The Myth of the Invincible Terrorist

By Harmon, Christopher C. | Policy Review, April-May 2007 | Go to article overview

The Myth of the Invincible Terrorist


Harmon, Christopher C., Policy Review


WE ARE IN A hard march in rough country. The "Global War on Terrorism" requires patience and perseverance, and yet notes of pessimism have become audible among our ranks as citizen-soldiers. This is not surprising. After five years we still have not caught up with fugitive Osama bin Laden. Hard-working military officers wonder aloud if the polity back home will keep supporting its military services. Politicians sound more and more partisan. Academics are no better: A professor at Harvard declares that the president's war on terror has been a "disaster," while at a conference in Washington in September two well-known national security analysts say we are "losing" the war on terror.

In fact, there are good reasons to judge that we are winning this global war against terrorists. And not only because we have arrested or killed two-thirds of the middle- and lower-level leaders, as well as some of their superiors and commanders. It is because terror groups all have vulnerabilities. They are human organizations with human problems; al Qaeda is no exception. For all the talk of the new "flatter" al Qaeda organization, rarely does anyone ever mentions that a flatter organization means less organization, and that in global war, that cannot help Osama bin Laden.

The history of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency is rich, and the last four or five decades offer good lessons in terrorism's vulnerabilities and counsel on how to exploit them. What follows here is a review of some of those.

Human factors and personnel

JERROR GROUP LEADERS have large egos, as they must to order the deaths of multitudes who are innocent and whom they have never met. The more famous and successful terrorist leaders become, the more these egos are likely to swell. The Kurdistan Worker's Party's Abdullah Ocalan, Shining Path's Abimael Guzman, Abu Nidal--these are example of outsized and ferocious egos. But that fact of character has disadvantages, of which one can be fatal. Ego may prevent such leaders from mentoring successors. And, struggle being as it is, when the leader and his cult of personality succumb to arrest or death, the entire organization may collapse.

In September 1992 this came to pass with the arrest of Sendero Luminoso's leader, Dr. Guzman, who called himself "The Fourth Sword of Marxism." His organization had been winning control of immense swaths of the Peruvian countryside. His capture doomed this progress and began a swift regression. Soon the group could boast only a few thousand fighters, and today it is down to a few hundred. Guzman had surrounded himself with female lieutenants but readied none to command in his absence. Only one likely male successor appeared, a field commander, soon caught by the army. Now the group manages an occasional terrorist attack, but its profile has shrunk beyond belief.

Something similar took place with the Kurdistan Worker's Party. Abdullah Ocalan built it from the ground up over a quarter century. He controlled both the military and political wings and made all key decisions. His successes against the Republic of Turkey and its armed forces were impressive and advanced the dream of an independent Kurdistan. But he was caught in early 1999, and the buoyant balloon of his nationalist and Marxist hopes hissed to near-empty. PKK congressed, deciding initially they would not appoint a successor. They then renamed themselves and promised pacific politics. Later, terrorism was renewed; some goes on in southern Turkey now. But PKK/Kongra Gel is not what it once was. It commanded some 30,000 guerrillas but now can muster less than a sixth as many.

These cases support "decapitation" strategies by opponents of terrorism. Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger posed a question in an article a few years back: "Can We Assassinate the Leaders?" His answer was that we can and should assassinate some terror leaders. Whether death by martial or judicial means is necessary, and whether rendering death is even as prudent as capturing a terror group leader, are other questions. …

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