Asymmetric threats and its impact on US security after 09/11 / Amel Ouchenane

Asymmetric threats and its impact on US security after 09/11.

Amel Ouchenane  

Algiers University Department of political science and International relations

      مقال نشر في مجلة جيل الدراسات السياسية والعلاقات الدولية العدد10 ص 121.


The research question: What are the main impacts of asymmetric threats on US security after 9-11?

The outlines:

1/The-conceptual framework of asymmetric warfare and asymmetric threat.

 2/Thenature of asymmetric threats faced by the US and their features.

3/The US vision to face the impact of asymmetric threats.



The 21 century is characterized by different political, economic, and social changes;concerning security due to the globalization and technological advancement it brings more complex and multidimensional security concepts that includenot only military but also non-military aspects. The features of threat have also extended with the emergence of non-traditionaldangers, those conditions have affected the nature of wars and their center of gravity,obviously in the evolution in Military and security Affairs it shifted the fourth generation of war into asymmetric warfare, whichis about new actors, different characteristics and deep impacts.This study highlight the following questions: What is asymmetric warfare and threat? What are the asymmetric threats faced by the US? Is it possible to contain asymmetric threat by the US?

1/The-conceptual framework of asymmetric warfare and asymmetric threat:

Definition of asymmetricwarfare: The term “symmetrical warfare” mostly means armed conflict between States of equal military strength.[1]Asymmetry” is a term used overly by the U.S. defense and policy communities of the United States.[2]Asymmetry” or “asymmetric” has many definitions and is used to determine many things including tactics, strategies, and weapons systems even the understanding of what is sanctioned by international law. “Asymmetric threats”, are usually viewed as having the ability to produce diffuse civilian casualties or massive environmental damage. [3]

The CIA gives another definitionto asymmetrical warfare as the employment of advanced strategies, tactics and technologies by a weakened state or a sub-state enemy that are prepared to keep away the advantages and exploit the vulnerabilities of technologically superiorenemy. Thisdefinition includes twofactors. The first one is about the selective utilization of arms or military resources by a state or sub-state group to respond,prevent, or beat a technologically supreme power, the second factor is about the utilization of non-military abilities or tactics by a state or sub-state group to weaken orcompelmilitary operations by a supreme power.

The U.S. military’s working definition of asymmetric warfare says, “Enemies arepossibly seeking tosubvert or to destroy the U. S strengths while benefiting from its weakness,utilizing methods that differ crucially from the normal mode of U.S. operations.” A recent Joint Staff definition say that asymmetric warfare consists of “unanticipated or non – traditional approaches to destroy an adversary’s s strengthsthrough unpredicted technologies means.”[4]

‘Asymmetrical Threat’ is a new concept  used to determine the weapons and tactics that weakened adversary ,use to defeat or fence the technological superiority of developed nations. The aim is not to demand territory or to menace the sovereignty of the enemy, buttheessential purpose is to decay theenemy’spotential and capability to use its supreme military capability influentially to interfere in regional or internal conflicts furthermore tohandicap the objectives of bluff states or other vandal groups.[5]Therefor asymmetry in this case does not mean that the arms used are better or worse than those of the United some extent, enemies are ready to use such weapons without “classical” limitation. According to Pimmerman, an Asymmetric Threat must meet three criteria, whichare:

  1. It must include a weapon, tactic or strategy that the enemy both could and would use against another adversary.(Competition)
  2. It must include a weapon, tactic, or strategy that would not or could not be used by one adversary. (The monopoly of weapons).
  3. It must involve a weapon, tactic, or strategy that, if notreply, could have seriousimpacts (The efficacy) .therefore if a threat has threecharacteristics it would be considered [6]
  4. Forms of Asymmetric threat:Asymmetric warfare used to be determined as “a conflict including two states with different total military and economic resources.”However,after 9/11attacks the definition has beenadjusted. Asymmetric warfare is now defined as “using inferior tactical or operational strength against [the] vulnerabilities of a superior opponent to achieve the disproportionate effect with the aim of undermining [the opponent’s] will in order to achieve the asymmetric actor’s strategic objectives.”[7]The definition shows that :

*Asymmetric threat includes more actorsit is not only restricted to inter-State conflicts, furthermore, asymmetries in warfare include many different asymmetries of tools ,power methods, strategies, organization, norms and time.

* Asymmetry can be contributory, technological, normative, and doctrinal or moral.

*Wars have been characterized by at least one genre  of asymmetry, for example if the USA will be involved in any conflict by definition it will be  asymmetric because of the technological superiority as well as for any other armed conflict which includes non-State actors, like resistance movements, fighters, rebels or terrorists.

