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Speech by Professor Lawrence Freedman CBE

Professor Lawrence Freedman CBE

Professor of War Studies, Kings College. London

On: International Terrorism

22 November 2001

The following speech was transcribed verbatim, with minor abridgements. 


“I have been given a rather broad topic for tonight:  international terrorism.  Rather than just try and offer some detailed commentary on what is going on at the moment and what may happen tomorrow, and as the one who confidently forecast that stern resistance would be put up at Kabul, I’m not too sure that I’m into daily predictions any more.  Rather than do that, I thought it would be useful to try and provide some sort of framework within which it might be possible to make sense of some of these events and perhaps also to indicate what might be at stake at the moment.

I’m going first to ask what is going on at the moment.  Is it a war against terrorism and if not (and I want to put a question mark against that terminology), what is it a war against, and what is it a war about?  Many people have queried the use of the word ‘War’ in this context. I have no problem with it whatsoever.  This is clearly war.  Even if people were not sure on the 11th of September, they are pretty sure now.  But I was always nervous about it being directed against terrorism because terrorism is not a political ideology, it’s a tactic; it’s a tactic used by weak groups against strong groups.  Strong groups by and large have organized armed forces that they expect be able to use to defeat their opponents.  So, if the weak go out against the strong on a conventional battlefield, there has to be the issue that the strong will win; therefore the weak look for other ways to deal with this problem.  They deal with it essentially by trying to find special vulnerabilities of the strong and these special vulnerabilities often go back to the civil society of the strong.  The weak do not take on directly the armed forces of the strong; they take on their society in the hope that this will turn out to be of such vulnerability that a critical movement will be created within the society of the strong that will lead to an eventual capitulation of some sort.  If they are going to do this, the worst thing for the weak to do is to have something very clearly to defend because they should not be bothering about space; what they need is time.  They need to wage a campaign over time so that there are continual hits against the enemy society, or whatever else they have decided makes the enemy vulnerable, so that the enemy gets fed up, frustrated and impatient.

This is the tactic of guerilla warfare; of terrorism. You will find it used by many groups in many circumstances of course, it is one of the great clichés in this field that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.  One of the consequences of this is if that you declare war on terrorism, you find yourself including some, but excluding others. A number of groups have engaged in activities that look pretty much like terrorism.  We sometimes think that ‘If the cause is just, there’s not much else they can do.’  For this reason, once you declare that you are having a war on terrorism without obvious exceptions, then you are bound at some point to come to some dead ends and get accused of hypocrisy and double standards. The term will get thrown back at you.  I am sure this is what will happen at this moment.  We have already seen that the Israelis consider themselves to be at war with terrorism and they are the victims of terrorist incidents.  Yet a lot of the international analysis of why Israel is the victim of terrorist incidents will point out the position it has taken within the West Bank which may provoke this.  Now, we can discuss who is right and who wrong in that; all one can say at the moment is that the debate itself indicates the complexity of the problem.  So, I’m not sure that it was a good idea to declare a war on terrorism.  As far as Al-Queida is concerned it is not a war against terrorism, they certainly do not argue that they are fighting for terrorism.  They say they are fighting for Islam and this is a war against Islam.  Now that of course is an unacceptable position for us to take.  It is not a war against Islam, although in many respects it is a war about Islam.  It is about the sort of societies in which Muslim people are going to live.  Some of you may have seen the much publicized interview – that I think originally appeared in Dawn the Pakistani newspaper – in which Osama Bin Laden was quoted as saying that the only Islamic state was Afghanistan under the Taliban, which cast doubt on the legitimacy of the many other Islamic states.  It indicated where his targets really lie.  The objective of his group is to encourage societies who are following the sort of Islamic interpretation that the Taliban adopted.  There is a debate about how political or religious this is but, whatever the outcome of that debate, there is no doubt that the fundamental challenge posed by Al-Queida is within Islam.  It is directed at the government of Muslim states. 

Why do the United States and the allies of the United States come into all of this? Because they have meddled in the affairs of Islam and have got involved with the ruling governments.  We know that as far as Bin Laden himself is concerned, the key event was the arrival of American forces in Saudi Arabia in 1990 following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.  That was the trigger because it meant that Christians and Jews were close to the Saudi holy sites such as Mecca and Medina.  Even when talking about Israel, it is the occupation of Jerusalem and the mosque that is mentioned following particularly the plight of the Palestinians.  One must be very careful in these sort of situations because we often jump to the conclusion that everything that ever happens in the Islamic World is animated by the Arab-Israeli dispute.  This is not the case.  It is one factor.  One thing we can be sure of is that if the Oslo Peace process was moving forward to great success that would only make Bin Laden and his followers angrier because their objectives as far as Israel is concerned are much more radical.  We have a reasonable idea about what this means from Bin Laden’s point of view. 

