Had to play with fire, and get burned
Only way the boy, ever gonna learn
Some five-thousand years before either Ramzi Yousef or Zionism was born, an Israelite carried out recorded history’s first commando raid. So it is within his tale that we can find some of the earliest precursors of both commando and terrorist attacks, as the former and the latter are operationally bound together by shared means and strategies.
And he is history’s first commando leader of a special operation, and in some ways its first terrorist – as he cast the mold that Yousef would fit roughly into several thousand years later. In a trope that continues to haunt today’s modern Jewish state, in his time the Israelites were surrounded by adversarial tribal groups intent on their destruction.
Chief among them were the Midinanites, who attacked the Twelve Tribes of Jacob in a seemingly endless series of raids. These raids soon threatened to be much more than a nuisance as they coalesced into a full-blown war, when the Midinanites joined forces with another tribe at odds with the Israelites. They crossed the Jordan River and encamped within striking-distance of the Jewish heartland.
Hearing of the threat, this early Jewish leader organized a force of 32,000 men to confront the massing army and save his people. But despite drawing from four allied Hebrew tribes, this force was nowhere near as large as the one he faced. If the Israelites and their allies met their enemy in even combat on an open battlefield they would be sorely outnumbered, and almost certainly destroyed. So he formulated an operation special enough to both save his people and change the face of organized violence forever.
Terrorism is generally regarded as a tool of the weak, resorted to when a fair fight is not an option. But this is an incomplete characterization, so it is far more telling to examine terrorism as a tool of the resourceful, the sly, and the inventive.
And, perhaps most importantly, as the little brother of warfare.
It is no coincidence that Churchill classified the Allied commandos deployed inside occupied Europe as “specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts.”1 These commandos were able to harness various forms of asymmetric warfare and stir up the insurgency that helped tip occupied Western Europe in the Allies’ favor. When these commando operations began, the Allied forces in Europe were demoralized and nearly defeated. They had been pushed back to the coasts and were at risk of being overrun. When the Allied commando actions ended, it was the Axis powers who were in full retreat, and the war was all but over.
The asymmetric is synonymous with the unconventional: any means of violence that somehow steps outside the box of traditional conflict, or incinerates the box entirely. Commandos, then, are military men who use asymmetric means to drastically magnify the perceived potential of the forces they’re allied with. Sometimes they use subterfuge, sometimes sabotage, sometimes assassination – but always using dissimulation and always coming at the enemy from an angle left unprotected and unguarded. And they always seek to stoke fear and unease within the groups they target.
So where does the commando begin and the terrorist end?
It is always a matter of context and perception – not one of morality. The line between the terrorist and the commando will never be stark, but always blurred and shifting depending on your angle of perception. The Allied fire-bombing of Dresden is often cited as an example of a state acting as a terrorist, since those attacks which intentionally targeted civilian areas and killed untold thousands of German citizens. Modern warfare is replete with examples of “systematic large bombings of civilian populations,” attacks which are always “explicitly intended to spread fear among the targeted populations.”2.5
However little objective insight into the machinations and innerworkings of terrorism can be revealed by comparing that attack with 9/11, so always-subjective ideas of morality – although important to debate and consider on their own – only work to confuse this discussion.
Innocents and innocence alike are lost in the stench of terror’s breath.
At its core, terrorism seeks to create the perception that a target population has suddenly been thrust into the middle of a war. Sometimes for only a few moments, sometimes for months on end. The stronger this perception and the longer it goes on, and the more masterfully the illusion of warfare is woven – the more effective the terrorism. The target population can be as small as an isolated military barracks on the edge of the Mediterranean, or as large as the collective Western world. And the illusion that a war is occurring can be created via a nearly infinite avenue of means.
Terrorism, from the perspective of those who utilize it, is a means of amplifying the force of an attack by spreading fear and confusion through the ranks of those you’re attacking, and in the process making yourself seem stronger and more capable to those who might side with you. So what exactly constitutes “terrorism” depends entirely on the frame of reference an attack is considered from.
Either from attacker’s frame of reference, the perspective of the attacked, or the best way – from the outside, as an observer who can weigh and understand both the motives of the attackers and the reactions of those who are assaulted. And so it is from this outside perspective that analysis will be made as the two main types of terrorism, Symbolic and Tactical, are examined.
It’s a dangerous oversimplification to state that commandos operate within a state-sponsored army and terrorists outside of them and be done with it. And it’s just as dangerous to label members of the military who harness the unique means of suddenly and unexpectedly spreading fear through a targeted group – often via some means of asymmetric warfare – as “terrorists,” and in so doing equate them with the political terrorists who do intentionally kill innocents in calculated cold blood.
Even defining the idea of sponsorship itself is impossible in the modern era of black ops, off-shore accounts, corporate mercenaries, and dummy corporations. Trying to pin down which elements of a government are condoning, or even aware of, any specific operation is not an option. So whether terrorists are formally state-sponsored or not is largely irrelevant to any useful examination of terrorism.
When examined in the classic and simplest sense, as the means used by a group that cannot wage a conventional war against a larger and more powerful opponent, terrorism has two general purposes: to coerce its victims either into compliance or retaliation, and to gain followers and moral support for the group and its ideology.2 These goals aren’t mutually exclusive and most terrorist campaigns “seek both outcomes to some extent, often aiming to change the target state’s policies while simultaneously mobilizing support and recruits for the terrorists’ cause.” Because of this duality, it’s important to remember that the two labels, Tactical and Symbolic, are not mutually-exclusive but instead describe the ends of a spectrum. Although they are not mutually-exclusive, “there are trade-offs between these objectives, and terrorists can strike various balances between them.3”