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”
In choosing where on the scale the point of balance lies, a terrorist group falls into different shades of terrorism.
On one end of the terrorist spectrum is Symbolic Terror, which focuses on the first purpose: to solidify the group’s existence by gaining supporters and promoting whatever ideology it espouses. And so it is used by still-forming groups that are attempting to win followers and respect, to coalesce fully.
Symbolic Terror aims “to recruit more activists; to gain attention to grievances from soft-liners on the other side; and to gain attention from third parties who might exert pressure on the other side.”4 This type of terrorism also plays a vital part in quite literally fleshing-out whatever ideology a terrorist group states its mission as, a proven way to show that your ideas are potent is with piles and piles of dead bodies.
In general, attacks that fall under the aegis of Symbolic Terror live up to their name by attacking targets with symbolic resonance, as it is with symbols that the most dramatic theater is performed. At first, men were the targets of Symbolic Terror. Before the invention of high-explosives, the destruction of entire buildings was impossible and individual men were the only feasible targets for a small group of dissidents.
And regardless, in the ages ruled exclusively by tyrants and despots, individual men held entire empires together through willpower alone. Their deaths often coincided with the death of their empire. Unlike the modern era of the White House, almost no one can picture or name the exact building a Caesar or Tsar slept in – but we all know who they were and what they accomplished.
In modern times, large man-made targets have largely replaced individual men as the targets of Symbolic Terror: bombing well-know buildings, airline hijacking, hostage-taking at dramatic locations that emphasize not only the hostages but where they’re being threatened, and pre-announced explosions are all examples of Symbolic Terror through which “terrorists often avoid doing serious harm, so as not to undermine sympathy for the political cause.”5
However this last point, of avoiding serious harm, generally only holds when the terrorists come from within that same population where their attacks occur and want to avoid alienating their potential membership pool. Or when they believe outside sources might persuade the leaders of the targeted group to change their policies – when it’s thought there is a real chance those in charge can be persuaded into changing their minds. Such was the case for the IRA, who came from within their target population and wanted to win support within it, and the early PLO, who thought outside persuasion could convince the Israelis to make concessions. But this clearly was not the case for al-Qaeda – as their target was the world’s lone remaining superpower, one they had no familial or emotional attachment to.
On 9/11, the Twin Towers were meant to mobilize a religious diaspora that stretched clear across the globe and become massive flaming torches lighting the way for a new reformative doctrine, regardless of any American civilian toll. But killing Americans wasn’t the goal of the attack, although al-Qaeda accepted whatever toll came in the process of lighting the new vanguard’s torches and viewed it as incidental collateral damage. The stated goal of the attack was to turn the towers into pyres that would light the way for a global resurangance – American deaths were inevitably going to happen, but they weren’t the main goal of the attack.
On the whole, Symbolic Terror is aimed at creating spectacle, not just body-bags and rubble – although today those frequently come as a side-effect of spectacle wrought by high-yield ordnance. Measuring an act of Symbolic Terror’s efficacy means determining how captivating it is, not by counting how many are actually slain nor how much vital infrastructure is actually destroyed. And putting on a show is always easier than successfully identifying and crippling vital infrastructure – to put on a show in the modern age all you have to do is catch the media’s attention.
Without the media, there is no theater.
And so deducing how much media coverage was anticipated by the group during the attack’s planning, either in terms of the group providing a warning or in the location and timing of the attack, is crucial to determining to what extent a terrorist attack was meant to be Symbolic. However understanding the media’s role in the development of modern Symbolic terrorism must be placed in its proper context, and so for now we move on to the other type of terrorism.
This second type is Tactical Terror, which seeks to kill and destroy regardless of who sees it happen because word will inevitably spread among the enemy regardless of whether outside parties hear about it through the media. What’s important is that the enemy knows that it’s occurred, not the rest of the world. The majority of irregular military action could be said to fall into this category of Terror to a certain extent.
Targeted death and the destruction of critical infrastructure are paramount here, regardless of how spectacular or captivating that death and destruction is to the media. Here recruiting comes only as a side-effect of the group’s abilities being proven – people will feel compelled to join a winning team. The primary intention is to damage the enemy in a way that cripples him and makes his allies fear for their own lives. Most of the actions of the military commando are, by nature, Tactical Terror since they seek to do tactical harm to an enemy force via an unsuspected and unguarded route.
