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  • Interview: Bard O'Neill on Insurgency and Terrorism and the Iraq War


      Bard O'Neill
    Bard O'Neill on Insurgency, Terrorism and the Iraq War

    An expert on insurgencies talks about what history tells us about rebellions like the one in Iraq, why the U.S. seemed unprepared for the violent opposition there, and why the killing might not stop for decades.


    Bard E. O'Neill, a former Air Force officer and now a professor at the National Defense University, teaches future military leaders about insurgencies and is the author of "Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare," a new edition of which will be published in 2005. The book is a meticulous analysis of the types of insurgencies, their goals and strategies, and why they succeed or fail. We talked with Professor O'Neil two days after the 2004 election to find out what the history of insurgencies tells us about the American dilemma in Iraq.


    Related links: Bard O'Neill bio
    State of the Nation

    Interviews about the state of our country from the election to the inauguration.

    • George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
    •  Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
    • Bard O'Neill on Insurgency, Terrorism and the Iraq War
    • Maurice Isserman on "America Divided"
    • Eric Foner on freedom
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    Insurgency & Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare


    The Deadly Embrace: The Impact of Israeli and Palestinian Rejectionism on the Peace Process

    Q: Let me ask you first about terrorism. If it's aimed at non-military targets, non-military victims, it's not aimed specifically at defeating the power structure. What is the goal of it?

    BARD E. O'NEILL: It is to, in the long term, serve the achievement of the ultimate strategic aim, whatever that might be. Terrorism will usually be directed at a target that has little, if anything, to do with the audience that's intended. So if you're on a bus in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, or you're in a building in New York City, or in a train in Madrid, essentially you're irrelevant. The victims are, for the most part, irrelevant.

    The audiences that these acts are designed to reach, vary. It could be the international community in general; it could be another state, or a faction within a state; if you are operating inside your own borders and it's against your own government, you may be trying to influence domestic public opinion, you may be trying to intimidate a segment of the population. You may also be trying to reach an audience within your own organization, to convince them to "stay the course."

    Q: It seems like the IRA might be one example.

    BARD E. O'NEILL: Sure. And I think it is important for Al Qaeda to act — they know that you will atrophy if you don't act, and Mao said this a long time ago so it's sort of standard wisdom. It depends at any point in time what the calculations are of the insurgent leadership — should we go for this, who should we attack and what should our objectives be? What audiences do we want to reach?

      It is important for Al Qaeda to act — they know that you will atrophy if you don't act, and Mao said this a long time ago so it's sort of standard wisdom.
    The objectives will range from extracting money, freeing prisoners, a very familiar one is gaining publicity, destroying a peace process, being a player in a peace process, shoring up your own organization, which we've just mentioned, undermining a rival organization by demonstrating you can act and they can't. In other words, you follow up the act with propaganda that demeans a rival and hopefully it benefits you. So there are all kinds of objectives — and therefore, it is difficult to generalize about objectives. Each act or series of acts has to be looked at on their own terms very carefully, to see exactly what it is you think these guys are doing.

    Q: So if there are terrorist acts going on in Iraq, if we hear about a bombing against civilians or something like that, that serves purposes such as keeping the insurgency moving?

    BARD E. O'NEILL: Sure. It keeps the momentum of the insurgency. It probably gains you recruits. It may also give you an advantage over rivals. It may give you an advantage inside an organization. One can argue, for example, that [Abu Musab al] Zarqawi's beheadings and bombings and deliberate killings of civilians are designed not just to contribute to the long-term objective of creating pressure on, essentially, the United States and its coalition to get out of Iraq, but in the short to medium term, is designed to intimidate Iraqis who might support us — that's one thing, to end that support. They've been explicit about that.

    Second objective would be to enhance the stature of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — at the expense of Osama bin Laden, perhaps. Zarqawi continues to emerge as a name with recognition and importance, and we know that there have been frictions between Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi. Now, it is also true that Zarqawi has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, and that doesn't remove the potential rivalry within the movement because sooner or later Osama bin Laden will be gone from the scene, and that's a big question with regard to Al Qaeda. If tomorrow we picked up [Ayman al] Zawahiri and Bin Laden, what would the power struggle be like inside Al Qaeda, inside the broader Islamic nebula that Al Qaeda supports? In that context, if Zarqawi's around, he's now a major player, it seems to me — or at least he thinks he will be by virtue of his notoriety and his attacks. So that's another objective. I would also imagine he's got personal, psychological objectives. He's developed a tremendous hatred for the West, and this is a way of giving vent to that.

    So, you know, it's a complicated thing, and therefore his actions in Iraq serve multiple purposes. I've enumerated a few of them — I suppose if we sat here and went through a long list we could tick off others. But that's the way I would look at his attacks on noncombatants and civilians — as serving multiple purposes, not the least of which are his own purposes in terms of power, influence, prestige, etc.

    If tomorrow we picked up [Ayman al] Zawahiri and Bin Laden, what would the power struggle be like inside Al Qaeda, inside the broader Islamic nebula that Al Qaeda supports? If Zarqawi's around, he's now a major player — or at least he thinks he will be by virtue of his notoriety and his attacks.  

    Q: You talk about a lot of insurgencies in Africa and Latin America that can go on for a long time and be effective because they have a terrain that's conducive to operating under cover. And you say it's extremely difficult for an insurgency to succeed in a desert area.

    BARD E. O'NEILL: It's difficult if they try to fight in the desert. That's true, as the Polisario found out in the western Sahara once the Moroccans got their act together. It's a difficult environment if you're going to use a military-focus strategy or protracted-popular-war strategy, because both of those tend to entail guerrilla attacks, for the most part. And those, in turn, require bases, and the bases have to be somewhat significant to sustain guerrilla operations — and certainly to support an escalation of guerrilla operations. Creating bases in open terrain is a very, very difficult business.

    Q: Why exactly are bases so important?

    BARD E. O'NEILL: Well, because you need places where you have combat-support functions for the guerrillas. They have to be fed. They have to get medical attention. They have to have places to rest and refit. They have to have places to go for their ideological training, whatever it might be. All of this stuff was certainly operative with Mao. Mao would say, you can't fight using my kind of strategy without substantial bases. Guerrilla forces need bases.

    Terrorists are different — they're broken down into small cells. It could be three to five to ten people. When you're talking about guerrilla forces, you're generally dealing with sizeable units, and those can vary from a hundred — I'm giving you a ballpark figure — on up to, when I was in Vietnam, 3,000. We had regiments north of where I was that were guerrilla forces. They hit and run. That was their kind of attacks against military and police and so on — they were here and gone. So they vary in size, but the key thing for all of them was the need for bases. You need the supplies, the combat support functions, to secure your leadership, to secure your planners, and so that's what bases are all about.

    If you're engaged in urban warfare or if you're following a conspiratorial strategy, of course, you don't need those kinds of things, because low-level violence is what you have with conspiracy, and with urban warfare it's primarily terrorism. And the kind we see with ETA, Provos — the provisional wing of the IRA — the fighting communist cells, we've got a long list of these urban insurgents that we have been dealing with for the last 30 years or so. So there, we're not talking about bases because the strategies don't call for bases, so it depends on the strategy.

    Continued: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Next

    NOVEMBER 24, 2004

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