The Poster and the Map: Bin Laden vs. Congress

A terrorist group needs recruits. A terrorist movement needs recruits. If your strategy of terror involves the extensive use of suicide missions, you need very dedicated recruits.

To get such recruits, you need the following: (1) a cause that is greater than any individual; (2) a sense of destiny associated with your cause; (3) the perception that a sacrificial act on behalf of your cause is never wasted or futile; (4) a vision of victory; (5) publicly visible events that demonstrate the power of your movement.

From what little I have read about Osama bin Laden, his movement possesses all five factors. He is especially skilled with respect to point five. He understands symbolism, and he understands Western media. This man is a formidable enemy of Western civilization.

I believe that Americans have completely misunderstood the events of 9-11. The attack was not a direct assault on the United States primarily for the sake of making us fearful. It was part of a recruiting campaign. The response of the street people in Palestine was what he had in mind. He gave alienated Palestinians an event to celebrate.

It also gave the Establishment Palestinians a chance to speak out against terrorism. That, too, was part of bin Laden’s positioning. He is not Establishment. An extremist, especially a terrorist, must position himself as a member of the non-loyal opposition. Nothing I can imagine could have accomplished this better than the events of 9-11.

The Poster

If you want to understand what happened on 9-11, visualize a poster with bin Laden in a turban and flowing robes, pointing a his index finger at you, with a slogan underneath: Uncle Osama Wants You. That poster is aimed at the alienated folks back home. For Americans, the slogan is different: Uncle Osama Wants You Dead.

I have studied the history of terrorism, on and off, since 1963, when I took an undergraduate course in modern Russian history. In that class, we studied the terrorist groups the preceded the Bolsheviks by three decades.

What caught my attention then, and what has been reinforced by follow-up studies on terrorism that I have read, is the motivation of these groups. You might think that their goal is to bring down a government directly through acts of sporadic violence. On the contrary, their goal is to make the government do tyrannical things, thereby losing legitimacy and causing an uprising. Theirs is an indirect procedure.

The Russian terrorists who in 1881 killed liberal Czar Alexander II (who liberated the serfs) with a tossed bomb got what they wanted: the oppression of Alexander III. He suppressed terrorist groups with a vengeance. Six years later, there was an attempt on his life. The government hanged the six conspirators. One of them was Lenin’s older brother. This radicalized Lenin. This led to the overthrow of Czarist Russia thirty years later. The tactic worked. It just took time. People who have given up hope for victory in their lifetime have plenty of time.

The terrorist also wants to create uncertainty in the mind of the public. Widespread confusion over citizens’ safety on the streets, the terrorist believes, undermines a government’s legitimacy. If the public perceives that the government cannot protect its citizens, the government faces a loss of confidence. This weakens the government, making a revolution more likely.

Acts of terrorism are part of a larger strategy. A government cannot stop all individual acts of terrorism. A government’s task is to thwart the larger strategy. It can do this two ways: provide widespread justice, thereby strengthening the resiliency and legitimacy of the society, or else adopt ruthless counter-terrorism. Anything in between will fail, once a society becomes a target of terrorists. Think of Nicholas II. Think of Louis XVI.

The acts of 9-11 were symbolic attacks on American finance capital (the towers) and American military might (the Pentagon). The terrorists knew better than to imagine that a nation can be undermined by terror alone, especially terror that hits only sporadically. They were making a statement: America’s government cannot protect its people or itself from men who are willing to die. This statement was primarily for the folks back home, not for us. The message is this: if you are willing to die, you can help undermine the Great Satan’s seeming indestructibility. I am convinced that this attack was part of a recruiting program.

The conspiracy attracted skilled men who became pilots of jet planes. These men were not buffoons. They will find imitators. That’s the problem we now face. Imitators.

Symbols make a difference. On April 18, 1942, Jimmy Doolittle led his force of B-25’s off the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet to launch a surprise attack on Tokyo. They knew that there was no possibility that the Japanese would be set back militarily. The raid was a statement: “You are not invulnerable.” This attack was an assault on their honor and self-esteem. It led to Japan’s retaliatory attack on Midway on June 4-6, in which they lost all four aircraft carriers, while we lost one of our three: the greatest naval victory in American history. Meanwhile, the two-carrier feint at the Aleutians led to the 180-degree nosedive of a Zero. The plane was intact, and American engineers were able to discover the plane’s strength and weaknesses. All in all, Doolittle’s raid turned out to be a master stroke. But it had nothing to do with physical damage inflicted on the Japanese war machine. It was a statement, not a strategy. It said, “we can reach you.”

