The Gestalt of Guerrilla Warfare | Guerrilla Warfare | Al Qaeda

Revised: December 8, 2013 Word count: about 729 Pete Willows – willows@aucegypt.


The Gestalt of Guerrilla Warfare
Invisible Armies: an epic history of guerrilla warfare from ancient times to the present. By Max Boot. 2013. 750 pps. W. W. Norton & Company Ltd. ISBN: 978 0 87140 424 4. $35.00. Max Boot has written an engrossing book on the history of asymmetric warfare, which covers the very beginnings of guerrilla operations, in Egypt and Mesopotamia (c. 3000 BC), right up to contemporary theory on fighting insurgencies, with the 2007 US Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. The similarities in guerrilla war throughout the millennia are more striking than the differences – the outcomes however, vary greatly. Historically, nations with a large, organized and skilled army, perceive guerrilla warfare as cowardly; a small and constantly changing insurgency simply has no other method of engagement, and could never meet their belligerent on a battlefield with hopes of prevailing. We learn terminology as we read, with Boot providing etymologies: our English word, assassin, is taken from the Arabic,
Page 1 of 5

‫هشيشية‬ َ = hashiishiiyat, by way of Mediaeval Latin, assassinus – referring to a secret society of 11th Century Persians who were said to have smoked hashish before doing their killings. Thankfully, the author dismisses the veracity behind the folk-origin of the word, as the suicide-knifing Assassins would have required patience, and clear thoughts to conduct their complex operations, and likely were not stoned. And it is in this chapter on the Assassins, where Boot defines „terrorists‟ as those working on behalf of non-state groups – European Americans and Native Americans may have attacked noncombatants as a technique for instilling terror, but they did so on behalf of their respective governments and tribes. Ideology is another motivation, beyond liberating lands from foreign occupiers. The Russian Nihilists of the 1860s rejected all forms of authority and offered no alternative as they threw bombs. The European Anarchists had no unifying command structure – unsurprising given their ideology – and certainly no training camps, rather, it was a shared belief system by people who acted independently. But the terror worked. There was an Anarchists scare, similar to the post 9/11 panic, which resulted in the creation of Interpol, in 1923.
Page 2 of 5

This is where Boot tells us about the gestalt of terror – individuals and groups, like al-Qaeda, and their affiliates, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, inter alia, create a mosaic of terror that when seen together as a whole, eclipses their individual actions. Bin Laden‟s attacks did not require a high overhead: the USS Cole attack cost about fifty-thousand US dollars to execute – and 9/11, about a half-million dollars. With the 9/11 damage estimated at five hundred billion dollars, bin Laden, a former economics major, got quite the return on his investment. If it could be said, “history is written by the victor,” then it could also be said that history is seldom read by the victor. And that is because Boot tells us guerrilla warfare inflicted the same woes on both Chinese and Roman soldiers in 200 BC, as it does today on coalition forces in the Fertile Crescent and Afghanistan. And neither of these two contemporary nations have managed to stabilize the installed governments and move forward, toward anything beyond insurgency-driven conflict. All very interesting.
Page 3 of 5

But things are missing from this large book. Boot barely mentions US General Stanley McChrystal, who is widely regarded as having implemented massively effective counter-insurgency procedures in Iraq, during The Battles of Fallujah in 2003-2004. Certainly, Boot was keeping his chapters short and concise for readability – though, he also makes no mention of the Sudan People‟s Liberation Army, which is odd. Especially so, when you consider that the insurgency in South Sudan has flared-up and raged for arguably five decades, until they accomplished their goal of becoming an independent nation: no small feat. And Boot repeats a misleading statistic about headlinegrabbing Predator Drones, when he tells us that Barak Obama is authorizing significantly more drone strikes than George W. Bush ever did. Drone technology was in its infancy a decade ago, when coalition forces were invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq. So Bush did not have access to the abundant and advanced drones that are hovering menacingly today. We are in the middle of the technology revolution: one Predator Drone, right now, is using more bandwidth than the entire US Army did in the first Gulf War of 1990.

Page 4 of 5

In general, this tome on guerrilla warfare and insurgency through the ages, is well-researched and gives explanation with thoughtful analysis – something to keep on your bookshelf for reference, like a dictionary. All in all, a good read. Pete Willows is a contributing writer to The Egyptian Gazette, and its weekly magazine version, The Egyptian Mail. He lives and works in Cairo, and can be reached at

Page 5 of 5

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful