Are Terrorists “Operationally Conservative”? Applying Standards of Military History

Since the 1990s, one of the big debates among analysts of terrorism is whether terrorists are “operationally conservative” or not.  Much of this goes back to a debate between Bruce Hoffman on the one hand and Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon on the other .  For instance, see:

 What this argument usually boils down to is an argument over whether terrorists are fixated on a small number of weapons or whether they are willing and able to use new weapons, such as nukes, chem and bio. 

It is true that since the anarchists fell in love with dynamite, most terrorist operations have been conducted with guns or bombs.  It may even be true that terrorists are “operationally conservative.”  However, it seems to me flabby thinking to jump from the first point to the second.

Consider this: for more than 100 years armies have inflicted the vast majority of their battlefield casualties with artillery and small arms.  Most soldiers who personally engage in killing the enemy are infantrymen who kill with small arms.

Does the fact that armies are so fixated on small arms and artillery make them “operationally conservative”?  Hardly.  Even within the context of the Battle of the Somme in 1916–at the height of the war most often described as characterized by intellectual ossification–there was substantial adaptation underway.  This adaptation has only accelerated in more recent decades.

The problem here is that terrorism analysts confuse the nature of the weapon used with how that weapon is used.  That is a fundamental error. 

If we were to recognize the fundamental unity of military studies (e.g. military history) and terrorism studies this problem would get sorted out tout de suite.  So, too, would some problems of terminology.  For instance, to terrorism analysts “operational” refers to what military analysts call “tactical.”  Terrorism analysts virtually never refer to what military analysts call the “operational” level.  (For a rare exception tune in tomorrow.)  They only seldom even refer to what military analysts call the “strategic” level.

A merger between military and terrorist studies makes a great deal of sense, it seems to me.  After all, both war and terrorism are attempts to bring about political goals through the application of violence.  Should we do it?

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Published in: on January 12, 2010 at 1:28 AM  Comments (7)  
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  1. “Operationally Conservative” Terrorists?…

    Mark Stout has a great post up on whether terrorists are “operationally conservative”. He states: It is true that since the anarchists fell in love with dynamite, most terrorist operations have been conducted with guns or bombs. It may even…

  2. I like it. What do I read if I want to study terrorism from a military studies angle? Who has a good sumamry of the fundamental concepts?

    • Well, at the risk of blowing my own horn, I’d start with THE TERRORIST PERSPECTIVES PROJECT book. I’d also have a look at Brynjar Lia’s book ARCHITECT OF GLOBAL JIHAD about Abu Musab al-Suri. Al-Suri was, beyond all else, a military thinker.

      There are a few journal articles out there dealing with al Qaida’s thinking on intelligence and counter-intelligence, I believe. Look, maybe over the last couple of years in STUDIES IN CONFLICT AND TERRORISM. I think the latest SCT also has a similar article regarding the PIRA’s counterintelligence efforts. In addition, you might look for an article I wrote with Jessica Huckabey which is forthcoming in INTELLIGENCE AND NATIONAL SECURITY dealing with AQ’s views of the intelligence services of the Arab states. The ultimate conclusion we come to deals with a lack of sanctuary.

      Sanctuary, then, gets you into the literature regarding insurgency. Here, frankly, I’d look at whatever group(s) you are interested in then read the primary source pieces that they reference (explicitly or otherwise). Lots of terrorists seem to be influenced, whether they know it or not, by Mao, Che, Marighella and some of these folks. Others seem to be influenced by Louis Beem’s essay on leaderless resistance.

      I’d also suggest reading Walter Laqueur’s VOICES OF TERRROR reader. This volume brings together short pieces over the centuries dealing with terrorism, as well as guerrilla warfare and insurgency both from the point of the guerrilla/insurgent and his opponents. I think as you read this, you start to discover all sorts of cross-cutting commonalities.

      I hope this helps!

      • Oh. Silly me. And the Dima Adamsky article on jihadi operational art that I blogged about the other day, too.

  3. I know the jihadi studies lit. What about books that don’t treat jihadism specifically but describe the main concepts in the field of military studies?

    Lov’n the blog.

    • Ah. Gotcha. Well, of course, that is a tremendously broad question and there is enough literature on that topic to fill a library. That said, perhaps I can provide some starting points.

      First off, I’d go with something that teaches basic concepts of military studies. Most of this stuff is devoted to conventional war. However, the jihadist bad guys sometimes draw on this material and secondly, concepts of insurgency, revolutionary war, terrorism, etc., often operate in conscious reaction to how conventional militaries work and think. So, I’d go with:
      –Martin van Creveld’s, THE ART OF WAR: WAR AND MILITARY THOUGHT. Short pithy, well-illustrated. Excellent once over the world.
      –Then Peter Paret, et al, eds., MAKERS OF MODERN STRATEGY: FROM MACHIAVELLI TO THE NUCLEAR AGE. (Caveat, I don’t much like the chapter on revolutionary warfare in this.)
      –Geoffrey Parker, ed. THE CAMBRIDGE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF WARFARE.

      Then, I’d look at some of the primary sources works on revolutionary warfare. Read Mao, Che, Marighella, etc. You might also have a look at Robert Taber’s WAR OF THE FLEA. If you want, then, at this point you can delve into the extensive literature on counterinsurgency. I’m not particularly expert in this, so I’ll defer to others to give you recommendations on that.

      Then, I’d have a look at some of the more interesting new thinking out there in terms of insurgency/revolutionary warfare. None of the following is the be-all and end-all, however, all have ideas well worth thinking about.
      –Ronfeldt and Arquilla’s work on “Netwar”
      –John Robb’s book, BRAVE NEW WAR and his idea of open-source warfare.
      –T. X. Hammes’ book, THE SLING AND THE STONE on “fourth generation warfare” or 4GW.

      That should get you started!

  4. […] to do their work and seldom, in fact, use more exotic bits of equipment.  In my opinion, there are many problems with this argument, but let me just note one.  If isolated people come up with similar solutions to similar problems, […]


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