*In any armedconflict it difficult to know its course orresults because of the element of surprise.

*The adversary may use methods, strategies or tactics not directed to the enemy vulnerabilities. Therefore, asymmetry could  be characteristic of any war.[8]

2/ The nature of asymmetric threats faced by the US and their features

What Are the Current and Future Threats to U.S. Security?

During the twentieth century, the general security reality was European dependence on U.S. strength, with common values and norms, which have enhanced the trust between them. However, before the end of the Cold War, the dependence on the USprotection decreased,new adversaries that are able to maximize credible attacks against the West, furthermore the U.S. deficiency to Confront and weaken the enemies have augmented this grasp. [9]

The US disability to avoid threats and protect allies has decreased the trust between them. In 2002, the US – foreign policy built on a foundation of alliances and international dialogue, has been changed ,the new U.S. doctrine based on military primacy, a “new multilateralism,” and the prevalence of democracy ,was sometimes observed with doubt by US partners , and  it was not seen as multilateral but unilateral. US also faced other challenges like reduced credibility because of U.S. wrong information like what happened in Iraq, which, lead to alack of focus on the apparent threatthat terrorism poses.[10]

After 9/11 new asymmetric challenges emerged and threaten the US security like;

1/Biological Weapons: The White House published in 2009 a National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats with an implicit topic that biological weapons would be used in a terrorist attack. To control fatal viruses from being turned into dangerous weapons, furthermoreone of the hardest challenges is getting suitable and precise prudence on possible attacks.[11]

2/Cyber-Attacks: Many experts warn about the danger of cyberwarfare for years. Network encroachments are widely viewed as one of the most serious potential national security, public security and economic defy.  The scholars argued that the technology is a double-edge sword has positive sides as well as negative sides  “The  technologies which help humans to create and develop their skills alsohelps individual criminal hackers, organized criminal groups, terrorist networks and other advanced nations to damage the important infrastructure that is necessary to the economy, business , and security ” .

3/Climate Change: The national security impacts of climate change are sharp, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. While the topic of climate change is deeply politicized, Panetta argued that theclimate issue as a grave security crisis. “In the 21st century,the US realizedthat climate change can influence national security due to increasing sea levels, critical droughts, the fusionof the polar caps, to morerepeated anddestructive natural disasters that raise a request for humanitarian aid and catastrophe assistance. The global warming will lead to new conflicts over refugees, resources, and catastrophic natural disasters, all of that woulddemand to rise U.S. military help and resources. [12]

4/Transnational Crime: U.S. defense and law-enforcement agencies see transnational criminal networks as national security challenges. These organizations are the main cause of insecurity and destroy government institutions through corruption, transnational criminal groups have amassed the unmatched fortune and power through Illegal trade like drug trade, arms smuggling, human trafficking, and other illegitimate actions .Moreover theyexpand their range by creating partnerships with terrorist organizations, government officials, and some state security services.” On the other hand,the United States’ admitted the incapacity to control those groups, because even the advanced surveillance technology is not roughly able to contain this threat.[13]

5/ Bio-Threats: Health challenges become a security priority due to the speed of the disease and virus furthermore its impact on global health security and the biggest challenge is how to find a solution for these diseases and prevent their spread.[14]

6/Terrorism and the cultural asymmetry: Terrorism become the most prominent aspects of the asymmetric threats.Because of its impact on the economic, social, politicaland security side as well as the ability of terrorist organizations to attack the most vital areas of state and targeting the central sectors as well as civilians.Due to the growing religious factor in the formation of extremist groups there is an argument that claims the failure to understand an enemy’s culture this lack of comprehension will lead  to a decline in the probability to win and to achieve victory because the enemy “center of gravity Is undetermined.

The characteristics of asymmetric threats: AccordingTo US, asymmetric threat has some characteristics, which differ it from other threat like:

  • The asymmetric threat is “unusual” it means that the threat is exceptional and something that draws attention the threat is somehow new and remarkable at least as Americans recognize it ,for example taking, torturing hostages.[15]

* The asymmetric threat is “irregular” or casual threats. Therefore the threat will be adopted by instruments but unrecognized  and it might be unacceptable too by the practice and laws of wars especially humanitarian law and in case of humanitarian interventions  or international treaties, and arms control agreements for example nuclear explosions to damage satellite operations there is a legal discussion about it is it legitimate or not? Does the aim justify the mean even if human will be the first victim. [16]

 *The asymmetric threat is “unmatched” it could be surpassing to the American arsenal of capacities andprograms and plan. Therefore it may or may not seem really grave and serious  from a survival and durability standpoint,but surely appear different from war the best example in this case is  the 11 September attacks, so understanding and well estimating is important in preventing and avoiding an “Asymmetric” Threats to the United States .

