Before I confess how wrong I was about a big issue, I’ll give myself a little pat on the head for being right about a much smaller deal, the Afghan jailbreak I talked about two days ago. I said it was an inside job all the way and that the reported number of escapees, 440, would go up. Right on both counts, according to a BBC followup story.
The Afghan Justice Minister (now there’s a fun title) has now admitted that the escapers had help from prison staff, and that at least 488 Taliban got out. The Taliban says 541 of their men got out, and 106 of those were high-ranking officers. In this case, I’d be more inclined to take the Taliban’s numbers as real. It’s clear that everyone they wanted to break out made it out, and Saraposa Prison is supposed to hold 1200 men, so there’s nothing stretched-sounding about that 541 figure.
Not that it took a major brainwave to figure out that you can’t dig a 360-meter tunnel right under the prison and let the whole inmate population out without some inside help. That was pretty obvious.
When it comes to bigger, slower, more important issues, my record isn’t as good, and the mistake I want to discuss today is probably the most serioius I’ve made. At least I can do an Army-style “lessons learned” exercise on it. Just like they did after Little Big Horn: “Dear Gen. Custer: Please complete the enclosed ‘lessons learned’ form so that future commanders can have the benefit of your recent experience.”
Yesterday I finally wrote something that’s been bothering me for about ten years: The fact that Al Qaeda can’t be as big and bad as it’s made out to be, because its whole design violates every rule of guerrilla organization. It’s like a counterintelligence officer’s dream, the Al Qaeda plan to bring guerrillas from all over the world, introduce them to each other, and exchange funds, materiel and ideas.
It was pure cowardice that kept me from saying that sooner. A good lesson for me in not listening to the majority. The majority, the media, whatever you want to call it—maybe “the background noise” is the best way to describe it—kept saying that Al Qaeda was the biggest baddest thing in history and even though I grumbled and held back a little, I bought into that idea way more than I should, knowing the way I did that everything about their set-up pointed to a flash in the pan—which is what they’ve turned out to be.
Back in 2005, when the Al Qaeda hoax was hitting its peak, I wrote a column called “Nerf War and Real War: Al Qaeda vs. IRA.” If you want a good quick lesson in why dummies like me have such a hard time understanding guerrilla warfare, even when they’ve got all the info they need right in front of them, just read that article. I re-read it yesterday, after a reader pointed out that I’d praised Al Qaeda for going all out and was being inconsisent in yesterday’s blog for saying they blew their assets.
That reader was absolutely right. All I can say is that what I wrote yesterday still seems true to me. It’s something that’s been percolating in my head for a long time, and I’ve checked and rechecked it.
What I wrote back in 2005, praising Al Qaeda for going all out and sneering at the IRA for pulling its punches, was stupid. Totally wrong. Typical loudmouthed crap by a hick who hadn’t thought hard enough about guerrilla strategy.
The only thing I can say in defense of that 2005 article is that I had the facts right; I just read them wrong. By “the facts” I mean the basic difference between the IRA’s strategy and Al Qaeda’s: The IRA never used all its strength, played very cautiously, did just enough mayhem to remind Britain they were still around, hadn’t been broken. They even refused to do vengeance attacks on the UDA/UFF/UVF/LVF “Loyalist” hit squads that would kill Catholic civvies to try to force the IRA into a tit-for-tat Catholic vs. Protestant gang war.
Al Qaeda played all out, spent all its assets in a few years. In my dumb-ass 2005 article, I called the Al Qaeda method “real war” and the IRA’s slow-perc campaign “nerf war.” That was ignorance talking, boyish war-loving ignorance. I wanted more action, that was all. I saw what an easy target the London transport system made for a few amateur Al Qaeda recruits and just thought that since the IRA had several long-term sleeper teams in place in London, they could have wreaked a million times more havoc. Which was true, they could’ve. But could’ve and should’ve are different things, and a guerrilla group that goes all-out, does everything it can, is doomed.
The first job of a guerrilla force is to continue to exist. In fact, that’s almost everything. You could do it like those Fight Club rules:
“The first rule of guerrilla strategy is: Continue to exist.
