|May 12, 2017
By George Friedman
The slaughter in Orlando, Florida on Sunday once again raises the question of what we should do about attacks like this. But before that, we must answer a more fundamental question: Was this a criminal act or an act of war? Answering that question is the key to determining the appropriate response.
If these are criminal acts, then the criminals must be punished for their actions. If these are acts of war, then the enemy forces must be found and destroyed, not based on what they might or might not have done, but in order to destroy the enemy before they can strike again.
Since 9/11, the United States government has failed to resolve this issue. Immediately after the attack, President George W. Bush committed to bringing those who planned the attack to justice, implying that this was a criminal act.
At the same time, he sent the U.S. military into Afghanistan to wage war on the Afghan government, its army and al-Qaida, which was operating under the government’s protection. That implied that this was war.
The rules of war and the rules of criminal justice are vastly different, as is their intent. Had President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his speech after Pearl Harbor that he intended to bring everyone who planned the Pearl Harbor attack to justice, he would have completely missed the point. It was not the pilots or the staff officers who had committed a crime. It was the Empire of Japan, as Roosevelt put it, that had committed an act of war.
Bush further confused the issue by speaking of the Axis of Evil – Iraq, Iran and North Korea – saying that was in some sense responsible for 9/11. He also spoke of a Global War on Terror. Terror is a weapon of war. It is designed to terrorize the citizens of a country into either paralysis or overthrowing their government. The Germans bombed Britain for that reason in World War II. The allies bombed Germany for the same reason.
As a means of warfighting, terrorism is similar to tanks or aircraft carriers in that they are tools of war, rather than the enemy itself. Imagine if Roosevelt had declared a global war on aircraft carriers, since carrier-based planes had attacked Pearl Harbor.
Bush never clarified whether we were at war, and completely confused the issue of who we were at war with. He wisely did not want to declare war on the Islamic world, because it contains 1.7 billion people and the likelihood of defeating that many with a standing army of about 500,000 troops is remote.
In addition, as he knew, only a tiny fraction of the 1.7 billion people were interested in and capable of carrying out terrorist attacks. So, he focused on al-Qaida, and then further complicated the issue by invading Iraq, whose secular president, Saddam Hussein, was obsessed at the time with survival, and was unlikely to form an alliance with the jihadists.
The conceptual confusion was further compounded by President Barack Obama. He not only pointed out the obvious, which is that the United States is not hostile to all Muslims, but also tried to take the position that the terrorists’ proclaimed belief in Islam was incidental to their actions.
Others who take this position have also pointed out that guns in the United States kill more people than terrorism.
Obama’s view that Islam was incidental to terrorism was in fact a repetition of Bush’s point on the Axis of Evil. The target included all terrorists, Muslim or not. As for the argument on guns verses terrorism, it is both true and vague in its intent. It seemed to be saying that terrorism is more tolerable because of the prevalence of gun violence. But it is not clear what change of action is being recommended.
It is now almost 15 years since 9/11 and we still have not answered the core questions: Are we at war or fighting criminals? And if we are at war, who with exactly? To distinguish between crime and war, you have to look at intent, not means. The means may be the same but the goal is different. Criminals pursue money or are unbalanced and pursue fantasies. Terrorists are pursuing political ends, and therefore, their attacks are consistent with the definition of war. War is a continuation of politics by different means. War is intimately bound up with politics. Crime is not. There are always gray areas, but this definition works.
What are the political ends of Islamist terrorists? Since the rise of al-Qaida, there has been a clear and consistent goal: to overthrow “hypocritical” Muslim states and replace them with jihadist regimes that would create a united global Muslim state called the caliphate.
To achieve this end, the jihadists need to do two things. The first is to demonstrate to the Muslim masses that they have been betrayed by their own governments, and that they have the power to seize control of their own destinies.
The second goal is to drive the United States, Europe and other non-Muslim powers out of the Islamic world. Terrorism is intended to drain the enemy of its will to continue and force withdrawal. This is the same goal of the mass bombings of World War II.
The two goals mesh, because terrorism does not require major organization or resources. It simultaneously strikes at the enemy, and empowers all its supporters who wish to be empowered.
