Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) witnessed nearly every major battle of the Napoleonic Wars. He was a twelve-year old officer cadet at the 1792 Battle of Valmy; a prisoner of war following the destruction of his native Prussian army at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806; and a senior staff officer in the 1815 Waterloo campaign. Clausewitz subsequentlyserved as director of the Prussian War College (Kriegsakademie) for fifteen years, during which he collected his experience and study of warfare into the magnum opus On War (Vom Kriege). His wife published it in 1832, after Clausewitz’s death from cholera the previous year. On War is widely regarded as the greatest work on warfare in the Western tradition, attracting a continuous stream of attention from scholars looking to apply his insights to the warfare of their own time.
My purpose in this essay is to illustrate how Clausewitz can help us to think about the historical evolution and present character of terrorism. A handful of scholars, notably M.L.R. Smith and Peter Neumann, have applied Clausewitzian ideas to terrorist campaigns. They show how his foundational idea of the “trinity”—composed of popular passion, military strategy, and political objectives—describes a terrorist cell just as readily as a conventional army or guerrilla outfit. As they describe it, terrorism is one option among many in the complex strategic environment of a decidedly weaker force struggling to “maximize its advantage vis-a-vis an opponent.” I will argue that terrorism is not merely one example of modern warfare among many that exhibits the continuing relevance of Clausewitz, but rather occupies a more fundamental role within his theory.
On War establishes a set of dialectics between idealized concepts and their real-life approximations, most importantly the pairing of “absolute war” and “war in reality.” Absolute war is a hypothetical condition in which two implacably hostile combatants are pitted in an all-consuming struggle to break the other’s will, whereas in the real world there are innumerable physical, psychological, and environmental limitations on the conduct of warfare. In all the various manifestations of war in reality, including conventional war among nation-states, civil wars, insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, the use of military force is intended to weaken the enemy’s capacity and will to fight, rendering them more amenable to a political solution that they have so far fought to prevent.
Terrorism does not exist apart from these other forms of warfare, and is frequently a means of supplementing them or effecting a transition from one form to another. I use the term “terrorism” to describe an act of political violence that seeks to inflame hostile feelings between peoples rather than secure a tactical advantage over an enemy force. Terrorist attacks reflect a military and political calculus no less than any other form of combat, but their psychological impact is meant to obscure such subtle considerations, creating an impression of pure rage that will pursue complete victory unless it suffers a complete defeat. This apparent willingness of terrorists to fight a more absolute form of warfare is intended either to frighten conventional opponents to accede to their wishes, or compel them into a cycle of escalation that strips away the moral trappings of the modern state.
I use Clausewitz’s concept of absolute war as a lens through which to view the evolution and current character of terrorism. I argue that Clausewitz’s “pure concept of war” is not dependent upon climactic engagements between large, organized forces. A single and solitary act of public violence can stoke feelings of hatred, which then feed the perception of unremitting hostility between entire peoples that must end in one or the other’s ultimate destruction. By viewing terrorism as an approximation of absolute war, we learn to measure its effectiveness not by the amount of death and destruction that it causes, but by the extent to which it compels an entire society to adopt the psychology of a combatant. Effective counterterrorism requires not only the skill to disrupt terrorist networks and prevent attacks, but the wisdom to identify and mitigate the underlying causes of hostile feelings and intentions before they trigger an unstoppable cycle of escalation.
The Nature of Battle Today: Reading Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century
The applicability of Clausewitzian theory to contemporary warfare is not immediately obvious. The reader who picks up the hefty volume of On War and flips through its roughly six hundred pages will find, particularly in the middle books, dozens of consecutive chapters on topics such as conducting marches, establishing camps, maintaining supply lines, fording rivers, and how to defend and attack on a wide variety of terrain including forests, mountains, swamps, and entrenched positions. The maxims and illustrative examples in each of these chapters draw both from Clausewitz’s experiences as a Prussian officer during the Napoleonic Wars and also from his exhaustive study of historical campaigns such as the Seven Years’ War, offering little of practical use today except for those seeking a granular history of eighteenth and nineteenth century warfare.
The modern study of Clausewitz has thus focused mainly on his theoretical examination of warfare, althoughrecently many scholars regard this as no less anachronistic than his advice on flanking maneuvers or nighttime operations. The central thesis of Clausewitz’s theoretical argument is that war is a “duel on a larger scale,” a struggle between opposing forces each trying to impose their will on the other. Their mutual efforts at disarmament lead to battles, each of which culminate in a “decision” that determines victory and defeat based on relative losses and, even more importantly, on the psychological impact of those losses on the combatants. Each defeat is “like the gradual sinking of a scale,” until one side can either no longer summon the will to fight or else sues for peace to avert the collapse of their armed force, like a chess player that resigns in anticipation of an unavoidable checkmate.
