The Terrorist Dilemma: A Talk to West Point Cadets

I was recently invited by Jarret Brachman, professor and head of research at West Point’s Center of Combating Terrorism, to give a talk to his students in the department. Below is a transcription of the talk itself, which was given on November 13, 2007. In the days to come I will detail the response of students and teachers, the questions that came up, my impressions of West Point and of the students I met there, as well as talks with other members of the department.

All in all, it was a great experience. Professor Brachman is an expert on Al Qaeda’s inner workings, particularly its use of technology and the Internet. He is only twenty-nine-years old and someone to keep an eye on, a rare sign of intelligence among the Inspector Clouseaus who determine our current policy on terrorism.

The Terrorist Dilemma: A Talk to West Point Cadets, 11/13/07

I want to begin today by talking about a general whom you have probably not heard of, unless you have read my book. His name is Frederich Ludwig, Prince of Hohenlohe. He was born in Prussia in 1746 and came from one of Germany’s oldest and most aristocratic families. The Prince served in the military under the Prussian King Frederick the Great and slowly rose through the ranks.

The Prince was a great believer in the style of warfare created by Frederick the Great. This style was based on having an extremely disciplined army; on always assuming the offensive; and on certain creative maneuvers that the King had invented. Led by Frederick, the Prussians had emerged as the most feared and successful fighting force on the continent, and it stayed that way after Frederick’s death in 1786.

In 1796, the Prince was made a general, at the age of 50, young by Prussian standards. In that same year, the 27-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte was also named general and commander of the French forces fighting in Italy. Over the next nine years, Napoleon would dominate Europe, all of this culminating with his stunning victories at Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805. To the Prince, Napoleon was merely lucky. He was matched against weak and decadent countries (Austria and Russia) that could not withstand his aggressive style of warfare. If he ever met the Prussians on the battlefield, he would be revealed as a military fraud. And with that in mind, the Prince secretly worked on a battle plan in case their two countries came to war.

Well, in 1806, the Prussian King finally declared war and in September of that year, the Prussian generals were asked to prepare a campaign against Napoleon. The Prince trotted out his carefully crafted battle plan. The other generals made their changes to the Prince’s plan and finally they all agreed on it and presented it to the King. But as the Prussian troops were mobilizing, word reached the Prince and his fellow generals that Napoleon’s swift moving army had already entered Prussian territory, coming in scattered directions that were hard to predict, and massing in the south of the country.

There was no time to react. The Prussians were forced to retreat. They would reassemble to the north and attack the flanks of Napoleon’s army as it marched on Berlin. The Prince was put in charge of the rear guard, protecting the Prussian retreat. Only a few days later, a division under Napoleon himself caught up with Hohenlohe, near the town of Jena, and the first battle between these two powerful forces took place. It was like a meeting between the past and the future. The Prussians formed lines in parade fashion to advance, in a ritual that went back to Frederick’s day. Napoleon’s army scattered in all directions and sniped at the Prussians from rooftops, and behind houses. The Prussians were quickly overwhelmed by this totally chaotic form of battle and quickly succumbed. By the end of the day they were routed.

At almost the same time, a French division under Field Marshall Davout defeated a large Prussian force at Auerstadt and within days the entire Prussian military edifice crumbled, as one castle after another fell into French hands. It was one of the most stunning collapses in the history of warfare, a great power destroyed almost overnight.

After this battle, the Prince was totally disgraced and retreated to his ancestral castle. For the last 12 years of his life he tried to make sense of this ignominious fall. He blamed the other generals for slowing down the Prussian response to Napoleon’s attack by their squabbling and their egos. He criticized the Prussian army for its breakdowns in discipline as it retreated. He credited Napoleon’s spy system for giving them a beat up on the Prussian strategy and catching them by surprise. He maintained that the French form of warfare was unethical and gave them an unfair advantage because they were willing to fight dirty.

Now if you think about it, this is all rather astonishing. The Prince was no idiot. He was a great student of military history. He had been able to study the French army for nine years before meeting it in battle. He was able to witness it firsthand at Jena. All he had to do was open his eyes and think. And yet with all this evidence staring him in the face, and with years and some distance to analyze it, he continued to completely misread the essence of Napoleonic warfare. He could only come up with clichés, and the usual conventional excuses. His eyes could only focus on the tactics, the details; he could not see the forest for the trees.

