The October 2002 bombing of a nightclub in Indonesia’s popular resort island of Bali, which killed more than 190 people—mostly tourists and many Westerners—is a grim example of the new Arab way of war. Planning and educating the agents in bomb making and holy-war doctrine took place over months in several locations. The planners of this bombing and others have been linked to the Jemaah Islamiya Southeast Asia terror network as well as Al Qaeda.
The first great struggles between the Middle East and Europe to be recorded fully were the campaigns of Salamis and Plataea in 480-479 B.C. The Greeks triumphed, and for the next several hundred years Western civilization slowly advanced east. In the 7th century A.D. this was reversed sharply when the Bedouins emerged from Arabia, defeated the Persian and eastern Roman empires, and conquered the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. The invaders eventually were stopped in the east in 718 at the city walls of Constantinople, and in the west in 732 some 200 miles from Paris. There were to be another thousand years of see-saw wars on sea and land before the last Middle Eastern attack on a major European city, Vienna, was repulsed in 1683. It was not until the attacks by Arabians on New York in 2001 that a major Western city again came under assault from the Middle East.
While this protracted border conflict raged between the West and the Middle East, Western civilization engaged in a long series of civil wars. In 1942, the great democracies started to win and kept winning, thus determining the modern Western technique of war. The horrors of two world wars motivated the strengthening of international laws to prevent attacks on noncombatants and limit war’s impact on civilians. Technology was developed that allowed highly accurate attacks that could limit destruction to military targets and minimize the number of people killed. Waging war became the business of elaborate machines operated by highly trained, long-service professionals. Western militaries became seemingly invincible on the battlefield and a tool of humanitarian assistance, not of empire. The last Western war of the 20th century was not of conquest, but waged to defend the human rights of the Muslims of Kosovo.
Middle Eastern societies have taken stock of the Western challenge and devised an innovative, strongly asymmetrical response. Middle Eastern societies demonstrably cannot win symmetrical conflict involving Western militaries. Their “better way” inherently appears barbarous, murderous, and cruel as it is diametrically opposed to the Western approach to armed conflict.
A New Way of War
The new Arab approach to conflict is an adaptation of the revolutionary warfare of the second half of the 20th century (1) . Assassins using this new way of war now swim among the populations of the world (2) . With cheap, unrestricted global air travel provided by Western technology, they can deploy wherever they wish; there are no front lines or safe rear areas. The assassins make effective use of liberal immigration policies that have permitted large numbers of Middle Eastern migrants to settle in the West. Small numbers of fellow travelers and sympathizers are distributed throughout Western nations, able to be activated to provide local support, protection, and knowledge for deploying assassins. Their command-and-control system relies on commercial communications systems and business application cryptography. This makes their control system strong, redundant, secure, and global and the assassins hard to detect, track, and target. They do not rely on their own technology even for weapons, instead using in situ civilian, commercial equipment for attack.
The new Arab way of war is parasitic. Local supporters acquire weapons and explosives, provide safe houses, arrange transportation, and steal or hire vehicles. Assassins fly in, carry out attacks, and fly out quickly, avoiding arrest. Relying completely on local sources, they can strike deep into the Western heartlands, mimicking the strategic air attacks characteristic of the West.
Foot soldiers employed in this way of war usually are male and middle class and often well-educated, with strong religious fervor. A good education is necessary to operate independently and covertly in Western societies. The most dedicated assassins come from countries with a well-established, openly anti-Western education system antagonistic to secular societies, modernism, and human rights. A consuming spiritual passion, with a commitment bordering on fanaticism, is a valuable attribute for members of a small group when deployed into hostile countries. Given these warfare techniques, Muslims seem likely to remain the prime source of recruits (3) .
Intentionally, there is no obvious state involvement. In his attack, the assassin dies or melts into the crowd, providing no proof of who is responsible. This tactic is meant to confuse and frustrate a legally justifiable response, as the Western paradigm based on the 1648 Peace of Westphalia assumes a state-versus-state conflict. Avoiding giving the West a defined, obvious state opponent is a rational strategy peculiar to the Arab way of war.
The Arab combat style imposes small financial burden on its parent societies, allowing long and protracted wars without inflicting economic hardship. Employing only small numbers of personnel with few needs, wars can be financed privately and seemingly remain independent of overt government support. Such entrepreneurs can be hard to trace and impossible to stop.
A major innovation of the Arab way of war is the deliberate targeting of civilians. The assassins’ rhetoric makes no distinction between civilian and military targets. Attacking civilians guarantees global attention as the media, reflecting global values, has a horror of the infliction of cruelty on noncombatants. Attacking civilians is perceived by the assassins as the most direct route to influence global opinion and to affect the national will of the nations struck. Attacks usually are conducted with considerable skill, timing, expertise, and precision but are designed to kill absolutely indiscriminately. Given this, the strategic aim of attacks is hard to discern (4) .
