Nation States vs Terrorism: Protracted Wars 


By Andy Oppenheimer

Andy Oppenheimer discusses the changing face of modern warfare with a focus on the current Israel-Hamas War.

At the time of writing in early May 2024, the severe reprisals launched by Israel in response to Hamas’s terrorist attacks on October 7, 2023, were set to persist throughout the year. The unprecedented raids and massacres committed by the Palestinian militant group resulted in the biggest loss of Israeli life in one day since the inception of the Jewish state, and the greatest number of Jewish fatalities since the Holocaust. 

Hamas’s brutal attacks on Israel left almost 1,200 people killed, over 3,000 wounded, and hundreds taken prisoner. The Israel Defence Force’s (IDF) response, with its stated aim to “eliminate Hamas”, has killed over 30,000 Palestinians, seen hundreds of Hamas suspects and other Palestinians taken prisoner, and included the mass aerial bombings of civilian sites.

On April 30, a statement issued by the office Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu showed little desire to bring the IDF operations in Gaza to an end. “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there with or without a deal, in order to achieve the total victory,” the statement read.

The IDF’s military action since October 2023 is the latest example of a state being forced into a war in an attempt to destroy an insurgent or terrorist group. Increased rocket attacks by the Iran-backed Shia group Hezbollah operating from Lebanon has also led to Israel fighting the war on two fronts. An Israeli drone strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus that killed two Iranian generals on April 1 followed by a mass Iranian drone attack on Israel two weeks later threatened to escalate the conflict further.

Aftermath of Hamas rocket strike on the maternity ward of Barzilai Medical Center, a hospital in southern Israel, during the October 7 attacks on Israel, ©VOA Farsi/Wikimedia Commons

The Changing Face of Modern Warfare

With the two most notable present exceptions of the Russia-Ukraine war and the ongoing civil war in Sudan, many conflicts now tend to be waged against insurgents and terrorists. These are more protracted than wars passim and far harder to conclude by traditional means, such as treaty negotiation.

Another example of a major military operation being launched in response to terrorist attacks is the protracted “Global War on Terrorism” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan saw 20 years of U.S. and allied presence following 9/11 to destroy al-Qaeda, which hatched the attacks from their safe havens in Afghanistan, supported by the Taliban. 

Meanwhile, Iraq saw a continued NATO presence to deal with the insurgency wrought by al-Qaeda in Iraq following the U.S. invasion in March 2003. That group then morphed into ISIS. Both wars cost trillions of dollars and took thousands of lives on all sides. 

Another good example of a nation state waging a war against terrorist and insurgent groups is what is known locally as the “Colombian internal armed conflict” between the Colombian government and a whole swathe of guerrillas, dissidents, paramilitary groups, and crime syndicates. The conflict began in 1954, and despite a peace deal signed between Colombia and FARC in 2016, violence continues 60 years later.

Nation states are increasingly drawn into conflicts waged between international and national terrorist groups. Unresolved regional and territorial disputes, rising religious and political extremism, and economic inequality are among the many factors driving this trend. 

More complicated was the Syrian Civil War, which first involved fewer than ten armed groups who have proliferated into hundreds more since the conflict began in 2011. Many jihadist organizations, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, have also fragmented and mutated into sub-factions and rival groups operating sporadically across many countries in the Middle East and Africa.

A 48-km aerial photograph of fires in Israel and the Gaza strip during the Hamas attacks on 7 October 2023, © Pierre Markuse/Wikimedia Commons (contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data, 2023)

A Radical Change

The Hamas attacks in some ways broke the mould as a terrorist modus operandi as they showed an unprecedented level of brutality, capability, and planning with which the group had not been previously credited.

There was also a change of modus operandi for this specific mass terror incident. Rather than the emplacement and detonation of IEDs at major sites, lone-wolf attacks, or vehicle-ramming attacks, the heavily armed group raided en masse many civilian sites, such as kibbutzim.

The Hamas attacks also exemplified the unpredictability of terrorism. They were not foreseen or pre-empted in any way by Israel’s experienced intelligence agencies.

A Daunting Task

Terrorist organizations can mutate and spread rapidly and may lie latent within a body politic before re-emerging when that body is at its most vulnerable. Setbacks such as leadership decapitation or the taking of hundreds of their members prisoner rarely leads to their demise. So long as the factors underlying the rise of a terror group persist, that group will find succor and support among its host population and external supporters.