Tactical Terror is more difficult to pull off, as it requires a thorough understanding of how the institutions and infrastructure that societies are built around are constructed and defended.
More often than not, the buildings which symbolize an institution aren’t the ones that are the most crucial to its survival and functioning. There’s nothing sexy or captivating about water treatment plants or electrical substations. And although it’s often easy to attack soft civilian targets once, after the first attack they’re typically hardened and made much more difficult to assault.
Of all the factors weighing on this scale, the most telling tension between Symbolic and Tactical Terror is the intended effect of the attack.
Whereas Symbolic Terror emphasizes gaining publicity and putting on a show, Tactical Terror will sacrifice theatrical effect for the impact of increased destruction and death. But there’s almost always overlap, Symbolic Terror often does inflict a certain amount of tactical damage, generally unavoidable in the modern age since indiscriminate high-explosives are often used. However their tactical impact will be mitigated by their intention to produce theater and symbolic impact.
And on the other side, Tactical Terror often produces something of a show, conversely unavoidable here given the vast fiery effects of explosions and the pervasiveness of modern mass media. But the underlying, primary intent is the destruction of tactical infrastructure, either in the form of material or the corporal. The trick to analyzing each act of terrorism is determining not only the outward effect of an attack, but also where on the balance between Symbolic and Tactical the terrorist’s intentions lie.
Although there are trade-offs between them, it’s important to always keep in mind that Symbolic and Tactical Terror are best thought of not as polar-opposites, but as weighing down opposite sides of a scale.
Usually the scale is tipped more to one side or the other, however in the most effective attacks it is nearly balanced between the Tactical and Symbolic, and even if it’s not – overlap is almost always unavoidable. And due to the nearly infinite possible angles the scale may tilt at, terrorism takes on different tones depending on the circumstances in which it occurs and the Tactical and Symbolic impacts that it has. It is these varying circumstances that create the vast body of violence that can be examined as terrorism – the basic principle has not changed as time has passed, only the societies in which it is used. Insurgents, commandos, Special Forces, guerrillas, and revolutionaries can all be different masks of the terrorist – each worn in different contexts.
Many, perhaps most, acts of war contain elements of terrorism in them – take Yousef’s inspiration: the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The intent stated by the American government was that they were necessary to break the Japanese will to resist, and destroying a quarter-million lives would in fact save the millions more on both sides that would’ve been lost in the event of a full-scale land invasion.
Loosely, a form of Tactical Terror. But put another way, using the frame of reference of the Japanese, the twin mushroom clouds created a Symbolic fall-out of fear that terrorized the island nation into surrendering.
The blasts didn’t really need media coverage, as their lethal and dramatic twelve-thousand foot tall columns and the charred death they left behind demonstrated very clearly the fate that awaited the remaining Japanese if they insisted on holding out against surrender. Through an incomplete frame of reference, using only the Japanese point-of-view, from their perspective the bombings were an act of Symbolic Terror. However it must be remembered that it occurred within the boundaries of a mutually-accepted war between two well-defined states, and so they were above all act of wars that contained elements of Tactical Terror in them – as nearly every act of war and violence does.
In war as in terrorism, desperate times have always called for blowing somewhat indiscriminate amounts of shit up.
Just as his faith was fomenting and faced with the annihilation of his people, Gideon, son of Joash, began putting into motion an operation that would once, but far from for all, preserve the Israelites’ existence.
After raising a prospective volunteer army of 32,000, Gideon declared that any who were the least bit afraid of death should return to their homesteads, as he only wanted those utterly unafraid of death. Over two-thirds of the assembled departed of their own volition after this announcement, leaving Gideon with a prospective force of only ten-thousand men. But these ten-thousand were still too many for what he had in mind, and so, setting a precedent today followed by the courses designed to single out the ablest for special operations in America’s army, Gideon distilled the men further still. He brought the thousands down to a stream and allowed them to drink from its waters, watching them carefully as they did.
Any man who got down on his knees to drink was sent home. Only the three-hundred men who’d stayed alert and “lapped up the water with his tongue like a dog”6 from cupped hands were allowed to remain. In this way Gideon “sieved out those who were bravely determined but lacked the warrior’s instinct of constant vigilance.”7
Now with a force less than a tenth the size of his original force, an impressive rate of attrition that would make much of the U.S. military’s Special Forces jealous, he explained his operation to the remaining number. They were three-hundred, a magnitude that would later be immortalized when the West’s existence rested on Spartan backs.
