Vulnerabilities of an elusive enemy
We are in a hard march in rough country. The “Global War on Terrorism” requires patience and perseverance, and yet notes of pessimism have become audible among our ranks as citizen-soldiers. This is not surprising. After five years we still have not caught up with fugitive Osama bin Laden. Hard-working military officers wonder aloud if the polity back home will keep supporting its military services. Politicians sound more and more partisan. Academics are no better: A professor at Harvard declares that the president’s war on terror has been a “disaster,” while at a conference in Washington in September two well-known national security analysts say we are “losing” the war on terror.
In fact, there are good reasons to judge that we are winning this global war against terrorists. And not only because we have arrested or killed two-thirds of the middle- and lower-level leaders, as well as some of their superiors and commanders. It is because terror groups all have vulnerabilities. They are human organizations with human problems; al Qaeda is no exception. For all the talk of the new “flatter” al Qaeda organization, rarely does anyone ever mentions that a flatter organization means less organization, and that in global war, that cannot help Osama bin Laden.
The history of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency is rich, and the last four or five decades offer good lessons in terrorism’s vulnerabilities and counsel on how to exploit them. What follows here is a review of some of those.
Human factors and personnel
Terror group leaders have large egos, as they must to order the deaths of multitudes who are innocent and whom they have never met. The more famous and successful terrorist leaders become, the more these egos are likely to swell. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party’s Abdullah Ocalan, Shining Path’s Abimael Guzman, Abu Nidal — these are example of outsized and ferocious egos. But that fact of character has disadvantages, of which one can be fatal. Ego may prevent such leaders from mentoring successors. And, struggle being as it is, when the leader and his cult of personality succumb to arrest or death, the entire organization may collapse.
In September 1992 this came to pass with the arrest of Sendero Luminoso’s leader, Dr. Guzman, who called himself “The Fourth Sword of Marxism.” His organization had been winning control of immense swaths of the Peruvian countryside. His capture doomed this progress and began a swift regression. Soon the group could boast only a few thousand fighters, and today it is down to a few hundred. Guzman had surrounded himself with female lieutenants but readied none to command in his absence. Only one likely male successor appeared, a field commander, soon caught by the army. Now the group manages an occasional terrorist attack, but its profile has shrunk beyond belief.
Something similar took place with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party. Abdullah Ocalan built it from the ground up over a quarter century. He controlled both the military and political wings and made all key decisions. His successes against the Republic of Turkey and its armed forces were impressive and advanced the dream of an independent Kurdistan. But he was caught in early 1999, and the buoyant balloon of his nationalist and Marxist hopes hissed to near-empty. pkk congressed, deciding initially they would not appoint a successor. They then renamed themselves and promised pacific politics. Later, terrorism was renewed; some goes on in southern Turkey now. But pkk/Kongra Gel is not what it once was. It commanded some 30,000 guerrillas but now can muster less than a sixth as many.
These cases support “decapitation” strategies by opponents of terrorism. Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger posed a question in an article a few years back: “Can We Assassinate the Leaders?” His answer was that we can and should assassinate some terror leaders. Whether death by martial or judicial means is necessary, and whether rendering death is even as prudent as capturing a terror group leader, are other questions. What is clear is that decapitation strategies might indeed work. In some cases, they have. The approach uses the terrorist group’s most apparent strength against it; if “the great leader” is the center of gravity, then when he is imprisoned, so is the movement.
In the case of the guerrilla and terrorist supergroup “Tamil Tigers,” ltte of Sri Lanka, it is evident that founder and leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is the center of gravity, or “the hub of all power and movement,” as Clausewitz wrote. A formidable organization under his control, with elaborate finance and logistical networks, a fierce army, a navy, capable suicide bombers, etc. — yet it could all dissipate without Prabhakaran. Members swear loyalty to him, not to ltte, or the concept of a free land of the Tamils. The clan of the Tigers could dissolve were he killed, or jailed and publishing a plea for peace (as Guzman and Ocalan both did from jail). The master of ltte apparently has no designated successor. Tamil nationalism is not so strong that it could be certain of holding its militant and terrorist form in his absence.
Unfortunately, al Qaeda is better structured. It was a stroke of brilliance, shortly before the 9/11 assaults, to merge the Afghans and others at “The Base” controlled by Osama bin Laden with the Egyptians of Ayman al Zawahiri, himself already a practiced terrorist leader. If today one or the other of these two men were to be taken, his counterpart would carry on ably. In this they enjoy some of the strength of an authentic Communist Party, instead of the weakness of a caricature of one, such as Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu ran before his destruction in 1989. Decapitation of al Qaeda by removing both bin Laden and al Zawahiri is not impossible, but it is likely to remain difficult. And if it were achieved, possibly their old friend, the Taliban chief and favored mullah, Mohammad Omar, would cobble together some of the old organization and take command. Efforts to capture or kill the top leaders should continue, but al Qaeda is most likely to be defeated by other means.