In the aftermath of this debacle, another Prussian was trying to come to terms with the Napoleonic revolution in a much different way. You might have heard of him. His name was Carl von Clausewitz. At the age of 26 he had witnessed the collapse first hand, was captured and held by the French for several years. He and other reformers within the Prussian military, men like Scharnhorst and Gneisau, were determined to gain the right lesson from what had happened to Hohenlohe and the Prussian military. What von Clausewitz did in the wake of Jena-Auerstadt represents a defining moment in military theory and strategy. Based on analyzing Napoleon he came up with a method, one that would lead to all of his great discoveries.


First, he forced himself to get rid of any emotional response in looking at Napoleonic warfare, in particular feelings of hurt pride and anger at what had happened, in order to see it for what it was, a revolution. Then, he analyzed this warfare by examining what was new and unprecedented in it. This was an antidote to the usual method of seeing similarities to things in the past, to making something new into something conventional and familiar. This also meant entertaining several possibilities, looking at this form of warfare from several angles.

Finally, he broke it down into its component parts, seeing what made this form of battle work. In this way, von Clausewitz was the first to come up with certain key principles that grounded the Napoleonic revolution. At first glance, it seems like chaos, these fast moving divisions coming from scattered directions and recombining in new patterns. But as he looked closer at it, von Clausewitz determined that it was actually a form of controlled chaos. Digging deeper into the roots of this unprecedented form of warfare, he discovered that at its foundation was an organizational revolution, based on what became known in German as the auftragstaktik, the system by which field marshals were given an overall mission statement about the campaign. The field marshals who commanded their own little armies were then allowed to make their own decisions in real time without having to wait for communications back and forth. The speed and creativity of this form of warfare was totally new and it easily overwhelmed the rigid Prussians.

In essence, what von Clausewitz did was to take the details of Napoleon and abstract them into a larger strategy, into a theory. This was not just an exercise: it brought a deep level of understanding about warfare in general and it proved incredibly practical in the end.

The story has a happy ending: von Clausewitz and the Prussian reformers won out and adopted the Napoleonic style of warfare for their own military. As part of this they created what came to be known as the German General Staff. The idea was to forge a group of officers so versed in the art of war that they could overcome the incompetence of kings and politicians. These officers were to be inculcated with one dominant idea: they should never allow their philosophy of war to harden into a doctrine. They would look at every event from many sides, including the enemy’s, forcing themselves to challenge any orthodoxy. And for the next 120 or so years the German military would completely outperform its rivals on the battlefield.

To me, this story illustrates what happens to humans in the face of revolution and chaos in any endeavor. It forces most people, like Hohenlohe, to become more conservative and fearful, to react by relying on clichés and conventions from the past; to become even more obsessed with tactics and operational details. Once this happens to us, we fall further and further behind changing events, the innovating enemy operating on much faster transients. We exist in a kind of dream world in which what we see is a reflection of our wishes, our fears, our past experiences. We are too close to the change to see it for what it is. The struggle is to aim for the von Clausewitz ideal, to work against the grain of human nature, to let in some light by looking at the new phenomenon from different directions, in as dispassionate a manner as possible. Seeing the revolutionary strategy for what it is, it is then possible to come up with a counterstrategy. This is strategic thinking in depth, as opposed to the surface reflections of those who are emotionally based. It is matching the complexity of the enemy with your own depth in thinking.

I believe we are living through a period of great revolution–cultural, social, political, military–similar to the turmoils of the Napoleonic era. Confronting large and intractable centers of power, small groups have invented and perfected a strategy that we call terrorism. It is perfectly wedded to advances in technology, to the media, to a gradual weakening of ethical norms. It is a remarkably fluid and adaptable strategy, one that gives the appearance of chaos and a degree of randomness. And it is only growing in its power and its popularity.

In facing such a revolution, we can either fall into the trap of the Prussians, closing our eyes to the realities staring us in the face and interpreting what we see according to what we have already decided to see. Or we can channel the spirit of Carl von Clausewitz and try to make better sense of terrorism as a strategy. It is not just a fight against a relentless enemy, but against the forces of stupidity on our side that are leading this fight. As I talk about terrorism now, keep in mind that it is as an exercise, a way to challenge your own assumptions, to open up some possibilities for thought, because I am convinced that we misread terrorism on the strategic level and that is the source of our failure to combat it effectively.