Mary Kaldor argues that the Clausewitzian paradigm reached its apotheosis in the twentieth century, as nation-states mobilized their people and industrial base to build up massive forces that aimed at the complete destruction of similarly constituted enemies. Warfare in the twenty-first century, on the other hand, appears to lack even the potential for a decisive engagement. Contemporary wars tend to be prolonged, inconclusive affairs fought at a relatively low level of intensity, and involving a multitude of actors whose interests are likely to overlap as well as conflict. Kaldor points to ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia and Iraq as instances in which war was less a “contest of wills” than a “mutual enterprise” in which rivals use a condition of belligerency to consolidate their own power base. Emile Simpson points to the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, as well as his own British Army service in Afghanistan, as examples of “fragmented” conflicts composed not of two “sides” but of multiple “audiences,” each with their own heterogeneous frameworks for perceiving victory and defeat. In the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Israel inflicted significant damage on Hezbollah’s military capability, including the long-range missiles it needed for effective retaliation. The Arab world at large heralded Hezbollah as the victor, however, because it accomplished its self-declared goal of enduring the Israeli onslaught.
Clausewitz’s most famous statement is that war “is the continuation of politik (translated as either “politics” or “policy”) with other means,” and so military force is rational insofar as it serves as an instrument of broader political objectives. In a contest between two organized forces, the primary task of the strategist is to find the “middle course” of military effort that “would be sufficient for the achievement of [their] political purpose.” But in the paradigm of what General Rupert Smith calls “war amongst the people,” there is no temporally or spatially distinct realm of combat, as there is no fixed distinction between enemy and civilian. In this kaleidoscopic environment, the political ramifications of military action are so complex that there is little chance that even a vastly superior force can achieve a decisive result, at least not without obliterating civic life. At best, military power can secure the permissive conditions for a political settlement, with minimal capacity to coerce the major players into negotiating or accepting such a settlement. Political considerations so thoroughly permeate all aspects of military activity that it is no longer appropriate to view it as an independent instrument used against an enemy in wartime, but as one component in an ongoing process of stabilizing a conflict-ridden environment and reconciling the interests of its different social groups.
As the conventional warfare of Clausewitz’s day recedes into history, it is imperative to develop new theories for a new form of war. Paradoxically, Clausewitz himself offers a useful framework for such a project, especially through his concept of the “trinity” (dreifaltigkeit). At the end of On War’s first chapter, (which Clausewitz confessed was the only chapter of the book he regarded as finished), he introduces three “dominant tendencies” that define the essential features of war. The first aspect of this trinity is “primordial violence,” the “blind natural force” of hostility that motivates individual combatants and a people as a whole both to endure the hardships of war and also to inflict harm on the enemy. The second is “chance and probability,” the element of uncertainty that tests the “courage and talent” of an armed force and its commanders. Third and most important is the “element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason.” Even as the character of war undergoes constant transformation, the interaction of these parts gives war a fixed and permanent nature.
The trinity helped Clausewitz to make sense of the extraordinary changes in warfare that he witnessed firsthand. For most of history pre-Clausewitz, there were strict logistical, social, and financial limits on mobilization, so that even brilliant generals of the preindustrial era like Gustavus Adolphus and Frederick the Great had achieved relatively modest results. When the French Revolution introduced a “nation in arms,” it required a complex bureaucracy to furnish it with the necessary soldiers and supplies, not to mention the military genius of Napoleon to fashion it into an effective battlefield instrument. Traditionalist monarchies like Prussia had to dispense with their customary military restrictions and adopt the Napoleonic model in order to confront it more effectively. Observing how this led to a marshaling of their resources and risking everything in decisive clashes such as Leipzig and Waterloo, Clausewitz held that with this new expression of warfare, war “rather closely approached its true character, its absolute perfection.” He concluded that future conflicts would each exhibit their “own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, its own peculiar preconceptions,” but that each would retain the “universally valid element” of hostile intentions that in its fullest expression aims at the complete destruction of the enemy. And indeed, this theoretical condition of Clausewitz’s “absolute war” remained a vivid prospect in the no-man’s-land of the Somme, the rubble of Stalingrad, or in the global uncertainty engendered by a possible nuclear exchange between the Cold War superpowers. Similarly, even today the military doctrine of every major power continues to prioritize the likelihood, albeit a modest one, of cataclysmic war with a peer competitor, even though no such conflict has yet occurred in the nuclear age.
Contemporary applications of Clausewitzian theory have accordingly focused on the paradox of how conventional armed forces must still prepare for a war that they are unlikely to fight, and how this focus has hindered their preparation for the wars that they are actually fighting. A common theme throughout many of these applications is how globalization is, as Antulio Echevarria puts it, “bringing the tendencies of purpose, hostility, and chance closer together, and making the effects of their interaction more immediate, less predictable, and potentially more influential.” As Sergei Boeke and Bart Schuurman explain in an explicitly Clausewitzian analysis of the 2013-2014 French effort to recapture northern Mali from Islamist militants, both sides struggled to devise a strategy that accommodated a diverse range of audiences and political priorities. Seeking to draw the attention of the global jihadist movement, groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) committed terrorist attacks in Algeria and imposed a brutal version of Sharia law on the population under their control. These atrocities spurred France’s efforts to build an international coalition to expel them from Mali, and helped secure local cooperation in coalition efforts to hunt down fleeing militants after the initial attack drove them from their strongholds. Yet this military victory produced limited political dividends. Reluctant to risk alienating the opinion of either the French or Malian people with a long and costly mission, France defined victory in terms of limiting AQIM’s ability to secure a safe haven, without addressing any of the underlying social factors that prompted their ascent.