A second problem in terror group personnel management goes through all the levels of an organization and is most intense at the lowest. Underground life has unattractive qualities, and some brutish ones. Terrorism means years on the run, eating poor food, and enduing primitive medical care, with all the stresses of campaigning and doubts about one’s family back home. There is, as well, for at least some, the problem of conscience over the horrific things the group is doing to innocent people. It adds up to immense stress and strain. I once had an opportunity to ask Oxford historian Michael Howard how it is that terrorist groups end. “Fatigue,” he replied.
Terrorists’ memoirs recur to these strains of underground life. Red Brigades depositions published by rand are one example of how continuous and complex are the pressures of secrecy and attention to details of self-protection. Marc Sageman, a psychologist and analyst of Muslim terrorists, writes of how personal attitudes may change, too, as the years slip by. Once-powerful motives to join do not always translate into certainty about staying.
The German neo-Nazi Ingo Hasselbach was a rising star in the underground after 1988. He had charisma when the sputtering movement needed it, fighting spirit, and organizational skills. But he gradually became sickened. He felt the total absence of normal friendships, and he disapproved of a lethal 1992 firebombing of an immigrants’ hostel in Molln. Hasselbach simply dropped out. On the far left, in Germany’s underground, the once-formidable Baader-Meinhof crowd experienced its own fatigue. The threat of jail and the patient press of German police operations wore down some outside; jail in Stanheim prison had its own effects on leaders inside the justice system. The “Red Army Faction” — the last generation of these violent radicals — did not formally quit until 1992, but by then their East German aid and their operational abilities had waned, along with their zeal for the mission and any sense they were making progress with the German public.
This means that counterterrorists must have well-evolved methods for encouraging defections. Dropouts like Hasselbach are absolutely perfect for the public cause of counterterrorism. They mean a confession of some sort, which itself is a media spectacle. They mean a certain amount of public healing; a defector does not just reject something, he affirms something. They are a body blow to the particular political cause the terrorist once represented. And for intelligence officers, a defector — especially when he or she talks before the illegal organization is able to react defensively — can be priceless.
Against rebellions in the Philippines, captives and defectors have had great public value. The U.S. war of a century ago was not won by butchery on Samar so much as by the ruse of an American general who captured nationalist leader Emilio Aguinaldo. Caught in 1901, he wrote extensively and toured the U.S., a picture of defeat which discredited the notion of resisting the U.S. authorities. A half century later came the Hukbalahap — Marxist-Leninists who emerged within the Philippines after World War ii under the command of Luis Taruc. Taruc became worn down and worn out, later writing two books that reveal much about the rebels’ problems and inadvertently affirm much about Filipino democracy. Today we see a third kind of example: the Philippines’ military intelligence organization has a new top officer, Victor Corpus, a defector from the New People’s Army. After coming over to the government side, he became an invaluable asset to the military for all that he knows, and to the public for all that his defection represents. Now he commands a sizeable structure dealing with guerrilla and terrorist opponents of the republic. Meanwhile, the npa is intact, but largely inactive militarily.
Some assume, perhaps encouraged by tv shows and dashes of history, that captives from terror movements might be mined for information by torture. But that practice is foolish, as well as immoral. Skilled commanders think that stress, or cleverness, or understanding the person’s greatest psychological needs, are better sources of information. Even kindness may elicit information from certain prisoners. A Nepalese brigadier general told me he has been surprised at how sometimes sitting down to tea with a prisoner could elicit cooperation. Perhaps this is because the Maoist cadres have been briefed to expect barbarities or death if they are captured; perhaps it is because others in Nepal’s army who first acquired the captive were less kind than the general; perhaps there are always complex motives affecting each prisoner. The point is that counterterrorist forces need strategies for encouraging defections. Then they need a good system for questioning or interrogation. It must be done promptly and thoroughly, by experts. Then the intelligence must be disseminated quickly to those who can act on it before the terrorist group morphs to accommodate its loss. Defectors, when well-managed, can be gems, whether or not their conversions are full. At the very least, they cause the deepest kinds of doubts within their old clandestine organization.
Internal strife is another human factor of undergrounds — though it has largely been ignored, even by terrorism analysts. The grounds for terror group strife may be political, financial, personal, or other. Bloody and sometimes large-scale battles and purges have sometimes gripped the guts of a terrorist organization or larger insurgency. These episodes should give hope to legitimate states fighting to protect sovereignty and citizens.
Before he was mysteriously and repeatedly shot in Iraq four years ago, Sabri al Banna (a.k.a. Abu Nidal) ran a tight ship called “Black June” or Fatah — The Revolutionary Council. Abu Nidal captained a tight ship in part because he was an effective organizer and in part because he was a demented paranoid. In 1987, however, concerns over defectors or leaks swept through the Abu Nidal Organization (ano) — or swept through the head of Sabri al Banna. In Lebanon and in Libya, ano murdered its own, most of them young Palestinian men. This formidable organization, “credited” with some 900 external victims throughout the world, was already small; it can only have been wrecked internally by this self-destruction of 600 personnel — more than a third of its strength. Even surviving cadres could be crippled psychologically or operationally by such “discipline,” in the way Stalin’s army was wrecked by the crazed purges of the mid-1930s. There are several reasons why ano became almost inoperative in its last years, and surely one of them is the climate of terror inside. Counterterrorist psychological operations should further such obsessions.