In analyzing a phenomenon I often like to go back to its beginnings, its first manifestations, to see it in rudimentary and simpler form. And so I think the story of modern terrorism–what I like to call a modern terror campaign, seeing the attacks as links in a chain–really begins in Russia in the 1860s. The Czar, Alexander II, was a reformist at heart and so he enacted the emancipation of the serfs. Those on the left were somewhat dismayed. This seemed to undercut their idea of transforming Russia through a peasant revolution. They began to organize and operate in the open, and as the Czar came to fear he had opened Pandora’s box with the emancipation, he reacted the other direction, cracking down extra hard against the forces of dissidence. The crackdown was so fierce that the various Russian radicals realized their idea of an open revolution was impossible. They splintered and went in several directions.

Out of this emerged a group known as Narodnaya Volia, or “People’s Will.” They kept their group small. They dressed as inconspicuously as possible, melting into the cities in which they lived. And they started to manufacture their own bombs. They began a terror campaign against the government, managing to kill several important ministers. In 1880, they exploded a bomb in the Winter Palace itself, narrowly missing the Czar. There seemed to be little pattern to discern in where and when these bombings would occur.

To Alexander II, this was a grave challenge to his authority. Russia was a country that believed in strong leadership and was highly centralized. Blows like this to the center of Russian power were very dangerous. These radicals wanted to take over Russia itself by a kind of backhanded coup. His ministers were all terrified, as was he himself. The terrorists were clever and a force to be reckoned with, but they were also small in number, politically isolated. What was needed was to take the fight to them, find them, smoke them out, round them up and destroy them with a heavy hand before they could gain any momentum. He needed to show his strength–to his own ministers, and to the Russian people. Any kind of reform had to be put on hold.

He unleashed the police to do whatever it took to capture the terrorists. Civil liberties were cut back. Since the terrorists were small in number and it was very hard to get a read on their intentions, he sent out spies in all directions to infiltrate this tight knit group. More and more of the state’s resources were directed towards this campaign. Without intending to, he enacted a virtual police state, and he himself lived as a prisoner in his own palace.

Despite everything, Narodnaya Volia was able to assassinate the Czar himself in 1881. The successor, Czar Alexander III, tripled the security measures. In 1888, Alexander Ulianov, brother of Nikolai Lenin, nearly succeeded in killing Alexander III. Finally, after the most intense manhunt, the government was able to catch enough leaders of the group to disrupt and disband it.

Now this is a terrorist campaign in its most brute and unsophisticated form, but it is very revealing. The terrorists are a very small group of men, with absolutely no hope of taking on the government directly; they are largely isolated from the public at large. They are facing a situation that is almost impossible to change, but they are desperate to do something. As we all know, nothing in nature or in human affairs is perfectly strong or perfectly weak. Being small in number can be leveraged into great strength, maximizing the elusiveness and mobility that comes with smallness. Being large makes any organism an easier target. In this case, the Russian government’s centralization was its weak point. Success in war is nothing more than the right calculation of matching your strengths to their weaknesses.

In and of itself, the Narodnaya Volia bombing campaign was not much of a threat, but it was done in such a dramatic and unpredictable fashion, with such remorseless violence, that the targets could not help but become emotional–anger, turning into desires for revenge. In responding, they resorted to a heavy hand, because that is what seemed to be necessary.

In the process, all attempts at reform were reversed. The public became highly polarized. Those on the side of the government became more rabid in their desire for repression and revenge. Those in the middle class who had sympathies for the reform movement found themselves alienated from the government. Those on the left were galvanized, many of them now joining other radical groups who plotted revolution. With the police everywhere, a bomb exploding here or there gave the impression that the terrorists were much larger than they were. The government’s response increased the terrorists’ public presence, helping them gain recruits to the cause, uniting those on the left who were once divided. The government did not seem so invulnerable as before.

Now in looking at Narodnaya Volia, the classic response is to say that it was a monumental failure, as are almost all terrorist campaigns. The terrorists are too detached from the society at large; their actions are not rational. The reaction they bring about inevitably crushes them. They create some drama but in the end it all leads nowhere. It is not an effective, long-term strategy. To me, however, these are Hohenlohe-like clichés that completely misread the situation and the strategy as a whole. And when you do not understand an enemy’s strategy, you end up attacking something that is not there.

