Terrorism and Asymmetrical Warfare International and
Regional Implications

Contributing Editor Air Marshal (Retd) AYAZ AHMED KHAN does a detailed analysis on the implications of terrorism.


The title “asymmetric warfare” given to terrorism and guerilla warfare enables a scientific study of the phenomenon of terrorism, which has gripped the world since September 11, 2001. Terrorism, guerilla warfare and wars between unequals now called asymmetric warfare is not something new. These are a part of human history. It can be a war between a state and a group of diehard terrorists, or committed patriots who are seeking their legitimate rights by armed struggle. The old observation that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, could be applied to the freedom struggles in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Palestine and Chechnya.  But there are several instances of small groups of terrorists who bomb and gun down innocent civilians in wars of vengeance.

The war between Afghan Mujahidin and the Red Army ( 1979-89) was a classical example of “asymmetric warfare”. Here the weaker adversary prevailed, because the stronger i.e. the Soviet Union could not sustain the attrition, the casualties, and the economic cost of the war. US and Pakistan’s support was a decisive factor. The Zionist movement in Palestine was terrorist in nature. It was an asymmetric war in the beginning, but gathered momentum because of material and moral support of the United States, UK and European countries. The Palestine struggle for statehood is an example of a prolonged asymmetric war in pursuit of legitimate rights. Israel could neither end the 1987-93 Intifada on its terms, nor in the current uprising could find an effective way to crush the Palestinian resistance. In the asymmetric war between the Chechens and Russia the Chechens were defeated, because they were fighting a major power, were besieged, and had no channel of outside support.

Asymmetric War Scenarios

Mao Zedong’s famous dictum that “the guerilla swims like a fish in the sea of the people”, could be applied to the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War proves that asymmetric war against a super power could be won with the support of the masses. In the latest asymmetric war in Afghanistan, the Taliban were defeated, because they neither had the support of Afghan masses, nor could muster any outside support. Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan collapsed in the face of US and Coalition air power. Hamas, Islamic Jehad, Abu Nidals Al Fatah Group, the Hawari Group, and pro-Libya and Pro-Syria Arab Fadayeen have been engaged in asymmetric struggle against Israeli occupation since decades. The Hamas attacks on Israeli civil and military targets forced Israel out of South Lebanon, and the Al-Fatah struggle succeeded to project the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause. The Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan  (IMU), Algeria’s Islamic group, the Salafist Preaching and Combat group, the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines the Chechens and the Catalan Red Liberation Army have waged asymmetric wars and inflicted sustained material and psychological damage on their adversaries. But these groups have failed in what they have set out to achieve.

The asymmetric warfare is now targeted against the US for its total support for Israeli aggression and occupation of Arab lands. On September 11, 2001 Al-Qaeda attacked America in total secrecy and inflicted grievous damage by asymmetric warfare on the heart of Untied States. The material and psychological damage inflicted on the United States has made the world unsafe.  The whole world appears vulnerable to terrorist and suicidal attacks. The American led war against terrorism spear headed by air power has eliminated the Taliban regime, destroyed the Al-Qaeda turned Afghanistan into rubble, but the fear of terrorist strikes and asymmetric warfare remains. Terrorism will be around unless its causes are rectified.

Asymmetric War against Pakistan

Ethnic, religious and sectarian  terrorism has afflicted Pakistan since two decades.  Foreign funded saboteurs and ethnic and religious extremists have indulged in terrorism with the motive to destabilize national polity.  Kidnappings and killings, spraying of bullets in mosques, gunning down pedestrians and bomb blasts in market places is the ugly face of asymmetric war waged against Pakistan by Indian intelligence agencies and rabid extremists. Klashnikov drug culture, and religious violence is the fallout of two decades of civil war in Afghanistan. Private armies and well-armed lashkars were formed for Jehad in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The Jihadi parties could not be controlled and become a menace for national security. In early November, Mullah Sofi Mohammad of TSNM assembled a ten thousand strong Lashkar, blockaded Karakorum highway for several days, took forcible control of the district administration and the airport at Chilas, and caused a rebellion in Kohistan. He later took his Lashkar to Afghanistan in support of the Taliban. Out of the ten thousand pro-Taliban Jihadi’s only five hundred have returned alive. Indian subversion, religious fanaticism, sectarianism, culture of violence and terrorism continue to threaten public safety and national security. Law and order has been seriously disrupted and Pakistan has been turned into a soft state.