Other groups making frequent use of terrorism as a strategy have undergone large purges or defections. Even the disciplined, highly-successful ltte Tigers have been battling a defecting commander named Karuna since April 2004. The dissidents killed four dozen ltte personnel in 2005. Could it be that Sri Lankan intelligence helped engineer or aggravate this split? Past cases of insurgencies wracked by internal pangs in the 1980s include such communist groups as farc, or Revolutionary Armed Forces, in Colombia, and the Filipino New People’s Army. This September, police uncovered yet another mass grave from the npa’s self-inflicted wounds of the 80s, this time in southern Leyte. The Japanese Red Army staged a self-indulgent bloodbath in December 1971 called the “Snow Murders.” It unfolded in (and under) a safe house in the mountains during a Japanese winter when both human isolation and police pressure were afflicting the group. The members were mostly university students with a penchant for fierce debate and Maoist self-criticism. One session of this became particularly nasty. After confessing, or declining to do so sufficiently, loyal members were beaten to death or left outside, bound, to freeze from exposure. The group’s founder, a woman named Fusako Shigenobu, had shown fire and charisma, and certainly the Japanese left was well-stocked with Marxist-Leninists ready to fight capitalist success. But imagine how recruiting efforts might go after this kind of news seeped out. The Japanese Red “Army” remained platoon-sized, and today it does not operate.
Relativists do not understand the depths of their error when they pronounce that “terrorism is just a word for violence we don’t like,” or “terrorism is a Westerners’ epithet.” Terrorists are living, breathing men and women using vile but calculated means to make political gains, and it is vital that politicians and academics and police chiefs continue pointing that out. Terror is ugly, making terrorists morally ugly; this ugliness is weakness in the struggle for public opinion. More must be made of that, in the service of truth and of counterterrorism. Another lesson flows from the facts above: Groups and their leaders may well be vulnerable to psychological operations. As circumstances allow, counterterrorism can play up rivals around the leaders, or create fissures between working partners, or throw doubt over loyalties of old comrades.
Violent organizations have pressure points; our challenge is to find and use them. Against the Huks, there were clever psy-ops by Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay and American advisor Edward Lansdale of the new cia, and some of these fueled internal divisions among the communist militants. An example was their handling of “bounties,” which states often proffer for bringing in a wanted man “dead or alive.” The Philippines published many such offers. But they added with care a few sums which were deliberately lower than the monetary level the targeted terrorists could find honorable. In lowballing rewards for certain fugitives, the government counted on provoking and angering and embarrassing them. Such movements may seem too subtle for war, but Sun Tzu advised that the essence of war is not destroying the enemy but throwing him off balance.
Today, the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines is a rattled outfit. Its founding leader A.A. Janjalani was killed in a government shootout in December 1998. Filipino army pursuit has been relentless, and asg has lost two more leaders. Almost comically, 19 defections were induced in an April 2002 incident in which the armed forces promised good treatment and air-delivered cheeseburgers to a starving Abu Sayyaf section. Ransom monies, once a source of asg’s power, have become something over which members have had fights, at least once with guns. asg is no longer a regional apple of Osama’s eye; the Saudi benefactor became disillusioned with the organization. He has turned to courting another veiled Filipina, milf, or Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
At least one further weakness in personnel matters haunts terror organizations: personal foibles and corruption. These can be pointed to, and attacked, whether publicly or covertly, to destroy terrorists’ reputations, enhance illusions, spread dissension, create rivalries, and the like.
Michael J. Waller of the Institute of World Politics has rightly called for further use of ridicule in our political warfare. Several cases in counterterrorism come to mind which might support Waller’s approach. Apparently that mysterious and terrifying man Abimael Guzman was somewhat demystified in Peruvian eyes after the release of a single videotape: the great man was caught looking silly, dancing drunkenly, at the wrong kind of “party gathering.” The prospect for undermining a cocky terrorist in Iraq arose in June 2006 with the surfacing of outtakes of footage for an Abu Musab al Zarqawi video. The cutting-room material showed the insurgent fumbling ignorantly with a weapon he was using as a prop in his hagiographical video. Both examples show that limited release of personal details, or description of a particular unsavory episode in the media, or magnification of these through private channels, may damage a leader’s credibility. Quite possibly, ridicule or bad publicity could prod an arrogant terrorist into reckless action, the sort that would blow his cover or reveal something new about his organization.