Gideon had already run a solo recon mission, sneaking close enough to the encamped Midianite army to overhear what time their sentries would be passing off guard duty – this would be the attackers’ zero-hour. This intelligence is notable for two distinct reasons: it serves as “an example of the hands-on quality of the special forces leader that has proved indispensable ever since,”8 and it’s a small-scale example of the importance of timing in acts of terrorism. The impact of timing will be brought ever farther into relief when the 3/11 attacks against Madrid and the 9/11 attacks against New York are analyzed further – they provide contrasting examples of timing enhancing or blunting the lethality of an attack.
And so here too timing played a vital role in Gideon’s attack, which in a sense was the world’s first documented act of Tactical Terror. And yet it seems a far cry from what’s labeled today in the media as terrorism, since we often mistakenly only use the label “terrorism” when discussing acts of Political Terrorism.
This fits us with an enormous set of blinders, blinders which prevent us from seeing the acts of terrorism that race across the pages and screens of our media every single day.
Because terrorism, as a means, has such a broad nature it is imperative to categorize specific examples of terrorist violence using Symbolic and Tactical when you’re making any sort of analysis.
And yet, the most potent form of terrorist violence to beset the West in the modern era is Political Terrorism, classically carried out by insurgent guerrillas and nationalist revolutionaries of all shades and stripes. Political Terrorism is not distinct from Tactical and Symbolic Terror, rather it’s the outcome that occurs when Symbolic and Tactical Terror are used with precise timing in the right set of social circumstances.
Political Terrorism follows a three-step chain-reaction that can only be catalyzed within a society laced with the proper concentration of conflicting social currents.
The first step is Symbolic Terror, dramatic violence, the more enrapturing and menacing the better. This leads to the second step, which will always occur if an act of Symbolic Terror is effective: capturing the media’s attention. With the media enraptured and disseminating the fear created by random and unpredictable violence throughout society, the third and final step of provoking the establishment to commit its own acts of violence begins. The third step’s retribution marks the start of Political Terrorism. It, in turn, both gives the terrorist group credit and marginalizes the retaliating authorities by pushing them off the moral high-ground that allows governments to exercise violent means of coercion.
And it is this third step that is the most important point of the cycle of Political Terrorism. Triggering the ouroboros of vengeance is a political terrorist’s real aim – all of the violence and death would be meaningless if he can’t goad the established authority into striking back.
It is this retribution that validates the political terrorist’s ideology, makes others aware of his cause, and which truly weakens the authority.
This is important to keep in mind the deeper we delve into terrorism’s past. Because at times this third step of the cycle has been induced without any violence at all. Those incidents are rare in history’s cyclical saga of oppression and rebellion, most of the time violence is used by emergent groups to draw attention and retribution upon themselves.
When men have managed to break from the cycle of Political Terrorism and bring the establishment’s violence down upon themselves without using violence of their own – we remember them as something other than terrorists.
As the terrorist group’s credence grows after successful acts of Political Terrorism, more members will join and the group will then have the means to carry out acts of Tactical Terror which truly weaken the targeted authority. One of the trickiest parts of analyzing Political Terrorism is identifying the temporal length of the cycle that it’s occuring within.
But don’t confuse Political Terrorism with commando actions, Political Terrorism must have an ideology, hungry ideas to feed with flesh and destruction. Gideon was acting with the blessings of a state and taking action against another state. Political Terrorism must happen with a strong-weak dynamic, when the parties involved are at equal levels of organization it’s often just asymmetric warfare.
Sometimes a cycle of Political Terrorism sputters out in a matter of weeks, or it can complete its cycle in a period of a dozen or more months, or it can take the better part of a decade. Generally the larger the population being targeted is, the longer the cycle will take and the greater its effects will eventually be.
This is demonstrated by the IRA catalyzing cycles of Political Terrorism that stayed almost entirely within the British Isles and lasting just months each, various Palestinian terrorist groups starting cycles that took years to play out and attempting to appeal to the entire Middle East and segments of the West, and al-Qaeda beginning an unprecedented cycle of Political Terrorism that began in earnest with an attack that seized the rapt attention of everyone in the world near a television, and which is still raging after more than a decade.
Political Terrorism occurs outside the boundaries of a mutually-accepted war – although, as seen in the case of 9/11, it can spur wars to start – and targets anything and anyone that’s been declared complicit in the target state’s actions and policies. When this chain-reaction is catalyzed it pushes a cycle of violence and social upheaval into motion.
