I have mixed feelings about the posting of insurgent videos on YouTube. I definitely don't think it's a cut-and-dried issue, as Muninn over at Quoth the Raven implies. Here are the statements of fact and principle that amount to my own viewpoint:
Iraqi insurgent groups are using the Internet to recruit. Videos such as this one are one tool among many, which include web sites, forums, chat, and other forms of Internet communication.
YouTube is both a commercial entity and a public space. As such, it has some responsibility for the content on the site. Copyrighted material is definitely a no-no; by choice, YouTube has also decided to delete any pornography on the site.
Americans can handle graphic depictions of violence. Hell, go down to your local movie multiplex, and you'll see at least one movie that revels in carnage. If the shock value is higher when you know that you're looking at a real death, instead of a simulated one, so be it.
Americans need to see the real face of war. Not only can they handle it, they should be handling it. In other words, we should see the consequences of our decisions, instead of having them pushed off-screen by anyone from military censors to network news executives worried about "offending" the audience.
American officials need to be good at the information war. I've been worried from the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq about the US government's amateurism in this critical part of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. The result? Clumsy efforts at putting a happy face on disturbing facts, when a more honest appraisal would have won public support. The laughable "shiny, happy Muslim-Americans" video. For years, flawed efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan at fighting the information war.
The argument that, "If terrorists can post pictures and videos of carnage, the terrorists win," is false. If Americans are that easily intimidated, the US shouldn't try being a superpower. If US officials can't put images of violence in context, they're in the wrong jobs.
In a free society, you have to err on the side of openness.
Where do these bullet points lead? To at least a couple of conclusions:
If YouTube can police pornography, its employees can track the posting of insurgent videos.
These videos should be taken down when they are clearly, overtly designed to be recruitment tools for organizations currently fighting US troops.
Video of real violence is not inherently offensive. Therefore, it's entirely possible that the same scenes of sniper and IED attacks could be posted, as long as they're not tied to insurgent recruitment efforts.
Six years into the Iraq war, American officials need to win the information war without falling back on censorship. The US government can only win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by formulating coherent, convincing arguments, not squelching the enemy's communications.
I invite you to ponder that last point for a while, particularly as the debates about Iraq and Afghanistan focus on how many troops we should deploy, or how respectful we should be of Pakistan's territory.
IN THE NEWS Since I've been talking about Mao all day, I thought I'd share this YouTube video of the Chairman, complete with down-home Chinese Communist opera as the soundtrack. Worth watching for the historical value, even if the music is a bit much to take.
IN THE NEWS OK, I've officially had it with the "netwar" crowd. An interesting observation--successful guerrillas and terrorists operate in loosely-networked organizations, instead of hierarchical chains of command--has turned into a distorted view of revolutionary warfare. "Netwar" is an overstatement, a description of a trend that is not entirely new, nor is it exactly the strategy of many revolutionary groups described as "net warriors." If the United States is going to get smarter about counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, it shouldn't posit a brand new kind of warfare that may not exist.
Take, for example, the article, "Structural Vulnerabilities of Networked Insurgencies: Adapting to the New Adversary," by Martin J. Muckian, in the latest Parameters. Here's a quote from the introduction that shows exactly how far astray "netwar" thinking can lead:
The insurgent of today, however, is not the Maoist of yesterday. His organization and methods are strikingly different from his twentieth century predecessors. The modern insurgent aims to defeat his opponent by psychological warfare and terrorism instead of military action. He draws his support from criminal networks as opposed to popular mobilization. He fights a netwar not a People’s War.
Revolutionaries have been trying to win through something less than an all-out military offensive for as long as there have been revolutionaries. The Sicarii in ancient Rome, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the Jacobins and Girondists in the French Revolution, the FLN in Algeria, the Anarchists throughout 19th century Europe, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in Russia, the Nazis before 1933--these are certainly revolutionaries who were not following the Maoist programme. In fact, as you can read here, many 20th century revolutionaries sharpened a less famous, but in many cases quite successful, Leninist revolutionary strategy as distinct as the Maoist people's war.
Where Muckian really goes off the deep end is in his claim that there is some fundamental difference between Maoist and "modern" revolutionary organizations. Maoist insurgencies are, Muckian claims, hierarchical affairs, under unified command and control. In contrast, "modern" insurgencies are a whirligig of alliances among small, independent revolutionary organizations, as we see today in Iraq.
Here's the obvious flaw in Muckian's argument: China is not Iraq. We're not really comparing different revolutionary strategies, when we look at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) versus the motley Iraqi insurgent groups. We're comparing different revolutions. In one country, the revolutionaries constituted one group; in a second country, the revolutionaries are fractured into many groups. That's a difference in national circumstances, not revolutionary doctrine.
It's not even fair to say that the Chinese Civil War was a battle between two unified adversaries. The Kuomingtang (KMT) and the CCP were both, at one point, revolutionary organizations. Early in its history, the KMT switched between electoral and violent paths to power, and failed at both. Even after the KMT tried to re-organize, following Soviet advice, along more hierarchical, Leninist lines, the KMT was still riven by factionalism. Throw in the endemic "warlordism" of pre-Revolution China, and you have anything but a unified resistance to Western imperialism, or later, Japanese military invasion.
Many other revolutionaries that followed their version of "people's war" didn't follow the strict Maoist line. Castro, for example, put military operations ahead of political organization, in the hopes that "psychological warfare and terrorism" might inspire respect and support for the revolutionaries during the first phase of his foco strategy. In the Philippines, the Hukbalahap guerrillas, whom Muckian cites as an example of classic Maoist strategy, started as several different factions. Even after Luis Taruc nominally unified the entire Huk organization, some cleavages and rivalries among guerrilla commanders and groups still remained. In El Salvador, the FMLN started and ended its history as Maoist insurgents as no less than five distinct guerrilla factions.
Without having to pummel you with more examples of "Maoists" who were not completely unified, following the CCP's three-stage revolutionary strategy, I'm sure you get the point. Even Muckian's idea that there is some new, 21st-century connection between organized crime and revolutionary groups falls apart, once you take even a quick look at a few 20th-century insurgencies. (Has Muckian never heard about the FARC's connections to Colombian drug trafficking? Or the way Afghan opium exports helped the mujahideen?)
