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Thread: Is terrorism 4th generation warfare?

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    Default Is terrorism 4th generation warfare?

    Fourth Generation Warfare

    March 23, 2005

    It has been said that "fourth generation warfare" (4GW) includes all forms of conflict where the other side refuses to stand up and fight fair. Smart commanders throughout history, however, have tried to deceive, trick, and confuse their opponents. Is anything really new?


    The answer begins by examining how 4GW literature uses the term, "generation." Specifically, it refers to the world since the mid-17th Century, when firearms began to dominate the battlefield and when nation-states began to exercise a legal monopoly on the use of armed force.
    4GW Case Studies:

    al-Qa'ida / Afghanistan

    al-Aqsa Intifada



    That world is breaking down. We appear to be returning to the situation that characterizes most of human experience, where both states and non-states wage war. In 4GW, at least one side is something other than a military force organized and operating under the control of a national government, and one that also transcends national boundaries. For a graphical depiction of how the "generations" evolve, please download The Evolution of Conflict (169 KB PowerPoint slideshow.) Note that as with human generations, several may be alive and functioning simultaneously. The word "generations," though, is just an analogy to help gain new insights, and it is wise not to push it too far.

    One way to tell that 4GW is truly new is that we don't even have a name for its participants—typically dismissing them as "terrorists," "extremists," or "thugs."

    Name calling, though, is not often an effective substitute for strategy.

    If we look at the development of warfare in the modern era, we see three distinct generations … Third generation warfare was conceptually developed by the German offensive in the spring of 1918 … Is it not about time for the fourth generation to appear? Lind, Nightengale, Wilson, et. al., Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989

    The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center dispelled the notion that 4GW is simple "terrorism." But one can sympathize with our political and military leaders, because 4GW is a strange form of warfare, one where military force plays a much smaller (though still critical) role than in earlier generations, supporting initiatives that are more political, diplomatic, and economic.

    As important as finding and destroying the actual combatants, for example, is drying up the bases of popular support that allow them to recruit for, plan, and execute their attacks. Perhaps most odd of all, being seen as too successful militarily may create a backlash, making the opponent's other elements of 4GW more effective.


    The authors of the first paper on the subject captured some of this strangeness when they predicted:

    The distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between 'civilian' and 'military' may disappear.

    However it develops, fourth generation warfare is real war. The aim of its participants, as in all generations, is to impose change on its opponents. For a variety of reasons, sketched below and covered in detail in the papers on this site, most of the techniques that will be used in 4GW played peripheral roles in earlier generations of warfare and undoubtedly predate history itself. Today, two of the most frequently mentioned of these techniques are terrorism, as we have seen, and guerrilla warfare / low intensity conflict (LIC.)

    Is 4GW Just Another Term for "Terrorism"?

    The more the terror, the greater our victories. – White Russian General Kornilov, 1917

    We can't expect to get anywhere unless we resort to terrorism. – Lenin, 1918

    "Terrorism" (defined as seemingly gratuitous violence against civilians or non-combatants) has been a part of all generations of war. Until recently, in fact, most wars killed many more civilians than military and not all of this was accidental - recall the Rape of Nanking, the London Blitz, and the firebombing of Dresden. As 4GW blurs any distinction between "military" and "civilian," we can expect more activities that the general population will regard as terrorism. In other words, there may be more terrorism in 4GW, but it is not unique to nor defined by these attacks.

    Is 4GW Just Another Term for "LIC"?

    ... members of native forces will suddenly become innocent peasant workers when it suits their fancy and convenience. - USMC Small Wars Manual, 1940

    Similarly, because practitioners of 4GW will be transnational groups without territorially-based armies, much of their activity will probably resemble "guerilla warfare" or "low intensity conflict." These highly irregular practices have enabled groups that are weak, militarily, to defeat larger, stronger forces, and they have deep roots in the history of war. The word "guerilla" itself, for example, dates back nearly 200 years to Napoleon's occupation of Spain.

