High on a ridge above an inaccessible valley in northern Iran sit the remains of Alamut castle, previous stronghold of the Assassins, history’s first political terrorists. Appearing in the 11th century, the Assassins were members of Muslim sects that used targeted assassinations against their enemies–Western crusaders and moderate Muslim regimes–in an effort to establish their ideal version of an Islamic state.
Though Alumut castle was eventually sacked by the Mongols, the Assassins managed to wage their revolutionary war for more than 100 years. In time they became some of the most feared of all enemies, until eventually their name–Assassins–became synonymous with political murder. “Note that there is a certain race of Muslims in the mountains who in their own vernacular are called Heyssessini (Assassins),” wrote Egyptian Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s envoy in 1175. “This breed of men lives without law…. They have among them a Master who strikes the greatest fear into all the Muslim princes both far and near, as well as the neighbouring Christian lords, for the Master has the habit of killing them in an astonishing way.”
The Assassins’ technique was to spend months or years working agents into the innermost circles of their enemy’s civilization, from which position they could strike at the exact moment when the attack would have the greatest political impact. Because of their unique belief system the assassins didn’t fear death but actually welcomed it. In addition to being the first political terrorists, they were also the first suicide operatives.
What made the Assassins so interesting is not solely the parallel to today’s struggle against al-Qaeda-led Islamic militants, but the nature of the Assassins’ strategy. Operating out of both Iran and Syria with agents in numerous countries, the Assassins were a transnational group of independent, non-state fighters bound together by a network of shared beliefs and goals. The Ismaili sect of Islam, of which the Assassins were the most prominent, never had a state to call their own and they were determined to change that. The strategy of protracted irregular warfare is particularly hard to defend against because it defies the Western preference for sharp, decisive battles.
For more than a decade now, Canada and her allies have been facing a similar threat from a similar phenomenon, a dispersed network of Islamic militants that has pledged to return the Muslim world to a pure state by inciting revolutionary action against moderate Muslim governments and ridding the Muslim world of the ‘crusaders,’ as Osama bin Laden called the West in his 1998 declaration of war. After the deadly July bombings in London and Egypt, security officials in North America and Europe are convinced more than ever that these kinds of attacks will continue for years. Shortly after the bombings, newspaper headlines in Canada were stating that our country could be next. The headline on the cover of the July 18 edition of Maclean’s magazine warned that the attacks are lessons for a “woefully unprepared Canada.”
During his speeches over the last few years, bin Laden has not only singled out Canada for attention, he has slowly elaborated a strategy for fighting a protracted guerrilla campaign against the Western world. In this war, his object isn’t to win militarily; he aims to win by weakening our economy and sapping our political will. It is a new kind of battle, one that takes a complicated new kind of military strategy. It is counter-insurgency warfare on an international scale, where the fight isn’t against another army but against networks of allied militants who slither among the shadows. It is a strange war, but it is a war. As our Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier said, Canadians are at more risk of direct attack now than at any time during the Cold War.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the pace of terrorist attacks has more than doubled what it was in the four years before that day. This year, for the first time, the United States State Department has declined to release its annual report summarizing global terrorist activity. Some analysts argue that the key reason for withholding the report is political, as the report shows that terrorist attacks are increasing exponentially, not decreasing. In 2003, there were at least 175 significant terrorist incidents, the highest number in more than two decades. In 2004, there were at least 625–and that’s not including attacks on American troops in Iraq.
As the London bombings prove, the attacks aren’t solely against American targets. And remember too that it was only a few years ago that vacationing Australians were targeted in Bali, Indonesia. Add also the co-ordinated campaign against British targets in Istanbul, Turkey, in November 2003 and the horrific bombing of Spanish commuter trains in Madrid in 2004. During a speech in 2002, bin Laden said: “The events since the New York and Washington raids until today–such as the killing of Germans in Tunisia and the French in Karachi, the blowing up of the French supertanker in Yemen, the recent operation in Moscow, and other operations here and there–were only reactions based on equal treatment…. What caused your governments to join America in attacking us in Afghanistan? I mention in particular Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Australia.”
The strikes in London and Egypt show the militant network is still plotting. But what is the exact nature of the threat posed by Islamic militancy? How dangerous are they?
In the best-case scenario, the Islamic militants are nothing more than simple terrorists, in essence no different than a criminal gang whose movement can be marginalized by precise military action and a concentrated intelligence effort. In the wake of the London bombings, this now seems unlikely, given the continued attacks and evidence of increasing popular support for the militants among some segments of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.
Also worth considering is the worst-case scenario–the so-called World War IV or clash of civilizations model–where the world’s Muslim population becomes so aggrieved that moderate Muslim governments in a broad arc from North Africa to Southeast Asia are toppled by revolutionary coups, leading to general war against the West and its allies. Though theoretically possible, there isn’t enough evidence to support the idea of a broad-based revolutionary sentiment, at least not yet. For now, then, the most likely scenario is that Canada and its allies will continue to face and deal with what amounts to a protracted international insurgency–a global guerrilla war.
