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Terrorist Strategy 101

 
A quiz.

Doug Muder
9 November 2004

Instructions. For Questions 1 and 2, assume you are a violent extremist. In other words, there is some issue or collection of issues – it doesn't really matter what at this stage – for which you are willing to take up arms and kill people, even innocent people.

Question 1: What is the first and biggest obstacle between you and victory?

If you answered “People on the other side of my issue,” go sit in the corner. That answer is completely wrong. If you assume terrorists think that way, everything they do will seem like total insanity.

The first and biggest obstacle to your victory is that the vast majority of the people who sympathize with your issue are not violent extremists. They may agree with you in principle. They may even sound like violent extremists late at night over their beverage of choice. But when the hammer comes down, they won't be there. They aren't cowards, they aren't collaborators, but (like Dick Cheney during the Vietnam War) they have other priorities. There are weeds in the garden and final exams coming up and deadlines at the office. Good luck with that car bombing. Call me next time, maybe things will have settled down by then.

Most people, most of the time, just want to get along. They'll accept a little inconvenience, ignore a few insults, and smile at people they hate if it allows them to get on with their lives. Most people on both sides of your issue just wish the issue would go away. If you're not careful, those apathetic majorities will get together and craft a compromise. And where's your revolution then?

So your first goal as a violent extremist is not to kill your enemies, but to radicalize the apathetic majority on your side of the issue. If everyone becomes a violent extremist, then you (as one of the early violent extremists) are a leader of consequence. Conversely, if a reasonable compromise is worked out, you are a nuisance.

Question 2: In radicalizing your sympathizers, who is your best ally?

No points awarded for “the media” or “sympathetic foreign governments.” In radicalizing your apathetic sympathizers, you have no better ally than the violent extremists on the other side. Only they can convince your people that compromise is impossible. Only they can raise your countrymen's level of fear and despair to the point that large numbers are willing to take up arms and follow your lead. A few blown-up apartment buildings and dead schoolchildren will get you more recruits than the best revolutionary tracts ever written.

Perversely, this means that you are the best ally of the extremists on the other side. That doesn't mean you love or even talk to each other – they are, after all, vile and despicable demons. But at this stage in the process your interests align. Both of you want to invert the bell curve, to flatten out that big hump in the middle and drive people to the edges. That's why extremists come in pairs: Caesar and Pompey, the Nazis and the Communists, Sharon and Arafat, Bush and Bin Laden. Each side needs a demonic opposite in order to galvanize its supporters.

Naive observers frequently decry the apparent counter-productivity of extremist attacks. Don't the leaders of Hamas realize that every suicide bombing makes the Israelis that much more determined not to give the Palestinians a state? Don't they understand that the Israeli government will strike back even harder, and inflict even more suffering on the Palestinian people? Of course they do; they're not idiots. The Israeli response is exactly what they're counting on. More airstrikes, more repression, more poverty – fewer opportunities for normal life to get in the way of the Great Struggle.

The cycle of violence may be vicious, but it is not pointless. Each round of strike-and-counterstrike makes the political center less tenable. The surviving radical leaders on each side energize their respective bases and cement their respective holds on power. The first round of the playoffs is always the two extremes against the center. Only after the center is vanquished will you meet your radical counterparts in the championship round.

Question 3: What is Bin Laden's ultimate goal?

This is an easy one. Bin Laden has been very explicit: He wants a return of the Caliphate. In other words, he wants a re-unified Islamic nation stretching from Indonesia to Morocco, governed by leaders faithful to the Koran.

This goal is quite popular in the Islamic world. The Muslim man-in-the-street knows his history: When the Dar al-Islam was unified, it was the most feared empire in the world. Baghdad, the home of the Caliph, was the center of civilization, leading the world in learning and artistry as well as power. Europe may well have lost its classical heritage if Muslim libraries hadn't preserved Greek manuscripts through the Dark Ages. Just about any English word beginning with al refers to an Islamic invention: algebra, algorithm, alchemy, and even alcohol (which was an Arabian process for distilling perfumes long before the West started using it to make hard liquor). Who wouldn't want that back?