    Until recently, however, such "special" operations more often harassed than decided—"sideshows" (as T. E. Lawrence once termed them) in wars fought mainly along 1st, 2nd, or 3rd generation lines. Examples could include operations by colonial militias and guerillas during the Revolutionary War, Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry raids, partisans during WWII, and the tactics practiced in the early stages of most "national liberation" wars in the 20th Century, including Vietnam. In all of these, conventional forces delivered the culminating blows.

    A premise of 4GW is that the world itself has changed, so that terrorism and guerilla warfare—and other elusive techniques that are still being invented—are now ready to move to center stage. These techniques focus not so much on the enemy's military capabilities (although these may be attacked) but directly against the will of the enemy to continue the war. All of the operations by a 4GW force must support this goal. In its most fully developed form, there may be no real "battles" at all, as was virtually the case in the Sandinista take-over of El Salvador in 1979.

    There was a 4GW component to the Vietnam War—the campaign by North Vietnam, of which the Viet Cong insurgency formed a key part, to turn US public opinion against the war. Once this was accomplished, and the US withdrew, the South could be finished off by conventional means, as is not unusual for either the final phase of a traditional guerrilla effort or of a fourth generation war. Similarly, the goal of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan was not to defeat the Red Army in some decisive battle, but to persuade the Soviet leadership to withdraw it, and al-Qa'ida appears to have achieved similar results in Spain.

    To summarize, fourth generation warfare appears to be evolving along two complementary lines:

    One of the opponents is something other than the armed forces of a state;

    The focus (Schwerpunkt) of the non-state player's operations is the process, whatever it may be, within the state for deciding to continue the conflict.

    Unlike Clausewitzian warfare, that is, a conflict between opposing wills much like a boxing match between states, 4GW more resembles a boxer versus a viral infection. Terrorism and LIC are two of the more common techniques, but there is no reason why conventional weapons and tactics could not also find a place—a submarine, for example, was recently discovered under construction by narco-trafficking groups in South America—and as been noted, fourth generation wars often culminate in a final conventional push ("Mao Phase III") to subdue the remaining military forces of the state.

    It would be a mistake and, in fact, a goal of our opponents might be to encourage this mistake, if we were to focus on the techniques and not the nature of 4GW itself. As Col T. X. Hammes eloquently argues in "The Evolution of War: The Fourth Generation," social and political changes are driving this evolution—a theme he develops in his important new book, The Sling and The Stone.

    You can construct your own list of what is different about today's world than that of, say, 1960. Here are some ideas to get you started:

    explosion in drug trafficking, with associated money flows and corruption to the extent that trafficking organizations are the de facto governments in a growing number of areas

    worsening income inequities combined with a general decline in standards of living in many Third World countries, particularly in Africa and Central/South America

    continued exponential increase in the world population

    a growing "demographic youth bulge" in Third World countries, where un- / underemployment is already severe [cited in recent CIA testimony]

    escalating sectarian violence as evangelizing religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.) clash over influence in rapidly growing Third World countries

    survival of non-representative governments in the Third World that use religious and ethnic animosities and anti-American sentiments to distract from their own corruption and economic mismanagement

    insertion & maintenance of a largely Christian American Army into the heart of the Muslim Middle East

    accelerating AIDS epidemic in parts of the Third World [~30% of adults in Botswana are HIV-positive]

    rise of Third World mega cities with populations exceeding 20 million

    growth of worldwide connectivity (CNN and the Internet, for example)

    ease of global transportation (24 hours between any two points)

    increasing scarcity of arable land and water

    increasing world demand for petroleum as China and India increase their consumption

    disintegration of the Soviet Union and continued instability in that region

    end of the bipolar world order and of the interpretation of events through a Cold War filter

    ready availability of small arms and other weapons from the end of the Cold War

    growing use of pre-adolescent children as combatants

    resurgence of violent ethnic and ideological groups (e.g., Rwandan Interahamwe, and of course al-Qa'ida), which are becoming increasingly transnational

    safe havens for these groups in areas of Africa, Asia, and South America where any effective government (even if corrupt and incompetent) is lacking

    beginning of cooperation between transnational ideological groups and traditional criminal organizations such as narcotrafficking cartels

    continued growth in wealth and influence of multinational corporations that sometimes have incentives to perpetuate corrupt, non-democratic regimes

    emergence of the US as the only conventional / economic superpower and the inevitable resentment this causes


