Iraq: Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) Swamp

G. I. Wilson

March 10, 2004

Republished with permission

Originally published on 

Iraq is fast becoming a fourth generation warfare swamp. The attacks on Shiite shrines in Baghdad and Karbala, killing and wounding hundreds, portends more of the same. These coordinated attacks signal a change in the very nature of the insurgency itself. Iraqi terrorists (both foreign fighters and indigenous) are waging symbolic and ideological warfare against the U.S., Coalition Forces, and segments of the Iraqi people.

These terrorists remain elusive and often effective in their attacks. Improvised explosive devises and suicide bombers take their toll on both Iraqis and U.S. troops. Determining with specificity what factions are precipitating this violence is no easy task.

Paul Bremer, U.S. administrator of Iraq, believes the violence aimed at Iraqis comes from foreign threats outside the country of Iraq. Gen. John Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee that foreign operatives continue to infiltrate across the Syrian and Iranian borders. The coordination among foreign interlopers, indigenous opportunists, Islamic extremists, and remnants of the Saddam regime is quite remarkable.

Remarkable in the sense the insurgents have both secular and religious components. The secular group has its origin in remnants of the Ba'athist loyalists. The religious group ties are with the foreign jihadists who came to Iraq to fight the great SatanUnited States. These foreign interlopers or jihadists are most likely the trainers of terrorist cells and suicide bombers inside Iraq.

Iraq’s fourth generation foes appear at times to be everywhere in the region connected not only by family, clan, and ethnic ties but the Internet as well.  This 4GW foe has no desire to make peace but rather is attempting to increase casualties as fast as possible during this next troop rotation. This 4GW adversary transcends borders and the nation-state paradigm. While Saddam Hussein loyalists press to destabilization Iraq, an irregular network of foreign and local terrorists in association Islamic extremists are creating internal strife and conflict.

All conflict in Iraq for U.S. forces and the Iraqis is now local. We must prepare and be willing to encounter these 4GW adversaries in all their shapes and guises. The situation is growing more complex resulting in a pugilistic witch's brew and hurly burly stew in the offing.  For example, it has been reported in the open press that Hamas has an office in Nasariah, and Hezbollah has offices in Basra and Safwan. The political wings of both Hamas and Hezbollah are recruiting Iraqi youth with seminars that embrace their ideology and terrorist nature.

Terrorists' tactics and the nature of the insurgency are changing. This is characteristic of fourth generation warfare. One striking aspect of these fourth generation terrorist groups is their ability to adapt, transform and reappear. We must not lose sight of the fact that our fourth generation adversaries are constantly adapting changing as Islamic terror networks fan out seeking fertile new ground to foment discontent in places with weak authorities, lack of Iraqi security forces, shifting alliances, and endemic corruption associated with criminal enterprises.

We are beginning to see more attacks in Iraq focusing on the emerging Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi people themselves. The number of attacks on U.S. forces appears to be declining somewhat indicating that insurgent forces are focusing less on U.S. troops but rather on Iraqis who support the coalition forces, or people working for the new government. The situation remains problematic.

Foreign fighters are continuing to infiltrate across the Syrian and Iranian borders.  Part of the threat is being attributed to extremists. Nevertheless, expect collaboration among Iraqi extremists, foreign terrorists, and Saddam loyalists (remnants of the regime’s intelligence service and Fedayeen). The desire to create internal turmoil cannot be overlooked.

For example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is carrying on a fourth generation campaign inside Iraq, as described in a letter purportedly written by al-Zarqawi and intercepted by U.S. intelligence. The letter outlined plans to attack Shiite religious sites to foment a civil war.

The fourth generation foe in the Iraqi region is more likely to be known by his ideology than by his national origin or geographic connection as defined by nation-states.  He is defined by his affinity for destructive ideologies or intentions. To this enemy, structures emblematic of globalizing influence become high-value targets. As the anti-occupation threat diminishes, other dangerous fourth generation groups lurk in the swamp.

There are ambiguous assortments of terrorist and fundamentalist groups whose organization; reach, network structure, and origins are difficult to define. The fundamentalists include followers of the Wahabbi sect of Islam, mujahedeen forces committed to a holy war against the West; and imams who preach anti-Western messages in Iraqi mosques. These groups mixed with foreign terrorists such as al-Qa'ida and Ansar al-Islam, and Iraqi Kurds compose a very dangerous enemy, which threatens the stability of Iraq.

This enemy cannot be overcome by simply killing them. Their deaths mean martyrdom. Where they fall, dozens or hundreds spring up to take their places. They cannot be overcome solely through firepower attrition, because all death caused by the West accrue to this enemy's benefit, proving their thesis that annihilation is still King in all struggles for power. Waging conflict with massive firepower and high technology are the hallmark of the great Satan to them.

As in all conflict the aftermath is not pretty and we need to recognize with Iraq that "the baby is ugly".  We have violated General Zinni's twenty principles* of humanitarian operations. However, we still have a window of opportunity to make a dramatic difference if we work hard at creating Iraqi jobs, get Iraqi security forces firmly in place, establish venues for free press, provide extensive internet and media access to the Iraqi people, enhance the infrastructure, and control the borders of Iraq.

If the United States plans on Iraq to be the keystone in the region, then it needs well-controlled and monitored borders. Once Iraq’s borders are secure, Iraq can serve as the balancing centerpiece for the region. Controlling the borders of Iraq will be demanding but represents another way point necessary for exiting Iraq. Securing the borders will focus attention on such countries as Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran. No doubt Saudi Arabia will find itself in an uncomfortable position but one the U.S. cannot ignore either.

The next 13 months will determine the path Iraq will ultimately pursue. The volatile concoction of resistive Kurds in the north, assertive Shiites in the south and embittered Sunni Muslims in between, exacerbated by the presence of foreign interlopers, has all the potential for an internal explosion. Hopefully terrorist and fundamentalist factions will not turn Iraq into a fourth generation warfare swamp.

*  Go to the bottom of that page and click on the link "Zinni's Twenty Rules." It's a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet (15K)

© 2004 G.I. Wilson. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of

G.I. Wilson is a retired a Marine Corps Reserve Colonel with over 30 years of military service and 7 years combined civilian law enforcement and emergency services experience. He is widely published in military journals and has appeared in TV documentaries on warfare. He consults for ABC-7 Los Angles, Knowledge and Intelligence Program Professionals (KIPP) , M2 Technologies, Employer Support of the Guard & Reserve (ESGR) , Emergency Response Research Institute (ERRI) , and is President of the Board of Directors for Bossov Ballet Theatre.

Col GI Wilson, USMCR, was a co-author of the original paper on fourth generation warfare.