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Part I: Conceptual Framework of the War 2145 GMT, 010924


In responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Washington must face an enemy with numerous strengths while avoiding playing into the strategy of Osama bin Laden and his backers. To achieve its goals, the United States must create several theaters of operations, including in Afghanistan, North America and throughout the world. This week STRATFOR will closely analyze each theater and how the United States will operate there.


The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon paralyzed the New York financial markets for four days and shut down the air transport system completely for a similar period of time. The attacks also degraded the U.S. economy substantially, both by its direct effects on economic activity and by its impact on public confidence.

The attackers achieved full tactical and operational surprise, in spite of having lost strategic surprise. Strategically, the United States was aware that there was a group or several groups intending to carry out attacks against U.S. facilities globally. These groups had already struck in the past, and there was no basis for assuming that they would not strike again.

In spite of the loss of strategic surprise, the attackers were able to achieve operational surprise. They were able to develop war plans, infiltrate forces, distribute money and coordinate those forces once inside the United States, including sophisticated training for some. All this was done without detection. The attackers also achieved full tactical surprise. Prior to the attack the United States did not know that an attack was coming, when the attack was coming or where the attack was to take place.

Washington has asserted, with reason, that the attacks were organized by Al-Qa'ida, a group founded by Osama bin Laden. The United States must and will respond, but it must also take into account the strengths of its formidable enemy. For their part, bin Laden's forces and Afghanistan's ruling Taliban have likely developed a war plan to exploit the perceived weaknesses of the United States.

Several factors point to a degree of sophistication and dedication among the attackers that is extraordinary:

The attackers maintained operational security while moving personnel and large sums of money intercontinentally. They clearly understood the parameters of U.S. technical and human intelligence and had developed methods for evading them. The target set selected was designed for symbolic value, massive casualties and tremendous secondary effects. There is no reason whatever to believe the attackers did not understand the likely outcome of their actions. Operational security was not breached after the attacks. U.S. security and intelligence services clearly cannot be certain at this point whether other cells have been deployed in the United States and what their missions might be. If there are additional cells, they retain the advantage of tactical surprise at the moment. If there are not, the United States must still behave as if there are. The goals of Al-Qa'ida's members are essentially simple. They see the Islamic world as occupied by non-Islamic forces, either directly or through puppet regimes. They wish to end the occupation and unite Islam. The United States, as the leading power in the world and the patron of many Islamic regimes, is the center of gravity of the anti-Islamic world. If the United States can be broken, or at least expelled from the Islamic world, other anti-Islamic powers such as Russia, China and Israel will crumble.

Al-Qa'ida does not expect to destroy the United States directly. It fully understands the severe limits on its resources. Rather, bin Laden's strategy is to force the United States into a series of actions that will destabilize the governments of Washington's Islamic partners and lead to their collapse. For instance, such an outcome could occur for Islamic countries that cooperate -- due to pressure by Washington -- with the U.S. campaign against terrorism.

A collapse would likely force the United States into a direct occupation of these countries, exposing U.S. forces to attacks on terrain favorable to the enemy. In such an occupation, be it in Indonesia or Morocco, bin Laden is confident his forces could generate an uprising against the United States that would force its withdrawal.

Bin Laden does not believe the United States could defeat an uprising for several reasons. First, the experience of foreign powers in suppressing mass, popular uprisings has been poor. Second, although the United States has important interests in the Islamic world, they are not on a scale to justify the expense and casualties involved in a long-term occupation. Finally, bin Laden regards the United States as morally corrupt and incapable of major exertion in the face of adversity.

Given this, it must be assumed that bin Laden's forces and the Taliban, have developed a two-pronged war plan.

As the United States deploys forces into Afghanistan, they will be attacked as targets of opportunity, particularly in the early stages of any buildup. This will especially include attacks in northern Afghanistan where the Northern Alliance will undoubtedly host U.S. forces, as well as cross-border operations in neighboring countries hosting U.S. forces, including Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. These need not be large scale nor very successful. Their goal is to unbalance U.S. forces during the build-up and, most important, draw them deeper into Afghanistan in an effort to stop the attacks at their source. Within the United States, intermittent attacks against a variety of targets will continue, designed to destabilize U.S. psychology, create doubts about the capabilities of the United States government, drive home the costs of the war to the American public and generate confidence in the Islamic world. Given this, it would be logical to assume that other assault groups are already present in the United States, either awaiting activation or authorized to act on their own initiative. It is likely, given the extreme operational security maintained, that members of the support team of the first assault group are unaware of the existence of these other groups and that minimal, if any, communication is taking place between them and Al-Qa'ida. They have a natural advantage in that the defending forces are weakened by the fact that they cannot define the enemy's target set with any certainty, and therefore must dissipate forces. Since the targets vastly outnumber the defenders, Al-Qa'ida has created at least a temporary superiority. First Thoughts on the Counter-Attack

The United States appears to have three missions.

Prevent any further attacks against American assets by Al-Qa'ida. Kill Osama bin Laden and destroy Al-Qa'ida and all of its linked organizations on a worldwide basis. Punish all countries that have supported Al-Qa'ida, beginning with Afghanistan. In order to achieve these goals, the United States must create, at least notionally, three or more separate theaters of operation:

The Afghan Theater of Operations: The United States must define its strategic goal. This can range from killing Osama bin Ladin, to destroying Al-Qa'ida, to overthrowing the Taliban and occupying the major cities to occupying and pacifying Afghanistan. The issue is to match U.S. ambitions with U.S. resources and not play into bin Laden's own strategy. The North American Theater of Operations: Now being called Homeland Defense, the strategic goals of this theater are to seal of as much of North America as possible from further penetration of enemy forces, thereby creating an arena for destroying forces already present. In many ways, this is less of a military theater than a security theater. The Intercontinental Theater of Operations: It is understood that Al-Qa'ida has dispersed its operational assets globally. At this moment it is likely that each continent has several operational groups present. These groups must be identified and destroyed. This is also not primarily a military theater. Rather it is a theater in which intelligence and covert operations are critical. It is also the theater in which coalition cooperation is most essential and the most difficult to achieve. Follow-on Theaters of Operation: The United States has already suggested that, in due course, Iraq would be added to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It is bin Ladin's hope to add several other countries to that list. Indonesia is an excellent example of a country that is already destabilized, has a growing Islamic movement and is critical to U.S. interests. In other words, Follow-on Theaters of Operation may not be areas of American choosing. Each day this week we will discuss American responses in each theater. But in order to respond, the following must be remembered: its enemy is dispersed, has designed redundancy into its systems, and seems to understand how our systems work, at least well enough to have evaded them on and prior to Sept. 11. It has shown that it understands how to extract maximum advantage out of a relatively small numbers of operatives. It also has men who are prepared to go to their certain death.

It is also an enemy that may have structured a war plan based on a faulty assumption, which is that the Islamic world is perched on the edge of a volcano of populist Islam and that the U.S. response will trigger it. The American perception of bin Laden is that he is a marginal player, isolated in Afghanistan, with a sophisticated network of operatives but that his dream of an Islamic rising is merely a fantasy. The United States also believes that an exercise of decisive force in Afghanistan, and the disabling and disruption of bin Ladin's network in the United States and the rest of the world will deligitimize bin Laden permanently.

Bin Ladin has played his cards. We must now consider how the United States will play its hand.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 25, 2001

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