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The Asymmetric Threat


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  • The Asymmetric Threat

    By: Jonathan D. Greenstein

    As has been previously coined; asymmetric warfare is engaging in tactics that are “not fair”. Tactics used by our adversaries can include the use of surprise, use of weapons in ways unplanned by the United States and can include the prospect of an opponent designing a strategy that fundamentally alters the terrain on which a conflict is fought. In order to counter potential asymmetric threats we must appreciate the fact that our adversaries will use a myriad of tactics to wage war against us. They will likely engage in rapidly morphing behaviors to counter defensive measures affected against them. They will learn quickly from their successes and failures. While the likelihood of a complete or even marginal degree of success against conventional forces is slim, our adversaries appreciate this and will likely exhaust only the amount of energy and resources needed to gain a perceived degree of victory.

    For groups such as Al Qaida (AQ), they know full well that they will never triumph in a head to head battle against large armies, but they do know that there is potential to win their war through public perception and ever increasing body counts. While the West has what seems to be an endless supply of troops, tanks and other implements of war; AQ also appears to have a limitless supply of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and individuals who are more than willing to engage in suicide operations. While there are finite resources available to us and them, the issue at hand is who is willing to spend more in pursuit of victory; be it real or perceived. For the West, the investment is more than just troops and equipment; it is political capitol that is either gained or lost over the course of the war. Because the public’s perception and subsequent endorsement of continued engagement is often driven by their take on the state of things, the tide of support can change based on what they see and hear. For groups such as AQ, the same is likely the basis for continued support, both financially and politically.

    For either side to continue there is the need for continued support. Should the funding or manpower stream be interrupted, the likely result will be a significantly decreased capability for either side. It is therefore my opinion that success against groups such as AQ will come through disruption of their support mechanisms; be it funding and manpower, political support and backing, or logistical and operating bases. But before we tackle the disruption front, we must appreciate how each side operates and why there has been a degree of success that has sustained both sides.

    In leveraging a hearts and mind tactic, the West has used both might and right. While we have pursued our adversaries through conventional warfare on one front, on the other front we have provided aid and infrastructure building for the people on the community level. While there are some critics that say the efforts to win the hearts and minds over the course of our recent engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan have in some cases instigated AQ and pushed itinerant AQ supporters over to the adversary, there are others who see this as not only a moral imperative, but one of tactical advantage. I agree with the latter in that the building of communities and improving infrastructure can provide the degree of civility that will rebuke radical postulating.
    While each community will have its own unique chemistry, I believe that by providing and sustaining the basics of life, the community will be more likely to protect what they have and the independence it provides. In support of this position I proffer the following: If a village must make long treks to a distant stream for water that exposes them to any manner of bandits or other hazards if they are without the protection of the local militia group, they are beholden to the militia in order to gather life sustaining water should they accept their protection. QED, they will likely provide food, shelter and protection to the militia. Provide them a source of water and you have removed one of the leverage factors the militia could use to exert pressure on the village.

    I noted that some critics have opined that by building schools and improving the infrastructure of villages, we have unwittingly provided AQ cause to visit that village in order to re-educate its population. This has certainly been the case. Terrible atrocities have been committed by AQ against villagers for such egregious crimes as attending school, providing an education for girls and accepting the generosity of the West. News of retribution by AQ travels fast and despite this, villages continue to accept and in some cases, seek out assistance from the West. These villages understand that by accepting help, they are exposing themselves to possible sanction, but they want and will accept this village building even if it means they will have to fight to protect it.

    I do not propose that providing a well or a school is the sole answer to winning against AQ. I do propose that over the long course of this war, we will gain advantage through the use of both conventional arms and the proverbial shovel. By making them less reliant on what AQ touts as the panacea attainable through support for their cause and ways, we reduce their support base. If we reduce their support base, we tip the scale in our favor. With that tip of the scale, we have the potential to make gains.

    Examining what AQ provides the village is a bit more complex. While they have likely funded and even constructed mosques, Madrasahs and other facilities, it is likely such projects were done with the ulterior motive of continuing their mission of radicalizing the populous, thereby garnering support on the local level and providing for a stream of potential fighters. This is somewhat speculative, but likely an accurate appraisal of AQ’s motive behind expenditures beyond weapons and fighter sustainment.

    Establishing and sustaining a presence on the village level will provide the framework for expanded rebuilding efforts on the national level; something that AQ does not have the capability for, but lacking such, AQ will seek to exploit gaps in which they will insert themselves and their radical ideology into. We must therefore continue to work on the local level with shovel in hand while prosecuting the enemy on the frontlines.

