When is a first strike not a first strike?
When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

June 25, 2004

Quantity Has A Quality All Its Own

Bravo Romeo Delta

The Mighty Vanderleun links to this post about the Lessons O' The Beheadin's.

(3)It's all about body count. The terrorists have shifted strategy from a quantitative body count (911; Madrid) to a qualitative body count (symbolic victims such as an American Jewish journalist, an American Jewish businessman, an American mechanic aiding the Saudi Arabian military, and a South Korean on the eve of his country sending more troops to the region).

(4)They will likely raise the bar of barbarity to get publicity and continue to shock with the same impact. So far the victims have been males in their 30s and 40s. Will they choose a woman -- or a child? Or a group?

(5)Beheadings are not unusual in that part of the world as punishment -- but they are swift. Yet the terrorists' victims suffer a terrifying, humiliating prelude, then a slow, excruciating death akin to the slaughter of screaming animals. There is a large degree of sadism in this that goes way beyond politics. The goal is to make non-fundamentalist societies feel impotent -- to terrify beyond anything witnessed since Adolph Hitler's time.

(6)The beheadings are political tools aimed to accentuate tensions within the societies or cultures at which they are aimed, much as the Madrid bombings were timed to impact the elections. The South Korean's murder is just the latest blatant example. The goal is to have companies and countries yield to the fears of workers, investors, or their citizens and to flee the area.

(10)If there is any religious significance, it's in the use of the sword. But snatching someone off the streets, videotaping a terrified victim sweating or pleading for his life, setting a deadline with outrageous demands, then butchering him (or her) like a cow is cheap, not as hard to pull off as a 911 -- and gets tons of international media and Internet publicity. It's shockingly cost-effective for them.

So, let's take a look at this in the broader warfighting, strategic context.

Ok, getting back to basics, warfare is the application of organized violence for political ends. This, in the canon of things strategic, could probably be considered coercion or compellance.

But what does it mean?

Well, if one notes the shift from 9/11 to this week, we've gone from macroterrorist attacks in the US, to terror attacks in Tunisia, Turkey, Bali, and elsewhere, to videotaped beheadings of contractors. There are two sets of reasons (and they aren't necessarily mutually exclusive) for this shift.

The first idea is that the bad guys are getting increasingly limited in their ability to carry out terror attacks. We see a shift from large-scale, complex attacks to gun-point kidnappings and beheadings. This could reflect a strain on organizational capability and resources. This in turn, could reflect an absolute drop in capabilities (because folks are getting round up, shot, and are otherwise running for their lives). This could also be symptomatic of an Al Qaeda that is husbanding its resources for a major attack in future, and simply cannot be bothered to spare critical capabilities for minor attacks.

The other idea is that the bad guys have decided that sheer numbers alone don't have the political impact that they seek from killing folks. It's kind of difficult to behead 3,000 people on videotape, so there is an inclination to do a few specialty performances targeted at very specific political pressure points.

If we take a step back, economics and strategy both speak of the same basic idea when they talk about the point of diminishing returns on one hand, and the culminating point of success, on the other. A reasonable way to consider the effectiveness of butchering people might be this. The sum total effectiveness (what we'll call the butchering function) is a sum of two other functions. The first function is based solely on body count, while the second is based on what we could think of as the mean brutality factor. The 'effectiveness' of a given terrorist attack is measured by maximizing the butcher factor - i.e. high body counts and/or very graphic murders.

This analysis doesn't, in and of itself, give any specific indication of whether or not there is an active shift to quality over quantity of kills. However, it does suggest that they may (in their own internal calculus) be able to maximize the effectiveness of their political violence by killing a spectacularly large number of people in a hideously gruesome fashion.

In most sorts of strategic calculus, one encounters a factor that limits the efficacy of such an approach - merciless bloodletting for the sake of bloodletting puts people off and radically reduces soft power. One of the salient features of 9/11 was that it gave a reasonable demonstration that Al Qaeda do not feel themselves bound by any such strategic limitations. In other words, unlike any prior group, they do not accept the idea that there is a point after which a sufficiently large value of the butchering function is reached that further increases become politically counterproductive. Or, more accurately, the value at which they see a sufficiently high value of the butchery function as being counterproductive is much (perhaps several orders of magnitude) greater than any other terrorist group encountered to date.