How then is it our war, and what kind of war is it as far as we’re concerned?  I wrote a piece a few weeks ago in which I suggested that this might be the third world war.  The newspaper, the Independent, liked it because it had a title that got people’s attention.  Of course the immediate assumption was that my point was that within this conflict we have the seeds for something absolutely horrendous.  Which wasn’t actually the point I was making. Though there is sufficient truth in that to take note.  There has been some publicity over the recent fall of Kabul about plans that have discovered to build nuclear weapons and biological weapons. Bin Laden talked about having chemical and nuclear weapons as a deterrent, which sounded a little far fetched because, one suspects that if he had these things, he wouldn’t be so loathe to use them.  The imagery around the 11th of September – in the ‘dust clouds’ over lower Manhattan or the designation of ‘Ground zero’, which is the term used by people measuring nuclear affects – is emotive.  Even the indication that the code word for this operation was at one point within Al-Queida, ‘Hiroshima’.  Naturally, people worry about where all this might lead, they worry about terrorists getting hold of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.   That is why the Anthrax scare, hardly mass destruction, though certainly mass disruption, indicates why people are concerned about the direction all this is going in.  But that wasn’t actually my point.  My point, which I thought had a degree of irony in it, was to identify the paradoxes in this situation. 

This is undoubtedly a war and it is global.  It touches certainly about 80 countries that lost people on the 11th of September.  It touches many countries who suddenly find when they look quite hard that they have had people associated in some way; it’s pretty loose.  Al-Queida is obviously in their midst.  To the extent that the campaign being waged by Bin Laden would be successful, one would see the results in a number of societies. The Western oriented governments became more uncertain, more fragile, more vulnerable. One of the consequences of the conflict was obviously to bring a number of these very local tensions to a head. That is why the position of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has seemed so difficult in the past few weeks because the delicate position of these societies has been illuminated by these events, and should anger grow in the Muslim world by bombing, civilian casualties or whatever, they can expect to feel the brunt of it.  These societies have developed a number of tensions.  One of the reasons that one could start to think of this as a world war is that, like other world wars, a number of quite disparate regional conflicts somehow start to come together; they develop linkages that weren’t necessarily apparent but somehow all of sudden become terribly important:

In order to deal with an attack mounted by a Saudi dissident against the continental United States, you suddenly find yourself dealing with the Middle Eastern problem, the Chechneyan problem, the Kashmir problem and indeed even problems in the Philippines and Malaysia and many other places.  So in that sense it is legitimate to do so and indeed if one looks even further at these many other conflicts, what one soon discovers is that actually they are the results of the previous two world wars.  The problems in the Gulf and the Balkans are left over from the First World War, the decline of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The problems of the Middle East and Kashmir can both be traced to the British retreat from the more awkward parts of its empire just after the Second World War.  So there are links with these conflicts.  They are part of the historical process that brought around two world wars but what they represent are the bits that were left over when the great power conflicts which dominated 20th century politics until 1989 and the end of the Cold War.  At that point, international affairs moved very much to consider the problems of weak states, post colonial states (post colonial in this sense also including the states created after the final European empire, the Soviet Empire).  All these problems started to dominate international politics and the biggest issue in that context was: what role the western countries, in particular the United States, should take towards these varying conflicts?  So one of the big issues at stake at the moment is to what extent the United States and its allies, but particularly the United States, is going to be involved in the generality of international problems that are awkward, complicated, messy, to do with nation building and instability, rather that clear cut cases of aggression which the United States feels well able and prepared to deal with?  So these are the sorts of things that are at stake and might justify the designation ‘Third world war’.

