DNI Editor's note:  Steve Daskal is a former intelligence officer with considerable experience observing the Middle East.  In this paper, he makes several observations on the nature of fourth generation warfare and the form it may take in that region. Whether you agree or not, I trust you will find them challenging and provocative. Like all contributions to DNI, the opinions he expresses are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of DNI or of our other contributors.


Changing the Paradigm of the War

Steven E. Daskal

November 7, 2003

Republished with permission of the author.


To best explain the current conflict, it is important to begin by recognizing that by calling it a "global war on terrorism," we confuse ourselves, annoy most of our potential allies, and still alienate not only our enemies but many of the "undecideds" in between—including many of our Cold War era allies. Terrorism is a tactic of the economically, technologically, and militarily weak against the strong. Terrorism is not an enemy, any more than one can say that "tanks" or "automatic weapons" or "submarines" are the enemy. They are weapons, with associated tactics and concepts of operation that can be used by different actors to implement various strategies.


It is impossible to win a war if one either cannot identify the adversary, or so thoroughly mis-identifies it as to be unable to effectively recognize it, understand it, and engage it at a point or points that exploit its weaknesses and our strengths. To characterize the enemy, it is best to characterize those who are using or supporting the use of terrorism against the American people and the United States.

I think it is fair and reasonable to identify the enemy as Islamist extremism. To render that as something more than a slogan, let me begin by noting that the Islamist ideology is not Islam. Not all Muslims are Islamists, but it has become the dominant application of Islam in the overly politicized modern age.

The Islamist ideology is an outgrowth of Islam, and both major branches of Islam—Sunni and Shi'a—have fostered Islamist ideologies. The Sunni Islamists trace back to the salafi movement in South Asia and the related Wahhabi movement in the Arabian peninsula. Their roots go back to the 18th century AD, and are a reaction to the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the increasing politico-economic and military power of the non-Muslim world. Islamist ideology developed much later among the Shi'ites, developing as a late 19th-early 20th century ideology, and one more tightly connected to Persian/Iranian nationalism than the original Sunni salafi'ist thought. The Wahhabi movement was a more direct offshoot of salafi thought, but became tied to a traditionalist/tribalist but pan-Arab nationalism as exemplified by ibn Saud [note: nickname of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, who died in 1953]. Whatever the particulars of its religious roots, Islamist ideology works on two assumptions. First, that if Islam were purified of corruption and decadence, and the umma (body of Muslims) were wholly dedicated to Islam, then Islam would be strengthened and protected by Allah and able to beat back the increasingly powerful West. From this assumption, the second was a logical progression: the only appropriate government for a predominantly Muslim society is a quasi-theocratic state governed in accordance with the Qur'an and the sharia law—a caliphate. An Islamist society does not need a legislature—the Qur'an and the sharia is its fundamental law and its criminal and civil code, respectively. An Islamist society needs an executive (whether monarchial/tribal or—later—republican) to implement and enforce Qur'anic law and raise a military, and a court system drawn from the ulema—the learned scholars (mostly clergy)—to apply and to a limited degree interpret the Qur'an and sharia based upon the generally accepted hadith (the recorded sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) and the ijtihad (the recorded interpretations of the inspired leading scholars prior to the 16th century). The hadith functions for Islamic political and legal thought somewhat like the Federalist Papers functions in the US—it provides additional insights into the thought processes of the framers of the fundamental law (in the Muslim case, Mohammed and, to a lesser degree, his earliest and closest followers).

It is important to note that not all Islamists are inherently aggressive, bellicose, or seeking confrontation with "the West" or the US. However, most Islamists view the West as inherently hostile, corrupting, and anti-Islamic, not just because of politico-military actions, but because of the dominance of Western market-oriented, global-trade-oriented economics and the ceaseless torrent of cultural and entertainment products flowing in through every form of media. While most appreciate Western technology and material wealth, they have a very ambivalent response to Western ideas of freedom and leisure pursuits—the idea of "ordered liberty" tends to be incomprehensible, so what they see is a mixture of license (sexual and otherwise) and independence, a mix that is both extremely tempting and, according to Islam, damning. As a result there is a tendency to be overtly and formally hostile and prohibitionist, while not infrequently indulging secretly.