Terrorism is not merely one example among many others that can accommodate a trinitarian model to unravel the motives and strategies of combatants. The trinity captures both the mutability of combat and the cyclical tendency of warto unshackle itself from conventional restraints and revert back to its natural state of raw brutality. A Clausewitzian perspective on terrorism, therefore, provides a unique insight on broader shifts in the nature of war, in viewing terrorism as an early indicator of the trinitarian elements that threaten a restoration of absolute war. This perspective also captures the general historical trend in which the costs of pushing war closer to the absolute have declined over time, as deadlier technology and more efficient means of mobilization have become accessible to a broader range of audiences, who are better able to coordinate their activities outside the traditional boundaries of space and time. While a Clausewitzan perspective by itself cannot solve these latter problems, it provides a moral standard that affirms the supremacy of political judgment over the raw forces of hostility. Political leaders today must both recognize this historical tendency of war to drift toward the absolute and use that awareness to avoid being drawn into its theoretical parameters themselves.
The Pure Concept of War: Clausewitz and Terrorism
In war, the decisive act is the “killing of the enemy’s spirit,” whereby the heat of battle breaks the will of individual soldiers to continue fighting, until the commander blanches at the prospect of subjecting troops to further slaughter. Alternately, rival powers may bypass a direct contest of strength and threaten to inflict pain on valuable targets (usually civilians) in order to break their adversary’s will. Thomas Schelling calls this “the diplomacy of violence.” In this instance, the decisive act is the credible threat of future pain that the adversary can neither avoid nor endure. Some terrorist campaigns have been able to wage conventional warfare against their enemies: The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) built up a fearsome military apparatus that for decades was capable of challenging the Sri Lankan army and Indian peacekeepers; Islamic State (commonly abbreviated to ISIS) routed the Iraqi army from large swaths of the country in 2014, including from the major cities of Mosul and Ramadi. More often, however, terrorists have extracted valuable concessions through coercion. In 1968, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine secured the release of Arab prisoners after holding an El Al flight hostage for forty days. Similarly, three days after Al Qaeda’s bombing of the Madrid train system in March 2004, Spain elected a new prime minister who promptly withdrew their contingent from Iraq.
Despite these tactical successes, terrorist campaigns must define victory and the moment of decision in qualitatively different terms than those that traditionally characterize war or coercive diplomacy. An organization or movement that employs terrorism does so to effect revolutionary change, such as the creation of a new, ideologically pure polity, or the eradication of a perceived unjust social order. Such outcomes are difficult to achieve under any circumstances, and the adoption of terrorism derives from the inability to mount a more conventional challenge, on account of inferior capabilities and uncertain popular support on the part of the adopters. To seek a decision through open battle would invite crushing retaliation, and an underground cadre is extremely unlikely to have sufficient coercive power to compel a state to negotiate away its own existence. Unable to follow the standard practice of targeting enemy forces to advance a discrete political objective, terrorist campaigns seek to restore war to the condition of raw brutality—what Clausewitz regards as the original condition of warfare. Acts of terrorism, therefore, strip away the refinements of law and morality that human civilization has developed to refashion war into a “rational act.” Public demonstrations of hostility that excite rage and fear among the masses signal that between disparate peoples and groups there exists a state approximating absolute war, that each side’s attempt to destroy the other must prompt them to maximize their own efforts in anticipation of a climactic showdown. Ultimately, the advantage arguably falls to whomever is able to shed the “inconsistency, imprecision, and timidity” that normally prevents “war as it is really is” (der eigentliche krieg) from adhering to the strict logic of escalation that leads toward a total decision.
While absolute war is a hypothetical state of affairs that Clausewitz employs to establish a dialectic between the theoretical properties of war and its actual conduct, it is not a complete abstraction. War “approaches its true character, its absolute perfection,” without ever fully achieving it, to the extent that it “becomes the concern of the people as a whole,” such that the “elemental fury” of popular passions informs policy and military strategy.
In the decades following Clausewitz’s death in 1831, a number of technological and social developments accelerated the weaponization of popular anger outside the traditional bounds of an army or militia. Decreasing costs of transportation and the proliferation of early forms of mass media created transnational networks of ideological kinship, such as the socialist First International and the Irish Clan na Gael, which connected nationalists in the homeland to diaspora populations in the United States and Canada. These networks attempted to lead mass uprisings such as the 1867 Fenian Uprising and 1871 Paris Commune, both of which fizzled quickly in the face of coordinated repression. Disappointed revolutionaries found solace in Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite in 1867, the first of several innovations capable of inflicting mass casualties while also being cheap, widely available, easy to use—and concealable.