Violence customarily is conceived as a means to an end, but the essence in this style of war seems to be inflicting terror. Pakistani Brigadier S. K. Malik notes: “Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose on him (5) .”
The manner of Arab warfare is intentionally designed contrary to the modern international laws of war. Deliberately attacking civilians, noncombatants, women, and children is against the moral codes of all religions—including Islam. Such actions also violate the ethical codes enshrined in the U.N. human rights charters. The leaders directing such acts are vulnerable to charges of war crimes and international human rights trials. Any country that harbors them inherently appears as an outlaw state operating outside of the civilized world and in defiance of U.N. conventions.
Middle Eastern societies frequently criticize the immoral and lax ethical stance of the secular and materialist West. It is ironic that their chosen way of war makes their assassins appear immoral and unprincipled, which may be why their commanders seek not to identify themselves. Anonymity provides safety from accusations of moral bankruptcy.
Although the tactics of the Arab system rely almost completely on the civilian technology and resources of those nations being attacked, the assassins generally originate from another nation-state. A specific government may not support assassins openly, but to thrive the assassins rely on the acquiescence, sympathy, and often active support of the population from which they came. A society has created them and continues to provide financing, safe harbor, and training. Edmund Burke noted in 1729 that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The silence of the good men of the Middle East implies a terrible consent.
The West now has no choice. For many years the Arab way of war was ignored and its brutal methods overlooked, but this option now is impossible. The societies of the Middle East have forced the West to retaliate with a multifaceted response that is well under way. This response may be complemented by a focus on on denying the support base that keeps the assassins operational.
A dilemma the West faces is whom to hold responsible for the assassins’ attacks. The Western warfare paradigm holds the government of the hostile nation-state responsible rather than the people. In the modern Arab conflict style, the people, not the government, often bear responsibility, especially in situations where the central government is weak, fragmented, ineffectual, or corrupt. The West’s indignation must be focused on the societies, not just the governments of the nations from which the assassins originate. Members of the societies directly or indirectly supporting attacks must understand they will be held responsible and pay a price for their support.
There is a pressing need to deter the responsible Middle Eastern societies from their chosen path of escalating terrorism. Several Middle Eastern states harbor sizable elements that support the Arab way of war. Those that support this method of conflict have been identified by their actions over several decades. They exist in unfriendly states such as Iran and Syria, but also in friendly nations such as Saudi Arabia, whose children financed, directed, and undertook the 11 September attacks. This population support base is as vulnerable to attack as are the societies of the West. Focusing attention on the support base would be contentious and controversial. However, the West must be innovative and take advantage of inherent weakness in the Arab conflict paradigm to frustrate the steady intensification of violence directed against its citizens.
The West could retaliate with random and indiscriminate attacks on particular Middle Eastern cities, thereby replicating the Arab warfare approach, but this goes against centuries of Western efforts to limit the impact of war and is completely unacceptable (6) . Not the whole societies of those Middle Eastern nations involved, but only a small, discernable sliver of these societies should be held accountable and deterred from further support of the Arab way of war. The assassins inevitably are from the middle class, with their commanders among the more wealthy members of the country. The middle and wealthy classes have great power in their own societies at the local level, and more real influence with the masses than their usually despotic governments. If the majority of the middle and wealthy classes determined to no longer directly or indirectly support the Arab style of conflict, this would have a significant impact. Without an active support base, and with the possibility of their activities being compromised at any time, assassins’ freedom of action would be curtailed severely.
An intense, relentless psychological campaign could be undertaken targeting the middle and wealthy classes of the Middle Eastern nations involved. Mass-marketing methods may offer insight into how to apply long-term, focused psychological pressure. The aim of such a campaign would be to make each individual perceive being held personally responsible and targeted for his or her support of the Arab way of war. The proud, strongly religious societies of the Middle East may be vulnerable to considerable self-doubt about the moral bankruptcy of their actions and their pronounced ethical decline compared to the remainder of the world. This effort would complement the other measures of defense and containment already being undertaken. Consideration also could be given to applying economic pressure, restrictions, and constraints, such as those used against South Africa during the apartheid years.
Incentives should be offered as well. Easy means should be provided to allow individuals to relay information concerning members of their societies engaging in acts of war. If individuals or groups tire of the difficulties caused by supporting the assassins, an opportunity should be given for them to make a positive contribution to overcoming the problems inflicted. There would be many false reports, but occasionally something of real value would be passed. The possibility of this occurring would create a sense of vulnerability among assassin organizations.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
There is a worst-case fear in the West of a Middle Eastern weapon-of-mass-destruction (WMD) attack; this fear has led directly to a preventive war strategy. Possessing, developing, or even considering developing a WMD capability may be considered intent to use in the near future. Although understandable, this is an unwelcome strategy with some inherent flaws. Unnecessary wars may be fought to prevent nations from developing a capability and the possibility of use; a future uncertainty thus becomes the basis for a certain war today. Preventive war may be insufficient by itself to stop all attacks; some may occur. Moreover, chemical and biological weapon laboratories are difficult to detect, making their preemptive destruction hard to guarantee.