“The size of bin Laden’s organization, its political goals, and its enduring relationship with a fundamentalist Islamic social movement provide strong evidence that al-Qaeda is not a terrorist group but an insurgency,” writes Marine Corps Lieutenant-Colonel Michael F. Morris in al-Qaeda as Insurgency, a paper written for the United States Army War College strategic research project. “The disparate nature of the threat–in essence a global, but somewhat leisurely paced guerrilla war–makes it difficult to focus an effective strategic response.”
Western powers have a bad history against this kind of threat. In conflicts like Vietnam, Algeria and Chechnya, Western militaries have had a very difficult time defeating enemies that engage in protracted irregular conflict. Terrorists are dealt with like criminals, but insurgents are different. Because of their popular support, the battle against insurgents–even insurgents that use terrorist tactics–is largely a war of ideas. It is a political battle between the wills of the various populations and it doesn’t follow rules of conventional conflict.
So the question is: if the Islamic militants continue their bloody campaign for 200 years, like the Assassins did, what will that mean for our way of life? Will there be breadlines in Vancouver–tanks on the streets of Ottawa? Will it be a much less dramatic, but slow weakening of power and a gentle decline into a less affluent condition? The best hope is that the most affected nations would somehow solve the riddle posed by a global insurgency and find a way to end the conflict before it threatens Canada.
Before considering any particular strategy for defeating or marginalizing Islamic militancy, it is imperative to understand their situation. As the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote more than 2,000 years ago in the Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Osama bin Laden received most of his early direction from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egypt-based movement founded in 1928 that proposed an Islamic alternative to capitalist and Marxist styles of government and development. The Muslim Brotherhood’s motto is a simple but fairly complete summation of the ideology driving the Islamic militancy. It states: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” After helping to defeat the Russians in Afghanistan during the 1980s, bin Laden turned his revolutionary attention to the West and its allies during the 1991 war against Iraq. Aggrieved by the U.S. troop deployment to the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia and angered by the continuing conflict in Palestine, he decided it was time to take on the world’s only remaining superpower.
During the following decade an estimated 18,000 Islamic militants received training in Afghanistan, most of whom have since dispersed around the world. If that number is still generally accurate, it means the Islamic militants have a mid-sized force, ranking about 100th out of the world’s 161 standing militaries, right between El Salvador and Paraguay. Even more interesting is that if you consider that the 18,000 jihadists were trained as infantry, albeit irregular infantry, then the Islamic militant ground combat force is almost exactly the same size as the Canadian army.
What makes the Islamic militants dangerous, however, isn’t just their relative strength in numbers or their continued operation, it is their public support. A Pew Research Centre Global Attitudes survey conducted in June 2005 showed that support for the U.S.-led war on terror has declined sharply among apparently moderate Muslim countries like Pakistan and Jordan. Among the population of 69 million in Turkey, a Muslim democracy currently struggling to gain acceptance into the European Union, a mere 17 per cent support the war on terror.
Strangely, the annual Pew survey no longer asks certain questions of its respondents. In 2004, for example, Pew asked whether respondents believed that suicide attacks against U.S. and western forces in Iraq were justified. Thirty-one per cent of Turks, 46 per cent of Pakistanis and 70 per cent of Jordanians reported that they feel such attacks are justified. In total, that’s more than 100 million people who believe killing Americans and westerners in Iraq is the right thing to do. Eleven per cent of Turks, 65 per cent of Pakistanis and 55 per cent of Jordanians also held a favourable opinion of bin Laden in 2004–that’s more than 115 million people in these three moderate, allied Muslim countries who feel comfortable admitting their support for bin Laden.
According to the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who wrote extensively about the art of guerrilla and revolutionary warfare, every successful insurgency passes through three phases. In the first phase the insurgents concentrate on building political strength. Military action is limited to harassment attacks and selected, politically motivated assassinations. In the second phase the insurgents gain strength and consolidate control of base areas. Military activity increases. In phase three the insurgents commit regular forces into a final offensive against their enemy.
In one reading at least, the Sept. 11 attacks marked the Islamic militants’ entrance into the third phase of revolutionary war. Having spent more than two decades garnering support ?for the Islamic revolution (and defeating the Soviet Red Army along the way), the militants were ready to move beyond small attacks and strike out from their base in Afghanistan to take on a really big target–the core of America’s economic and military strength. The 19 hijackers who completed the Sept. 11 attacks may not have been regular forces by our standards, but by the standards of the Islamic militants these men were all among the most highly educated, highly trained operatives in the entire organization.
