For most people, the term “4GW” will conjure visions of a new and improved data service for their mobile devices. For members of the military and intelligence community, 4GW means something entirely different: Fourth-Generation Warfare, a form of warfare where the lines between civilians and combatants, political and military goals, and even the weapons to be used in fighting the war are blurred.
Smudged to the point where even identifying the warring parties is difficult.
To understand the 4GW, look no further than last month’s attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, Germany.
- Instead of using a bomb, gun, or even a knife, the attacker used a commercial truck.
- The attacker was from Tunisia, a country with no clear grievances against the Germans.
- He was an adherent of Islam (natch). Given the attack was directed against innocent bystanders at a Christmas market, we assume—but don’t know—that it was motivated by a religious goal. But to what end? We can have no idea.
- And why Germany, the country that had provided succor to the man and his family as refugees? Was the attack part of a broader strategy to complete the Islamization of Germany? All of Europe?
- Or was it to force the Europeans to withdraw from the Middle East—even though the European footprint in the Middle East is barely visible compared to the US and Russia?
- Perhaps it was just a target of convenience—in which case, what’s the point(s) the attacker was trying to make?
- And who, exactly, is the enemy the “West” is fighting against? Is it ISIS, which took credit for the attack? We think that’s right, but really can’t know. Maybe the ISIS spokesperson was just being opportunistic in taking credit for an act of an individual who had become overly emotional as a result of indoctrination by a radical mullah?
- Who does Germany retaliate against? They could lob missiles into ISIS strongholds, but as those strongholds are not citadels, but rather cities populated by innocents—captives even—how effective can that be?
- Alternatively, whom does Germany negotiate with to bring an end to the hostilities?
I could go on, but I think the point is clear: 4GW warfare is so distributed—between weapons, tactics, cultures, places, ideologies, and leadership—that dealing with it requires an entirely different approach.
Trying to get a handle on how one counters such an amorphous enemy, because it is unlikely the attacks will stop anytime soon, and maybe not in our lifetime, I reached out to Scott Taylor, publisher and editor of Esprit de Corps magazine. Scott has extensive experience in the Middle East, as a soldier, author, and war correspondent.
He is also one of the few people to have been kidnapped by Islamists and lived to tell about it. Here’s a biographical sketch from the Esprit de Corps website.
For more than 25 years, Taylor has reported from numerous global hot spots, including Kuwait, Cambodia, Western Sahara, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Iraq, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Libya and Afghanistan. In 1996, Taylor won the prestigious Quill Award and in 2008 he was named Press TV’s “Unembedded Journalist of the Year.” In 2011, Taylor won a Telly Award for the CPAC documentary Afghanistan: Outside the Wire.
On September 7, 2004, while reporting on the U.S. occupation, Taylor was taken hostage in Northern Iraq by Ansar al-Islam Mujahadeen. Taylor and his Turkish colleague were subjected to torture and severe abuse before being released five days later. That harrowing ordeal was recreated by National Geographic Channel in an episode of the popular series Locked Up Abroad.
With Scott’s bonafides established, here are my questions and his answers.
Q. Are there any historical precedents for the current conflict being fought between the Islamists and the Western world?
First of all, we need to stop misidentifying the current conflict as Islam versus the West. The vast majority of the blood being spilled in all of these theatres (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Turkey) is Muslim vs. Muslim.
The simplistic division of sides is Sunni versus Shiite, but that further divides into secular versus fundamentalist, and then again into ethnic factions (example: Kurd versus Turk, Arab versus Kurd). Much like the Crusades of old, it is the West’s interference in their territorial squabbles that makes us a target for retaliation.
Q. Is there any sort of prevailing theory about how a government can fight back given the lack of any clear enemy or even stated objective for the attacks?
The current tactic of Western security forces appears to be the mounting of large shows of force after a terrorist attack has taken place. Hordes of heavily armed police with armored vehicles appear at all major transit hubs and public spaces to present the appearance of an armed camp.
However, given the randomness of the targets, the variety of weapons employed (simply driving a truck into a crowd, for instance), and the apparent willingness for the attackers to die for their cause, makes these attacks all but impossible to defend against.
Q. The Israelis, which arguably have the most experience in fighting a 4GW conflict, have used retribution against family members of the terrorists— including the controversial policy of destroying family homes—as a countermeasure. Any thoughts?
If the Israelis and Palestinians were presently cohabitating in a state of mutual bliss, I would say that they were on the right track. However, as Israel remains in a state of perpetual threat of attack, I would say that employing retaliatory attacks against a culture steeped in revenge (an eye for an eye) is not a smart move.
If Trump starts attacking terrorist families, the violence cycle will only accelerate… and become far more personal.