Cowardice is an underused but potent charge. “Commanders” of terror groups often stash themselves in safety for years in comfortable villas in states such as Syria and Iran, while their troops get fired upon or die in distant operations. What could goad a terrorist leader more easily than a charge of cowardice? And one must not forget sex. Sexual misconduct was one of the firing points that nearly immolated the Japanese Red Army in 1971. Sex is a vulnerable point for certain terror group leaders. A senior officer may be an abuser; a mid-level commander of an insurgency may be one of those who takes virtual sex slaves. Such practices, especially by organizations posturing as religious or ideologically pure, can harm the group if revealed. There are dozens of other kinds of corruption or personal lapses which might be publicly or secretly used against terror group leaders. Yet our media and government often do little to publicize such facts.
Iraq is a regime that was on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorists for decades. Yet, I remember exactly where I was when learning for the first time that Saddam Hussein’s two sons controlled their own apparatus of personal terrorism. They abducted women, had opponents shot, ordered the torture of Olympic athletes who disappointed Iraq’s audiences, etc. Such information profoundly affects one’s view of a regime; the information sticks hard. Before war came in March 2003, why did we not do more to publicize such facts as these for Iraqi audiences? The same holds for Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the recently-deceased insurgent. He did jail time in Jordan for pimping and other acts of petty crime. Such a case history is not unusual. Ali La Pointe, a famed terrorist for the fln during the Battle of Algiers, had exactly that same profile — pimp and petty criminal — before time and choices remade him as a “nationalist” and “fedayeen.” Criminals are in fact commonplace in political undergrounds; Mao wrote of how to understand and use them; we should use their pasts to discredit them.
Tactics and technology
A second area in which the vulnerabilities of terrorists are evident, and may be exploited, is the tactical and the technical. Terror group leaders are often well-educated, but this does not mean they are good military planners or adept handlers of technology. Even the very good may be deceived by someone more clever.
One top commander of the Algerian fln forces of the 1950s lusted after a modern radio to control his battles and his men. Learning this, French counterinsurgents obliged him, “mistakenly” leaving behind such a device during their own army operations in the target’s sector. The treasured radio was immediately brought to the fln commander in his cave. Many loyalists died when the French bomb inside detonated. In a second case, French intelligence made skilled use of a defector who called himself Safy-le-Pur. This defector maintained his top-level fln communications, and coaxed one group of leaders to a “conference” — at which they were all arrested by the French. The tactic had strategic effects: Amirouche, the guerrilla leader most affected by the disaster, began an infuriated hunt for informers that left many dead loyalists in his own region. The purges extended into the adjoining guerrilla region, and hundreds of insurgents killed hundreds of other insurgents. It was all most economical for the French — and disastrous for the fln. Terrorists are prone to such manipulation.
Sometimes, the terrorists fool themselves. The Irish Republican Army is a deep reservoir of martial skill and lethality. Yet these same “Provos” have had many failures with technology and tactics. Indeed, they have had so many bitter experiences with their own bombs detonating during manufacture, or prematurely during transit, that there is an expression for the disaster — “own goals.” The metaphor is taken from the soccer mistake of accidentally knocking the ball into your own net. Sean O’Callaghan, the best-known defector from the ira, describes a day on which he nearly blew himself up in his bomb-making shop. Three Weathermen once did exactly that, burning down a New York City townhouse.
In war, counterinsurgents sometimes sabotage arms and arrange to get them into terrorist hands. France did this systematically to the fln by influencing arms factories in Spain and Switzerland where they knew the fln was buying weapons. The results on insurgent morale can be profound. In the Philippines, during the Huk rebellion, observers of the location of a rebel ammo dump sometimes put sabotaged shells into the collection, knowing the rebels would recover and use the stuff, wounding themselves. Such tricks also cast doubts on all ammo caches, even those untouched by state agents. This is insidious and effective. One can imagine Afghans using such tricks in their war with al Qaeda and the Taliban in remote border regions.
Under calmer circumstances, or in peacetime efforts against a small terrorist group, such actions might be illegal or inappropriate. What can always be tried, however, within bounds in a democratic society, is neutralization of weapons, rather than their sabotage. Technical failing in arms and shells is not at all unusual, and so it need not arouse a conviction among the terrorists that their stores have been tampered with. And yet technical failings can wreck tactical attacks, embarrass the users, lead to the exposure and capture of the gunmen, or provoke internal dissent about the “idiots down in logistics.”
It appears that the fbi may have done this to snuff one Libyan ploy of the 1980s. Tripoli was paying a black Chicago street gang called El Rukns to make trouble within the United States, and at some point the group tried to use a shoulder-launched weapon against an airplane at O’Hare Airport. The missile was inert. A series of later cases has come to light as varied groups pursue ground-to-air weapons to destroy airliners. In the U.S. and Britain, for example, individual buyers or technicians for the ira have repeatedly been foiled as they’ve sought to acquire means of shooting down British helicopters. Stings by undercover g-men have often been the reason.
Terrorist failings may easily disable a good plan. A timely leak from inside a terror cell can wreck a tactical plan months or years in preparation. It is stunning to consider what could have occurred had we properly questioned and jailed even two of the foreign hijackers “sleeping” here before 9/11 but stopped by police on driving charges or for other petty infractions. With luck, we might have had a red-hot warning, or at least “connected some dots.” Instead, al Qaeda’s plotting continued.