Asymmetric War in Kashmir

In the asymmetric war in occupied Kashmir, the lightly armed Kashmiri freedom fighters are confronting seven hundred thousand strong Indian Army and para-military forces. In this asymmetric war the Kashmir freedom fighters have suffered but India has failed to subdue and silence the Kashmiris. India now is trying to tarnish and crush the freedom struggle by virulent propaganda that it is Pakistan sponsored terrorism.  Terrorism has been used as an instrument of state policy by India since 1989 to crush the Kashmiri’s asymmetric war for freedom. Suicide bombings by Indian renegades or desperate militants is a dangerous dimension in the asymmetric war in Occupied Kashmir. The suicidals are trying to hijack the Kashmiris’ freedom struggle, and this has a dangerous fall out for Pakistan. Massacres in Held Kashmir were perpetrated by the Indian intelligence agencies, but Pakistan was immediately blamed by Delhi. Pakistan was blamed for the suicide bombings of the Kashmir Assembly on October 12, and of Indian Parliament on December 13. These incidents are being used as a pretext by India for aggression against Pakistan. Entire India’s military power i.e. Army, Air Force and Navy is now poised along the common border and the L.O.C for a major war against Pakistan. Unable to contain the freedom  struggle, India is resolved to make Pakistan pay the price for the asymmetric war being waged by the Kashmiri freedom fighters. How to safeguard the Kashmir cause, and national sovereignty is a major challenge for the government and the people of Pakistan.

The Asymmetric War in Palestine

State terrorism is part of the Israeli policy in the Middle East, especially in its dealings with the Palestinians. This has given rise to an asymmetric warfare called “Intifadas”. With overwhelming military power, and superior technology Israel has done massive damage to Palestinian life and property. In this asymmetric war which has raged since decades, the end is not in sight. Palestinian Fidayeen or suicide bombers are no match for Israel which has full support of the United States and other Western powers. In recent weeks Israeli military response to Palestinian suicide bombing attacks has been brutal and ruthless. The asymmetric war in Palestine is the cause of world wide terrorism since decades. Israel supported by the US has labelled Palestinian resistance as terrorism, and demanded its end. In this asymmetric war the weaker is the loser. Because of the asymmetric war, the Palestinians have paid a very heavy price, and have achieved little so far. Yet Israel is unable to claim victory in this asymmetric war.

Osama Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda

Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda group has been engaged in an asymmetric war against the United States since 1993. Al-Qaeda is an international terrorist movement. It is allied to several extremist groups world wide. Supported by Mullah Omar it also drew support and strength from the about fifty thousand Afghan war veterans, including the Taliban. Al-Qaeda has cells in many countries including: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Uzbekistan, Syria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Lebanon, Iran, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Kosovo, West Bank and Gaza, UK, USA, France, Spain and Germany. Osama’s assets reportedly are worth 300 million dollars, but Al-Qaeda has money making front organizations, which collect donations for it. Osama and Al-Qaeda’s bank accounts and assets have been frozen in the US and in many other countries.

Its defeat in Afghanistan does not mean its end, because mushroom group all over the world, reportedly in sixty countries are its adherents.

Terrorist Attacks by Al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda seems to have a hand in almost every terrorist act world wide since 1993. Al-Qaeda’s major terrorist attacks were: February 26,1993 — World Trade Centre bombing in New York that left six dead and one thousand New Yorkers injured — 1994 Bombing of Philippine Airline that killed one and hurt ten. 1995 — Assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during his visit to Ethiopia. November 13, 1995 — Car bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed five American servicemen. June 26,1996 — Terrorist bombing attack on Khobar military barracks in Dharan, Saudi Arabia that killed 19 US soldiers,  and wounded four hundred Saudi citizens and US servicemen. August 7, 1998 — Bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 235 people including ten US diplomats and injured 5,500 local citizens. December 1999 — Jordanian intelligence uncovers an Al-Qaeda plot to bomb US installations during millennium celebrations. October 12, 2000 — Suicide bombing attack on U.S.S Cole in Yemen harbour that killed 19 US Navy sailors and injured 39. The U.S.S. Cole, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer equipped with Aegis battle management system and thus one of the world’s most sophisticated warships, was severely damaged by two men in a small rubber boat, killing 19 US sailors and wounding 39. A state of the art vessel designed to protect a carrier battle group against all incoming threats, equipped with powerful defences was totally disabled by two men, and had to be towed all the way back to the US.

