La Guerre de Longue Durée

So I wrote most of this over the weekend. In light of recent events, it may be more or less relevant. But presumably no less true.

Interesting read from the War Nerd (who is back with a vengeance) comparing Al Qaeda with the IRA. He comes to a somewhat surprising conclusion: the IRA was far more professional, they truly took the long view, and they essentially won.

Al Qaeda played all out, spent all its assets in a few years. In my dumb-ass 2005 article, I called the Al Qaeda method “real war” and the IRA’s slow-perc campaign “nerf war.” That was ignorance talking, boyish war-loving ignorance. I wanted more action, that was all. I saw what an easy target the London transport system made for a few amateur Al Qaeda recruits and just thought that since the IRA had several long-term sleeper teams in place in London, they could have wreaked a million times more havoc. Which was true, they could’ve. But could’ve and should’ve are different things, and a guerrilla group that goes all-out, does everything it can, is doomed.

The first job of a guerrilla force is to continue to exist…

That’s how every modern guerrilla army except Al Qaeda has played, and that’s why every one of those groups has lasted longer than Al Qaeda did.

This seems to ring true. Looking at the pattern of terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe since 9/11, here’s what came next (and seemed at least vaguely Islamic extremism-related, so not necessarily Al Qaeda even):

  • December 2001 – Richard Reid’s attempted shoe-bombing.
  • October 2004 – Indonesian Embassy in Paris is bombed by the “French Armed Islamic Front,” though presumably Algeria-related.
  • July 2005 – the 7/7 Tube Bombings in London.
  • July 2005 – attempted duplication of 7/7; minor damage.
  • March 2006 – Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar drives an SUV onto the UNC Chapel Hill campus to “avenge Muslims,” injuring nine.
  • July 2006 – attempted suitcase bombings in Dortmund and Koblenz, in retaliation for the Muhammad cartoon publication. Failed to detonate.
  • August 2006 – foiled transatlantic plot between Heathrow and the United States.
  • August 2006 – Afghan Muslim Omeed Aziz Popal hits 19 pedestrians with an SUV in San Francisco, killing one.
  • December 2009 – the attempted “underwear bombing.”

There is very little in that list that was an objectively “successful” terror attack, in the sense that with the exception of the 7/7 Bombings, few people were killed in total. Yet somehow, every single one of these – including if not especially the failed attempts – has provoked a stronger and more intrusive security backlash.

There are a few possibilities with Al Qaeda today. The first is that they’ve been so disrupted and shattered that there’s no organizational capacity left to stage large terror attacks. The second is that they’re biding their time, rebuilding capabilities in order to strike. And the third is that we’ve reduced Al Qaeda to a shadow of its former self, yet preserved enough of the command structure that we can keep tabs on all of its associates and prevent any strikes by them.

But even if that leaves them unable to mount much more than a failed pants bombing around Christmas, that might just be all they need (see: failure as a strategy). Look at what that ‘attack’ – which killed and injured none – has wrought: the whole Yemen affair, a bigger bureaucratic push for the “rape scanners,” and a whole revamp of the no-fly lists to include Nigerian nationals and other useless security theater. They don’t need to succeed to have catastrophic effects on American politics and the ever-so-delicate American psyche. Even non-Al Qaeda actions, such as walking through airport security the wrong way, can paralyze an entire transportation corridor for hours and hours.

So where does the IRA come in? While Al Qaeda is still active and deadly in the immediate theater (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.), it has little reach beyond its borders. Especially not as an organization its trying to kill people. Instead, the IRA strategy of as few casualties as possible – in many cases zero – aided by numerous telephoned warnings and carefully-chosen targets has enabled the organization to not be the target it might have been.

The IRA had this “Nerf” strategy of…not killing civilians, which seemed weak to me. But it worked way, way better than I could have imagined. First of all, by not reacting to LVF hit teams, the IRA kept the focus on the Brits, who they considered the real enemy. The Loyalist hit teams, I realize now, were a classic SAS attempt to turn the whole Ulster fight into a tribal war, so the British could come off as the impartial referees trying to keep the savages from tearing each other apart. If the IRA had settled for taking all these Loyalists down into nice soundproofed basements and giving them some hands-on experience of their favorite games, it would’ve been satisfying short-term but would have fed right into the enemy propaganda model.

Not only was the IRA never systematically wiped out, it was incorporated into peace efforts and brought into the government itself after the Good Friday accords.

The point is that in the long run, killing civilians – if you’re fighting an insurgent, guerrilla, terrorist-style war – is counterproductive. That’s not to say that for these groups ‘terrorism’ in and of itself might be ineffective. Rather, it’s all about targeting. If instead of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and (presumably) the White House, bin Laden had selected a virtually empty Statue of Liberty, an early-morning deserted Lincoln Memorial, or the Washington Monument, wouldn’t the blow to our psyche have been nearly as great? But even if we were just as horrified, would we have pursued him for ten years with the same fervor?

Either way, whatever command hierarchy Al Qaeda once had will now certainly cease to be. The rigid discipline required to avoid killing civilians at all costs will be impossible to impose on disparate, franchised mini-Qaedas – and that might, in the long run, lead to shooting themselves in the foot. One can only hope.