Sure, many revolutionaries have improved their ability to operate in more loose organizations, share technical information with other revolutionaries, and siphon money and intelligence through criminal connections. The evolutionary process of measure and countermeasure in revolutionary conflict has, in large part, selected for groups that have mastered these skills. That's not to say, however, that we've entered a brand new age of revolutionary "netwar."
In the 1960s, when "people's wars" were occurring on nearly every continent, anxious observers often made guerrillas into revolutionary supermen, incapable of being defeated. They had somehow mastered some new political and military voodoo, against which the United States and its allies seemed relatively powerless.
In hindsight, these concerns were unjustified--as was the image of the Guevaran Übermensch. Most of these insurgencies failed. Others that were more Leninist than Maoist (the Sandinistas, the Islamists in Iran, etc.) succeeded. Learning how to beat the Maoist strategy was important, but so too was a deep understanding of the peculiarities of a country in which the guerrillas claimed to be waging a "people's war."
The fact that the Iraqi insurgency is a bewildering collection of small groups that frequently collaborate with one another is not a sign of a scary new age of "netwar." Instead, it is a tragically botched opportunity, a situation in which the government under siege and its great power patron should have been able to capitalize, during the first years of the occupation, on the small size and relative unpopularity of the insurgents.
IN THE NEWS I'm in the middle of reading The World Turned Upside Down, historian Christopher Hill's classic study of the radical religious movements in 17th century Britain. I'm always interested in the religious dimension of revolutionary warfare, and it has been a long time since I last read Hill's book.
Often, when you read a good book again, you walk away with a different set of impressions and conclusions. This time around, I'm struck by Hill's description of how confident these groups were in their beliefs. Although they disagreed on many points, from theology (how individuals achieve salvation) to demonology (who the enemies of salvation are), they shared a common impatience with authority. At the same time that England was founding the colonies that would become the United States, the self-described beacon of liberty in the 21st century, these religious movements--the Diggers, Ranters, Levellers, Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, Seekers, and Grindletonians--were challening the entire religious, political, social, and economic order. Since many of these dissidents became American colonists, you'd be justified to say that the United States was conceived in the womb of English religious radicalism.
Even before the English Civil War, these groups were making themselves felt within British society. Quakers challenged the standard format of religious services, insisting that, after the sermon, members of the congregation should have the right to respond. Levellers believed that every Christian had the right to "prophecy" (in the original Biblical sense of calling the community to task for not ending injustices), but the congregation to which they belonged needed to act as a check against individual error. Diggers, who called themselves "the True Levellers," rejected churches altogether: Gerrard Winstanley, an influential Digger, thought that popular opinion was no less a spiritual prison than the official dictates of a hierarchical, state-controlled church. Grindletonians doubted the historical accuracy of the Bible, and even questioned whether an historical Jesus existed at all. Some Ranters had doubts about the idea of an immortal soul, and their pantheistic leanings led to a Dionysian view of the spiritual life. (If God pervades his creation, why not enjoy life to its fullest?) Some of these groups believed there should be no king, but were comfortable with Parliament; others argued that the Army (particularly Cromwell's New Model Army) was the only part of the state that could wield legitimate power. Many were indifferent to any form of government, as long as it did not try to interfere in an individual's spiritual life. Some sought to lessen or eliminate class differences, restricting the wealth and privileges of the nobility. Others believed that all property should be held in common.
These religious dissidents were fractious, noisy, and riotous. Some, like the Diggers, occupied the estates of nobles when they felt they needed to use the land for themselves. When the nobles complained, the Diggers lectured them on their religious duties to the needy. Quakers argued in public with Episcopalean authorities over basic Christian principles. Pamphleteers accused various leaders--the King, Cromwell, the Duke of Buckingham--of being the Anti-Christ, or his agents. The widespread belief that history may come to an apocalyptic close at any moment rubbed tempers raw. While you might admire the religious dissidents for their open-mindedness and confidence, 17th-century England was a trying place to live.
However, none of the apocalyptic warnings turned out to be true, including the claims of royal, noble, and episcopal claims that the dissidents were going to wreck England. The country survived, and in the long term, the English prospered from the skeptical, anti-authoritarian traditions that the Diggers, Levellers, Quakers, and others expanded beyond anything seen before. Hill repeatedly mentions how the dissidents opened the door to free scientific inquiry, challenging new forms of literature, and more inclusive politics. The dissidents also (perhaps unintentionally) re-invigorated the official Church of England. Bishops and priests had to meet the challenge of the energetic religious radicals with more than claims of authority, back with the armed might of the British monarchy.
Today, Christian orthodoxies are faced with similar challenges. Centuries ago, Baptists argued that no Christian should be baptized until it was possible to make reasoned, voluntary consent. Today, mainstream Baptists reject the idea of applying reason to matters of faith, preferring to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Centuries ago, the Catholic Church punished Galileo, not because the inquisitors believed his science was wrong, but because his scientific publications threatened the Church's claim to absolute truth. Now, the papacy has officially forgiven Galileo--though the discomfort with many scientific conclusions remains.
The challenge to these orthodoxies doesn't come merely from paleontology or evolutionary biology. Biblical archaeology is adding details to our understanding of the world in which Jesus reportedly lived that, in many cases, challenge some basic assumptions about New Testament personalities and stories. For example, recent works like Rabbi Jesus cast early Christianity in a very new and very Jewish light. Careful Biblical scholarship has revealed the ways in which the supposedly inerrant Word of God changed over the centuries, particularly when translators and scribes accidentally or deliberately altered the text.
None of the Christians I know who are interested in contemporary Biblical archaeology or scholarship have lost their faith because of these discoveries. Quite the opposite: Jesus, who had been rendered as almost an alien, unknowable being by early Greek theologians, becomes a far more comprehensible figure. Obvious problems with the Bible (see Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason for a sample list of contradictions and impossibilities) become less of a spiritual and intellectual headache to resolve when the evolution of the Bible becomes clear.
