Small Wars Journal

Examples of Trinitarian Forces and Structures in the Terrorist Threat: Applications for Terrorist Warning

Sun, 01/23/2022 - 9:44pm

Examples of Trinitarian Forces and Structures in the Terrorist Threat: Applications for Terrorist Warning

By Benjamin J. Elliott \

Warfare has evolved since the age of the great theorists of the 19th Century, where today’s modern battlefield contains a diverse array of actors, including terrorists, who blur the traditional categories of conflict.  Despite the complexity of the modern environment, Carl von Clausewitz’s principles remain current and operational, because both his definition of war and the application of his theory define terrorist organizations.  Three reasons suggest Clausewitz’s definition and theories still apply to terrorists on the modern battlefield: 1) terrorism is a form of war, as defined by Clausewitz; 2) terrorists employ Clausewitz’s social and structural trinities in their target selection; and 3) forces germane to Clausewitz's theories may provide context to counter terrorists.

            To establish a linkage between Clausewitz’s theories and definitions of war with the contemporary environment, a concrete definition of terms is in order. First, Clausewitz labeled war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”[1]  Given the Prussian theorist’s definition, one may classify many things, such as schoolyard brawls, chess, and even football, as war under his definition.  However, Clausewitz amplifies his definition through several principles of war, such as engagement, the center of gravity, objective, offense, and defense.[2]  Each assist in clarifying the definition of war.  Although not discussed in detail, each aid in establishing how force is used on a battlefield, during an engagement, or clash of arms, through offense and defense, focused on an objective where an enemy is compelled to bend toward the other’s will. 

            It is equally important to define terrorism.  While many definitions exist, a synthesis may follow that terrorism is an act of violence, or threat thereof, motivated by a political goal for power or influence over a government, civilian population, or group.[3]  Both Clausewitz’s foregoing definition of war and the contemporary definition of terrorism share similar traits like “an act of force” and an act of violence, as well as the threat of violence, which illustrates that both terrorism and war involve a violent struggle between entities.  Furthermore, the verbs influence and compel are roughly synonymous, illustrating terrorism and war involve a clash of ideas designed to affect an audience to change behavior.  Finally, Clausewitz describes war “as an act of policy” while many definitions acknowledge that terrorism is an act of violence aimed at a political goal, or according to United States Code: “politically motivated.”[4] Thus clarity exists in stating that terrorism is a form of war. Now, evidence will follow to illustrate how terrorists apply Clausewitz’ theory in their actions.  

            Finally, revisiting what Clausewitz’s capstone theory, in both the social and structural sense will aid the reader in understanding the duality of meaning used throughout the remainder of this essay. Numerous theorists draw a distinction between Clausewitz’s social trinity—the people, the government, and the army—and the “remarkable trinity”—violent emotion, chance, and rational policy (reason). [5]  Villacres and Bassford posit that the former social trinity derived from theorizing about the Vietnam war and centered on the work of Colonel Harry Summer’s influential study of the war.[6]  Due to works like Summer’s and others as well as the U.S. Army’s subscription of it as a form of analysis, it is often the dominate trinity associated with Clausewitz in the mind of the modern scholar, practitioner. Yet, dismissing the “remarkable trinity,” also termed the structural trinity throughout this article, only allows the analyst to view half of the theory.

Terrorist organizations employ elements of Clausewitz’s remarkable trinity in their target selection.  As warfare is a struggle between groups, either side in any conflict is managing and interacting with their version of the trinity.  Logically following Clausewitz’s approach to war where the “trinity exists on all sides of any conflict,” it is useful to examine, through the lens of the terrorist organization, how terrorists may employ their version of the trinity in target selection.[7] 

While terrorists may have been labeled in the past as irrational, inhumane, barbaric, and unjust, modern practitioners of terrorism studies would do well to avoid falling into such a trap.  Suicides, stabbings, and beheading civilians may appear inhumane, but such actions are fueled, as its definition states, by a political agenda aimed at compelling another to modify behavior or policy.  Terrorists apply Clausewitz’s principles of the trinity in their selection of targets to achieve a political objective.  Much like Clausewitz’s approach, their employment of political goals often takes a triadic application.