Well, for starters, the current rulers of the two dozen or so nations of the Dar al-Islam wouldn't want the Caliphate back. They've got a cushy deal and they know it: They run a very profitable gas station for the West. Keep the people in check, keep the price of oil low enough not to wreck the Western economies, don't piss off the United States badly enough to bring the troops in, and they're set.

These leaders are Bin Laden's near enemies. (That list of near enemies included Saddam Hussein before his overthrow.) The far enemy is the power that backs them all up: the United States. (You may look askance at the assertion that the US was backing up Saddam's Iraq. But Saddam became our enemy only when he began to unite other nations (i.e., Kuwait) under his rule. In the Reagan years, when Iran was threatening to extend its boundaries at Iraq's expense, Saddam was our friend.)

Question 4: What is Bin Laden's immediate goal?

If you've been paying attention, you should get this one right: His immediate goal is to radicalize the hundreds of millions of Muslims who sympathize with the vision of a restored Caliphate, but have better things to do with their lives than join the jihad. A particular problem for Bin Laden are all the Muslims who think that they can find an acceptable place for themselves in a world order dominated by the United States.

I won't insult your intelligence by asking who his best allies are in reaching this goal: President Bush, obviously, and all of the neo-conservatives in the Pentagon who push for the most aggressive response to the terrorist threat. Also the Christian leaders like Franklin (son of Billy) Graham, who regularly denounce Islam in terms that look fabulous on Al Qaeda's equivalent of the locker-room bulletin board. John Ashcroft – and anyone else who mistreats assimilating Arabs and so convinces them that they will never really be welcome in America – is also an ally.

It doesn't matter how much they hate him or denounce his deeds; anyone who radicalizes Muslims is doing Bin Laden's work for him. President Bush may as well have been reading from an Al Qaeda script when he referred to the War on Terror as a “crusade.” Muslims know their history and know exactly what a crusade is: Christians invade and steal your land. People who didn't believe this when they heard it from Bin Laden have now heard it from the Crusader-in-Chief.

Question 5: What was the purpose of 9/11?

No points for: “To intimidate the United States into retreating from the Middle East.” If the US had immediately decided to wash its hands of the Middle East, a variety of secular gangsters like Mubarak and Musharraf and Hussein would have started fighting it out among themselves. The odds were small that an Allah-fearing Caliph would arise from such a struggle. Whether the eventual outcome would have been good or bad for the United States is debatable, but it would have been terrible for Bin Laden.

Like all attacks in the bell-curve-inverting stage, the purpose of 9/11 was to provoke a military response. Prior to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, most Muslims had never seen a direct victim of the United States. Many have claimed that the Israelis are really American proxies, and so the Palestinians are victims of America. (Some have gone so far as to claim that the Serbians were American proxies, but that was always far-fetched.) But proxies can never compete with real live American soldiers. And despite the occasional bombing of Lebanon or Syria or even Iraq, it is hard to paint the Israelis as anything more than a regional threat. Pakistanis and Indonesians may sympathize with the Palestinians in a distant sort of way, but they can't raise a credible fear of Jewish tanks rolling down the streets of Islamabad or Jakarta.

Now, thanks to President Bush and the magic of al-Jazeera, every Muslim with working eyesight has seen Muslim women and children killed or horribly disfigured by Americans. And Americans are everywhere; any one of them might be working for the CIA. American troops and ships and aircraft have a global reach. No matter where in the Dar al-Islam you may be, you could be under American attack in a matter of hours. Those screaming people on TV could be you and your family.

Question 6: What was the point of the Madrid bombing?

Trick question. The point of the Madrid bombing was exactly as it appeared: to intimidate the Spanish into taking their troops out of Iraq. And, by extension, to intimidate all the other members of Bush's coalition.