* The asymmetric threat is well oriented, and extremely leveraged against the U.S. military and civil assets and infrastructures for example the ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, therefore US is vulnerable to such attacks at any time by  state and non-state actors.

 * Limited ability to respond theasymmetric threatsespecially when non-state actors and criminal groups manage it, it is quite difficult to contain them and to obtain the second strike.

 *Quickly available U.S. military reaction:Responding tothe same influence and in the best time is difficult to determinate.especially with discriminate and consistent  way , showing the quicklyavailable U.S. military reaction, otherwise  clearly irrelevant, or ensnaring policy in a long political or legal operations which stop any real action for example nuclear attacks ,terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and sabotage and destruction . [17]

*Unknown threat: threats that are conducive to the terrifying probability of the “unknown unknown”threat for example theunbelievable outcomethat may be correlating with a large attack with biological weapons.

This category focus on the characteristic of an asymmetric threat that could be faced by the US, it discusses most of the features but not all of them therefore, ittried to highlight a framework of threat possibilities and the extent to which they caninterlock. Most of the features specified before focus on what might be considered to be the “different,” “unknown,” “unconventional,” or “unimaginable.” With many of these threats, the US understand well the possibility of asymmetric attacks but it does t know how, where and when it will happen.[18]

Therefore, Asymmetric threats for USare divided into three categories.

 First, there are vulnerabilities in the complex but crisp information technology based systems-of-systems. Such threats stop communications that carry targeting information or the Global Positioning System navigation and timing signal, attacking reconnaissance satellites, are models of challenges that face the US therefore the system must be more solid and more complicated. [19]

A second group of asymmetric threat is the potential use of weapons of mass destruction in many cases like in battlefield (land) or at ports (sea) or airfields (airspace), itmeans targeting US vital area wherepower is projected, or on the territory of US proponents whichit seeksto defend and protect. This threat requires counter-proliferation capacity, with effective tactics and doctrine for their use. [20]

The third threat is the annoying probability that adversaries will try to menace the U.S. homeland with terrorism on a war-like scale. Tragic terrorism could be a result of   the utilization of weapons of mass destruction, like biological weapons, from attack over the basic infrastructures upon which crisp modern society rely on and it  includes many sectors like  communications  power, transport, finance ,,,etc. The terrorist attacks onUS land are relatively new one in 21 century, due to the geographical location, with oceans to the east and west, and friendly neighbors to the south and north. However, globalization, technology changed the protection historically given by suitable geographical location.

The US vision to face the impact of asymmetric threats.

Asymmetric challenges and US Weaknesses:

  • The fragility of cyber security US own self worst enemy—continuing to obtain computers, which are vast open to fault and omissions, oblivious demolition of data and information, insider deformity, and outside attack ,also Time supports the enemy using any kind of information virus moreover enemies will choose accurately between Direct confrontation and indirect confrontation.[21]
  • The difficulty of securing infrastructures: U.S. vulnerabilities to asymmetric attack are broadly in the civil sector, like bridges,airports, telephone switches for the U.S. Intelligence Community and operational commands. Furthermore, the mostsusceptible of all are the data controlled by banks and the main logistics factors including fuel suppliers.[22]
  • Ease Breakthrough:The enemies will succeed by causing a war between the different groups in US legal system, and not operationalcapacities.
  • Conditions promote instability: The political, economic, and technological climate supports a rise in terrorism, conflict and asymmetric attack. Therefore, it will push to the privatization of security, the militarization of the police, and the gendarmnification of the military.[23]
  • The US criteria for victory: The US actual gauge for victory are difficultto achieve because they want crucial victory with limited casualties.
  • Weak structure: US forcebases are powerless tomajor asymmetric manipulations in time, space, and materials.[24]

US efforts to contain Asymmetricalthreats:Each state has a certain vision and perception about how it will face any asymmetrical threat, throughits military,economic and political capabilities. Due to the rationality of decision maker states will seek for maximum benefits with low costs therefore confronting asymmetric threat also is a rational process based on balancing  between goals, nature of the threat, and costs.

