Saul Alinsky, meet Osama Bin Laden
In their excellent paper, The
Changing Face of War,
five American officers discuss the principles of fourth-generation warfare as
applied by terrorists.
- The more successful terrorists appear to operate on broad mission orders
that carry down to the level of the individual terrorist. The
'battlefield" is highly dispersed and includes the whole of the enemy's
society. The terrorist lives almost completely off the land and the enemy.
- A shift in focus from the enemy's front to his rear. Terrorism must seek
to collapse the enemy from within.
- Terrorism seeks to use the enemy's strength against him. Terrorists
use a free society's freedom and openness, its greatest strengths, against
it. They can move freely within our society while actively working to
The terrorist, as exemplified by Al Qaeda, will just "bypass
the enemy's military entirely and strike directly at his homeland at civilian
targets. Ideally, the enemy's military is simply irrelevant to the terrorist.".
The application of these principles has plunged many observers into deep gloom.
Here is an enemy who seizes American aircraft and crashes them into American
buildings. Here is an enemy who builds mosques in the great cities of his enemy
and recruits adherents under the very noses of those whom he intends to destroy.
Here is an enemy who does not hesitate to lay charges against the authorities
who would dare incarcerate his fighters in Guantanamo Bay -- in the
enemies own court of law. Here is an enemy whose target may be any amusement
park, theater, kindergarten or hospital, instead of a uniformed enemy on a field
of honor. Isn't such an enemy invincible?
When the General Braddock and his 1,200 Redcoats standing packed in the open
were nearly annihilated
in 1755 by a mere 250 French and Indians firing from behind trees, the British
thought their enemy was invincible too. They refused to do the one thing which
would have evened the odds: follow them into the trees. For if a Frenchman could
hide behind a rock, why not an Englishman?
Once the perspectives are reversed, it becomes apparent that applying the same
principles against the terrorist will have devastating results. Perhaps the
finest exponent of institutional ju-jitsu was the Saul Alinsky. He set forth
most of his principles in his Rules
for Radicals, a book whose examples are now dated and whose political agenda
is widely discredited. Yet beneath the '60s veneer are a set of principles which
would rival Sun Tzu for conciseness and elegance. These can be summarized as:
- Use the enemy's institutions against him. Make him live up to his declared
principles, for he cannot;
- All action starts with a particular grievance and evolves to a general
opposition of the enemy. All lasting organizations begin from small groups
which are later swept under a single umbrella;
- People come to hate the enemy from direct experience only; therefore all
organizing must be aimed at generating a confrontation with the enemy.
Islam, and in particular, radical Islam is an easy mark for Alinsky's
methods. The September 11 hijackers were flush with money, frequented places of
ill repute; communicated using codes in pornographic images. The Iranian Mullahs
are corrupt and worldly, no less so than the Saudi Princes. Yasser Arafat only
makes a show, and a poor one at that, of being nominally Muslim. Radical Islam,
in common with all theocracies, is a viper's nest of hypocrisy. It would
theoretically be easy to use sharia law itself to demand punishment for
Osama Bin Laden. Yet Islamic corruption is never used against the Islamists.
Perhaps the only reason that the US Armed Forces have not beaten the Islamists
to death with their own rule book is because they are institutionally too
purblind, like Braddock, to do so. Instead, they fall back on the familiar:
better weapons, better aerial surveillance, better elint, better comint, better
computers, harder physical training. All of that is good, but it leaves the asymmetry
unaddressed: while Islamists use the institutions of the West against them, the
West gives Islamic institutions free rein.
Every Islamic country is riddled with injustice, corruption and poverty; the
more Islamic, the more so. Yet Western counterterrorism is curiously reluctant
or unable to seize on particular grievances and help people organize
around them. Do we imagine that the Iranian students demonstrating in Teheran
are fighting for some abstract principle of freedom because they read a copy of
the Declaration of Independence in translation? Hardly. They are reacting to a
hundred little grievances, each more or less personal. In mid-March, 2002, a fire
broke out in a little girl's school in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Because the "mutaween"
or religious police refused to let the pupils evacuate without their Islamic
head cover, 15 little girls were burned to death. Saul Alinsky taught that
grievances such as these made the best seeds for organizing. He would have met
the burned children's parents quietly in their own homes until he found enough
to go to the religious authorities offices and present a perfectly reasonable
request to punish those responsible. Of course, those parents would likely have
been beaten, threatened or ignored.
That would suit Alinsky's book exactly. He believed that confrontations
between ordinary people seeking redress for a small, plausible grievance and
tyranny would, in nine out of ten cases, produce a Pauline conversion. Nothing,
he believed, would convert the passive accepter of tyranny into a passionate
opponent quicker than a good knock on the head. Disillusion runs deepest in the
devout. The discovery of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church generated the
strongest outrage from it's most devoted members. It was not the sex that they
minded: it was the betrayal.
When considered soberly, Islamic societies are extraordinarily
vulnerable. They are rigid; sanctimonious, largely poor societies -- in a word,
medieval societies -- whose non-religious institutions are almost pathetically
weak. Arab armies, governments, industries, scientific institutes: what are they
but shams? These are the true pressure points of the enemy, and it is remarkable
how studiously they have been ignored by a defense establishment that will
lavish the greatest care on flight testing an F-22 Raptor to make sure all
weapons can be carried across the entire spectrum of the aeronautical envelope.
How strange that some of the finest conceptual counter-terror may yet emerge
from a 1960s radical whose writings are now all but forgotten. Yet in a contest
between Saul Alinsky and Osama Bin Laden, Alinsky wins, at least conceptually.
Follow them into the woods, boys. Follow them into the woods.