This was the statement made on 9-11. More important, it was this: “We can reach them.” It was for the folks back home. We are responding just as the Japanese did: emotionally. We are not thinking through what we want done. We are ignoring Al Pacino’s line in Godfather III: “Don’t get angry. It distorts your judgment.”

No group took credit for the attack. These are not tactical terrorists who are using terror to make a name for themselves or their cause. These are strategic terrorists who understand that if they cannot be positively identified, and if they are operate in a sanctuary, they can do it again. They are recruiting now-optimistic fanatics who will help them do it again. They don’t need millions of followers. A hundred would do it if they play the anthrax card. They need new volunteers whose identities are not in the authorities’ computer files.

This is why, long-term, 9-11 was brilliantly conceived and executed. The American public doesn’t get it yet. The Palestinian man in the street does.

No matter which group launches the next attack, if it does so anonymously, bin Laden will get the credit. His legend will grow. This is a rich, cunning, dangerous, and evil man. Congressional rhetoric will not deter him.

The Map

To win a war, you had better begin with a map. Here is the CIA’s official map of Afghanistan:

Afghanistan shares borders with the following nations (clockwise): Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan. This is now our “stan” problem. The only non-Muslim nation’s border is China, and it is a corridor about 20 miles wide and maybe 100 miles long over the Himalayas, at the extreme western edge of China. Forget about it.

To fly a bomber over Afghanistan legally, according to international law, the United States will have to obtain permission from a Muslim nation. What are the odds of gaining such permission? From what base will we safely launch our planes? What Muslim government will allow a non-Muslim nation to use its soil in order to launch an attack on a Muslim nation? This would be suicidal, and not just politically. They take their religion seriously over there.

My prediction: there will be no air strikes. Even if there are, with what effect? The country is mountainous. Bin Laden and his men are mobile. The country is the size of Texas.

To fly a bomber that is carrying anything but several nuclear bombs is militarily useless. But a hydrogen bomb is just about useless in a terrain like Afghanistan’s. There are caves everywhere. The Hiroshima bomb did not kill anyone in one of the underground walk-in shelters, if the person had rounded one corner.

To drop nuclear weapons on a Muslim nation after ignoring the no-fly zone of a Muslim nation would make this nation a target for terrorism on a scale beyond our wildest imagination. There would be waves of suicide squads, and not just bin Laden’s. Nuking a Muslim nation would turn hundreds of law-abiding American Muslim citizens into fanatics.

Let’s review a little well-known history. In 1989, the Soviet Union retreated from Afghanistan. Within two years, there was no longer any Soviet Union. The shock of that defeat undermined the legitimacy of the Soviet Empire. A decade earlier, their tanks had rolled down the highway from the border into Kabul. They surrounded the city of Kabul with their tanks in one day. What good did this do them? None. It cost them their empire.

Now let’s review a little unknown history. Think about maps again. How did the Soviet Union drive 30-ton tanks from the edge of what used to be the USSR into Kabul in just one day? How did tanks get through the mountains? Did they drive down a paved highway? Well, as a matter of fact, they did. It had been built 13 years earlier by 8,000 Afghans under the supervision of Russians. Here’s the capper: the project was paid for by the United States. It was a joint construction project. This was reported in the November 3, 1966 issue of the Engineering News-Record, “Rugged Afghan Road Jobs Fill Gaps in Trans-Asia Network.” (I may be one of only two people in the world who clipped that article for his files in 1966. The other was the person who sent me the photocopy.)

So, while 55,000 American troops were dying in Vietnam, battling a tiny nation funded by the USSR, President Johnson was building the road that the Soviets used in 1979 to invade Afghanistan. There should have been a sign at the side of the road: “Americans’ tax dollars at work.”

As it turned out, that was the best money this country spent on the Cold War. It was like a giant neon sign that read, “Come and get it!” The Soviets came, and they got it. Now it’s our turn.

I don’t believe that more than a dozen Congressmen and Senators sat down with a map of Afghanistan before delivering the floor speech for the folks back home. A wise man would have structured his rhetoric by thinking carefully about this map. But wisdom was in short supply on September 14.

Rhetoric vs. Reality

bin Laden got exactly what every strategic terrorist wants. He got the enemy government to escalate a war which the terrorists inherently control, for they pick the battlefields, the weapons, and the escape routes. The terrorists establish the terms of engagement. The initiative lies with the terrorists. The government reacts.

We will be victorious, Congressmen assured us, one by one, on C-Span, in their speeches on September 14. Well, politicians also tell us there will be meaningful tax reform. There hasn’t been for twenty years. They tell us Social Security is solvent. It isn’t. They tell us there are trust funds with money in them. There aren’t. Now they tell us that bin Laden is as good as dead. He isn’t.

