EEI #7 – An Essay: "Non-state Actors, Terrorism & Terrorists, War Amongst the People – Still"

Essential Elements of Information for a Culture of Preparedness

During the 1970s the iconic terrorist target became the international airliner. But as airline security increased in response to terrorist incidents, it became more difficult to hijack or bomb aircraft, and this difficulty resulted in a shift in targeting. By the mid-1980s, while there were still some incidents involving aircraft, the iconic terrorist target had become the embassy. But attacks against embassies have also provoked a security response, resulting in embassy security programs that have produced things …which some have labeled “fortress America” buildings due to their foreboding presence and their robust construction designed to withstand rocket and large IED attacks.

 …Overall, however, this trend of making embassies hard targets has caused yet another shift in the terrorist paradigm. As STRATFOR has noted since 2004, hotels have become the iconic terrorist target of the post-9/11 era. Indeed, by striking an international hotel in a capital city, militants can make the same type of statement against Western imperialism and decadence that they can make by striking an embassy. Hotels are often full of Western businessmen, diplomats and intelligence officers, providing militants with a target-rich environment where they can kill Westerners and gain international media attention without having to penetrate the extreme security of a modern embassy. ( extract from STRATFOR analysis -next EEI post)

Mumbai, Jakarta – Improvised Exposive Devices, Suicide bombers, whether 9-11 expeditionary style attacks or home grown, despite the “end” to the usage of “Global War on Terrorism” the world cannot ignore that attacks aimed at women, children, all are still the mode of operation for non-state terrorist organizations. Staying aware and continuing to learn is crucial. Please continue to the following  PWH Essay (JEB).


by Ed Beakley

Eight summers ago I was heavily involved with final planning, then execution, and analysis of a Navy exercise – experiment really – focused on battle group staff decision making when faced with multiple attacks on Navy ships by a non-state actor group using weapons of mass destruction.  My observation throughout the evolution was that while this was a very enlightened approach to explore just how well -or not –  current decision making templates would hold up when applied against a new type of threat, much of the Navy was seemingly not overly concerned with “asymmetric warfare.”  When the USS Cole was attacked three months later, the exercise/experiment seemed most timely.

While some may have not been completely surprised that a U.S. ship would be attacked in the Middle East, few of us were not caught completely off guard by the airliner-as-weapon attack of September 11, 2001.  The initial conditions for defense of the country within  the country that existed that morning just prior to American Airlines Flight 11 impact -at eight hours, forty-six minutes, thirty-nine seconds – were later characterized by investigators with the terms “lack of imagination,” and “poor to non-existent procedures for sharing timely intelligence among the key agencies.” 

An overlapping but different set of initial conditions – no more in context or appropriate content – existed for offensive action on the following day September 12.  Indeed, our total National Defense structure, offense and defense, thinking, and planning still reflected more the capabilities for Cold War type response than that required for a non-state enemy intent on attacking civilians, using people as weapons, marginalizing our military capability, and in fact, purposefully choosing his battlespace “amongst the people.”

It should really be of no surprise that our response has been difficult.  Use whatever description you like – global insurgency, “hybrid” of war and terrorism, fourth generation warfare (4GW), guerrilla warfare – we have still not, as Von Clausewitz stated, first fulfilled the requirement to understand what kind of war we are in.  And thus approaching the eighth anniversary of 9-11, our leaders have still not been able to fully explain to the country why, how, and even who we fight.

Given that, it should also probably be of no surprise that as we begin to downsize and move out of Iraq, that the media and the blogosphere now focus not only on why we should not remain in Afghanistan, but even question why we ever went in to start with.  Concern with lack of imagination has turned to accusations of creating fear – “Hollywoodizing” the threat.  Comments now abound on “we panicked, overreacted, should have known better, seen how badly things would turn out, indeed, 9-11 should not have unhinged us the way it did.”

I bring this current focus up not to begin a dialogue on the merits of going into either Iraq or Afghanistan, serious mistakes made both strategic and tactical, why we fight, nor to debate the tactics, techniques, procedures of counter insurgency (COIN).  Rather, the purpose here is to hopefully provide contrast to the continuing issue of a global conflict – of which, terrorist organizations and their severe acts of violence on any and all are a major possibility – that remains  as a major characteristic of this century, still. 