It is clear that having an agent inside a terror organization can foil operations. Once Sean O’Callaghan weakened in his ira convictions, he did not try to poison others’ morale, or shoot his comrades, but he did make sure important plots failed. He disabled a 1983 attempt on the lives of the Charles and Diana. In the next year, O’Callaghan betrayed the arriving arms ship Valhalla carrying $2 million worth of arms to the ira from Boston. He did this without blowing uncovered as an informer for the Irish police. American examples of such penetrations and disruptions include the work of Larry Grathwohl, who got inside the Weathermen, neutralized several of their operations, and walked away to write memoirs (Bringing Down America, Arlington House, 1976). Not many have such coolness and skill. But this is skill that can be developed by intelligence agencies that demand results and have political support to attain results.
A very different sort of tactical vulnerability attends the management of guerrilla armies. Insurgents frequently use terrorism but also irregular combat forces. When they do, they must master the difficult problem of when to risk forces in positional fighting against better-prepared and better-armed government forces. Some always decline. Others accept battle and pay a huge price. The challenge always lies before such modern groups as the Taliban, al Qaeda, the ltte, and farc. They may prefer murder of soft targets one day but choose battle against a company of soldiers or police the next. A venerated teacher of strategy, Harold W. Rood (Kingdoms of the Blind, Carolina Academic Press, 1980), likes to say that the greatest problem in counterinsurgency is bringing the guerrilla to battle, but that once you do, you may well have your way with him. This was true in Vietnam, where General Giap’s army (as against Ho Chi Minh’s terrorists) too early brought about pitched battles with the French, in the Red River Valley, and were beaten. It was true again at Tet, in 1968, when Viet Cong guerrillas were ordered into positional fighting throughout Vietnam, and were worse than decimated by the contact. These dangers help explain why many aspiring guerrillas can never transition into a real national army.
Bin Laden, normally self-controlled, crowed visibly on videotape over the extent of damage he did to the Twin Towers, saying that as an engineer he could not have hoped for both to tumble down after the planes hit. But he did no crowing on camera about the arrival of American forces in Afghanistan in October and November of 2001. It had been his prized sanctuary. He clearly believed in the myths of guerrillaism. He was wrong. The White House was determined to oust the regime in Afghanistan, a country that has always been a candidate for the most remote and unappealing in the world. No fear, no legacy of Red Army defeat, no terror of further suicide bombings, kept President Bush from ordering the action. The U.S. worked well with Afghan allies, central to the larger coalition. Bin Laden, vaunted “guerrilla” leader, must have aged notably seeing his men and Taliban troopers dying in masses in static trenches while unseen American guerrillas with radios directed the fall of aerial bombs. Instead of extending the Afghans’ legacy of victory over conventional force, the Arabs of al Qaeda and the Pakistanis and Afghans of the Taliban were smashed and driven from Afghanistan in one of modern history’s fastest campaigns. It took years, and foreign refuge and Pakistani help, for the Taliban to recover. Al Qaeda has not recovered; it is running on half-power.
Far smaller groups than the Taliban risk the same fate when they take a stand against trained and established forces with mechanisms for command and control. Self-described guerrillas and Castroites of Peru, mrta/Tupac Amaru, had quite a profile and many small successes with “hit and run” actions and terrorism. Then they seized the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima in 1996. Their Latin teledrama was good press for mrta/Tupac Amaru for many months. But President Fujimori was a tough man, and his brother was a captive in the residence. He did not yield. mrta found that staking 14 terrorists’ lives on holding this building was harder than, say, shooting unsuspecting citizens in a public marketplace. Once Peru’s commandos were ordered in, in April 1997, all the terrorists quickly got shot. mrta has gone dead quiet since.
The new technical requirements for contemporary terrorism bring many challenges and problems for the groups. For example, reconnaissance on targets used to entail surveillance as well as quiet work in libraries and clipping newspapers. Today terrorists videotape a great deal. This has the disadvantage of placing them on the attack site more often. Terrorists may be observed when they are observing, as have several Muslims in the U.S. since 9/11. Even if the resultant questioning does not led to arrest, or if the arrest does not lead to conviction, they can be inhibited and obstructed by police attention and perhaps public exposure. A security expert for the contractor Blackwater advises me after years in Iraq that many times, terrorists and insurgents were shot or captured while trying to videotape their next target. Yet they press on: to operational and tactical requirements for such tape there is added a new custom in the Middle East of making propaganda pictures of their own attacks for later release. And while that videotape is good publicity for the terrorists, it also reveals things about the operation: the time of year and day on which the reconnaissance was made; the place from which the attack was made; details about the camera and its crew, etc. Videotape might also be captured before it is edited, revealing far more.