Furthermore, unlike the IRA and al-Qaeda, Hamas had assumed administrative control of the Gaza Strip and West Bank after it won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. In 2007, it scored a military victory over the secular Palestinian nationalist party Fatah, which had hitherto dominated the Palestinian National Authority. Therefore, Hamas attained an official status and variable support among a population that is increasingly pitted against Israeli occupation.

Sledgehammers and Nuts

Hamas has not only constructed extensive tunnels to hide equipment and plan operations but are said by the IDF to use hospitals, schools, and mosques to hide personnel, munitions, explosives, and equipment. Many such sites, including hospitals, have consequently been bombed by the IDF. 

Albeit on a smaller scale when compared with the likes of Hamas, the Provisional IRA and its historical precedent exploited their heartlands in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to merge with (or intimidate) the locals to hide their equipment and operations.

Hezbollah training exercise in Aaramta village, Jezzine District, southern Lebanon, May 21, 2023, ©Tasnim News Agency/Wikimedia Commons

Recruiting Sergeant

To try to take out Hamas leaders and fighters in such civilian premises is like using a sledgehammer to crack a very elusive nut, and such actions also recruit more fighters. Both Hamas’s October 7 attacks and the IDF’s response can be viewed as a recruiting sergeant for other terrorist groups or insurgencies in the Middle East and elsewhere. In this context it is possible that the Hamas atrocities were intended as a catalyst for further recruitment including in countries that were negotiating improved relations with Israel, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. 

The Gaza war has also raised the risk of terrorist attacks in the West. Several arrested in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, including some alleged Hamas members, have been accused of planning attacks against Jewish institutions in Europe. The mass protests occurring in capitals across Europe and universities in the U.S. are feared as a breeding ground for Hamas and other groups. At a congressional hearing on October 31, 2023, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that they “assess that the actions of Hamas and its allies will serve as an inspiration the likes of which we haven’t seen since ISIS launched its so-called caliphate years ago”.

State-sponsored Terrorism 

Complicating the picture is the sponsoring and support of “proxy” groups by a nation state. In the case of Hamas and Hezbollah, this state sponsor is Iran. 

Although formerly dominated by Salafist-Sunni jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, the most prominent terrorist groups operating in the Middle East in 2024 are Shia groups. These include Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen. Although Hamas is Sunni, it is sponsored by Shia Iran, thus reflecting the pragmatic nature of state-sponsored terrorism when it suits the sponsor. 

Iran is also reportedly forging ahead with its nuclear programme in order to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Dealing with such a ‘rogue’ state known to be promoting terror groups is among the greatest challenges faced by alliances and countries affected.

Pro-Palestinian protesters on Kensington High Street, London, 9 October 2023, © Alisdare Hickson/Wikimedia Commons

Dealing with Evolving Terrorism

The role that the exponential growth of the internet and social media technologies plays in spreading terrorist and extremist propaganda and recruitment is a particular focus of counterterrorism strategies. 

Also, beyond the traditional modi operandi of terrorists – the bomb and the bullet, hostage taking, and marauding attacks – evolving technologies may be deployed. Artificial intelligence may enhance conventional and non-conventional attacks and could enable more precise targeting of victims; although terrorist attacks are largely indiscriminate, the IRA did pinpoint specific targets. It could also it more difficult for counterterrorist agencies to attribute attacks and trace the perpetrators. Drones and 3D-printed weapons are possible tools to attack symbolic targets and events.

The U.S. has been prioritizing other overseas issues with regard to China and Russia following its withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington has been devoting fewer resources to counter transnational groups. However, if a future terrorist atrocity on the lines of October 7 produces an IDF-style military response by the country affected, we will have entered a new era of state wars on terrorism, which, in turn, is likely to produce even more terrorist recruitment, and possibly even more varied and dangerous attacks.

Andy Oppenheimer is the author of IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets – A History of Deadly Ingenuity (2008) and a former editor of CBNW and Jane’s NBC Defense. He is a Member of the International Association of Bomb Technicians & Investigators and an Associate Member of the Institute of Explosives Engineers, and has written and lectured extensively on CBRNe since 2002. 

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