The justification for terrorism by Muslims in its current incarnation was enunciated by a Pakistani Brigadier in 1978; he was outlining doctrine for a force that could not hope to match its adversary’s military, but that had religious justification for its actions. Whether drawn upon by those planning to attack airliners or hotels, this doctrine continually proves its effectiveness.
Terrorism, we must remember, has multiple aims. It seeks to achieve its ends through the creation of fear, which leads to political pressure. Nowhere was this clearer than the bombings of the trains in Spain just a few days before the election – the resultant change of leadership led to Spain’s almost immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. If terrorism is about political pressure, then let us examine the Indian attacks in that light. The immediate effect will be to reduce tourism to India and to increase global perceptions of it being a lawless state.
Terrorism can also be used to bring pressure through financial attrition – the IRA used to target key arterial routes into London and other English cities because financial attrition might have more effect than political attrition. Interestingly, in all my travels the city probably most vulnerable to this kind of financial attack is Sydney; few routes, many choke points and a horrendous traffic problem at the best of times.
What lessons does this teach us about security in the United States? The first, less directly relevant but always the most important, is that you cannot protect everything. It is pointless and extraordinarily expensive to attempt to protect with gates, guards and infrastructure every water supply, building, bridge, etc from a counter-terrorism standpoint. Terrorists are not stupid – the whole point of asymmetric warfare is to strike where the enemy is not looking; for instance, are the attacks in Mumbai primarily intended to cause an effect on the Indian Government, or on the expatriate Indian community in The United Kingdom? This situation, despite the reports by some terrorism commentators, is in no way analogous from a political standpoint to that of the Russian School takeover by Chechens. In that instance the strike was highly publicised, but the affected audience was completely domestic. In this instance, there is a significant expatriate community in the United Kingdom who will see this, who will be affected by it, and who will vote in the next 12 months for a new political leadership in the UK.
If one cannot protect everything in the face of asymmetry, what can be done – the most effective and cost efficient course of action is to have a series of triggers or alarms and very capable response mechanisms. These triggers and alarms are a variety of technical capabilities, criminal and CT intelligence operations, open source information, etc. A coherent, co-operative information system that opened up as much information as possible to every policing organising is too much to ask for at this stage, but I remain hopeful that common sense and fiscal responsibility will one day prevail.
Asymmetric warfare is here to stay. Coping with the strength of an adversary by thinking laterally is nothing new, nor is being willing to embrace conduct that one’s adversary believes immoral to achieve one’s goals; indeed this approach has been glorified by Hollywood in retellings of the American Revolution – asymmetric warfare is nothing new. The trick is to understand it as a risk to be managed, not an emotive subject. There is only a limited budget for addressing the risk of terrorism in the US; we must think of it as a criminal risk in the context of the threat and desired effect, not as an emotive subject, a demon somehow separated from normal crime because it suits internal bureaucratic politics to do so.
We are promised change – here is a vital piece of conceptual change that must take place earlier rather than later.