Strategy

Interlude: Another 9/11 Anniversary

Almost everything that can be said about 9/11 has been said. From the Bush Administration’s politically motivated negligence before the attacks, to the mind-numbing 24/7 news footage of planes flying into buildings (one of my few vivid memories from that time), to the sudden unity of American polarity and then the just as sudden unraveling of that unity and the ensuing overtures to war in the Middle East, it was an overwhelming horror show.

I’ve already addressed how 9/11 was merely component to Al Queda’s plan for the Middle East, and how Osama Bin Laden and pals were not cartoonish villains but strategists with a canny knack for anticipating an enemy’s response and exploiting opportunities for radicalizing allies to join their overall cause.

Just recently, for the first time, I watched an old recording from Berkeley of a discussion between Errol Morris and Robert McNamara. I devoted a good chunk of a previous post to McNamara’s “11 Lessons from Vietnam,” but in Morris’s film, The Fog of War, the filmmaker extrapolated 11 more general lessons. The first one is “empathize with your enemy.”

In the Berkeley discussion, Morris recounts an interview in 2003 with FOX “news” where his interviewer insisted that The Fog of War’s lessons didn’t apply to the War on Terror. Specifically, they insisted that terrorists cannot be empathized with.

Empathy, according to Psychology Today because why not:

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.

It can be unpleasant to place yourself in the shoes of a person who has done horrible things. There seems to be a kind of irrational reluctance, as though without ever admitting it, we at any point are secretly on the precipice of moral conversion and merely tempting that by thinking like an amoral person will put us over the edge. People therefore find the idea repellent, and despite the continued proliferation of Christianity, in this case thoroughly reject the following quote:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

To their minds, this is irreconcilable with the actions of terrorists. I, a non-Christian, disagree. No matter the label, a human being is a human being, and no matter the crimes is entitled to the same rights and justice as anyone else.

However, “empathize with your enemy,” is a rule which has far more in common with the lessons of a figure other than Jesus. That figure is decidedly less of a pacifist. The quote is commonly truncated to:

Know your enemy.

Knowledge of the enemy is a perfect summary of a strategic discrepancy between the United States and our opponents in the Middle East. This brings us back to 9/11.

The 9/11 attacks played upon our weaknesses while capitalizing on the attacker’s strengths. The fact that they constructed a plan, carried it out (imperfectly), and achieved a very specific but immensely significant outcome says a great deal not only about the cunning involved, but the depth of knowledge about America, and what buttons they needed to push in order to get their desired response.

I’m going to attempt to do what many, if not most Americans, were and are reluctant to do. I’m going to analyze the strategy of the 9/11 attacks from the point of view of those who executed it. This is going to be a long and painful exercise. It is my hope that doing so will demonstrate not only the canny abilities of our adversaries, but the profound weaknesses they exploited, weaknesses which I believe continue today and threaten the repeat of 9/11 in new ways.


I am now the planner(s) of the 9/11 attacks. My objective is to provoke the United States into overextending its military assets and entrenching them in an economically crippling guerrilla war in a hostile region. Ostensibly the reasons for this are historical and ideological, but for the purposes of the plan those things don’t matter. With this incredibly ambitious objective in mind, what are the approaches we can take?

Diplomatic:

At this time we haven’t the international influence necessary to compel the United States to engage the Middle East on this scale. Most regimes in the Middle East which might be willing to attack the United states are hostile to us (like Iraq), and their inability to carry out such attacks despite motivation indicates their insufficiency for this plan. This avenue has limited chances of success.

Economic:

Most economic assets are in heroin production, which are not sufficient leverage to coerce the United States, its allies, or its potential enemies into committing to such a risky endeavor. Additionally, our dependence on armament and other war implements puts us at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the neighbors we rely upon in terms of materiel leverage. This avenue has limited chances of success.

Military:

It does not take great international influence or advanced military hardware to attack a vulnerable target in a devastating way. Additionally, experience in Afghanistan and in previous engagements with the US demonstrates that this is not only possible, but likely to have at least a moderate chance of success of execution versus the costs and risks.

There may be other approaches, but on the ambitious scale of what our strategy hopes to achieve, they are not “global” enough, and thus too inconsequential to meet our goal. A military approach, having the highest likelihood of success, will be selected as the primary avenue of our strategy.

In order to demonstrate the scale of our objective, the attack must be internationally shocking. A partial or complete destruction of the intended target and/or significant loss of life in at least the triple digits, is likely required.

With our primary means chosen, how should a military approach be executed? A target, or targets, must first be chosen. The target must ideally have the greatest possible impact with the minimum possible material and logistic commitment.

An ally of the United States

US Allies in Africa and South America

Both regions see violence every year and are lucky if the United States so much as makes a statement about it. This has a low likelihood of achieving our aims.

