Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Dark Side

This is the slightly overdue post about terrorist strategy from the terrorist's point of view. Not the easiest subject in the world to write about but let's get one thing clear straight away: I am fundamentally opposed to everything Islamic extremists stand for. I'm not fond of religion at the best of times but I utterly detest totalitarian religious ideologies. One of the main reasons why I'm so concerned about this stuff is because I think Bush and Blair are, unintentionally, making the problem worse.* I very much want our government's (all government's actually) to work towards eradicating Islamic extremism. To think otherwise would be just plain wrong.

So, now that's out of the way, how do the terrorists think and what are their strategies? Obviously, considerable generalisations are required for this; there are always exceptions to every rule. OK, take a deep breath because here we go.

General Brain Inspection
The one and only time I flew to the United States was in 1999. On the flight, I was given a Visa Waiver Form. This was standard practice and I believe it still is. One of the questions on the form asks if you are intending to commit terrorist acts during your stay in the US. Very clever, I thought, I can just imagine a terrorist being caught because he ticked the yes box. "Curse you evil yankees, you tricked me..." Yes, quite. Cheap shots aside, the question does demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of terrorism and terrorists. A real terrorist would never tick the yes box, not just because it would be very stupid but because a real terrorist genuinely doesn't believe that he is a terrorist. He believes he is a freedom fighter or a holy warrior or god's messenger on earth. When he ticks the no box he really isn't lying as such. He believes in his cause absolutely. This is particularly true for suicide bombers.

When Blair says that terrorists use the invasion of Iraq as an "excuse" for their actions, he is equally guilty of misunderstanding (or possibly misrepresenting) the problem. The terrorists might well be horribly twisted but their beliefs are deeply held and even more deeply felt. They really do believe that they're doing what is right. It is undoubtedly an uncomfortable fact but it must be confronted in order to understand the problem and design successful counter-terrorist strategies to combat it.

The other important point is that the terrorists are not insane in a conventional sense. I occassionally call them maniacs or nutters but that's because I want to insult them and express disapproval of their activities. The reality is that they're not mad despite the fact that they're very very wrong about almost everything. Bin Laden and his ilk, the "brains" if you will, are capable of formulating and pursuing complex long term strategies (for convenience I'll use Bin Laden to mean Islamic extremist strategists from here on in). Individual terrorist foot soldiers need to be stable and reliable enough to maintain secrecy while planning and co-ordinating their attacks. Insanity does not lend itself to these sorts of activities. If they really were mentally unstable, they'd be a whole lot easier to catch.

Sucessful Terrorist Strategies
The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him.
Sun Tzu, Art of War
The first step in planning a response to any attack is to try to understand what response the attacker was seeking or expecting to provoke. It is, apart from anything else, simple common sense. If the enemy is expecting it, they're probably also prepared for it. This doesn't necessarily mean that the sought or expected response is always the wrong thing to do but it must be understood and the decision on a response must be taken with that knowledge in mind. This applies to counter-terrorism just as it does to traditional warfare.

So, how do the terrorists want us to respond? The September 11th attacks were the defining moment of the war against terrorism so it's probably the best starting point. Bin Laden would have known that the attacks would generate widespread support for the US and revulsion towards him and his followers. This would appear to damage his ability to achieve his goals. What did Bin Laden hope to achieve when those attacks were planned and what reaction did he seek and expect to provoke? It can be split into the specific and the general.

The specific response to Bin Laden and his associates was, as we know, the attack on Afghanistan. I believe that Bin Laden made a serious error of judgement with regard to this. It's quite likely that he did expect and intend for the US to attack Afghanistan in the aftermath of September 11th. Bin Laden probably believed that the attack on Afghanistan could be resisted in the same way that he had resisted the Soviets in an earlier decade. (It's worth remembering that the Islamists believe that it was this campaign which brought down the USSR.) He wanted to ensnare the US military in a long unwinnable campaign in the inhospitable terrain of that country. This would have made the US look powerless and impotent. He would also have thought that the increasingly desperate tactics of the US, as they tried to win the war, would demonstrate his belief that they were indiscriminate killers of Muslims to those who had doubted him. In short, it was supposed to be a trap.

