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June 04, 2006

The Architect And Fifth Generation Warfare

The architectural strategies being applied by al Qaeda in the War on Terror are not new. They merely represent the modern application of ancient and evolving concepts of war, albeit in new and heretofore unimagined forms. The writings of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, one of the Islamic jihad prime theorists, apparently captured in Pakistan six months ago, provide insight into not only the emergence of Fifth Generation (unrestricted) Warfare (5GW), but also the evolution of al Qaeda as the forerunner of future United States adversaries. To understand how his theories advance the evolution of war it is necessary to put the War on Terror in perspective.

One way to gain perspective is to consider the War on Terror against the evolution of warfare in the modern era. In The Sling and the Stone Retired Marine Colonel Thomas X. Hammes describes how modern warfare in the twenty-first century has evolved as the result of political, economic, social, and technological changes that have occurred over time in societies.(1) Hammes’ typology outlines four generations of warfare, and hints at what the fifth generation of war may look like. Each generation represents a dialectically qualitative shift in the methods of waging war. A litmus test for whether or not a change represents a generational shift in the methods of conducting war is that, controlling for disparities in size, an army from a previous generation cannot defeat a force from the new generation.(2)

A Generational Typology Of Warfare

The rise of nation states in the modern era brought the development of First Generation (formation) Warfare (1GW), also referred to as Napoleonic war, with its utilization of armies against one another in massive line and column formations. As a result of the industrial revolution and quantitative and qualitative improvements in massed firepower Second Generation (trench) Warfare (2GW) made its appearance during the American Civil War, and gradually replaced First Generation (formation) Warfare (1GW). It culminated with the trench warfare and mass slaughters of armies that occurred in Europe during the First World War. Third Generation (maneuver) Warfare (3GW) was conceived by the Germans during World War I, and later introduced at the outset of World War II by the German Wehrmacht with its conquest of Europe. It resulted from further improvements in available technology and is characterized by combined arms operations – sea, air, and ground – and rapid maneuver of mechanized formations. Third Generation (maneuver) Warfare (3GW) has been the dominant form of conventional military warfare between nation states, including the United States, in the modern era.

Fourth Generation (insurgent) Warfare (4GW) is a concept originated by William S. Lind, et al, and refined by Hammes in The Sling and the Stone. Its application was first conceived by Mao Tse Tung during the Chinese Revolution from 1925-1927, and used successfully to defeat the Nationalist armies of Chang Kai-shek and install a communist government in China. Fourth Generation (insurgent) Warfare (4GW) has several characteristics which give it a dialectical edge over Third Generation (maneuver) War (3GW) and enable quantitatively and qualitatively inferior forces to win over superior government forces. It uses asymmetrical strategy and tactics, applied over long periods of time, to shift its focus away from destruction of the enemy’s superior conventional military forces – which it cannot defeat – and instead toward defeat of the enemy political will to fight. It matches the political strength of one opponent against the political strength of the other. In its common form it is insurgency warfare. It was adapted and used successfully by the North Vietnamese to defeat the United States, by the Afghans to defeat the Soviet Union, and it is being used by al Qaeda today in its global insurgency.

Fourth Generation (insurgent) Warfare (4GW) characterized by its use of networks, its willingness to accept casualties, and its long length in time. It is measured in decades rather than campaigns lasting months or years. The Communist Chinese fought for twenty-seven years; the Vietnamese fought the French, and later the Americans, for thirty years; and the Afghans, supported by other nations, fought the Soviets for ten years.(3) Fourth Generation (insurgent) Warfare (4GW) stands unique thus far as the only type of warfare that has defeated a superpower, and it has done so on two occasions.

The Emergence Of Fifth Generation Warfare

Currently, no commonly accepted definition exists for Fifth Generation (unrestricted) Warfare (5GW). However, given the rate at which change in warfare is accelerating it is reasonable to accept that Fifth Generation (unrestricted) Warfare (5GW) is already making its appearance. It took hundreds of years from the development of the musket and cannon for First Generation (formation) Warfare (1GW) warfare to evolve. Second Generation (trench) Warfare (2GW) evolved and peaked in the 100 years between Waterloo and Verdun. Third Generation (maneuver) Warfare (3GW) came to maturity in less than 25 years.(4) Fourth Generation (insurgent) Warfare (4GW) was implemented immediately upon its conception in China seventy-five years ago, around the same time that Third Generation (maneuver) Warfare was implemented in Europe.