    If these or similar factors are indeed driving the evolution of conflict, then solutions must lie primarily in their arenas, that is, within the realms of economics, diplomacy, and law-enforcement. Military force will play a smaller role, performing specific tasks to solve problems that are intractable through other means. A coherent "grand strategy" is needed to ensure that military (destructive) actions harmonize with our overall objectives and do not undermine the public support needed to prosecute a fourth generation war to its successful conclusion. In grand strategy, the carrot is as important as the stick, and alliances are critical—factors which should favor the United States and its allies in the 4GW against al-Qa'ida and those who support similar ideologies.

    Technology is not unimportant, and may provide options, but the fact is that lack of suitable technology cannot explain our less-than-stellar track record in fourth generation warfare.

    Editor's Note: Any discussion of 4GW, since it involves conflicts of culture and religion, is likely to generate a high degree of emotion. In the articles that follow, some may find the authors' views to be simplistic or even offensive. For the record: Defense and the National Interest does not endorse any political, cultural, or religious viewpoint. These papers, however, raise many important questions about the nature of future conflict, and we are publishing them to stimulate thought and debate.


    5/22/05 Conflict in the Years Ahead, vesion 1.4, by Chet Richards. Conceptions of 4GW and grand strategy by five leading strategists.

    3/04/05 The Evolution of Conflict, a one-chart PowerPoint presentation depicting the "generations of war" model. (169 KB - please play as a slide show.) Also incorporated into version 1.1 of Conflict in the Years Ahead

    7/23/05 Ten Best Books on Fourth Generation Warfare, by Anthony A. Lukin, Ph.D. An annotated list by a specialist in criminal justice.

    Bill Lind's Strategic Defense Initiative, Distance from disorder is the key to winning the terror war. A major article on the theme of transforming 4GW into something that we can win. Originally published in The American Conservative.

    Archive of Bill Lind's "On War" commentaries. Thoughts from one of the originators of the concept of 4GW and still one of its most prolific proponents.

    The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation, by William S. Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR). The classic article on why there really is something that should be called "fourth generation warfare," and why we should be paying very close attention to it, whatever it turns out to be. Originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989.

    10/13/04 4GW, High Noon, And How Even I Get It Now, by Bryce Lane. A martial artist contemplates fourth generation warfare.

    9/15/04 Bin Laden's Vision Becoming Reality, Juan Cole. Assessment of al-Qa'ida's progress since 9/11.

    7/29/04 The Fate of the State by Martin van Creveld. 4GW is war by entities other than states. Van Creveld argues that the state system is breaking down, so 4GW (or as he refers to it, non-trinitarian warfare) will become the warfare of the future. Originally published in 1996.

    7/27/04 Why Iraq Will End as Vietnam Did, Martin van Creveld. Moshe Dayan's 1966 trip to Vietnam: "…he who fights against the weak and loses, loses. He who fights against the weak and wins also loses." Van Creveld is the author of a recent biography of Moshe Dayan.

    4/27/04 Fourth Generation Warfare, an Introduction, LTC Greg Wilcox, USA, Ret. Superb overview and introduction to the subject, originally done for the USMC's Second Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF.) 2.1MB PowerPoint.

    3/10/04 Iraq: Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) Swamp, Col G. I. Wilson, USMC. Perceptive article predicting the long, hot summer of 2004.

    10/6/2003 4GW and the Moral Imperative, LTC Greg Wilcox, USA (Ret.) To a great degree, 4GW is moral warfare - understanding this is a key to success for both sides. (256 KB PDF)

    10/6/03 Judo of Fourth Generation Warfare, Col GI Wilson USMCR (Ret.) Presented at INFOWARCON 2003. (1.8 MB PDF)

    4th Generation Warfare and the Dangers of Being the Only Superpower A Warning from Clausewitz by William S. Lind, Counterpunch, March 8, 2003.

