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Naval Institute: The New Arab Way of War

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*The New Arab Way of War*

*/Proceedings/, March 2003

By Captain Peter Layton, Royal Australian Air Force*/
/ /The October 2002 bombing of a nightclub in Indonesia's popular resort
island of Bali, which killed more than 190 people mostly tourists and
many Westerners is a grim example of the new Arab way of war. Planning
and educating the agents in bomb making and holy-war doctrine took place
over months in several locations. The planners of this bombing and
others have been linked to the Jemaah Islamiya Southeast Asia terror
network as well as Al Qaeda./
The new Arab approach to conflict is an adaptation of the revolutionary
warfare of the second half of the 20th century.1 <#note1> Assassins
using this new way of war now swim among the populations of the world.2
<#note2> With cheap, unrestricted global air travel provided by Western
technology, they can deploy wherever they wish; there are no front lines
or safe rear areas. The assassins make effective use of liberal
immigration policies that have permitted large numbers of Middle Eastern
migrants to settle in the West. Small numbers of fellow travelers and
sympathizers are distributed throughout Western nations, able to be
activated to provide local support, protection, and knowledge for
deploying assassins. Their command-and-control system relies on
commercial communications systems and business application cryptography.
This makes their control system strong, redundant, secure, and global
and the assassins hard to detect, track, and target. They do not rely on
their own technology even for weapons, instead using in situ civilian,
commercial equipment for attack.
The new Arab way of war is parasitic. Local supporters acquire weapons
and explosives, provide safe houses, arrange transportation, and steal
or hire vehicles. Assassins fly in, carry out attacks, and fly out
quickly, avoiding arrest. Relying completely on local sources, they can
strike deep into the Western heartlands, mimicking the strategic air
attacks characteristic of the West.
Foot soldiers employed in this way of war usually are male and middle
class and often well-educated, with strong religious fervor. A good
education is necessary to operate independently and covertly in Western
societies. The most dedicated assassins come from countries with a
well-established, openly anti-Western education system antagonistic to
secular societies, modernism, and human rights. A consuming spiritual
passion, with a commitment bordering on fanaticism, is a valuable
attribute for members of a small group when deployed into hostile
countries. Given these warfare techniques, Muslims seem likely to remain
the prime source of recruits.3 <#note3>
Intentionally, there is no obvious state involvement. In his attack, the
assassin dies or melts into the crowd, providing no proof of who is
responsible. This tactic is meant to confuse and frustrate a legally
justifiable response, as the Western paradigm based on the 1648 Peace of
Westphalia assumes a state-versus-state conflict. Avoiding giving the
West a defined, obvious state opponent is a rational strategy peculiar
to the Arab way of war.
The Arab combat style imposes small financial burden on its parent
societies, allowing long and protracted wars without inflicting economic
hardship. Employing only small numbers of personnel with few needs, wars
can be financed privately and seemingly remain independent of overt
government support. Such entrepreneurs can be hard to trace and
impossible to stop.

A major innovation of the Arab way of war is the deliberate targeting of

civilians. The assassins' rhetoric makes no distinction between civilian
and military targets. Attacking civilians guarantees global attention as
the media, reflecting global values, has a horror of the infliction of
cruelty on noncombatants. Attacking civilians is perceived by the
assassins as the most direct route to influence global opinion and to
affect the national will of the nations struck. Attacks usually are
conducted with considerable skill, timing, expertise, and precision but
are designed to kill absolutely indiscriminately. Given this, the
strategic aim of attacks is hard to discern.4 <#note4> Violence
customarily is conceived as a means to an end, but the essence in this
style of war seems to be inflicting terror. Pakistani Brigadier S. K.
Malik notes: "Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy;
it is the decision we wish to impose on him."5 <#note5>
*Inherent Problems*
The manner of Arab warfare is intentionally designed contrary to the
modern international laws of war. Deliberately attacking civilians,
noncombatants, women, and children is against the moral codes of all
religions including Islam. Such actions also violate the ethical codes
enshrined in the U.N. human rights charters. The leaders directing such
acts are vulnerable to charges of war crimes and international human
rights trials. Any country that harbors them inherently appears as an
outlaw state operating outside of the civilized world and in defiance of
U.N. conventions.
Middle Eastern societies frequently criticize the immoral and lax
ethical stance of the secular and materialist West. It is ironic that
their chosen way of war makes their assassins appear immoral and
unprincipled, which may be why their commanders seek not to identify
themselves. Anonymity provides safety from accusations of moral bankruptcy.
Although the tactics of the Arab system rely almost completely on the
civilian technology and resources of those nations being attacked, the
assassins generally originate from another nation-state. A specific
government may not support assassins openly, but to thrive the assassins
rely on the acquiescence, sympathy, and often active support of the
population from which they came. A society has created them and
continues to provide financing, safe harbor, and training. Edmund Burke
noted in 1729 that "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is
for good men to do nothing." The silence of the good men of the Middle
East implies a terrible consent.
*Potential Responses*
The West now has no choice. For many years the Arab way of war was
ignored and its brutal methods overlooked, but this option now is
impossible. The societies of the Middle East have forced the West to
retaliate with a multifaceted response that is well under way. This
response may be complemented by a focus on on denying the support base
that keeps the assassins operational.
A dilemma the West faces is whom to hold responsible for the assassins'
attacks. The Western warfare paradigm holds the government of the
hostile nation-state responsible rather than the people. In the modern
Arab conflict style, the people, not the government, often bear
responsibility, especially in situations where the central government is
weak, fragmented, ineffectual, or corrupt. The West's indignation must
be focused on the societies, not just the governments of the nations