Having actionable understanding of terrorists and terrorism is indeed a continuing essential element of information, if one believes in the need for building and maintaining a culture of preparedness.  Have things changed in the world since 9-11?  Most assuredly, but consider the following aspects of terrorism, all controlled by the terrorist:

  • Choice of battlespace: By understood definition, terrorism is  an act of violence against civilians intended to intimidate government into effecting change. It has merged with aspects of insurgency, irregular warfare, etc (discussed below) as a mode of conflict played out on a global stage. The protagonists not only use people as targets, but specifically choose to fight in and among the population. This “war amongst the people” as the battlespace is a major element of the 21st Century security environment.  As such, leveraging greatly British General Sir Rupert Smith’s   The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, “war amongst the people” will be the subject of a future EEI post.
  • Use of time: We fight an enemy for which time, as we in the West think,m is on such as scale as would be considered asynchronous.It is worth recalling that after some seven decades, Osama Bin Laden in discussing Al Qa’ida’s griefs with the West and their operations , referred to the serious afront to the Muslim world of the post WWI dismantling of the last remnants of the Ottoman Empire. The Crusades are still part of the equation and time of the next attack is on no short term planning cycle.  Use of the term “Long War”  or “persistent conflict” may be off-putting to manyin the U.S., but not all issues are in our span of control. 
  •  Evolving Tactics, Techniques, Procedures:  From David Kilcullen, in The Accidental Guerrilla – Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One:

The 9/11 attacks are an example of what might be called ‘expeditionary terrorism.’ Al Qa’ida formed the team  for attacks in one country, assembled them in another, ran logistics and financial support for the operation out of a third, and then clandestinely inserted the teams across internatinal borders to attack its target…essentially an expeditionary raiding approach.

Contrast this with the Madrid bombing in 2004 or the London 7/7 bombing in 2005. In the latter case, rather than smuggling 19 people in, AQ openly brought one person out: Mohammed Sidque Khan, who traveled by ordinary commercial airliner on his own passport to Pakistan for briefing and training prior to the attack.  He then returned to the UK and formed the attack team inside the country, using British nationals… a guerilla approach that allowed AQ to sidestep the improved transportation security measures and international border controls put in place after 9/11 to defeat expeditionary-style terrorism.

… as the 7/7 example shows, the expeditionary model now coexists alongside a guerrilla model in which local clandestine cells are recruited and trained in the target coubntry.  Some cells are directly linked to AQ , while others receive training from AQ affiliates, or are inspired by AQ propaganda.   There is a trend towards smaller, looser networks that are less capable , but also less predictictable, and harder to detect, than the more sophisticated networks of the pre-9/11 period. (PWH emphasis added)

This suggests that AQ is agile in its approach, and willing to change and adapt as the situation develops…

The analysis of the recent hotel attacks in Jakarta following the attacks in Mumbai last November would seem to support Kilcullen’s logic. In this vein, EEI #8 provides analysis on the Jakarta attack by STRATFOR writers.

Concluding remarks

Kilcullen offers that there are four models for characterizing the Twenty-first -century security environment:

1) A backlash against Globalization, characterized by a fostering of resentment in splitting cultures, creation of a severe have-have not  population environment, openess that affords opponents use of sophisticated IT technology, easy co-ordination of distant groups, and leverage of the media marketplace.

2) A globalized insurgency thesissuggesting that the “War on Terrrism” is best understood as an extremely large-scale globalized insurgency, rather than a tradiytional terrorism problem.  Defining groups by use of the tactic of terrorism is less analytically useful than defining and understanding their strategic approach.

3) A civil war within Islam which includes radical movement to overthrow existing political and religious structures in the Muslim world, revival of the Shi’a vs Sunni conflict, and the geopolitical rise of Iran.

4) Asymmetric warfare as a method to marginalize unquestioned Western military dominance. The methods include violence targeting civilians for purposes of inrtimidation – terrorism, but also incorporate propaganda, subversion, popular agitation, economic warfare, hit-and-run attacks on regular forces to wear them down or to induce overreaction – thus placing the stronger on the horns of a moral dilemma.

Whether this mix is exhaustive or in need of modification, one thing should be evident – we still face a highly volatil asynchronous global environment with non-state actors, terrorists, terrorism and war -by choice of the a opponent – amongst us all.  It stands to reason that this certainly defines understanding terrorism and its evolution as a continuing essential element of information. Further posts in this series will expand on other aspects.

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