Outrage often drives revolution, but there is no outrage in the calm, deliberate work of evolutionary biologists and Biblical archaeologists. Fear often drives counterrevolution, which is perhaps why many American Christians seem to be fighting against invisible enemies to their faith. Any challenge to a brittle, ossified version of Christianity is as likely today to generate a counterrevolutionary backlash as it did in 17th century England. However, just as the threat to turn the world upside down was vastly overstated then, so too is it overstated now. We already live in an age of considerable religious conflict; we don't need to invent new religious struggles against "enemies" that don't exist, over matters as ridiculous as whether dinosaurs lived in the Garden of Eden. Christianity, the state, and the social order survived the Diggers, Levellers, Quakers, and Ranters; so, too, will they survive the questioning spirit of the 21st century.
IN THE NEWS The GWOT/GSAVE fiasco has certainly touched a terminological nerve with a lot of people. For example, Tacitus uses the Administration's shift in terminology as a springboard to discuss other words, such as war and insurgent:
Ever since April 2003, another word has also bothered me: Insurgents.
In my mind, the ex-Baathist brigades and Zarqawi-led terrorists don't
deserve such a neutral-sounding term. Since there has already been an
election and attempts will likely be made to destabilize the next one,
their illegitimacy is not captured when they're described as
"guerillas" or "insurgents". The term also doesn't well describe their
Tacitus quotes approvingly Stephen Vincent, who preferred the term death squad to describe the "insurgents":
Words matter. Words convey moral clarity. Without moral clarity, we
will not succeed in Iraq. That is why the terms the press uses to cover
this conflict are so vital.
While I sympathize with Tacitus' search for moral clarity, I actually think it may be inappropriate here. There are words for whom we're fighting, why we're fighting them, and how they fight. Not all of these words should be chosen on moral grounds. In fact, we can do ourselves a grave injustice if we confuse justifiable moral outrage with a cool appraisal of operational realities.
Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox" of the American Revolution, was a guerrilla. So was Pol Pot. Is only one morally worthy of being called a guerrilla, and the other not? Obviously, the fact that both men employed a guerrilla strategy has no moral significance one way or another. We laud Francis Marion as a military leader in a good cause, and Pol Pot in a bad one. If you don't feel comfortable using the term guerrilla to describe Pol Pot, you might as well invent a new word for firearm to describe the weapon he carried.
Insisting on a different word for guerrilla just confuses the picture, at a time when Americans need as little confusion as possible concerning our own foreign policy. Screaming Thugs! Monsters! Murderers! at pictures of Iraqi insurgents might give you a moment of needed catharsis. However, the US government doesn't need to invent a new "counter-thug" strategy to fight them. It needs to apply well-understood counterinsurgency and counterterrorism methods--the kind that would work just as well against saints as against villains. I find that comforting, since we have generations of past experience from dozens of modern internal wars that we can use.
If you need a dose of moral clarity, just add Islamist to the word guerrilla. Meanwhile, Americans seem more confused over how to defeat the al-Zarqawis of the world than whether they need to be defeated.
THEORY One reason why the "core topic" posts started with the classic theories of military strategy is their universal applicability to all types of warfare—interstate and internal, conventional and unconventional, high-intensity and low-intensity. I've already peppered the recent sections on revolutionary strategy with mentions of some of these principles, such as the initiative and the center of gravity. We've reviewed revolutionary strategy enough that we can apply another general principle, the dynamic of measure and counter-measure. Revolutionary strategy (and, by extension, organization) changes within each internal war. At the same time, revolutionaries learn from each other's examples, so revolutionary strategy in general has evolved.
Since I've spent a great deal of time distinguishing among Maoist, Leninist, and terrorist strategies, I'll cite several developments that apply to these strategies individually, as well as broader changes that apply to all of them.
General evolutions Probably the most significant development in revolutionary strategy is its increasingly international character. Nearly all internal wars now have an international theater, in which the revolutionaries and the regime battle for influence over each other. While there are still conflicts in which the international theater plays almost no role—for example, the often overlooked civil war in Morocco—even the more obscure wars have often gained more international visibility, as the combatants push their struggle onto the world stage. The conflict in East Timor, for example, quickly became an international concern, in large part due to the efforts of the Timorese separatists themselves.
It's not hard to understand why the international theater of operations is important. Both sides stand to gain or lose supplies, training, safe havens, recruits, and military intervention by foreign powers. Both sides also can attack the other side's ability to gain these benefits. The bitter public relations campaign between Sandinista and contra leaders, fought on Nightline and other American news shows, was ultimately a battle over US aid to the contra movement.
Revolutionary, internal wars and conventional, inter-state wars share another development: the increased role of private firms hired as contractors. Some of these firms are mercenaries, hired for a range of jobs from simple security (acting as bodyguards for important leaders, defending drilling rigs and mines, etc.) to combat operations. Other contractors play a host of other, non-military roles, from computer technicians to PR firms. While regimes, with more money and access to contractors, use them more widely, revolutionary groups increasingly hire their services as well.
Maoist evolutions The Maoist "war from the periphery" now has been astoundingly ubiquitous, which has given Maoist practitioners the opportunity to test and refine their methods in dozens of conflicts in the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia. As a result this revolutionary strategy has seen more distinct innovations than the other types, which have had fewer laboratories in which to improve.
Humanitarian aid. The international dimension of revolutionary warfare has created an ugly new trend in Maoism: the use of foreign aid as a weapon. In the horn of Africa especially, the regime and insurgents have blocked the delivery of food and medicine to hold entire populations hostage to their causes.
Child soldiers. An equally brutal trend is the decreasing age of combatants. Many regimes draft teens and pre-teens into military and paramilitary service. The same trend exists among many guerrilla organizations, and some insurgents have been particularly ruthless in recruiting children. Children provide cheap cannon fodder, and they can be more easily controlled than many adult recruits. Some countries have an unfortunate combination of a low average age, somewhere in the teens, and a large refugee population. For guerrilla organizations in these countries, such as Somalia, these conditions have created a large population of teen and pre-teen recruits who are already radicalized by growing up in refugee camps.
