USS Clueless -- Theory and Practice of Terrorism

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Theory and Practice of Terrorism

Terrorism is much misunderstood. Like any form of warfare it can have horrible results. But the behavior of terrorists is not inexplicable. When a terrorist campaign is run well, there's a purpose behind everything they do.

Warfare itself is equally explicable, and also can be horrible. But wars don't happen for no reason, and they don't always happen because of insanity. Sane and moral men can start a war if they think that the alternative is even worse. A war is fought because one side in a conflict wants something and cannot get it by diplomacy. In the great aphorism attributed to Clausewitz, "War is diplomacy by other means." But there are many ways in which a war can be fought; they're not all just armies maneuvering on a battlefield. In particular, that kind of war is only really possible if the two sides are approximately comparable in military strength. To take on an opponent that way when he is vastly more powerful than you is just a fancy way to commit suicide. But with proper tactics, numerical inferiority doesn't have to mean defeat. You can fight a guerrilla war, or a terrorist action. Terrorism is the lowest level of warfare, requiring the least resources for the inferior side. Terrorism is war on the cheap. And terrorists can win.

"Terrorism" is actually misnamed, because the goal of it is not to sow terror (though that is a common tactic). The goal of terrorism is to sow discord and disruption and to provoke reprisals from your much stronger opponent. One of the paradoxes of terrorism is that when your opponent commits a major act of violence against your people, you (the terrorist) win and you become stronger.

A war is always fought for a reason, and there are only three ways a war can end, all of which come down to eliminating the reason. First, everyone on one side can be exterminated. Or the losing side can abandon the struggle either because they no longer think they can accomplish their goal with acceptable losses, or because they have actually accomplished their goal. You can only win a war by appeasing your opponent, discouraging him, or exterminating him.

The theory of terrorism was worked out in the middle of the 20th century. Terrorists can win in several ways: by making their opponent weary of the struggle and, even with superior strength, give up, or by increasing the power of the terrorist side through recruitment so that the campaign can be converted to more normal guerrilla action or outright military campaign, or by inducing outsiders to impose a peace more favorable to the terrorist's side.

There are seven critical participants in a terrorist campaign (or in any war): our forces, our people, their forces, their people, our allies outside the zone of conflict, their allies, and the rest of the world.

Our forces consist of all people who are actively participating in the struggle on our side. Our people consists of everyone who might possibly be a recruit for our side in the conflict, or who support our campaign through contributions or taxes. Their forces and their people are comparable. Our allies are any groups or governments outside the zone of the conflict who might be feeding us material support or who might be able to bring diplomatic pressure to bear in our favor, and of course our opponents also have allies. And the rest of the world consists of people who might become involved on one side or the other or who might ultimately bring about a settlement diplomatically or by other means (including armed intervention).

In our campaign as terrorists, our goal is to continually strengthen ourselves and to continually weaken our enemy, so as to redress the inequality of power between us. We want to recruit our people into our forces. We want to recruit international neutrals to become allies. We want to convince powerful neutrals that it is in their best interests to impose a solution on our enemies. These are all desirable and efforts will continue on all of these simultaneously, as long as the struggle continues. All of these require propaganda, and a successful terrorist campaign will always involve a cagey relationship with the international press. The ultimate and essential weapon of terrorism is publicity.

If we are terrorists then we are weak and few. We must hide, probably using a cell structure. Our weapon of choice is terrorist acts. We appear out of nowhere, commit an act which disrupts the normal flow of events, then vanish again. When we are not actively campaigning, we appear to simply be no different than any of the rest of our people.

When we commit a terrorist act, our goal is to invite violent reprisals from our opponent's forces. But since they don't know who we are, they will make their reprisals against our people -- which will increase the will of our people to resist, and make them more open to joining our forces. Thus each time we successfully inspire a major reprisal, our recruitment will become more successful and our forces will grow.

Unlike us, our enemy's forces are not hidden. They are public and well known, and though they cannot target our forces, we can target theirs. In some cases we might decide to target their people, but often we'll try to target their forces. Another effect of this is to cause fatigue and loss of moral will among their people, leading to a loss of political will. It may even lead to our victory without a conversion to standard warfare; they may give up and leave without a full scale war.

