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On Point

Al Qaeda's Information War


by Austin Bay
July 12, 2005

Terrorism as practiced by Al Qaeda -- and, for that matter Saddamist killers in Iraq -- is 21st century information warfare. Terrorists don't simply target London and Baghdad, they target the news media.

Al Qaeda understands that our media craves the spectacular. But don't place all the blame on headline writers and TV producers. Like sex, violence sells, and Al Qaeda has suckered audiences by providing hideous violence.

At the moment, the truly biggest story on the planet is democratic political change in the Middle East, beginning with Iraq. It's huge history, and a looming political disaster for tyrants and terrorists. When Western audiences decide that this is the real news of our era -- and it is that -- Al Qaeda will be dealt a death blow.

German strategic theorist Carl von Clausewitz called war "politics by other means." Physical intimidation and physical threat are implicit in that analysis. Al Qaeda's terror campaigns certainly rely on intimidation and threat, but Al Qaeda is an extremely limited organization. Its military limitations are obvious. As U.S. Central Command's Gen. John Abizaid recently noted, Al Qaeda has yet to win a military engagement with U.S. forces at or above the platoon level. (A platoon has approximately 30 troops.)

This also holds true for Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan and what military analysts call the "former regime elements" (FRE -- i.e., pro-Saddam forces) in Iraq.

Al Qaeda doesn't have much in the way of education policies, beyond bankrolling Islamist schools. Al Qaeda says it will redistribute the wealth of corrupt Middle Eastern petro-sheiks. Though that is an economic promise, it isn't a long-term economic plan.

Al Qaeda, however, understands the power of perceived grievance and the appeal of Utopia. In the late 1990s, Osama bin Laden said Al Qaeda's strategic goal was restoring the Islamic caliphate. Bin Laden expressed a special hatred for Turkey's Kemal Ataturk, who ended the caliphate in 1924.

History, going wrong for Islamist supremacists at least since the 16th century, really failed when the caliphate dissolved. Though Al Qaeda's timeline to Utopia remains hazy, once the caliphate returns, the decadent modern world will fade, as Western power collapses -- and presumably Eastern power, as well. (Islamists are active in China's Sinkiang province.)

At some point, bin Laden-interpreted Islamic law will bring strict bliss to the entire world. If this sounds vaguely like a Marxist "Workers Paradise," that's no accident -- the communists also justified the murder of millions pursuing their atheist Utopia.

The appeal to perceived grievance and promise of an Islamist utopia, however, made Al Qaeda a regional information power in a Middle East where political options were denied by tyrants. The 9-11 attacks made Al Qaeda a global information power -- they were an international advertising campaign. Four years later, Al Qaeda remains a strategic information power, but little else. In ever other measure of power and success, Al Qaeda is very weak.

Maj. Gen. Doug Lute, operations officer for CENTCOM, argues that IEDs (improvised explosive devices, bombs like those used in London) are "perfect asymmetric warfare weapons" for 21st century terrorists. ("Asymmetric warfare" pits mismatched enemies -- the weak side tries to avoid its own destruction, while targeting the strong side's political or military vulnerabilities.)

"IEDs are relatively effective," Lute says -- meaning when they go off, they usually kill and wound. "IEDs are cheap to make. They are available (i.e., explosives and triggers, as well as skills required to assemble them)." But, moreover: "IEDs are anonymous. This makes them the enemy's most effective weapon because they are really an IO (information operations) weapon. They intimidate, sow fear, but do so without certain identification."

Anonymity means "the terrorists can be a very small group" of people or politically weak organization, Lute adds.

What makes the small and anonymous appear powerful and strong? In the 21st century, intense media coverage magnifies the terrorists' capabilities. This suggests that winning the global war against Islamist terror ultimately means accomplishing two things: denying the terrorists' weapons of mass destruction and curbing what is currently Al Qaeda's greatest strategic capability: media magnification and occasional media enhancement of its bombing campaigns and political theatrics.

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