The second rule of guerrilla strategy is: Continue to exist.
The third rule of guerrilla strategy is: Do a small, noisy attack on a symbolic target, avoiding civilian casualties, every few weeks to remind your home folks you still exist.”
That’s how every modern guerrilla army except Al Qaeda has played, and that’s why every one of those groups has lasted longer than Al Qaeda did. Think about it: Even the Basques, the most absurd boutique guerrilla army around, have managed to last a long time. All over the world are guerrilla groups that could pose for family pictures like “Three Generations Together! That’s Uncle Jed with the AK and Grandpa Stevie holding the flag.”
They last by NOT spending their forces. This is where being an old Civil War nerd got in my way. In the US Civil War, which was my training war, the North finally won when Grant realized that if the Federal armies applied all their strength against the enemy on all fronts at once, the weight of industrial power and bigger population would have to prevail. That’s how the Soviets defeated the Germans on the Eastern Front, and the US defeated Japan.
It’s not how guerrilla war works at all, for an obvious reason that I should’ve realized: Guerrilla armies always represent the weaker, the smaller, the defeated side. Not necessarily smaller in population but in money, cohesion, power-projection. They win, not by battlefield victory, but by something like metal fatigue. They sag on their opponents like a fat heavyweight, they wear him out, they absorb his punches.
And that’s why guerrilla war isn’t as romantic as Rambo fans like to think. Rambo, you’ll notice, has no family. Guerrillas do have families and when they commit to irregular warfare, they’re signing away their family’s chance to live a decent life and die in their beds. That’s why it’s not something you do casually like a Red Dawn teen fantasy.
The guerrilla has to opt out of protecting territory. Or the people who live in it. More bluntly, the guerrilla has to watch them die, sometimes pretty horribly, because counterinsurgency warfare runs on terror, and plain killing doesn’t do it, so the CI teams start killing guerrillas’ families in the sickest ways they can come up with.
That was tried with the IRA many times. I’ve been reading up on it, and the counterinsurgency methods the SAS taught to the Loyalist hit teams were as sick as anything from the Middle East. Check out the “Shankill Butchers,” a hit team from the LVF that used power tools, hatchets and improv dentistry to kill Catholic civvies as nasty as they could.
The IRA had this “Nerf” strategy of not striking back at stuff like this, and not killing civilians, which seemed weak to me. But it worked way, way better than I could have imagined. First of all, by not reacting to LVF hit teams, the IRA kept the focus on the Brits, who they considered the real enemy. The Loyalist hit teams, I realize now, were a classic SAS attempt to turn the whole Ulster fight into a tribal war, so the British could come off as the impartial referees trying to keep the savages from tearing each other apart. If the IRA had settled for taking all these Loyalists down into nice soundproofed basements and giving them some hands-on experience of their favorite games, it would’ve been satisfying short-term but would have fed right into the enemy propaganda model.
Now that I understand what they were doing, I’m blown away by the discipline. That’s the key to every good guerrilla group, that sort of discipline that’s almost creepy, not human. I mean, imagine your cousin just got hacked to death in some gaudy way by these Shankill Butcher guys and you know exactly who did it. Which they did; the IRA always had great intelligence on the streets of Belfast, they knew exactly who was doing these killings. But the order comes down that you can’t take revenge, because it’d look like religious gang warfare and take the focus off the Brits. I couldn’t do it. Those guys did, and I feel ashamed for using a word like “nerf” to make fun of military discipline like theirs.
When you look back at the IRA strategy over the 30-odd years they did urban guerrilla warfare, there’s a clear pattern: They always wanted to shift the violence away from Northern Ireland and to the financial center of London. It was fucking brilliant, and I was too dumb to get it. That’s why they ignored all the Loyalist killings, which would be harder than ignoring a pit bull gnawing your leg, and put all their resources into setting up deep-cover sabotage teams in London.
Grand Hotel, Brighton: “Uh, Miz Thatcher, your hotel is sagging.”
