The Mumbai Attack: A Success for “Global Guerillas”?

John Robb over at Global Guerillas has an assessment of the Mumbai bombings, which concludes:

As anticipated, this attack is also a sign that future attacks will increasingly target systems rather than low yield targets of symbolic terrorism. As methods of system disruption improve, attacks will be aimed at more precise systempunkts that underly modern economic activity, particularly in highly populated urban zones. One key vector of activity will be to use repetitive attacks to push urban centers to lower economic equilibria (see Urban Takedowns for more) — it is potentially possible, once the data is developed, to calculate how many attacks are needed to achieve the seven percent “terrorism tax” that will accomplish this descent. Another vector will be aimed at improving the effectiveness of cross system cascades of failure to maximize total levels of disruption (these early demonstrations are fairly crude in this regard).

I don’t think the facts support Robb’s assessment, or dire prognosis.

The holy grail of aerial bombardment going into World War II was to find the “nodes” that would bring the whole system down — in that case the German war economy. This seemed like a plausible idea in peacetime. As it turned out, the system has very few nodes, and was in fact massively redundant and self-healing. The US Air Force found itself unable to take down the Third Reich with thousands of times the tonnage that man-portable (conventional) bombs can deliver. Agreed, the terrorists are precision weapons, that is an advantage. But I do not think that attacks of this type, sporadic, relatively low-yield, even if persistent, will be able to bring modern cities to their knees. People will, in fact, get used to a persistent bombing campaign and come up with work-arounds. That is what happened in London and Berlin in World War II. And the truly critical nodes will be better guarded. The Mumbai railroad workers had the trains going again in a matter of hours, and the self-generating response of citizens and taxiwallas to get water and blankets to injured people and transport people was far more impressive than the actual disruption was. The other dream of aerial bombardment pioneers was reducing citizens of target communities to terror-stricken mobs. It does not happen. Attacks tend to harden solidarity. Citizens under attack, even persistent attack, do not tend to crumble. And they are certainly unlikely to do so in the face of the small scale of attack which is possible with man-portable bombs sneaked into public places.

The answer might be to make bigger and more destructive attacks. But the larger and more sophisticated the attack, the more it must be sourced from some state sponsor with substantial assets, or at least territory to stage the attack, and the more that state sponsor opens itself to retaliation. Pakistan has a nuclear deterrant, of course, but may find itself on the receiving end of clandestine retaliation which will be very harmful to it. India is not without options to respond to this attack.

Furthermore, unlike the Madrid attack, which was the Al Qaeda masterpiece of the current war, this attack seems unlikely to yield any political advantages to the people who did it.

If sectarian violence breaks out in India, I’ll probably revise that conclusion.

So, whatever merit the global guerillas concept has, this episode is not (so far) an example of it the GGs being particularly effective. All they did was kill a lot of people and harden attitudes against their cause.

UPDATE: John Robb pointed me to earlier post about Effects Based Operations. The suggestion was, I think, that I have failed to take this analysis into account. It is a good post and I suggest you read it. Nonetheless, I do not think that the Mumbai terrorists are at the point where they can do the equivalent of a massive air and missile attack with pinpoint accuracy against key nodes in the economy. Maybe some day they will have the skills and mass to pull it off. I sure hope not. But, again, for them to do something on that scale they would need a base that could be retaliated against, or the unusual situation we face in Iraq where a large foreign army is plunked in an alien setting. So, unless and until the terrorists acquire the capability to hit hard, accurately and repeatedly, I do not see them taking down a modern state. Until these terrorists obtain nuclear weapons, or become much more effective at what they do, I don’t see a strong likelihood of cascading failure of a modern society due to terrorist attacks. In particular, I look at the historical record, of earlier attempts to do the equivalent of Effects Based Operations, and they worked less well than their proponents hoped, and the target proved more resilient than anyone expected. None of the foregoing means that I think that Robb is mistaken when he discusses an international “bazaar of violence”, or that the enemy is real, smart, adaptable and constantly looking for ways to destroy the states that are arrayed against them including the USA. I do not advocate any kind of complacency. Reading Robb’s blog is a good way to avoid any temptation to complacency.

UPDATE II: Tom Barnett weighs in.

