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The War Nerd / April 27, 2011


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.

Read more: , , Gary Brecher, The War Nerd

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Add your own

  • 1. Keith  |  May 2nd, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Can’t help but agree with your change of mind, especially in light of the MSM fear-mongering bullshit about bin Laden retaliations.

    The best guerrilla forces are probably disciplined and strategic, rather than hotheaded reactionaries who rush a retaliatory attack and fuck it up.

  • 2. Rich  |  May 2nd, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    Just a slight correction: The financial centre that was blown up in ’92 was the *Baltic Exchange* a fairly obscure market for shipping and cargo.

    The Stock Exchange was some distance away and unscathed (in any case, it’s an electronic market – you’d have to destroy the data centre (in another location) and the backup data centre to put it out of action. A bit like trying to blow up Google).

    Also, Lloyds of London hit problems through financial mismanagement, not IRA bombs. The government indemnified the insurance industry from those.

    The real cost of the IRA campaign that helped convince the UK to negotiate was the 30,000+ troops and cops that were employed to try and keep a lid on it.

  • 3. Russell  |  May 3rd, 2011 at 4:04 am

    Gary, your article is so uninformed it’s untrue. To say the IRA refused to retaliate and did not target civies is just plain wrong and I fear you are looking at this through rose tinted glasses as if they were somehow restrained. The Brits were by no-means angels but the IRA were a very very nasty organisation that killed 100s of civilians and had elements akin to the mafia which they would use on their own as well as the opposition.

  • 4. Russell  |  May 3rd, 2011 at 4:14 am

    You mention the Shankill Butchers in an attempt to show how the IRA did not retaliate. But fail to mention that the IRA blew up a fish shop on Shankhill road killing civilians. Just such such poor research and grasp of the situation I would probably just not comment on it again.

  • 5. Doug  |  May 3rd, 2011 at 6:04 am

    IRA are one of the most skilled fighting forces ever

  • 6. darthfader  |  May 4th, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    “A major source (possibly their only real solid source) of funding for the IRA came from the US.”

    What a stupid urban legend. Not true at all.

  • 7. MolvanianHeavyHorse  |  May 5th, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    FatIrishman – I agree with your general points, but I’ll second darthfader a bit. The US funding for the PIRA was much exaggerated at the time and since its been mythologized because its convenient for both the Guardian UK left, a segment of the Tory right and pretty much everyone in the South. The fact of the matter is that after the chaos of the early to mid 70s the Irish diaspora was a useful source of funds for the “non-violent” side of the Republican movement but a very unreliable conduit for weapons and “clean” cash. This was especially true after Reagan and Maggie formed a strong alliance. The real outside source that allowed the PIRA to continue was the Libyan shipments and clandestine purchases on the global market. The boys in the Irish bar (of which to my eternal shame I was one) could collect some cash, but (a) there were boys in the Irish pubs in Sydney, Liverpool, Glasgow and certain counties in the South NOT just South Boston, (b) the cash collected was unsecure and thus really had to be used for the stated purpose, which was usually “supporting the prisoners families” or (later on) “supporting Sinn Fein’s election campaign”, (c) the boys in the Irish pubs were a massive security risk and no sane serious PIRA arms person would get within a mile of us (INA/Noraid’s Sinn Fein contact for a long time was Dennis Donaldson, who ended up admitting he was compromised by MI6 shortly before his premature death). Of course, the PIRA had to support the prisoner’s wives and SF’s political activities anyway, so the cash raised ended up freeing up other funds for weapons and logistics, so it was still of great value, but the war continued because of the Warsaw Pact shipments and when the semtex ran low they turned to fertilizer bombs since few if any explosives were coming through from the diaspora. I would agree that the need to appease the diaspora donor base (again, this included the UK and Australia, not just the US) acted as a major moderating factor, but I think it was secondary to the need to keep political figures like Ted Kennedy and Ken Livingstone from turning their qualified condemnation of the PIRA coupled with regular denunciation of Unionist paramilitaries and UK excesses into outright full throated excommunication of the provos. In general, another good article by WN but I do think it sugarcoats the PIRA a bit — killing “members of the security forces” like part-time RUC men frequently was a thin veneer for sectarian retaliations, in the North (as opposed to the mainland) the operations could be very callous about civilian casulaties and some of the actions within the Nationalist community were brutal. I’d recommend Ed Moloney’s rather controversial recent books, which have some interesting allegations about the internal dissension in Republican ranks and the interaction with the security forces.