Or we may deliberately and directly target our enemy's allies, hoping to cause them to decide that the price they pay for the alliance is too high. They may abandon our enemy, or they may pressure them to end our disruption on terms favorable to us. But this leaves our enemy in a bind; increased reprisals do not end our struggle as long as even one of us continues to resist, so they may end up being forced to grant us concessions -- which may be sufficient to achieve our goal.

Of course, our enemy's reprisals will likely cost the lives of many of our people. But war is an unpretty business, and when we embarked on it we knew we were going to lose people, but we decided it was worth it anyway. (And sometimes our goals are worth losing people over.) Our forces are not weakened when our people are killed; and indeed our forces can be strengthened through increased recruitment and support from our people.

Also, as our enemies retaliate against us violently, this can cause moral outrage among our allies (causing them to support us more directly, possibly even logistically) and may cause international neutrals to come onto our side. It can even cause moral outrage among their allies, decreasing their support both materially and politically.

Of course, all of this requires that we are in tune with the general feelings of our people. If we aren't, then we won't gain recruits even if there is a violent response. The extreme example of this would be a lunatic like Ted Kaczinski (the "Unabomber"), a lone terrorist who never did gain any allies during his fifteen year campaign. Once he was captured, his terrorist movement ended. But for fifteen years he was an army of one. And had he actually been in tune with his people, those sympathetic to his cause might have joined him.

Let us examine four classic terrorist campaigns from history: the Maquis, the liberation of India, the American Civil Rights movement, and the Palestinian struggle against Israel.

Right off, your reaction is to wonder why it is that I consider Gandhi and King to be terrorists. After all, they were upstanding and moral men who are honored by history. But terrorism doesn't require violence, and if you go back and reread my description of the strategy you'll notice that I never once said that our side had to commit violence in our terrorist campaign. We commit disruption but we do not have to be violent doing so. Our goal is to make our opponent be violent, and often being violent ourselves will cause that. But depending on our situation, a non-violent terrorism may be the best way to accomplish our goal.

But first, a classic violent terrorist campaign: the Maquis. This was the French resistance against the German occupation during WWII. They operated in a cell structure, using arms which were stolen or smuggled in from the UK. They targeted militarily useful infrastructure, and enemy forces, and collaborators. The German response was orchestrated by their Army and in particular by the Gestapo and was particularly brutal. The casualty rate among the Maquis was appalling (I've seen estimates that the average survival time after joining was ten months) and the fate of those who were captured was terrible, because they were routinely tortured for information. On the other hand, the response by the Germans was quite broad-brush, leading to many innocent French being killed and tortured at the same time as captured members of the Maquis were. This inflamed the hatred of the French, already high anyway after the military catastrophe of 1940, leading to a steady stream of new recruits. So while casualties among the Maquis were high, recruitment more than made that good and as the war progressed their numbers and strength increased. This also served as a propaganda victory in the West, helping in particular to convince the American people to support an invasion of France. The American leaders always were willing, but it was necessary to convince the American people that the losses and expense in American lives and treasure was worthwhile. (I think history has shown that it was.)

The payoff came in 1944. On a radio signal from London, the Maquis converted from terrorism to guerrilla action and mobilized its strength. Its military goal was limited but critical: interdiction. Maquis forces met Canadian and British and American army forces and gave them help (sometimes armed but more often in the form of fresh information, which was often critical), but more important was that they operated in strength behind German lines and attacked railroads and bridges and highways and convoys and communications, the goal being to impede the German ability to move forces and supplies to Normandy to fight the invasion.

Of course, the Maquis were spectacularly successful overall, achieving everything they could possibly have hoped for. The Germans were kicked out, the Americans and British and Canadians turned out to be that most rare of historical artifacts: an "Army of Liberation" which really did liberate -- and then left afterwards. The Maquis paid dearly for its victory, but its victory was complete.

Gandhi's Congress Party used a much different kind of terrorist campaign against the British in order to gain India's liberation. This shows how tactics and strategy must always be adapted to the current political situation, for the situation in India was far different than in France. A non-violent campaign in France would have failed, but a violent campaign in India would also have failed.