The same principle applies to other terrorist intelligence operations and record-keeping. It can produce a counterintelligence nightmare for them. Consider what authorities learned from the personal computer of Ramzi Youssef, caught in the Philippines with plans for terrorizing air operations over the Pacific. Consider what they might have learned from the same computer had they been smarter and shared intelligence better. The machine on which the terrorist worked up and preserved his plans became a terrible vulnerability. Some of the most exciting material ever seen about the inner workings of al Qaeda was captured in Afghanistan by a reporter, Alan Cullison, who bought two al Qaeda pcs from a thief in Kabul just days after looters sacked a headquarters. Recall the undisguised enthusiasm of U.S. forces discovering documents in the rubble of al Zarqawi’s rural safehouse in July 2006.
Finances are now computerized by such groups as Colombia’s National Liberation Army, or eln. There were advantages of going from ledgers — which can erode or mold in that climate or be burned in fires — to diskettes, copies of which can be dispersed and better protected. But police found a stash of diskettes on one occasion, and it bore the entire record of ongoing eln collections from peasants, cattle farmers, oil companies meeting eln extortion demands, and kidnapping. The catch detailed the wealth of the group. More important, it revealed the workings of the organization and the range of its operations. In counterintelligence it was a body blow to eln.
With sufficient trained manpower, it is practical to use even everyday policing and police technologies to obstruct and pursue undergrounders. Terrorists must engage in criminal practices, such as document fraud and robbery, and thus may expose themselves to alert police. Today the “gwot” is more about policing than it is about armies. Adept policing yields more arrests and causes other operational problems for terrorists. Several prominent groups now thoroughly brief their cadres on how to resist police tricks and torture, because they assume their members will be caught. The ira published a Green Book which displays the dangers members face under interrogation and coaches them in responding to British inquisitors. The al Qaeda manual Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants has detailed pages on such matters for the “Brothers.” The Greek terrorists of “Revolutionary Organization November 17th” were invisible to police eyes for a quarter-century. But in 2002 when a member suffered an “own goal” and ended up in a hospital, he talked to authorities. Now, all are caught and jailed. November 17th is gone. It is a fact of the underground that secrecy is hard to maintain and easy to lose.
Terrorism is a sword with two cutting edges. While it frightens, it may frighten the wrong people. When it frightens, it risks cutting into the group’s popular support. Terrorist acts may prove political potency, or they can appear nihilistic. This is another reason that successfully leading a terrorist group is harder than it appears.
One reads in histories of the Malayan Emergency that “Communist Terrorists” fighting British rule after 1948 overused terrorism and alienated the people they sought to win over. In our day, Algerians of the Armed Islamic Group (gia) may have done the same in their country. They are famous, but they have not won over most of the population, and they have certainly not defeated the Algerian government. Indeed, when the other prominent Algerian Muslim terrorist group, the Front for Islamic Salvation, made a pact with Algiers, gia became isolated politically.
Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian, was enormously successful with terrorism while in Iraq. There he was a hero, capitalizing on Iraqi troubles and divisions, fears for the future, and the unwelcome coalition presence. If Jordanians next door were troubled by his massacres, they did not loudly say so. But then Zarqawi dared to strike his native Jordan. He blew up tourist hotels, killing many Muslims and creating horrors and problems for the authorities. His “poll numbers” dropped dramatically. He angered Jordan. Jordanian intelligence agents reportedly did the work that allowed the precision air strike that killed Zarqawi in June 2006.
Zarqawi made a strategic mistake and made himself appear shameful. The terrorism weapon always comes with such risks, and governments may often exploit them publicly through well-aimed rhetoric. By definition, terrorists’ horrific actions open them to charges of murdering the innocent. Varied and good arguments present themselves, even if Washington has usually had a tin ear for them, or failed to marshal them well. U.S. strategy for public diplomacy should combat the strategy of terrorism by throwing light (and statistics) on the realities of terrorism: (1) Muslim terrorists have usually killed more Muslims than Jews or Christians. (2) The prime reason for Shiite deaths in Iraq today is terrorism by Sunni minorities, not the U.S. occupation. (3) When al Qaeda “struck at America” in 1998, its two embassy bombs killed and wounded thousands of East Africans while killing exactly 12 Americans. Such “targeting” is morally sick; it can only damage al Qaeda’s image in Africa — if the truth is well-told and the good arguments are well-marshaled by skilled officers of public affairs and public diplomacy.
Terrorists themselves, being calculating, recognize this danger, and do hold debates about strategy. Inside Al Qaeda (Diane Publishing, 2004) by Algerian journalist and infiltrator Mohamed Sifaoui is the latest book to show how some members of even the most hardened terrorist organization will dissent, or argue, or otherwise oppose killing the innocent and civilians. There are often advocates for alternative approaches, violent or nonviolent. Sean O’Callaghan developed a bad conscience over a particular murder the ira performed, and began to turn. Marc Sageman’s book Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) shows how a debate on strategy split up the Egyptians of “Jihad” or al Jihad, which had murdered Anwar Sadat.
