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Global Terrorism in an Age of Uncertainty
Ajai Sahni

Presentation at the Seminar on
War Against Global Terror
April 15, 2009
Centre for Joint Warfare Studies
Dr. D.S. Kothari Auditoriam
New Delhi

Much of the discourse on 'global terrorism' remains trapped in the tyranny of the moment and of expediency. The result is numberless battles that are won, but steady losses in the war. Global terrorism, today, plays out against a backdrop of extreme uncertainty and instability, where long-established equations of power are undergoing tectonic shifts. Within such a context, it is useful to note,

When power systems are far-from-equilibrial, sudden, seemingly bizarre shifts may occur. This is because when a system or subsystem is highly unstable, nonlinear effects multiply. Big power inputs may yield small results. Small events can trigger the downfall of a regime. 1

A hurtling process of transformation, with implications far beyond the apparent reconstruction of the 'world order' after the collapse of Cold War equations, is currently sweeping across the globe. The collapse of the tense equilibrium between the great Western and Soviet powers, and the erosion the prestige of the succeeding 'sole superpower' has suffered, have fuelled ambitions and exacerbated tensions across the world, with even minor players jockeying for a dramatic repositioning in the structure of global power. This occurs within the context of a world situation that "currently has a fluidity that comes, usually, only at the conclusion of a major war."2 This 'fluidity' is compounded by other persistent patterns of destabilization that threaten a global future in strife.

Within this context, there is a tremendous challenge of assessment involved in any examination of the threat - present or future - of terrorism. Academic, operational and policy assessments are often susceptible to the errors of narrow empiricism, focusing too closely on the specificities of current events, trends and locations, only to lose sight of broad, though sometimes subtle, strategic shifts. Such approaches, moreover, tend to be powerless in anticipating the 'bizarre shifts' that seemingly insignificant events and forces can provoke or catalyse within the context of endemic instability.

The asymmetric and unpredictable impact of terrorism is most dramatically manifested in even the most cursory examination of the impact of the events of 9/11 and the chain of actions and reactions they initiated, on the structures of global power. Certainly, over the past more than seven years, America's unquestioned status and primacy as the world's sole superpower has suffered great erosion; America's capacity for global power projection has been successfully challenged by irregular or "Fourth Generation" warfare and terrorism and the brief stability imposed by the purported Pax Americana, in the post Cold War disorders, has been dissipated; the complex dynamic of war and terrorism has had direct impact not only on the US economy, but altered the projections of the major economies - including the emerging 'new global powers', India and China - as well as the distribution of financial resources across the world very significantly and in ways that will have dramatic, though presently unpredictable, consequences in future.

Extreme uncertainty and instability afflicts all aspects of the enveloping geopolitical context of terrorism. The principal elements that compound global instability and the asymmetric impact of terrorism, briefly, include:

  1. The restructuring of the global geopolitical architecture and redistribution of power following the collapse of the Cold War balance of power, great power competition to secure or consolidate influence, and rising ambitions among emerging or smaller powers to capture an extended space within the existing vacuum

  2. The release of a variety of violent nationalist and sub-nationalist movements across Asia and Eastern Europe.

  3. An increasing polarization between 'globalizing powers' and those that are, or perceive themselves as being, marginalized by globalization. These stresses are further aggravated by the inequalities and inequities that characterize contemporary globalisation processes.

  4. The resurgence of radical political ideologies of mass mobilization, including religious - particularly Islamist - extremism, ethnic fundamentalisms and Maoism, across wide regions.

  5. The emergence of 'new ways of warfare' - specifically terrorism and sub-conventional wars - and their adoption by both non-state actors and by a number of state entities to secure political goals.

  6. The proliferation of technological force multipliers and sophisticated weapons and explosives among non-state groups, often through irresponsible, predatory and rogue States.

  7. Widening areas of escalating environmental, economic, resource and social stresses.

  8. Rising challenges to state power, the progressive weakening of Governments and the widening spheres of non-governance and disorder.

  9. Demographic skews within and between regions that threaten to alter existing and tentative balances of power and to challenge the present distribution of resources and populations across the world.

Crucially, it is in Asia and along its European periphery that the most intense contestation between radical ideologies and terrorism, on the one hand, and the increasingly globalising and liberalising order of the democratic world, on the other, is playing out. It is also the theatre of new 'great games' being played out between the world's dominant and emerging powers, to establish or consolidate regions of influence and access to or control of natural resources, in the black holes of power that have proliferated across the continent after the collapse of the old equilibrium.

