Arab Way of War

Apropos last night’s post on the different ways the West and the Rest view violence, a reader brought to my attention an article in Proceedings by an Australian Air Force Captain, “The New Arab Way of War.” There’s little new here for students of conflict but it’s an excellent synthesis.

In 1942, the great democracies started to win and kept winning, thus determining the modern Western technique of war. The horrors of two world wars motivated the strengthening of international laws to prevent attacks on noncombatants and limit war’s impact on civilians. Technology was developed that allowed highly accurate attacks that could limit destruction to military targets and minimize the number of people killed. Waging war became the business of elaborate machines operated by highly trained, long-service professionals. Western militaries became seemingly invincible on the battlefield and a tool of humanitarian assistance, not of empire. The last Western war of the 20th century was not of conquest, but waged to defend the human rights of the Muslims of Kosovo.

Middle Eastern societies have taken stock of the Western challenge and devised an innovative, strongly asymmetrical response. Middle Eastern societies demonstrably cannot win symmetrical conflict involving Western militaries. Their “better way” inherently appears barbarous, murderous, and cruel as it is diametrically opposed to the Western approach to armed conflict.

This is the essence of asymmetrical warfare, really. Decades of military defeats against superior Western forces, especially the 1991 Gulf War, proved that Arab forces were so vastly overmatched that they had literally zero chance of victory in a head-on fight with a modern military. Terrorism and other asymmetrical techniques were the tactically logical alternative.

A major innovation of the Arab way of war is the deliberate targeting of civilians. The assassins’ rhetoric makes no distinction between civilian and military targets. Attacking civilians guarantees global attention as the media, reflecting global values, has a horror of the infliction of cruelty on noncombatants. Attacking civilians is perceived by the assassins as the most direct route to influence global opinion and to affect the national will of the nations struck. Attacks usually are conducted with considerable skill, timing, expertise, and precision but are designed to kill absolutely indiscriminately. Given this, the strategic aim of attacks is hard to discern. Violence customarily is conceived as a means to an end, but the essence in this style of war seems to be inflicting terror. Pakistani Brigadier S. K. Malik notes: “Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose on him.” [footnotes omitted]

This last point is especially noteworthy. As has been endlessly noted here and elsewhere, al Qaeda’s stated war aims are vast and unrealistic. Basically, the West has to adopt Islam, revert to a 7th Century lifestyle, and allow the Jews to be slaughtered. Those things aren’t going to happen. So, the violence perpetrated by al Qaeda and others is essentially violence out of frustration rather than violence intended to achieve realistic political objectives.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Science & Technology, Terrorism, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mr Mouse says:

    I love it when things are put clearly enough for my wee little mouse brain to understand. Thanks.

  2. DaveACT says:

    I believe the Captain serves in the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force). There is no such entity as AAF (Australian Air Force.

    We Aussies are generally very proud of our military heritage, especially with ANZAC day coming up (April 25), and leaving off “Royal” is a bit clumsy.

  3. James Joyner says:

    You’re right that that’s the name of the service. I just reported what it said in the byline.