Colonel Bernd Horn, who teaches the history and theory of revolutionary warfare at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and is the director of the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute, told Legion Magazine that he believes the militants had been pushed off their attack, off their bases and are now back at an early phase two stage. This is typical of Mao’s paradigm for waging guerrilla war, where the art of the retreat is just as critical as the art of the attack. “Small powers and small guerrilla groups can just bide their time,” said Horn. “They have control of the initiative and they can very slowly proceed. It is death by a thousand pin pricks. The successful insurgencies don’t win on the battlefield.”
It is during the time between attacks, when the militants are attempting to increase their public support, find and train new recruits and spread their belief system to a wider audience, that most of the decisive action takes place. “Most revolutions are not mass movements,” said Horn. “Most revolutions have begun because of basic conditions among the populace. The people do not have voice, they feel that the government is corrupt, they feel supporting the insurgents is their best chance to improve their standard of living, their lot in life. It is a political issue. And one of the biggest problems we have is people think an insurgency or revolution demands a military solution, but it is political, and political problems need political solutions.
“Most of the time people are primarily concerned about the basic needs in life–a secure environment where they can have a decent living and where their kids have a chance of having a life better than they have–these are all the things we in the Western world take for granted. If you want to solve the revolution or the insurgency, you have to deal with the causes.”
Though investigating the root causes of terrorism can be a contentious subject–for how can you explain evil?–there is a growing awareness that certain political and social conditions can incite populations to support terrorists and their activities. Among these general issues are poverty, injustice, lawlessness and a perceived lack of political and social representation. Addressing these causes may help diminish public support for the insurgent movement, which makes the job of isolating and stopping the terrorists much more straightforward.
Understanding what the causes are and dealing with them may be a crucial step toward undermining the insurgency, but according to Marine Corps Col. Thomas Hammes, the problem may not be that straightforward. Hammes is a proponent of what has become known as fourth-generation warfare or 4GW. In his recent and widely cited book, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, Hammes laid out the central tenets of 4GW. “Fourth-generation warfare uses all available networks–political, economic, social and military–to convince the enemy’s political decision-makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit.”
One of the key characteristics of 4GW is the loss of the state’s monopoly on war and the rise of non-state entities that command people’s primary loyalty. These entities may be gangs, religions, races and ethnic groups within races, localities, tribes, business enterprises or ideologies.
The 4GW concept first surfaced during the late 1980s among a group of military strategists who were attempting to understand the future of warfare. According to these strategists, warfare has evolved through several distinct phases. The first generation of modern war was characterized by massed manpower and culminated in the Napoleonic wars. The second generation was characterized by firepower. It culminated in World War I. The third generation is all about manoeuvre warfare, as used by the Germans during WW II and perfected by the Americans during the Gulf wars. This phase is ongoing.
In 4GW, the enemy is often a transnational, decentralized group of non-state militants. This fragmented situation, as Hammes explained during an interview with Legion Magazine, makes it more difficult to understand and address the root causes. “Unlike the old insurgencies and the enemies we fought–like in WW II where we had a monolithic enemy to fight, somebody we could understand, study and go after–insurgencies now are networks. They’re coalitions of the willing: whoever is against the occupying power will fight to drive them out.”
Instead of war being the equivalent of a boxing match between two states, 4GW is now more like a boxer versus a viral infection. The traditional strengths of the boxer are irrelevant and flailing against his unseen and possibly unknowable enemy only makes him weaker. The networked enemy has no centre mass to hit, no head to decapitate. “The primary characteristics are that it is a political not a military struggle,” said Hammes. “Now that’s not new in war, but the West has always tried to push the politics to the back when the fighting starts. But in this type of war, politics are the primary thing, winning militarily is of no importance. They don’t plan to win militarily. They don’t see the need to defeat us, they just have to make us go home. When we go home the struggle will start among the insurgents over who’s going to run that country.”
The West has an unhappy tradition of cutting and running when the going gets too hard. In Beirut and Somalia, for example, the U.S. withdrew as a direct result of suffering significant casualties. Though that may be a strategically acceptable response to criminal terrorism and tribal hostility, it is not an acceptable response to an insurgency. There were more attacks by Islamic militants in 2004 than in any other year, ever. If the insurgency continues to grow, the only real defence may be a massive commitment to a new kind of offence.
Because of the nature of the world’s economy, mass communication and transit, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Western security is best achieved through global stability. The enemy isn’t primarily the Islamic militants, instead the enemy is the places that breed support for the militants–failed and failing states. The strategic aims can’t be just to kill militants, the focus has to be on undermining popular support for militants and their terrorist tactics. No longer can we afford to cut and run, because if we do the militants will move in right behind us, consolidating their bases, and preparing to re-enter phase three of Mao’s revolutionary war. “As a part of the western, advanced, industrialized, economically sound world, Canada has a responsibility to help bring stability to areas that are inherently unstable,” said Canada’s chief of defence staff Hillier during a speech in 2004. “If we can’t or don’t do that, those areas will end up generating instability that will be delivered to us in many forms, whether that is direct attack or a different method.”