  • 8. PSNI not PSIS  |  May 5th, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    Terrorism lost.

    Northern Ireland won.

    The only actual terrorists in Northern Ireland now are a handful of vicious but semi-retarded Republican ‘disidents’, who are angry that the old PIRA political leaders have gone legit and entered power sharing.

  • 9. nemesis2012  |  May 6th, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    i would like to point out a couple of things regarding the IRA, first the tic for tat killing was done in the 70’s by the IRA. and it took about 12 years to change from the short “we are almost there, just a couple of more bombs” idea to the long game approach. The IRA were happy to target loyalists when they could (andy carr was turned who in turn gave up gary mcmichael (UDA east belfast and UFF commander and others) and they also killed the likes of lenny murphy (once he was given up by his own group) plus the shankill road chip shop bomb which was due to target johnny adair who was sue to have a meeting.

    but if you want to see the change in the IRA you first need to go back to the 1975 ceasefire and the break there, then things like the la mon hotel bombing which did them no favours as well as the birmingham, bloody friday bombings (these were mass slaughter which started to give a bad image to the IRA in west belfast etc which is what started to change them from large bombings against the living to trying to break the state by public demolition projects.

    lastly, where the Force Research Unit put in people like Brian Nelson in to the game there is no evidence that the shankil butchers (or just murphy) got any help from the British state or the RUC.

    after you have read dillans shankill butchers then read the “long war” by the same guy, it will cover a lot more about where the British got involved with the UDA/UFF and UVF.

    oh, sorry that my writing is a mess

  • 10. Danny Boy  |  May 6th, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    I came to this late, but I think you might have underestimated the financial impact of al qaeda and the OBL stragegy. Sure his one-shot win on 9/11 wasn’t a big financial hit in and of itself. However, as Seymour Hersh reported after interviewing Bin Laden in 1998, OBL knew with uncanny accuracy that the USA would overreact horribly and stick both fists in the tarbaby. He knew exactly what he was doing and who he was antagonizing. He put all his chips on the Bush gang responding like fools and Al Queda raked it in on that bet. Here we are a decade later, trapped in two unwinnable wars and ruined as a world power. The long game indeed.

    Also gotta boast about this: “Danny Boy” is a nickname an IRA acquaintance gave me. I only knew him through a student exchange program, never had any dealings with the IRA (from what he said they sounded like a bunch of posturing gangbangers to me), but I’m still proud of it.

  • 11. PSNI not PSIS  |  May 6th, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    Go and fuck off danny you plastic cunt.

  • 12. Edward Carson  |  May 7th, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    I wonder what sort of boot-licking, barely-literate pussy would spend his working life writing critical comments on a blog? Is he hoping to suck up to the great, the wise, the all-knowing God Brecher? Or is he just killing wasting everyone’s time until mommy calls him down for dinner?

  • 13. Wallop  |  May 11th, 2011 at 4:16 am

    Great piece, only one thing missing. Funds were not only lost in the war but also since the Labour government came to power in the mid 90s they poured billions into Northern Ireland in the form of investment. Based on the logic that a wealthy, content man won’t wage war. Belfast is now one of the most vibrant, modern and wealthy cities in the UK, so the British paid twice and Sinn Fein get the credit twice. All in all very well planned and executed.

  • 14. Carpenter  |  May 12th, 2011 at 9:17 am

    allen in post 19 (and several others) doesn’t get it. Osama bin Laden said over and over again that the U.S. must be drawn into long wars in the Middle East where it loses blood and money over many years. Exactly that is happening now. Absolutely brilliant. And the U.S. is shunned more and more, because of its amphetamine-sustained pilots and APC crews bombing weddings and killing people in the streets. Osama bin Laden has won. This won’t last another decade.