Bin Laden wants to fight Americans, because America scares his sympathizers and energizes his base. But Spaniards and Poles and Salvadorans just confuse the issue. Also, an allied presence diminishes American expense and American casualties, both of which are key to Bin Laden's strategy.

Question 7: What is Bin Laden's long-term strategy to defeat the United States?

Some people find it hard to believe that Bin Laden can even imagine that he will defeat the United States, much less that he has a plan to do so. But he believes in miracles, and he began his military career by participating in the defeat of the once-mighty Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden has been very clear about his strategy, which depends on the same principles that won the Soviet/Afghan War. In his taped message of October, 2004 he said (according to a US government translation published in the Washington Post on November 1):

All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedin to the farthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qa'ida in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note – other than some benefits to their private companies. This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we alongside the Mujahedin bled Russia for ten years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat. All Praise is due to Allah. So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.

In other words, he wants to draw well paid, lavishly supplied American soldiers into wars on his territory, where he can fight cheaply. The more American troops he can attract, the more expensive the war will be, until even the economy of the United States can no longer support it.

This idea is not new. Abu-Ubayd al-Qurashi wrote in Al-Ansar in December 2002 that Al Qaeda would imitate the Vietnamese strategy of attacking the “center of gravity” of the United States. Then, the center of gravity was American popular opinion, so the real Vietnam War was fought on television. But things have changed:

A conviction has formed among the mujahedin that American public opinion is not the center of gravity in America. ... This time it is clearly apparent that the American economy is the American center of gravity. ... Supporting this penetrating strategic view is that the Disunited States of America are a mixture of nationalities, ethnic groups, and races united only by the “American Dream,” or, to put it more correctly, the worship of the dollar, which they openly call “the Almighty Dollar.”

Currently, the Iraq and Afghan Wars together are costing the US something like $60-80 billion a year. That's a nasty load and is one reason why our national debt is sky-rocketing, but it is still within the long-term carrying capacity of the American economy. However, this level of effort is not getting the job done in either country. More American troops and American money will ultimately be needed, particularly if Bin Laden can continue to strip away our allies. If he really wants to destroy the American economy, though, Bin Laden has to widen the war into additional Middle Eastern countries.

Question 8. Why didn't Al Qaeda attack the United States before the election?

On the evening before the election, I was on a street corner waving a Kerry sign. The next guy over was waving a Bush sign. He put forward the following case: Of course Bin Laden wanted to intimidate us into leaving Iraq, of course he wanted Kerry elected, and of course he would have attacked us prior to the election if he could, but President Bush has so improved our homeland defenses and so wounded Al Qaeda that Bin Laden no longer has the ability to launch a major attack inside the United States.

Let's put aside for a moment the thought that Timothy McVeigh was no genius, so you and I could probably launch a major terrorist attack in the US if we were so inclined and sufficiently dedicated. The sign-waver's logic fails to account for Bin Laden's goals and strategy: While Bin Laden wanted Spain to leave Iraq, he wants us to stay in. He's counting on it. Moreover, President Bush is so hated in the Islamic world that he makes a perfect foil. A Kerry victory would have required a major new propaganda effort (and maybe another terrorist attack that Kerry would have to respond to).

So President Bush is keeping us safe in the following perverse manner: By following Bin Laden's script so perfectly up to this point, Bush has made another attack unnecessary. Since the purpose of 9/11 was to rile us up, Al Qaeda need not hit us again as long as we stay riled.

Question 9. What can we expect Bin Laden to do next?

As the Iraq War drags on, it is becoming less and less popular. The Afghan War is mostly out of the public view, but to the extent that it also drains American lives and money with no end in sight, it also is losing support among those who are paying attention. The memory of 9/11 is starting to fade, as years without an attack convince more and more Americans that we are safe.