This cultural conflict as well as the politico-military contest and the evident incompetence and corruption of most of the nominally Western-style republics in the Muslim world as well as the traditional or tribally-based monarchies led to a growing strand of extremism in the Islamist movement. The Islamist extremists went beyond strident but generally non-violent advocacy of Islamist views to an absolutist posture, asserting that unless Islam rises up, it will be overwhelmed by the West, and thus a defensive jihad (struggle) is both warranted and necessary. [It is important to note that the original concept of jihad was not necessarily violent—it could mean a moral struggle within the individual to overcome temptation and ignorance and achieve a higher level of conformity to Islam and understanding of Allah, as it still does for the Sufis, but this more philosophical and introspective understanding of jihad has been increasingly peripheralized in the past half century.] This extremist minority among the Islamists views confrontation with the non-Muslim world as unavoidable to protect Muslims from worldly temptation, to carry out the Qur'anic injunction to regain lands and wealth "taken" from Muslims by non-Muslims, and to protect Islam from the multi-faceted onslaught (cultural, religious, economic, social, political, military) of the West.

While some Islamists have urged that the primary target be to push out or overthrow brittle, corrupt Muslim leaders and replace them with Islamist regimes (as was ostensibly done in Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Mauretania), others assert that no Islamic state can be secure, either from overt attack or from socio-economic subversion, unless the outside world—the dar al-harb (realm of rebellion or chaos) can be forced into retreat from the dar al-Islam (realm in submission). For both, but especially the former group, all who do not accept what they view as orthodox Islam, including those viewed as moderates by non-Muslims but as "backslidden" or "apostate" by Islamists, are the enemy. This is why the Islamists who are willing to acknowledge their involvement in the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist attacks that kill Muslims are not especially concerned about the Muslims who have died in these actions. To the Islamist extremists, these people were nominal Muslims who had thrown in their lot with the non-Muslim world. For those Islamists who wish to strike out at those they view as the aggressors who threaten the survival and integrity of Islam, the United States stands out as the primary threat, with Israel, India, the Philippines, and other states viewed as fighting at the direction of, or only through the support of, the US.


Islamist views are held by a substantial portion of the world's roughly one billion Muslims, perhaps even a majority of Muslims worldwide. For argument's sake, let us be conservative and say that a third of the world's Muslims are Islamists. Out of that 330 million, probably less than one percent are extremists who in some way are directly involved in Islamist extremism, either as armed fighters, as couriers or suppliers, as recruiters or trainers, or as fund-raisers or procurers. Yet, that still amounts to over three million people! That is a substantial enemy force. Worse, the war is inevitably having a polarizing effect on the rest of the Muslim world, dividing it between those who feel obligated to back (and cheer for) the Islamist extremists even if they oppose aspects of their agendas or methods; those who feel obligated to back the US and its allies against the extremists even if they favor some aspects of the Islamist agenda; those who are simply trying to stay alive and out of the conflict; and those who are cynically preoccupied with profiting from the conflict financially or politically.

Fortunately, the Islamists, and even the extremists, are far from a unified monolithic force. Though they agree on a general set of goals and agree that ultimately they will face a final confrontation with the US in which they expect Allah to directly intervene on their side, they differ on much else. The theological disputes between Sunni and Shi'ite, the ethnic differences between Arabs, Persians (all of the Farsi/Dari speakers), and other groups within the Islamic world, organizational structure disputes, and personality clashes all work against unity. However, over the past decade, observers have noted an increasingly common tendency for mutual cooperation between groups that once were hostile towards each other. Shi'ite Iran and its Hizb'allah overseas insurgent/terror arm is actively supporting and cooperating with Sunni HAMAS, Islamic Jihad, and other non-Shi'ite groups. Nominally independent and Sunni-dominated Lebanon is hosting Hizb'allah's world headquarters as well as the bases of several Sunni Islamist and secular pan-Arab nationalist groups. Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs and Persians are cooperating with the Chechens; the largely Pashtun Harekat-i-Islami, Laskar-i-Islam and other Islamist extremists operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir; the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines; Islamist extremists fighting a genocidal war against Christians in central Indonesia; and Islamist groups seeking to wipe out or drive out non-Muslims across much of Africa from West Africa across to Kenya and southwards along the Indian Ocean coast.


The war between the US and its allies and the forces of Islamist extremism is in some ways a new phenomenon, and in some ways a variation on an older one. To get a better handle on the nature of this war, let's start from a familiar paradigm of global conflict, and then evolve it into what we are now facing through a process of subtraction and addition.

I will start by summarizing the paradigms and understandings of the comparatively recent and familiar Cold War, rather than harking back to the Crusades or the inter-communal religious wars of pre-modern Europe, both obscured by the passage time and the fundamental changes in European or Western society since the mid-17th century. At the ideological core was the conflict between Soviet Marxism-Leninism and Western social democratic/mixed economy capitalism. This conflict manifested itself in a central confrontation between the USSR and the US, in which the key factor was the correlation of nuclear forces. A fundamental rule of the conflict was that short of an all-out, Armageddon-like "World War III," the national homelands and domestic civilian populations were "off limits." The martial aspects of the conflict were played out in proxy wars, covert operations, clandestine actions, and skirmishes along national peripheries between air and naval units. The strategic confrontation had stabilized in a stalemate—both sides had overwhelming pre-emptive and retaliatory nuclear weaponry, and both had massive and capable conventional forces—the Soviets' more massive but less agile, far-reaching, and precise than the Americans'.