    Introduction to Asymmetric Warfare, Fourth Generation Warfare, and Maneuver Warfare, GySgt Bob Howard, USMC. Teaching 4GW concepts to the folks who are actually going to have to do it. (43 chart, 547 KB MS PowerPoint briefing - would not convert to PDF, as sometimes happens with PPT files)

    Fourth Generation Warfare, LTC Greg Wilcox, USA Ret., and Col. GI Wilson, USMCR, Ret. A concise introduction to the subject and brief assessment of our operations in Afghanistan. Presented at the 2002 Boyd Conference at Quantico. LTC Wilcox's (USA, Ret.) 4GW experience includes three tours in Vietnam, and Marine Col. GI Wilson is co-author of the original paper on 4GW. 75KB PDF document.

    Military Response to Fourth Generation Warfare in Afghanistan, LTC Greg Wilcox, USA, Ret., and Col. G. I. Wilson, USMCR, Ret. A companion to the above briefing offering more detail on our successes and failures in Afghanistan from a 4GW perspective.

    Fourth Generation Warfare Today - Remarks by H. Thomas Hayden, USMC, Ret., July 18, 2003.

    Joint Inquiry Staff Statement on September 11.

    Asymmetries and Consequences, Col Richard Szafranski, USAF, Ret. National leaders have insisted, correctly in our view, that we must take the offensive against terrorism. With few terrorist havens remaining to bomb, however, and with the majority of active al-Qa'ida operatives likely already in the US, western Europe, or in countries we are not going to attack, what does this mean? In this paper presented at the Global Strategy Conference in Priverno, Italy, May 2002, Richard Szafranski offers some concrete answers. Ultimately we can prevail: "My belief," he writes, " is that the September 11, 2001, attacks were unwise. Monumentally unwise." (55KB PDF file.)

    e-Jihad Against Western Business. British consultant and war correspondent Giles Trendle warns that as participants in 4GW become more sophisticated, they will expand their battlefields to include western businesses, their Web sites, and their e-commerce infrastructure. Now available are some of his more recent articles, The Colonel's Network Warfare, The ‘Swarm’ Factor in the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Omen In The Ghetto.

    Fighting Stupid, Defending Smart, Col Richard Szafranski, USAF, Ret. If the attacks on September 11 were meant to cripple our economy, what role can aerospace power play in preventing or defending against such attacks in the future? In other words, is there a mission for the Air Force in 4GW? 103KB MS Word document; originally published in Aerospace Power Journal, Spring 2002.

    When David Became Goliath, MAJ Christopher E. Whitting, RAAOC, Australia. Masters Thesis at the US Army Command and General Staff College, 2001. 393 KB PDF File. A thorough look at the problems that 2nd and 3rd generation armies (even very good ones) face in conducting 4GW.

    "Tactical Notes from Afghanistan," anonymous note commenting on the quality of both sides and the way the fighting is evolving. Posted 4/02

    "The Next War? Four Generations of Future Warriors," Eric Walters, Professor of Land Warfare, Military History, and Intelligence at the American Military University. Professor Walters has prepared this sweeping look at trends in modern warfare from materials used in his courses at AMU. Rather than extrapolating from trends in war itself, Prof. Walters approaches the question of future warfare by looking at what is happening with the people - the warriors - who will be fighting it. A spectacular PowerPoint briefing (2.5 MB) and great introduction to 4GW. For those with slower connections, we also have a .pdf version (714 KB) with the speaker notes. Bibliography in MS Word (26 KB).

    Fourth Generation Warfare: What Does it Mean to Every Marine? Col Michael D. Wyly, USMC, Ret. The source of our advantage over fourth generation opponents lies not in the superiority of our technology or even of our ideology. In this prescient paper, Mike Wyly maintains that it lies in the very bedrock of our society - the Constitution. Those would would wage 4GW must read, ponder, and understand this remarkable document, to which all members of the military have sworn to protect from all enemies, foreign and domestic. [As a colleague of then-Commandant Al Gray, Col Wyly was one of the prime movers behind the Marines' adoption of third generation - maneuver - warfare in the late 1980s.]

