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This was my Bandar Essay, written on 19 March 2002 while studying to become an Officer at the Royal Air Force College. If you are not interested in Military Theory, read no further!


Karl von Clausewitz was a Prussian general who wrote On War, a collection of his theories on the nature of War. These theories are now followed keenly by many military leaders and historians, and they provide us with one of the most effective ways of describing the nature and causes of War.

  Today the world faces a threat different to that of international conflict. The dangers of Communism and the risks posed by any deterioration in the East-West relationship, which dominated military strategy in the West from the mid-twentieth Century until the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991, is no longer present. The greatest threat now comes from terrorism in all its forms – from extreme fascist or communist groups such as Combat 18, through activism as seen with violent minority campaigners, to radical religious fundamentalism. The latter now seems to be the most serious, after al-Qa’ida’s devastating attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001. Terrorism presents different issues to those of conflict between nation states, and these issues make terrorism more difficult to combat effectively. It is a relatively new threat, so it may seem that the study of traditional theories on War is likely to be ineffective when applied to the analysis of terrorism. When Clausewitz wrote On War it was unthinkable that minority organisations could kill and maim so indiscriminately.

  In this essay two areas will be examined:

            a.            Clausewitzian Creed Applied to Terrorism

            b.            How can Clausewitz Help us to Combat Terrorism?

Following the examination of these areas the conclusion will summarise the issues and state how, on the basis of the facts given, Clausewitz can help us to combat terrorism, if at all. Throughout the essay the emphasis will be on a theoretical battle between the Government and the Terrorists.


The aim of this essay is to identify ways in which Clausewitzian creed can help us in the fight against terrorism, if at all.


Clausewitz defined War by identifying those areas of War which are universally present when a War exists. The actual definitions are too numerous to include here, so only five will be considered in this essay. For each, I shall outline Clausewitz’s explanation and then apply it to terrorism.

War is the Continuation of Policy by Other Means. This requires little explanation, as history has shown that War is always waged in pursuance of political aims. A prime example would be the Second World War, which Hitler waged arguably in order to impose Nazism upon Europe, predominantly in pursuance of his political aim to create Lebensraum (“living space”) for the Aryan master race he intended to breed. This area most certainly applies to terrorism as well. It is possible to identify three areas which commonly motivate terrorism:

            a.            Religion. This, as has already been seen, is a major cause of terrorism. Organisations such as al-Qa’ida, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Aum Shanrikyo have all used terrorism in order to spread their often flawed versions of mainstream religions.

b.            Dogma. Organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan and other radical political, racial and prejudicial organisations have used terrorism in order to subdue opposition to their policies, which are formed from extreme political dogma.

c.            History. Historical disputes over territory or governance have led to the generation of terrorist organisations such as the Irish Republican Army and its various splinter groups and the Basque separatist movement Euzadki ta Askatsuna (ETA).

It is notable that these three areas are not mutually exclusive, and terrorists can fall into more than one category. The IRA, for example, falls into the historical and religious categories, as it has used the division between Protestantism and Catholicism in Ireland in order to excuse or justify some of its attacks (even though it is not the root cause for the IRA’s existence).

It can be seen, then, that terrorism is an instrument for the promotion of any of three main kinds of political aim.

War is Violent. This, again, is self-evident both in war and in terrorism.

War is the Province of Uncertainty. The phrase commonly used to explain this principle is the “Fog of War.” Simply, in War one can never be absolutely certain about what the Enemy plans, so it is nearly impossible to strategise without building in room for uncertainty. In wars such as the recent conflict in Afghanistan the added factors of guerrilla tactics and a hostile, complex landscape, can add to the uncertainty. This principle applies equally well to terrorism. Few could have predicted the Real IRA’s attack on Omagh, and nobody outside al-Qa’ida could possibly have predicted the 11 September 2001 attacks. The fundamental difference between War and Terrorism, however, lies in the fact that War is a linear event, with strategy following a set timescale. This makes it easier at least to guess what the enemy is likely to do next. It seems unreasonable to suspect, for example, that Hitler made no provision whatsoever for Stalin prolonging the battle on the Eastern Front to take advantage of the Russian winter. On a tactical level, this also suggests that the most likely time for attacks on the enemy is between midnight and dawn, when it can be easier to surprise him and when it is generally accepted that human capabilities are at their lowest ebb. Terrorists, however, can attack at any time. The date 11 September 2001 had no major significance before the attacks, and suggestions to the contrary are, at best, speculative. Therefore, the element of surprise and the constant presence of the threat of attack are both key to the success of terrorism and suggest that, almost as with War, terrorism is the bringer of uncertainty.