The two most dramatic and conflicting demographic trends within the region are severe population deficits in the erstwhile power centres of Europe and Russia, on the one hand, and high or even rampaging population growth in areas of West, South and Central Asia. While a complex of demographic factors will contribute to the escalatory dynamic in political tensions, security threats and conflict potential across the Eurasian region, the most significant of these would include:

The Eurasian Periphery: A demographic crisis of sparse and declining populations in Europe and Russia: it is significant that, in 1950, Europe and Russia comprised 22 per cent of the global population; the share is now 13 per cent; by 2020, it will be 11.2 per cent; and by 2050, it will have declined to just 7.5 per cent.3 Further, six of the 10 most populous nations were in the developed world in 1950; by 2020, only the United States and Russia will remain in this top-10 list.4

Dramatic changes in the ratio of populations between Russia and some of its neighbours, particularly China and Pakistan: as of 2005, Pakistan, with an area barely 4.7 per cent of Russia,5 and a population of at least 158 million, had already overtaken Russia, which had a population of under 144 million. By 2020, Russia's population is expected to decline to 133 million, while Pakistan will rise to over 208 million. Well before 2035, Pakistan will have more than twice the people in the Russian Federation. By 2050, Russia's population will have declined to under 108 million; Pakistan would have expanded to 348 million.

Between 1950 and 2000, West Asia saw a near quadrupling of its population, from 51.2 million to 193.4 million. Between 2000 and 2020, it will surge another 44.2 per cent, to 273.5 million. The picture is somewhat more troubling when it is extending to comprehend the wider 'Arab World' including countries in North Africa. UNDP's Arab Human Development Report 2002 put the population of this larger Arab World at about 280 million, and projected a rise (in two variants) to between 410 million (46.42 per cent growth) and 459 million (63.92 per cent growth) by 2020.6

South & Central Asia: The region's population has risen from 515 million in 1950, to 1.52 billion in 2000. The 2010 population is projected at 1.78 billion, rising to 2.03 billion by 2020, and, further, to 2.5 billion in 2050.

Central Asia populations have risen steadily since 1950, from 17.5 million, to more than treble their numbers by 2000, at 55.3 million, and will grow another 25.5 per cent to 69.4 million by 2020.

South Asia: By year 2020, India's population will touch 1.38 billion, adding nearly 333 million to its year 2000 population (an increase of 31.83 per cent). The growth in other countries in the neighbourhood is even more alarming. Afghanistan nearly doubles its population, adding 20.26 million to its 2000 population of 20.74 million (registering a growth of 97.68 per cent); Pakistan would add over 63.96 million to its year 2000 population of 144.360 million (44.3 per cent); Bangaldesh adds 53.9 million to its 2000 population of 139.43 million (38.66 per cent); Nepal would add 11.5 million to its 2000 population of 24.42 million (46.9 per cent). Sri Lanka, however, is the only country in the region where the rate of growth appears manageable, with populations rising by a little over 1.5 million from year 2000 levels at 18.7 million (8.1 per cent). Intra-regional variations in growth may add to the skew, with poorer and ill-governed regions often contributing most to the greatest population growth.

Within the destabilizing dynamic of the preceding geopolitical, historical, technological and demographic factors, terrorism emerges as a weapon of choice for a multiplicity of state and non-state actors seeking to challenge the existing status quo, or to secure a larger space or greater leverage within its structures. The capacities of terrorism and irregular warfare to paralyse even the most powerful states of the world and to bypass their military and technical-technological superiority has now been repeatedly demonstrated, making these methods and tactics increasingly attractive to marginal players in the emerging world order, seeking to confront and undermine more powerful adversaries.

It is the principal contention of this paper, consequently, that terrorism, insurgency and sub-conventional warfare will remain central in shaping the ongoing global powershift over the coming decades, and this is the consequence, variously, of the emerging nature of global instability, the shifting balance of power, technological imperatives and, crucially, demography.

Much of the impetus of extremist Islamism and terrorism continues to emanate from South and West Asia - the former, in terms of the actual source of acts of terrorism and the latter in terms of ideological and financial support, as well as elements of leadership. It is in South Asia, and with the active participation and leadership of elements drawn from West Asia, that the world's first modern and global Islamist terrorist movement was bred and nurtured, and from where it was exported - first into the immediate neighbourhood, and then across the continents, into the heart of 'fortress America' on 9/11, and into nation after nation thereafter. Crucially, the footprint of almost every major act of international Islamist terrorism, for some time before 9/11 and continuously thereafter, invariably passes through Pakistan.7 After 9/11, and the US-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the dynamics of the Islamist terrorist enterprise have undergone dramatic adaptive adjustments and modifications. Essentially, however, this dynamic, its underlying ideologies, and its motivational and institutional structures, remain intact.