In the years of repression and after Narodnaya Volia was broken up, discontent spread throughout the country. Men like Lenin himself had their ideas forged in this period, during which the communist movement began to grow in power. The government, that had been trying to reform itself prior to the campaign, was knocked off course. Without the terror campaign, Russian history might very well have taken a much different path. The terror campaign was able to break up an extremely static situation and sow the seeds for something much larger, this taking some thirty years to play itself out. But terrorists, in general, have plenty of time to wait.

In the Western perspective on warfare, two antagonists face a battle over territory and power. The battle can be fought in many ways, even asymmetrically, but inevitably it is a fight over space and power. That is the endgame of any war. But what if one side were not to have such a goal? What if their objectives were more minimal–merely to create chaos, and the space for some kind of change? Their goals are rather easy to achieve–create mayhem. Or, as Lenin himself put it, “the worse, the better.”

In essence, terrorism is a strategy that aims for maximum chaos and disorder. I compare it to a kick of a rock on a hilltop, with the hope of starting an avalanche. The terrorists can hope for some residual benefits–an insurrection, a change in government, the gaining of some territorial foothold–but this is a collateral effect. By nature, they face a frozen dynamic, an oversized power that has all the force on its side. By initiating a terror campaign, they create the seeds of chaos that can spin out of control and lead to some real change. A terror campaign is often a part of something larger, a guerrilla or insurgent force, but each act of terror has the same goal: to set off this chain reaction effect.

By the nature of its violence and drama, for terrorism is nothing more than an organized spectacle of violence, it is certain to stir emotions. Understanding the logic of terror, it is best to keep the attacks unpredictable, seemingly random. The first seed is sown by unbalancing the mind of the opposing commander. The terrorist act seems to warrant a strong response. In this case, strong replaces intelligent. To find this small group of radicals requires an oversized police force. The chain reaction effect is inevitably set in motion by the harsh reprisal. By entering their space with police or military presence, there are now more targets to hit, more waves of publicity to garner, making them seem larger, feeding their capacity to create the spectacle. Everything becomes imbalanced–society is polarized, disproportionate fear is stirred, more impatience and need for reprisals is manufactured. The desired avalanche is set off.

Now with this operating as a kind of model for the strategy in its brute form, let us look at the events of 9/11 as they unfolded before our eyes. A small band of fanatics known as Al Qaeda confront a very frozen and static situation in the Middle East, much like the one that appeared in Russia in the 1870s. In their eyes, the “far enemy,” the United States, is what is keeping this dynamic so locked and frozen. They cannot hope to meet this superpower in anything resembling a direct fashion. And so, in their fanaticism and desperation, they resort to a terrorist act that will create an unprecedented chain reaction effect.

Since terrorism is essentially a spectacle, a bit of theater enacted for the public or the media, Al Qaeda chooses something that will have maximum impact in two directions–one designed to draw in the most attention possible, tailored for the media, and the other to stir up the target’s emotions in as strong a manner as possible. Strength is matched to weakness–the viral nature of the media and fear, the emotions that can be fanned into something uncontrollable.

On our side, the response follows a familiar pattern: at first, the invasion of Afghanistan seems smart and precise, aiming at the enemy’s center of gravity. If it were to be allied with a heavy civilian and political component, it would serve as an intelligent counterstrategy. But as it plays out, we fall for the overreaction, the tough guy stance that terrorism sets up as the ultimate seduction. We invade Iraq. As happened with Narodnaya Volia, the group represents a great threat, but its small size seems to invite the crushing blow.

It is hard to gauge how deeply our emotions are engaged and coloring our plans. These emotions include the desire for revenge, but they also include the unrealistic wish that planting democracy in Iraq is the grand strategic answer. Desperate to show an effective response and one that fits the American election cycle, we become seduced by the rosy scenario of nation transformation. The emotional pull of terrorism is subtle and yet so dangerous. The large response is not calibrated to the size of the threat, but rather to the spectacle, and so ends and means are greatly distorted.