US Allies in the Middle East

The easiest plan to act upon.This has the potential advantage of allowing for not only provoking the United States, but of causing direct damage to enemies of opportunity we seek to eventually depose. However, activities in the Middle East are most vulnerable to being preemptively perceived and countered due to existing regional opposition. Also, not even Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and a hostage crisis in Iran have provoked an expensive military response from the United States. Only the Gulf War successfully engaged the United States in an extensive military action, but the United States’ commitment was highly conditional and its military aims were achieved, which is not a pattern we wish to perpetuate. However, given the ease of attacking targets in this area, it remains a remote option.

US Allies in Asia

Only Japan and South Korea offer themselves as strong potential targets, and their constant sensitivity about incursions from China and North Korea respectively make them inopportune and difficult. Rather than presuming an origin in the Middle East, first, distracting assumptions may lead to more regionally local responses. This has a troubled likelihood of achieving our aims.

US Allies in Europe

There are many good targets of opportunity in Europe, where the US has a long history of committing to military action at various scales. Additionally, with Russia’s fall from power, Europe is less vigilant against possible attacks. However, since WWII its commitment has been more conditional to either the UN or NATO, and since also WWII there has so far been no precedent for an attack on one nation provoking retaliatory response against a completely different global region. An attack would need to be large in scale. However, this remains a strong option.

US Allies in North and Central America

The same case for Europe can be made for Canada, and the US’s mixed history with Mexico and Central America means they are unreliable as targets for a provocative attack. Canada remains a strong option.

The US Itself

This is of course a challenge, but it’s not particularly more challenging than Europe or Canada, and debatably less challenging than attacking US allies in Asia. The US is as vulnerable to attack as most of Europe, believing in no viable immediate threats on a national scale. Direct attacks against the United States have the potential to drag it into war (see: Pearl Harbor), but small terror attacks have been considered isolated or insignificant cases. Still, it remains a strong, and possibly the most direct and provocative, option. As with Europe and Canada, the attack would need to be particularly large in scale to evoke a response.

Rather than looking more thoroughly at the pros and cons of every option, we’re going to focus on the best options.

Europe

Pros:

  • Easy overland travel through national borders.
  • History of violence provoking US intervention
  • Strategic targets of high value

Cons:

  • No large-scale unilateral US dedication to involvement since WWII
  • Mitigated effect of indirect attack
  • Remote distance from United States and Middle East minimizes impact

Canada

Pros:

  • Close proximity to United States
  • Especially relaxed security environment (no domestic defense enforced for almost two centuries)
  • Canadian response likely to summon US response

Cons:

  • No history of committed interventionism
  • Distance and ocean make logistical enforcement more difficult
  • Lack of coherence with ideological stance against more visible countries like the US or UK

United States

Pros:

  • Direct approach with strongest likelihood of provoking response, assuming adequate scale
  • Fairly relaxed security environment (no domestic defense enforced since WWII or threatened since mid-Cold War)
  • History of being provoked by domestic attacks

Cons:

  • Robust intelligence network increasing likelihood of interception/prevention
  • Same logistical constraints as with Canada
  • Highest requirement for energy in generating the greatest possible military effect

All of the pros and cons can be weighted against one another, and the choice ultimately comes down to intuition. There is no doubt, however, that the most daring proposal with the greatest potential for results despite a moderate risk, is attacking the United States, and this is the target we ultimately choose.

Specific Static or Mobile Targets

To enhance the pervasive nature of the attack and the scale upon which it is perceived, it must strike either a crippling or a symbolic blow against the national target. A crippling blow is impossible with the military means we have, due to the decentralized nature of the US military (which we wish to preserve for the sake of engaging the Middle East) and its government (with an extensive chain of command and order of succession).

A symbolic attack will do little real physical damage to the decentralized hierarchy of the United States, but accomplish an effective provocation nonetheless. The greatest symbols of American power are its military, its economy, and its various government icons. An ideal symbol will exhibit a maximum of both vulnerability and symbolic significance.

Hitting a military base would be a powerful symbolic move. However, the inherent defensible nature of such a base makes it less vulnerable than other targets. Looking at the most significant civilian target with military importance, the obvious choice is The Pentagon.

A symbol of economic power was already chosen in 1993. The World Trade center is an architectural and commercial testament to US trading power.

Obvious symbols of government are the White House, and the buildings of the House and Senate.

For ease of coordination, all methods of attack should be as simple as possible while also being similar, if not the same.

Method of Attack

A conventional or dirty bomb of some kind is the only means by which to generate the necessary effect. However, a single attack from a car loaded with bombs was attempted before and largely failed. If the previous attack is to be improved upon, it must be increased in both scale and destructive power.

Land

The diverse security obstacles make a land-born weapon, dirty or otherwise, impractical.

Sea

We do not have the capability to launch a successful attack by sea.

