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Clausewitz in the Age of Terror

On War, Clausewitz’s nineteenth century tome best known for its characterization of war as “the continuation of policy by other means,” remains essential reading for twenty-first century strategists.  Behind his enduring popularity, however, remains the fact that Clausewitz developed his theories within the context of the Prussian military state and the Napoleonic Wars. As modern warfare shifts from conventional military institutions to non-state or quasi-state actors, On War’s prescriptions for tactics and strategy seem increasingly archaic. Nevertheless, Clausewitz’s writings can offer important insights into terrorist operations, particularly in the idea of the trinity of warfare.

The Battle of Hanau, by artist Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet (1824) Copyright © The National Gallery, London

The most famous Clausewitzian concept, the trinity is typically thought of as the three actors of warfare: Government, who set the political agenda; military, who carry out strategy; and people, who provide material and ideological support. This ‘PMG’ division of responsibilities is difficult to apply to terrorist organizations, whose operating structures are much more fluid than those of nation-states. A defining feature of terrorist groups is the demand for total ideological commitment, up to and including a willingness to die for the cause. The extremity of this position effectively blurs the line between civilians and combatants, an issue which has been addressed by other authors, challenging a clear delineation between government, military, and people.

It is important to remember, however, that the tripartite division of responsibility was not explicitly enumerated in On War. The strictly textual trinity is concerned not with the actors of warfare, but with its core elements: Passion, chance, and rationality. These concepts through which Clausewitz sought to understand the essence of war, hold applicability to all forms of combat, including terrorist activity. This is best demonstrated in structural aspects of terrorist organizations, notably operative training and network management.

Although ideological fervor permeates terrorist organizations at all levels of the group’s hierarchy, passion and chance are primarily the domains of active militants. Terrorist organizations put on premium on operatives that possess these two traits, a priority we see reflected in the dual-faceted training structure most common across terrorist organizations encompassing both “motivational training” and “operational training.”

Motivational training, or indoctrination, is intended to instill the group’s ideological tenets into its fighters. Building on the passionate language of pride, accomplishment, and dedication invoked in recruiting propaganda, motivational training is vital to ensuring ideological commitment throughout a terrorist organization. Operational training takes a more pragmatic approach, schooling recruits in the skills necessary to carrying out effective attacks. Even more than conventional military forces, terrorist militants operate in environments of extreme uncertainty, not only pursuing high-risk operations but doing so under conditions of complete secrecy and without the resources typically held by nation-states. As such, terrorist organizations train foot soldiers to maintain level-headedness in stressful environments.

Regardless of their ideological goals, all terrorist organizations rely on passion and chance to effectively mobilize and deploy fighters for their cause. As outlined by the training structure used by most groups, the former trinity component is an important factor in motivating militants while the later contributes to effective operational execution.

The final component of the trinity – and arguably the most important one for understanding terrorist organizations – is rationality.  Clausewitz notes that this factor is ordinarily tied to political decision-makers rather than military professionals, as rationality represents the ultimate aim of warfare. It is the element that makes combat a means to an end rather than a senseless bloodletting. Especially in the age of mass-casualty terrorism, it is easy to dismiss perpetrating groups as barbaric. Definitionally, however, terrorists commit acts of violence in pursuit of political ends. Understanding the leadership structure and decision-making processes behind such calculated strategies can advance an understanding of terrorist groups as a whole, and the organizational weaknesses through which they can be weakened.

Most modern terrorist groups operate at three levels of engagement: A core group of leaders; a network of local affiliates; and a broader movement of fighters and supporters prepared to carry out the group’s instructions. It is the hard core of bureaucratic and ideological leaders who set the political agenda, taking stock of the organization’s capabilities and identifying the enemy’s centers of gravity (also a concept introduced in On War) to communicate strategic priorities to the network and movement. This network structure which is both dispersed and hierarchical has contributed to the success of groups like the Islamic State, presiding over a geographically-dispersed network all working towards a single rational, ideological goal.  

Unlike many of his contemporaries, who crafted military theory as operative manuals for the armies of the day, Clausewitz set out to write On War as “a book that would not be forgotten after two or three years.” Instead, he sought to distill his theories into timeless lessons that approached an understanding of the fundamental nature of conflict. Assessing the principle of the trinity in the context of networked, transnational terrorist organizations – a setting utterly distinct from Clausewitz’s own experiences in 19th century Prussia – illustrates the success of his goals. The political and military faces of warfare have changed, but passion, chance, and rationality continue to underpin organized conflict, even in unconventional forms. 


Kathryn Urban

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