The political establishment often begins to weaken and lose credibility, as it slips off the moral high-ground and also endows the terrorist group which attacks it with the legitimacy of being worthy of confrontation, swelling its ranks and resolve. With this swelling the attacks begin to shift from the Symbolic to the Tactical, as more membership means increased funding and expanded capabilities, allowing the group to target the truly vital state organs instead of just its symbols of power.
As it will soon become apparent, Political Terrorism kicks off with Symbolic Terror since theater is best performed with illusion and misdirection. Then, having gained a following and a reputation, the group’s attacks will become more Tactical in nature since the group now has the means and capabilities that enable it to pull off Tactical attacks. Symbolic Terror is the favored means of a group that’s struggling to establish itself and win a following, and is almost always how Political Terrorism begins.
But the bitch of Political Terrorism is that it’s occurred only rarely in history.
Only the self-perpetuating cycle of Political Terrorism, catalyzed by the three-step chain-reaction, presents the most potent ends for the means of Terror. And it’s also the trickiest form of violence to execute because the social conditions have to be just right.
The affected societies must be properly laced with oppression and injustice, often subtly and deviously so, and often those living within the society don’t even recognize the corruption around them. This allows these offenses to appear to be necessary to the population at large, or only the logical government response to deviant behavior. And the oppression and injustice must be thick enough so that, once they’re shown for what they really are, the death and violence of the terrorists can be justified by the rest of the population as they awaken to a new reality. Little of what’s casually referred to as terrorism and many of the events that will be accounted in the coming stories qualify as Political Terrorism.
In the past, Political Terrorism has sought to end the same ruling powers which have brutally extinguished cultures, accidentally begun religions, and casually starved tens of millions. When examined under the sharpest light, it seems to be an instinctive reflex of peoples who are held down by their throats for too long.
It has been, more often than historians care to admit, an inevitable and awesome response to governments that have forgotten that Evil remains abstract only so long as people refuse to see it.
Analyzing the elements of intent and context, what impression the terrorist wanted to make to the world at large, provides the most telling insights into the composition of a terrorist group that carries out an attack. In the same way that criminologists can deduce a vast array of characteristics about a serial-killer based on the nature of his violence, terrorists too leave clues about who they are based on the violent and bloodied imprint they leave on the canvas of society.
Profilers refer to the modus operandi of a serial-killer, the How of their attacks. From where and for how long do they stalk their victims, in what manner are victims approached, how does the killer subdue his victims, is the killing done in public or once they’re enticed away from prying eyes, and finally – how is the victim killed and the dead body left to be found?
Usually it takes several killings for a profiler to compose a clear picture of the killer, however the more graphic and macabre a killing the more information is left behind, and so the fuller a portrait a profiler can make with just one crime scene. Strangulations, for instance, are considered an intimate mode of murder and indicate that the victim and killer knew each other and shared an intense, and probably at one time intimate, emotional connection. Stabbings, especially ones that involve an inordinate amount of puncture wounds, are indicative of crimes of passion where the killer slipped into rage.
Taking a human life is impossible to do without leaving a trace of yourself behind. You will inevitably leave emotional fingerprints on your victim’s body – no one can commit murder without providing hints about who they are and why they did it.
With terrorism, just one attack generally tells us a large amount about the group that carried it out due to the comparatively vast scope of most terrorist attacks. If we take the time to see that attack from the terrorist’s perspective, to look at the attack through their eyes and to see the victims as they saw them, we can learn a lot about the group that carried an attack out. The dynamics and aftermath of a terrorist attack can tell us about the ideology that inspired it, about how long it took to plan the attack, and whether or not those who carried it out are native to a society or outsiders.
This sort of terrorist profiling hinges on being able to see the world through the terrorists’ eyes, and is highly context dependent. It demands the isolation of each unique facet of the attack and a full understanding the framework it occurs within. It is tricky to do, but doable when sufficient background information is supplied.
Even when Political Terrorism does not occur, Tactical Terror – which is often lazily or deceitfully just labeled “terrorism” in a troublesome oversimplification – can be used by generals or anyone commanding a force that is vastly outmanned and outgunned as a highly effective form of violence on the battlefield and in other broader arenas. As Gideon was the first, but far from the last, to put into action.
His plan was as elegant as it was simple.