Q. Any sense of how this all ends? Or is this conflict likely to be with us for the foreseeable future?
Humankind is the most self-destructive species on the planet. Historically, we continue to invest in ever more creative ways to kill our fellow humans… and to protect ourselves from evolving threats.
The map of the Middle East will need to be redrawn to recognize the existing ethnic divisions (as opposed to the arbitrary colonial boundaries drawn up by Britain and France in 1917). The abject poverty and illiteracy of Afghanistan will condemn it to decades more bloodshed, and countries such as Libya will need to be reunified by force and subdued for a generation before they can once again enjoy stability and prosperity.
Q. Do you believe the US should stop meddling in the Middle East? Having read a fair bit on the history of the Crusades, it is revealing that so many cities regularly under attack back then are again under attack now. And, per your comments, invariably by other Muslims. Given that history, one can only ask, "Why would any outside nation want to deal with that mess?"
If the US could divest itself of the need to import oil, they could afford to ignore events in the Middle East. It may sound crazy, but a huge opportunity was missed in the aftermath of 9/11 when Americans might have accepted (or been forced to accept) wartime rationing of fuel. This would have hurt the automobile industry but at the same time created a massive boom for alternative modes of transportation, such as production of e-bikes and mass transit systems.
America, like Canada, is protected by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Our “defense” departments should be correctly called “war departments.”
So, what’s the new administration to do?
Per Scott’s comments, I think it behooves us to accept the reality that there may be little, and maybe nothing, the nation-states with all their intelligence services and blunt military power can do to stop the 4GW enemies.
Repurposing the prescient words of John F. Kennedy on the topic of assassins, "If anyone wants to do it, no amount of protection is enough. All a man needs is a willingness to trade his life for mine."
Time and again, the Islamic terrorists have shown a willingness to trade their lives to carry out their dastardly deeds. That’s just how they roll.
If there is good news, it is that the damage these terrorists do is typically limited. Returning to the Christmas attack in Berlin, that attack took the lives of 12 people. Approximately the number of people who die every day and a half in German automobile accidents. So while the attack was unsettling, especially for the victims or someone close to the victims, it poses no existential threat to the German nation.
Even 9/11—the apex of success as far as these attacks go—adds up to just 31 days of traffic fatalities in the US.
Could the jihadists someday succeed in getting their hands on nukes? Or blow up a liquid petroleum depot near a population center? Anything is possible. However, governments around the world are acutely aware of the threats and take measures to guard the targets with the potential for causing mass destruction. It will take more than a maniac driving a truck or wielding an AK-47 to breach one of the more sensitive installations.
As a consequence, the path of least resistance suggests the 4GW will continue to unfold mostly as low-level attacks that, in the overall scheme of things, do little physical damage.
Keep in mind that, on average, 43 people are murdered every day in the US and 93 die in car accidents. By comparison, in the 16 years since 2000, there have been a total of 3,064 people killed by terrorists in the United States, but of that number, 2,997 died in the 9/11 attacks.
Doing the math, outside of that horrific event, there have been a total of 67 people killed in the US by terrorists over the past 16 years. Which means that over the period, death by terrorism in the US doesn’t add up to even a single day of automobile fatalities.
To be clear, my purpose here is to provide perspective about the fourth-generation war. That perspective is necessary given how energetically the mainstream media sensationalizes every attack, even if it only involves a single stabbing. By doing so, they have effectively turned the entire nation into fear-biters.
That’s not to say that terrorism isn’t a concern. It’s just, per Scott’s comments above, that most of it involves fighting between Muslim sects in a very limited number of countries. This from a comprehensive report on global terrorism by the US State Department:
Although terrorist attacks took place in 92 countries in 2015, they were heavily concentrated geographically. More than 55% of all attacks took place in five countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nigeria), and 74% of all deaths due to terrorist attacks took place in five countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, and Pakistan).
Here’s a tip: Don’t live in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, or Pakistan.
While incidents like the truck attacks in Nice and in Berlin get a lot of media attention, when viewed from an actuarial perspective, they are gnats on an elephant. And it’s important to keep this in perspective, because overblown fears within the population provide license to the state to expand its powers and trample the rights of the individual in pursuit of a perfect level of security that simply cannot be attained.
It is worth noting that since 9/11, the United States has spent over $7.5 trillion in defense and homeland security, much of which cannot even be accounted for.
And that tally is just the thin edge of the cost of overreacting to the terrorists, a cost that includes the loss of personal freedom and the creation of indelible bureaucracies that grow in power every day.
Remain vigilant, sure. But above all, as the Brits like to say, “Keep calm and carry on.”