    New Order Threat Analysis: A Literature Survey November 2, 1996. Fred Fuller, Reference Librarian at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School. Comprehensive survey of the basic concepts of 4GW as they appeared in the literature in 1996. Good introduction to the field.

    The Introduction to Spirit, Blood and Treasure, Ed. MAJ Don Vandergriff. Why 4GW is the type of warfare we should be preparing for, and what this means for doctrine, personnel policies, training, and force structure. (Presidio Press, June 2001.)

    The strange battle of Shah-i-Kot, by Brendan O'Neill. How a battle that should have been over in 24 hours lasted a week and hundreds of bodies turned up missing. Only the absence of CNN kept it from becoming a second Mogadishu. More troubling, did Shah-i-Kot demonstrate that our commanders still have a fascination with "destroying infrastructure," and so fail to grasp the nature of fourth generation warfare? Link to the article at Spiked.com.

    "Fourth Generation Warfare is Here," By Harold A. Gould and Franklin C. Spinney. Why the attacks of September 11 are not simply acts of "terrorism" but represent the opening shots in true 4GW.

    For those new to 4GW, this is probably the best place to start: "The Evolution of War: The Fourth Generation," by LtCol Thomas X. Hammes, USMC. LtCol Hammes observes that "generations" of warfare are not defined primarily by the technology employed since, to some degree, each generation can use any available technology. Rather, generations are better categorized by political, social, and economic factors. After buttressing his case with examinations of China, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and the West Bank (Intifada I), LtCol Hammes concludes this important paper with the prediction that, "By using fourth generation techniques, local antagonists can change the national policy of Western democracies. Then once the Western forces have gone, they can continue to pursue their local objectives using earlier generation techniques." Originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette, September 1994.

    "Is The U.S. Military Ready To Take On A Non-Conventional Terror Threat?" Elaine M. Grossman, Inside the Pentagon, October 18, 2001. Another in ITP's comprehensive look at the changing nature of warfare and how the US military is - and is not - shaping the war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

    The Transformation of War, Martin van Creveld (Free Press, 1991). An essential reference for fourth generation warfare. Required reading, at some point, for every serious student of the subject. Study it until you can say "non-trinitarian" with conviction.

    "A New Kind of War," Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, September 27, 2001. Best evidence yet that when it comes to 4GW, our top leaders do get it.

    "Terrorism Battle Like Drug War All Over Again," Hal Kempfer. Once money began flowing into the War on Drugs, it, and not narcotrafficantes, became the focus of attention.
    From: http://www.d-n-i.net/second_level/4gw_continued.htm

    Really long but really good. Is terrorism evidence of the emerging 4th gen warfare?

    This article is a follow up piece from the first article on 4th gen, which appeared in the Marine Corps gazzette many years ago. You can find that article at: http://www.d-n-i.net/fcs/4th_gen_war_gazette.htm
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    Lord of the House Flies Member Al Khalifah's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is terrorism 4th generation warfare?

    It has been said that "fourth generation warfare" (4GW) includes all forms of conflict where the other side refuses to stand up and fight fair. Smart commanders throughout history, however, have tried to deceive, trick, and confuse their opponents. Is anything really new?
    Yeah, dirty warfare is absolutely nothing new. Commanders who always play by the rules and only engage in honorable face-to-face combat tended to end up defeated.

    when firearms began to dominate the battlefield and when nation-states began to exercise a legal monopoly on the use of armed force.
    Terrorism is a regression in terms of warfare because nation states no longer control the monopoly on the use of armed force. A man can travel to pretty much any other country on the globe in a day. Once there, he can, if so motivated blow himself up killing others in the process in a suicide attack. This takes the power away from the nation states and puts it back into the hands of the warlords and the motivated individual.
    The Cold War has also left a situation where firearms no longer are the true masters of the modern battlefield. Provided a nation has nuclear weapons and the means to deploy them, it is virtually immune from a mass conventional attack. Therefore the only effective way to attack, for example Russia or the United States, is by terrorist means.
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    Mad Professor Senior Member Hurin_Rules's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is terrorism 4th generation warfare?