To find a way out of the deadlock, each side adopted an irregular or asymmetric alternate strategy. The Soviets developed theirs early on. It emphasized the use—either directly or by manipulation—of the Communist International and all of the various revolutionary entities affiliated with it, directly or otherwise, including a vast array of propaganda and united front programs (including the so-called Euro-Communists, the "peace movement," etc.) as well as overtly anti-Western national revolutionaries like Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and even non-Communists like Nasser and Qadhafi, and of course the more-or-less stateless revolutionary terrorist groups like Baader-Meinhof, Brigatta Rosso, Japanese Red Army Faction, etc. The goal of this effort was to undermine, isolate, and over-stretch the US through an ever-expanding series of costly, painful, humiliating, and inconclusive counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaigns.

The US-UK alliance for its part did not really settle upon an effective countering alternative or asymmetric strategy until the early 1980s, when the Reagan and Thatcher administrations formulated the idea of maintaining such a rapid pace of technological and economic development, and of translating those advances into advanced weaponry, that the USSR was lured into bankrupting itself trying to maintain the parity it had achieved as huge socio-economic cost during the 1960s-1970s. Complemented by a few tools cribbed from the Soviets—reinvigorated propaganda and selective support to anti-Soviet insurgencies in Soviet-occupied territories, this strategy played upon the internal contradictions of the Soviets' overly centralized, KGB-dominated political structure, its dysfunctional command economy, and its lack of market mechanisms to balance demand with supply and cost. As a result, the Warsaw Pact and then the USSR collapsed largely due to their own internal contradictions, growing cynicism, endemic corruption, and the obvious failure of the Soviet system to progress towards its stated socio-economic goals.


There are some substantial differences between the Cold War and the War against Islamist Extremism.

First, the Islamists do not have a single, overt core state comparable to the USSR. Rather, they have several states that provide them varying types and degrees of support. States such as Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan all profess opposition to Islamist extremism and even claim a desire to eradicate it, while within their ruling elites powerful actors provide arms, funds, and intelligence to various Islamist extremist groups, and provide political cover for large-scale indoctrination of their already alienated and disaffected populations, recruiting and training of fighters and support personnel, and fundraising. This has two significant impacts: there is no clearly visible force-on-force conventional or nuclear deterrent balance to stabilize the scale and extent of the conflict; and the Islamists are not only willing but eager to attack the American people and the American homeland, while the US is constrained by ethical, humanitarian, diplomatic, and strategic concerns from targeting the states whose elites are supporting the Islamist extremists. Thus, unlike the Cold War, there is no central stalemate and the resulting stability—no "mutually assured destruction." This puts the US at a serious disadvantage despite its enormous economic and military superiority. America cannot effectively deter the Islamists from attacking whenever, wherever, and however they can. This cannot be a cold war like the US-Soviet struggle or like today's unacknowledged (at least by most Americans) cold war between the Peoples Republic of China and the US. The US does not want to unify hundreds of millions of Islamist moderates and moderate Muslims behind the extremists, and so decisive American action is deterred. Only peripheral targets like Afghanistan and Iraq can be targeted, not core targets that are really providing most of the support to the Islamists such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and Syria-Lebanon.

Second, the Islamist extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and its many affiliates and partners around the world and Hizb'allah are analogous to the various insurgent/terrorist groups of, or influenced by, the Communist Third International during the Soviet-US confrontation. Even as the US never effectively wiped out most of these Marxist-Leninist terrorist or insurgent groups, the US is facing a very serious challenge trying to defeat their Islamist extremist successors.

Third, while the US came up with solutions to counter the Soviet nuclear and conventional forces, and countered the subversive threat of the Soviet-backed "peace," "anti-nuclear," and "disarmament" united front movements by hitting at the inherent contradictions and vulnerabilities of the Soviet system inside the USSR, in its Warsaw Pact empire, and among its client states, it has not yet come up with a comparable strategy or strategies to isolate, much less defeat, Islamist extremism and its supporters. There has been a great deal of talk about promoting democratization, individualism, and consumerist prosperity, but the realities of the Muslim world are such that democratization is likely to accelerate the rise of Islamists who sympathize with the goals if not the methods of the extremists, individualism is seen as corrosive to both Islamic values and the brittle authoritarian regimes of the Islamic world, and consumerist prosperity is beyond reach of these deeply dysfunctional and under-productive societies except for the small Gulf oil monarchies, because of a lack of capital, a lack of non-petroleum resources, social hostility to banking and to foreign direct investment, a worldwide glut of manufacturing capacity, dysfunctional educational and social mobilization/training structures (especially for women, minorities, and exurban populations, weak infrastructures, and stubbornly entrenched elites who realize that change along the lines promoted by the US will either marginalize and impoverish them, or lead to their expulsion into exile.

