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Cellphones versus box-cutters
From: William Knowles <wk () c4i org>
Date: Wed, 17 Oct 2001 03:21:21 -0500 (CDT)
October 16, 2001
Even before the events of Sept. 11, military experts were warning of
the dangers posed by Osama bin Laden's brand of terrorist warfare.
"Asymmetrical war" is a strategy employed by the weaker side in a
conflict to compensate for -- and even to profit from -- its enemy's
A small bomb placed near the ammunition room, for instance, might
cripple a battleship. In fact a small bomb, ferried to the ship in a
tiny supply boat, did damage the USS Cole in Aden. Such modest
expenditures by the terrorist not only cause costly damage. They also
force the stronger side to embark on expensive precautions over a wide
expanse of territory while the terrorist can choose his point of
attack from an almost infinite number of opportunities.
In his poem "Arithmetic on the Frontier," Kipling caught the financial
A scrimmage in a border station
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten rupee jezail.
At first glance the events of Sept. 11 -- in which the terrorists,
armed only with primitive box-cutters, seized four planes and drove
three of them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, killing
thousands -- seem to demonstrate the usefulness of such warfare. Look
more closely, however, and a different picture emerges.
Almost every action taken by the terrorists was dictated by their need
to evade regular air safety precautions. They used box-cutters because
X-ray machines made it too risky to bring guns or grenades on board.
Because box-cutters might not be sufficient to intimidate a planeload
of people inclined to resist, they had to cow other passengers by
sheer force of numbers -- potentially arousing suspicion. And,
finally, because a bomb had proved insufficient to bring down the
World Trade Center six years earlier, they had to transform the
hijacked planes into flying bombs, aim them at the buildings, and
"suicide" themselves in the process.
An advocate of asymmetrical warfare might still judge the operation a
success -- cold-blooded and ruthless perhaps but also relatively cheap
and very ingenious. Again, however, look more closely.
The operation may have been cheap in financial terms -- US$300,000 is
one estimate -- but it cost the lives of 19 terrorists who had been
expensively trained in munitions, architecture and flying. (Any future
such hijackings will require new suicidal devotees and new training
courses.) It also demanded years of meticulous planning to outwit what
until a month ago were often casual safety precautions.
Consider, by contrast, the extraordinarily rapid response of ordinary
Americans to this terrorist "success." Less than 90 minutes after the
planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the
passengers on the fourth plane rebelled against their captors and
brought it down in Pennsylvania, sacrificing their own lives to save
perhaps thousands of others and the White House.
Supporting this heroism were two recent developments in U.S. life:
cellphones and round-the-clock news. Within minutes of the attack on
the twin towers, the world learned about it via radio, television and
the Web. And passengers on two of the four planes learned the news
from family and friends over their cellphones.
Those passengers found themselves in a uniquely horrific situation.
Unlike all others who had been hijacked up to that moment, they could
not assume they would suffer a few days' inconvenience and humiliation
before negotiations released them. They knew they were the doomed
inhabitants of flying bombs.
The first plane hit the Pentagon at almost exactly the same time as
the passengers learned of their fate and before they had time to
react. The second was brought down by heroic passengers. And that
courageous response took not years of meticulous planning and
indoctrination, but minutes of spontaneous co-operation by ordinary
people used to the everyday procedures of a self-organizing civil
Any future hijacker must contemplate not only improved official
security precautions, but also the likelihood that the passengers will
resist. It sharply increases the odds against him. Asymmetrical war
has produced an asymmetrical response.
And the lesson goes beyond hijackings. In making war on modern
civilization, bin Laden has taken on two forces that together are
probably invincible -- the first is the patient, methodical,
bureaucratic procedures of the modern state, the second the
spontaneous organizing power of ordinary people in a democratic
What took Osama years of meticulous planning in his remote cave was
rendered obsolete within minutes by the courage of a randomly selected
group of American travellers. He may not know it yet; he may even
score a few more victories; but the Cave Man is already extinct.
John O'Sullivan is editor-in-chief; of United Press International in
"Communications without intelligence is noise; Intelligence
without communications is irrelevant." Gen Alfred. M. Gray, USMC
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- Cellphones versus box-cutters William Knowles (Oct 17)