    Also remember that Osama bin Laden said many times that the American people was not his enemy. In a BBC interview he said that there is a state within the state in the U.S., which is mostly Jewish and all about Israel, using the U.S. to attack Israel’s enemies. He said that’s what he wanted to target. Thanks to these wars, more people than ever are waking up to the groups behind the president, whether “neoconservatives” or Rahm Emanuel or whatever.

  • 15. CensusLouie  |  May 13th, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    Kind of funny how British imperialism tactics apply to American politics today: the rich elite picking out the most marginalized “tribe” (blue collar hicks) and setting them against the other non-rich.

  • 16. Mick  |  May 17th, 2011 at 4:22 am

    Some good points here – particularly the strategy of SAS in the north vis-a-vis loyalists and the discipline of the IRA. It’s very true that republicanism is an ideology as much as it is an army and it is not about revenge – or self indulgance. It is about furthering the struggle and an internalized discipline lies at the core of this. However, the notion that Al Qaeda is ailing or that its “whole design violates every rule of guerrilla organization” is completely wrong. (Look forward to your next ‘apology’ article on this in a few years) It seems clear when you look at any movement over a sustained period of time that it ebbs and flows. Guerrilla warfare is about figuring out what works and do it, then melt away (for whatever period of time) and then do something else. The war of the flea is about resiliency and adaptability – and if you look at Al Qaeda on the ground in Afghanistan, Iran or Pakistan they have done just that. (By the way, don’t conflate Al Qaeda with the Afghan Taliban – two different projects there). The critical thing here Al Qaeda shares with the momvent, it’s as much an ideology as it is an army…

  • 17. Simon  |  May 29th, 2011 at 1:47 am

    I don’t think the Shankill Butchers needed any training from the SAS. But your analysis re the Baltic Exchange bombing is correct, PM John Major did capitulate to the IRA after that.

    The IRA are very clever. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Protestants let McGuinness (SF/IRA)have the Education Department, thinking he could do no harm. But he scrapped the 11+ exam, which was the means by which intelligent working class Protestant kids could get a good education – potentially a brilliant intellectual decapitation strategy against the Loyalists. Working class Catholics get their education in church schools, so are unaffected.

  • 18. op banner vet  |  May 31st, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    The ira had a strategy called “The bullet and the ballott box” this was a common motif in the republican murals in Belfast in the late 80’s and early 90’s.The pira members worked on a 3 tier level,the top tier would carry out the bombings and movement of assets,ie;weapons/ammunition/explosive material.The top tier of the pira asu’s(active service units)were incredibly small in number and were stretched to breaking point,due to 98% of them being known to the security forces.This made movement for them ,extremely difficult.They also adopted the stance of an ied campaign,rather than the 1970’s and early 80’s “cowboy drive by’s”,due to too many of their number coming off worse,when they took on the security forces face to face.The ied campaign was seen as the safer option to retain their experienced players.The amount of proficient bomb makers was also minimal,and a large percentage of their ied’s were strung together in a very cack handed way,one example being firing packs that were not coherantly connected to the main explosive.To suggest however,that they were waging a “nerf war” is naive to say the least,and i would suggest that you research your findings more thoroughly.With regard to the unviable mortars at heathrow,this wasnt an intentional move on piras behalf,it was an embarrasment to them as it highlighted the inexperience of their capability to manufacture viable arms.

  • 19. rakig  |  June 30th, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    While AQ’s method is costing the US a lot and has everyone scared the US will bankrupt themselves, they’re missing a key point which I think you were trying to get at.

    The IRA managed to cause a massive financial toll on the economy of Britain, effecting the pocket book of both the rich and the poor, without demonizing themselves and thus becoming the de-facto target/solution. The British people could either aggressively approach the issue, or diplomatically, and at that point the publicly desired solution was to avoid further financial tolls, so the cheaper diplomatic method was preferable. The IRA managed to use the financial loss without the shock and kickback of killing innocents to accomplish their goals and lived to move beyond the fighting.

