An atomic explosion
At the height of the Cold War the possibility of a Third World War was a real and frightening possibility. Pentagon strategists gamed possible conflict scenarios and how they might evolve, think tanks opined on optimal force structures and strategic deployments. Novelists mined the topic for countless thrillers. Professional historians wrote "contra-factual histories" of how the war had played out and its ultimate consequences.
With the end of the Cold War the prospect of a Third World War seemed to recede from the playbook of potential conflicts. Arm chair strategists speculated about possible U.S.-China conflicts or even a limited U.S.-Russian clash over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet States. The novelist Tom Clancy even postulated a Sino-Russian war that would see the U.S. intervene on behalf of Russia, Moscow joining NATO, and culminating in a rogue nuclear missile attack launched by Beijing against the United States. A bit farfetched given the current state of American relations with Russia. I guess that's why they call it fiction.
It was always assumed, however, that a Third World War would be fought between the United States and the Soviet Union and that it would represent a heating up of the Cold War that would ultimately lead to a military clash over Western Europe. Conflict might breakout all over the world, hence the designation "Third World War," but it would be in Europe that the main conflict would be fought.
The Soviet Union is no more. Although Russia still retains a significant military force it lacks the breadth and depth of forces to engage the United States and its NATO allies on a worldwide basis. The current impression of Russian ascendency and the restoration of a bipolar world is owed more to clever Russian diplomacy and the seeming paralysis, the less kind would call it incompetence, of the Obama White House than it does to a real restoration of Russian military power.
Soviet era, T-72 heavy duty tank.
In the meantime the United States, supported by various NATO members and assorted Arab governments, has fought two wars in the Gulf, one to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and one to create a regime change in Baghdad, another war in Afghanistan, and has been engaged in a long running conflict with various jihadist groups, most notably al-Qaeda and, in the last several years, Islamic State, that has seen U.S. forces intervene directly and indirectly in a broad stretch of Muslim countries from Mali to Pakistan.
At the same time, both al-Qaeda and Islamic State have spread their operations around the world, creating "franchises" in several dozen countries in the Muslim world and setting up cells throughout Europe, North America, and Australasia. In the process they have demonstrated a capacity to stage low level, terrorist attacks throughout Europe, especially in France, as well as in Canada and Australia, and have attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to stage a number of attacks in the United States.
According to the website thereligonofpeace.com there have been a total of 27,000 incidents of jihadist inspired violence since the attack on September 11, 2001. Another study by the BBC and the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at the University of London suggested the numbers were even higher. In November 2014 alone, according to the BBC study, there were a total of 5,042 deaths from 664 incidents of jihadist violence. To put his statistic in perspective, in a typical year there are approximately 9,000-gun related homicides in the United States.
On November 13, a total of eight people from three separate Islamic State cells in Paris launched a series of simultaneous attacks across the city that resulted in the deaths, at last count, of 130 people. French President Francois Hollande described the attack as "a declaration of war" and vowed France would retaliate in kind against the Islamic State capital of Raqqa.
In the meantime, French police supported by national police forces in Belgium, Holland, and Germany, launched a massive manhunt to identify the ringleaders of the Paris attacks. The mastermind, one Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was finally cornered in an apartment in the Paris suburb of St Denis. He was subsequently killed following a shootout with French police. Although there is still some question as to whether it was actually Abaaoud killed in St Denis.
Western reporters correctly identified St Denis as a predominantly Muslim neighborhood and dutifully quoted French police admonitions that the neighborhood was prone to crime and unsafe at night. They missed, however, a most sublime irony. The neighborhood of St Denis is home to the Basilica of St. Denis, the final resting place for the vast majority of France's kings and queens.
Buried there also, in a nondescript grave, is Charles Martel. Charles the Hammer was never a king of France but his exploits, at the Battle of Tours in 732, in defeating the Moorish armies that crossed the Pyrenees intent on expanding the Muslim empire into Western Europe, laid the foundation of the Carolingian dynasty and its reassertion of European power under his grandson Charlemagne. It is a supreme irony that the man considered most responsible for defending the remnants of Christian Europe from the Muslim onslaught of the 8th century would today find his grave located in a Muslim neighborhood. Who said that history's muse doesn't have a sense of humor?
The historical analogies can, however, be overplayed. It is tempting to see the current conflict between Islamic jihadists and the Western world as little more than the next round in a clash of civilizations that have been at war with each other for the better part of a millennium. It is a struggle that has waxed and waned across Europe and the Mediterranean world since the 8th century, a struggle that has twice seen Muslim armies on the verge of overrunning Europe and which has seen Europe respond in-kind.
From the 18th century on, especially after the battle of Navarino, the Muslim world and the Ottoman Empire, which was its leading edge, had been on the defensive gradually seceding territory to Europe's powers until World War I finally broke the Ottoman Empire and the Sykes-Picot treaty divided its remaining lands among the European victors.
Jihadist iconography with its references to avenging past Muslim defeats, from the sieges of Vienna and Malta or the Battle of Lepanto, its repudiation of the Sykes-Picot boundaries, its incorporation of the mythology of epic Islamic victories at Qadisiyyah or Yarmouk, and its declarations that they will reconquer the lost lands of the historic Muslim empires of the 9th to the 12th century further reinforce this impression. So does the occasional jihadist practice of singling out Christians among its prisoners for immediate execution.