I have never heard such rhetoric as I heard on C-Span regarding the President’s authorization to use all resources to strike against terrorism. In one-minute segments, Congressmen and Congresswomen kept saying that we will impose our power to show the terrorists that we are strong. The problem is, if we don’t get them, this will expose us as weak. Bluster is a liability. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” is more than a slogan; it is a strategy for keeping enemies off balance. Now we have thrown down the verbal gauntlet. We have said that we will get them. If we fail, it will make the terrorists even bolder.

With respect to bin Laden, our leaders speak loudly and carry a weak reed. Loud talk will not do us any good. “We are coming after you, and the fury of hell is coming with us,” one Georgia Congressmen said on the floor of the House on September 14. He pretended to direct his remarks to bin Laden. In fact, they were for his constituents. It would be best to link our cause to a likely outcome. It would also be wise not to link our fury with hell’s. To invoke hell as your model when you are challenging a Muslim terrorist group is not the best way to get your message across to a Muslim nation that your military strategy requires to provide a base of operations.

Rep. Brad Sherman issued a challenge during September 14’s hours of one-minute speeches supporting the President’s legislation. He said that we must not allow European banks’ secrecy laws to thwart our identification of those who financed the attack. He also announced that we should declare war on Afghanistan if the Taliban refuses to turn over bin Laden to us.

The Democrats couldn’t get on board the war on terrorism fast enough. President Bush on Thursday was ready to ask Congress for $20 billion to fight terrorism, which also included money for unnamed victims of the bombing. Then he met with unnamed New York politicians . . . sorry, “lawmakers.” New York lawmakers are not generally Republicans. After the meeting, he upped it to $40 billion. This was just the beginning. Senate Majority Leader Daschle said, and I quote, “There is a unanimous understanding that whatever we do this week is a very minimal down payment to what will be required and what we will do in the days and weeks ahead.” Sen. Daschle cut off his sentence too early. He should have added, “and months and years and decades.”

I don’t think our Congressmen understand how weak this nation is militarily in a mountain campaign, or how unbeatable the Afghans are. No invader has ever defeated them. The British lost 16,000 men while trying to escape on the Khyber Pass in 1842. The Soviets lost an empire, and they were on its border. You must fight Afghans in their mountains. Those who try this rarely return, even in body bags.

If you try to fight them on the plains, you face an estimated 10 million land mines that the Soviets left behind.

What good will money do to stem this form of conspiratorial, anonymous warfare? We know where to find the answer. The State of Israel lives with this daily, year after year. Americans seem unaware of the fact that Ariel Sharon doesn’t go on television to demand that the Knesset take immediate action “so that an attack like this will never happen again.” Another one just like it will probably happen before the weekend is over. The war never ends. It just escalates.

Terrorists from the Middle East cannot attack us daily, as they do in the State of Israel. To make terrorism work here, they must go for one-shot, large-effect displays of our vulnerability. Home-brew biological warfare is the weapon of mass destruction of choice for movements that cannot afford nuclear weapons. Congress has not looked carefully at another map — our map.

The question of 9-11 is not this: “What can we do to prevent something like this from ever happening again?” The answer is obvious, and we all know it. “Nothing.” The question is this: “What can we do to prevent a series of biological warfare attacks on the West’s cities, each of which will dwarf the death of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined?”

I suggest letting a Muslim government remove bin Laden without visible arm-twisting from the United States. I also suggest prayer. September 14 was a good start in this area, despite Congressional rhetoric. We must put our faith in God before we put our faith in Congress.


If Bin Laden did it, then he is recruiting. Even if he didn’t do it, he is recruiting. He has taken the initiative. This is a classic terrorist operation. The model goes back at least to the Russian terrorists of the nineteenth century. We have seen it all before, or at least historians have. America is reacting predictably. Except for widespread public prayer, ours has been the classic response to classic terrorism.

It is the response which the terrorists work hard to achieve. The man who understood this best was the non-violent revolutionary, Saul Alinsky. He provided the slogan that encapsulates the revolutionary’s strategy: “The action is in the reaction.”

There are only two ways to fight terrorism with any hope of success: (1) implacable, unrelenting counter-terrorism through endless law-breaking; or (2) unrelenting, implacable justice and the rule of law and liberty. The first approach can bottle up terrorism for a time, but any perceived slackening of the campaign leads to defeat. This nation had better choose the second way.

Just about every national politician has called on God to bless America. If Americans expect His blessing, they had better do it God’s way: by the rule of law (Exodus 12:49). Otherwise, calling on God is a misuse of God’s name. There is a commandment against this.

September 17, 2001

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© 2001