The aim of War is to Disarm the Opponent. This is borne out by the fact that many of the attacks made by the Allies against Germany during the Second World War were made to prevent the Germans from making effective use of their materiel and strategic advantages. In air power terms, suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD), air interdiction, offensive counter-air operatons and defensive counter-air operations all fulfil this fundamental requirement. Terrorists aim to fulfil this aim on an intangible front; instead of trying to destroy the Government’s ability to resist terrorism, terrorists attempt to reduce public support for the Government by showing it to be susceptible their attacks. This is analogous to disarming it, as a democratically elected government becomes impotent if it loses its popular mandate; this can be countered, however, by the fact that the Government may become resolved to the outright defeat of terrorism, and it could use this to its political advantage (as George W Bush's administration has demostrated).

War does not End until the Will of the Opponent has been Conquered. This is fundamental to winning a war. If the will of the Enemy to continue to wage War persists then, in one way or another, it is highly likely that War will recur. The very risk of this happening constitutes an unacceptable threat which must be guarded against, whether passively or actively. This has been shown to be the case in Afghanistan where, despite the overwhelming firepower of the United States, al-Qa’ida and Taleban fighters persisted long after the main War had been fought, simply due to that fact that the will to continue fighting for their Islamic Fundamentalist beliefs persisted. While the will of the Government to disarm the Terrorists exists, and vice versa, the War against Terrorism is not over.


Having studied, in narrow terms, ways in which we can apply Clausewitz’s theories to Terrorism we can now attempt to find ways to combat it. Clausewitzian creed has been applied with success to military campaigns in the past, whether deliberately or naturally, and when Clausewitz cannot be applied the result can be a degradation in performance or strategic capabilities. For example, by examining the point that the aim of war is to disarm the enemy we see how the application of SEAD, Air Interdiction and Operations for Strategic Effect bear out Clausewitz’s theory in this area; and the Luftwaffe’s blitzkrieg on London suggests that Goering's and Hitler's grand strategic aim was to conquer the will of the British to continue to fight against Germany. History has shown that Clausewitz’s ideas are accurate, and the study and implementation of Clausewitz’s strategic theories has helped military leaders to succeed in their objectives. Therefore, if Terrorism conforms so closely to Clausewitz’s theory of War it should be possible to use Clausewitz to defeat it.

The key elements to which the Government must devote attention are:

a.            War is the Province of Uncertainty

b.            The Aim of War is to Disarm the Opponent

c.            War does not End until the Will of the Opponent has been Conquered.

These can be dealt with on strategic, operational and tactical levels, and are key to the eventual defeat of the Terrorists, as demonstrated below.

War is the Province of Uncertainty. The Government needs to obviate this factor by making effective use of intelligence in order to reduce the Terrorists' ability to use surprise. Additionally, the Government can make use of innovative weaponry to surprise the Terrorists. This aim is fulfilled by ensuring that military strategy is built around well co-ordinated surprise attacks and innovation, that operational planning takes into account in-depth surveillance of the Terrorists and that tacticians can make the best possible use of reconnaissance. These have all been applied, with success, in Afghanistan. The US military strategy included the use of "compression bombs" in the Tora Bora region. These bombs, which work by forcing the air out of confined spaces such as caves in order to suffocate the enemy, had not been deployed against any enemy before. Therefore, the element of surprise, and the use of an innovative weapon, helped to ensure that the ways in which the military strategy would be implemented were unknown to the Taleban and al-Qa’ida fighters. Surveillance of the region by satellite, Canberra PR9s and other airborne surveillance platforms, enabled operational planners to decide which size units should attack which areas, and what sort of weaponry should be used. Finally, effective reconnaissance enabled section commanders to attack the enemy successfully, using information about the geography of the region and recent enemy movements. So, by reducing the "Fog of War" the Government can find easier ways to combat the Terrorists, and by using the element of surprise – one of the Principles of War in any case – the Government should find it easier to combat the Terrorists, even though they will always be able to use surprise to their own advantage.