Given this end, there is no question that terrorism is an act of war and not a crime. The problem is defining the enemy. We know that all Muslims are not jihadists. We also know that all jihadists are Muslims.
In this war, the jihadists are hard to identify for the same reasons that they are in utter violation of the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention acknowledges the right of partisans – guerrillas – to be treated as soldiers. However, they must meet two criteria. First, they must carry their weapons openly. Second, they must wear clothing that identifies them as warriors.
The jihadists do neither of these things and, therefore, have no rights under the Geneva Convention – another point that has been utterly confused in Western debates. But giving up rights under the Geneva Convention does not give jihadists claim to the criminal justice system. In World War II, when soldiers were caught infiltrating out of uniform, the normal punishment on all sides was execution after a casual court martial. There was no concept that violators of the Geneva Convention had legal protections beyond military justice.
At the same time, the advantage of being out of uniform and hiding weapons was understood on all sides. The jihadists have a tremendous advantage in this. Since their primary goal is maximum casualties, explosives and rifles are the weapons of choice.
Since the goal of a war is to render the enemy incapable of waging war, that goal can be thwarted by covert operations. This strategy puts the defender in the position of waiting for the next attack and having to defend an impossibly large set of targets, or identify enemy operatives who have blended into the general population or are drawn from it. The best way to do this is to track known jihadist operatives and see who they make contact with.
Therefore, the Islamic State avoids contact with potential operatives. Instead, it encourages those with little or no direct contact with IS to design and execute terror attacks that maximize casualties and thereby shake the target country. Like all ideological movements, it is possible to both know the goal of the organization and participate in its realization in some way without having contact with the main organization.
This strategy was learned from the defeats of the Palestinian groups in the 1970s and 1980s. Modeled after Soviet-style organizations, these groups were self-enclosed and highly secure. The problem was that even the most secure organization could be penetrated.
What al-Qaida learned, and IS grasps even better, is that the cost of carrying out terrorism is organization. They must accept a degree of chaos in return for operations that are frequently unguided by the center. However, the lone wolves are alone only in the sense that they lack personal contact. They are deeply in contact with the ideology.
This brings us back to the challenge of defining who the West is at war with. The obvious answer is that the West is at war with the jihadist strand of Islam. The problem is that this strand is not only covert, but also embedded in the Muslim community as a whole.
This again proves why the Geneva Convention does not protect jihadists. In the Franco-Prussian War, French snipers hid in crowds to shoot at Germans. The Germans fired back hitting civilians. The framers of the Geneva Convention held the French, not the Germans, responsible for the carnage. Using civilians as cover for operations is a violation of the Geneva Convention.
It is nice to have the law on your side, but it doesn’t solve the problem of how to wage this war. The enemy is indistinguishable from friends. You can only identify the jihadists by intruding deeply into the community, and beyond. You can intercept phone calls, but hardly any will provide clues and, given the volume of calls, they cannot all be intercepted. You can also plant operatives in mosques. There are many actions that can be taken – but all are obnoxious to American values.
It should be remembered that, in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the right to habeas corpus. During World War II, Roosevelt imposed intensive censorship and spied on Congress. But all knew that at some point these wars would end. Fighting the jihadist war will likely take a long time, and suspending liberties for long would change the character of the Republic. It might also generate hostility towards the government, a goal of the jihadists.
This is merely one of the challenges that must be debated. But it cannot be debated until we face some truths. This is a war and jihadists are the enemy. Not all Muslims are jihadists, but all jihadists are Muslims. There are other terrorist groups and other causes of death, but none have as extravagant plans for doing us harm as the jihadists.
Giving up liberties may be too high a price, but we should be honest in admitting the price we will pay. In addition, some tactics may seem plausible, but will not solve the problem in the end. Stopping Muslims from coming to the country, for example, may seem reasonable to some, but a child could get around that barrier. We must be honest that the war, which has raged for 15 years, will go on for a long time to come. We can bring our troops home. But jihadists may follow them. All of these things must be honestly considered. But we like to lie to ourselves, and that’s the real enemy.
Understanding geopolitics starts here.