Crime. To fund the revolutionary movement, a large number of revolutionary groups have either collaborated with criminal enterprises or taken them over altogether. For example, Sendero Luminoso in Peru imposed a tax on drug manufacturing and shipment in areas they controlled. The mujahideen leaders fighting the Soviet military and Afghan Communist regime became deeply involved in the opium trade. The bloody struggle in Sierra Leone became intertwined with the illegal export of diamonds. In some occasions, guerrillas seem to have abandoned their revolutionary goals altogether, seduced by the vast profits that can be made from criminal ventures.
Front organizations. Maoists have developed rather sophisticated techniques for maintaining political front organizations. As discussed in an earlier post, the exact relationship between the military and political wings of a revolutionary movement may be hard to discern—which, for the overall guerrilla organization, can be an advantage. Political front organizations can confuse outsiders about the guerrillas' real intentions. Political fronts, which can easily transform into political parties, provide a face-saving mechanism for when guerrilla leaders decide to lay down arms as part of a negotiated settlement.
Leninist evolutions The Leninists have faded into the background as their noisier, more violent cousins have increasingly dominated the news. However, Leninists have made some important innovations in the last several decades that have increased their effectiveness.
More inclined to return to normal politics. Although warfare is supposed to be the handmaiden of politics, many revolutionary groups have a hard time giving up the fight, even if the odds of winning their political objectives are higher through non-violent means. A prime example was Yassir Arafat's decision to drop further negotiations and instead back the Al Aksa intifada. (Whatever you think of the Barak government's offer, the Palestinians have gained practically nothing through the second, more violent intifada.) However, Arafat was the exception to the rule. Most revolutionary groups, and particularly Leninist groups, have learned how to shift from the violent struggle to the negotiation table or the ballot box.
More distance from terrorists. Earlier, I was careful to delineate the critical differences between Leninist and terrorist revolutionary strategies. It can be very easy to confuse the two--which, in fact, has proven the case in both political practice and political science. Because Leninist groups don't want to be tarred with the same brush as terrorists, Leninist groups have themselves taken pains to demonstrate where they part company with terrorists. For example, some Chechen separatist groups condemn terrorist operations like the Beslan incident, even though they still believe in violent action against Russian occupiers.
Greater comfort with international audiences. While nearly all contemporary revolutionaries carry their fight to the international political theater, some do it with greater skill than others. Leninist groups in particular have proven more successful, on average, than Maoists or Leninists. For example, the Sandinistas, both in and out of power, were some of the most impressive media warriors in the last fifty years. In contrast, Al Qaeda's plan to intimidate the United States through the 9/11 attacks backfired. Rather than dropping support for the Saudi Arabian and Egyptian regimes, the United States moved swiftly to topple the Taliban regime and eject Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from most of Afghanistan. Since Leninists have an urban focus, putting them more in contact with global culture and media, they understand international politics better than other types of revolutionaries.
In toto, the strategic innovations terrorist have made in the last four decades have dark consequences. Terrorist attacks are deadlier and more difficult to prevent, and terrorists groups have become harder to eradicate.
Shift to soft targets. An increasingly smaller percentage of terrorist organizations pick government targets for an obvious reason: they are better defended than civilians. Kidnapping or assassinating a government official also generates less terror than targeting an innocent bystander. The trend, therefore, has been away from a mix of Leninist and terrorist tactics towards a purely terrorist strategy.
Suicide attacks. One of the most obvious changes in terrorist strategy is the increased reliance on suicide attacks. One of the chief problems for terrorist planners was determining the escape route after a kidnapping, hijacking, or bombing. Suicide attacks eliminate that part of an operation, making it easier to plan more operations and execute them more successfully.
Increasing casualties. Overall, the number of casualties per terrorist incident has increased. Suicide attacks have contributed to this trend, as have refinements in the methods for acquiring, building, and detonating explosive materials. The 9/11 attacks were only the most tragic example of another innovation, turning airplanes into weapons. Following this line of terrorist thinking, there are equally creative ways in which subway trains, above-ground trains, ships, and other vehicles might be used as tools of mass execution. What has not occurred—perhaps not surprisingly—is the successful use of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. The technical expertise, raw materials, manufacturing equipment, and delivery mechanisms for unconventional weapons are hard to acquire. Since terrorists can achieve their goals with C-4 and box cutters, they don't need to make these costly, risky investments.
Networks, not bureaucracies. Although Al Qaeda has taken the transformation to a network further than most other terrorist groups, it's not the only one that has concluded that hierarchical, centrally-directed terrorist organizations are more vulnerable than amorphous, decentralized networks.
These days, the United States is primarily interested in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. While the Reagan Administration experimented with an aggressive "proinsurgency" doctrine in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, the traditional goal of the United States in internal wars is (1) allied regimes against revolutionary organizations, or (2) the suppression of anti-government forces within US territory.
What does this emphasis on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism mean for US foreign policy? While you can't surrender the initiative in any type of warfare, you really can't lose it in a species of conflict that mutates nearly every year. US strategy, therefore, must deal with terrorists as they fight today and tomorrow.
The most important counterterrorism tool the US government doesn't yet have is not a change to the wiretapping laws, a reorganization of the Homeland Security bureaucracy, or a new fleet of Blackhawk helicopters. Instead, it's a combination of human intelligence, about which we've all heard a great deal, and better "red team" thinking, about which we've heard very little. To anticipate the next evolution of revolution, we need accurate, timely information on what revolutionaries are doing right now. We also need to give the people who put themselves in the mind of the enemy the latitude, respect, and resources they deserve. Operationally, you find these people in the intelligence agencies doing analysis, in crisis simulations playing the part of the "red team," and in the military's combat commands speculating on the next move of Al Qaeda, the FARC, and the Sudanese militias. They're also the people who often give their superiors unwelcome advice—unwelcome, perhaps, because they more closely approximate what the real enemy will do than a scripted exercise.