At the appointed hour, when there had just been a changing of the guard and the fresh guards’ night vision would not yet be fully adjusted, each of the hundred-man groups Gideon had divided his picked men into would act. Having ghosted to the very edge of the Midianite camp, they would shatter the clay pitchers they’d been issued and reveal the flaming pitch torches hidden beneath – punctuating the shock of flame with an awful blast from the trumpet carried on each man’s hip.
And so it was.
At Gideon’s signal the ambush exploded from just outside the encampment’s borders and the Midianites awoke to a numberless, faceless, fire-lit foe suddenly in their midst, armed not only with steel but with flames somehow suddenly summoned out of the still night, causing the now terrorized army to flee through the hole Gideon had intentionally left open to the east. The Midianite men – panicked and terrorized – were easily dispatched by the remaining Israelite forces awaiting them at their trap set on the eastern edge of the night-blackened Jordan, and Abraham’s descendants would be granted a few precious, fleeting generations of peace under Gideon’s rule.
It’s incomplete to examine Gideon only as a commando in the same way it’s lacking to label Yousef solely a terrorist. One label, without perspective and a complete frame-of-reference, occludes illuminating aspects of each man. From the perspective of those he attacked, Gideon effectively used the means of terrorism to instill fear since it was in stride with his tactical ends, and so in a way was a terrorist. Not too different from what Yousef had hoped for, the biggest difference is that Gideon got results.
But while Gideon acted within the scope of mutually-accepted war, Yousef’s war existed only in his own mind – the civilians he attacked were not aware that they were at war. Although it’s important to note Gideon’s attack wasn’t begun as a formal battle and so was atypical and asymmetric, he did target men who considered themselves troops – while Yousef’s targets did not. Under Gideon, a “small, disciplined, strictly vetted force discovering ways to horrify an enemy right from the start becomes a staple of special warfare.”9
But this horrification is not the only element on which special operations are founded, it merely plays a small role. So Gideon is at once the godfather of both commandos and terrorists.
Crucial to American Special Operations is gaining a deep cultural appreciation and understanding of the community being operated inside, and men are vetted not only for the traits Gideon isolated, but also empathy and intellect. What defines Gideon’s assault more than any other element is its short-term nature. Carried out in just a fistful of minutes, it was not an extended special operation that would have required these traits.
When the godfather of extended special operations makes his appearance on the very same Arabian deserts Gideon battled on, the characteristics of an extended special operation will be more closely examined.
Gideon’s legacy continues today in an extremely telling manner. In 1908, Gideons International placed its first Bibles in the hotel rooms of the Superior Hotel in Iron Mountain, Michigan. This practice quickly spread to hotels across America, before expanding further to hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons throughout the country.
Open the nightstand drawer of just about any hotel room in America and you’ll find a Bible left there by the religious group that today bears his name. Founded as an evangelical Christian group, Gideons International chose their name for a reason that was left out in the previous narrative of Gideon’s tale. From the inception of his plan through the every element of its execution, Gideon in fact believed he was carrying on a direct dialogue with God.
Every detail, every moment, and every death is narrated in the Bible as being a result of Gideon’s complete submission to God’s will. It’s this submission that Gideons International intends to emulate in their own mission of worldwide Bible distribution.
Spreading the word of God through words as Gideon preserved God’s rule through violence.
It is no coincidence that an evangelical Christian group chose, out of all the Bible’s prophets and heroes, a highly effective warrior as the namesake for a group bent on spreading its ideology. These two themes, the connection of violence both to God’s will and to the spread of an ideology, will be indispensable to the development of modern Islamic extremism – especially to the momentum al-Qaeda is gaining today.
There’s no exact count of how many millions converted to Christianity because of Gideon International’s effort, and what influence they’ve played in America tacitly holding Christmas as the holiest day of the year. But back in 1979, December 25th would become linked to Gideon’s legacy in a way that had nothing to do with mistletoe, carols, or presents – and everything to do with the violent means of Gideon’s victory.
Because if you’re willing to take a somewhat poetic view of history, you’ll learn that the man we came to know as Osama bin Ladin was born on Christmas Day.
It was on Christmas Eve, 1979 that Soviet tanks rolled across the barren crags separating the Socialist Republics from its southern neighbor, Afghanistan. This began a chain reaction of events that would eventually bring down both the USSR and our own Twin Towers. In Afghanistan, the Soviets would meet what has widely been called their Vietnam – as again a vast and modern war-fighting machine was slowly but surely picked apart by indigenous guerrilla fighters who refused to meet them on an open battlefield.
