Belmont Club

The seen and the unseen

Carl J. Ciovacco has a fascinating article on the evolution of savagery in al-Qaeda. It was surprising to learn that Osama bin Laden was, in the days immediately after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, extremely squeamish about shedding noncombatant blood. His reluctance to shed blood was rooted in religious prohibititions. The story of his gradual journey towards unlimited warfare was shadowed by religious doctrinal changes which he himself promulgated in order to justify his new policies.

Bin Laden lifted the restrictions on targeting noncombatants in 1997 — long before September 11 — during the depths of the Clinton Administration, and during the height of optimism about the “End of History” and the triumph of the European Union. In the midst of this self-congratulatory period, Osama bin Laden was declaring war on America. Not the US military, not the CIA, but every man, woman and child in the USA.

This phase begins in March, 1997, with a CNN interview of bin Laden in Afghanistan. In a dramatic change to bin Laden’s view of noncombatants, he hints that civilians may not be as shielded as they were in the past. While he does not say that al Qaeda will target civilians, he basically intimates that if noncombatants get in the way, “it is their problem.”

The CNN interview by Peter Bergen and Peter Arnett was the first time that bin Laden told Western journalists that he had declared war on the United States. Departing from his past strategy of targeting apostate Muslim regimes in the Middle East, bin Laden clearly announced that al Qaeda was now at war with America. His answer to a question regarding the classification of the enemy helps to outline his evolving view of noncombatants. Bin Laden said:

As for what you asked, whether jihad is directed against U.S. soldiers, the [U.S.] civilians in the land of the Two Holy Places [Saudi Arabia], or against the civilians in America, we have focused our declaration on striking at the soldiers in the country of the Two Holy Places…Therefore, even though American civilians are not targeted in our plan, they must leave. We do not guarantee their safety

Somewhat later Bin Laden would expand the degree of sanctioned violence to include the use of WMDs against infidel civilians. After the September 11 attacks and following the American response in Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda pulled out all the stops. It was now licit to engage in the mass murder of civilians.

Due to the American bombings and siege of Iraq, more than 1,200,000 Muslims were killed in the past decade…The Americans have still not tasted from our hands what we have tasted from theirs. The [number of] killed in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are but a tiny part of the exchange for those killed in Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, the Philippines, Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya, and Afghanistan. We have not reached parity with them. We have the right to kill four million Americans – two million of them children – and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons, so as to afflict them with the fatal maladies that have afflicted the Muslims because of [Americans’] chemical and biological weapons. America knows only the language of force. America is kept at bay by blood alone.

Ironically, the latter stages of the American campaign in Iraq counter-intuitively produced a rollback of the al-Qaeda policy of unlimited violence. As the Iraqi population, exemplified by the tribes in Anbar, began to turn against them, the Jihadis began to realize the military disadvantages of inflicting unlimited barbarity upon anyone who opposed them. Despite the shrill charges by the Left of American “brutality” and their romantic characterization of terrorist attacks on civilians as the use of the “poor man’s F-16”, the popular judgment of the two methods of waging war was decisively in favor of the US Armed Forces. Disgusted with al-Qaeda’s excesses, they turned the Jihadis in in droves or pointed them out where precision weapons would snuff them out. Ciovacco writes:

Just as al Qaeda’s targeting of noncombatants progressed in phases, perhaps it is moving into a Phase Six where a limited respect for noncombatant immunity once again exists. In 2005, Zawahiri directed al Qaeda in Iraq to stop killing Shia noncombatants because it was hurting al Qaeda’s greater cause. Furthermore, a top al Qaeda strategist, Abu Yahya al-Libi, has written to al Qaeda in Iraq telling them that its killing of “too many civilians” was undermining al Qaeda’s global strategy.

With the exception of al-Qaeda’s blustering threat to rain down the fires of hell on Americans in the period after the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the relationship between its propensity to murder civilians and the intensity of American engagement may be counterintuively inverse. Al-Qaeda’s appetitite for civilian blood increased during a period when it was allowed to grow comparatively unopposed. It declined when it was engaged because it had to respond to the competitive pressure of US politico-military efforts to win the favor of population. Once it became clear that terrorism was not only politically unproductive but also incapable of disrupting the protective cloak which US forces had deployed around the population it was forced to change tactics.

It is unlikely that the road will stop here. There will probably be more iterations in al-Qaeda’s policy toward civilians Recently, some al-Qaeda ideologues have proposed random civilian attacks in the West, because the opinion of infidel civilians is ostensibly less relevant to their organizational viability than the attitudes of Pashtuns or tribesmen in Anbar. But it is also entirely possible that the shock of combat with US forces has made a lasting impression on al-Qaeda’s organizational memory.

While much of the debate over military strategy (especially by Presidential candidates) has dealt with the kinetic battlefields — numbers of brigades in Iraq versus Afghanistan for example — it is possible that the future strategies of al-Qaeda will avoid direct confrontations. Lawfare, proselytization, propaganda, etc may play an increasing role in their strategy and their corresponding means of coercion may evolve to emphasize targeted coercion rather than public displays of terror. Although al-Qaeda may continue its campaign of overt terrorism, a significant component of their activity may move into the background. This has always been the case and may become more so in the future.

Clinton Watts a former US Army Infantry Officer, FBI Special Agent and Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point who has studied how Jihadis are recruited, has observed that much of that effort takes place off the battlefield, in quiet backrooms in Islamic neighborhoods . By far the most effective vector for spreading radical Islamic terrorism are “former fighters”. Watts says,

Radicalization: Fear not what you can see, but what you cannot see. … Worry about the flow of fighters into Iraq. Worry more about the flow of fighters out of Iraq.

In the 1990s, much of the West had no fear of what it could not see, often because they chose not to see it. Ciovacco and Watts have described the interaction between Western action and the memetic contentent of the Jihad. Any future warfighting strategy going forward should have an explicit awareness of the relationship between the kinetic and informational battlefields; between the seen and the unseen.


Tip Jar.