So, the question then becomes one of whether or not this basic assertion is true. If one recalls Iraq prior to the Madrid bombings, Spanish soldiers were killed, but Spain maintained its presence. With Madrid, the terrorist folk obtained measurable empirical verification that racking up a larger body count did what a small body count could not - result in the withdrawal of Spanish troops. However, we also note that an increase in American and Iraqi body count doesn't seem to be generating much political traction either.

Conversely, with the beheading of Kim Seon Il, we see a case in which a much more graphic murder did not have the intended political effect. Moreover, the beheadings of neither Nick Berg, Paul Johnson, nor Daniel Pearl resulted in a major shift in American policy.

So, we might draw the conclusion that the shift to brutality is not driven so much as a pure calculation of effectiveness, but rather might be symptomatic of something else altogether. This being said, however, doesn't mean increasing brutality to maximize the value of the butchery function doesn't play a intended legitimate role. If we stipulate the notion that this is a bid to make use of smaller, secondary resources that would be unable to generate headlines on their own, then the logic holds true. Beyond that, if we note that any given 5 or 6 jihadis would become so much Marine target practice in Iraq, while decapitation of contractors gets guaranteed airtime, then the shift might simply reflect the idea that the flypaper strategy is overshooting its viability.

So, ultimately, we cannot determine whether or not the move to murder of hostages, in and of itself, indicates a fundamental change in terrorist strategy, or is simply a new way for them to use the odd bits and bobs of their resources not occupied elsewhere.

Now, the other part of it is this - how does this shift play with the American public. From my perspective, there is a palpable decrease in the marginal utility of each beheading. This would mean that they might have to do something like deep fat frying a hostage alive on tape to gain the same measure of shock. However, the lack of perceptible shift in American views with the jump from executions to beheadings may mean that the jump in brutality necessary to achieve any kind of shift might be a very large jump indeed.

Conversely, we can see from the effect of 9/11 versus any of the attacks during the '90s, that a large enough jump in body count can elicit a strong reaction. Whether or not the reaction seen was the one the jihadis wanted or not is a different issue.

But, in both cases, anecdotal evidence would tend to suggest that both the body count and the brutality functions are not linear. I don't know whether or not they could be considered logarithmic or polynomial functions, but the main point is that they are not linear, and suggest that marginal gains diminish over time.

In other words, we are perfectly capable of becoming jaded to the terrorist violence.

Since the bad guys have had mixed success in obtaining political leverage with increased brutality, they probably won't choose that alone as their main axis of attack in future. Very brutal attacks do seem to be quite effective in generating media coverage, which is a first cousin to political effectiveness.

These folks have, however, have had pretty good results with good numbers - but haven't generated enough data points to have a good feel for the mechanics of how that works.

What I would personally guess, is that they may try to optimize both to maximize the butchery function while avoiding the diminishing returns of overly high body counts and excessively brutal murders. Scenarios that might fall under this approach could include things like spraying blister agents over crowds of July 4th picnickers or the like, rather than doing something like an airborne anthrax drop.

At the end of it all, this is all merely speculation, but make no mistake, the move to decapitation could very well represent a fundamental shift in strategy used by the jihadi.

Launched by Bravo Romeo Delta at June 25, 2004 12:23 AM

Retaliatiory Launches


This is an excellent post. I'm struggling with a worthy response, but it essentially implies that there's an empirical way into Zarqawi's and Bin Laden's head... or at least the way that head spits out direction. I think we can assume that they're simply enraptured with the spectacle of death, primarily because of the apparent frailty of man. But perhaps what they've failed to consider is that rational societies are subject to the same sort of rapture, except that we're better equipped to keep it under reign.

Perhaps the bloodiest single battle in all of American history took place less than 50 miles from where I live, as part of the larger battle of Spottsylvania Courthouse. There is nothing else that quite metes the scale of carnage at "The Bloody Angle." Not even Gettysburg or Antietam. It had both "quality" and "quantity."

If these fellows manage to sufficiently contest decency that they awaken that horrible love in us they'll pay the price they dread... for we'll love death with more devotion, and with better quality, than they. And like the best of lovers, we will not end up slaves of the beloved, but masters.

Posted by: Scott at June 30, 2004 04:22 AM

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