War in a public place: The Bastille Day attack, the strategy and tactics of Insurgencies

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Photo credit: http://www.themoscowtimes.com




As difficult as it is to write on such a recent event in a clinical way, due to the carnage and horror that has been caused in France—the City of Nice—it is also nevertheless, important to use the happening to understand how ‘things have come to this.’  To have the resolve to use a heavy-vehicle as a battering ram and its use against civilians in a domestic cum non-military setting is a brutal though not unknown mechanism in asserting power.  The aim is to create as many casualties and as much mayhem as possible and further seed a notional understanding by the populace that ongoing disruption will happen.  Non-State actors—colloquially referred to as ‘terrorists’[1]—by indulging in these types of activities are able to take their impetus for change to a new and more dangerous level than before.  With this in mind (and whilst not condoning the incident), it is also important to offer an evidence-based perspective with regard to the strategy and tactics associated with the action.


Non-State actors and war

The attack was, according to the popular press, the work of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS),[2] and by an individual inspired by its teachings and/or practices.  Whether this event also embraced the actions of a sleeper-cell support network, or whether the individual utilized the model of a ‘lone wolf’ exemplar remains to be discovered by the French intelligence services.   Accepting that the attack was actioned by ISIS either directly or indirectly offers the first clue to solving the puzzle of using such a tactic.  When a ‘terrorist’ organisation begins a conflict, or is forced into a conflict by the legitimate authorities—those recognised by the United Nations as the legitimate sovereign power of a country—what immediately comes to the fore is defining the ‘enemy.’  For a terrorist group—in this case ISIS—it is all people who directly or indirectly ‘support’ the mechanisms of the government regardless of age, sex, religion and politics.   All are deemed to be legitimate targets.  Support for a government however, is a loose and subjective term and can be as wide-ranging as the simple act of attending a parade, supporting tourism, or accessing a particular business is often deemed to be ‘support.’  Therefore, the deaths of innocents for terrorists in hostile exchanges usually with, and through gunfire, is considered to be worth the end-game of the group as they too, will have died for a greater cause.  This stated, what is taking place in the present—why the act was committed—is what is of interest here.  Non-state actors, upon declaring their intent and because within that intent all people are legitimate targets, essentially announces a particular ‘type’ of conflict has been declared: ‘total war.’


Historically, total war has been associated with broad-scale conflicts as far back as  the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE) during the Roman Empire, when the Romans annihilated the Carthaginians, and more recently British and Allied forces fighting against Nazi Germany during World War Two (WWII) and the United States of America and its allies fighting Japan in the Pacific phase of WWII.  However, the concept can also be applied to the potential for hostile conflict, as well as actual conflict—this is represented by the ideological battle of the Cold War (1948-1989) between North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and Soviet-bloc forces.  The concept of what a total war is underpinned by, and the associated dynamics that come into play can be applied equally to the (relative) microcosm of what happened in Nice.  Thus total war is,


[C]haracterised by the unlimited means employed and by the general scope of the warfare.  Because all parties are drawn into the war and the stakes involved are high, few limitations if any, on violence are observed with respect to the means employed; the limitations of violence and treachery tend to be only those necessarily imposed by the state of technology, of available resources, and the fear of retaliation.[3]


As per the above statement another underlying component of why the war with ISIS has evolved to such a pitch, and regardless of the moral compendiums of who is ‘right’ and who is not (as both belligerents will have their indubitable reasons for conflict), any outbreak of hostilities fits the model of  one or both of the antagonists coming to believe, or believing from the start, that the cause of conflict lies in the character of the opponent, and the flawed character of their leadership, hence all of its governmental and ideological supports must be purged.[4]  The idealism associated with total war invariably leads to actions against civilians and whilst this may not withstand the test of time and be modified to only actions against military and/or government institutions, ‘unconditional surrender’[5] and ‘annihilation’[6] remains the end-came of belligerents.  War, having been directly, or indirectly, declared against the French by ISIS or its subsidiaries, or admirers or any other individual affiliates—as per the abovementioned ‘lone wolf’ attackers—now allows for an examination into  ISIS’ overall strategies and tactics and the theories which underpin them.