Air

Obviously warplanes are not at our disposal. However, a plane hijacking is possible. Smuggling small weapons onto a plane is not difficult, but smuggling bombs likely will be. However, when loaded with fuel, a plane equipped for long flights can effectively turn into a bomb itself, as well as a delivery vehicle for the bomb.

Hijacking a plane and using it as a missile is an efficient way to produce a destructive effect that can be equally applied to all targets of opportunity.

Miscellaneous

The finer details of the attacks, the training, logistics, and execution are less relevant to our strategic goal.

Conclusion

The attacks on 9/11 took place. However, the planning could not have ended there. We must examine where we succeeded, where we failed, and where luck aided our strategy where it might not have.

Successes

  • We succeeded in destroying much of the World Trade Center
  • We succeeded in striking the Pentagon
  • We succeeded in creating an environment of fear and panic in the wake of the attacks
  • We succeeded in sowing economic discord and weakness
  • We succeeded in provoking the United States into unilateral military commitment to the Middle East

Failures

  • We underestimated the power of resistance by American Passengers on airline flights
  • We failed to exploit the vulnerability of the TSA’s regulations to smuggle weapons aboard which would have minimized the threat of resistance
  • We underestimated or failed to anticipate the unifying effect of the 9/11 attacks
  • We generated confusion by not immediately taking credit for the attacks in a visible way
  • We confused our message and failed to effectively communicate the reason for the attacks
  • We failed to cause significant real damage to the Pentagon’s staff due to poor timing
  • We failed to hit an executive or legislative government building, or any of its occupants

Successes of luck

  • US fighter craft were on routine exercises which minimized their response time
  • US intelligence services failed to anticipate our plan despite having acquired evidence for it
  • The Bush administration ignored the evidence that intelligence services did collect about the plan
  • The TSA’s security measures did not compromise any of the hijackers, despite having the ability to do so
  • Potential for the hijackers to be compromised upon entry to the United States or in the course of their activities was not capitalized upon
  • The unifying effect of the 9/11 attacks was not constructively used
  • The misinformation disseminated about us and the attacks engendered ignorance which helped perpetuate US attitudes

I’ll end this thought exercise there. I, of course, benefit from hindsight and information gleaned from other’s thorough investigations and journalism. However, this is the sort of exercise that a concerned administration then, and today, must undertake when they address any potential threat to the United States. If a member of the FBI or the NSA had written this report before 9/11, and it had been taken seriously by the Bush Administration, 9/11 would not have happened.

Before I end this, look again at the lists of the planners’ successes, failures, and instances of blind luck. Al Queda’s successes are our vulnerabilities. Its failures are our successes and victories. Al Queda’s luck is our weakness and incompetence.

How much safer are our domestic institutions from terrorism?

How much less inclined are we to seize panic and fall to economic discord?

How much less inclined are we to become bogged down in the Middle East?

Are we less vain and prone to reactionary policies?

Are our intelligence services better disposed to ending terror plots?

Are our government officials less beholden to party politics?

Are our airports more secure?

Are we more united as a country?

Do we have a better understanding of the enemies arrayed against us?

Are we more informed about our role in the world and the consequences of our actions?

It’s been fourteen years. Out of the horror and death of 9/11, what have we learned, and what do we have to show for the introspection that event encouraged?

How the Terrorists Won

And Other Uplifting Stories from the 21st Century

Hello, Internet. It’s been a while.

Well, let’s get to it.


So, let’s indulge certain world leaders and acknowledge at face value that there is a literal “war” on “terror.” Terror, of course, being a poetic substitution for “terrorism.”

In 2003 the US government released its “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.” In it is outlined the national strategy for “victory” against terrorism. The primary goal is stated as this:

“to stop terrorist attacks against the United States, its citizens, its interests, and our friends and allies around the world and ultimately, to create an international environment inhospitable to terrorists and all those who support them”

According to the report, there are four intermediate objectives required in order to accomplish this.
1. Defeat terrorists
2. Deny them sponsorship and support
3. Diminish the conditions which engender terrorism
4. Defend the security of our interests at home and abroad

Now aside from the clear hard-on for ‘D’s here alliterated, what do you notice 12 years later?
1. Terrorists are more proliferated now than when we invaded Iraq in 2003.
2. Terrorists enjoy increased support from around the world, including from our own alleged allies like Kuwait, as well as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China.
3. The Middle east has become exponentially more unstable, with civil conflict among many states creating prime conditions for breeding more extremism.
4. We have suffered through the Boston Bombing, the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, and numerous terrorist attacks upon our allies in the Middle East and the European Union.

In other words, every single objective of this strategy has failed. I’ve talked previously about how the attack on Iraq itself counter-intuitively encouraged this failure. But Al Queda, too, had a strategy, although of course it was for the advancement of terrorism.

