cases, they hope to trigger a chain of events that will lead to the desired outcome. Interestingly, to get the historical dominos falling, many terrorists hope that the enemy will overreact to a terrorist event. The Baader-Meinhoff group, for example, had an elaborate theory of how their actions would inspire a harsh political crackdown. The West German public, seeing how "the state" was not their protector, but a bloodthirsty monster, would achieve that revolutionary epiphany that generations of Marxists hoped to inspire. This idea of creating revolution out of overreaction is something common to terrorists of all political stripes, including American white supremacist groups and Japan's Aum Shinrikyo "doomsday cult."
As many people have noted, terrorism is theater. It has to be dramatic, attention-grabbing, horrific in the way nothing else can be, or else it can't compel governments to take courses of action they would normally find unacceptable. Kidnappings, assassinations, sabotage, bombings, poisoning the water supply, releasing poison gas on a subway--these are all ways to script the terrorist moment. Just as hack horror directors put hapless summer camp attendees in constant risk of being chainsawed by masked maniacs, terrorists attack innocent bystanders, not soldiers or political leaders, to ensure the maximum terror and disgust in the largest possible audience. (They take great pains to explain why the murder of innocents is morally acceptable, which is one reason why terrorist tracts go on and on. If you talk long enough, you'll hit on a few halfway arguable points, like the number of civilians killed whenever the United States bombs Iraq or Libya. You'll also talk yourself into all sorts of nonsense about how people standing in line at the airport are actually the supporters of an evil regime, thereby deserving to be cut down by automatic weapons fire.)
Guerrilla warfare has a different emphasis. Guerrillas hope to erode the political base of an enemy regime until it collapses. If the government can't provide basic security, as demonstrated by repeated guerrilla attacks on army posts, power generators, elected officials, and other targets of opportunity, why wouldn't anyone conclude that its days are numbered? Guerrillas and terrorists might use some of the tactics--sabotage, kidnappings, assassinations, etc.--but the intended outcomes are significantly different. However, if one approach doesn't work, groups will switch to the other, particularly if many of the tactics don't change. If terrorism is generating a backlash that's hurting the cause, maybe it's time to try guerrilla warfare instead.
To sum up:
Terrorism is an operational and tactical approach used by many non-governmental groups trying to defeat a more powerful opponent at the theater level. Terrorist operations--bombings, kidnappings, and the like--are designed to generate enough horror to compel the enemy to take a particular course of action.
Since this post is pretty long already, I'll keep the specific example fairly brief. In the last week, Muqtada al-Sadr's Army of the Madhi has been busy. After believing it had reached a truce with the Sadrists, American commanders are now fighting them across Iraq--in Najaf, Basra, Nasariyah, and Sadr City. What happened?
Muqtada al-Sadr may not be humanitarian of the year, but to be fair, he's no terrorist. Like many anti-American insurgents, he fits the guerrilla profile more than the terrorist one. Still, as someone fighting an asymmetric war, al-Sadr's decision to intensify the fight with the Americans illustrates an important point: our adversaries will take the strategic path of least resistance, or just the only one that isn't blocked for the moment. The Sadrists didn't see the truce as a first step towards the political prominence they felt they deserved. Given how thinly American forces are stretched, and how the American siege of Fallujah backfired politically, gambling on another uprising undoubtedly seemed like a good choice.
Back in our discussion of the initiative, we talked about how important it was to get the enemy to fight on your terms, not theirs. However, that means you have to set up a military or political situation that steers them in the direction you want. Muqtada al-Sadr only saw one course of action, and it wasn't the one US commanders wanted his group to take. Even if you think al-Sadr is a "thug," as some Administration officials have described him, why encourage him to think that acting like a thug is the only choice other than surrendering? Asymmetric warfare, the war of the flea, whatever you want to call it, is just a set of operational and tactical choices. Since we can't kill every Sadrist fighter, banish his faction from the country, and ensure that the Army of the Mahdi never regenerates, what choice is there but to find a way to knock the Sadrists into a different strategic orbit?
[I plan to say a lot more about revolutionary political violence and the Iraqi insurgency in a later post.]