The “first wave of modern terrorism” heralded the potential for a more absolute form of warfare than were total wars among nation-states, which for all their grandeur of scale and scope, mainly tested each state’s ability to hold territory and maximize production capacity in an attritional struggle. Terrorism, by contrast, posits a test of sheer will between a people and a social order that either holds them in outright subjection, or has tricked them into accepting a fraudulent sense of freedom. The only way to overthrow such a system, according to a leading figure in the Russian “nihilist” movement, Sergey Nachaev, was for a few dedicated individuals to purge themselves of sentiment and moral scruple until “there exists one pleasure, one consolation, one reward, one satisfaction—the success of the revolution.”
In March 1881, a group calling itself Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) assassinated Tsar Alexander II with a nitroglycerine bomb, inaugurating a fundamentally new era of political violence. A “Golden Age of Assassination” followed, which included the murders of French President Carnot in 1894, Austrian Empress Elizabeth in 1898, Italian King Umberto in 1900, and U.S. President McKinley in 1901. Other less prominent victims of “the propaganda of the deed” were deemed guilty by their proximity to symbols of political, financial, and cultural power. This rationale fueled the Irish Dynamite campaign against army barracks and train stations throughout the United Kingdom from 1881 to 1885; the 1894 attack on the Cafe Terminus in Paris by “lone wolf” anarchist Émile Henry; and the 1920 bombing of Wall Street, generally believed to be the work of the Galleanist anarchist network.
In each instance, the actual amount of death and destruction paled in comparison to the psychological ramifications of the attack. Terrorists expected that their explicit challenge to the social order, and their indifference to their own fate, would shake the foundations of a system that they presumed to be predicated on fear of defying the police and public sensibilities. The attacks became a fixation for early forms of news media and mass popular culture, which spread sensationalized accounts to transnational audiences, feeding a public perception of a “powerful conspiratorial force spanning the globe.” Fear of an “Anarchist International” compelled governments to clamp down on terrorist networks violently and publicly, which terrorists welcomed in the expectation that it would strip away the veneer of the state as the guardian of lawfulness and decency. The strategic logic of terrorism held that the resulting cycle of retaliation and repression would produce a public perception of absolute war, in which every hostile act provoked an escalatory response, crowding out the “intervening neutral void” that normally insulates everyday society from the logic of combat. When “war is indivisible,” in the sense that every social action is perceived to reflect and then reinforce a condition of all-consuming struggle, then the people themselves seem to have no choice but to render the decisive result of either fighting for liberty or submitting to servitude.
Clausewitz dismisses the notion—which often peppered the accounts of his contemporaries, and which would become a staple Hollywood depiction—that battles oscillate between the two sides until “one unexpected factor has a major effect on the course of the whole.” What rather happens, Clausewitz argues, is that commanders make plans based on presumed strengths and weaknesses of the opposing forces in the given circumstances, and the unfolding of the battle ultimately reveals the accuracy of their assessments. Prior to the engagement, either side can reasonably convince itself of its own superiority based on numbers, positioning, the condition of their troops, the availability of reserves, or expectations based on recent experiences. The actual fighting tallies “the sum of all strengths, physical and moral,” and over the course of the engagement, the results become increasingly apparent to the participants. At this juncture, the weaker side may fail to recognize its own weakness due to a lack of information or sheer obstinacy, or a commander may sustain a losing effort if its abrupt cessation would turn into a rout, but eventually there is a point at which the outcome is so obvious that “persistence becomes desperate folly,” and the will to fight evaporates.
Terrorism, by contrast, is a form of battle that tests the strengths and weaknesses of an entire society, rather than just an army. The “war plans” are the narratives that terrorists and the system they oppose use to justify their employment of violence against one another. The “engagement” is the effort to align their respective narratives with the public consciousness, until the terrorists are either incapable of generating any significant support or are so firmly rooted among the people that any further attempts by state authorities at suppressing them are not worth the backlash. This is not a matter of persuading the unconvinced. Just as the results of a battle are practically decided from the opening salvo, the course of the terrorist campaign will elicit the true character of public opinion that always remains latent under ordinary circumstances. Whereas the conventional army looks to break its enemy’s will to fight, the final goal of terrorism is to fuel a new will to fight amongst a newly self-conscious people, who now realize that they had been so thoroughly beaten that they had forgotten that they were still at war.