First, violence was morally repugnant to the majority of Indians for religious reasons, and a violent terrorist campaign would have lost the support of the Indian people. Second,  the British public entertained the fantasy that they were actually serving the Indians even as they ruled them, and indeed British rule did help the Indians in many ways. British rule was far from benign, but it was not vicious either. The British people, therefore, believed that it was in both the interest of the UK and of India that the British continue to rule, and Gandhi's goal was to convince them that this was not true. So he adopted non-violent public terrorism. Instead of hiding, he made himself and his top leaders clear and obvious targets. Instead of bringing reprisals onto his people, he accepted them himself, knowing that the British were too decent to simply take him out and shoot him without trial (the way the Gestapo would have). And the ultimate result was to set him up as clearly being morally superior to his British opponents in the eyes of the British people. If such an outstanding and moral man thinks that we, the British, are harming India and if he wants us to leave, then how can we stay? Gandhi won his war when the British people began to ask themselves that question. And when the British saw their own people being violent and cruel to the Indians, who did not respond in kind, then the British self-image of decency was damaged.

Gandhi in fact did use violence -- but it was violence to self. Instead of murder, he threatened suicide. He didn't invent the hunger strike, but he perfected it. However, the hunger strike is only effective under very special circumstances. Usually it is a failure.

Martin Luther King Jr. used public non-violent terrorism in the American South in the 1960's, but with somewhat different goals. Again, he adapted his campaign to the local political situation, to take advantage of the significant political division among American whites. He did not expect to convince the Southern Whites to voluntarily end the apartheid system; his goal was to bring the Northern and Western Whites into the struggle on his side so that they would use their might to force the Southern Whites to end apartheid. Like Gandhi, the best way to achieve this was to force his opponents to make themselves look despicable, so as to gain the sympathy of outsiders. King was jailed many times and each time he emerged from jail more powerful. Every time southern police beat non-violent black demonstrators (filmed and broadcast on the national news), King's movement was strengthened. And like Gandhi, he knew that he was unlikely to be killed by his captors when he himself was arrested. His non-violent terrorist acts (in the form of sit-ins and demonstrations and boycotts) became larger and more disruptive as recruitment brought more people into his forces. But he knew he'd won when Northern Whites began to travel to the South to join his forces in numbers. Then it was only a matter of time.

Ultimately he inspired the more moral white political majority of the US to use legislative power to force the Southern states to grant him what he wanted. This included the threat of using armed force by the Federal Government. Before he began his struggle, this had actually already happened in Arkansas, where the US Army was used by Eisenhower to force integration of the schools after a Supreme Court decision. So he knew Federal military force was possible, and so did his opponents. With the passage of the Voting Rights act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it became a matter of implementation, with the full power of the US behind King's movement. The struggle continued, and the walls fell slowly, but the lot of the Negro (his word) in the US is now vastly better than it was in 1955, and the momentum is now unstoppable.

Unfortunately, it cost both Gandhi and King their lives. By making their roles in their respective revolutions so public, they set themselves up for assassination. But soldiers in a war often pay with their lives. Terrorists are no different.

I think it must be clear at this point that terrorism is a stratagem and not necessarily a moral evil. It can be evil, but it isn't necessarily so. Even violent terrorism can be morally correct; I doubt that anyone would condemn the Maquis even though they killed thousands during the war. And of course, we revere Gandhi and King as men of towering morality. In some cases a violent terrorism campaign is an evil embarked upon to prevent an even greater evil in the eyes of those launching the campaign.

Suppose that you are fighting against a terrorist campaign? How can you win? As with any warfare, there are only three ways: appeasement, extermination, or destruction of enemy morale. Of the three, destroying the morale of the terrorists is the most difficult and it is very rare for it to succeed. Extermination is nearly as difficult. And yet, a combination of extermination and assaults on morale is the approach nearly every country attempts to use when facing a terrorist movement. Perhaps that's because of the paradox of terrorism, that provoking reprisal is a victory. In any other level of warfare, one of your goals is to annihilate your enemy's forces, because without a force he cannot win. Indeed, this is a truism in war: your goal is not to take ground; it's to defeat your enemy's army. If you defeat his army, you can take all the ground you want. If his army still exists, taking ground does no good.

So countries have become used to the idea that you respond to violence with violence of your own. But for a terrorist, this is exactly what he wants you to do. When you respond violently to terrorism, the terrorist wins.

You can try to annihilate his forces -- but this is exceedingly difficult unless the terrorists are not actually in sync with the views of their people. He uses a cell system, and espionage is slow, inefficient and risky. And as long as even one cell continues to exist, the potential exists for it to reproduce and spread again through recruitment from his people who agree with his goals. Terrorism is a difficult disease to stamp out.