By the early 1990s they had men and women working at the airports, the construction industry, and even in British security. And they used their operatives carefully, never spending their lives until they could get maximum effect. In 1984 one of their men rented a room at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the Conservative Party was scheduled to have its yearly meeting. He put the bomb under the flooring, paid his bill and left. A month later the long-delay timer went off while Thatcher and all her allies were sound asleep in their rooms. They missed Thatcher—they didn’t call her the Iron Lady for nothing—but she had the novel experience of seeing a few floors fall into her room at 3 am. And the IRA statement afterwards was a model of guerrilla patience: “Today you were lucky, but you will have to be lucky always. We only have to be lucky once.” That’s the way you play it, for the long haul.
The Brighton bomb was designed to kill, because Thatcher was a legitimate target by their reckoning. (In fact, so many Brits hated her that this was about the only time the IRA was popular in England, with people giving them the old “Try, try again!” cheer.) But most IRA bombings, especially the huge truck bombs that won the war for them, weren’t designed to kill. The IRA had a whole system in place with recognized code words that they’d use when they phoned British TV stations, radio stations, and cops to warn them to evacuate the area. They had to do that because both sides realized that when the IRA killed ordinary civilians, they lost. The British tv stations would replay the footage of wounded and killed civilians over and over and over for years, and eventually the IRA worked out a whole new “nerf” (nerf in a very effective way) method of making war without killing people. They’d park a truck near a financial target like the London stock exchange with a multi-hour timer, then call everybody they could. That was to make sure the Army and Intel Services didn’t decide to sit on the warning in the hope of getting a high civilian death toll, which would have been a big defeat for the IRA.
So, I have to admit though it goes against my instincts, “nerf” is the way to go with urban guerrilla warfare. Damn, it’s a weird world.
There were two big, big bombs in the 1990s that settled it: First a huge blast at the London Stock Exchange in 1992 that took the financial district out of play completely, paralyzed the British financial industry. And the only casualty was an idiot photographer who went in after the warning came out hoping to get a great shot. The British media was so frustrated by not having bloody corpses to show that they settled for architecture: the bomb shattered some stupid church from the middle ages and they made that the big tragedy, because face it, nobody cries when the stock exchange gets blown up.
That 1992 bombing didn’t seem to get the message across so they repeated it in 1993, with the Bishospgate Bomb. Same pattern: redundant warnings, everybody evacuated except a few cops.
Result: one KIA (a cop) and one billion pounds damage. A billion and a half dollars in one kaboom.
After showing what they could do, the IRA declared a ceasefire. That’s patience, that’s working the long war.
In 1994, they took the idea of non-lethal warfare a notch up by doing one of the most revolutionary things any guerrilla army has ever done: IRA mortar teams dropped shells on the runways at Heathrow Airport,
Burnt-Out Mortar Wagon at Heathrow
totally stopping air traffic…but the shells weren’t even designed to explode. Intentional duds.
IRA Mortar Practice: Nerf Warfare, But It Works.
That’s amazing; I’ve never heard of anything like that. It shows how far they’d come by that stage, away from the simple Al Qaeda maximum-blood crap I bought into in that earlier article. In contemporary urban guerrilla warfare, at least in Western Europe, killing civvies is counterproductive. What you want to do, what the IRA had mastered by the 1990s, was messing with the incredibly fragile and expensive networks that keep a huge city going. Interrupt them and you cost the enemy billions of dollars, and they don’t even have any gory corpses to shake in your faces. Fucking brilliant, and I was too dumb to see it!
After showing what they could do, the IRA declared a ceasefire. That’s patience, that’s working the long war.
The British misread that as a sign of weakness, so they gloated and refused to negotiate. Mistake. The IRA still had all its teams in London intact, unpenetrated, and showed what they could do in 1996 by blowing up the center of London again.
This time they not only took out a major business district but rocked Canary Wharf, the biggest building in Europe and the HQ of the tabloids that were foaming at the mouth about these terrorist bastards. A little sense of humor doesn’t hurt, as long as you’re disciplined about it. To show they had range, they blew out the center of Manchester too. Same MO, multiple warnings way in advance.