Nuclear threats traditionally have been handled using deterrent strategies. In this case, a declaratory policy could be devised based on the threat of retaliation if an attack occurs in the West by nonstate actors using the Arab way of war. In such a circumstance, there could be a strategy of instant, graduated response: nuclear strikes against several of the capital cites of the Middle Eastern nations that long have demonstrated support for this method of war (7) . The response’s intensity and discrimination would vary based on the severity of the WMD attack. This approach would be a policy of deterrence through the threat of brutal and immediate punishment of particular societies.
The strategy is irrational in the sense that it proposes to punish the innocent—although these “innocents” would have supported assassins that undertook a WMD attack, killing potentially millions. It draws on the successful but frightening Cold War strategy in which the populations of Europe and North America were held hostage for the good behavior of their governments. In this new application, the citizens of several Middle Eastern nations would be held responsible for their own actions, rather than the actions of their governments. The societies’ futures would be in their own hands. The sole alternative at present is preventive war; as noted, this strategy may not be sufficient, practical, sensible, or long-term. The WMD threat is so serious that a multifaceted approach is needed to prevent it.
This approach is solely for deterrence, not war fighting, and would be another constant, worrying reminder to the Middle East’s middle and wealthy classes that if they allowed the worst to happen to the West, they quickly would pay a heavy price. The strategy articulates what inevitably would happen; a declaratory policy would ensure there were no unfortunate misunderstandings (8) .
There also should be an incentive to motivate Middle Eastern societies to change their ways and be taken off the instant-response list. The Arab way of war starts in the schools and educational facilities of particular nations. Twenty years after a society stops teaching children to hate and kill, and twenty years after the last attempted terrorist attack by the members of that society, their capital should cease to be targeted.
The Arab way of war has been devised to defeat the Western construct by making use of its inherent weaknesses. In so doing, the Arab method has its own intrinsic internal contradictions and weaknesses that can be exploited in response. The vulnerability of the support base in several Middle Eastern nations is one of these. A relentless psychological campaign to dissuade the middle-class and wealthy members of these specific societies from supporting the Arab way of war may complement other current offensive and defensive activities. Deterrence, at least against the WMD threat, also may be worth considering.
(1) The term Arab way of war is used here only as Arab societies initially developed and adopted this mode of warfare in the early 1970s and remain its principal exponents. In recent years, some other non-Arab Middle Eastern societies have adopted this way of war. The term is therefore used in a similar way to the American way of war, which focuses on mass and high technology, and Davis Hanson’s Western Way of War, emphasizing decisive combat by heavy infantry. Other nations can and have made use of the American and Western ways of war. There are specific characteristics of the Arab way of war that set it apart from the styles used elsewhere in the world.
(2) The word assassin seems particularly applicable to the foot soldiers of the modern Arab way of war. Assassin is used here as one who kills, or attempts to kill, by surprise or secret assault; or one who treacherously murders anyone unprepared for defense. The name comes from the Assassins of the East, followers of the Shaikh al-Jabal (Old Man of the Mountain). This was a Muslim order active in Persia and Syria about 1090-1272 whose members believed their religious duty was to harass and murder their enemies. The word derives from medieval Latin assassinus, which is derived from the Arabic hashshashin, and first appeared in English early in the 1600s.
(3) Islam is not the problem causing the present conflict between the West and the Middle East. Islam is only the principal religion of those societies currently attacking the West from the Middle East.
(4) The strategic aim of the assassins has been cited as forcing U.S. military forces to leave Saudi Arabia, creating national uprisings to overthrow various Middle Eastern governments, forcing Israel to leave the occupied territories, persuading the United States to cease aid to Israel, radicalizing the lower classes in certain Middle Eastern states, bringing about a new caliphate, and determining an ideological conflict between Islamic society and modernity. Not all can be the strategic aims of the assassins. Strategic coherency and consistency, or even maintenance of a defined aim, does not appear to be a feature of the new Arab conflict paradigm.
(5) Brigadier S. K. Malik, “The Quranic Concept of War,” quoted in Yossef Bodansky, Bin Laden: the Man Who Declared War on America (Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing, 2001), p. xv.
(6) But there have been many instances in Western history where patience has been exhausted suddenly and merciless, ruthless responses undertaken. The Arab way of war could yet reap this whirlwind for the Middle East if attacks by assassins go too far. History suggests this line will not be known, or even articulated, until after it is crossed. This is one of the difficulties with dealing with democracies that opposing political systems have problems comprehending.
(7) Attention would need to be given to not unintentionally punishing Muslims by damaging or destroying Islamic holy sites.
(8) There appears to be a quaint belief in some areas that if there were such a nonstate attack, the world would not realize whom it was. Who else practices this style of war? A WMD attack would generate an overwhelming desire for revenge and a compelling need to respond harshly and immediately. The response would be a nuclear spasm attack before any investigation ever began; the originators would be deemed apparent to all from their style of conflict.