Fourth, the US and its potential allies against Islamist extremism are just that—potential allies. The US is still clinging to its obsolete anti-Soviet alliances and bilateral partners, even though most of them are irrelevant to the new conflict. Most of EUrope, to the continued astonishment of most Americans, is far more comfortable appeasing the Islamic world than confronting it. EUropeans have anesthetized themselves to the problem and the threat by assuming that so long as they are anti-Israeli and anti-American, and sell the Muslims whatever they want (including weapons and dual-use advanced technology), they will not be attacked. The reality is that EUrope has a much larger Muslim minority population than the US, and it is growing daily, and EUrope is also far more dependent upon trade with the Islamic world than is the US. The reality is that NATO is not only useless in this war, it is a dangerously distracting waste of politico-diplomatic, military, capital, and technological resources. Similarly, the PRC, which needed the US as an ally against the Soviet empire even more than the US needed Red China, is now Russia's largest non-EU trading partner, its major market for advanced arms, and sees the US as a rival for dominance in East Asia and the Western Pacific if not an outright enemy. Meanwhile, Japan and the RoK have their own security concerns totally unrelated to what to them is an irrelevant Islamist extremist threat. Of all of the US' Cold War era allies, the only ones that are genuinely relevant (and bring more to the fight than liabilities) are the UK, Australia, and to a lesser degree some of the newly liberated states in central and eastern Europe.

Most of the US's real potential allies are those states already under attack by the forces of Islamist extremism, or are imminent potential targets who, unlike the foolish EUropeans, realize that appeasement will only delay the inevitable conflict, not prevent it. Those potential allies include Israel, Turkey, India, Russia—all of which the US has been either keeping at arm's length to avoid alienating Islamist-supporting regimes, or which have kept the US at arm's length because of what they see as the confused and ambivalent policies of the past quarter century.


This is NOT a new war. It did not start on 11 September 2001. It did not even start with the attack on the USS COLE in Aden or the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia (which were classic irregular warfare/guerrilla attacks against military targets in a declared war, not terrorism). Part of the war began with Osama bin-Laden's fatwa on behalf of the Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda against the United States for its "occupation" and "defilement" of Saudi Arabia back in 1994 (later expanded to condemning the US for its presence throughout the Islamic world including "Crusader kingdoms" such as Israel. Part of the war began back in 1982, with the truck bombing of the US Embassy and the Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon by Shi'ite Islamists affiliated with Hizb'allah (which was also the most likely force behind the Khobar Towers attack). But the first formal stage of the war was the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on behalf of the Shi'ite Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, where for the first time the US was condemned as the "Great Satan" and marked for perpetual armed struggle until it was destroyed or had at least totally withdrawn from involvement in the Islamic world. Thus, this war has been going on for a quarter century. Think of Iran as playing the role of Imperial Japan in World War II—the first state to attack the US in the war—with the far more dispersed but numerous and better placed Sunni Islamists playing the role of Nazi Germany. The analogy is very limited, but also applies in another sense. Despite the Axis pact between Tokyo and Berlin, effective cooperation between the two anti-American powers was quite limited by geography and each regime's belief that it was ethnically and militarily superior. Finally, consider Saddam Hussein's Iraq as a more bloodthirsty, longer-lived equivalent of Fascist Italy—the first part of the wider threat knocked out of the war by resurgent Anglo-American power. But the analogy ends because the Axis' fortunes rested entirely upon its military capabilities—it never was an economic, political, or social match for the Anglo-Saxon allies, nor was it ever able to mobilize substantial subversive or revolutionary elements against the Anglo-Saxon countries. Thus, the US-led answer to the Axis threat was primarily a conventional force-on-force military campaign—not easier or less painful, to be sure, than the Cold War, but certainly simpler.


This latest global conflict between the US and the forces of totalitarianism and extremism is not a minor conflict, and will not be easily or quickly won. It is a conflict with some interesting and troubling parallels to the Cold War. Last but not least, it is a war that will finally force the US to develop reliable, affordable, and reasonably prompt means for defeating insurgent/terrorist warfare, countering subversion of disaffected groups in the homeland population and in neutral states, and pre-empting the development and/or use of WMD against the US homeland.