For the purpose of this treatise, Fifth Generation (unrestricted) Warfare (5GW) is defined as the use of “all means whatsoever – means that involve the force of arms and means that do not involve the force of arms, means that involve military power and means that do not involve military power, means that entail casualties, and means that do not entail casualties – to force the enemy to serve one’s own interest.”(5) It includes the appearance of super-empowered individuals and groups with access to modern knowledge, technology, and means to conduct asymmetric attacks in furtherance of their individual and group interests. Arguably, its first identifiable manifestations occurred in the United States during the anthrax attacks of 2001 and the ricin attacks of 2004. Both sets of attacks required specialized knowledge, included attacks upon federal government offices and facilities, succeeded in disrupting governmental processes, and created widespread fear in the public. To date, no individual or group has claimed responsibility for either attack, and neither attack has been solved. The attacks were quite successful in disrupting government processes and creating public fear but, thus far, their motivation remains unknown.

Today’s computer hackers, capable of disrupting governments and corporations on a global scale by attacking the Internet with malicious computer programs, may also be forerunners of super-empowered individuals and groups. They have already demonstrated that they are capable of single-handedly waging technological campaigns with overtones of Fifth Generation (unrestricted) Warfare (5GW).

The potential power of Fifth Generation (unrestricted) Warfare (5GW) was also demonstrated in the Madrid bombings of 2004. On this occasion, a series of mass transit bombings conducted by a networked terrorist group in a single day, on the eve of national elections, resulted in a new Spanish government being voted into office, and the immediate withdrawal of Spanish military support to ongoing coalition operations against the insurgency in Iraq. The Madrid bombings are significant because the terrorists behind them were also major drug dealers, part of a network running from Morocco through Spain to Belgium and the Netherlands. Although the Madrid bombings are thought to have cost only about $50,000 to carry out, law enforcement authorities afterwards recovered nearly $2 million in drugs and cash from the group.(6) In these attacks, a group which represented an extensive transnational criminal enterprise successfully brought about regime change in a sovereign European nation. In doing so it demonstrated how Fifth Generation (unrestricted) Warfare (5GW) has a dialectically qualitative advantage over the methods of both Third Generation (maneuver) Warfare (3GW) and Fourth Generation (insurgency) Warfare (4GW).

The Impact Of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar

The impact of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar’s theories on the emergence of Fifth Generation (unrestricted) Warfare (5GW):(7)

• Nasar’s "The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance," has been circulating on Internet web sites for 18 months. The treatise, written under the pen name Abu Musab al-Suri, draws heavily on lessons from past conflicts. It serves as a how-to manual for uniting isolated groups of radical Muslims for a common cause.

• It proposes a strategy for a truly global conflict on as many fronts as possible and in the form of resistance by super-empowered small cells or individuals, rather than traditional guerrilla warfare. To avoid penetration and defeat by security services, he says, organizational links should be kept to an absolute minimum.

• Nasar says it would be a mistake for the global movement to pin its hopes on a single group or set of leaders. He clearly says that al-Qaeda was an important step but is not the end step and is not sufficient in itself.

• Nasar's theories of war call for the most deadly weapons possible, and offer a new model aimed at drawing individuals and small groups into a global jihad.

• Nasar’s theories can be seen in Casablanca in 2003, Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. In each case, the perpetrators organized themselves into local, self-sustaining cells that acted on their own but also likely accepted guidance from visiting emissaries of the global movement.

Strategic Implications

The strategic implications for the United States are great. As the events of 9/11 demonstrated, the United States can be attacked on its home territory by its potential adversaries in the War on Terror. A successful national strategy, as well as transformation of that strategy to the emergence of Fifth Generation (unrestricted) Warfare (5GW) in the information age, is necessary if future attempts to attack United States citizens and interests, at home or abroad, are to be defeated or prevented. In a protracted and continuous war of finite conventional resources arrayed against infinite asymmetrical threats, the Nation must come to understand the character of the emerging threat it faces and adapt accordingly. Failure to do so could have grave strategic consequences and invite additional challenges to American political, economic, and military leadership throughout the world.


(1) Hammes, Sling and the Stone, 14; William S. Lind; Keith Nightengale, Colonel (USA); John F. Schmitt, Captain (USMC); Joseph, W. Sutton, Colonel (USA); and Gary I. Wilson, Lieutenant Colonel (USMCR), “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,” The Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989; Hammes uses the description of the first three generations of war from the Lind, et al, article as a basis for his description of the development of Fourth Generation War. He makes only passing reference to Fifth Generation War, which he says he is certain is currently developing somewhere in the world.

(2) William S. Lind, “Fifth Generation Warfare?” Center for Cultural Conservatism, Free Congress Foundation (February 2004), 1.

(3) Hammes, “Sling and the Stone, 14.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America (Panama City, Panama: Pan American Publishing Company, 2002), 43.

(6) David E. Kaplan, “Paying For Terror,” U.S. News & World Report (December 5, 2005), 44.

(7) Craig Whitlock, “Architect Of New War On The West,” Washington Post (May 23, 2006).

Posted by Facilitator at June 4, 2006 09:25 AM


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