    AQ has managed to cost the US a staggering amount of money, but at the expense of making themselves the target of that expense. That massive amount of money is being spent on eliminating them and reducing their ability to act.

    The problem is if AQ fails to collapse the US economy due to debt, they’re left with nothing. They’ve destroyed their methods and abilities to further attack the US, as well as the fact they need to continue to exist to accomplish their goals. They’re playing the short game assuming a financial collapse of the west will ensure their freedom to spread and control the east, except the west is capable of destroying itself economically (financial crash anyone) and still devote itself to destroying them.

  • 20. Bob  |  July 7th, 2011 at 8:40 am

    The IRA lost the intelligence war. The brits knew when and where they were going to act, lied in wait and killed them. They then slapped D-notices on the reports of the killed IRA so there were no martyrs (Israels big mistake is not to hide what they’re up to).

    The IRA had few skilled operators left, couldn’t move without being intercepted and were then offered the peace talks.

  • 21. Thomas Womack  |  July 7th, 2011 at 8:43 am

    It’s a great article, but I really don’t think you’ve got the causality right for Lloyds of London.

    Lloyds of London fell because they had been writing all-other-risks insurance for most companies that used asbestos, during the entire period between the advent of asbestos as a wonder material and the discovery that it was bad for people, and had a structure such that liability never got dissipated.

    Losing a building from time to time is the kind of risk that insurance is made for; having to pay for the treatment of a hundred thousand unexpected cancers is what bankrupts insurance companies.

  • 22. Bryan  |  July 7th, 2011 at 9:03 am

  • 23. Jon  |  July 7th, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    You mean you shouldn’t line up all your men and march them in straight lines towards an enemy that keeps hiding in the bushes taking pot shots and retreating all the time? We should know this by now!

  • 24. bg12  |  July 7th, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    The least trustworthy are those who stick to their original opinion simply to save face (i.e. virtually every politician). The fact that you reevaluated your own notions and wrote a piece, admitting previous wrongs, brings your a whole lot of credibility in my eyes. I really enjoyed this piece, and your humility. Thanks

  • 25. K.  |  July 7th, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    I’m sorry, but: the IRA has survived but failed, at least when it comes to independence for Northern Ireland. Al Qaeda has died but succeeded in destroying what was left of western democratic ideals: we now routinely incarcerate people without justice, use torture, and assassinate our political opponents. Formerly free countries are becoming police states, with unreasonable searches and surveillance.
    Al Qaeda won because we let them win, and because the “hawks” have apparently only been waiting for an excuse to flush Thomas Jefferson down the toilet.

  • 26. ingamar johannsen  |  July 8th, 2011 at 2:45 am

    Not that anyone would know from press reports and government briefings, Al Qaeda never was that much. They pulled off 911 when no one was looking and that’s about the sum total of activity on the main stage. Flew a couple of hijacked planes into the WTC, only to watch the collapse in an oh-shit moment that bought more than bargained with celebrations short lived.

    But Al Qaeda needed to be bigger than a half dozen guys trained in American flight simulators and another handful of mouth breathers with box cutters taking their one big shot for the cause, whatever that was. The U.S. attacked Iraq where Al Qaeda wasn’t. Go figure. Even Afganistan wasn’t that big of deal until the Taliban popped tall on Al Qaeda’s “guest” status as though the rules of diplomatic immunity applied.

    Then there was the manifestation of Al Qaeda in Iraq and all of a sudden Al Qaeda is this broad over reaching global entity that hates Freedumb as Freedumb Inc pours a trillion big ones in security’s provision of Iraqs oil field contracts and pipe line maintenance. After all, salt water injection as practiced by the Chinese is a filthy business and ‘Sodom’ the Bushism Hussein had been caught striking China deals having been backed in a financial corner by the U.S. over war costs with Iran after the Shaw was booted for being a puppet of the U.S.