The other change, at a broader level, is cultural, not bureaucratic. If the 9/11 attacks "changed everything," then Americans have to stop living as though their own culture is the only one worth understanding. Americans are astonishingly parochial, with poor foreign language skills and often no experience traveling or living abroad. If the country, not just a segment of the executive branch, is really at war, then this generation's version of the scrap metal drive or victory garden may be a better education in the history and culture of the Muslim world. In a democracy, we can only hold our leaders accountable for success in counterterrorism if we have some idea what it takes to stop people from joining, supporting, or tolerating terrorist groups who may attack American targets. Read a book on the topic. Visit your local mosque. Invite a Muslim acquaintance or co-worker to lunch.
While I just railed against American insularity, this education involves a small amount of self-examination. In the last four years, the term "terrorism" has become synonymous with foreign terrorists. That's a dangerous oversight, since there are other potential Timothy McVeighs in our midst. We need to face the nature and scope of domestic terrorism, and at the same time glean whatever insights into Osama bin Laden that Timothy McVeigh can provide.
THEORY One of the less appreciated topics in military affairs is the relationship between organization and strategy. Ideally, strategy should dictate organization; in reality, organization to some degree dictates strategy. In 1965, the United States Army in Vietnam tried fighting the conflict for which it was best prepared, a war of maneuver in that emphasized finding, fixing, and finishing a conventional enemy. By 1968, the Army was forced to fight the war it actually faced—a moment of truth that required painful adjustments.
Revolutionaries strike their own balances between strategic and organizational requirements. The three types of revolutionary strategy discussed so far—Maoist, Leninist, and terrorist—result in very distinctive types of organization. In fact, the structure of a revolutionary group is often a better guide to its real doctrine than its own doctrinal statements, which often are intentionally or unintentionally misleading. Al Qaeda may borrow the rhetoric of Maoist-like groups, depicting mass uprisings against corrupt governments. However, the Al Qaeda organization looks nothing like a Maoist political and military structure—and it never will, as long as it pursues a terrorist strategy.
Maoist organization Since Maoists plan for a long war, fought initially from the periphery, they need to create their own shadow government and army. Maoist groups have a well-organized political structure, often with a party at its core to which administrative units are subordinate from the national to the regional and local levels. The political arm needs to provide basic services (water, food, medicine, education, and so forth), as well as ensure the political aims of the revolution (indoctrination, recruitment, etc.). Meanwhile, the military effort needs to maintain a field army capable of sustaining a long campaign in which the revolutionaries will nearly always be vastly outnumbered and outgunned. It needs a permanent organization of general-purpose guerrillas, plus specialized units such as combat engineers, anti-aircraft gunners, snipers, and assassination teams.
Maoists use their military arm to raid military and police outposts, keep the enemy army spread thin (and therefore ineffective nearly everywhere), sabotage the government's physical and administrative infrastructure, and create liberated zones where guerrilla units can regroup, re-supply, and re-equip as needed. Military action slowly erodes the government's ability to govern, a vast undertaking that requires a large military and political effort.
In theory, the party (or, often, an alliance of parties) is the core of the entire organization. Frequently, however, the military wing is the peer or superior of the political wing. It can be difficult to discern the real relationship between the political and military arms, since any political organization that operates overtly needs to appear independent of the military wing. The complexity and opacity of the political-military relationship often complicates peace negotiations. If you agree to talks with the political arm—for example, Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, or the FDR in El Salvador's civil war—it can be hard to determine if you're negotiating with real decision-makers or powerless spokesmen.
Leninist organization Leninist groups clearly emphasize political over military methods, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the political leaders are actually in charge. Leninist organizations occasionally build shadow governments, but not for the same reasons as Maoists. Leninists construct an alternate government that can replace the existing regime immediately after it falls. Maoists, of course, need an operational government much earlier, to replace the regime in "liberated zones." Political organization, for Leninists, is often the arm of decision, not administration. Political action— alliances with other anti-regime groups, strikes, demonstrations, riots, samizdat, infiltration, and so forth—is to Leninist strategy what hit-and-run raids on military outposts are to Maoists.
In other words, Leninists have a military wing, but it focuses on different kinds of operations, with different political outcomes in mind. Sabotage, assassination, and kidnapping may look like terrorist acts, but they're not. The target is the government, and the objective is a demonstration of its vulnerability. Military action also demonstrates the potency of the revolutionaries to other groups opposed to the regime, making it more attractive to build alliances with them. Over time, the political balance of power may shift to the point where the regime crumbles. At that point, the Leninists will be well positioned to shoulder aside the other groups that helped topple the regime (and may, in fact, ultimately deserve far more credit than the Leninist faction).
Since Leninists are trying to ignite and direct a political firestorm, with the collapse of the regime as its goal, they too need a large organization to succeed. At times, the people with guns may still be the ones with real power within the revolutionary organization, even though they don't command a large army the way Maoist military leaders do. The discipline, ruthlessness, and armament of the Leninist military leaders nonetheless give them a great deal of leverage—which is why the political leaders usually take measures to control the military wing from the very beginning. For example, a political officer may be attached to every military unit, and political leaders may be required to approve any military operation.
Terrorist organization Terrorist organizations look much different than Maoist and Leninist revolutionary groups. There is a division between political and military arms, but not much of one. Often, the leaders of cells and the overall organization manage both political and military action; their subordinates are the ones who have more specialized responsibilities.
Political action is often far more limited, requiring a much smaller effort. Like Leninists, terrorists are eager to use mass communications to transmit revolutionary messages. They share, with the Leninists, the need to recruit new members, craft a revolutionary doctrine, police the orthodoxy of their own members, and gather intelligence on the enemy. Unlike Leninists, terrorists emphasize military action—which, again, follows far different lines than Maoist and Leninist strategies. Terrorists use violence—bombings, kidnappings, assassinations—to generate terror within a broad population. To achieve this goal, terrorists need only a small number of operations, each carried out by a small number of operatives. (Compare the 19 hijackers who executed the 9/11 attacks to the 10,000 or more members of the FARC guerrilla movement in Colombia.) Therefore, terrorist organizations are much smaller than Maoist or Leninist groups.
Secrecy also keeps terrorist organizations small. Terrorists therefore operate in networks or cells, each focused on a particular region or type of target. For example, a cell may operate in one city, and perhaps even just one district or neighborhood. Branches of an international terrorist network like Al Qaeda might focus on particular countries, such as Egypt or the United States, or particular types of operations, such as attacks on airliners. Every cell or branch is constantly evading the police, since every one of its actions (acquiring explosives, recruiting suicide bombers, planning an attack) is illegal.