Public pressures by adept political figures may create or enhance such internal disputes, increasing fissures. Skilled penetrators — if we have them — can begin internal debates where they do not yet exist. There are ways to advance internal confusion and dissension, and they should be used when the stakes are so high and the essential activity of the terror group is by nature repugnant and dangerous. It sounds odd to suggest promoting debate within terrorist organizations. But even terrorists can have, or develop, conscience. And terrorists also are well-attuned to self-interest. No one should forget the damage done to the Italian Red Brigades by once-loyal insiders when authorities offered “repentants” good deals with prosecutors. Many terrorists talked, and it tore out the guts of the once-clandestine networks in Italian cities.
Terrorists’ morale has also been beaten by brilliant counterterror operations. This is denied by the errant who speak endlessly and only of the “root causes” of terrorism. We have already seen how mrta in Peru saw its star fall from the skies in a few minutes, shot down by the guns of Peruvian commandos retaking the Japanese residence in Lima. Similar violence was done to the hopes of the Baader-Meinhof chiefs counting time in jail in Germany in 1977. They planned on a Lufthansa hijacking to free them, in a bargain with authorities. But German authorities had recovered from the indulgence and incompetence shown at Munich in 1972. The new gsg-9 counterterror force flew after the plane to Mogadishu, broke into it on the ground, killed the terrorists, and rescued the hostages. The moral effect was strategic: four of the Baader-Meinhof leaders attempted suicide, three succeeding. While all red dreams did not die with them in Germany, neither did this group recover. War is an interactive process, as Clausewitz taught. Governments can break terrorists’ will; governments need not themselves always be the ones broken.
State support for terrorism is another problem at the strategic level, and it, too, can be countered. State support to transnational “substate” killers is intolerable under international law, both traditional and modern. That means it can be exposed and then politically opposed — by capitals and their allies. Military pressure may also stop state sponsors. Turkey endured years of Kurdish pkk training in Syrian safe havens, but when it finally mobilized troops within Turkey over the matter, Abdullah Ocalan was sent packing — and could then be caught in Kenya by the Turks. The effect on pkk capabilities as a guerrilla force was dramatic.
Hannah Arendt and other experts on totalitarian regimes felt they look as invulnerable as sheet steel from the outside, but that once cracked slightly, they could fall apart like broken glass. We later watched this happen to the Soviet bloc. Terror groups may be vulnerable to political complexities and errant decisions. Certainly they are vulnerable to what communists criticize as “splittism” — the terrifying risk of ideological division, sometimes over rather minor matters. Small groups can be vulnerable to frustration in political obscurity as the minority of all minorities. The “White Power” movement within the U.S. showed at least two signs of division in the past year or so. One was open and ideological — over the question of whether “Jews are the enemy,” or whether all minorities are the enemy. The second case was physical, at a “Nordic Fest” in Kentucky, when the National Socialist Movement found its members bloodily assaulted by another faction of neo-Nazis — over personal insults at a speech.
By contrast, moderation and democracy have many natural human allies and natural international appeal. It is a simple truth — not a simplistic one — that in most matters of terrorism, U.S. counterterrorists are far more on the side of virtue than of vice. Set aside Abu Ghraib for a moment and the several military scandals in Iraq. In the overall global war on terrorism, during the past five years, and in far larger matters of political philosophy and our role in the world, democracy does not have much to apologize for. Terrorism does. So if we use the right arguments abroad we will have some political effect. Instead, as all of Washington knows, our public diplomacy has seemed absent for years at a time, or has been ham-handed when it should be a firm, communicative handshake. And even when public diplomacy can be good, as in sending American speakers and nongovernmental experts abroad as citizens representing our country, such efforts are so inadequately funded that they cannot reach very many hearts and minds.
Who is the enemy in Iraq? The otherwise powerful insurgency in Iraq is totally open to charges of incoherence and aimlessness and contradictory positions. Yet when did we last see U.S. diplomats, or the Iraqi government, forcefully point this out? The Achilles heel of the Iraqi insurgency is that its elements have no unified platform of the sort the Algerian fln published when starting its war in November 1954. That document guided the fln’s work over the years to complete victory in 1962. It created some consensus where there had been none and committed a mix of interests and parties to submit to discipline in ways once foreign. It was an essential political instrument. The Iraqi terrorists today have no counterpart. This is an opening through which we should be driving a truck.
Or consider religion and the global war on terrorism. Religion is by definition idealistic. It is a different form of ideology from, say, political realism. Therefore if the actions of “religious” terrorists can be shown to be base, or self-serving, or contrary to the religion, the terrorists can be discredited.
For that reason, President Bush and others are right to decry Muslim militancy that spills innocent blood as a repudiation of true religion. But their point demands expansion and elaboration. Bin Laden should be ridiculed for his self-assumption of clerical authorities; the man never studied at a seminary. There is every reason to point to the shocking arrogance of published fatwas which cast legitimate imams into the shadows while dictating who should be killed. And when moderate Muslims condemn terrorism, as they have in Spain, Britain, and the United States, their judgments deserve respect — and much better press and official attention.