In 2005, Saif al-Adel, al Qaeda’s military commander at the time, revealed Al Queda’s 7-point strategy for the 21st century.
1. “The awakening,” 2000-2003, in which the 9/11 attacks were the first wave. The purpose of this phase was to provoke the US into declaring war on the Muslim world.
2. “Opening Eyes,” 2004-2006, in which Iraq is converted into a hotbed for terrorist activity and an active way-station and base for recruits.
3. “Arising and Standing Up,” 2007-2010, plans for an increase in terrorist activities, especially attacks against more stable Middle eastern nations like Israel and Jordan, with a particular emphasis on Syria.
4. For the years of 2010-2013, Al Queda planned to bring about the end of dictatorial governments in the Middle East, like those of Syria and Egypt, as well as undermining the US economy using cyber-terrorism.
5. Between 2013-2016, Al Queda hopes for a literal establishment of the “Islamic State,” or caliphate, wherein the Western image will be weakened so much that support for Islamic fundamentalism will rise exponentially.
6. From 2016 onwards, the new “Islamic State” will provoke or inflict national violence against “non-believers” in the pursuit of enforcing Muslim beliefs on the entire region.
7. Al Queda foresees victory in 2020, after a two-year war in which the Western world finally admits defeat by the Muslims of the Middle East and, presumably, withdraws totally from both overt and covert capacities.

It’s sobering to remember that this was released in 2005, and had probably been in the works for at least half a decade. While some objectives are, generously, a pipe dream by terrorism defined as Al Queda alone, expanding the objectives to encompass all terrorist activity shows where the organization possessed startling prescience.
1. It goes without saying that the 9/11 attacks worked. The US invaded Afghanistan, and then Iraq, with the predictable result of getting stuck there for more than ten years.
2. Iraq has been completely destabilized, and Al Queda in Iraq, ISIS, and other terrorist organizations which were nonexistent under Saddam’s regime now flourish.
3.-4. Al Queda’s third and fourth phases eerily predict the Arab Spring and ensuing end to, or challenge of, dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, as well as their emphasized focus on Syria, where Al Nusra Front and ISIS (both local outgrowths of Al Queda)  have made significant, well-publicized gains since 2010. The economic defeat of the United States precluded any need for cyber-terrorism, as its own military adventure served the same objective, and with little need for effort on the part of Al Queda.
5. The name of “ISIS”, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is predicted. While the group exists more as a guerrilla force than a government entity, it’s startling to realize that its existence is owed in no small part to the plans and predictions of Al Queda ten years prior. The US’s predictions for Iraq and Afghanistan ten years ago were significantly less astute.
6. Although this phase is planned for the future, there’s already evidence that ISIS’s designs include such activities, and has begun to encourage them.
7. It’s hard to say what exactly will be the case in 2020, but the future isn’t looking particularly bright.

Strategy, independent of tactics, determines the victor in war. Strategy is more than a simple prediction of victory, but a description of the means to achieve victory in terms which can be interpreted broadly, but implemented specifically. As such, there is some leeway in judging the success or failure of each strategy in the Middle East, and around the world.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to say that the strategy of defeating terrorism has had any success. If anything, the US’s means of achieving that goal has actually contributed to its own defeat. Invasions and military actions in the Middle East have inflamed an already unstable region, united opinion against us, and crippled our own economy, which has resulted in an unprecedented rise in terrorism around the world.

For terrorism, US activity has been a boon, as has been the growing animosity to Muslims around the world. Western reactions and backlashes to these activities, exhibited in the rise of right-wing ideology engendered by terrorist activities, increasingly isolates and radicalizes Muslims domestically and abroad. This leads to greater recruitment of terrorists, as more Muslims see solidarity in joining with those who oppose increasingly reactionary Western governments and populations.

This, like the US and the Middle East, like Israel and Palestine, is yet another recursive loop of foreign policy, where so-called enlightened powers play into the most bold-faced and basic guerrilla strategies of extremists without recourse to real international political or economic pressure. Throughout the course of the war on terror, we have framed victory as a mere matter of search-and-destroy, and of exporting our ideas to other countries in an attempt to stabilize in one lifetime what centuries have wrought, as though those countries could not survive without our wisdom or guidance.

The truth that has emerged is that these very strategies bring about more terrorism. And if our war on terror has simply sewn more terror, what can be done? Clearly we need a new strategy. I am sick and tired of seeing these same strategies, the same tactics, used again and again by the United States, in the name of high-minded ideals like freedom and democracy, when in actuality our actions serve only to engender further animosity abroad by representing us in the most myopic and unenlightened possible light.

I have an alternative strategy to propose. It’s not a simple fix, and it is unlikely ever to be implemented, but I believe if we do not significantly change the course of this country, it will be a footnote before long, a tragic tale of the rise and fall of the first, and last, global democracy.