Direct terrorism, defined as triadic terrorism according to terrorism expert Donald Hanle, involves a physical attack on a victim, aimed at creating a psychological impact on a targeted group or individual.[8]  The victim must share a symbiotic relationship with the targeted group.  Indirect terrorism (quadratic terrorism) is more complex, where a terrorist attack on a victim is designed to psychologically impact a targeted group, forcing a “nonterrorized entity, such as the victim’s commander or national government” to change their behavior or policy.[9]  

Peculiar to indirect terrorism, the terrorist is seeking to sever the link between members of Clausewitz’s social trinity: the people, army, and government.[10]  For example, Hezbollah’s (terrorist group) targeting of citizens (victims) in Northern Galilee in 1993 and 1996 were aimed at severing the link between the populace (target of terrorism) and the ruling government (nonterrorised target of influence) to withdrawal Israeli troops from Lebanon and end decades of war.  In the end, the people won, as did Hezbollah, and before the 2000 elections, both candidates for Israel’s Prime Minister campaigned on a platform of complete withdrawal from Lebanon.[11]

Victory for terrorists exists when groups understand the proper targets which, when threatened, may psychologically force or compel a political entity to change an agenda.  Clausewitz recognized war, expressed as “a continuation of political intercourse, carried on by other means” did not have to be linearly arranged.[12]  Likewise, terrorists do not desire to engage enemies in a linear fashion, yet wish to change a policy of an adversarial group or nation through a psychological asymmetry.  Recalling another example from Hezbollah, a retrospective from the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut demonstrates the policy shift of the United States.  Robert Oakley, the former Department of State coordinator for Counter-Terrorism, stated that the bombing “did exactly that [get us out of Lebanon] …we pulled the…Marines out of Lebanon.”[13] The knowledge that terrorism is a method to employ policy allows warning analysts to continue to utilize Clausewitz’ trinity of forces to analyze the threat. 

            Although terrorists may use the social trinity, or trinity of actors (government, military, and people), to understand their policy objectives, such an interpretation presents analytical clues too late.  An analyst may miss the point by only following Clausewitz’ illustration of the trinity by which each tendency is mainly concerned.  Rather, the warning analyst may benefit significantly from recognizing the originally intended remarkable trinity—blind natural force, chance, and reason—behind a terrorist group’s motivation.

A few of the difficulties in terrorism warning include: individuals, cells and networks who operate in isolation; difficulty for sources to penetrate inner circles; and determining a possible plot from a sea of daily threats.  However, using Clausewitz’s trinity as an entry point for analysis, one may establish indicators of terrorist behavior without needing newer technologies, deeper human sources, and more sophisticated satellites.  Instead, analysts may use Clausewitz’ identities of “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity…chance and probability… [and being an] instrument of policy” to assist in recognizing terrorist groups before their origin.[14]

            Counterterrorism practitioner Judd Floris (2012) applied each aspect of the remarkable trinity (passions, uncertainty, and reason) to define how “intervention points” may be leveraged to “identify the people…decrease the role of chance through geographically containing terrorism…and present an alternate policy…be delegitimizing” the policy that terrorists seek to modify.[15]  While Floris’ suggestions occur during the monitoring of a terrorist group, an incredibly important endeavor, the trinity may also be used to predict, and warn of, terrorist group formation.

            First, Clausewitz’ passions, known as the “blind natural force” are the basic elements that compose the ideology of a terrorist movement.  The hatred and enmity Clausewitz expresses, like Floris says, “inherently involves the passion of the individual,” is a fundamental building-block of a terrorist organization.[16]  Passions are expressed in discourse, writing, conversation, or a communicative event, and those that are communicating revolutionary ideas at the genesis of an organization may present an opportunity to define a terrorist organization.  Often these early leaders—identity entrepreneurs—will express their passionate discourse in public venues, open to all audiences, and within the collection scope of open-source intelligence.  Typically, an expression of a grievance, perhaps stemming from relative deprivation, is the impetus to propel a revolutionary idea into an ideology that terrorist groups can manipulate for their political purpose.  Following the death of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, his heir Muqtada al-Sadr sought to follow his father’s legacy. Muqtada sought to embody his father and emulated his dress while establishing the Friday sermon, despite his limited religious education. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr utilized his Friday sermon to resist U.S. occupation, expressing public, passionate discourse opposed to U.S. and Western armies. Eventually Muqtada al-Sadr would marshal the Mahdi Army from this platform and organized a campaign to expel the U.S. coalition and form an Iraqi Shiite government.[17] Eventually the Mahdi Army would be responsible for numerous U.S. service members’ deaths and account for the perpetuator of chaos that led to the Iraqi civil war during the Coalition presence in Iraq.