Nonetheless it would be incorrect to see the current jihadist violence as simply a continuation of the Christian-Muslim struggle of the past millennium. For one thing, Europe today is largely a secular society. The targets of jihadist violence in Western Europe have, to a large degree, been secular symbols of Western society; a free press, tourism sites, music halls, etc. There have not been any attacks against symbols of Christian culture such as churches, even though such locations are undefended and would represent very soft targets of attack. At least not yet, although it's hard to believe that there isn't some jihadist group intent on attacking St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. In Syria and Iraq however, local Christians, their churches and their holy sites have been prime targets of jihadist violence. ISIS flags over Ramadi, Iraq.
There are probably around 50,000 to 100,000 active jihadists in the world today of which around 10,000 to 20,000 represent a core leadership group. There are an additional 200,000 to possibly 300,000 militants that have had some training and some battlefield experience, that are committed jihadists, but are not necessarily active. This latter group is a sort of strategic reserve that can be called upon when needed and that are available to whichever jihadist group will pay to hire them.
Intelligence agencies estimate that there are probably 20,000 jihadist and committed jihadist sympathizers in Europe, of which around 5,000 to 10,000 are in France. There is probably a comparable number in the United Kingdom. In the United States that number is believed to be between 1,000 and 2,000 militants.
In addition, there is a significant pool of sympathizers who identify with the jihadist movement, will support it financially, and are generally in agreement with their aims even though they themselves will not actively participate in jihadist violence. This is perhaps the hardest group to identify. A number of recent surveys suggest that this last group may amount to between 10% and 20% of the world's Muslim population.
It's hard to be entirely sure because it's impossible to know to what extent respondents game pollsters by giving politically correct answers depending on who they perceive the questioner to be. Assuming that the 10% to 20% figure is reliable, then these sympathizers represent a pool of supporters of between 150 million to 300 million people. It's possible that the number of sympathizers is greater but it's unlikely that the number is smaller.
So where does that leave us? The conflict with jihadist organizations is certainly a worldwide struggle. Jihadist inspired violence has occurred on every continent in the world. The only exception being Antarctica. A significant portion of the worldwide response to jihadist violence has been in the form of a military response carried out by national military forces. A struggle against a quasi-military force numbering between 100,000 and 400,000 combatants that are in turn supported by between 150 million and 300 million non-combatants certainly feels like a war.
On the other hand, conventional military operations against the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations notwithstanding, the vast majority of jihadist incidents are handled by national police forces, even if sometimes these involve paramilitary police or elite police units, and the vast majority of jihadist violence have been against civilian noncombatants. In that regard, jihadist violence seems less like a military conflict then it does a criminal conspiracy, albeit a worldwide one with an overtly political agenda.
Moreover, while we can reject the characterization of jihadist violence as a Christian-Muslim struggle, much less a continuation of the historic Christian-Muslim enmity that lasted from the 8th century through the 19th century, the fact remains that these jihadists are explicitly targeting and see their opponent as Western culture and civilization in both its Christian and secular forms. What they are advocating is a replacement of Western culture by an explicitly Islamic alternative and in this endeavor that have the support and sympathy of literally hundreds of millions of the world's Muslims.
The fact is that the struggle with jihadism is in fact a world war with multiple front lines scattered across the world's major cities. That conclusion is inescapable. It is not the Third World War, because it has little in common with the first two and while conventional military forces will play a role, this conflict will involve national police forces to an unprecedented extent. It is therefore possible to say that this is the first "World War" fought by asymmetric forces simultaneously across the globe.
There have been other conflicts fought by asymmetric forces. Indeed there is nothing new about such wars. The conflict between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Great Britain or that between the United States and the Vietcong are examples of such clashes. What is different about the jihadist conflict is that it is being fought on a worldwide basis. IRA violence was almost entirely carried out in Northern Ireland and England. The conflict with the Vietcong was fought in Vietnam and to a lesser extent Cambodia and Laos. The Vietcong never attempted to stage attacks against civilians in San Francisco or against U.S. military installations in Europe. In the struggle with jihadism there are no targets off the table, no theater of operation that is off limits.
Finally the fact also remains that the jihadists identify themselves as Muslims, utilize Islamic iconography and its symbolism, and wrap themselves in its traditions and sacred scriptures to justify their actions. Moreover, in doing so they have the support of a sizable number, even if they remain a minority overall, of other Muslims around the globe. We can characterize their beliefs as a corruption of the Islamic faith and point out that a majority of the world's Muslims do not agree with them and that they simply wish to live in peace with their non-Muslim neighbors, nonetheless it doesn't change the fact that a Muslim identity, albeit a corrupted one, is at the core of the jihadist movement.
This is what world war looks like in the 21st century. It is not a conventional global war like World War I and II, although it certainly involves the deployment of military forces around the globe. It has both the elements of a conventional battlefield and an insurgency, but an insurgency fought simultaneously across the globe in multiple independent theaters where the target of opportunity might just as easily be a local shopping mall as it is a target half a world away. Jihadist violence might be the result of a centrally organized operation or unscripted, random acts of violence by local militants. The enemy can be a combatant on the other side of the world or your neighbor on the local metro, they can be everywhere and they can be nowhere.
We have never fought a war like the one we are fighting now. We lack a comprehensive doctrine of how such a war should we fought or a coherent strategy to defeat our opponents. Our government leaders are unwilling to admit this is going to be a multigenerational war that will require significant spending and sacrifice. Instead they look for any pretext to hang out the "mission accomplished" sign. They can put it away because it is unlikely that they will have a legitimate reason to use it in our lifetime. This is a war for nothing less than the heart and soul of Western civilization, a war in which the old rules of combat and strategic protocols no longer apply. We cannot win this war with the tactics and strategy of the last World War, we cannot win it with our current half-hearted attempts and we cannot win this war if we are unwilling to admit we are already fighting it.