Or you can remove the reason why terrorists resist by negotiation, to give them perhaps some, but not all, of what they want. The hope is that this will be sufficient to cause them to give up the struggle. (It can sometimes encourage them; this is a problem.)

Which brings us to the Palestinian campaign against Israel, which has been going on intermittently for fifty years. Let us look at the situation through the eyes of a Palestinian patriot for a moment, shall we? Remember that he has a different attitude towards things than we do, and that he may be wrong. But his decision to fight is based on his world view, so whether we think he is right or wrong, we need to understand what he sees. Without that, we have no chance of dealing with him. So for one paragraph, we're going to be Palestinians:

In the 1940's, we and our people had a homeland. In the late 1940's, Europeans in large numbers began to move in, and in 1948 they usurped power and forced all of us out. We were beginning to respond to take back our land which these invaders had stolen when the United States and Great Britain imposed a completely unfair peace on us, for whatever reason. The US and UK were motivated by guilt about an event which took place somewhere else which had nothing to do with us, but we were punished anyway. As a result of this, these invaders ended up with most of the best land, and we ended up living in abject poverty packed into refugee camps. Since then, they have gotten richer and richer and we have gotten poorer and poorer. Our children die of disease and poverty, and the future looks ever more grim for us. Small wonder we hate them.

That's his world view, and there's enough truth in it that it will be hard to shake. Add to that long-standing religious conflict and fundamental racial issues and a religion which venerates martyrs and you can see that the divide is deep and the motivation to resist is strong. The Palestinians are not going to give up. I think they accept now that they won't be getting all their land back, but they definitely want some of it so that they don't have to live in refugee camps any longer. They want what we all want: a brighter future for their children. Like all adults, they'll do almost anything for their children.

As I think I've made clear by now, Israel cannot defeat this violently. They've been trying to fifty years and haven't succeeded yet. When conditions are right, terrorist movements spontaneously appear, and right now there are at least five independent ones operating in that area against Israel. Even if they could all be found and exterminated, others would pop up. The situation for the Palestinians is intolerable, and there are enough of them who feel this way that there will always be an armed struggle until the situation gets better.

Israel's course right now is to retaliate on each terrorist attack against the Palestinian authorities. There is a feeling in Israel that these terrorist groups really do work for the Palestinian authorities (the ex-PLO, once terrorist itself) and that they could be called off. It's even possible that one or two of them do, but extremely unlikely that they all do, and the only real result of the Israeli retaliations is to strengthen the terrorists.

Israel must compromise. This struggle will only end when peace is a more attractive alternative to the majority of Palestinians than struggle, when they have more to live for than to die for. Annihilation of the terrorists is not possible, and the Palestinians cannot be disillusioned into believing that struggle will be pointless. Only appeasement can end the conflict.

"Appeasement" is a dirty word. It's also the only chance of success. But it's not going to happen, because it's politically impossible for the Israeli government. The Israeli voters are apparently not willing to accept this as an alternative.

So each side in this conflict has come to recognize that it cannot directly defeat its enemy, and both are looking outside the country for help. Over the course of the last fifty years, the Palestinians have three times convinced neighboring Arab countries to attack Israel -- and all three attacks failed. There have been no further attacks since 1973 and probably will never again be any. Which leaves only the possibility of political or economic pressure imposed on one side on behalf of the other, and that is what both sides have been attempting to do since 1973, with singular lack of success. In the mean time, the Palestinian terrorists continue to attack Israeli targets, and the Israelis continue to make tit-for-tat reprisals.

I see no way out of this, which is why I think low scale warfare will continue for the foreseeable future. Neither side can win, and neither side will give up. So the pile of dead bodies will continue to grow.

Update 20010926: Please note that the above discussion is about terrorist organizations that form out of a people in an occupied nation, fighting for and about the plight of those people. The situation with the US and Al Qaeda is not the same and doesn't follow the patterns and lessons described here. Al Qaeda is not based in the US and is not fighting for the rights of a group of people in the US. Its attack on the US (when the World Trade Center towers were destroyed, with enormous loss of life) was more like an international guerilla action than a classic terrorist campaign, despite being called "Terrorist" in the press. (That's a different usage of the word "terrorist".) The tactics and strategies that the US and its allies will have to use against Al Qaeda will also need to be different. In the case of Al Qaeda, I do not believe that appeasement is possible.

Update 20030108: A lot has happened in the last year and a half since this was originally written, and the situation has fundamentally changed. I've written more on this subject here.

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