The pattern continues. The original band of terrorists seems larger and more threatening than they are. This magnifying effect helps them gain publicity and recruits. We cannot see through their intentions; they are able to use disinformation, feeding us what they want; while we are as clear as day to them. This gives them more strategic options and faster transients in adapting to operations. They can murder at will, whereas we have to tiptoe through a moral minefield. Finally the polarization effect comes into play. Rifts are created among allies and in the American public. Part of the chaos is to create a divide and conquer dynamic in which allies and groups are split apart.

Terrorism is a complex and adaptable strategy, one that can be used in tandem with other forms of warfare. It works brilliantly with technology and new media. In the case of this war, alliances are forged between all kinds of groups that share a similar goal, including criminal elements that are used to fund the terrorist acts. But in looking at something complex and fluid, we must never lose sight of the strategy itself–to stir up chaos, the worse the better. This includes: attacks on the Iraqi infrastructure, the stimulation of sectarian violence (admittedly some disagreement from within their camps about this), anything that can weaken the central government. The bait is constantly set out. A great goal of theirs would be to incite an American attack on Iran, which would greatly deepen the chaos. They are working towards laying such a trap.

In the end we have played into their hands, and we must face this disaster as coldly as von Clausewitz analyzed the Prussian debacle. We have taken a situation that for us was manageable and stable, and have introduced tremendous insecurity and chaos into the region. The chances for conflict spilling over borders has been greatly increased. We might look back thirty years from now and see something similar to what had happened in Russia. In the end, if such were the case, the attack of 9/11 would have to be considered the most successful military ventures in all of history–based on the size of the attackers and the effects of their action.

In essence, our leaders have fought the last war. Like Hohenlohe, they are not seeing what is happening before their eyes. They are following counterinsurgency models from another era. They are seeing what they want to see, without considering the very different culture they have entered. This is how our government operates: they always begin by looking at our technology, our superior firepower and devising a strategy from there. They inevitably ignore the very sage advice of Sun-tzu who said, “What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.” That should always be your starting point–looking outward, not inward.

Let us return to the spirit of von Clausewitz for a moment. The proper response to terrorism depends on first understanding its dynamic, how it ticks. The various traps it sets–the overreaction, the impatience and desire for immediate reprisals, the polarization it tempts you into–can only be avoided if first understood. We must aim at their center of gravity and weaknesses, not at the illusion they create. This center is their ability to communicate, to fund themselves, to recruit sympathizers, to hold this far-flung movement together. We needed to carefully aim at these points of vulnerability. If during these years we had degraded their ability to fund themselves, to communicate, to gain recruits by working to gain more political goodwill in the region, the enemy would have begun to reveal more weaknesses. When you attack a center of gravity, the other side leans on other legs to keep itself up and gives you more targets to hit.

The key to this counterstrategy is the leadership of the country under attack and its ability to show strength, to unify the population behind it (avoiding the polarization trap), while resisting the temptation for the overreaction. In this vein, in my book I mention Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle as two leaders who are exemplary in this way. It is not a question of politics, but leadership and intelligence. Terroristic fear is purely psychological and it is up to the leadership to paint the threat in realistic colors. When you overreact with a large attack, you only show the enemy your own impatience and weakness; they succeeded. When you respond with a carefully calibrated campaign aimed at their vulnerabilities, you show you really mean business and cannot be seduced by the terror spectacle.

I am aware this might seem all too basic, in a way somewhat obvious, and not so sexy as a detailed analysis of their use of technology and Open Source Warfare, blah blah blah. But to understand a strategy on its highest, most abstract level can only filter down and make everything else make more sense, as von Clausewitz has demonstrated.

Now it is my contention that we will be facing more and more of this strategy in the future, for reason I will not go into here. Some of this terrorism is downright frightening in its possibilities, particularly bio-terrorism. There will also be variations and adaptations allied to advances in technology. It is a very fluid strategy, one that operates with its own mission command system and presents a chaotic front.

You, as future leaders of our military, will be at the forefront of this fight. The temptations are great: to fall for the bait, for the great knockout blow, to become obsessed with the details, the technology, the tactical back and forth. The key to me in this war, however, will always be the strategy of terror itself. That in fact is your enemy–not their warriors or fanatic leaders, but the strategy itself. In each battle you must face, you must continually return to the question of what makes this strategy tick, what is the pattern, what makes it different from everything else. Your minds are the last line of defense–it depends on your capacity to not fall for the terrorist illusion and to see the enemy’s strategy as realistically as possible. Thank you.

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