Attack on America

On September 11, 2001 the massive attack unleashed against America the only super power, by nineteen hijackers of Arab background was executed with demonic professional efficiency. Simultaneous hijacking of four passenger jets, and ramming them into the most  vulnerable part of the twin towers of the 110 storey World Trade Centre and into Pentagon, surely required years of research, training by dedicated terrorists of high expertise. They took fullest advantage of the lack of security at Boston, J.F.K. and Newark airports. The long distance passenger liners with quarter  million pounds of jet fuel each, when ignited on impact had the explosive power of tactical nuclear weapons. About five thousand office workers including four thousand three hundred American citizens were killed instantaneously. This terrorist attack in the heart of Manhattan has created deep anger and a sense of insecurity among the US leaders and the public. It has shaken America out of its belief that mainland America was invulnerable to aggression. US federal and state governments, and all US institutions, especially the banking, investment, trading, consumer and airline industry suffered billions of dollars in losses. These bombing attacks were part of the asymmetric war Osama bin Laden and the

Al-Qaeda had waged against the United States.

The September 11 attacks on the United States were the epitome of asymmetric warfare says Richard Norton Taylor Security Editor of Guardian London. “A few pilots armed with Stanley cutter knives launched an assault on the world’s only super power, with its arsenal of nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, aircraft carriers, bombers equipped with state of the art weapons and self-defence technologies.” In the asymmetric war Al-Qaeda’s had imposed unacceptable death and destruction on the United States of America. This would inspire hate filled terrorists to cause still greater devastation, perhaps by using weapons of mass destruction. By unusual tactics the terrorists destroyed symbols of American financial and military power. But the terrorists were made to pay a heavy price. They have been killed by the thousands in the aerial bombing of Afghanistan The Taliban and the Al-Qaeda have been crushed. President George Bush Junior has vowed to destroy international terrorism. But have the terrorists learnt a lesson? Fear hate and revenge is ingrained in terrorism American resolve to defeat terrorism by a sustained war will hopefully bring an end to this scourge. But the world will have to reach out to help frightened and insecure people to overcome their grievances and fears.

That the US the only super-power is so vulnerable, has caused shock waves which will take time to settle. Such attacks will be planned in the future with greater innovative skills to exploit the vulnerabilities of the strong. Outgoing New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani has said that he expected another terrorist attack on the city. “I anticipate another attack, and try as much as I can, I cannot figure out  what it would be, where it would be, are we prepared for it, are we doing all the things that we can to prepare for it or prevent it”. America continues to feel highly vulnerable.

The Motivation behind Al-Qaeda Terrorism

Al-Qaeda has emerged as the most organized and motivated terrorist organization during the last decade. During the ten years of Mujahidin-Soviet war in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda were adequately funded by the C.I.A. and other agencies. He was a leading pro-American and pro-Mujahidin foreign warrior who fought the Red Army till Soviet occupation was defeated. But after 1992 he fell out with the US. After Soviet exit from Afghanistan, Osama’s services were no more required. He was jettisoned by Washington along with his Al-Qaeda. With the end to the generous flow of US Dollars into his pockets, Osama decided to blackmail and bite his benefactors. In an open letter to King Fahd on August 3,1995, Osama alleged lack of commitment to Sunni-Wahabi Islam, squandering of public funds and oil money, inability to conduct a viable defence policy, and dependence on non-Muslims for protection. He called for guerilla attacks to drive US forces out of Saudi Arabia. Why did Osama resort to this calumny in 1995 and not before is a moot question. On July 10, 1996 in his statement to daily “Independent” London, Osama Bin Laden said, “Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producer, yet it is suffering from taxes and bad services. Now people understand the sermons of the ulema’s urging them to kick the Americans out of Saudi Arabia, for making this country their colony. He talked or, “the huge anger of Saudi people against America... The Saudi’s now know that their real enemy is America”. He was all praise for  the Saudi rulers and America before. America and Saudi Arabia became the targets of Osama’s wrath after his funds and services were terminated. His hate filled “fatwas”, affected the minds of extremist Ulema’s and unwary, susceptible and frustrated youth especially in the Arab countries.

On August 23, 1996 after he was expelled from Sudan, Osama issued a, “Declaration of War Against Americans who Occupy the Land of the Two Holy Mosques”. He declared, “Muslims burn with anger at America. For its own good America should leave Saudi Arabia. There is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the Holy Land”. He urged Saudi’s to wage an armed struggle against “the invaders”. He advocated that, “DUE TO IMBALANCE OF POWER BETWEEN OUR ARMED FORCES AND THE ENEMY FORCES SUITABLE MEANS OF FIGHTING MUST BE ADOPTED, i.e. USING FAST MOVING LIGHT FORCES THAT WORK UNDER COMPLETE SECRECY. IN OTHER WORDS TO INITIATE A GUERILLA WAR, WHERE THE SONS OF THE NATION, AND NOT THE MILITARY FORCES TAKE PART”. With this declaration made on August 23, 1996 Osama bin Laden had launched his asymmetric war against the United States of America. He had comprehended the principals of asymmetric warfare, which were successfully employed in subsequent Al Qaeda terrorist attacks.