All of these factors threaten Bin Laden's plans. If President Bush is tempted into pulling our troops and TV cameras out of Iraq, Bin Laden loses. He needs the United States to continue playing the Great Satan role, because there are many secular Muslims who still hope to fit into the globalized world economy. He needs an enemy to focus their fear and anger, and only the United States is up to the job.

What's more, if he is going to bankrupt the US economy, he needs a wider war. At this point the US military is stretched thin, so a wider war would require a draft or some other unpopular measure for swelling the ranks. The American public would have to be very, very riled to agree to such a thing.

All of this points in one direction: Another attack on the United States, probably within the next year. Ideally, the trail would lead back to some area where the US doesn't currently have troops, and where there is an attackable enemy. Iran is an obvious choice, if Bin Laden can engineer it. But Syria would work as well, and may be easier to manipulate. Egypt, Pakistan, and/or Saudi Arabia could fill the bill if the attack on the US were coupled with a revolution against the corresponding US-supported government. So, for example, an attack on the US coming from Pakistan could be synchronized with the assassination of President Musharraf to draw American troops into that country.

Where will he attack? The target needs to fulfill two criteria: First, it needs to be justifiable to an Islamic audience. Bin Laden's pre-election message was probably aimed at them rather than us, and was intended to pre-justify the next attack. From an Islamic point of view, Bin Laden has now pleaded with the American electorate to be reasonable, and has been rejected. Any attack that follows will seem all the more justified. Second, the next attack needs to empower Bin Laden's most aggressive enemies in the United States. He wants us to continue striking first and asking questions later.

It is probably hopeless to try to read Bin Laden's mind in enough detail to guess his exact target. (And there is always the worry that we will do his thinking for him or point out something he has overlooked.) Undoubtedly, much will depend on the opportunities that most easily present themselves. But one class of targets seems all too obvious: red-state megachurches whose leaders have made virulently anti-Islamic statements. They are relatively undefended. They are the heart of Bush's political power base, and so can be blamed for his policies. They can easily be portrayed as enemies of Islam. And, last but not least, an attack on a church would rile American hawks like nothing else.

Question 10. What can we do?

Obviously, if we have good intelligence and good police work, we can hope to catch attackers before they kill anyone. But this approach is unsatisfying, because Al Qaeda is patient, and will keep sending attackers until one gets through. To the extent that we are able to track down Al Qaeda's leaders, including Bin Laden himself, that also works in our favor. But Al Qaeda is a movement, not the work of one man or even a small inner circle. Its ideas and strategies are widely distributed. If Bin Laden's sword falls, someone will pick it up.

To a certain extent, the logic of reprisal is irresistible. Who can sit quietly while someone repeatedly hits his face, even if he knows the attacker only wants him to strike back? Ignoring one blow just invites the next. America is not a land of Quakers and Mennonites. If attacked, it is inevitable that we will respond.

However, we need not respond with overwhelming force that kills the innocent and guilty alike. It is important that we husband and cultivate the moral capital that an attack will give us, not spend it all (and then some) in an over-reaching reprisal. This was the mistake Bush made in Iraq. The world was on our side – yes, even France – when we brought down the Taliban. If we had captured Bin Laden in Tora Bora and declared ourselves satisfied, we would have gained stature, even in much of the Islamic world.

We need to realize that we play to the same audience as Bin Laden: those Muslims trying to choose between the twin dreams of the Caliphate and of finding their own place in the world economy. Anything that persuades them that the world is open to them works in our favor. Anything that closes the door on them works for Bin Laden.

Most of all, we Americans need to keep a leash on our own radicals. They are not working in our interests any more than Bin Laden is working in the interests of ordinary Muslims. The extremists on both sides serve each other, not the people they claim to represent. The cycle of attack-and-reprisal strengthens radicals on both sides at the expense of those in the middle who just want to live their lives.

In the face of the next attack, be slow to embrace radical, violent, or angry solutions. The center must hold.


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Toni Cornelissen
7 juni 2007
toni@dse.nl
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