Both President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney called the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya an act of terror during the second Presidential debate last night, a sentiment which has been echoed by other senior officials including Leon Panetta. If the attack was an act of terror, then terrorists have switched to conventional assault tactics. By calling it a terrorist attack we assume the objective of the attackers was to terrorize us. But what if that wasn't their objective?
The details which have emerged paint a picture of a compound under a conventional military assault. First, all accounts agree the attackers consisted of a very large group of armed men. How large? Well, we know the Libyian militia which responded had sixteen armed men of their own, in addition to at least half a dozen armed U.S. personnel. That means a combined defending force of 23 armed men felt substantially outnumbered by the attackers. So the number of attackers was likely to have been at least 24, and more likely thirty or forty. A platoon of infantry soldiers consists of about that same number of people. So this was a platoon sized, coordinated, and well-armed attack. Conventional weapons were used including AK-47s, mortars, and RPGs. So what if it was a conventional attack and not a terrorist act?
A terrorist act is designed to send a political message. This attack appears to have been designed to take the Embassy and its personnel, in other words to conquer a piece of real estate. Why would anyone do that? Because Libya is still a fluid environment with no established government recognized as the legitimate authority. An armed group capable of capturing and overrunning the U.S. Embassy would indicate to rival groups they are the strongest and gain credibility towards claiming the mantle of the legitimate power for itself. In that case, the objective is to gain control of Libya, not terrorise the U.S. population.
Not everything that happens in the world is related to terrorism, and we need to be able to distinguish between different types of threats out there. If we don't understand the threat, it is unlikely we will be able to respond effectively. Ineffective responses to threats makes us less secure. In other words, know thine enemy.