By this time the real bosses in London were getting tired of paying for a war to hold onto Northern Ireland, which isn’t worth anything anyway, just to indulge the Northern Irish Protestant wackos that the upper-class Brits always despised anyway. The SAS was doing its best to bring the violence back to Belfast, where the Brits liked it, but even though the LVF was killing overtime, the IRA showed real “fire-discipline,” as the Germans would call it, and wouldn’t play the tit-for-tat game.
They knew what they had to do: keep causing billions of pounds damage where it counted, in London.
The real crunch came when Lloyd’s of London went under. Guess why. Yup, it was the hundreds of billions of dollars they’d paid out for every highrise and pane of glass that had to be replaced after those London bombs went off.
When Lloyds goes under thanks to a few hundred Irish Catholics, the lowest of the low in the UK pecking order, something’s gotta change. If this was a game show and Northern Ireland was the prize, “What would you pay?” would get an answer in the “Uh…two cents?” range. But the Brits were paying incredible amounts to keep the nasty little place a Protestant game preserve. The 1992 bomb alone caused 800 million pounds worth of damage to central London.
That’s about a billion and a half dollars. For what? Proving you’ve got a stiff upper lip?
Still, they might not have settled with Sinn Fein. The Brits go a little crazy when Ireland comes up, always have, seem to lose their heads. They might have hung on for another generation except for Clinton. And this is why they still love Clinton over in Ireland, way more than people—well, white people anyway—do over here. Clinton wanted a foregin-policy badge, and he saw what the Brits couldn’t: that the leadership of Sinn Fein/IRA were calm, intelligent people who could be talked to. So he got on the phone with them, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness (who’s supposedly the real brains of the operation) and Tony Blair. Blair had an Irish mother, didn’t hate Micks on sight the way most of them did, so he was willing to make a deal to stop the British economy from bleeding out for the sake of a few Baptist loonies in Belfast. When big money meets smooth Arkansas patter and a Prime Minister who missed out on the old tribal hatreds, it’s pretty easy to settle.
And they did. The Good Friday Accords that Clinton brokered in 1998 set free every IRA prisoner, dissolved the old apartheid police (RUC) and set up a new one that went out recruiting in the same slums the IRA drew its people from (PSIS), and put Adams and McGuinness in power in a local Northern Ireland Assembly to replace the old No Papists one. Sinn Fein is now the biggest political party in the place and the Brits have basically conceded all the territory west of the Bann River to them. It’s the Loyalists who seem all confused and drifting now, trying to decide if they want to go the guerrilla-war route on their own or face the fact they’re losing out year by year to the people whose necks they used to enjoy standing on. Martin McGuinness, ex-IRA officer and Sinn Fein “terrorist,” is the Deputy Prime Minister.. They say he and the Loyalist ranter Ian Paisley were the best of pals when they worked together, telling gory old jokes about who buried who’s second cousin in some bog back in the good old days. Meanwhile, Adams is pushing the party into the South as well, and the old boy pols down there are terrified of Sinn Fein taking over.
It’s hard for an American to get your head around any of this, but the point, and it’s very “counter-intuitive” as they say, is that Al Qaeda did everything wrong, spending all their assets and going for maximum kill, and the IRA, the poster-boy for long, slow, crock-pot guerrilla warfare, did it exactly right. In fact, it’s sort of scary how Adams and/or McGuinness seem to have thought three or four moves ahead every step of the way. You realize they declared their final ceasefire just a couple of years before 9/11, when the US jumped into the anti-terrorist thing fulltime? That’s timing, incredible finesse and timing.
And they did it against the Brits, too, the SAS, best counterinsurgency specialists in the world, too. What can I say? I was absolutely wrong. Nerf wins—low-casualty, high-cost performance-art style guerrilla bombings. And Al Qaeda style maximum-splatter is for hotheaded idiots who forget that the real job of a guerrilla force is to stay in existence, lean on the enemy, wear him out and bankrupt him.
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