The most successful examples of rousing the militancy of the masses came after the Second World War. The Japanese conquest of British, French, and Dutch possessions in East Asia shattered any myth of white colonial mastery. Indigenous troops expected that their service against the Axis would grant their peoples greater autonomy, and when those promises went unfulfilled, they had a newly acquired military experience to leverage, as well as an objective of national self-determination that aligned with the mission of the newly created United Nations. The Viet Minh set the template that a generation of revolutionaries would imitate: their terrorist attacks and the subsequent retaliations were meant to split society in two, forcing the population to flock to one side or the other as a matter of survival. This dynamic aligns with what Clausewitz called a “people’s war,” where “militia and bands of armed civilians” retreat into the countryside to “nibble at the shell and around the edges” of their enemy’s main force, forming a “dark and menacing cloud out of which a bolt of lightning may strike at any time.” Relative freedom to operate in these zones permits the terrorists to “build up larger units, better organized, with parties of regulars,” that will eventually be able to mount a direct challenge—as most notably happened with the destruction of the French force at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Few insurgent campaigns have been able to make such a successful transition to conventional warfare, and so terrorism has served more commonly as a means of rendering a society ungovernable, thereby forcing a shift in popular loyalty to a small cadre attempting to mount an insurgency. In Mandatory Palestine and French Algeria, attacks on military and police forced the occupying authorities to withdraw from the general population, leaving them unable to halt a spiral of inter-communal violence pitting Arabs against Jews and North Africans against European settlers. In both regions, the architects of terror had also built up a shadow government, with significant international standing, which could directly take the place of departing colonial overlords. Other organizations, such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have enjoyed sufficient standing with their target audiences to wage a decades-long struggle and even (eventually) legitimize their cause within a political process. Myriad extremists of the left and right have thrived in subcultures such as anti-Vietnam War protest movements, or the white power militias formed by some veterans of that war upon their return home. Such extremist subcultures periodically grab the public’s attention but are generally unable to effect major social change.
For terrorist movements that have succeeded in mobilizing a significant portion of their target audience, however, the advantages of wielding real political influence often temper the headlong pursuit of an apocalyptic confrontation with their enemy. While formally upholding their revolutionary mission, some of the most successful terrorist organizations in history have institutionalized their trinity through political parties, regulated militias, and community outreach programs. To the extent that they still use violence, it has been in service of decidedly conventional objectives such as territory, wealth, and prestige. Lebanon’s Hezbollah transformed itself from an Iranian proxy pioneering vehicle-borne suicide attacks into a key actor in the country’s Byzantine political system, and into the chief provider of security and social services for the country’s Shia population. In Syria, Hezbollah has deployed upwards of 10,000 troops and highly sophisticated weapons systems to defend the Assad regime in its battle with various rebel forces, and to build up its strategic depth vis-a-vis Israel. Although Hezbollah continues to utilize asymmetric tactics such as bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations, and although much of the Western world still formally designates them as a terrorist organization, they operate in a traditionally Clausewitzian environment: A political and military leadership advances the interests of a distinct people, probing for advantages relative to similarly motivated competitors and reacting to the innumerable ways in which the natural world, human frailty, and broader political considerations exert “friction” on all strategic planning.
Managing friction is particularly challenging for terrorists, not only because they operate at an acute tactical disadvantage but also because their normative claims are exceptionally difficult to uphold. As Audrey Cronin points out,
the core of a terrorist organization’s viability is its claim to be acting altruistically, on behalf of a larger cause. This claim of legitimacy is the source of its strength, but also its vulnerability: if a group miscalculates and targets poorly, the blunder is potentially more damaging than a comparable error by a state…governments are expected to be hypocritical; terrorist organizations cannot afford it.
Its political cause has historically required the terrorism-waging organization to rally public support, cultivate military expertise, and legitimize its political objectives, in exchange for the organization subordinating the urgency of the cause to its own survival.
Terrorists are increasingly able to bypass the restraints of an established organization and act directly upon their hostile intentions. “Lone wolf” terrorism is generally incapable of coordinating the activities of its agents or translating tactical results into concrete political gains, and thus this type of terrorism appears to fall outside the paradigm of war that governments have applied to the more obviously military encounters with entities such as ISIS or Al Qaeda. However, the current era is an especially important case for Clausewitzian theory, precisely because it is invalidating every extant doctrine of counterterrorism. It restores warfare back to its natural state where primordial violence reigns supreme, by exposing and exploiting the practical gap that exists when new technologies and ideas have not been sufficiently internalized to articulate new doctrines.
For all of the painstaking attention that Clausewitz gives to the details of military science, he regards these refinements as nothing more than an elaborate gloss on the “passionate hatred” that persists even among “the most civilized of peoples.” Organized terrorism bears a sufficient enough resemblance to conventional warfare that a Clausewitzian approach can focus on the intricacies of the “duel,” on how opposing forces will fashion a strategy influenced by both the lessons of their broader environment and by the experience of combat with the enemy. Once the “drive toward the absolute” dispenses with “these political probabilities,” then, Clausewitz argued, the focus shifts squarely on the character of the society that such violence brings to the surface. Thus the character of future wars lies within the politics of the moment “like living creatures in their embryos.”
Absolute War in the Internet Age
Clausewitz argued that there are two primary factors that prevent war from fully achieving its absolute condition. The first is the constraints of time, space, and energy that invariably make all human activity “incoherent and incomplete” when compared to a theoretical standard of rational action. The second is the social intelligence of the combatants, which infuses them with a range of emotions beyond the willingness to harm an enemy, such as empathy and conscience. It is therefore fitting that the primary engine of absolute war in the twenty-first century has been the Internet, which has done more to tear down physical and normative boundaries than anything else in human history. The logistical benefits of the Internet for terrorism have been evident since Ku Klux Klan leader Louis Beam founded Aryan Nations Liberty Net in 1984, boasting in his first post that “finally, we are all going to be linked together at one point in time.”