It is now widely recognized that militants from Pakistan will be the most likely authors of any future terrorist attacks against US interests. US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen stated, on June 10, 2008, "I believe fundamentally that if the US is going to get hit, it is going to come out of the planning of the leadership in FATA."8 Pakistan remains substantially linked to the threat of Islamist terrorist acts in Europe, South and South East Asia as well.

Whatever the outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is evident that Islamist terrorist violence can be expected to continue, certainly in the medium term, across much of Asia, and in potentially widening areas and at escalating intensities across the world. It is, consequently, important to explore the possible limits of such violence. Osama bin Laden's pursuit of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons has, of course, been well documented.9 A leakage of nuclear technologies from Pakistan to a number of rogue states has already been exposed, as have contacts between leading Pakistani nuclear scientists and the Al Qaeda-Taliban leadership. Given the degree of Islamist radicalization of its polity and armed forces, it is likely that, in the event that nuclear technologies are eventually leaked to non-state (terrorist) actors, such a leakage would occur in Pakistan, or would involve Pakistani institutions, individuals or sources.

Clearly, the 9/11 attacks are not the last catastrophic Islamist terrorist atrocity that the world will witness. Virtually every intelligence and security agency in the countries targeted by the Islamists concedes not only the possibility, but, indeed, the imminence of another such catastrophic attack, potentially involving WMD technologies. In some such countries certain systems for the containment of the impact of such an attack have been put in place. There is, however, at this juncture, a comprehensive vacuum in terms of any strategy of response to such an attack. Worse, the tremendous dispersal and decentralization of Islamist terrorist forces across the world make the design of an effective, targeted, response nigh impossible, exponentially multiplying the uncertainties that would necessarily result from a catastrophic or WMD attack anywhere in the free world.

It is within this context that the concepts of Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) and the evolving nature of what is being conceptualized as Fifth Generation Warfare (5GW) need to be examined.

Crucially, when generational shifts occur in the conduct of warfare, it is necessary to recognize that, "controlling for disparities in size, an Army from a previous generation cannot defeat a force from the new generation."10 This, indeed, is the core lesson of the recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the overwhelming technical, technological and resource superiority of US and coalition Forces in these theatres, victory remains elusive and most analysts would suggest that the US has, in fact, suffered significant reverses.

It is useful to recall, crucially, that 4GW "stands unique thus far as the only type of warfare that has defeated a superpower, and it has done so on two occasions"11 - in Vietnam and in Afghanistan.

4GW uses the asymmetric warfare strategy and tactics, successfully applied within Mao Tse-tung's protracted war model, and systematically elaborated over time, which seek to evade decisive engagements with a more powerful enemy to gradually erode the political will of the enemy, rather than to control or administer territory. The essence of the method is disruptive dominance, the capacity to ensure that the stronger side - ordinarily the state and its agencies, but also an overwhelming force of occupation - is unable to exercise the minimal functions of governance and the protection of life and property over the jurisdictions it controls. The objective of 4GW is not to defeat the enemy militarily, but "to convince the enemy's political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit."12 4GW is, moreover, "characterized by its use of networks, its willingness to accept casualties, and its long length in time."13

The emergence of a Fifth Generation, enormously advancing on elements of the Fourth, has long been presaged. Within months of 9/11 and the initially dramatic successes of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the al Qaeda linked electronic grapevine was already advising the faithful to join in the jihad - not by coming to the traditional theatres of Islam's purported conflict with its enemies, such as Afghanistan, Chechnya, Palestine or Kashmir - but by attacking the symbols and strengths of Western civilization and 'American imperialism' 'wherever they were'. These exhortations were not a random tactical adaptation to the loss of bases and central command structures in Afghanistan, but a well conceived strategic advance, and this became clear in a succession of writings by known al Qaeda ideologues and strategists. Thus, as far back as in January 2002, Ubed al-Qurashi asserted, "The fourth generation of wars [has] already taken place and revealed the superiority of the theoretically weak side. In many instances, these wars have resulted in the defeat of ethnic states [duwal qawmiyah] at the hands of ethnic groups with no states." The most coherent strategic tract on the subject, however, was a 1,600 page document authored by Mustafa Sethmariam Nasar aka Abu Musab al-Suri aka Abu Hakim, "one of the jihad movement's prime theorists",14 who was subsequently captured in October 2005 at Quetta in Pakistan. The thrust of Nasar's "Call for a Global Islamic Resistance" proposed:15

  • a strategy for a truly global conflict on as many fronts as possible and in the form of resistance by super-empowered small cells or individuals, rather than traditional guerrilla warfare. To avoid penetration and defeat by security services, this 'leaderless jihad' would keep organizational link to an absolute minimum.

