On the Strategic Utility of Terrorism.
Posted on 20:59, November 13th, 2009 by Pablo
In a previous life I worked in and with the US security apparatus on matter of Latin American regional policy, to include subjects ranging from civil-military relations to counter-insurgency. In the latter capacity I spend a fair bit of time interacting with the Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC) community who are primarily responsible for US anti-terrorism operations, and who include elements from intelligence agencies and domestic security agencies as well as the military. Politically controlled by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) via the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and headquartered at the Special Operations Command at McDill Air Force base outside of Tampa, the SOLIC community has analytic and operational wings that are regional, issue and event specific. At a tactical level (i.e. in the field) the community deploys assets as part of Joint Task Forces (JTFs), of which there are a number currently working abroad (the precise number is classified but there is more than one in Afghanistan alone).
One of the best pearls of wisdom imparted to me by an old SOLIC hand is that “terrorism is the last desperate gasp of a dying man. The cause is lost, its ideological appeal is on the wane, and thus the zealots respond by desperate acts of wanton mayhem in a last ditch effort to rattle the nerves of the subject and erode his will to continue to push his agenda to completion.” I believe this to be true, and that it applies to Islamic extremists confronted with the inexorable progress of Western (and Eastern) secularism riding the wave of globalisation of production, consumption and exchange. But there is more to the issue than that.
Terrorism is an irregular (or unconventional) warfare tactic. It is not a strategy in and of itself, but is a means employed to a strategic end. As such, terrorism has a subject, an object and a target, and they are not the same. Although it appears to be an offensive strategy and has been used offensively at a tactical level, it is by and large a defensive strategy. The object(ive) is to get the subject to desist in what it is doing that is inimical to the terrorist interest. The subject is dual in nature: the adversary and its popular support base, on the one hand (e.g. the US government and citizenry), and the terrorist support base, on the other (e.g. Islamicists and the larger Muslim community). The target is, of course, the hapless victims of an act of politically motivated violence whose purpose is more symbolic than military. Terrorism is used against highly symbolic targets in order to erode the will of the adversary to pursue a given course of action while steeling the conviction of the terrorist support base. Terrorism can also be used as part of a moderate-militant strategy in order to create space and provide leverage for negotiated compromises. This was seen with the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland and may in fact turn out to be the strategy employed by non-jihadist Taliban in Afghanistan today. In practice, though, the outcome is often the reverse of what is intended; Israel is a case in point, although it must also be noted that it was the PLO military campaign (in which terrorism was an integral component) that eventually brought Israel to recognise it as a legitimate political actor (Israel, for its part, owes its existence to the terror campaign of some of its founding fathers organised in groups such as the Irgun).
Terrorism can occur in two circumstances and comes in three different guises. The circumstances are terrorism during war and terrorism in peacetime. The guises are state terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism (where terrorists act as proxies for militarily inferior states), and non-state terrorism (such as today’s jihadis). If acts of terror are not committed for political purposes, they are not genuine terrorism but criminality taken to extremes (say, Mafia firebombing or assassination campaigns). This may seem like a semantic distinction but it is important because terrorism is effective only in pursuit of an ideological project, in pursuit of an alternative conception of the “proper” social order, as opposed to the more immediate and material objectives of criminals or psychopaths.
Terrorism in warfare is designed to erode the morale of the enemy. It can be used against military targets to erode the morale of the fighting element and to show the steadfastness, resolve and determination of the perpetrator (such as the Kamikaze attacks, or suicide bombings against military targets in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan). Terrorism can also be used in wartime against civilian populations to erode the will of the support base of a given regime. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden are classic instances in this regard (as were the V2 bombings of London), in which the psychological impact on the subject far outweighed the military-strategic importance of the targets. That brings up an important point in this age of the so-called “war on terrorism:” generally speaking, the state has been the primary terrorist organisation throughout history. In fact, most instances of state terrorism are directed at their own people, in what is known as “enforcement terrorism” whereby the state imposes its ideological project by force on an unwilling citizenry. The reason why state terrorism is so prevalent in history is that it works. Its purpose is to infantilise and atomise the body politic so people feel powerless and unable to control their own destinies (think of a child’s nightmare). Under such conditions the main recourse for the subject population is a retreat into the private sphere, the disruption of horizontal solidarity and resistance networks, and generalised acquiescence to the cruel powers that be. Under such conditions dictatorial regimes can implement their ideological projects free from the interference of civil society: Chile under Pinochet is a case in point, as are the USSR under Stalin or Cambodia under Pol Pot (the examples are many and not limited to either side of the ideological divide).