The Aim of War is to Disarm the Opponent. This aim can help to expedite the Government's success by ensuring that the Terrorists have no way of providing effective resistance to Government attack. The Government, in fulfilling this aim, has to attack the Terrorists aggressively on several fronts. The means of attack are not necessarily military, and key possibilities are listed below:

a.            Attack the Finances of the Terrorists. In so doing the Government reduces the Terrorists' ability to purchase new weaponry, which effectively places a finite constraint on the ability of the Terrorists to deploy sufficient force to defeat the Government. This can be fulfilled by freezing or seizing assets, either of the Terrorists themselves or of their sponsors, and was used effectively by the US, UK and other allies in 2001, when several millions of dollars of al-Qa’ida's financial assets were frozen.

b.            Attack the Terrorists' Stores. If the location of the Terrorists' armoury, if it exists, is known, it is likely that the initial strike by the Government will be on such a location. This, again, prevents the Terrorists from rearming effectively. The UK has deployed special forces in Northern Ireland in the past in order to seek out IRA arms dumps in order to fulfil this form of attack.

c.            Attack Training Establishments. By reducing the ability of the Terrorists to use well-trained fighters the Government is, in effect, disarming the Terrorists, thus fulfilling the previous criterion. Indeed, the opening attacks against al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan were made against such establishments.

d.            Interdict Terrorist Supply Routes. By preventing the Terrorists' network from purchasing and replacing materiel the Government is, again, placing a constraint on the force available to the Terrorists. When the British Government discovered that the IRA was buying weaponry from former Yugoslav republics, it enacted effective measures to prevent this from happening.

War does not End until the Will of the Opponent has been Conquered.  This is, perhaps, the most difficult area to address, and requires military and diplomatic strategy in order to be effective. As long as the aims of the Terrorists have not been fulfilled, the will to perform acts of violence is likely to remain. Therefore, the will of the Terrorists must be totally crushed by military and diplomatic means.

One way to do this is to prove that, no matter how hard the Terrorists fight, the Government will not give in at all to their demands. This presents difficulties, however, when the Terrorists make only sporadic attacks, as did the IRA. Unless the Government can pursue a violent, ongoing military campaign against the Terrorists this method cannot work. The US clearly intended to make use of this method in crushing al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan; indeed, to do so it even had to cause an outright coup d'etat against the Taleban government. With the US so intent upon defeating al-Qa’ida that it was even willing to destroy a well-established dictatorship, it is clear that one of the grand strategic aims was to indicate to the Terrorists that their actions would never be tolerated. So this method can work, but not exclusively; it must be used as a part of grand strategy, but it should not dominate it.

Negotiation with the Terrorists presents a paradox as it is both an ideal and an imperfect situation. Positively, it reduces the level of violence which either side is deploying against the other, and in these days of the "CNN Factor" this is ideal. That the Terrorists can be defeated without bloodshed is the dream of many diplomats. However, negotiation by its nature involves compromise and this is unacceptable, as the Governments of the West are committed to totally rejecting Terrorists' demands. Additionally, negotiation may not necessarily conquer the will of the Terrorists; indeed, they could even feel that they have scored a victory over the Government, and this could result in further campaigns. Therefore, while there is a place for negotiation it must be used with great care.


In this essay it has been demonstrated that Terrorism is, in many ways, analogous to War as defined by Clausewitz and that consequently it conforms similarly to Clausewitzian creed. It has also been shown that by considering just five of Clausewitz's principles terrorism can be attacked effectively on many fronts. The main methods for the battle against the Terrorists discussed in this essay were:

a.            Make effective use of intelligence at all operational levels in order to reduce the Terrorists' ability to make use of the element of surprise effectively.

b.            Deploy innovative military techniques and equipment in order to surprise the Terrorists.

c.            Attack the finances of the Terrorists.

d.            Attack the stores of the Terrorists.

e.            Attack terrorist training establishments.

f.            Interdict terrorist supply routes.

g.            Deploy such tremendous and sustained force against the Terrorists that effective resistance is impossible.

h.            Negotiate (with care) with the Terrorists.

If used in conjunction with the ten Principles of War it seems likely that these various methods are likely to prove decisive or at least very useful in the ongoing, unpredictable War against Terrorism upon which NATO – and in particular the United States and United Kingdom – is likely to focus in the near future.

Terrorism provides one of the greatest threats to our society today. The effects of terrorist attacks are always horrendous, and the worst fact is that terrorism strikes at the very heart of Western values by assuming civilians to be viable targets. It is vitally important that every technique available is brought to bear against this great threat. By studying classical works such as On War and Sun Tzu's The Art of War we can relate Terrorism to War. This way it is possible to identify military techniques which can be deployed effectively against the Terrorists and, consequently, we can finally start to win the War against Terrorism.


Clausewitz, On War (London, 1918)

International Encyclopaedia of Terrorism (Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997)

Paret, P, Makers of Modern Military Strategy (Oxford, 1986)

Handel, MI, War, Strategy and Intelligence (Cass, 1989)

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