This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.

USA's counter terrorism effort in the Global War against Terror is frankly creating more terrorists than it is stopping. If the objective was to reduce the number of terrorists, then it has failed, because the number of terrorists and terrorist incidents is indeed increasing. If the objective was to reduce the territory they cover, then that too has not happened. If the objective was to reduce the terrorists' influence, then the influence has grown. If the idea was to reduce Islamist religiosity, then that too it has increased. Keeping things static is no fun gun. One has to aim at removing, reducing and eradicating these totally. The main reason behind this is that USA sees this problem in purely military terms. That is why it keeps on using military means primarily and then gets surprised at the results that terrorism is not reducing.

One very good way to check the counter terrorism strategy is to read what their official books say. This book had been released in 2005, but regretfully, it is only now that I finally managed to read the whole thing. I quote from the introduction here:

In August 2005, the United States (US) Army Training and Doctrine Command, Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence-Threats released the Military Guide to Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. The Guide was designed primarily for US military forces, however, other applicable groups such as state and local first responders can benefit from the information contained in the Guide. While primarily written to support operational missions, institutional training, and professional military education for US military forces in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), US domestic first responders will also find the Guide beneficial.
According to the Guide, understanding terrorism spans foreign and domestic threats of nation-states, rogue states with international or transnational agent demonstrations, and actors with specific strategies, tactics, and targets. A central aspect of this terrorism guide comprises foreign and domestic threats against the United States of America in a contemporary operational environment (COE).

But first let me state the issues. I think the type-setter or whoever was making the layouts is colour blind. The book stabbed my eyes 3-4 times in the first few pages itself. Can we keep this down to a low roar please? And you can make out it is an official document by the strange bureaucratic terminology on page 2 and the TLA's (Three Letter Acronyms) sprinkled all over the book. I can never understand the attraction that bureaucracies have for TLA's. See for example this one: contemporary operational environment (COE). What does it mean in plain English? Does it mean today's surroundings in which you operate? It does not mean anything and frankly it detracts from dealing with terrorism professionally. When you get more concerned and worried about terminology than about the core issues, then you know the recommendations and analysis has something lacking, is too mechanistic, too formulaic, too "check-listy". And so it proves! They define the COE as comprising of the following crucial variables:

Nature and Stability of the State
Regional and Global Relationships
Sociological Demographics
Physical Environment
External Environment
National Will
Military Capabilities

This kind of multi-dimensional, multi-variate analysis is so broad, that it is basically rendered completely meaningless. How on earth can you ever define and determine a terrorist threat based upon such vague and much too broad variables? The biggest downside is that this kind of complex analysis becomes stuck in time, because it is only valid for a very short period of time. Terrorist campaigns follow a non linear multi dimensional trajectory, which is impossible to predict.

The book has been written in conjunction with what seems to be the entire US defence forces, as is shown in the introduction. I am afraid their ambition over-stresses their expertise or even coverage. Calling this book as the capstone reference guide to terrorism, is setting it up to fail and fail it sure does.

The fundamental issue is soon clear, as the authors try to define terrorism and then talk about it from the sole perspective of USA's state oriented spectacles. Unfortunately, this makes it fundamentally difficult to recognise threats oriented towards the US state itself or even religious fundamentalism. For example, this is why the Oklahoma bombing was taken to be an Islamist event rather than a home grown one for a very long period of time. That is also why the case for the Iraq war was so vague and general (what exactly was its the connection to the global war against terror?)

The book talks about targeting terrorist vulnerabilities such as Ideological Support, Leadership, Safe Havens, Weapons, Funds, Communications, Movement and Access to Targets. They have simply set themselves up to fail. Modelling military responses has a long history in the US Military and it permeates the thinking inside out. Take the example of the RMA, revolution in military affairs. This concept has been beaten to death since the Gulf War I, and it ended with a spectacular failure in Iraq. All this happened, because it became very cold and logical. Even Pape, the darling of the left, after his rather skewed quantitative analysis of suicide bombing, developed a quantitative model for winning wars based upon airpower! Can you imagine this? Well, the same thing is happening here.

For example, they try to spend quite a lot of time in Chapter 1 to distinguish between Insurgency and Terrorism, Guerrilla War and Terrorism, and so on and so forth. You just cannot do that, because the terrorists and insurgents move between these classifications all the time. This in turn leads them to wrongful conclusions. For example, looking at Islamist terrorism, they completely ignore the role of the Saudi State in funding and propagating terrorism. Now this is because they try to create a model and only see terrorism from a US centric perspective and therefore, they will fail, because they support the rabid autocratic regimes in Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and a whole host of other countries.

They do not mention how the Wahhabi institution got its mitts into the state, nor do they explore how the support to the Shah gave impetus to the Iranian revolution. Without knowing and understanding the basics of terrorism, such as these, all the debates around terrorist behaviour (Chapter 2), terrorist organisations (chapter 3) etc. are simply wrong at worst and too simp0listic at best.

For example, they try to apply organisational theory to terrorist groups! It would be very amusing indeed, if it wasn't so sad. It is a nation, an ideology and a worldwide worldview which is driving the Islamists, not a corporation, which does not fit in easily into these classifications. How about Christian terrorism in Uganda or India? That does not fit in easily either.

The later chapters are much more useful, if rather tactical. Chapter 4 on Assessing Terrorist Capabilities and Intentions and Chapter 5 on Terrorist Targeting of U.S. Military Forces are good, but again, because the fundamental understanding is flawed, the prediction of the potential trajectory of terrorist operations will be less than optimal as well. For example, they talk about USS Cole, but do not discuss the impact of the withdrawal on terrorist ideology. The terrorists won that war! The fact that the USS Cole and all other warships had to "withdraw" meant that it was considered by the terrorists as a retreat! Quite a cheap and cheerful victory for the terrorists, isn't it? Also, on a purely detailed tactical or operational level, they do not consider the conceptual nature of successor attacks. One sets off a bomb, and then waits for rescue forces to arrive or some reaction to set in, and then sets up another bomb to target the successor events. The amount of carnage is multiplied that way. We have seen this behaviour first in Punjab, then in Kashmir and now it is quite common in Palestine and Iraq.

Chapter 6 talks about the future of terrorism, but I am afraid this chapter also suffers from severe coverage as well as methodological issues. It does not talk about multi-lateral efforts nor about NATO efforts. It does, however, show a gratifying sense of learning from the Indians (about time too!) Then there are appendices, which are quite factual and useful, yet full of very old information.

  • Appendix A Terrorist Threat to Combatant Commands
  • Appendix B Terrorist Planning Cycle
  • Appendix C Terrorist Operations and Tactics
  • Appendix D Firearms
  • Appendix E Improvised Explosive Devices
  • Appendix F Conventional Military Munitions
  • Appendix G Weapons of Mass Destruction/Effect.

Mind you, this is just the other end of the spectrum! Here is an example of the how the corresponding other end sees terrorism. Terrorism should never be generalised, despite this article. Each terrorist group and campaign needs to be judged on its own characteristics and has to require an ever evolving strategy and tactics to deal with it. But one generalisation I will allow myself to make, is that if you rely mainly on politics or just military means, you will fail!

All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!!!