Col. John Alexander: How the war on terrorism will be fought
During Colonel John Alexander's varied career with the United States Army, he held key positions in special operations and intelligence. In the '60s, Dr. Alexander commanded Special Forces "A" Teams in Vietnam and Thailand. He is a leading advocate for the development of non-lethal weapons.
CNN: Welcome to CNN.com Newsroom, Col. John Alexander. We are pleased to have you with us today.
COL. JOHN ALEXANDER: It's a great pleasure to be here. I think this is a very trying time, and a time when we need to get a lot of accurate information out.
CNN: You have a particular interest in non-lethal weapons. Could you describe what these are and how they might be used in the war on terrorism?
ALEXANDER: Non-lethal weapons comprise a very broad category, and they can include chemical, electromagnetic, low-kinetic impact, acoustic, and some will even include information warfare. In the war against terrorism, I think they will be more important than ever before. Now, we should not be looking for the use of non-lethal weapons in Afghanistan. The war against terrorism is a very broad concept, and one that many in the media are missing. The majority of the war will be fought in the shadows and much will take place in major metro areas, such as London, Paris, Cairo, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, etc. The action there will be to root out terrorist cells.
In my view, we are likely to see an increase in hostage-taking, particularly as terrorists believe that they have been targeted and become frantic or attempt to escape or evade capture. Therefore, we need to have weapons capabilities that we can separate the terrorists from the innocent civilians who will eventually be co-located with them, and the non-lethal weapons will fit into that category.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Good day Colonel. What do you think will be the role of knowledge management in the information wars of now and the future?
ALEXANDER: It depends on the context in which you place knowledge management. There would be two definitions, one of which is just knowing the context of all the information available, and being able to decipher accurate from inaccurate information and using that information to make good decisions. Now, there may be another definition that you may mean, and that may be what we call perception management, which is different in that it infers that we will influence the perception of our actions, and those of our adversaries. I might say there that a) it is very important, and b) our policy has been to report accurately factual information. Now that does not mean that we say everything we know, but in general, the information we put out is truthful.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How are we informing the Afghan people who want no part of the Taliban what options they have? Why not literature leaflets dropped from the air?
ALEXANDER: If you'll note, there apparently has been some consideration given to leaflet drops. This will be part of our complete psychological operations campaign, because we do want to separate normal Afghan people from those who support terrorists. It does look like our targeting is geared very much toward military targets, such as terrorist camps or armed Taliban units.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there any way we can cut this war short with a truly non-lethal weapon such as diplomacy?
ALEXANDER: Absolutely not. Again, the people are focusing, and the news media has been remiss here, focusing on Osama bin Laden, and the real issue is an ideology of terrorism, and this is widespread. It encompasses every country in the world, including the United States. This is not between the United States and Afghanistan, nor the United States and Islam. Those are popular misconceptions.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does the U.S. have the capability of using spy satellites to target and coordinate a direct strike on a individual target?
ALEXANDER: Oh yes, we do. Even the satellite information available in the civilian arena, some on the 'Net today, you can get down to where you can see trucks and even people moving.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Col. Alexander, how large is our Special Forces and is it possible that all of them will be used?
ALEXANDER: There are about 50,000 troops in the Special Operations forces. These include U.S. Army Special Forces, Ranger Units, Psychological Operations Units, Navy SEALs, and air commandos. Many of these elements will be employed, but we would never use them all at the same time. This will be a global fight, and there are other adversaries to watch at the same time.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you know if there is any truth to the rumors about Russia selling 'backpack' nuclear weapons to terrorists, or if any others have made these devices and sold them to terrorists?
ALEXANDER: There have been a number of stories about small nuclear weapons. The reality is that there are other technologies available in weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological, that are much easier to handle. The problem with even small nuclear weapons is that they are extremely heavy, and they radiate. There are signatures to them that can be located. Conversely, the other weapons are much easier to conceal and deliver.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How effective can the FBI and local law enforcement be in using sting techniques that they excel at, to catch suspected terrorist cells here at home?
ALEXANDER: In my opinion, local law enforcement is going to take on an extremely important and predominantly new role in combating domestic terrorism. There will be many techniques used. The police and average citizens will need to be more aware of things around them, and report unusual things to the police and FBI. Since September 11, we are much more sensitive to unusual things. We were shocked to find out that terrorists could live among us, taking part in our society and democracy, and yet have a festering hatred for our way of life. It will not only be the police, but citizens who are now much more aware of unusual events taking place in the immediate vicinity, and reporting them to law enforcement. That will be critical in the battle against terrorism here in the United States.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Will the war on terrorism include ground combat as well as air strikes?
ALEXANDER: In my opinion, it certainly will. I think it's yet to be determined the extent to which that occurs, but remember, some of this ground combat will happen in other areas with very small teams. Some of these actions will look much more like a police raid than traditional combat. People should not expect Nintendo war, such as we saw in Desert Storm.
CHAT PARTCIPANT: Do you think that digital warfare has gotten to the point where we need to consider a separate branch of the military soley for electronic warfare?
ALEXANDER: My response to that would be no. The reason is that all the military services are engaged in digitization. You would never separate out one aspect of conflict. In fact, the trend is going the other direction, and that is to consolidate these activities, but within the existing organization.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: If there are terrorist cells throughout the world, including in the United States, why do we seem to be focusing military forces solely on Afghanistan? Are there any internal attempts to take these cells down?
ALEXANDER: I think the problem here is the perception being generated by the news media. The reality is that these cells are being taken down around the world as we speak. We've already taken into custody around 500 people here in the U.S. The same thing is happening in Europe, and to a lesser degree around the world. It's easier to focus on large-scale troop movements, as opposed to surreptitious movements. That will be the nature of the coming war.
CHAT PARTICIPANTS: How do we deal with the possibility that the Taliban may throw not only themselves, but "innocents" in the line of fire in order to win sympathy from our delicate coalition nations?
ALEXANDER: The use of innocent civilians has certainly been used throughout warfare, sometimes with their consent, sometimes not. It is a difficult situation, and I think it's why the U.S. didn't strike back instantaneously and is being selective about targets. I think you'll see them hit military targets that are clearly discernable. You probably won't see massive bombing of Kabul or anything like that. You can never be 100% safe in limiting collateral casualties, however.
CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?
ALEXANDER: In a follow-up to the last question, it is because of collateral casualties that non-lethal weapons become part of the formula. You'll see them enhance our ability to conduct military operations, while limiting casualties to innocent civilians.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Col. John Alexander.
ALEXANDER: Thank you.
Colonel John Alexander joined CNN.com Newsroom via telephone from Nevada. CNN provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Wednesday, October 03, 2001.
Analysts say limited weaponry, forces hamper Taliban
October 3, 2001
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