Insurgents: Then and Now

Today’s transnational networked insurgents (TNIs) like al-Qaeda, are a world apart from yesterday’s Vietcong (VC); a mere glance at the table below confirms the differences between the two. A somewhat closer look, however, indicates four possible points of intersection. Both VC and TNIs

  • have defined ideologies and clear political goals;
  • offer no good targets where the adversary can potentially use tactical nuclear weapons effectively, while having access to multiple good targets to attack;
  • enjoy the advantage of a mobile, dispersed and adaptive organizational and operational character; and,
  • have access to money, weapons, and sanctuaries.

One purpose of the following table is to help explore the usefulness and limits of historical lessons in the conduct of the current ‘global war on terrorism (WOT)’ led by the United States. Another way of thinking about the WOT is provided by Professor Dyson’s commentary on the JASON report. Referring to the main conclusions of the “historical analysis of limited wars” contained in the still classified OREGON TRAIL report, Dyson notes that one of the main conclusions of the section was that when “the imperial power spent the major part of its money and resources on military operations, the imperial power usually lost the war. When the imperial power spent more money and effort on civilian measures intended to improve the quality of life for the natives, the imperial power usually won.”

Guerrilla Warfare
Global Warfare
Al Qaeda
Goal Achieve national independence. Create conditions for the capture of state power in Islamic countries by ideologically like-minded forces.
Ideology Revolutionary: Anti-colonial nationalism combined with socialist/communist ideals. Reactionary: Pan-Islamism combined with a fundamentalist vision of an idealized, ahistorical Islamic past.
Theater of Operations Defined national boundary and regional locale, urban and rural. Global; primarily urban.
Strategy and Tactics Maintain and expand mass support; morally isolate the enemy; keep internal cohesion; employ terror selectively; and out-administer the enemy. Political factors have primacy over military factors; guerrillas conduct a large number of small operations over a defined territory to harass, attack, disperse, and exhaust the enemy. Maintain and expand a global network of groups; conduct few high impact, preferably coordinated, operations; use large-scale, indiscriminate and targeted terror as an instrument of war. Conduct political campaigns by combining military operation with means of global mass communication.
Social Base Primarily rural with pockets of urban middle class. Core group primarily from urban middle to upper class. Support among many Muslim youths in cities and tradition-bound tribal areas.
Sanctuary Primarily villages with, in some instances, areas under the control of a third party. Urban areas; remote stateless parts of Asia and Africa.
Weapons Mostly traditional small arms; some innovations like jumping landmines and spiked pits to injure – not kill – the enemy soldier to create demoralization and put strain on resources. Modern arms such as surface-air missiles employed where possible. Large variety of high and low-technology modern weapons; innovative matching of weapons with targets.
Adversaries US military and its local allies. Most states (though states’ opposition range from very weak to strong); organizations and individuals in Islamic countries presenting ideological challenges.
Attack Targets Localized; primarily military and political. Global; civilian, infrastructural, and military, iconic targets suitable for media amplification.
TargetsOffered Local insurgents present no good targets for large-scale attack. Globally networked units present no good targets for large-scale attack.
Use of WMD No evidence of active consideration; possible reliance on Chinese/Soviet extended nuclear deterrence. Efforts to acquire; large number of good targets; stated willingness to use in “retaliation.”
Internal Constraints Necessity of maintaining strong mass support; limited financial and military resources. Necessity of deep secrecy; dependence on global financial, political and military networks.
External Constraints Need to maintain support of China and the Soviet Union; limited supply lines across borders. International border controls and networked law enforcement agencies. Limited and strongly contested support within civil societies.
External Support China, Soviet Union, international civil society. Global network of religious parties and organizations; wealthy individuals; (occasionally) states or elements within it.
Global Political Context Bi-polar world; worldwide anti-colonial movements; socialism as a viable, attractive ideology. Unipolar world; rapid integration of national markets and economies into a global capitalist system and consequent social dislocations; exhaustion of political alternative in the developing world; increasing political, cultural and moral isolation of Islamic states from their people; external control of national resources.

Basic Resources On Guerrilla Warfare And Modern Insurgent Groups

Classic works on guerrilla warfare are by Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara. Gerard Chaliand’s (ed) Guerrilla Strategies (1982) is a good, basic collection. Guerrilla Warfare (1985) by John Pimlott (ed) and Conflict of Myths: The Development of American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and the Vietnam War by Larry E. Cable (1986) are useful for analysis from US military perspective. Understanding Guerrilla War (1961), a short primer by Major Johnie Gombo, is available online at:

There are no authoritative books or articles on al-Qaeda. The al-Qaeda Documents: Vol. 1 by Ben Venzke (2002) has some interesting primary material. Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (2001) gives a good account of the Afghan Jihad that was the staging ground for al-Qaeda. Inside Al Qaeda (2002) by Rohan Gunaratna has much information though it is difficult to judge the correctness of information. A good set of information and links to articles on al-Qaeda is available at The court records available at of the trail of the suspects involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar al-Salaam, Tanzania provides some interesting insights into al-Qaeda.

Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy by John Arquilla and David F. Ronfeldt (Eds, 2001) and Unrestricted Warfare by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, February 1999) are very interesting treatments of emerging unconventional warfare strategies. A good bibliography of essays and books on asymmetrical warfare is available at

The Nautilus Institute’s Special Policy Forum contains two solid articles: “Al Qaeda’s Nuclear Program: Through the Window of Seized Documents” by David Albright examines al-Qaeda efforts at acquiring nuclear weapons and “Deterrence and the Contemporary Situation in the Middle East” explores whether terrorists can be deterred.

Finally, Nautilus’ South Asia Nuclear Dialogue newsletter regularly covers reports and analysis on al-Qaeda appearing in South Asian press.