Terrorist groups, therefore, are structured more like organized crime families than other revolutionary organizations. Small, secretive, and disciplined, terrorists and Mafiosi alike use violence to generate fear. They recruit and train specialized operatives, but the mullah or capo at the top of the organization controls all activities, as do the leaders of each cell or branch. A terrorist leader may look forward to a day when an enemy regime collapses, just as a mafia don may anticipate a day when the police are so corrupt or ineffective that he can operate in total freedom. Meanwhile, daily operations have less ambitious goals: the maintenance of the small, secretive, and violent organization itself, and the continued generation of terror.
The size of the group also depends on who the enemy is. Terrorists focused on an occupying power can blur the distinctions between the foreign government and its equally foreign population. The more ethnically, linguistically, or religiously different the occupying power is, the easier it is to lump the enemy regime and population together as one alien Other. Terrorists fighting their own government, on the other hand, are deliberately blowing up, shooting, or kidnapping civilians like themselves. The terrorist group shrinks in proportion to the level of disgust it inspires—which is greater when you attack your fellows, instead of a foreign population.
PRACTICE There are a lot more details worth discussing about each model of revolutionary organization, but this is a good point to stop and take note of how to use these models in practice. These are Max Weber's ideal types—ideal only in Plato's sense of the word. Each is a template that shapes revolutionary organizations. In reality, no revolutionary organization follows the template completely. To make the picture even messier, revolutionaries often mix strategies, which requires a hybrid organization. However, the more a group stresses a strategy, the more it needs a particular type of organization. The revolutionaries can adapt, moving closer to the organizational type best suited to their own strategy, or they can fail. Often, they adapt simply by splintering.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is a good case in point. In its early days, the IRA under leaders like Michael Collins was a predominantly Leninist organization. The 1916 Easter Rising, for example, was a classic Leninist moment: the disciplined revolutionaries, in alliance with other anti-regime groups, sought to create a political crisis centered on the capital, Dublin. Violence had its role, directed against the British government and its agents in Ireland. While the movement had its more militant strain, as exemplified by John Connolly, it was neither Maoist nor terrorist.
While Ireland gained its independence, Northern Ireland remained firmly in the grip of the British. The violent events of the 1960s and 1970s accelerated the already centrifugal forces at work within the IRA, which ultimately split along doctrinal lines. The Provisional IRA (or "Provos") focused on attacking targets outside Northern Ireland, primarily within England. Their list of targets expanded from British civilian and military officials to include civilians, often the primary victims of car bomb attacks. In contrast, the "Original IRA" abandoned military operations altogether, pinning its hopes on a well-organized mass movement. In the 1980s, the Continuity IRA broke from the Provos over the question of whether Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, should hold seats in the Irish Parliament. Later, the Real IRA, which opposed the 1998 "Good Friday" agreement, broke away from the Provos to continue its own terror campaign. And these are just the biggest groups; other, smaller groups, sometimes appropriating the names of the larger factions, still exist.
The IRA case shows clearly how strategy drives organization. The more different factions pursue a terrorist strategy, the harder it is to remain part of a larger Leninist organization. The factions least troubled by targeting civilians are also the smallest groups—sometimes to the point where they can only sustain themselves financially through bank robberies and other crimes.
How has the British government fought these groups? Of course, the British Army has been an extremely visible part of the civil war in Northern Ireland. (In fact, the IRA has turned the British solder patrolling a Belfast street into the symbol of the British occupation.) However, the British military effort has, obviously, not been a conventional military operation. It has its paramilitary dimensions, particularly around population security. When going on the offense against the IRA factions, the British military has worked with the police, courts, and intelligence services to monitor and infiltrate the IRA, capture and prosecute its members, and over time, dismantle its organization piece by piece. It resembles the FBI's campaign against Al Capone more than the US/South Vietnamese war with the Viet Cong.
Last week's attacks in London underline this point. Whatever merits the British deployment in Iraq has, it did not stop a terrorist cell from killing approximately 50 civilians and shutting down the center of London. You may hear people sneer at the statement, Counterterrorism is primarily a police effort. Often, these are people with little or no experience in stopping terrorists attacks, or capturing terrorists after the fact. Counterterrorism does involve parts of the government that normally look beyond the nation's borders, such as the intelligence services, and often elite units, such as Germany's GSG-9 or Britain's SAS, for particular operations (usually rescue missions or raids). The other 90 percent or more of counterterrorism devolves into what you might call a police investigation—albeit one against the toughest kind of criminal, a well-organized, highly secretive, and undoubtedly ruthless organization.
THEORY As I discussed in the last "theory and practice" post, the deliberate targeting of innocent bystanders separates terrorist methods from other revolutionary techniques. Terrorism is more than just a choice of tactical methods, however. If you threaten, kidnap, and murder civilians as your preferred approach to overthrowing a regime, you need an argument at the higher levels of strategy that justifies the otherwise unjustifiable—at least in your own mind. Since my whole purpose for writing this blog is to make a small contribution towards the defeat of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, I goes without saying that I do not believe that terrorism is justified. It is, however, vital to understand their own thinking, if for no other reason than to make educated guesses at what their next steps may be.
The point of terrorism is terror. That statement may sound like a truism, but it's easy to lose track, in the confusion of daily events, what terrorist groups are trying to achieve. Terrorists do not need to inflict casualties at the scale of the 9/11 attacks to generate terror. Sustained violence, in which only a handful of people are affected in each attack, is often sufficient to create a gnawing sense of unease about your own personal safety, mixed with a bleak outlook about the collective future. Creating that state of mind is the first in a chain of events that terrorist hope to initiate.