The problem in fighting the asymmetric threat is the characteristics of “Asymmetric Threats” and with defining it furthermore, the definition revealsthat the universe of threats is divided closelyinto the symmetric and the asymmetric. Nevertheless the visible distinctness of some cases, there is no more final a test for what is an asymmetric threat thanthere is for who is a terrorist. [25]

The US tried to adopt a comprehensive policy including the political, military, economic factors to avoid the asymmetric threat through Strategic Communications Strategy. A Defense and Homeland Security Strategy. An Economic Strategy. A Diplomatic (International) Strategy[26]. The main aim for US is to maintain superior and unique capabilities in the face of any potential military opponent this ability has different characteristics like global power projection, superior knowledge, planning and informationdominance, and this capability mainly demand the use of asymmetric techniques and methods.[27]

The primary strategic objective of asymmetrical warfare is psychological, not military. It is to menace theenemy psychologically by directly or indirectly implanting scare, panic and terror in orderto fulfillits political agenda.

 In more descriptive concept, it is, “the linkeduse and threat of violence that is guided at one group targets—the victims— toforce acquiescenceor obeisance from another set of targets (targets of demands) or to effect a broad public that is not immediately implicated in a specific conflict. (the mass media, the general public, world opinion, other governments, etc.)”.[28]

 Asymmetrical combatants mostly use invisible terrorist and irregular guerrilla warfare tactics and aim to avertdirect military confrontation with the adversaries’ vastly superior armed forces.

The second but necessary strategic objective in combating asymmetricalthreat is to win the hearts and minds of potential allies and supporters, through winning financial and logistic support, secure sanctuaryand the capability to induct new combatants and fighters.Because no asymmetrical organization or group can long survive and sustained much, less realize its political objectives, aims without an important, and efficacy outside support system.[29]


Wars and instability are the current international system features. Asymmetric threat is another form and challenge for global security and international actors. It threaten the survival human and the suitability of states,it has become the new threats due to the technological facilities and communication development, which led to creating a network of terrorism and crime organizations. Today the impact is not only on US security but also on global existence. Furthermore, what happened in a country may affect the other country because of the economic, political, security interdependence. Therefore the nature of   war  changed and the center of gravity in 21 century become unclear and ambiguous the logic of winningand losing changed too because the enemy becomes unknown  therefore it is quite  difficult to predict its reactions and so to contain the asymmetrical threat it is necessary to reinforce coordination and cooperation between states and non-states actors .


[1] Toni Pfanner, Asymmetrical warfare from the perspective of humanitarian law and humanitarian action. International review ,Volume 87 Number 857 March 2005.p.2.

[2] Steven Lambakis James Kiras Kristin Kolet. Understanding “Asymmetric” Threats to the United States. National Institute for Public Policy. September 2002 .p.6.


[4]Toni Pfanner,op,cit.p.3.

[5]K C Dixit, The Challenges of Asymmetric Warfare. Institute for defense studies and analyses ,March 09,2010.

[6]Chris Mark, Asymmetric Warfare, Global security, privacy and risk management ,July21.2015. visited on 25-05-2016.

[7]Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg. Asymmetric Warfare: How to Respond? International law studies, volume 87.p,464.

[8] Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg,op.cit.p465.

[9]Dealing with Today’s Asymmetric Threat to U.S. and Global Security,” co-sponsored by CACI International Inc (CACI) and the National Defense University (NDU). May 2008 . visited on 24-05-2016.

[10]Dealing with Today’s Asymmetric Threat to U.S. and Global Security,” ,op,cit.


[12]Sandra I. Erwin, Stew Magnuson, Dan Parsons and YasminTadjdeh .Top Five Threats to National Securityin the Coming Decade. National defense magazine. (November 2012), visired on 25-0502016..

[14] David L. Buffaloe. Defining Asymmetric Warfare, The land  warfare  papers , No. 58 (September 2006).p,14.

[15]Steven Lambakis James Kiras Kristin Kolet. Understanding “Asymmetric” Threats to the United States , National Institute for Public Policy , September 2002 ,p.19 visited on 27-05-2016.


[17] Steven Lambakis,op.cit.p20.

[18]Loc,cit .

[19]ashton b. carter and william j. perry. Countering Asymmetric Threats. Belfer center ,Harvard university . p.2 visited on 23-05-2016.


[21]Robert David Steele. Takedown: The Asymmetric Threat to the Nation.(22Juin.1998)…/file…/ASYMMETRICWARTheBigPicture.docvisited on 25-05-2016


[23]Robert Davis steele,op,cit .


[25]Stephen J. Blank, Rethinking asymmetric  Threats. Strategic Studies Institute  September 2003. visited on 22-05-2016.

[26]Robert David,op.cit.

[27]David E. Long, Countering Asymmetrical Warfare in the 21st Century: A Grand Strategic Vision.Center of Contemporary Conflict. file:///C:/Users/hp/Downloads/nps39-021009-32%20(1).pdf visited on 27-05-2016.


[29] David E. Long, op.cit.

Updated: 2017-10-19 — 12:03

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