from which the assassins originate. Members of the societies directly or

indirectly supporting attacks must understand they will be held
responsible and pay a price for their support.
There is a pressing need to deter the responsible Middle Eastern
societies from their chosen path of escalating terrorism. Several Middle
Eastern states harbor sizable elements that support the Arab way of war.
Those that support this method of conflict have been identified by their
actions over several decades. They exist in unfriendly states such as
Iran and Syria, but also in friendly nations such as Saudi Arabia, whose
children financed, directed, and undertook the 11 September attacks.
This population support base is as vulnerable to attack as are the
societies of the West. Focusing attention on the support base would be
contentious and controversial. However, the West must be innovative and
take advantage of inherent weakness in the Arab conflict paradigm to
frustrate the steady intensification of violence directed against its
The West could retaliate with random and indiscriminate attacks on
particular Middle Eastern cities, thereby replicating the Arab warfare
approach, but this goes against centuries of Western efforts to limit
the impact of war and is completely unacceptable.6 <#note6> Not the
whole societies of those Middle Eastern nations involved, but only a
small, discernable sliver of these societies should be held accountable
and deterred from further support of the Arab way of war. The assassins
inevitably are from the middle class, with their commanders among the
more wealthy members of the country. The middle and wealthy classes have
great power in their own societies at the local level, and more real
influence with the masses than their usually despotic governments. If
the majority of the middle and wealthy classes determined to no longer
directly or indirectly support the Arab style of conflict, this would
have a significant impact. Without an active support base, and with the
possibility of their activities being compromised at any time,
assassins' freedom of action would be curtailed severely.
An intense, relentless psychological campaign could be undertaken
targeting the middle and wealthy classes of the Middle Eastern nations
involved. Mass-marketing methods may offer insight into how to apply
long-term, focused psychological pressure. The aim of such a campaign
would be to make each individual perceive being held personally
responsible and targeted for his or her support of the Arab way of war.
The proud, strongly religious societies of the Middle East may be
vulnerable to considerable self-doubt about the moral bankruptcy of
their actions and their pronounced ethical decline compared to the
remainder of the world. This effort would complement the other measures
of defense and containment already being undertaken. Consideration also
could be given to applying economic pressure, restrictions, and
constraints, such as those used against South Africa during the
apartheid years.
Incentives should be offered as well. Easy means should be provided to
allow individuals to relay information concerning members of their
societies engaging in acts of war. If individuals or groups tire of the
difficulties caused by supporting the assassins, an opportunity should
be given for them to make a positive contribution to overcoming the
problems inflicted. There would be many false reports, but occasionally
something of real value would be passed. The possibility of this
occurring would create a sense of vulnerability among assassin

