Thinking Like A Terrorist

30 October 2006

Thinking Like A Terrorist

By Gwynne Dyer

What are they thinking, those terrorists who hate America’s values, as the United States prepares to vote in the mid-term Congressional elections? Do they think that a terrorist bomb somewhere in the United States in the next few days would drive Americans back into President Bush’s arms, or discredit his strategies further? And which result would they prefer: do they want the Republicans to lose control of Congress or not?

To discuss these questions sensibly, you must first accept that terrorists are not just hate-filled crazies. They are people with political goals and rational (though vicious) strategies for achieving them. Military officers and intelligence experts know this — they even study the strategy and tactics of terrorism in the staff colleges — but it is not often recognised in the public debate. So lay your prejudices aside for a moment, and try to think like a terrorist.

Happily, a document has come into my hands that will help us to figure out their strategy. True, it reads like a script written for an amateur dramatic society, but it comes from one of the Western intelligence agencies that certified the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so there can be little doubt about its authenticity. I have taken the liberty of translating it into English.

A heavily guarded compound in Waziristan. Three bearded men in robes enter the courtyard.

Osama bin Laden (for it is he): So do we blow something up in America before the election this time, or not? We skipped 2002 and 2004. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to do something this time.

First Henchman: Well, I don’t know, boss. Not blowing more stuff up in America has worked for us so far. Bush got the credit for keeping the terrorists away, and that gave him the freedom to invade Iraq, and so the Americans never put enough troops into Afghanistan, and now they’re losing both wars. I say leave him alone. It’s coming along just fine.

Second Henchman: Besides, we don’t really have….

OBL (interrupting): I bought that argument in 2002, and I bought it again in 2004, but now it’s different. Bush will be in power until 2008 no matter how Americans vote, so the US soldiers will still be pinned down in Iraq until then anyway. He’s not going to pull them out. And he’s not going to send a lot more troops to Afghanistan, either, no matter who controls Congress, so our Taliban friends will be all right. We have nothing to lose. Let’s blow something up. It will humiliate the Americans and make us look good.

Second Henchman: That’s all very well, but…

First Henchman (interrupting): You know, I think the boss is right. It can’t hurt now. Activate the sleeper cells in America, and have them blow up a few car bombs.

Second Henchman: Will you stop talking and listen for a minute! We don’t have any sleeper cells in America. We never did. We had to bring the 9/11 guys in from abroad, and they’re all dead. This whole discussion is pointless, and furthermore… [At this point the transcript ends]

On second thought, I do wonder if this document is entirely genuine. There’s something about the style that doesn’t sound quite right. But the logic is exactly right: this is how terrorists think.

The 9/11 attacks on the United States were meant to provoke an American military response. The point was to lure Washington into invading Afghanistan (where Bin Laden’s bases were), so that they would become trapped in another long guerilla war like the one he and his colleagues had waged (with US support) against the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The images from such a war, of high-tech American forces smashing Afghan villages and families, would reverberate across the Muslim world and radicalise so many people that the Islamist revolutions Bin Laden dreamed of would at last become possible.

George W. Bush dodged that bullet by overthrowing the Taliban regime without causing vast destruction in Afghanistan (it was done almost entirely by American special forces and their local allies), so there was no guerilla war there at first. Bin Laden’s gamble had failed. But then Bush invaded Iraq, providing Arab extremists with the guerilla war they wanted and images of horror in profusion. He even abandoned most of the effort to rebuild Afghanistan in order to concentrate on Iraq, so the Taliban got the chance to recover there too.

That’s were we are now, and Osama Bin Laden really has not the least incentive to try to discredit President Bush with the American electorate by carrying out further terrorist attacks. The project is on track, and the Americans will be largely gone from the Middle East in a few years anyway.

And besides, there are no sleeper cells in America. There never were.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2. (“To discuss…terrorist”)NOTE TO TRANSLATORS: At the end of para. 3, “…translating it into [French, Russian, etc.]”