Just like in Vietnam, in Afghanistan the locals used their knowledge of the local terrain, here steep and cave-pocked instead of watery and lush, and refused to play by the Rules of Engagement that the other side assumed, and so they inflicted thousands upon thousands of small cuts. Never presenting themselves in front of the Soviet war-machine that sought to grind them away in large chunks, the Afghan guerrillas set the standard for modern guerrilla warfare: striking from where they were least expected and then disappearing before they could be counterattacked by the overwhelming force and technology of their enemy.
The father of modern guerrilla warfare, Mao Tse Dung, would have approved of the way Afghan guerrillas fought against the Soviets – no other group better embodied his instructions: when fighting your enemy: “withdraw when he advances, harass him when he stops, strike him when he is weary, pursue him when he withdraws.”
And Gideon would also, at least from a military standpoint, been proud of the Afghan guerrillas who often attacked at night in the shadows of explosive fiery blasts.
But their eventual success was far from preordained. When the tanks first rolled, the world at large assumed that the vast and modern forces of the Soviet Union would easily crush what they saw as backward tribesmen who wore towels on their heads. The world at large, however, was not Muslim – and the Muslim world saw a very different scenario.
They saw fellow believers being attacked by unbelieving outsiders, known commonly now as infidels. And so the native Muslim Afghans who were fighting against the infidel Soviet invasion soon became known as mujahideen, or muj for short. This title means “ones who carry out jihad,” with jihad meaning in this context the religious duty of a Muslim to fight back against outsider invaders seeking to kill or oppress their fellow believers.
There’s no clearer modern context of jihad-as-war than this, and today every Muslim authority worth his salat agrees that the muj in Afghanistan were most certainly waging jihad.
One of the thousands of Muslims who felt compelled to undertake jihad and travel to Afghanistan was in that particularly idealistic stage of having just graduated from college, and so was likely filled with that youthful and naive sense that perhaps he could make a difference in a struggle that seemed to dwarf everything in the world except his own faith.
That college grad was Osama bin Ladin, who traveled to Afghanistan to fight alongside the muj. He didn’t really do much fighting at first, and instead visited guerrillas who had been wounded in combat, giving them cashews and chocolates.
Often he would ask for their names and addresses, and mail generous checks home to their families. Sometimes when there was to be a marriage between a muj and his beloved, bin Ladin would donated fifteen-hundred dollars so that the celebration could go off in full Arabian style.10 But even more importantly, bin Ladin began to recruit fresh muj back home in the Middle East, using the resources and connections of his family’s wealth to pay for and arrange the housing and transportation of hundreds of would-be guerrillas.
Although bin Ladin didn’t command any troops or participate in battles during his first years in Afghanistan, he was a frontline witness to the events that unfolded over the following years. He watched as the guerrilla tactics of the muj frustrated and ultimately defeated the massive and modern invading force. And although he was removed from most of the actual combat – he wasn’t far removed. Even so, this first-hand study of guerrilla tactics wasn’t even the most important consequence of bin Ladin’s involvement with the Afghan jihad.
The most important consequence was his encounter with Abdullah Azzam, a Palestine scholar who had studied at the Harvard of Islamic thought: al-Azhar University in Egypt. It was at that learned institution where Azzam met his close friend, the same Blind Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman who was earlier linked to the 1993 van-bombing of the World Trade Center and Richard Reid’s notorious transatlantic shoe-bombing attempt.
Again, the Blind Sheikh is the Connector who serves as a point of transit vital to the rapid spread of an ideology that would eventually become an international social epidemic in slow-motion. All the same, it was Azzam who gave bin Ladin the confidence to challenge the ruling Muslim authority of the time, and introduced him to the organization he’d many years later model his own al-Qaeda after.
But it would be one specific attack that would inspire bin Ladin more than any other, a notorious incident of asymmetric terrorist violence that perfectly blends terrorism and warfare, the Tactical and the Symbolic. Rather appropriately, it too was implemented by men who consider themselves a Party to God. Who the men that carried out this attack were, and the role their identity – a lubricious mix of nearly equal parts culture and religion – has played is little understood within the history and evolution of the modern wave of terrorism that is beginning to swell and build as it heaves itself silently towards America’s shores.
Speaking of heaving, that attack was the start of a chain of events which would lead to the military action that’s been ironically immortalized every time a college student yaks on the floor because of the world-wide competitive phenomenon it inspired.