The word Terrorism

There may be few words today which are more politically important, more widely used, and less understood than the word terrorism.

Even trying to come up with a dictionary-style definition for the term is not easy. Having every radical out there suddenly decide that their mortal enemies are “terrorists”, in some way or other, doesn’t help any. Nor is the situation clarified by supporters of terrorist groups who deny that they are terrorists.

The basic doctrine of terrorism as a form of warfare developed in the 20th century. In the era of industrial warfare, God fights on the side with the biggest guns, and terrorism was one of two major doctrines of “asymmetrical warfare” which were developed which would permit small, badly-financed forces to engage in war against opponents who were overwhelmingly larger and more powerful.

The other was guerrilla warfare. They share similar problems and some aspects of them are similar, but they are definitely distinct. The most important goal of both is to maintain initiative so as to control tempo.

Both were developed primarily as forms of domestic warfare, either by a resistance movement against foreign occupiers in a conquered nation, or by a revolutionary movement against the existing government. (Terrorism as a form of offensive war is new. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.)

In all warfare, there are five critical elements: objectives, strategy, tactics, logistics, and morale. In the era of industrial war, logistics became the most critical of those five, which is why interdiction and attrition are the most important features of industrial war, and why God seemed to fight on the side with the biggest guns.

The doctrines of terrorism and guerrilla warfare both aim to neutralize the logistical superiority of their stronger foe. They maintain initiative in order to control the tempo of war at a level which is logistically sustainable for the weaker opponent, thus avoiding defeat through attrition.

In terms of classic doctrine, the critical difference between terrorist warfare and guerrilla warfare is that attacks made by guerrillas are primarily intended to directly harm the enemy, whereas attacks made by terrorists are primarily intended to provoke reprisals.

For the remainder of this article, I will use the words guerrilla and terrorist to refer to combatants fighting their wars in accordance with those two classic doctrines.

In order to discuss these doctrines, it’s necessary to speak of seven critical groups: our forces, our people, our allies, their forces, their people, their allies, and everyone else.

Our forces and their forces include both leadership and military formations.

For resistance movements, our people is the population of the conquered nation, and their people is the citizenry of the conquering nation. For revolutionary movements it’s more complicated and fluid. Basically, our people are the portions of the nation which are at least mildly sympathetic to our revolutionary cause, and their people are those who generally support the government. (But these things are always driven by specific circumstances; the devil is always in the details.)

Terrorists make their attacks and then fade away into the population. They tailor their attacks to inspire the maximum horror and anger from the enemy’s people, bringing irresistible pressure to bear on the enemy’s leadership to do something, while depriving the enemy leadership of any obvious target to do something against. If the enemy leadership does nothing or does something token and useless, it will look weak to our people and make us look like winners, increasing support. It can decrease support from its own people.

But if the enemy leadership does respond strongly, we hope it will target our people (as distinct from our forces, which the enemy can’t actually locate). That will anger our people, again increasing support for us. In many cases it will also help discredit the enemy leadership, making them look brutal rather than weak. (That depends enormously on who the enemy people are and how they view themselves.)

We also hope that our allies will become more committed, and their allies will become less so. We hope that the world’s uncommitted may come to support us.

Which is why propaganda is an essential part of both doctrines. It is not enough to organize, to plan, and to carry out acts of war. It is vital to try to control perception of events. Both sides are fighting a dirty war, but it is vital that they be portrayed as dirtier than we are.

Guerrilla war and terrorist war, when fought according to classic doctrine, are long slow wars. These are marathons, not sprints.

But terrorists and guerrillas can be defeated, in the sense that they can be weakened and marginalized enough so that they have no hope of victory. Usually defeated guerrillas and terrorists fade away slowly, caught in a downward spiral of decreasing support, decreasing resources, and decreasing ability to operate offensively.

Those doctrines were developed incrementally, by groups who studied and built upon previous groups. Much of it was developed by sundry Communist and/or Marxist movements around the world.