Illegitimacy of Terrorism

Terrorism when called asymmetric warfare acquires a kind of legitimacy, it does not deserve. In her book “Terrorism in the Twenty First Century”, Cindy C. Combs defines terrorism as, “A synthesis of war, a dramatization of most proscribed form of violence — that is perpetrated on innocent victims and is played before an audience in the hope of creating fear for political purpose”. Clearly violence to draw the attention of millions, even hundreds of millions is endemic to terrorism. The motive of the terrorists is to create widespread fear and terror by surprise and shock, by doing unthinkable outrage and horror in pursuit of political goals. Killing innocents is collateral damage for the terrorists, and they remain unconcerned at the death and destruction they inflict on ordinary people who have done them no harm.

Osama and Al-Qaeda did not realize that crime cannot be justified by committing more crime and killing innocent people. Terrorism cannot be justified by responding to state terrorism by suicide bombings of civilian life and property. Hate and revenge clearly was the motive of Osama and Al-Qaeda in their asymmetric war on America and American people. He had a deep psychotic grouse to hurt America and the Americans. All terrorists have a grievance or a grouse, some time justified, more often totally unjustified. In March 1997 in an interview to the CNN Bin Laden said, “We have declared Jihad against the US Government, for it has committed hideous and criminal acts directly and through its support of the Israeli occupation”. That the festering Palestine problem is the cause of much of terrorism worldwide, needs serious attention of the US Administration and of the government of Israel.

Guerilla Warfare Versus Terrorism

Guerrilla warfare is different from terrorism. General George Grivas founder head of Cypriot EOKA asserted in his memoirs that, “We did not strike like a bomber at random. We only shot British servicemen, who would have killed us if they could have fired first. We shot civilians who were traitors or intelligence agents”. The Kashmiri freedom fighters are guerrilla fighters in the classical sense. They target Indian military personnel, renegades and traitors, command headquarters, installations, vehicles and bunkers. They ambush and attack military patrols, convoys, munition stores, and POL dumps. It is hoped that the asymmetric guerilla war in Kashmir does not explode into a full scale war between the two nuclear armed neighbours.

Both terrorism and guerilla wars are asymmetric warfare, but terrorism is distinguished from guerilla warfare by deliberate attacks on innocent persons, and the separation of the victims from the ultimate goal. David Fromkin states that, “An ordinary murderer kills someone he wants dead, but a terrorist will kill with complete indifference to him whether the person lives or dies”. Thus the act of terror is far more heinous than the act of murder. “To get anywhere you have to walk over the corpses.” This ruthless declaration by Ilyvich Ramirez Sanchez in 1975 while forcibly holding eleven OPEC Ministers as hostages reflects the ugly face of international terrorism. Terrorism can never be justified, even when waged as a asymmetric war. Terrorism targets innocent third parties in an effort to coerce the adversary into desired political course of action. Guerilla War can be justified but not terrorism, even when named asymmetric war. Terrorism is a war against humanity. It must be eradicated by solving the root cause, by keeping close vigilance on its instigators, and by dealing firmly with the perpetrators before they strike.

Effect of Suicide Attacks on Asymmetric Wars

Having suffered heavy casualties and destruction at the hands of state sponsored terrorism, genuine freedom struggles for self-determination and statehood have turned into Intifada’s and guerilla wars. Frustrated youths are becoming suicide bombers to avenge the slaughters of their kith and kin and comrades. These so-called terrorists are patriots and freedom-fighters who are sacrificing their lives for the sake of their cause. Asymmetric warfare has been the methodology of last resort for liberation movements, when facing occupation and exploitation by fascist regimes. Unfortunately asymmetric warfare in Occupied Kashmir and Palestine is becoming self-demolishing. The negative world response to suicide bombings and terrorist attacks on civilians is the reason of their failure. Such senseless attacks must be stopped. The line between the freedom struggle and terrorism is becoming blurred because suicide bombers are killing civilians. Terrorism directed against civil targets is a clear negation of the aims and methodology of freedom struggles for political and economic rights.