            Second, an uncertain environment presents openings for their message to gain legitimacy among an in-group.  Clausewitz speaks of chance and uncertainty as dynamic, unpredictable elements like gambling or a “game of cards,” forcing circumstances to morph the realities of best-laid-plans.[18]  Likewise, chance and uncertainty enable the transformation of ideas into groups and organizations who find public space for their political message.  Chance and uncertainty exist in failed states, under the authority of extractive institutions, in ungoverned and under-governed spaces which give way to the incubation of ideas in safe havens.  Anywhere the “creative spirit is free to roam,” according to Clausewitz, a terrorist movement can take shape.[19]  Africano Abasa, a Major in the Ugandan Army, examined the survival of terrorist groups in ungoverned spaces in Africa using The Lord’s Resistance Army as a case study. Major Abasa’s conclusions specify a correlation between “governed-ness and governance,” wherein terrorist organizations operate with impunity in ungoverned areas. The author offers that adding layers of governance, including the examples of economic opportunity, strengthening institutions dedicated to essential services, and direct intervention are all opportunities to negate the effects of uncertainty, failed states, and under-governed areas. [20] While it may be difficult to see exactly where terrorist groups form, paradoxically chance and uncertainty, provide clarity to indicate where terrorist identities may manifest themselves. 

            The final element of Clausewitz’s trinity, reason, presents a more difficult application.  While much analytical thought has risen above labeling terrorist movements as irrational and barbaric, reason provides context to understanding a terrorist movement.  Guided by Hanle’s direct and indirect terrorism model, an analyst is now equipped with a tool to recognize the reason behind a terrorist’s target selection criteria.  Terrorism researcher Andrew Silke examined terrorist group targeting of Olympics venues since 1972 and concluded it was not the sport the terrorists were targeting, but the national host of the event. According to Silke’s examination, the Olympics provide terrorists with a venue to “embarrass and humiliate” the host while causing “serious economic, political, and psychological impacts.”[21] Silke’s analysis offers one of many ways to begin developing lists based on the stated targeting criteria a terrorist group may put into official and unofficial channels. Generating a list of intended targets by qualifying the political objective a terrorist group seeks to influence enables the examiner to understand terrorist reason.  Reason provides an opportunity to delegitimize a policy choice of the terrorists.  Furthermore, solutions may come when opposing governments generate political options aimed at converting a terrorist before violence, which may be extrapolated from the very reasons expressed by the organization.

            Terrorism warning is a terribly difficult task, and it is imperative that warning identifies terrorist movements in their incubation period to understand and interdict future attacks. Clausewitz’s theories are the essence of the work of warning, as Clausewitz scholar Christopher Bassford noted, “war's fundamental unpredictability does mean…strategy is a full-time, ongoing job…[which] constantly adjusts for what actually happens.”[22]  Terrorism, like war, and warning, like strategy, is an ongoing process.  While answers may be difficult to understand, the trinity of forces proposed by Clausewitz is still as essential to analyze terrorist networks today as they were 19th Century French formations. 

            Some modern scholars, including Martin van Creveld and John Keegan, silence Clausewitz as a voice of inter-state warfare, whose concepts are only relevant to the 19th-century battlefield.[23]  They argue that Clausewitz’s theories are only applicable to the battlefield and not the greater arena of conflict where contemporary struggle is influenced by terrorist networks and non-state actors. Van Creveld goes so far as to label an entire lot of low-intensity conflicts following the fall of the Soviet Union as “not trinitarian” and claims that the “division of labor between the government…the armed forces…the people…did not exist in the same form.”[24]  Perhaps criticism exists because interpretations only consider the illustrated social trinity, rather than the forces behind the illustration.  Clausewitz’s forces are much more malleable and applicable to nuanced generations of warfare and may be applied to modern actors struggling in a non-contiguous global environment.  Discounting the forces of Clausewitz’s trinity in the conflicts in which we are presently engaged may prove to be disastrous simply by labeling them as archaic.  Rather, the forces Clausewitz proposed in his theory of war are relevant in contemporary warning analysis, terrorism warning more specifically.  The forces of violence, chance, and reason illuminate a terrorist organization in its gestation and may provide policy options before the outbreak of violence.  Clausewitz’ theories are just as profound today in describing the contemporary rise of terrorism and uncertain threats as they were in defining the inter-state conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries.


These views are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.


Thank you to Dr. Edward Coss, USCGSC History Instructor, and MAJ Brian Billingsley for reviewing this essay. Additional thanks to the Mounger Writing Center at West Point, providing excellent support to scholars at the undergraduate and graduate level.




Abasa, Africano. “Ungoverned spaces and the survival of terrorist groups in Africa: a case study of the Lord’s Resistance Army.” Master’s thesis. Naval Postgraduate School, 2015.


Annual country reports on terrorism, U.S. Code 22 (2011), § 2656(f).