*Weapons of Mass Destruction*

There is a worst-case fear in the West of a Middle Eastern
weapon-of-mass-destruction (WMD) attack; this fear has led directly to a
preventive war strategy. Possessing, developing, or even considering
developing a WMD capability may be considered intent to use in the near
future. Although understandable, this is an unwelcome strategy with some
inherent flaws. Unnecessary wars may be fought to prevent nations from
developing a capability and the possibility of use; a future uncertainty
thus becomes the basis for a certain war today. Preventive war may be
insufficient by itself to stop all attacks; some may occur. Moreover,
chemical and biological weapon laboratories are difficult to detect,
making their preemptive destruction hard to guarantee.
Nuclear threats traditionally have been handled using deterrent
strategies. In this case, a declaratory policy could be devised based on
the threat of retaliation if an attack occurs in the West by nonstate
actors using the Arab way of war. In such a circumstance, there could be
a strategy of instant, graduated response: nuclear strikes against
several of the capital cites of the Middle Eastern nations that long
have demonstrated support for this method of war.7 <#note7> The
response's intensity and discrimination would vary based on the severity
of the WMD attack. This approach would be a policy of deterrence through
the threat of brutal and immediate punishment of particular societies.
The strategy is irrational in the sense that it proposes to punish the
innocent although these "innocents" would have supported assassins that
undertook a WMD attack, killing potentially millions. It draws on the
successful but frightening Cold War strategy in which the populations of
Europe and North America were held hostage for the good behavior of
their governments. In this new application, the citizens of several
Middle Eastern nations would be held responsible for their own actions,
rather than the actions of their governments. The societies' futures
would be in their own hands. The sole alternative at present is
preventive war; as noted, this strategy may not be sufficient,
practical, sensible, or long-term. The WMD threat is so serious that a
multifaceted approach is needed to prevent it.
This approach is solely for deterrence, not war fighting, and would be
another constant, worrying reminder to the Middle East's middle and
wealthy classes that if they allowed the worst to happen to the West,
they quickly would pay a heavy price. The strategy articulates what
inevitably would happen; a declaratory policy would ensure there were no
unfortunate misunderstandings.8 <#note8>
There also should be an incentive to motivate Middle Eastern societies
to change their ways and be taken off the instant-response list. The
Arab way of war starts in the schools and educational facilities of
particular nations. Twenty years after a society stops teaching children
to hate and kill, and twenty years after the last attempted terrorist
attack by the members of that society, their capital should cease to be
The Arab way of war has been devised to defeat the Western construct by
making use of its inherent weaknesses. In so doing, the Arab method has
its own intrinsic internal contradictions and weaknesses that can be
exploited in response. The vulnerability of the support base in several
Middle Eastern nations is one of these. A relentless psychological
campaign to dissuade the middle-class and wealthy members of these
specific societies from supporting the Arab way of war may complement

other current offensive and defensive activities. Deterrence, at least

against the WMD threat, also may be worth considering.
*The Author:*
Group Captain Layton is a career Royal Australian Air Force officer with
experience in attack, reconnaissance, and maritime patrol aviation. He
currently is an operational requirements staff member.
1. The term /Arab way of war/ is used here only as Arab societies
initially developed and adopted this mode of warfare in the early 1970s
and remain its principal exponents. In recent years, some other non-Arab
Middle Eastern societies have adopted this way of war. The term is
therefore used in a similar way to the /American way of war/, which
focuses on mass and high technology, and Davis Hanson's /Western Way of
War/, emphasizing decisive combat by heavy infantry. Other nations can
and have made use of the American and Western ways of war. There are
specific characteristics of the Arab way of war that set it apart from
the styles used elsewhere in the world. [Back to article <#1>]
2. The word /assassin/ seems particularly applicable to the foot
soldiers of the modern Arab way of war. /Assassin/ is used here as one
who kills, or attempts to kill, by surprise or secret assault; or one
who treacherously murders anyone unprepared for defense. The name comes
from the Assassins of the East, followers of the Shaikh al-Jabal (Old
Man of the Mountain). This was a Muslim order active in Persia and Syria
about 1090-1272 whose members believed their religious duty was to
harass and murder their enemies. The word derives from medieval Latin
/assassinus/, which is derived from the Arabic /hashshashin/, and first
appeared in English early in the 1600s. [Back to article <#2>]
3. Islam is not the problem causing the present conflict between the
West and the Middle East. Islam is only the principal religion of those
societies currently attacking the West from the Middle East. [Back to
article <#3>]
4. The strategic aim of the assassins has been cited as forcing U.S.
military forces to leave Saudi Arabia, creating national uprisings to
overthrow various Middle Eastern governments, forcing Israel to leave
the occupied territories, persuading the United States to cease aid to
Israel, radicalizing the lower classes in certain Middle Eastern states,
bringing about a new caliphate, and determining an ideological conflict
between Islamic society and modernity. Not all can be the strategic aims
of the assassins. Strategic coherency and consistency, or even
maintenance of a defined aim, does not appear to be a feature of the new
Arab conflict paradigm. [Back to article <#4>]
5. Brigadier S. K. Malik, "The Quranic Concept of War," quoted in Yossef
Bodansky, /Bin Laden: the Man Who Declared War on America/ (Roseville,
CA: Prima Publishing, 2001), p. xv. [Back to article <#5>]
6. But there have been many instances in Western history where patience
has been exhausted suddenly and merciless, ruthless responses
undertaken. The Arab way of war could yet reap this whirlwind for the
Middle East if attacks by assassins go too far. History suggests this
line will not be known, or even articulated, until after it is crossed.
This is one of the difficulties with dealing with democracies that
opposing political systems have problems comprehending. [Back to article

7. Attention would need to be given to not unintentionally punishing
Muslims by damaging or destroying Islamic holy sites. [Back to article <#7>]
8.There appears to be a quaint belief in some areas that if there were
such a nonstate attack, the world would not realize whom it was. Who
else practices this style of war? A WMD attack would generate an
overwhelming desire for revenge and a compelling need to respond harshly
and immediately. The response would be a nuclear spasm attack before any
investigation ever began; the originators would be deemed apparent to
all from their style of conflict. [Back to article <#8>]
/ 2003 U.S. Naval Institute. All rights reserved./

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