In the current strategy, delivering stability is the answer to treating the root causes of terrorism. Once a country has a developing economy, rule of law, security and representational government, public support for the terrorist insurgency should decline.
“What I believe we have to do, as a country, is to empower citizens of these failed states to regain control of their lives and their government in a stable environment. We have not put sufficient intellectual energy, resources and work toward learning how to create stability through nation building and peacekeeping.”
If we have not put sufficient energy into learning about nation building and peacekeeping, then it is also inevitably true that we have not put enough effort into understanding and implementing an integrated approach to counter-insurgency. The effort to stabilize and develop Afghanistan is an excellent case study in the West’s approach to defeating the Islamic militants. Although there have been significant successes in Afghanistan, the global trend of increased attacks applies there as well. Indeed, every year–since the 2001 invasion–has seen an increase in NATO casualties. If losses continue in 2005 at their current pace, they will double the losses of 2004. “I think what we’re beginning to see is a kind of perfect storm coming together in Afghanistan,” said Hammes. “Our counter-insurgency program was working quite well but then we made a couple of mistakes. We got really hyper about going after the drugs without a solution about how you replace 40 to 60 per cent of the economy that comes from drugs. Afghans have never liked control from the centre. The regional militia commanders are now coming back and saying to the people ‘See, we told you not to trust those guys in the central government.’”
If the solution to a 4GW enemy is a combination of political, social, economic and military action, then all of the forces working toward that goal must be tightly integrated so that the overall strategy is consistent and well shaped. With this issue of poppy eradication in Afghanistan, it is clear that not all the parts of the machine are working synchronously toward the same goal. “Even though we say this integrated approach is the way to fight it,” said Horn, “if you talk to the guys on the ground I think you’ll find that there’s still not that close collaboration between agencies, not only within militaries but beyond that, to the Canadian International Development Agency or other economic development agencies. We’re still not doing it.”
In Afghanistan, the poppy is grown for its narcotic properties. Horn said the whole idea of poppy eradication puts the West in a real bind. “On one hand we want the support of local warlords and we want the people to support democratization and the process and yet at the same time because of our own anti-drug focus we want to achieve eradication. Quite frankly, I’m not sure you can make the two match. For the farmer, the poppy generates 10 times the income they could get with something else. It is a very sturdy, hardy plant. It is a cash crop that brings them money and all of a sudden someone wants to wipe it out. Though some people join an insurgency because they have no political say, the biggest cause for them to join is economics; if they can’t make a living for themselves or their family, it causes problems. If you oppress them, that causes problems. And that’s when they start to support an insurgency. With the poppies, you’re doing exactly those things. You’re fuelling the fire. Until you provide them with a realistic replacement for the poppy, you shouldn’t be burning them down.”
The poppy situation is a classic dilemma of 4GW. We can’t have the Afghans growing drugs, but we also can’t intentionally impoverish a large percentage of the country. The new U.S. policy of aerial poppy eradication combined with short-term subsidies for poppy farmers is certainly risky. If the execution isn’t flawless, the outcomes are all too predictable. “There is still a very military-orientated response to these challenges,” said Hammes, who argued that the proper response “would go beyond just pumping a bunch of money into Afghanistan, it would deal with the larger issues. The best thing we can do is help the moderate leaders emerge. We’ve got to help get their societies opened up enough for productivity and economic development. But what if you do get control and an enthusiastic democratic government comes forward but it can’t feed the people? How does a society with no real resources, no education and overpopulation manage to thrive? That’s the huge dilemma.”
Though political problems demand political solutions, sometimes there are no easy answers. The prospect of stabilizing Sudan and Somalia, in addition to Afghanistan and Iraq, is certainly daunting. Meanwhile, as Londoners know full well, there are militants hiding among us, waiting for orders to strike.
But even more frightening than sporadic attacks is the prospect of a protracted global guerrilla war from which there is no retreat. In this scenario, facing an evolved insurgency with significant support from the Muslim public, it won’t be any one attack that causes the damage, instead it could be death by a thousand cuts.
If we can’t find a way to undermine the virulent ideology of the Islamic militant, the continued conflict will inevitably have a strongly negative impact on our economy and our future. Very recent history, and bin Laden himself, tell us as much “It is easy for us to provoke and bait this administration,” said bin Laden in a widely reported 2004 speech. “All that we have to do is to send two Mujahideen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without achieving anything of note. This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the Mujahideen, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat. So we are continuing this policy of bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.”