    One of the more interesting things which I'm not sure the article noted is that the original piece on 4GW from 1989 appeared later on an Al-Qaeda website. They used what the military analysts had said as their blueprint for war.
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    Default Re: Is terrorism 4th generation warfare?

    If terrorism is simply a means of warfare, then how can we "declare war " on it?

    Can you imagine "war against the british square" or "war against flight"?

    War against terrorism is far too broad. The problem of course is that terrorists are not an entity with a physical location. We are at war with religious extremists, not terrorism.

    Every day madrasas pump out more and more anti-american hate, turning regular kids into weapons (suicide bombers and terrorists). Are these weapons plants?


    It is a difficult situation to be sure. We must act or be destroyed. But whom to act against? Denying terrorists open safe harbor in sponsoring states is a good start. Once they have no safe harbor, their operations and communications are disrupted but not eliminated.

    We can try to send help, understanding, and propaganda, but extremists (and muslims who hate israel) just won't bend. So then what? Obviously, I favor "sheet of glass" philosophy. But what would be better?
    "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." -Einstein

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    Member Member bmolsson's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is terrorism 4th generation warfare?

    Terrorism isn't warfare, it's terrorism. With that said, it's a continuation on guerilla warfare, but the target is to scare the frontman by attacking his dependants.
    You could compare it to the use of nukes (Hiroshima as a good example) where you scare the enemy in to defeat rather than defeating him on the battlefield.
    The problem is that it will not only kill a lot of innocent people, it will also create a deeper conflict between the side of a conflict and reconciliation after peace will be even more difficult.

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    The Black Senior Member Papewaio's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is terrorism 4th generation warfare?

    If the short term goal is to create terror then the best way to fight it is to go about your life. Think of it this way, take a look at how people die, terrorism is pretty low on the list. If you are going to be scared of AQ, I humbly suggest you don't go near a road for the rest of your life as you are thousands times more likely to die driving.

    (The per capita death rate for all Americans, of any age, in 2003 was 14.9 per 100,000, or 14900 per 100 million in motor vehicles), 30% of all fatalities of Police Officers in the last century where in traffic accidents.

    If the long term goal of the terror is to make political change then you see what it would require for that to come true and the cost analysis of letting them having it or completely destroying any chance of them getting it through terrorism. Make the cost of their method too expensive and they will have to give up or run out of steam.
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    Lord of the House Flies Member Al Khalifah's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is terrorism 4th generation warfare?

    The problem with Al Qaeda and the reason why they are so "sucessful" compared to terrorists from the past is that they don't make demands, they just commit acts of violence.

    One of the reasons why 9/11 came as such a surprise to the American Government was that once they had control of the plane, it would be standard to expect that they would make a list of demands that would give them time to think and plan a counter-strike while stalling them with false negotiations. They could have been expected to try to land the plane in a foreign hostile nation. Instead they just crashed it without making any demands, which left the Government without a playbook.

    How do you reason with an organisation that does not make demands?
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    The Black Senior Member Papewaio's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is terrorism 4th generation warfare?

    Hardcore approach to terrorists:

    Kill everyone of them, including their monetary supporters.
    Banks that hide the money for terrorist groups should have their assets frozen and their board charged with aiding terrorism. Anyone directly connected to the account and knew it was a terrorist one should be executed as well unless they are the ones that told authorities

    Low key approach:
    Just treat them like criminals. Investigate them and charge them like so. Don't give in to them, but at the same time don't get riled by them either. There are far worse things out there.
    Our genes maybe in the basement but it does not stop us chosing our point of view from the top.
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    Dragonslayer Emeritus Senior Member Sigurd's Avatar
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    Default Re: Is terrorism 4th generation warfare?

    Quote Originally Posted by bmolsson
    Terrorism isn't warfare, it's terrorism. With that said, it's a continuation on guerilla warfare, but the target is to scare the frontman by attacking his dependants.
    You could compare it to the use of nukes (Hiroshima as a good example) where you scare the enemy in to defeat rather than defeating him on the battlefield.
    The problem is that it will not only kill a lot of innocent people, it will also create a deeper conflict between the side of a conflict and reconciliation after peace will be even more difficult.
    Well said...
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