But, of course, if you actually look at the fighting itself it doesn’t exactly bear much comparison with what happened between 1914-1918 and 1939-1945.  Indeed one might almost think it dishonors the memory of those who fought in those wars to describe what is going on now as comparable.  Yet this is where in a sense the paradox of the situation comes in: because what, in a sense, Al-Queida was trying to wage was a form of global guerilla warfare and if you look at the methods they were using, the terrorist methods, they are the classic weapons that I described, of the weak against the strong.  However, now this has come to be known, we have that sort of military jargon that is now become part of popular discourse, for instance ‘asymmetric warfare’, one of those ideas which are quite simple and straightforward but become more complicated the more seriously one begins to take it.  The basic idea goes back to that point after the Gulf War, which was a bit of a surprise because of the ease with which the American’s won it in 1991.  If you recall much of the commentary before the Gulf War… it was going to be terrible…  This was the fourth biggest army in the world… there were killing fields being prepared for the Western forces, and yet it was a walkover.  One of the conclusions the Americans drew in all this is that this is how we’d like to fight all wars in the future.  It’s quite a good way to fight; it’s as if you had the whole thing set up as a staff college exercise, in which the guy running the red team knows that he has to get beaten comprehensively and sets it up so the blue team can be shown off to best effect.  But everybody else who thought they might be fighting the United States drew the opposite conclusion; that one thing you don’t do is fight the United States in conventional battle.  So the idea of asymmetric war developed out of that observation and that is why there is a lot of concern about access to weapons of mass destruction as a rather obvious way of doing it.  There is another way of doing it, which I’ll come to in a second, which essentially means making sure your opponents get bogged down, by just inflicting casualties of any sort.

Now in one sense the attack on the 11th of September appears as the ultimate in asymmetrical warfare.  Think about it.  Here you have an enemy using a weapon, box cutters, essentially a derivative of the knife, a weapon of street brawls throughout the centuries, and turning a civil aircraft into a guided missile directed against the heart of American financial centers as well as the heart of the American military.  For what is probably about a hundred thousand dollars in mounting the attack, you get costs imposed on the United States, direct costs, leaving aside all the effects on the international economy, probably a million times greater.  It is in terms of a coup quite an effective operation.  However, it’s bad asymmetric warfare. The weak can win against the strong because the strong lose patience, because the strong don’t think it’s worth it, because the strong get fed up.  Motivation is what this is all about and it you want to undermine the American motivation you don’t attack them in this way because it has, as we have seen, exactly the opposite effect.  So that though at one level it was audacious, sophisticated and awesome, making full use of the effect magnified by our ability to watch it as it unfolded on television.  No act of war has been watched by so many people.  At the same time it galvanized the United States into action and that has led us into the conflict that we have been watching for the last month and a half.

On that, I will make a couple of points.  The first goes back to a point I was making before about casualties.  Looking back, it appears that there is a British government document on the evidence against Bin Laden that is quite interesting on this point, actually quite an interesting document generally, which mentions the fact that on the 4th of December 1993, Al-Queida people were working in Somalia when the US Rangers were ambushed.  If you want an example of how to fight asymmetric warfare, this was it.  It hurt the United States, imposed 18 casualties, not a lot, but this was on television again and almost immediately President Clinton withdrew from Somalia.  You may remember a few days not long after this event an American boat about to land in Haiti with American and Canadian forces on board which was flying the UN flag was turned around because there was a hostile crowd on the dock yelling “Somali, American, Kill” and they turned round.  It had an effect on Serbia and it’s boldness in its relationship with Bosnia.  Bin Laden in an interview in 1997 with Peter Arnett (sic) of CNN made specific mention of the influence of Somalia on his judgment that the American troops were weak spiritually, that they didn’t have any fight in them.  So here you have an example of how to do it.  This was an event that changed American foreign policy, which led to a reticence about getting involved in the problems of weak states and intervention.  And that is why many of us are watching very closely what is going on at the moment with American policy as to whether there actually really has been a change in how it is prepared to deal with conflicts of this sort or whether it is still reluctant to put too many of ground forces at risk and would rather do it by other means.

To conclude, this is a war not so much about terrorism but certainly about people who specialize in terrorism.  It’s a war being fought on both sides for very high stakes and for the rest of us the stakes are extremely high as well; we’re part of it.  But for us, I think it is not only a question of whether a number of societies in which we have an interest and concern, and friends that we want to see free and prosperous and whom I think have to ask questions of themselves after the dust settles from this conflict. It is a question of their future but it is also a question about the future of American foreign policy and therefore about basic question of international order and how foreign policy good for us all is conducted over the coming years.  That is why the stakes are so high; we don’t know how this is going to end.  We know that the first stage has gone better than many people expected, but we have now reached some very difficult stages and we shall see how they go.  We do not know whether this will move on to other countries.  It’s normally a good rule of thumb that unintended consequences of any conflict are as important as the intended consequences, so we shall see. 

What I wanted to do this evening was, I hope, to provide some way of thinking about this, and certainly to indicate just how high I believe the stakes are.  To see this as people wished to do at the start as a criminal activity that should be dealt with as a law enforcement problem missed the whole political point of this exercise from both the point of view of Osama Bin Laden and the point of view of George W. Bush.”