State-sponsored terrorism is most often directed at the enemy support base. The Lockerbie aircraft bombing is a case in point, as is Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas attacks on civilian targets in places as disparate as Lebanon, Israel and Argentina (Iran denies any connection to the military campaigns of Hamas and Hezbollah, and specifically refutes the claim that it was involved in anti-jewish bombings in Argentina in the 1990s. The Argentine government believes otherwise). Reported Pakistan support for Kashmiri separatists and Lashkar- e-Taiba (LET) is another example of state-sponsorship of terrorist organisations. Here the objective is to place enough distance between the sponsor and the perpetrator so as to allow for “plausible deniability” that forces the targeted adversary to either escalate out of proportion to the event or acquiesce (if not respond in kind).
Non-state terrorism has two forms: 1) in its insurrectionary form it is used to advance a group’s political project within a country as part of a counter-hegemonic project (for example, the use of selective terrorism by revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow status quo regimes). Because the group wants to cultivate popular support for its ideological project, the use of terrorism in such instances tends to be more selective and focused on military targets or symbols (and members) of the regime elite. 2) the transnational grievance form is used to thwart homogenising international projects and processes that are deemed inimical to existing social mores and constructions (which can include unwanted immigration from ethnic “others” as well as political or corporate interventions) . Whether secular or ethno-religious, such terrorist groups can be self-identified as anti-imperialist or more localised in scope. The al-Qaeda project is an example of the former, whereas the janjaweed anti-African campaign in Darfur is couched in localised terms (although there is an underlying resource motive clearly at play).
The chances of success of the non-state, transnational grievance form rest not on much on their own capacity to wreak symbolic political violence in pursuit of their objectives but on the nature of the regimes that are the subjects of their activities. Strong authoritarian and democratic regimes, defined as those with majority support and the political will and military-intelligence capability to defeat irregular warfare groups that practice terrorism, will always prevail in such contests. The combination of mass support, military capability and willpower is the decisive part of the asymmetric equation. Russia is a good example of a strong authoritarian regime confronting terrorists; China is(or will be) another. Strong democracies have similar strengths. Israel again is emblematic, but the UK response to the IRA irregular warfare campaign is also illustrative. In fact, all of Europe and Turkey have the requisite combination of will, capability and support to defeat jihadism in all of its forms (fears about the Islamicisation of Europe notwithstanding).
Conversely, weak authoritarian and democratic regimes are highly susceptible to politically-motivated terrorism, be it state-sponsored or non-state in nature. Weakness is here defined as a lack of majority support and/or leadership will to defeat the terrorist project, whether or not there is a military-intelligence capacity to do so. Under such circumstances even allied assistance may be insufficient to defeat a well-organised terrorist campaign. The will to do so has to come from within, and it must be come from the majority. That is what makes Egypt, Iran, Algeria, a number of Sub-Saharan African states, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia itself more vulnerable to terrorism. The question is not so much one of counter-terrorism capabilities as it is of support and will.
That is the crux of the matter when it comes to judging the strategic utility of terrorism in the contemporary context. Weak regimes like Afghanistan and Pakistan are examples of highly vulnerable subjects of terrorism. To a lesser but still significant degree, weak democracies such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are also vulnerable to destabilisation by a well-organised terrorist campaign. Conversely, virtually all of the East Asian regimes, authoritarian or democratic, have the necessary ingredients to defeat non-state terrorists, be they sponsored or self-organised. They same can be said for the Antipodes, even if Australia and New Zealand differ significantly in their approaches to the current counter-terrorist campaigns. Latin America has also managed to combine the requisites for a successful counter-terrorism strategy (especially if the threat is Islamicist, which is culturally alien to the region), although there remain in the region a small number of indigenous irregular groups that continue to practice isolated acts of terrorism in spite of their lack of popular appeal. Thus, in terms of probabilities of success, terrorists today are confronted with a strategic landscape that, outside of Central Asia and the Middle East, appears to doom them to defeat. That might explain the move to highly decentralised and often individual attacks (such as that at Fort Hood), the increasingly “indiscriminate” nature of attacks in places like Iraq and Pakistan (in which potentially sympathetic elements of the local population are targeted), as well as the increasing success in uncovering plots before they are executed (which is a function of good intelligence in a supportive community).
That raises the question of the US. Given the culture wars and ideological polarisation that divide the country, coupled with popular lack of interest in, or commitment to foreign wars, it is increasingly an open question as to whether the US has the popular staying power and committed political leadership to defeat its irregular adversaries at home and abroad. It is that variable that is the jihadis best hope of long-term success, but it is not only Islamicists who see opportunity in perceived US weakness. That could well be a matter of strategic concern down the road, and is what makes the US approach to counter-terrorism a matter of global import. There lies the rub, because counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is as much an issue of cultural understanding as it is of will, support and capability.
There is more to the issue but in the confines of a blog post this is enough. Former students might recognise some of the above from the “Revolutions and Insurgencies” courses taught in NZ and the US, although this is an updated brief on those long-gone but still relevant course materials.