    That’s the problem with these third world dictators; not staying bought at the first sign of abuse. So what if those slant drilling Kuwaitis were dumping cheap barrels of Iraqi crude on the market thus keeping the price depressed. Now if Sodom had signed the pipeline deal like he was supposed to, then he could have delivered more Iraqi crude to market and made more money at the lower price but no. he didn’t do that which in the oil bidness leads directly to regime change given a nominal Texas President beholden to his benefactors just like his daddy was.

    Not that the general public would have noticed at the pump among battle cries for revenge having been sneak attacked by Al Qaeda. Remember them?

    Such is the clarity of vision looking back but it certainly wasn’t at the time even among skeptics. So kicking Al Qaeda (and the Taliban for that matter) took eight years longer that needed but therein found opportunity for allot of money to change hands and we can chalk it all up to a naive administration duped by Hussein into believing he really had weapons of mass destruction instead of media manipulation based on a bald faced lie that further blurred the lines of Americas self terrorizing war on terror in the name of homeland security. Big money changing hands there too as the U.S. applies the vice grips of social controls thus limiting freedumb in exchange for an illusion of security as bankrolled by a captive population hopefully held into perpetuity in a ‘code green’ state of fear. Al Qaeda is out there and their coming, theological thrill killers of biblical proportions crazed by hate of Freedumb, they will dine on the flesh of your children unless you capitulate, sacrifice, shut up and pay. Freedumb isn’t free dumb ass!

    So now the question becomes whether or not the War Nerd was wrong in his estimation and that depends on how we score this match. Certainly the IRA versus the U.K. cannot be compared to Al Qaeda versus the U.S. let alone the PLO and Israel etc. Furthermore Al Qaeda’s reach has been ascribed in relation to rebel Chechen elements vis-a-vis Russia and so on ad infinitum. How much of this is true continues as difficult to discern. If taken at face value, Al Qaeda has suffered a setback from which they will re-coalesce and recover from their fragmentation as soon as the U.S. moves on; Al Qaeda having greater long term reach in the regions than the U.S. does and can simply wait it out as indigenous fundamentalist Islamics. Russia faces similar if not the same problems. How then does the IRA compare? Simply having been more judicious with resource application so as not to be stamped out in fits of revenge? Has this happen to Al Qaeda? Certainly the death of Bin Laden in a Pakistan sanctuary doesn’t equate to that.

    On the other hand, is not Al Qaeda more important as a propaganda tool and thereby propped up as more than it is or ever was? When could the IRA ever claim to be that useful? Chief antagonist and primary distraction given territorial disputes in commercial applications of global hegemony? The IRA? No. Just no. AL Qaeda isn’t some entity with a closely defined cause, its mere name exudes near open ended justification for damn near anything and found manifest as some stamp of trademarked approval for the generic goods of terrorism both real and promulgated. Meanwhile the War Nerd doubts his assessment that Al Qaeda is the real deal while the IRA play footsie in comparison, then recants as being misled with born again belief the IRA in fact has been the more judicious of the two. Be that as it may, the opportunities presented by Al Qaeda have not been squandered. Far from it, and therein more a matter of who gets the credit.

  • 27. Demut  |  July 8th, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Another step closer to a less unbiased view on reality. An additional claim you might want to question is Osama bin Laden’s death. The majority of the evidence suggests that he already died in late 2001 rather than 2011. Have fun researching this.

  • 28. Bill  |  July 9th, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    AQ is not fighting a Guerrilla War as it is conventionally understood. Guerrilla warfare is a tactic that generally involves and alternative government and relies on popular support. AQ doesnt really qualify on either front. AQ has sympathy for humbling a nation (the US) whose policies anger a large portion of the Islamic population. But that us quite separate from support. The IRA has a clear nationalistic goal, AQ has a near impossible goal of creating an Islamic state that most muslims dont want. In some ways AQ and its supporters are as at war or more at war with muslim nations as the United States.