Liberty Net represented Beam’s strategy of “leaderless resistance,” in which like-minded individuals and small groups communicate and share resources with one another while remaining largely autonomous. The invention of the Internet enables leaderless resistance and related forms of terrorist activity because it surmounts an intrinsic obstacle to the recruitment, funding, training, and coordination that a non-state actor terrorist movement needs in order to carry out its mission effectively. Such groups or movements are typically disadvantaged twice over, in comparison to the state and political system against which they array themselves. Prior to the Internet, it was typically impossible for a terrorist group to “kee[p] its forces concentrated” long enough to bring them to the decisive point—a prerequisite for victory according to Clausewitz—because their militants would be scattered, and were acutely vulnerable to government surveillance and penetration. Likewise, Clausewitz argued that “defense is a stronger form of fighting (preservation generally expends much less energy than acquisition) even though offensive fighting (acquisition) is more desirable for the positive gains that victory offers. In an Internet-less age, the terrorist group has to expend much energy and capital in order to secure space for recruitment, funding, and training, even prior to commencing an operation against the state, whereas a state power need only preserve the status quo. An online network, on the other hand, holds the promise of combining the benefits of offensive and defensive warfare. An easily accessible database replete with target lists, tactical advice, and ideological inspiration enables anyone with access to a computer and a modicum of technical skills to be turned into a potential combatant. Confronted with “a thousand different small phantom cells opposing them,” so the argument goes, governments would have to expend considerable resources to identify and disrupt such cells one by one, as new ones presumably crop up to take the destroyed cells’ place.
The April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City epitomized the possibilities and limits of “leaderless resistance” in the era of dial-up Internet. J.M. Berger writes that the strategy worked in “one key respect—only three people were convicted for the worst domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history: [Timothy] McVeigh, [Terry] Nichols, and [Michael] Fortier,” despite evidence that tied them to several white supremacist and anti-government groups. But if leaderless resistance “successfully created a low-profile attack surface for government countermeasures…it also led to quiescence in the movement itself,” as few individuals proved willing to embrace the notoriety—and the swift federal crackdown—that fell upon McVeigh and his co-conspirators.
Beam’s “thousand points of resistance” fell short of its ideal goal because it prioritized the defense of his own network over harming the targeted enemy. Al Qaeda was thus the first to demonstrate the potential for offensive terrorism in the Internet era. Osama bin Laden made himself a global celebrity through a series of interviews with Time, CNN, and ABC, among many other outlets, through which he carefully crafted an image as a cunning and pious champion of pan-Islamic resistance against the “Zionist-Crusader alliance.” To complement his thoroughly modern media blitz, bin Laden adopted the structure of a Microsoft-like multinational corporation for planning and carrying out operations. This enabled bin Laden and his inner circle to issue a general directive, such as an attack on a major target in the U.S., and then outsource the planning and execution of it to what were essentially independent contractors with skills and attributes relevant to the task at hand. For example, only three of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were established members of Al Qaeda, and the success of the operation depended primarily on their ability to secure travel documents, maintain cover, receive flight training, and “casing” transcontinental flights to build operational intelligence, all over a period of several months with minimal supervision from senior Al Qaeda operatives.
Clausewitz points out that “the aims a belligerent adopts, and the resources he employs…will conform to the spirit of the age (zeitgeist),” and thereby will highlight some of that era’s distinctive features. Each aspect of bin Laden’s strategy sough to co-opt the features of a hyper-globalized system to prey upon its weaknesses, from the ease of international travel to the fluidity of financial transactions, to the infinite reach of mass media. His strategy’s hyper-efficient operational model produced the most devastating terrorist attack in history at the cost of a mere $400,000 in expenses. But bin Laden’s pursuit of an early form of “virality” foreshadowed the limits of online celebrity. As Jessica Stern argues, bin Laden made jihad “a global fad…a cool way to express dissatisfaction with a power elite whether that elite is real or imagined.” The prevailing ethos of the global marketplace renders all information into a commodity, easily tailored to the preferences of the consumer. For all but a handful of potential terrorists, expressing support in an Internet forum actually serves as a substitute, rather than a precipitant to active participation. Attempts to rally Western Muslims, such as the March 2004 Madrid train bombings or the July 2005 attack on the London bus and subway system, led to little more than the drawdown of the cells in those cities—which further drained the pool of available terrorist expertise after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan deprived it of its training camps.