Baathist forces in Iraq continued to fight after Baghdad fell last year. Iraq’s conventional military forces were decisively crushed by a combined Australo-Anglo-American conventional military force. Most news coverage and most common discussion tended to refer to their campaign as being “terrorist”, but in fact it was a sort of hybrid, primarily relying on the doctrine for guerrilla war but adopting some elements of terrorist doctrine.

The strategic foundation was the assumption that America had no staying power. This was based on observation and analysis of such events as the American response to the takeover of the embassy in Tehran, American operations in Beirut and Somalia, and responses to various attacks made by al Qaeda. The strategy was to try to turn Iraq into a “quagmire” in hopes that the American people would lose heart and rapidly give up in a matter of weeks or at most months.

Of course it didn’t work, in the sense of actually achieving the political goal of causing us to “cut and run”.

There was also a bit of a hope that they could provoke reprisals, or at the very least induce American soldiers to fear and distrust Iraqis collectively, and thus to poison all interactions between the occupation force and the people of Iraq. The main purpose of that wasn’t so much to rally support for the resistance as to seriously impede “nation building” by the coalition. It was hoped that gradually American and British troops would cease being thought of by Iraqis as liberators and more as conquerors.

That, too, ultimately failed; that, too, did not achieve the political goal. Its ultimately failure took place on June 28, when sovereignty was transferred to a transitional Iraqi government.

Thus the insurgency now has been unwillingly transformed, forced to change from resistance movement to revolutionary movement. It now fights against an Iraqi government.

Let it be clear that there really isn’t one single unified “insurgency”. There are many, and their goals are not necessarily totally congruent. What I’m mainly discussing here is the Sunni insurgency, which right now is generally identified with Falluja.

They’re trying to portray themselves as a resistance movement by trying to portray the government as a puppet of the conquerors, but I don’t think that’s working very well.

In terms of my seven critical groups, “their people” are more or less the Sunnis. That’s where they hope they can build strength and support.

But what I noticed today is that they have also largely abandoned classical doctrine. That’s because classical doctrine will no longer serve. Time is against them.

They’ve adopted an entirely different doctrine now, one which could also be thought of as terrorism, but one which has nothing to do with the terrorist doctrine I described above (and also described here and here). They have ceased relying on the teachings of Mao and Guevara.

The fundamental personality of their campaign has changed, and it is coming more and more to resemble the revolutionary fascism of Mussolini.

There are two primary strategic targets now, one of which serves the other.

They have given up on inducing Bush to cut and run. If Bush loses this election, it might end up being a good thing for them, but any benefit from that will be delayed by months, and they can’t afford to wait. Instead, they have begin to target weak links in the coalition. The insurgency inside Iraq was a beneficiary of the Madrid attack, but almost certainly was not involved in it directly. However, that showed them the way, and they had their first solid success with the Philippines.

They are not exclusively focusing on foreign governments. They’re also going after individual companies. The preferred tactic seems to be kidnapping and threats of brutal decapitation against nationals of a target government or employees of a target corporation. They demand to be paid, and they demand that the target withdraw from Iraq.

Obviously any ransoms they might collect directly aid them. But the demand for withdrawal is the more important one.

Like classic terrorist warfare and classic guerrilla warfare, this kind of warfare is cheap and easy. Potential victims are plentiful and can be captured easily with little risk. Each success is huge; each foreign target which capitulates is a huge victory. When a foreign target stands strong, the terrorists can brutally murder their captive and put video of his death online, making it that much more difficult for the next target to stand strong.

The only real significant way this could lead to “failure” would be if the gangs engaged in these kidnappings were found and taken out within days of a kidnapping, or if they encountered unexpected resistance in a kidnapping attempt. So far, neither risk has been significant. (The risk of the latter is very much a function of victim selection. Some victims are more likely to fight back.)

As foreign targets capitulate and withdraw, the insurgency has also begun to issue threats against foreign forces which are considering getting involved…

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