The suicide bombings in Jordan recently carried out by al Qaeda in Iraq seem to have blown back on the jihadis. According to Western press reports, almost all those killed were Moslems, including a Palestinian wedding party. Outrage among Jordanians has compelled al Qaeda to issue a quasi-apology, saying the wedding party was not its target. Had al-Zarqawi been a tad more clever, he might have apologized for the "collateral damage."
A column in the October 12 International Herald Tribune by professor of Islamic Studies Bernard Haykel suggests that a rift is opening up among jihadis over the tactic of suicide bombing. Haykel writes,
In fact, growing splits among jihadis are beginning to undermine the theological and legal justifications for suicide bombing. . . There are strong indications from jihadi Web sites and online journals, confirmed by conversations I have had while doing research among Salafis, or scriptural literalists, that the suicide attacks are turning many Muslims against the jihadis altogether. . .
If we look at this practice from a Fourth Generation picture, what do we see? On the surface, it looks as if Islamic non-state elements are making a major blunder. Fourth Generation war theory, drawing from John Boyd, argues that the moral level of war is the most powerful, the physical level is the weakest and the mental level lies somewhere in between. It would seem obvious that when Islamic elements set off bombs that kill other Islamics, they work against themselves at the moral level. To some degree, this is certainly the case. Bombings such as those in Jordan do turn some Moslems against al Qaeda and other similar groups.
We might try here to reason by analogy. When the United States drops bombs from aircraft or otherwise dumps firepower on Iraqi cities, towns and farms, it alienates the population further. As the FMFM 1-A argues, success for an outside, occupying power requires de-escalation, not escalation of violence.
But here is where the picture grows murky. The fact is, both sides don’t get to operate by the same rules in 4GW. While the very strength of the intervening power means it must be careful how it applies its strength, that is much less true of the weaker forces opposing it. This is an aspect of what Martin van Creveld calls the power of weakness. Viewed from the moral level, a weak force can get away with tactics that damn its vastly stronger enemy. Its weakness itself tends to justify whatever it does.
Suicide bombing is itself a tactic of the weak (which does not mean it is ineffective.). The United States bombs from aircraft, where the pilot operates in complete safety against 4GW opponents, with rare exceptions. At the moral level, that safety works against us, not for us. In contrast, the fact that 4GW fighters often have to give their lives to place their bombs works for them. Their combination of physical weakness and apparent heroism leads civilians from their own culture to excuse them much, including "collateral damage" they would never excuse if the bomb came from an American F-18.
Does this mean that al Qaeda and its many clones can ignore the deaths and injuries they cause among fellow Islamics? No. They have to be careful not to go too far, as al Qaeda clearly did in Jordan. But they can still get away with a great deal we could not get away with. The same rules do not apply to all, and much stricter, more disadvantageous rules apply to us than to them. Is that fair? Of course not. But who ever said there was anything fair about war?