    Additionally, if you had the understanding of AQ you articulated in the early part of the article you were not reading valid sources. There were plenty of people talking about how AQ was going to transition from the centralized financing and control to more inspirational leadership with decentralized cells as early as 2003. Try “Leaderless Jihad” by Marc Sageman to name one.

  • 29. Ian  |  July 11th, 2011 at 11:39 am

    A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. The objective of Al-Qaeda was not to bring the US to the negotiating table, but to provoke the US to declare what could be termed a war on the Muslim faith and so polarize further the two disparate cultures and fracture any existing peace structures, whether formal or not.
    And Al-Qaeda has achieved these goals with a degree of success that must have been far beyond Osama’s wildest wet-dream.

  • 30. Tom  |  July 13th, 2011 at 1:05 am

    Hi WN,

    Just was hoping for a clarification.

    in your article you refer to the Al-Quaida Hoax, and I was wondering what you mean with the H-word?

    BTW- I am completely open to the hoax hypothesis. I think it’s a fact that Al-Quaida is a somewhat diffuse, numerically small group that is more useful to western ideologues and security services than it is to any supposed islamist movement.

  • 31. Dave du V  |  July 14th, 2011 at 10:56 am

    What an idiotic and offensive piece.
    I am sure that the ordinary citizens of Ulster, from both sides of the sectarian divide, who suffered decades of violence, brutality and murder at the hands of IRA thugs will be intrigued to learn that all of these horrors were actually perpetrated exclusively by loyalists, while republicans focussed solely on bloodless economic warfare on the mainland. And of course the IRA only “won” in the narrow sense that realpolitik intervened and the terrorists McGuiness and Adams (no need for quotes round that word btw) entered the mainstream, although this had much more to do with the people of NI turning their backs on the gangsters and wanting to live ordinary and secure lives.

  • 32. Charlie Prime  |  July 15th, 2011 at 4:12 am

    Apparently you are unaware that Al Qaeda was designed and is run by the Anglo American intelligence agencies.

    Seriously, study some history on how giant corporations such as the British East India Company, Archer Daniels Midland, Chevron/BP, et al. use insurgency to maintain political control natural resources.

  • 33. hubris  |  July 15th, 2011 at 6:57 am

    “Apparently you are unaware that Al Qaeda was designed and is run by the Anglo American intelligence agencies.”

    Yep – also read “The Dirty War” by Martin Dillon – It’s all about such things as infiltration and false flag events in Northern & Southern Ireland

  • 34. Chris  |  July 15th, 2011 at 8:13 am

    One thing I’d like to add — which doesn’t detract from your point at all — is that Al qaeda exploited the traditional Western response to “nerf” warfare on 9/11. The flight crews and passengers were still following the old protocol of assuming that the hijackers wanted only to go to Havana and read a manifesto. The terrorists understood the concept yet rejected it.

  • 35. Todd Marshall  |  July 15th, 2011 at 8:25 am

    Pretty amazing how clueless the commenters are. AQ is known to be a CIA creation perpetuated by the MSM. And knowledge of this only shows up after about 2 months of comments, and so far, only two commenters get it. Just amazing!

  • 36. who+dares+wings  |  July 15th, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    “The UK realized, when the Troubles started (1969) that if they held on long enough the coming European Union (then the Common Market) would obviate the position of the IRA, effectively buring Ireland in the superstate of the EU”

    True about the effect, but that was not The UK’s strategy.

    Most of the time most of the MPs and cabinet ministers and PMs in Westminster tried to get rid of NI. They couldn’t because the majority of NI-ers wanted no part of the ROI.

    “The Troubles” was just that — not a geopolitical event/movement — just trouble, on a large scale. But more depressing than dangerous. Throughout the troubles, Belfast or Derry were safer than Detroit or much of New York.

    If it wasn’t for foreigners (Americans, Australians, Czechs, Arabs, Soviets) supplying weapons it would have been a police action completely.”

    The War Nerd seems to ignore or be unaware of the fact that throughout the troubles the largest regiment in the British Army was Irish.

    The IRA were absolutely beaten, except for the fact that most of their killers and bombers are out of jail, were they belong, and are instead sucking on Her Majesty’s tit.