The strategy of insurgency

What happened on the Promenade des Anglais[7] whilst it remains a continuum, and possibly an escalation, of the previous Charlie Hedbo attacks[8] it is nevertheless an act that befits the norm of an ‘asymmetrical war’[9] with a concomitant ‘low-intensity’[10] platform.   Once again this type of action is more often associated with war zones and cross-border, or nation-against-nation conflicts.  Notwithstanding, this type of warfare is also indulged in by governments in order to trigger a series of events which will allow for an escalation in actions; as it is by exogenous group wishing to exert influence and ISIS has embraced a total war of low-intensity.  The radicalised individual that carried out the truck attack used the vehicle to  create immediate reactions from security forces, with the hope of that action creating a ‘knock-on’ effect of encouraging further participants in the campaign which inevitably ‘extends’ influence of ISIS; have significant fear-based ramifications in the public sphere; and escalate the war on France.  In low-intensity conflicts this state-of-affairs continuing depends upon but is not limited to, the number of individuals available for further actions; the weapons available; the expertise of the attackers; and/or the willingness of an attacker, or attackers, to be sacrificed; and the understanding that security forces are largely reactive due to personnel limitations.


The tactics of insurgency

The Bastille Day case would be executed by an individual using an improvised weapon which in turn continues the battle; inspires others; and stretches the resources of French intelligence services.  Whatever combination of the abovementioned components with regard to assets and inspiration are utilized by ISIS, a low-intensity battle demands the incorporation of what is known as ‘cross-tier’ fighting.   This factor is what ISIS understands above all else, and whilst this too, is usually attributed to more organised guerrilla forces than those in the French domestic environment and the striking of, or placing civilians in danger in order to distract/disrupt security operations is a core component of strategy and tactics.  Cross-tier fighting with regard to ISIS—or  its ‘foot soldiers’ or sympathizers willing to go into battle—is that, regardless of their determination ISIS is restricted by its abilities as it is, and remains the low-tier participant.  France being the high-tier participant. Thus, it is vitally important for an insurgency/terrorist group to understand where it is on the ‘scale of abilities.’ During cross-tier fighting it is important for the low-tier force to continue striking, accepting a limited (often pre-determined) number of casualties, whilst delivering a maximum amount of damage on the opponent.  The critical point in a cross-tier conflict is not to engage in a low-tier versus high-tier battle, and to disengage from the kinetic or ‘fluid’ stage of the battle as quickly as possible, as any prolonged gun battle will deliver near-certain defeat to the low-tier force, especially if armour-support is call in.  Reinforcing this reality is high-tier forces possess greater levels of technology and firepower.  Therefore, the low-tier force must be acutely aware of its capabilities, monitor and moderate the battle to its advantage, and the shocking truth is that a promenade is a viable and opportunistic target; and one that is part of a ‘capabilities strategy’ for low-tier force when attempting to prove potency.  The way in which the Bastille Day attack was executed suggests that lone-wolf attacks with improvised weapons is at the present time regarded by ISIS as being the most advantageous in the process of winning the war.  The method for ISIS, with regards to France in this instance, was not to engage directly with the National Gendamerie/Police Nationale and their associates, as it would result in a devastating defeat and thus, the most effective way for ISIS’ to express power is to penetrate soft targets—such as driving a truck into the ‘enemy.’  The upshot of this tactic is to sow fear into the general populace; keep the low-intensity conflict alive; and stretch the security resources of the French government.

With regard to cross-tier fighting and offering an illustration of actual large-scale actions—commonly referred to as ‘force-on-force’ collisions—the way in which a low-tier group/unit engages with the high-tier opponent is to fight as geographically close as possible.  To engage in street-to-street or house-to-house fighting is a useful way to wear down a high-tier opponent as actions that are near negate, or severely limits the force with the superior firepower.  In simpler terms calling in an air- or artillery-strike involves the chances of both sides being struck.  From an historical perspective the Russian Army fighting the Germans in Stalingrad Tractor Factory during WWII, and the North Vietnamese forces fighting in the south of Vietnam in the 1968 Tet (New Year) offensive are excellent examples of the successful deployment of these tactics.



Whether the war that ISIS has declared against France remains ‘total’ in nature remains to be seen as a war can be moderated and de-escalated with political input from the parties involved.  At the present time however, ISIS remains determined to engage persistently in a relatively low-level commitment to cross-tier fighting; and within this construct it is also evident that a prolonged low-intensity conflict with the West in general, and France in particular, is underway.  What ISIS is accomplishing is textbook theory in action.  Asymmetrical warfareis the over-arching way in which ISIS is completing its objectives, with no defined areas of where the next attack will come from and continually using low-intensity platforms of execution.  This will remain the status quo although it will be—as all conflicts are—dependent on the types of weapons available; the personnel able to be committed; and the targets available.  French cities are becoming increasingly viable targets and the reasons why this is happening are too vast for this study, suffice to say there are many variables which have been highlighted by GlobalStrat,[11] and because ISIS has extended its reach to the political sphere the French government will have to address this aspect as well, should it wish to retard the attacks.  The alternative remains that the French government too, must go down the path of total war and annihilate ISIS on French soilTo be sure, ISIS versus France is a redux of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) versus the British Army and government; the Sri Lankan government versus the Tamil Tigers; and the (Algerian) National Liberation Front versus French and Algerian government forces.