Specific vulnerabilities also lie within the heart of each terrorist ideology. Classical fascism, for example, lacked the advantages of internationalism — in appeal, and in operations. Japan’s self-centered world view left her with almost no partners during World War ii, while democracies in the “The Atlantic Charter” could hold hands naturally, no matter how wide the seas between them. Neofascism today is hobbled by the thorough discrediting of its doctrine in the eyes of most of the world by or before 1945. Becoming a fascist in 1927 was dramatic, revolutionary, interesting — it even showed optimism of an odd sort. Becoming a fascist in 2007 is to be a pariah in most social or political sitting rooms. It means no coalitions or weak coalitions with other parties, less money, and regular ill treatment by the press. Today a convinced southern Austrian neo-Nazi might say encouraging things about Danish storm troopers, but that does not mean he’ll tender a third of his party treasury to them to watch them start up more cells. Actual cooperation, let alone joint planning, between neofascists from different nations is very unusual. There is as well the discredit of one’s intellectual heroes, for example David Irving, who lost in a court opportunity to prove his case. The most important neo-Nazi group in recent times, at Hayden Lake, Idaho, has been broken by a lawsuit; its “church” and compound are plowed under. The lawyer who did it, Morris Dees, is a national hero, which points to another problem for American neofascists: public resistance. In America it has been true for several decades that the Ku Klux Klan or the neo-Nazis can usually get a permit to march; but then they are met by five or ten times as many counterdemonstrators. A neofascist march in the United States is a tiny parody of the demonstrations of power once seen in downtown Munich or Nuremberg.
Consider an opposite case. Al Qaeda’s internationalism is its most important characteristic, after its lethality. Internationalism is a source of power — ideologically, operationally, and for recruiting. Do opportunities for us lie within that center of gravity? Might there be exploitable grievances? There might. About where the new caliphate would be sited, and what territories it could cover — and exclude. About whether Asian al Qaeda members get the same credit and respect as Arabs with bin Laden’s organization. About what geographical theaters get emphasis from the logistical comptrollers at “The Base” while others might go relatively hungry, or even starve. About whether large cash contributions from known donors are being well spent by management, or whether some are wasted, or hiding in foreign banks for individuals planning to depart the revolution. About the places al Qaeda chooses to fight: surely some of al Zawahiri’s Egyptians must resent these protracted efforts across the globe which — let’s face it — have created no change at home in Egypt.
Today’s Islamofascism, as Mohamed Sifaoui and Francis Fukuyama call it, has another specific failing: It leaves out most Muslims. Our world is home to more than a billion Muslims, but only 100,000 to 200,000 may really believe that the murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear and create a new political force will actually strengthen Islam. Still fewer count on a new caliphate. The willpower and current enthusiasm of the minuscule minority seem important to us, and they are; but they can wane, as surely as Baader-Meinhof/Red Army faction pretensions to popularity gave way over time to the sober views and desires of tens of millions of Germans. Isolating the terrorists may take years, but it can and must be done.
Another vulnerability that must keep terrorism’s planners up at night is the difference between Shiite and Sunni. Zarqawi enjoyed exploiting those deep divisions in Iraq, up to the point of his death, but for many terror group leaders, inter-Islamic warfare would be a horrid prospect and a dangerous weapon. Using terror to start internal war can be akin to using a grenade made in a back street shop — it is just as likely to hurt you as whomever you throw it at. The strategists of internecine Muslim warfare expect to defeat the infidels first and then deal later with their closer Muslim enemies. But there are political disadvantages to such an approach, and most terror leaders lack the skill of an Osama bin Laden, long known for building alliances.
Other ideologies have their own inherent vulnerabilities that weaken political militancy and beg for exploitation. Anarchism was potent a century ago, yet it suffers from the ineradicable problem that anarchists do not want to organize! And in their diversity, defeat awaits. Contemporary anarchism has some political muscle but no instinct for the kill, and no well-developed doctrine of militancy. Anarchists today illuminate certain causes, such as antiglobalism and the environment. They are little threat to government. When anarchist gunmen appear, they may succeed in firing an opening scatter of shots, but the movement is most unlikely in our day to be able to mount a pitched battle.
Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the farc in Colombia have only totalitarian communism to offer to populations well accustomed to democracy. Since democracy works well in most parts of both those very different countries, democracy has a natural credibility with voters and citizens. Communism’s promise to overthrow it in favor of a now-discredited system of economics and politics is not the strongest suit of these contemporary terrorists. Their appeal is limited. Colombia is the second oldest democracy in this hemisphere. The alternative is an offshoot of Castroite communism in a year when Fidel is 80. That cannot much impress sober Colombians.
We are indeed in a hard march through rough country. No one is quite sure how long it will take to defeat al Qaeda. But as a determined Englishman said when his people were on a “stony road” during 1942, some things are not to be doubted. “We have reached a period in the war when it would be premature to say that we have topped the ridge, but now we see the ridge ahead. . . . We shall go forward together.” If anything is clear, it is that his war was far harder than our own.