Where it goes from there depends on the terrorist group. For terrorists fighting a foreign power, and therefore targeting that nation's population, the chain of events is relatively simple: make the enemy's citizens so tired of being constantly afraid for life and limb that they compel their government to withdraw. These attacks are also supposed to inspire hope among the occupied that, even in the face of a powerful foe, people can fight back. This, of course, is the strategy of the Al Aksa Martyr's Brigade and Hamas against the Israelis, the IRA campaign against the British, and the Chechen and Irgun terrorists against their Russian occupiers. This strain of terrorism is partisan warfare that has gone down a particularly ugly road, attacking civilians instead of government and military officials, that the French maquis and other WWII partisan groups never took.
When there is no foreign occupier, the logic of terrorism becomes a bit more tortured. In these cases, terrorists emphasize the effects of the government's response to terrorist attacks, not the attacks themselves. For example, the Red Army Fraction believed they were forcing the West German government into a general police crackdown. Arbitrary searches, arrests, and surveillance would reveal the state as the monster it truly was, igniting "revolutionary consciousness" among people who otherwise believed the lie that the capitalist state was on their side. Other Marxist terrorist groups, such as the Symbionese Liberation Army, have believed in similar revolutionary timelines.
So, too, have non-Marxist groups, such as Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese "doomsday cult" that released the nerve gas sarin in a crowded Tokyo subway. In Aum Shinrikyo's scenario, the Japanese government, in a panic, would blame foreign governments (probably North Korea or China) for the attack. Since Japan's ally, the United States, would be dragged into the ensuing international crisis, the stage was set for the nuclear apocalypse that Aum Shinrikyo hoped would result. If the governments involved didn't stumble into nuclear war themselves, perhaps another poison gas attack might do the trick.
All of these scenarios sound bizarre and convoluted—because they are. Terrorist strategy is born out of a dangerous combination of desperation and grandiosity. In their minds, terrorists face an ultimate foe—an unbeatable foreign occupier, the forces of international capitalism, the earthly manifestation of evil. According to this line of thinking, only the terrorists now stand against this enemy; other groups, following "normal" means, have already failed. The Arab elite failed to stop the Israeli victories in 1967 and 1973. American politicians failed to check the spread of the UN's plans for a new world order. Northern Ireland is still part of Great Britain. Terrorists therefore need a theory of why they stand alone in resistance to the enemy, as well as what justifies the most morally repugnant methods imaginable.
While people often use the terms terror, terrorism and terrorist far too loosely, there are occasional parallels sometimes drawn between revolutionary terrorists like Al Qaeda and would-be practitioners of terror within governments. For example, in the 1930s, a small group of military thinkers—most prominently, Italy's General Giulio Duohet—argued that the new weapon of airpower should primarily target the enemy's population. By inspiring fear and hopelessness through terror attacks from the skies, they argued, countries could conclude wars more quickly and successfully than if airpower were used as an adjunct to ground or naval operations.
When the war broke out, the airpower theorists never saw their ideas ever fully put into practice. Some experiments occurred: the firebombings of German and Japanese cities; the Luftwaffe's bombing of London and other cities during the Battle of Britain; the V-1 and V-2 attacks on British population centers; and, of course, the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. In all cases, airpower failed as a terror weapon. Except for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, terror bombings had little or no effect—and sometimes the opposite, stiffening instead of weakening resistance. Japan was already on its last legs in August 1945, so the major argument behind using the A-bomb was the avoidance of further American casualties. (Whatever you think of other possible motives, the high casualty rates in the amphibious invasions of Saipan, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and other Japanese island fortresses weighed heavily in the A-bomb decision.)
In fact, terrorism has a similar record of failure. In no country have terrorists engineered a mass uprising against the state, or any other chain of events that, according to the terrorists' own thinking, was supposed to lead to a revolution. Terrorists have also fared poorly against foreign occupiers. The Israelis still occupy the Occupied Territories; ETA hasn't compelled Spain to grant the Basques independence; the negotiations over Northern Ireland future happened because of "war weariness," combined with a general disgust with both Catholic and Protestant militants.
It's even less surprising, therefore, that terrorists—the ones who truly depend on terrorist tactics—strain to make themselves sound credible. It's also why terrorist groups generally remain small. During an internal shake-up within Al Qaeda before its leadership moved to Afghanistan, the most militant core—the one ready to attack both the "near" and "far" enemies simultaneously—was happy to see its fainter-hearted brethren go. Terrorists may try to justify themselves to outsiders and potential recruits, but they don't tolerate misgivings within their own ranks.
If they can't invent a convincing story about ultimate victory, terrorists often fall back on the gesture of defiance as its own justification—regardless of the gesture's consequences. It's another form of anti-politics, in which the act of "doing something" is more important than engineering a political outcome.
PRACTICE Before the 9/11 attacks, people who studied terrorism professionally, had reached a consensus that sounded something like this:
Terrorists are distinct from other practicioners of political violence, both in their methods and the characteristics of their organizations.
Terrorists target civilians to maximize the terror they can generate from each attack, out of proportion to the size of the terrorist organization or the actual number of casualties inflicted. (Hearing that ten soldiers were killed is a bit different than hearing ten doctors and nurses were killed.)
Although you couldn't make terrorists go away by ignoring them, you could deny them a victory by muting the volume of terror they generated. A common theme of terrorism scholarship was, Terrorism is a form of political theater. The natural conclusion was, Avoid getting tricked by cheap theatrics.
It should be easy to understand, therefore, why people like me believe the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded alert system is counter-productive. So, too, is the sloppy way the Administration uses to describe Al Qaeda as an enemy. Every measure we take to cold-bloodedly dismantle the Al Qaeda network is a victory for the United States. Every bit of terror that gets amplified is a tactical or operational victory for them. Ultimately, Al Qaeda may not ever defeat either the "near" or "far" enemy. Meanwhile, we shouldn't be abetting their smaller-scale successes.
THEORY Mao distilled a strategy for waging revolutionary from the periphery of a society that, to be honest, borrowed many bits and pieces from generations of revolutionaries who preceded him. Mao's prominence as a revolutionary thinker owes a great deal to how vividly and compellingly he pulled the old and new pieces into a direct, muscular, and credible formula for toppling an ancient regime. While other revolutionary movements had leaders who spoke eloquently about what to do after the seizure of power, almost none of them have the clarity and simplicity of Mao's works on how to make the old regime collapse. One of the strongest candidates is Lenin, so an important strain of revolutionary doctrine is fairly called Leninist.