Bassford, Christopher. “War View: We can’t predict the outcome but action is vital.” BBC News, October 21, 2001. Accessed August 23, 2021.


Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Princeton University Press, 1976.


Creveld, Martin Van. “The Transformation of War Revisited.” Small Wars & Insurgencies 13, no. 2 (2002): 3–15.


Department of Defense. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Joint Publication 1-02. Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2021.


Floris, Judd. “Clausewitz and the Non-State Actor: A Contemporary Application of the Paradoxical Trinity to Countering Terrorism.” Small Wars Journal 8 (2012). Accessed August 23, 2021.


Hanle, Donald J. Terrorism: The Newest Face of Warfare. Washington: Pergamon-Brassey’s, 1989.


Kaye, Dalia Dass. “The Israeli Decision to Withdraw from Southern Lebanon: Political Leadership and Security Policy.” Political Science Quarterly 111, no. 4 (Winter, 2002-2003): 561-585.


Keegan, John. A History of Warfare (New York, 1993).


Selvik, Kjetil and Iman Amirteimour “The Big Man Muqtada al-Sadr: Leading the Street in Iraq under Limited Statehood.” Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal (August 16, 2021).


“Target America, Interview: Robert Oakley.” Frontline PBS, 1995. Accessed August 23, 2021.


Villacres, Edweard J, and Christopher Bassford. “Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity.” Parameters (Carlisle, Pa.) 25, no. 1 (1995): 9-19.





[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, 1989), 75.

[2] Ibid., 78, 95, 357, 595.

[3] Department of Defense, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2021), 215,; Donald Hanle, Terrorism: The Newest Face of Warfare (Washington DC, 1989), 104; Annual country reports on terrorism, U.S. Code 22 (2011), § 2656(f). JP 1-02 defines terrorism as: “The unlawful use of violence or threat of violence, often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs, to instill fear and coerce individuals, governments or societies in pursuit of terrorist goals.”  The joint definition is indecisive regarding the political motivation of terrorists.  However, Donald Hanle, former Dean of the College of Strategic Intelligence at the National Intelligence University, defined terrorism as: “a deliberate attempt to create terror through a symbolic act involving the use or threat of abnormal lethal force for the purpose of influencing a target group or individual.” Furthermore, the United States Code clarifies terrorism is politically motivated, stating terrorism is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”

[4] Clausewitz, On War, 87.  Annual country reports on terrorism, U.S. Code 22 (2011), § 2656(f).

[5] Edward Villacres and Christopher Bassford draw a distinction between Carl von Clausewitz’ social trinity—the people, the government, and the Army—and the “remarkable trinity”—violent emotion, chance and rational policy (reason).  Edward Villacres and Christopher Bassford, “Reclaiming the Clausewitzian trinity,” Parameters 25, no. 1 (1995): 10.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 15.

[8] Hanle, Terrorism, 112-3.

[9] Ibid.,114-5.

[11] Dalia Dass Kaye, “The Israeli Decision to Withdraw from Southern Lebanon: Political Leadership and Security Policy,” Political Science Quarterly 111, no. 4 (Winter, 2002-2003): 562.

[12] Clausewitz, On War, 87.

[13] “Target America, Interview: Robert Oakley,” Frontline PBS, 1995, accessed August 23, 2021,

[14] Ibid., 89.

[15] Judd Floris, “Clausewitz and the Non-State Actor: A Contemporary Application of the Paradoxical Trinity to Countering Terrorism,” Small Wars Journal 8 (2012), accessed August 23, 2021,

[16] Ibid.

[17] Kjetil Selvik & Iman Amirteimour (2021) “The Big Man Muqtada al-Sadr: Leading the Street in Iraq under Limited Statehood,” Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal, August 16, 2021,

[18] Clausewitz, On War, 85-6.

[19] Ibid, 89.

[21] Anthony Richards, Peter Fussey, and Andrew Silke. Terrorism and the Olympics: Major Event Security and Lessons for the Future (Milton Park, 2011), 58.

[22] Christopher Bassford, “War View: We can’t predict the outcome but action is vital,” BBC News, October 21, 2001, accessed August 23, 2021,

[23] John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York, 1993), 221; Martin Van Creveld, “The Transformation of War Revisited,” Small wars & insurgencies 13, no. 2 (2002): 8.

[24] Van Creveld, “The Transformation of War Revisited,” 8.

About the Author(s)

Benjamin J. Elliott is a Major in the U.S. Army. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy where he earned his B.S. in Psychology and is a graduate of the National Intelligence University where he earned a M.S.S.I. in Strategic Intelligence. His topics of interest include terrorism, future threats, near-peer competition, character, virtue, leadership, and officership.