  • 37. Jake in Jerusalem  |  July 16th, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    The article is dead wrong, and many of the commenters apparently are poorly informed, as well. I have long said that there is no such thing as al Qaeda. It is really an idea – that the whole world is Islam and that Islam must rule everything. AQ has no HQ, no offices, no structure – its just an idea. Therefore, so long as intolerant Islam exists, the ideas and ideals of Osama bin Laden will continue to exist as well, no matter how deep is his grave. What happened in recent decades is simply that some Islamic Fundamentalists have become rich enough and powerful enough that they think that now is the right time to declare Islam’s supremacy over everyone else. If they can’t do it now, they will patiently keep to that idea, even if it takes thousands of years to make their dreams come true. There is no comparison to the IRA. That so many people STILL have no idea of who/what they are fighting and what threatens their very existence is truly frightening.

  • 38. Peter Gerdes  |  July 17th, 2011 at 2:32 am

    You don’t take into consideration the different motives and goals of the organizations.

    Al Qaeda’s strategy was trivially the best strategy to accomplish their desired goal: humiliate the US while gaining glory for themselves amoung those sympathetic to islamic extremism. Al Qaeda is the serial killer/university gunman of terrorist organizations. They don’t even bother making their demands and goals coherent or plausible because they aren’t the point, the sense of power and purpose the struggle gives them are the point. Bin Laden didn’t release those tapes to communicate or achieve a political end it was all about saying “Na Na you can’t catch me.”

    Al Qaeda is the muslim equivalent of a street gang: a way for people who feel like outsiders in the globalized western world to feel strong and manly. They also are comprised manly of people without strong family ties who would rather dream about dying gloriously than about making a better life here for themselves and they seem to be accomplishing that quite well.

  • 39. Ulsterman  |  July 17th, 2011 at 4:40 am

    What a disgustingly ignorant piece of journalism. I hope people reading these comments will go away and do their own research and realise the filth that you’ve written is badly researched and is typical of the misguided nonsense that lives in so many Americans heads. NORAID anyone?!?

    Casually linking the SAS with the Shankill Butchers is just offensive. I’m not denying possible collusion between Loyalists and the British government, but the Shankill Butchers were in a league of their own. And there were tit-for-tat killings throughout the Troubles, from both sides; don’t think for a second that the PIRA were some angelic organisation with strict moral values.

    Quote, “especially the huge truck bombs that won the war for them”. Won the war? Can we have a citation please for this rather bold statement?

    Shame on Bruce Schneier for linking it from his blog.

  • 40. Nick  |  July 20th, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    The IRA blew up my families business, I can still remember hearing the explosion from my classroom across the town.

    Just to chime in – the IRA didn’t really win the war if you count winning as attaining their goal of an united Ireland. How exactly would they do this anyway? Would me and all the other Prods be rounded up and shipped over to England? Oh god dare I dream of an escape from this desolate rainy shithole?

    No, seriously, I don’t know how they would accomplish this, we would have to have another civil war. Relive the Battle of the Boyne (1690), and you know, every stupid fucker in this place wants to do that…

    Btw, there was an ‘intermission’ after the Good Friday Agreement, but in the past 2 years we’ve started to slip backwards. The IRA are becoming more active, police officers have been murdered, Martin McGuiness himself was afraid of being bumped off by the ‘Ra as we call them (IRA).

    It’s obviously got more to do with the economic downturn than anything else. It’s no coincidence that during the years things settled down we were in a boom. I can see things getting a lot worse in years to come. Understand, those Prod ‘Wackos’ as you rightly call them haven’t lost their vitriol and ignorance. There was some coming together of the communities, but not enough, the proles still work and go to school separately 90% of the time. If anyone wanted to make lasting change, they would have had to knock down the shitty housing estates (tribal areas) and house the working class prods and taigs in rows of new houses, taigs on odd numbers and prods on even? They would have needed a hell of a lot of money for that. And new schools, or forcing the old schools to divide their kids equally along religious lines. This would have meant Pastor Fundie Fuckhead would lose his power and position. They wouldn’t have been happy.

