"Bad terminology is the enemy of good thinking."
Warren Buffett (1)
In the last few years the use of nerve agent in the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyo and al Qaeda's offensive leading to its 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon forced us to reevaluate the threat of terrorism to our art of operations. As a term of art, asymmetric warfare now dominates public attention. But many use the term with little understanding of its operational meaning. In this new strategic environment we had best heed the admonition of Mr. Buffett, the Sage of Omaha, and agree on a set of definitions that will provide our tools for analysis. In preempting the terrorist are we really dealing with asymmetry, or is something else at work? Thinking of the threat as only asymmetric misses the mark, especially if we have the concept wrong. The combination of asymmetry and the terrorists' ability continually to devise idiosyncratic approaches presents our real challenge. Assessing the distinction and interrelationship between these two factors provides us with the initial understanding requ ired to address the operational challenges.
Asymmetry means the absence of a common basis of comparison in respect to a quality, or in operational terms, a capability. Idiosyncrasy has a different connotation--possessing a peculiar or eccentric pattern. In a military sense, idiosyncrasy connotes an unorthodox approach or means of applying a capability, one that does not follow the rules and is peculiar in a sinister sense.
Actually, al Qaeda's overall strategy is not new. In the 11th and 12th centuries the Assassins, a militarily weak fundamentalist and extremist sect, used pinpoint killing to bring more powerful ruling groups to heel. Indoctrinating their young followers into an extreme and enthusiastic cult of Shiite Islam, they sent individuals and small teams out to infiltrate the inner circles of targeted leaders. These zealots worked their way into the retinue of the targeted official by gaining trusted status as a groom, guard, or servant. When close enough to the target and with no regard for their own survival, they murdered their prey with the dagger given them by their leader. The Assassins even managed to threaten Sal al Din the Kurd, the commander who drove the Crusaders out of Palestine. After Sal al Din's mail shirt foiled the first attempt, while on campaign a wooden tower was built in his camp to provide him a safe resting place. For the Assassins, dying in the attempt mattered not, since their ascension into p aradise was assured. (2) Sound familiar?
Today, only the mechanism of attack has changed. Dispatching individuals or small teams with a mission to painstakingly infiltrate and develop an opportunity for attack remains a part of al Qaeda's technique. Instead of penetrating the structures within the palace of the ruler or the retinue of followers in the camp of a general, terrorist agents now weave their slow, purposeful way through international systems of education, commerce, and travel, accessing the fabric of democratic societies and exploiting our freedom of movement, information systems, protection of civil rights, and the general laxness in our public security. Instead of a dagger, al Qaeda's infiltrators began with explosives and then discovered how to reverse-engineer the technological mechanisms of modern society in highly destructive and murderous ways. Given our societal dependence on interconnected, technologically intensive systems, al Qaeda used asymmetric means to cleverly develop idiosyncratic attacks on its targets, thus changing our operational and strategic environment.
History of Asymmetric Warfare
To isolate al Qaeda's true advantage, we should begin with a look at the historical roots of asymmetric warfare. Military affairs are replete with campaigns won by forces with capabilities similar, though different by degree, to those of their opponents. …