All asymmetrical, low-intensity battles involving cross-tier fighting are ones which inevitably involve many, many civilians being killed as the battles are waged with greater ferocity; and involve skirmishes in civilian precincts as opposed to more defined battlefields.  The disadvantage high-tier forces have in the environment that is chosen by an insurgent group—and this is the case for France—is and remains the insurgents as both a military and political entity, understand that the longer the battle is waged the greater possibility of suing for peace on more favourable terms: this determination is writ large in the Good Friday Agreement[12] between Britain and the IRA.  Hence, unless there is strong committed political input from the belligerents it will be ‘more of the same’ as when a war reaches the point of being ‘total’ there is no turning back while the zero-end-sum-game[13] remains.  As each side strives for the upper-hand, civilians are deemed to be part of the enemy, and as has been demonstrated in the eyes of one belligerent, in this case ISIS—and as it was for the French in Algeria, the IRA in Britain, the British in Northern Ireland, the North Vietnamese in the south of Vietnam, (the list is too vast for this essay)—and the horrifying truth is, civilians are ‘legitimate targets’ in a zero-end-sum-game war.


© Strobe Driver:  July, 2016.

[1] What a ‘terrorist’ comprises ‘of’ is a much-debated point and belligerents that have reasons of greater ‘substance’ to attack a legal sovereign government are often referred to as terrorists.  To advance this point further see:  Andy McSmith.  ‘Magaret Thacher branded ANC ‘terrorist’ while urging Nelson Mandela’s release.’ The Independent. 1o Dec, 2013.  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/margaret-thatcher-branded-anc-terrorist-while-urging-nelson-mandela-s-release-8994191.html  and whether terrorism is a valid exercise of rights remains a moot point it is true to state terrorists indulge in ‘terrorism’ which. ‘hinges on three factors … the method (violence), the target (civilian or government), and the purpose (to instil fear and force for political change).’  See: Harvey Kushner.  Encyclopedia of Terrorism. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003, 359.

[2] Also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

[3] Robert Gilpin.  War and Change in World Politics.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 200. Emphasis added.

[4] John Vasquez.  The War Puzzle.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 67.  Emphasis in original.

[5] The War Puzzle, 67.

[6] The War Puzzle, 67-68.

[7][7] David Graham.  ‘The Nice Attacks and the Meaning of Bastille Day.’ The Atlantic.  15 Jul, 2016.  http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/07/nice-bastille-day/491495/

[8] ‘Charlie Hedbo attack: Three days of terror.’ BBC News.  I4 Jan, 2015.  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30708237

[9]  A microcosm of asymmetrical warfare in contemporary times is that of terrorism, which is a force which acts ‘outside the limits imposed on the use of traditional or conventional] force’ and uses asymmetry which in effect means not facing the enemy in a direct ‘attrition-driven’ conflict.’  . See: Roger Barnett.  Asymmetrical Warfare.  Today’s Challenge to US Military Power. Washington: Brassey’s Inc, 2003, 53.  Emphasis in original.

[10] According to Thompsen, ‘low-intensity’ conflict is associated with a ‘diverse range of politico-military activities less intense than modern conventional warfare.   The types of conflict most frequently associated with the concept are insurgency and counterinsurgency and terrorism and counterterrorism.’ See:  Loren Thompsen.  Low-Intensity Conflict.  The Pattern of Warfare in the Modern World.  Massachusetts: Lorington Books, 1989, 2.

[11] For an insight into the reasons ISIS has deemed France a target see: ABC 730 Presenter: Matt Wordsworth interviews Olivier Guitta founder of GlobalStrat: 15 Jul, 2016. http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2016/s4501657.htm?site=darwin

[12] See: Good Friday Agreement.’  BBC History.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/good_friday_agreement

[13] According to Cohen a ‘zero-sum-game’ or ‘zero-end-sum-game’ is the polarized ‘win-lose’ environment that is dictated by the extreme of the hostilities and is summed up ‘when one state wins the other must lose.’  See:  Benjamin Cohen.  ‘International Finance.’  Handbook of International Relations, 441.  Emphasis added.

This entry was posted in Europe, European politics, France, insurgencies, international relations, terror, terrorism, war, warfare and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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