It didn't happen that way. He got it wrong. A combination of overwhelming military power (particularly air power) and a lack of popular support for Bin Laden and the Taleban meant that the war was relatively short. It was, I admit, even shorter than I'd expecetd. Those who had lived under the Taleban's extreme version of Islam were not, for the most part, lining up to defend it. In fact, very many Afghans were extremely glad to see them out on their unholy arses. It was an error of judgement from Bin Laden which could have put the US and its allies in a very strong position. Afghanistan could have been the focus of the battle for hearts and minds; democratic reforms, humanitarian assistance and reconstruction of the country could have severely damaged Bin Laden's "America hates Muslims" propaganda campaign. While these things are slowly progressing, they have been overshadowed by events elsewhere.

The general response to the attacks put paid to the potentially very strong position of the Us and its allies. Bin Laden and his cronies, I've no doubt, understand how this works. The best way to explain it is probably with an analogy. Imagine that all Muslims are represented by 1,000 people packed together in a large hall. A very small number of them are terrorists. A slightly larger number are sympathisers who know who the terrorists are. A slighly larger number again have some sympathy with the terrorists but don't have any involvement with them. A larger number again agree with the grievances of the terrorists but do not support the tactics they use to pursue their aims. The rest don't support the terrorists in any way shape or form. It is impossible to easily tell who belongs in which category. Successful counter-terrorism involves getting the terrorists out of the crowded hall without pissing off everyone else. It is very difficult. Heavy hands are not likely to be useful. The danger is that you'll end up with a room full of very angry people who think you're a vicious indiscriminate thug who hates everyone there. What is needed is an intelligence driven, highly targetted response. Slip in quietly, find those you're now sure are the terrorists and get them out of the hall while causing as little disruption to everyone else as is humanly possible. Absolutely do not target those who are not involved in terrorism, even unintentionally. Word of this sort of behaviour will travel very quickly.

Bin Laden would have known that the US does not have a great record at this sort of quiet but firm response. He'd have known that the nature of the attacks of September 11th would most likely provoke an attitude of suspicion and distrust towards every person in the hall. He'd have known that this, in turn, would generate resentment among Muslims and add weight to his rhetoric of "evil America". Again, it's worth remembering that he believes this to be true. His intention is to provoke the US into dropping the front he believes it maintains and show it's true colours. In this, he got exactly what he wanted. And more.

The US and others launched an attack on Iraq as part of the "war" on terror. Muslims all over the world knew that Bin Laden wasn't in league with Saddam and began to question the motives of the US government. They'd understood Afghanistan, even if they hadn't explicitly supported it, but Iraq was another matter. All of a sudden, Bin Laden's claim that the US was intent on waging a war against Muslims started to look more credible. And the fact that the stated reasons for the invasion were, in the end, wholly unfounded only added to that feeling. Bin Laden probably hadn't expected or planned that but he wouldn't have been able to believe his luck.** A quagmire, just like the one he'd failed to create in Afghanistan, delivered to him on a plate. Result.

And then there were the images from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. "You see", he'd have said, "I told you they hate all Muslims. Their talk of freedom and respect and decency is a lie. They're as evil as I've always said they were." Having been seriously off track, his strategy is now very much back on the rails.

In terrorism, there are normally two main aims. The first aim is publicity, pure and simple. Bin Laden got that in spades. The second (and in strategic terms far more important) aim is to generate a massive, indescriminate, heavy handed response from the attacked party which will then drive new recruits to join the terrorist campaign. In almost all terrorist campaigns, the response of the attacked party has been the most powerful weapon in the terrorists armoury. In asymmetric warfare, it's the only tactic which has a realistic chance of delivering any kind of success. Bin Laden got that in large, yellow, four wheeled earth removal machines.

I occassionally hear people say that we can't ignore the threat and I agree. At the same time, Bin Laden would be seriously hacked off if we did ignore him. He'd have lost his most powerful weapon. But, just to repeat one more time, I do not advocate ignoring Islamic extremism. What I advocate is intelligence driven, highly targetted counter-terrorist operations under proper democratic control and supervision. At the same time, a dialogue should be established to show that we take legitimate Muslim grieveances seriously.

The temptation to be heavy handed is undoubtedly enormous. That, and the fact that the terrorists are aware of and exploit it, is part of what makes terrorism so hard to stop. Let's not play their game.

* Unintentionally? In my darker moments I question this. As someone who knows something about counter-terrorism, I do sometimes find it hard to explain their actions as anything other than intentionally provocative. Normally, however, I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are just very misguided.

** Given the publicly stated enthusiasm for an invasion of Iraq from the Project for a New American Century crowd (which preceeded September 11th by some years) it's possible that he did see it as a possibility. That's pretty speculative though.

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