Thursday, June 19, 2003

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.

  1. 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.
  2. A shift in focus from the enemy's front to his rear. Terrorism must seek to collapse the enemy from within.
  3. 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 subvert it.

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:

  1. Use the enemy's institutions against him. Make him live up to his declared principles, for he cannot;
  2. 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;
  3. 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.