"Soldiers" of Terrorism
From RAND Review: Redefining the Enemy
By Brian Michael Jenkins
Mr. Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation and one of the world’s leading authorities on international terrorism.
The most immediate threat we face is terrorism. The global jihad being waged by al Qaeda and like-minded Islamist fanatics draws upon these historical roots:
-Muslim reactions to colonial rule
-continued military defeats at the hands of the West
-a deep sense of humiliation and desire for revenge
failures of governments and economies in North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia
-increased emigration and the isolation and alienation often felt by marginalized immigrant communities
-a growing sense of unity among all Muslims fed by charismatic communicators, like Osama bin Laden, who use images of suffering—in Bosnia, Chechnya, Palestine, and Iraq, reinforced daily on Arab satellite television—to indoctrinate followers
the common sense of purpose and lasting connections created by the ultimately successful jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
We avoid the construct, but it is for America’s current jihadist foes a religious war starting centuries ago and lasting until judgment day. It is this mindset that has been grafted upon the tactics of contemporary terrorism. The two now flow together, applying jihadist codes of operation to a terrorist repertoire. It is a powerful and dangerous combination.
Today’s terrorist adversaries have no intention of matching America’s superior military capability. They intend to exploit its vulnerabilities. Like all religious fanatics, they see themselves as morally superior, armed with the sword of God, commanded to wage a holy war. They see Americans as soulless, spineless, materialistic beings, unwilling to make sacrifices—people whose sole measures of well-being are the Dow Jones average and retail consumption, desperate for the peace and tranquility that the terrorists can deny.
The 9/11 attacks had cascading effects on the economy. Total direct and indirect costs amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars, and the effects are still being felt in some sectors. Terrorists have recognized the potential of economic warfare. They speak about this potential more often, although they have yet to fully exploit it.
Tomorrow’s terrorists might become more adept in this endeavor. They could attempt to destroy our economy through terror alone—periodic devastating attacks, perhaps years apart, that will ensure the credibility of their continuing threats in the years in between. They already are becoming more adept at shaping our perceptions, exploiting the global news media to conduct "effect-based operations" in which they observe and measure how their own chatter and threats provoke security alerts that impose costly security measures and disrupt the economy.
Power is descending. Violence is escalating. In 1974, I wrote that the power to kill, destroy, disrupt, cause alarm, and oblige societies to divert vast resources to security is descending into the hands of smaller and smaller groups whose grievances, real or imaginary, it will not always be possible to satisfy. The irreconcilables, fanatics, and lunatics—who have existed throughout history—have become an increasingly potent force to be reckoned with.
Subsequent events have borne this out. Over the past three decades, terrorists have multiplied the number of their victims by an order of magnitude every 15 years. In the 1970s, the bloodiest terrorist incidents involved tens of fatalities. By the 1990s, hundreds were being killed in the worst incidents, and these occurred more frequently. In 2001, the number reached the thousands, and today we fear scenarios in which tens of thousands might die.
Killing on this scale is hard to do. Conventional explosives alone won’t suffice, nor will chemical weapons, unless used in massive quantities, or radiological attacks. Only biological or nuclear weapons can attain this level of lethality.
The exchange ratios are aligned against us. As we concern ourselves more with avoiding collateral casualties, even conserving the lives of enemy soldiers, our terrorist foes are more willing to carry out large-scale indiscriminate attacks. While our tolerance for friendly casualties has declined, terrorists have turned their religious conviction into a weapons system based on their readiness to die.
Increasingly, we are at war not with enemy states or enemy armies but with small groups of people or with specific individuals: fugitive terrorists, drug traffickers, warlords, dangerous dictators, rogue scientists. We find ourselves in the domain of manhunts, lethal takedowns, and individually targeted killings. The nature of these missions blurs military operations with law enforcement, changes the rules of engagement, and increases the requirement for precision, whether in economic coercion or in the application of military power. That, in turn, increases the demands on intelligence and the ability to rapidly exploit it.
Yet powerful institutional barriers to fundamental change remain. In the armed forces, there is still a tendency to view the current situation as an anomaly—as the "other war" as opposed to the "real war," as missions to be consigned to specialized units rather than to main forces, as opportunities to gain valuable field experience but not a compelling argument to radically alter how we organize to fight. We adapt incrementally. Given our great strength, that may suffice. But one wonders. It is nowhere written that we will win.
Bronze Age kingdoms, from the Mycenaeans to the Hittites, waged chariot warfare. When relatively primitive challengers fielded hordes of lightly armed foot soldiers, they changed the nature of warfare itself. The technologically advanced chariots became obsolete. Within a period of only several decades, the great Bronze Age kingdoms themselves collapsed, great cities were destroyed, commerce was significantly disrupted, and much of the civilized world slid into a dark age that lasted 400 years.
Today, we confront an array of enemies whose diverse interests are served by obviating U.S. military superiority, destroying American cities, and disrupting commerce. These are not the "wars" we would prefer. They are not the ones that fit into our planning scenarios. Nor are they the contests where we necessarily have the obvious advantage. To the contrary, they are the ones that compel us to rethink our assumptions, to reconfigure our forces, and to reinvigorate our alliances.
Links to Required Reading on Counter-Terrorism:
Countering al Qaeda: An Appreciation of the Situation and Suggestions for Strategy, Brian Michael Jenkins, RAND/MR-1620-RC, 2002, 41 pp.
Deterrence & Influence in Counterterrorism: A Component in the War on Al Qaeda, Paul K. Davis, Brian Michael Jenkins, RAND/MR-1619-DARPA, 2002, 105 pp.