    But who the fuck wants to pay for all that? And cops to patrol the newly mixed streets and stop anyone from putting up flags or painting sectarian murals. Answer? Nobody. The middle classes don’t live in sink estates, thus they couldn’t give the first fuck if you’re a taig or a prod, as long as you cut your lawn and leave them to their wine and golf in peace. It’s only the poor that take up the tribal ways, because they’ve got fuck all else and noone gives a crap about them.

    You know what the Loyalists have become now? An embarrassing sub mafioso, Tony Soprano with none of the style and 100 less IQ points. Selling fireworks and bootleg cigs and booze to teenagers. Bad drugs, beer guts and empty posturing. Their young run around shitfaced on buckfast wine, threatening to ‘do yer windys in!’ (windows). Pretending they’re ‘connected’ and can ‘git yew fuckin kneecapped if ye keep fuckin slabberin’. Little Orange Billy’s finding it tough in this sparse service economy. He’ll settle for alcoholism and beating his girlfriend for the moment. But give him time, jobs aren’t coming, the dole is getting slashed, prices are going up. His tiny ego need to prove to everyone that he’s some sort of a man.

    And all the while, lonely and frustrated middle class guys like me will be skulking around the sidelines. Trying to devise ways to not kill ourselves, staring at the internet, at images of worlds abroad we will never be part of. Friends we will never have, conversations about books and politics and thought and the world. Nights in social situations were noone is pushing themselves to drink until they puke so they can have room to drink some more…

    Oh, I give up. For the love of fuck, just nuke us, prove your humanitarian credentials oh merciful world. We have no resources, no unique industries or skills, no culture aside from alcoholism. Man was not meant to live here, sure it’s possible, but you can never get beyond a slight dissipation in nihilistic violence and endless fucking rain.

  • 41. Belfast Bob  |  July 22nd, 2011 at 6:06 am

    I followed the link from Schneier and was amazed to read this piece of total garbage. I grew up in Ulster at the height of the troubles and live in Belfast. Anybody who thinks this idiotic essay gives insight into anything here needs their head examining.

  • 42. Thomas Clarke  |  April 10th, 2012 at 7:55 am

    Tiocfaidh ár lá!

    Our day will come!

    Ireland will be united via peaceful means.

    Most people want it on the island.

    It is a matter of when not if.

    Get behind a united Ireland via peaceful means.


  • 43. Destro  |  June 22nd, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    The point of the article’s observation is that the IRA was able to live long enough to bring the much larger UK govt to a negotiation. They were smart enough to survive long term and smart enough to accept a negotiated settlement.

  • 44. MacTv Pro Download. MacTv Pro Review  |  September 3rd, 2012 at 5:49 am

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  • 45. freedom fighter  |  October 31st, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    tiocfaidh ar la its not over yet

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  • 47. Ian Frazier  |  August 31st, 2014 at 4:03 am

    Really enjoyed the article.Some reckon Northern Ireland will be reunited with the south in the next 25 years especially with Sinn Féinns increasing popularity.

  • 48. John  |  April 10th, 2015 at 12:59 am

    Yeah… I’m sure you’ve been reading up on the ‘Troubles’, but you might want to read a wider range of material. There are a LOT of inaccuracies in this which probably come more from pro-IRA propaganda than researched history.

    The IRA fought a smart war against the Brits, but this paints an inaccurately black-and-white picture of a morally upstanding IRA refusing to kill civilians and generally avoiding body-bags, compared to the blood-thirsty targeting of civilians by killers supported by the British military.

    There is no black-and-white from that conflict. Being generous, you probably just read some deeply unbalanced material and have no real idea of what you are talking about. A less generous interpretation is that you are deliberately peddling a misleading and inaccurate version of history.

  • 49. Rus  |  April 13th, 2015 at 6:39 am

    What? the IRA didn’t do revenge attacks? or kill civilians? If you are starting from that base everything you say is invalid.

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