Generals, it is said, usually plan to fight the last war. The French, for example, built the Maginot Line on their Eastern frontier with Germany. It was a massively fortified replacement for trenches, built as a result of the trauma of trench warfare in the First World War. Unfortunately, the Germans simply went around the defenses by invading through Belgium in 1940. The French quickly lost the war.
General staffs and security experts often find it very difficult to adapt to new circumstances.
The same applies to most current thinking in Western security circles about terrorism. Officials, military officers and academics try to understand the current threat in terms of previous experience of terrorism, such as the PLO or the IRA.
There is one very important thing to notice, however. Almost all terrorism and irregular warfare before Islamic attacks was connected to wars of national liberation. There were a few exceptions, such as the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, but class-based Marxist terrorism has been very rare in western societies. Most major terrorist organizations in the twentieth century were linked to nationalist movements.
In fact, the experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and countries like Somalia (or Vietnam in the 1960s) reinforces the pattern, and it also forms the experience set of many senior military and intelligence officials today. Counterinsurgency is a matter of persuading a potentially hostile and uncooperative majority population to help what those locals see as imperial foreigners of doubtful legitimacy, bent on economic exploitation. Counterinsurgency is imperial thinking without the explicit colony. The insurgents gain from provoking an overreaction from “occupying” outside forces. Too much heavy-handed force makes the local population feel oppressed or disrespected (such as the execution of the 1916 rebels in Ireland, the Amritsar massacre in 1919, or internment of IRA suspects in 1971.) Violence forces people to choose one side or another, almost always at the expense of the outside power.
Once the support of the majority population is lost, the position of the foreign or colonial power is grim. It becomes too expensive to maintain a presence. Too many troops are required. Too many of those troops return home in body bags, endangering public support at home. So the FLN forced the French out of Algeria. The Vietcong forced the Americans out of Vietnam.
The only way to fight such an insurgency is to prevent the alienation of the local majority population. You try to improve economic prospects, or address grievances, to undermine support for the rebels. You are patient, and hope that the inability of the rebels to provide a clear economic alternative will undermine the insurgent cause. Otherwise the administrators and colonels will find themselves on the boat or plane headed back to London, Paris or Langley.
It would be surprising, in fact, if officials and officers did not see current terrorist threats in the light of fifty years of this kind of experience. It is established conventional wisdom.
Think for a minute, however. An attack like the horrific carnage in Manchester a few days ago is not like this at all. Contemporary Islamic terrorism is not a war of national liberation. It is not like the PLO or IRA or FLN. In fact, it is the exact reverse in many ways. It is the terrorists who come from a tiny foreign community. Those foreign communities, most often of recent origin, are often seen, perhaps unfairly, as outsiders of doubtful legitimacy bent on economic exploitation of welfare and housing (at least as some locals may see it.)
In other words, the terrorists and their supporters actually occupy the slot of “outsiders” in the war of national liberation model. All the implications run in reverse. In the event of hostility or escalation, the majority community in Manchester or Nice or Orlando are in their home territory already, and are not going to be driven back to any colonial capital. “Brits go home,” as Irish nationalists put it, doesn’t work very well when the Brits are in Britain.
This turns some of the conventional wisdom based on nationalist terrorism and counterinsurgency on its head. What about the overwhelming necessity to respond to terrorism in a proportional way, to avoid alienating the key target population? In this case a muted response may make the majority local population more alienated and frightened. They may feel they are being left unprotected, much like Iraqi villagers who doubt American troops will turn up to protect them when the local militants come calling. An inability to protect eight-year old girls going to a concert may undermine the government in the eyes of those who expect protection.
What about the fundamental principle that terrorists win by provoking an overreaction? In national liberation, it is the foreign or colonial community which is most likely to be forced out if things escalate into open conflict. Consider the French settlers in Algeria, the piers noir, almost a million of whom were forced back to France after Algerian independence. But in England or Spain or Germany, it is Muslim communities which are the vulnerable outsiders, the tiny minority of foreign origin. In other words, escalation and backlash is likely to lead to horrific consequences and departure for Islamic populations in the west, not the departure of a colonial power back across the oceans. It is completely different to national liberation.
Provoking escalation and backlash is likely to lead to catastrophe for the terrorists, especially in a continent which has been only too willing to indulge in ethnic cleansing within living (and in Bosnia recent) memory. Indeed, it is only the desire of Western governments to prevent such a repeat of history affecting innocent Muslims which stops that Islamic disaster happening.
So why would Islamic terrorists do their best to provoke the authorities into an escalation which their tiny communities would almost certainly end up with a fate like colonial settlers forced to return back from India or Kenya or Indonesia?
It’s because the terrorists don’t think they are fighting a war of national liberation. They are fighting a war of religious conquest, in which they believe their success is divinely ordained because the enemy is decadent and weak. Dealing with a different enemy requires different tactics.
It’s usually unexamined assumptions which get people into trouble. Western security experts are entrenched in a familiar set of assumptions which simply don’t apply to current terrorist threats.