    We must identify not only the current capabilities of our adversaries, but also the emerging trends and likely direction they will take. Failing to look at a direction based on capability will surely lead us back down the road we have traveled time and time again. That road is littered with the wreckage of vehicles that have fallen prey to roadside bombs. While the ability to assess current capabilities is a fairly straightforward matter of reviewing trends, the ability to accurately forecast potential capabilities is hampered by a number of factors, the most prevalent being support from nation states and the potential for that support to wane under external pressure. A prime example would be the evidence showing Iranian support for fighters in Iraq in the form of arms and explosives. The US Department of State notes that from 2009, Iran remained the principal supporter of groups that are implacably opposed to the Middle East Peace Process. Further, the Department of State cited the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as the Iranian regime’s primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad. DS noted that Iran has provided training to the Taliban in Afghanistan on small unit tactics, small arms, explosives, and indirect fire weapons. Since at least 2006, Iran has arranged arms shipments to select Taliban members, including small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, and plastic explosives. DS noted that despite Iran’s pledge to support the stabilization of Iraq, Iranian authorities continued to provide lethal support, including weapons, training, funding, and guidance, to Iraqi Shia militant groups that targeted U.S. and Iraqi forces.
    Iran continues to supply Iraqi militants with Iranian-produced advanced rockets, sniper rifles, automatic weapons, and mortars that have killed Iraqi and Coalition Forces, as well as civilians. Iran was responsible for the increased lethality of some attacks on U.S. forces by providing militants with the capability to assemble explosively formed penetrators that were designed to defeat armored vehicles. Iranian forces, in concert with Hezbollah have provided training outside of Iraq and advisors inside Iraq for the construction and use of sophisticated improvised explosive device technology and other advanced weaponry.

    To stem the flow of weapons, advisors and likely financial support, the US and its partners must exert appropriate pressure on Iran; or any other nation state that seeks to insert itself into the conflict on the insurgencies side. By disrupting this vital supply chain, AQ will be left without some of the more advanced tools they have leveraged in recent actions. Their tactics will likely revert to previously used methods and we may be able to leverage lessons learned from past attacks. Thus, our ability to predict is increased.
    For Western targets we must take a different approach to attack mitigation planning that is applied in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Yemen. Those locations are where I would term the battle space. They are the front lines of the war and tactics employed there, however successful they may be here, are likely to be confined to that arena. In the West, tactics are likely to be adjusted to fit in and capitalize on the differences in operating environment that exist only in the West. In order for us to predict an attack, we must view the world we occupy with the eye of an AQ planner. What targets exist that could be stuck, providing a spectacular result at minimal cost? I say spectacular result because that is what AQ has shown they want.

    AQ recognizes the ability to take action in the West and surely appreciate the more permissive operating environment that exists. Once they surmount the obstacle of getting here, their only hurdles are gathering the tools necessary to carry out an attack and completing the attack cycle from target selection to execution of the attack. If recent events undertaken by self initiated violent actors are indicators of the permissive environment in which AQ can operate, and one which they capitalize upon, the question remains not if a major attack by AQ will occur; but when.

    The vulnerability to a major attack by AQ is due to our inherent openness and the accessibility to potential targets. Because the general public would not only be resistant to potential mitigation that would include the positioning of an armed deterrent and response force, they would be hesitant to support the potential long-term costs that would come with such measures. It is my opinion that a large swath of the population would resist what would be appropriate measures because it would remind them of the true threat. Most of the populous accepts ever intrusive security measures, however grudgingly, but it is likely that they would resist much more. What I have observed is a battle of wills and anecdotal evidence to maintain support for additional security measures. If you tell the traveling public that someone used a bomb concealed in their shoe, they will take their shoes off to board a plane; however this screening process only touches the surface of the true threat. Following the failed attempt by Richard Reid 4 to bring down a US bound aircraft on December 22, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration implemented the requirement that passengers remove their shoes for x-ray examination. Since then, open source reporting has not revealed any further attempts using this methodology; however, on December 25, 2009. Umar Abdulmutallab attempted to chemically initiate a concealed IED while aboard a US bound flight. Evidence of the asymmetric and ever changing threat posed by AQ and its affiliate groups.

    Common sense and history shows us that any enemy, be they conventional or unconventional, will adapt their tactics. They will learn from mistakes and from successes. Predictive analysis will likely show us that if a tactic works, it will be seen again. If a method fails, we will see improvements and its repeated attempt. In the case of lone airline bombers, AQ saw that it had potential and they adjusted it.