Before getting into the details of the "Leninist" strategy, it's important to note how I'm using the term. Not all "Leninists" in the broad way I'm using the term are Marxists. Many Leninist groups, including some contemporary Islamic revolutionaries, despise Marxism. However, these groups would like to re-create an iconic revolutionary moment, Lenin's arrival at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg, in their own terms.
The Leninist approach attacks the centers of power directly. Where Maoists fight a war rooted in the countryside, Leninists wage their struggle in the cities—often, the capital. In this respect, theorists of revolution mirror the differences among theorists of conventional warfare. Where some, like Basil Liddell-Hart, advocate the "indirect approach," probing the enemy's weaker areas and circumventing the tough defenses surrounding the most valuable objectives, others argue for a direct assault on the enemy's "center of gravity." Strategic surprise is important, as are any other methods (mass attack, attrition, etc.) that can crack open or wear down the defenses around these vital objectives. For example, Grant finally succeeded where his predecessors as commander of the Army of the Potomac failed because he was willing to grab Lee's Army of Northern Virginia by the throat and not let go. He was willing to take horrendous casualties at the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor that might have led other Union generals to resign. Grant held on, attacking hammering at the Confederate Army until it could no longer defend the Confederacy. This strategy had nothing of the indirect approach in it. Similarly, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution carried out a sustained political assault against the Tsar's autocracy, and then later, the short-lived coalition governments. They didn't always fight in the open, manning the barricades or leading mass demonstrations. However, unlike the Maoist strategy of slowly bleeding the regime's lifeblood away through a thousand tiny cuts, the Russian revolutionaries went straight for the jugular.
As I wrote earlier, many revolutionary organizations try to ride a general crest of dissatisfaction with the old regime. The Bolsheviks, Jacobins, Sandinistas, and Iranian Islamists all succeeded this way. The broadly-felt outrage against the regime lead to its collapse; in the confusion afterwards, the disciplined, organized, and motivated radicals seize power. In short, Leninist-style revolutionaries depend on alliances with other groups to topple the regime, and then happily turn on their former allies. Where Maoists see the revolution triumph with a final, massive assault on the regime, the Leninists see the moment of triumph as a putsch.
This pattern might explain why the writings of many "Leninists" often emphasize revolutionary consolidation. Where Maoists assume they have already won the allegiance of a broad segment of the population, the Leninist revolutionary vanguard cannot.
In other words, the theater and operational levels of strategy look very different between Maoist and Leninist approaches. The tactical and technical methods, however, may be very much the same. Organizing secret revolutionary cells, publishing propaganda, assassinating government leaders, and building political alliances through front organizations, are all tactical measures that Maoists and Leninists share. The higher levels of strategy that these tactical methods serve look very different.
During the 1960s, the doctrinal debates among Maoists and Leninists led to the creation of a term, urban guerrilla, that has created confusion ever since. The problem isn't figuring out the distinction between Maoist and Leninist strategies, which could not be more obvious. The confusion arose because of a matter of timing with a parallel historical development, the literally explosive emergence of terrorist groups in the Middle East and Europe. Were the Tupemaros in Uruguay and the Black September terrorists who slaughtered the Israeli Olympic team both urban guerrillas. In other words, were all urban guerrillas just terrorists by another name? For many in the thick of these tumultuous and frightening events, the answer was, Yes, of course. In hindsight, I think the answer should be, Clearly not.
Assassination, kidnapping, and sabotage are tactical methods shared by terrorists and urban guerrillas. The critical difference—again, driven by the operational,theater, and grand strategic levels—is the choice of targets. Urban guerrilla warfare uses these methods against the regime. Anyone who is a government official, police officer, or uniformed member of the armed forces is a fair target. Innocent bystanders are not.
People who adopt terrorist methods, deliberately attacking the population, have a distinct revolutionary strategy in mind. By necessity, they also have a completely different justification for their revolutionary methods than Leninist urban guerrillas. Holding airline passengers hostage, detonating bombs in train stations, spraying diners at a restaurant with automatic weapons fire—in the minds of terrorist strategists, these are practically necessary to meet their revolutionary objectives. The terrorist theorists believe attacks on the most innocent will trigger a chain of events that will lead more quickly and effectively to victory than scrupulously limiting the target list to representatives of the enemy government. Urban guerrillas, by and large, have rejected these methods as morally repugnant, or just practically counter-productive.
It's worth remembering here the critical distinction between terrorist groups and terrorist methods. We call Al Qaeda a terrorist organization because of its reliance on terrorist methods. However, other groups less clearly definable as "terrorists" occasionally attack innocent bystanders. For example, the National Liberation Front started its revolutionary struggle against the South Vietnamese government by assassinating police, military, and civilian officials. The regular killing of village and district chiefs was a trademark tactic of the NLF. However, the NLF also shelled villages with mortars and rockets, clearly a step over the line into terrorist methods. As I noted in earlier posts about revolutionary violence, revolutionary groups shift tactics. Except in the most obvious cases, the debates over which group deserves the terrorist label is usually pointless. At an academic level, there's no standard for how many terrorist attacks you have to commit before becoming a bona fide terrorist. At a practical level, we're trying to stop terrorist attacks altogether, regardless of who's executing them.
PRACTICE Since this post is pretty long already, I won't weigh down the Practice section with too many words. This description of the Leninist revolutionary strategy is obviously applicable the Iraqi civil war and other contemporary conflicts. It should also be pretty obvious why I express constant frustration about how the American press and the US government depict the Iraqi insurgency, as if it were a single enemy with unified goals and methods. It is not. There is no "Iraqi insurgency." There are several groups, all of whom have seized the opportunity to fill a power vacuum with their own political ambitions. In other words…
Not every attack on Iraqi police and military recruits is a terrorist attack.
Not every group fighting the current Iraqi government would approve of suicide bombings that deliberately target civilians.
Not every group that wants to compel the United States to withdraw from Iraq seeks a revolution in its aftermath.
Not every alliance of different political factions is sustainable, if "Leninists" (in my broad meaning of the term) lurk within their ranks.