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Thinking Like a Terrorist

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Circa 2000: You've joined one of the groups that align with the network calling itself Al Qaeda. You're incensed over many past wrongs, what you perceive as injustices and atrocities going back a long time, but the most immediate, galling, and unacceptable indignity has been the lingering presence of Western military powers in Muslim lands, particularly the Middle East (to use that colonial British term). You'd like to rid these lands of Western influences, but that really means challenging U.S. domination in the region, along with their allies and surrogates. In your wildest geo-strategic fantasy, you'd love to humiliate, if not destroy the United States.

But there's a big problem with that ambitious goal: Al Qaeda has no standing army. You have no tanks. No jet fighters. No submarines. No ICBMs. You have neither the manpower nor the material with which to fight the United States on military terms, and you certainly have no way to subdue the American population were you somehow, miraculously, to prevail in a conventional battlefield showdown.

There's no way you can accomplish your goals in the short term -- thus you have to calibrate your strategy for the long haul. You need to prepare for warfare spanning not just several years, but rather a protracted, potentially intergenerational struggle that could last decades or even centuries. Bleed the enemy to death through a thousand cuts over time rather than one big blow. It worked with the Soviet Union. Get them bogged down in Afghanistan, until they were brought to their knees. That former superpower, by the way, is no more. Remember that your advantage is a potentially limitless supply of jihadist recruits willing to commit the ultimate personal sacrifice via suicide. But to take full advantage of that comparative advantage, you can't fight them "over there"; you need to fight them "over here."

How, then, do you draw the United States into an eventually intractable military quagmire in the Middle East? First hit them with a big sucker punch. Blow up a couple of their national icons. You won't cripple them irreparably that way, but you might just infuriate them until they decide that they must attack you at the source, as it were. They will come over with guns blazing. They will predict easy victory. They might declare early victory. But now they are trapped -- or rather, they have trapped themselves for you. Fearing humiliation, they will attempt to overwhelm the mujahideen with their superior military might. But an angry swarm of wasps can't be destroyed with bazookas. The Americans will become increasingly frustrated, and yet will dig in even further. They will escalate and even try to expand the fight into other nearby territories.

All the while, their occupation will galvanize wider Muslim support even as they alienate their own allies. Wear them down. Their weaknesses, however, are not lack of resolve and strength, but rather, arrogance and myopia. They will not cut their losses should one battle go awry, so that they could re-adapt and re-deploy, ready to fight another day, another place. Instead, they will redouble their efforts on lost causes. They are stubborn. They are too stupid to fight a long-term asymmetrical war, precisely because they can't admit to and adjust for their weaknesses. So the key is to get them where we want them -- over here, not over there. Once they are here, watch them do exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. They will be fighting on our terms, and they are too bull-headed to admit it. Sun Tzu says that warriors must know their enemies and know themselves, and if they know neither, they will be imperiled in every single battle they fight -- such will be the plight for the Americans.

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