  • Nasar argued that it would be a mistake for the global movement to pin its hopes on a single group or set of leaders, that al-Qaeda was an important step, but was not the end step, and was not sufficient in itself.

  • Nasar's theories of war called for the use of the most deadly weapons possible, and offered a new model aimed at drawing individuals and small groups into a global jihad. Significantly, Nasar is known to have been involved in efforts in Afghanistan, during the Taliban regime, to train fighters in the use of "poisons and chemicals".

  • Some commentators argue that Nasar's theories were put into operation in Casablanca in 2003, Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. In each case, the perpetrators organized themselves into local, self-sustaining cells that acted on their own but also likely accepted guidance from visiting emissaries of the global movement.

The essence of 5GW is the reliance on "small groups of like-minded people with no formal organization who simply choose to fight".16 The intricate and global interconnectedness of the new world order makes it highly susceptible to disruptive action by such small groups of 'super-empowered' individuals, who tap into modern technologies to secure unprecedented impact.

Political, economic, and social trends point to the emergence of super-empowered individuals or small groups bound together by love for a cause rather than a nation. Employing emerging technology, they are able to generate destructive power that used to require the resources of a nation-state. 17

While the technological reach of such groups remains limited at present, a number of projections paint a grim picture of the possible potential of such a combination of decentralized operation and technology. Specifically, the greatest potential lies in the sphere of biological weapons which, commentators note, "have the capability to kill many more people than a nuclear attack."18

One study, Dark Winter conducted in 2001, for instance, simulated a smallpox attack on three U.S. cities. In a period of 13 days, smallpox spread to 25 states and 15 countries in several epidemiological waves, after which one-third of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who contracted the disease died. It was estimated that a fourth generation of the disease would leave 3 million infected and 1 million dead. The exercise was terminated at that time.19

It is crucial to recognize that, while the target states continue to quibble over the definition of terrorism and over 'developmental' and 'political solutions' to the global jihad, the strategists of Islamist extremism are already studying and deploying the methods of 5GW, or are trying to secure enhanced technological capabilities to engineer 5GW attacks. Unless this trend is reversed and the security and intelligence apparatus within liberal democratic states begin to systematically address the challenge of neutralizing the emerging threats of this new way of warfare, the shocks to the system that the first wave of 5GW attacks could provoke may well destroy the capacities of response within the target systems.

  1. Alvin Toffler, Powershift, New York: Bantam Books, 1991, p. 468.

  2. Sir John Thomson, "Policy Paths in South Asia: Intersections between Global and Local", in Michael R. Chambers (Ed.), South Asia in 2020: Future Strategic Balances and Alliances, Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, 2002, p. 17, pdffiles/00105.pdf.

  3. Long-Term Global Demographic Trends: Reshaping the Geopolitical Landscape, US Central Intelligence Agency, Data for 2020 derived from World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision Population Database, United Nations, Population Division,

  4. Long-Term Global Demographic Trends: Reshaping the Geopolitical Landscape, op.cit.

  5. Pakistan has a total area of 803,940 square kilometres; the Russian Federation, 17,075,400 square kilometres.

  6. UNDP Arab Human Development Report, p. 37.

  7. For an exhaustive and updated listing, see K.P.S. Gill, "Pakistan: The Footprints of Terror," in Islamist Extremism and Terrorism in South Asia, South Asia Terrorism Portal, The 9/11 attacks themselves were a culmination of this process, and virtually all the perpetrators and conspirators had trained, resided or met in, coordinated with, or received funding from or through Pakistan. More specifically, the then-serving Chief of Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), was directly implicated in a transfer of US$ 100,000 to the principal architect of the 9/11 bombings, Mohammad Atta. See, for instance, Michael Meacher "The Pakistan Connection", The Guardian, July 22, 2004,

  8. "'Militants from Pakistan most likely authors of future US attack', says US military official" The Daily Times, June 11, 2008.

  9. See, for instance, Rohan Gunaratna, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, New Delhi: Roli Books, 2002, pp. 36-37.

  10. Graviora Manent, "The architect and 5th Generation Warfare", The Strategist, June 4, 2006,

  11. Ibid.

  12. Col. T.X. Hammes, "Fourth Generation Warfare Evolves, Fifth Emerges", Military Review, May-June, 2007, p. 14.

  13. Graviora Manent, op. cit.

  14. Craig Whitlock, "Architect of New War on the West," Washington Post, May 23, 2006.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Colonel Thomax X. Hammes, op. cit., p. 20.

  17. Ibid. p. 21.

  18. Ibid. p. 22.

  19. Ibid.

(Paper Presented at the Seminar on War Against Global Terror April 15, 2009 by Centre for Joint Warfare Studies Dr. D.S. Kothari Auditoriam New Delhi)





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