The prospect of a climactic showdown between the West and the Islamic world achieved much greater immediacy following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Many regional governments ignored or encouraged the passage of funds, munitions, and volunteers across Iraq’s porous borders. Within Iraq itself, cross-pollination between disaffected Sunni tribes, former officials of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime, and foreign fighters culminated in a monthly average of 250 car bombs and three thousand Iraqi deaths in 2006. As Iraq descended into civil war, so too did Al Qaeda fracture between the aims of its Pakistan-based leadership and its local affiliate. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy and eventual successor, urged Al Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to focus first on expelling coalition forces and instituting an Islamic state in Iraq, prior to exporting the conflict to other secular Arab regimes and ultimately, to Israel. Zarqawi instead vowed that “our fighting against the Shi’a is the way to drag the [Islamic] nation into battle,” by forcing the broader Sunni population to “stand with the mujahideen” and become a flashpoint in the real struggle between true and false Islam, in which the Americans and their allies were secondary players.
Zarqawi pioneered the posting of videotaped executions to the then-new platform YouTube, foreshadowing the potential of social media that his followers would realize after his death in a U.S. drone strike in 2006. Al Qaeda in Iraq’s successor organization, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, (ISIS), utilized social media to devastating effect, with an initial slick propaganda campaign that drew around 30,000 people from all over the world to help build its “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. After U.S. warplanes began striking ISIS targets in June 2014, its chief spokesman urged Muslims everywhere to hunt down their “infidel” neighbors and “beat their heads with a stone, or slaughter them with a knife, or crash their cars, or throw them from a high place, or choke them, or poison them!” As the carnage of Aleppo and Sinjar spread to such places as Ottawa, Paris, San Bernardino, Istanbul, Brussels, Orlando, Berlin, Manchester, Magnitogorsk, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria, ISIS appeared to validate its claim to possess an “invisible caliphate” with infinite reach beyond the territory it physically occupied.
What became evident later was that ISIS’ ability to project power beyond its borders derived in large part from the advantages it possessed within them. Its territory, which at its peak was roughly the size of Great Britain, afforded it the resources to fuel its war machine. It had as well a degree of legitimacy, earned from having established governing institutions that often outperformed those of the Iraqi and Syrian regimes. Moreover, many of the specific territories under the control of ISIS feature prominently in the eschatology of early Islam, which gave a further credence to the end-times urgency of the group’s propaganda. Its employment of terrorism abroad was intended to support conventional operations against its immediate enemies. With no territory left to defend or to expand upon, ISIS (like Al Qaeda) now operates less like an organization than a brand that local militias and the occasional lone wolf adopt to align their motives with a sense of global mission. Although these actors may pose a serious threat, especially under conditions of poor governance and ethnic strife that prompted their original rise to prominence, they have largely subordinated the rhetoric of universal belligerency to the logic of their local, conventional struggles for power.
Outbursts of domestic right-wing terrorism in the United States and Europe represent the opposite phenomenon—of attacks that may theoretically occur anywhere at any time, but which lack organizational roots and distinct political objectives. As a predominantly online movement loosely united in a shared sense of threat to the foundations of Western civilization, it has no clear agenda or timetable by which to measure success versus failure. Its prevailing attitude is one of despair over the seemingly inevitable onslaught of immigrants, the increasing reach of government into everyday life, and the cultural dominance of feminism and multiculturalism. Domestic right-wing terrorists accordingly practice what Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls “the politics of eternity,” interpreting their history as an endlessly repeating cycle of victimhood at the hands of outsiders. The perpetrator of the 2019 massacre against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, (which he broadcast on Facebook Live), covered his assault rifle with references to medieval battles between Christianity and Islam, suggesting his actions were of a piece with the clash of civilizations that is perpetually present and can never be won. Snyder writes that “those who accept eternity politics do not expect to live longer, happier, or more fruitful lives…life is nasty, brutish, and short; the pleasure of life is that it can be made nastier, more brutish, and shorter for others.”
Holding the belief that society is firmly under the grip of sinister forces, white supremacist terrorists are primarily concerned with preserving an online space in which to nurse their grievances in perpetuity. Attacks such as the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the 2017 shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, and the Christchurch attack indicate a “relay race” among extremists concerned more with imitating and outbidding one another than effecting favorable political change. The insularity of the “alt right”—with its elaborate dialect of hashtags and memes to distinguish insiders from “normies”—paradoxically shows how they, like many past terrorist movements, take the underlying features of social life and push them to their logical extreme. Acts of mass murder that serve mainly to win the approval of an insular online community is the most extreme form of the “trolling” and “clapbacks” that dominate political discourse in the age of social media. The Alt-Right’s amorphous ideology, thickly layered with ironic and often absurd references to video games and obscure historical figures, is emblematic of the nihilism that is often the byproduct of a liberal culture that conceives of society itself as one giant marketplace.