    Recent open source reporting has highlighted the concern of suicide bombers who have explosives surgically implanted or concealed in orifices in order to conduct suicide attacks. This is not a new tactic, but one that AQ has utilized in at least one documented attack. INTERPOL reported that on August 27th, 2009, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a suicide bomber tried to assassinate the Assistant Interior Minister of Saudi Arabia. In this attack, the perpetrator was killed, but the intended target, Prince Nayef survived with minor injuries. If AQ capitalizes on lessons learned and seeks to utilize this tactic again, and it is likely they will, the potential could be catastrophic. INTERPOL analysis of the cited incident revealed that: It would be possible to explode a device concealed in the rectum; the activation by radiofrequency seems to be the modus operandi; concealing an IED in the rectum would limit the amount of explosive available, due to the reduced volume of space available and the need of an activation mechanism to be concealed in the same location. Rather chilling in terms of detection capability and potential for increased and invasive screening; which it seems the traveling public is not quite ready to accept.

    How can potential suicide bombers of this sort be detected? I would venture to say that by leveraging current methods used to detect drug couriers who attempt to transport narcotics through swallowing. By applying behavior detection methodologies, defensible profiling techniques and the judicious use of x-ray checks, we may provide at least a deterrent. While the public says profiling should apply, the acceptance of its regular application is subject to debate, and given the recent fervor over airport scanners, the latter technique will likely be the met with great resistance. Therefore, we may have to rely almost entirely on behavioral detection with which a suspect traveler is identified for secondary screening.

    If we look to the writings of Sun Tzu, we will see that he has proffered that “all warfare is based on deception,” Sage words indeed. Tzu recognized that by forcing an opponent to focus their efforts on one front, you can easily slip through an unguarded flank. Further, he maintains that that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through an established list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Nothing more accurate could be said of the asymmetric threat posed by Al Qaida, its affiliate groups and more recently, self initiated violent actors.

    They engage in subterfuge, deception and misinformation. We tend to show our hand and announce our strategic long and short-term goals. They learn from us. We fail to learn from them. If we take the time to pick through the rhetoric, postulation and propaganda we may learn that they have maintained the same core goals since the start of this war: To reestablish a transnational caliphate, to drive out Western influence from the Islamic lands and the destruction of Israel. While we will not capitulate to their goals, we can learn from their seemingly singular mindset.

    The following quotation is attributed to Tzu: “So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself. “

    Given the simplicity of this statement, it is clear that we must come to know our enemy on the most intimate of levels. Not just as an entity, but holistically. As shown following the killing of Usama Bin Laden, we can cut off the head, but the body will still function and potentially with greater vigor. We must come to know all of their parts and identify their inherent weaknesses. It is those weaknesses that we can then exploit and through which we can thrust the spear.

    How do we mitigate the asymmetric threat posed by AQ and SIVAs? It is my conclusion that through a blended approach using confidential human sources, open source intelligence, a deeper understanding of the threat and an approach to mitigation using the perceptions of our enemies that we will realize the greatest level of success. It will likely be found that profound changes to the way we do business will be raised as the most effective solutions; the difficult part will be gaining support for their implementation on both the public acceptance and resourcing front. We must impart the fact that despite our best efforts, a determined and admittedly adept enemy will find an exploitable weakness.

    We will never have, nor should we proffer absolute protection. The reality is that no matter what we do, there will be a gap somewhere. It is that gap that our enemy will search for and likely strike through. Conversely, we should continue to search for gaps in our adversaries’ armor and strike accordingly. I take comfort in knowing that despite the old proverb that says “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”, it is unlikely that even a protracted war against AQ will be the downfall of the west, but in the case of AQ; they are small enough to kill.

    I would propose that by looking at our vulnerabilities not from a budget conscious security practitioner’s point of view, but one of a terrorist attack planner will provide the greatest insight. I would further maintain that the next attack will likely come through the path of least resistance based on the fact that AQ has not attained the spectacular results they have been striving for since 9/11. I would say that at this juncture, they will settle for even a marginally successful event. Given the potential for AQ, an affiliate group or a SIVA to conduct an attack in the near-term, sustained vigilance is required. How do we maintain the required level of vigilance in the face of almost daily reports of emerging threats? I say the solution is twofold; a refinement of the warning message and the clarification of the threat. In this, we need to ensure that when we issue an alert to the public, it is one that identifies a potential threat, but in a manner that does not compromise sources and methods used to uncover the threat, and from a perspective that the public can grasp. They need to know that the threat is persistent, unpredictable and real.

    In closing, I maintain that through strategic engagement on the local level, we will realize measurable success. Step by step, we must ensure that our efforts on the front are matched by efforts at home and in the villages. We must ensure that those we serve to protect from harm are aware of the threats; be it the threat of an attack or retribution for supporting our efforts. In time this war, as with all wars, will come to an end. I have no doubt that we will prevail. However, we must ensure that we remain focused and cognizant of the fact that the front line is but just one front where the war is fought.
    Originally posted by SSD
    It has long been the tradition on this forum and as well as professionally not to second guess or Monday morning QB the officer's who were actually on-scene and had to make the decision. That being said, I don't think that your discussion will go very far on this board.
    Originally posted by Iowa #1603
    And now you are arguing about not arguing..................

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