Whether fighting Islamist terrorism, white supremacy or Antifa, the military isn’t enough.
It an undisputed fact that the United States has the most powerful military in the world. The latest estimates suggest it could take on at least one full-fledged war while maintaining smaller operations around the globe, although it may struggle to conduct a second war simultaneously.
With all that might, why is the war on terror dragging on?
Asymmetric Warfare is a Different Kind Of War
In conventional warfare, the main goal is to take and hold territory. Pitched battles, towns and cities and control of the skies are the name of the game. In asymmetric warfare, the guerrilla side aims to bleed out the occupying power through small-scale attacks.
Today it is very difficult for all but the most sophisticated terrorists to take out American soldiers. But it is trivially easy to shoot up a group of civilians at a cafe or a nightclub.
“The fundamental aim of asymmetrical warfare is to find a way round the adversary’s military strength by discovering and exploiting, in the extreme, its weaknesses,” Toni Pfanner, editor-in-chief of the International Review of the Red Cross wrote back in 2005.
“Weaker parties have realized that, particularly in modern societies, to strike ‘soft targets’ causes the greatest damage. Consequently, civilian targets frequently replace military ones.”
Since that article was written, Pfanner’s thesis has been proven time and again.
By demonstrating the inability of the American military to keep civilians safe and maintain order, terrorists are able to drive a wedge between the people and the American soldiers.
Their aim is to undermine the society’s sense of security, thereby eroding the legitimacy of the state, paving the way to seize power in the chaos.
Insurgency Doesn’t Require Vast Resources
All you need to wage a successful asymmetric war is grit and the support of a percentage of the local population. That support makes sure the insurgents are fed, housed and have the resources they need to carry out attacks.
By contrast, to defeat an insurgency militarily requires an investment in blood and treasure that the public is simply not willing to stomach. The infrastructure of air strikes, satellites, communications surveillance, logistics and all the other sinews of war is extremely expensive, especially for a modern army like the United States.
In 2016, ISIS boasted about its success in forcing the United States to spend $12 million every day (of taxpayers money) to fight them.
The option to defeat an insurgency militarily involves horrific war crimes, of the scale that President Bashar al-Assad has inflicted on his people. No Western democratic leader with any kind of moral compass at all could countenance those sorts of atrocities, and no Western public would accept them.
Within The West, the Strategy is Race War
Within the West the war is even harder, because populations are mixed in together in dense urban areas. ISIS has a strategic doctrine which requires eliminating the so-called “Grey Zone.”
By carrying out terrorist attacks against civilians, it aims to increase hatred of Muslims in Western society, thereby forcing Muslims to join the extremists, and create the global war between the Ummah and the West they want.
This is one of the main reasons Islamist terrorists routinely target more moderate Muslim leaders and civilians who do not support its extremism.
This strategy is clearly outlined in the al-Qaeda strategic doctrine, “The Management of Savagery.” It is supposed to start in Muslim countries, and use terrorism to collapse the authority of the non-Islamist states.
This strategy is shared by white supremacists. The intended aim of savage acts of violence like the El Paso shooting or the Christchurch massacre are to create a situation of such hostility that everyone is forced to align with their groups.
This will create the necessary preconditions for the full-fledged race war they crave.
Charlie Manson’s goal in ordering the vicious murders that he did was to spark a race war, a war he argued was prophesied in the Beatles’ White Album and which he called the “Helter Skelter.”
Most recently, the shooter who attacked a mosque in Norway explicitly cited this motivation in a post online, writing, “We can’t let this go on, you gotta bump the race war threat.” He praised the Christ Church shooter.
Today’s Terrorism Is Stochastic Terrorism
Stochastic terrorism is a new buzzword to describe the decentralized and seemingly random nature of modern terrorist attacks.
It was coined in 2011 by an anonymous Daily Kos writer and defined as “the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.”
Gone are the days when Leninist-style centralized cells met in basements and underneath bridges wearing trench coats to discuss attacks. Now we have extremist groups releasing a steady drumbeat of incendiary propaganda aimed at inciting their followers to attack.
When should they attack? Where? It doesn’t matter, the propaganda urges. Just do it. Pick up a gun and attack today.
The propaganda may be overt, directly calling followers to carry out attacks, or covert, subtly implying that someone should do something and that maybe violence could be that thing.
This tactic is key to both jihadist and Far-Right propaganda. Each fresh attack further polarizes the population, undermines the legitimacy of the government and spreads panic and chaos. All of these things further the extremist agenda.
Stochastic terrorism is the perfect strategy for asymetric warfare in an era of mass communications and mass surveillance: It has no networks that can be inflitrated. No weapons bans can prevent it (knives and trucks are legal around the world). And it cannot be predicted.
Therefore, the might of the most powerful military the world has ever known is useless to oppose it.
The only thing which can be effective in opposing such terrorism is the intellectual defeat of the ideas driving the violence.
As former leader of the Soviet Union and noted insane mass murderer Josef Stalin said, “Ideas are more powerful than guns.”