The emergence of terrorist movements that thrive primarily online is analogous to the “first wave” of assassins and bomb throwers at the apogee of the Industrial Revolution. Like their forebears, they are the direct byproduct of a technological globalization that so vastly outpaces the capacity of governments as to cast serious doubt on government’s ability or even willingness to provide for the general welfare. Radicalization becomes possible because the same dislocations that furnish a set of grievances on a global scale also establish the linkages through which those grievances take on a collective self-consciousness and sense of purpose. Such networks are ideal for providing a constant stream of motivation for action without having to rely on a hierarchical structure. But this also inhibits the formation of a political program that could subordinate their passions to the guiding hand of reason. However quixotic their pursuit of absolute war, their very ability to push the limits of primordial violence at a moment of transformational societal change is like the opening of Pandora’s Box, an early indication of the tactics and ideas that are likely to filter ever more deeply into the social fabric. As Clausewitz wrote of his own time, and prophetically of ours, “once barriers—which in a sense consist only in man’s ignorance of what is possible—are torn down, they are not so easily set up again.”
On War begins on the sobering note that social progress refines conduct only by providing “more effective ways of using force than the crude expression of instinct.” At the end of that first chapter which distills to its essence the entire theory of the work, Clausewitz insists that war is invariably “political,” either as an expression of a specific policy, or reflective of a broader political culture to which policy must eventually adjust. Terrorism is the attempt to isolate this theoretical process from the workings of “friction” by synthesizing the use of brute force with political calculation by abolishing all logistical and normative restrictions on political violence. Since friction is ultimately inescapable, every terrorist movement of the past 140 years has accordingly struggled with the dilemma of how to balance the threat of escalation against the achievement of political objectives, while seeking to maximize the benefits of each. Terrorism derives directly from modern war, and so any effort to eradicate terrorism should be viewed with the same degree of skepticism as attempts to abolish war.
Clausewitz helps us to see terrorism not simply as a cancer, but as a lens through which to understand the “spirit of the age.” Just as battles in a conventional war ultimately reveal which side had been superior all along, terrorism maps out the strengths and vulnerabilities of entire peoples, both those whom it targets and those whom it would mobilize. In many cases, the experience of combat will reveal a terrorist group to be a group of despicable fanatics, and in others, the state will be unable to pry a campaign from its popular audience. If the terrorist seeks to approximate a condition of absolute war, states must prioritize the avoidance of that condition over the obliteration of those who threaten it.
Contemporary readers should not look to Clausewitz for tactical advice on how to defeat terrorists, or any other opponent. The main contribution of his theory is that it helps us to understand the present moment by taking ourselves out of its immediate anxieties and uncertainties. His view of absolute war as the baseline of both warfare and social existence helps us to see a profoundly confusing and disturbing time as a new expression of a familiar pattern, in which social developments allow human nature to slip the restraints of prior convention. According to Raymond Aron, “when confronted with war driven to its extreme, Clausewitz feels a kind of sacred horror, a fascination comparable to that wakened by cosmic catastrophes…as a philosopher, he is neither delighted nor indignant.” This theoretical detachment applies a much-needed brake on the panic that terrorism naturally tends to provoke, offering in its place the wisdom to understand the ineradicable role of violence in social life and the courage to husband that violence to the welfare of the political community.
Eric A. Fleury is an assistant professor of government and international relations at Connecticut College and a 2020-21 CSD Scholar.
Echevarria, Antulio J. “Clausewitz and the Nature of the War on Terror.” In Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century. Edited by Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, 196-218.
This is merely one example of Prof. Echevarria’s excellent work applying Clausewitz to contemporary warfare (see also Reconsidering the American Way of War, Georgetown University Press, 2014). Echevarria is particularly skilled at bringing close readings of the original German text and historical examples into conversation with contemporary conditions. For example, he compares the War on Terror with the Thirty Years’ War, showing how both exemplify the dual character of the German word politik that features in the original formulation of Clausewitz’s most famous statement. Translating to both “politics” and “policy,” Echevarria shows how both the U.S. and Al Qaeda interpret politics primarily through the lens of their own objectives and ideological blinders, failing to take account of the fundamental considerations that should shape policy, just as the combatants in the Thirty Years’ War rallied their followers to a war of religious extermination without taking stock to realize the patent impossibility of such a task. We should turn to Clausewitz as a means of attaining “objective knowledge” and penetrate through the veil of cultural bias and short-term political advantage.
Fleury, Eric. On Absolute War: Terrorism and the Logic of Armed Conflict. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019.
My book represents the first systematic attempt to connect Clausewitz’s theory with terrorism. It offers a thorough comparison of Clausewitz’s theory of strategy with that of terrorism, both non-state and state-directed, as well an extensive comparison of “the engagement” with the terrorist campaign. I regard terrorism as an “isomeric variation” of Clausewitzian warfare, recombining its essential elements to produce qualitatively different results. This means that terrorism is hardwired into the nature of modern warfare and international politics, not some fiendish outsider than can be banished with enough firepower and willpower.
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Simpson artfully combines theoretical analysis with his own military background to illustrate how the changing nature of war continues to frustrate Western military planners stuck in a conventionally Clausewitzian mode of thinking. While indebted to Clausewitz’s theoretical framework, Simpson urges a break from the fixation on military power as an independent instrument of state power, directed against the military forces of an enemy to shift their political calculus. In campaigns that have thus far almost always taken part in non-Western and non-developed theaters, Western armies must adopt the “narrative” of their hosts regardless of their overwhelming conventional superiority.
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