March 15, 2006,
It is a scenario reminiscent of the Trojan Horse. Iraq’s Interior Minister Bayan Jabr revealed that Iraqi internal security had broken up a plot to place 421 al Qaeda fighters as guards controlling access to Baghdad’s International or “Green” Zone. Once in position, the terrorists planned to storm the U.S. and British embassies, take hostages, and wreak havoc. They were “one bureaucrat’s signature away” from implementing the plan when it was uncovered. Imagine if the aforementioned pen pusher had been more Type A? Luckily, the wheels of Iraq’s bureaucracy move as slowly as our own.
This is one of the most dangerous terrorist plots in recent memory, one that had a chance of making a strategic impact. A surprise attack by 400 fanatics (or likely more when including the fighters in disguise they would have admitted to the zone just prior to the attack) could not help but generate mayhem. They might have taken some hostages, potentially high-ranking individuals. Of course, the counterattack would be instantaneous and overwhelming, and few of the enemy would survive. Nevertheless, by then they would have achieved their objective; not to defeat Coalition forces, but to seize and hold the only ground they can command, the attention of the global mass media.
Imagine news coverage of al Qaeda fighters in the American embassy. The story line would be irresistible Tet Offensive, the Sequel. The press is already fixated on comparing the Iraq war to Vietnam, despite the numerous and significant differences. An attack like this, a surprise urban guerilla assault on a key symbol of American power, would immediately be cast as a replay of the January 31, 1968, Viet Cong attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
Then, 19 VC sappers blew a hole in the wall surrounding the embassy grounds and shot down the guards inside the gate. A sharp firefight ensued, and enemy forces failed to occupy the embassy proper; but early erroneous reports, relayed by Asoociated Press reporter Peter Arnett, credited the VC with taking the first floor of the building. Moreover, while the attackers had been either killed or captured within hours of the assault, film of the attack ran and reran on network news programs, giving the impression of a much more significant action. Furthermore, the press quickly credited the enemy with a “psychological victory,” even though they had failed even to come close to meeting their military objectives. In this respect, the Embassy attack was a microcosm of the entire Tet Offensive.
The current crop of terrorists well understand the Tet dynamic. Al Qaeda has frequently made mention of Vietnam as a model for the type of victory they are seeking, a blow to the American will that results in demoralization at home and withdrawal of the troops. In the same vein, they also make mention of Mogadishu 1993 and Beirut 1983. Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz famously posited a “trinity” essential for the successful prosecution of war synchronization between three necessary elements; the fighting forces, the political leadership, and the national will. The terrorists realize they cannot defeat our military, nor sway our (current) leaders, so they seek to strike at our only vulnerability, our national commitment to continue to prosecute the struggle.
Osama bin Laden once wrote, “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its share may reach 90 percent of the total preparation for battles.” Reporters, who seek to package stories using preexistent themes in order to give instant (and often erroneous) context to events, are particularly susceptible to terrorist manipulation. Even a VC-sized attack on the Baghdad embassy would be sufficient to engage the Tet analogy, particularly if the terrorists coupled it with a media campaign that explicitly made the comparison. Given the already softening public support for the war effort, an upcoming midterm election, and a wounded White House, the political impact would be far out of proportion to the purely military significance of the action. But of course that is the outcome that terrorists usually seek.
We are fortunate that the Iraqis were able to break up this plot before it was executed. However, it demonstrates that the terrorists have correctly diagnosed what they must do to make their attacks strategically significant. We may not be so lucky next time. An embassy assault would be perfect fodder for the press. The story writes itself. And it does not have a happy ending.
James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of the forthcoming Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.