UPDATE III: Jaffna from Cynical Nerd’s The Indian National Interest sent along two articles from The Australian regarding the Mumbai attacks: (1) Terror in Mumbai threatens us all and (2) Wider war on terror (“The terrorist attacks may raise support for India and turn up the heat on Pakistan”)

7 thoughts on “The Mumbai Attack: A Success for “Global Guerillas”?”

  1. This tragic, disgusting, incident reminds everyone, world-wide, how powerless we all are at the hands of mindless, cowardly, thugs. Bombs, indeed! To what end???

  2. Lex, I think that your analysis is correct. Modern democratic societies are tough nuts to crack despite occasional enemy successes a la Madrid. Opinion among Indian voters seems more likely now to harden than to shift in the direction of appeasement.

    It is easy to imagine all kinds of scenarios in which attacks on vulnerable infrastructure lead to cascading failures, but in reality such scenarios are extremely rare — they are what Bruce Schneier calls “movie plot threats.” The fact that we have so far been able to forestall such threats should be cause for optimism and reevaluation of the odds rather than occasion to wait for the other shoe to drop. We are in a very strong position as long as we do not give up.

  3. I think the islamic terrorists’ best defense is the lack of political will to really go after them.

    wouldn’t affecting people’s daily lives make people more likely, rather than less likely, to take effective steps to eliminate islamic terrorism and it’s “root causes.”

  4. A lot of the WWII bombing study usually centers on Germany. In Japan – Coxx, Alvin D.; Japan at the End of Her Tether, History of the Second World War [Part 91], BPC Publishing Ltd, 1966, London. Pg 2537.

    “In Kobe city, for example, workers dropped their tools as soon as an air raid alert sounded, so they would have enough time to flee to the hillsides immediately behind the metropolis before the bombers could arrive. Consequently the mere sounding of the alert signal in the Kobe region caused an immediate drop in industrial production. According to information reaching the War Ministry about May 1945, the attendance rate at munitions factories, throughout the country immediately after an air raid dwindled to 20-30%. The average rate of absenteeism at factories in devastated areas approximated 40%. In unraided zones the absentee rate averaged 15%, but even in unbombed Kyoto lost man hours totaled 40% by July 1945.

    An indirect result of the raids was the dispersal of the labour force because of housing problems, thereby affecting both control and efficiency.”

    Futher –

    “According to Home Ministry data, the following Japanese civilian losses were the minimum incurred as the result of all air raids on the Homeland: 241,309 killed, 313,041 injured, 8,045,094 homeless, 2,333,388 buildings destroyed, 110,928 partial destroyed. The number of houses razed represented at least 30% of the national total. It should also be noted that the Japanese themselves demolished 615,000 buildings as firebreaks, 214,000 of which were located in Tokyo. In all about 13,000,000 people were driven from their homes by the destruction of dwellings; a substantial additional number were rendered homeless by the bombing of factory dormitories.”

    For some reason must people skirt the relationship of the hammering the civilian population experienced and their post-war behaviors, such as a great reluctance to engage in military actions beyond their borders. Yes, I know they or we put articles in their constitutions, but such documents are subject to democratic change which goes back to will. The older generations resisted. Its only the newer generations that entertain the idea.

  5. It may be that a period of prolonged terrorist activity accelerates a trend that has been developing slowly: telecommuting and virtual teams.

    In addition, with the Internet and other telecom technology, there is no reason to locate a firm’s HQ in, say, NYC, except for the intertia of prestige and the desire of an educated workforce to be near a cultural center. Putting more infrastructure into midwestern cities such as Chicago, Columbus, St. Louis, etc. makes sense, both from an overcrowding and energy usage standpoint (well, maybe not Chicago in that respect), as well as from a security standpoint. I would love to see business move West in attempt to decentralize the geographic distribution of the economy.

  6. “Attacks tend to harden solidarity”…this may have been true in Britain and possibly Germany during WWII, but I wonder if people raised under two decades of “self-esteem building” are likely to have the same sort of mental toughness.

    Another historical precedent would be German bombing of a Parisian neighborhood in 1940, which caused a local politician to scream that he would denounce the government (the French government) for this outrage. I think we have a lot of “leaders” of his stripe in the US currently.

  7. New York, London and Mumbai all responded well.

    Under sustained attack, I suppose that some people would not be very stoic. After all, even in London and Berlin there was crime and looting. But, overall, even under devastating air attack, society did not crack and the cities continued to be functional units.

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