Terrorism a Global Phenomenon

Terrorism is a global phenomenon, and all countries must gear up their resources, and cooperate to deal with this menace. The terrorist attacks of September 11 on the US symbols of financial and military prowess were forecast fairly accurately by eminent scholars in the United States some years earlier. Clark L Staten Executive Director of Emergency Response and Research Institute (ERRI) USA in his research paper of 27 April 1998 titled “Asymmetric warfare, the Evolution and Devolution of Terrorism” has concluded that “Terrorism will remain a major transnational problem. It will be driven by continued ethnic, religious, nationalist, separatist, political and economic motivations. Future conflicts in the near term may not involve massive number of troops to fixed battle zones. But will involve combating small numbers of fanatical terrorists using WMD’s i.e. weapons of mass destruction and other sophisticated technologies and tactics. They will have to be destroyed before they strike. It would appear that smaller splinter groups are breaking from the main force body. These ultra radicals have become the enforcers of the extreme ends of an ideology or belief, and it is they who use unconventional tactics to carry out heinous acts. This devolution of terrorist organizations into smaller compartmentalized groups makes detection of these small cells increasingly more difficult, and intelligence gathering and analysis efforts even more valuable. There are terrorist cells of what he calls “sapper squads”, that are put together just for the purpose of committing one act and then disbanded for dispersing back into the population of a friendly nation”. ERRI had recognized that the plan for the World Trade Centre bombing of 1995 had obscured the identities of the perpetrators, enabling their escape and evasion to further complicate the process of ascertaining their motives. Such asymmetric warfare strategy confuses the issue of tracing ties between the operatives to global terrorist organizations or states, who sponsor, finance and offer refuge to these killers. International legal and moral justification of military retaliation by the victim state may also become even more difficult, if not impossible.” He adds that, “By the advent of the 21st century many of the conflicts facing the United States and her allies will be of an asymmetrical and devolving nature. It is also likely that the threats will come from diverse and differing vectors. Particularly of concern is the possibility that conventional terrorism and low intensity conflict will be compounded by computer/infrastructure attacks that may cause damage to vital commercial, military and government information and communications networks. All countries will become increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks from its adversaries i.e. terrorist organizations. Developed countries must anticipate computer generated terrorist attacks against military installations, electrical/ and nuclear power plants, water installations, banking systems, information and emergency response systems, vital infrastructure like bridges, airports, rail junctions. The terrorist enemy could use multiple tactics involving conventional explosives, and or chemical, biological, and nuclear devices. Even a country as large and sophisticated as the United States could suffer greatly at the hands of an educated, equipped, trained and committed group of fewer than fifty people. Such an attack could realistically cause and effect vastly disproportionate destruction to the resources expended to undertake it.”


Asymmetric wars are being waged for political, religious, ethnic, economic and criminal reasons. Terrorism as asymmetric warfare threatens global security today. Suicide bombings is an extremely dangerous dimension of asymmetric warfare, and everything must be done to stop these. All nations must unite and extend support to the United States and to the United Nations in the war against terrorism. But some countries are taking advantage of the prevailing anger against terrorism to settle scores with their weaker adversaries and neighbours. Israel has labeled the Palestinian struggle for statehood as terrorism. And India very cleverly has used this opportunity to label the Kashmir cause and the Kashmiri’s freedom struggle as Pakistan sponsored terrorism. This is unjust. Under this motivated pretext India is all set to impose a major war on Pakistan. It is the responsibility of all states especially of the United States of America to see that legitimate aspirations, fundamental rights of Palestinians and of the Kashmiri’s are not trampled under foot by Israel and India. Asymmetric wars, guerilla warfare, and even terrorism cannot be eradicated by crushing the legitimate rights of aggrieved people. Extremist groups like Al-Qaeda will keep sprouting and will continue their asymmetric struggles till justice is done to the aggrieved. The United States cannot become a permanent global cop. A just world order is the best solution to defeat terrorism and bring an end to asymmetric wars.

1. Terrorism in the Twenty First Century — Cindy C. Combs
2. Terrorism — the Newest face of Warfare — Donald H. Hane
3. The Terror Network — Clare Sterling
4. International Terrorism — Augustus R. Norton
5. International Terrorism — Amrith Rohan Perera
6. Asymmetric Warfare, the Evolution and Devolution of Terrorism — Clark L. Staten Executive Director and Senior Research Analyst, Emergency Response and Research Institute.
7. Asymmetric Warfare — The Estimate Nov 03-2000
8. Osama Bin Laden’s “Fatwas” — Washington Post 23 August 1998.