Ya hya chouhada Muad’Dib!

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“Long live the fighters of Muad’Dib!” (from SyFy’s “Frank Herbert’s Dune” miniseries)

In 2014, as part of my terrorism coursework for graduate school, one of my assignments was to write a manifesto of a fictional terrorist group explaining why (or why not) that group should use violence, and the accompanying implications of such a choice. The purpose of this exercise was to force us as researchers to simulate the sort of thinking required of leading figures in terrorist groups if they are to succeed in convincing compatriots and recruits that the leaders’ strategies are valid.

I chose to take my inspiration from Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece Dune, and offered a simulated treatise on how Paul-Muad’Dib Atreides devised the Fremen insurgency on the desert planet Arrakis. I hope you enjoy it.

From the diary of Duke Paul-Muad’Dib Atreides, on Arrakis, approximate date 10,192.

It behooves me to explain the state of affairs that persists as I write. Last year, House Atreides was given the planet fiefdom of Arrakis by the Imperial Emperor of House Corrino. Arrakis, the desolate desert planet that is the sole in the producer of the spice (the necessary chemical for the long-range interstellar commerce within the Galactic Padishah Empire), was ostensibly presented to my father Duke Leto by Emperor Shaddam IV as a token of respect and confidence. However, Arrakis was in fact meant to serve as a tomb to my family and House: the Emperor, jealous of my father’s rising popularity and fearful of his small but skilled military, allied with my family’s ancient rival House Harkonnen, the previous rulers of Arrakis. Shaddam used the ongoing vendetta between my father and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen to deploy his elite Sardaukar troops — in secret and dressed in Harkonnen livery — to Arrakis in 10,191, decimate my House, and murder my father.

My mother and I fled into the desert, where we were taken in by the indigenous people known as the Fremen (who had previously allied with my father shortly before his death). Now, House Harkonnen rules Arrakis again and brutally oppresses the Fremen in pursuit of stability and profit. They are unaware of the survival of my mother and myself, a fact that has allowed us integrate ourselves deeply into Fremen tribal communities of the deep desert where the Harkonnen dare not go. In that greater community, I have achieved a position of leadership and respect through my fighting ability, strategic thinking, and subtle manipulation of the Fremen’s messianic belief in a Lisan al-Gaib (an offworlder who will come and lead them to paradise) — all of which comprise my hybrid Atreides-Fremen identity as Paul-Muad’Dib. Meanwhile, the Harkonnen only venture out of their few cities and garrisons either in pursuit of spice production or in futile, yet wantonly vicious, attempts to instill control over the desert Fremen.

The Fremen, meanwhile, have nothing in the way of what could be considered traditional means of redress against the Harkonnen. Known for their brutality and cruelty, House Harkonnen does not care for the well-being of Dune’s inhabitants but instead only for steady spice production. And the rest of the Imperium, cripplingly dependent on spice for all interplanetary commerce, cares only for the same. Excepting my family’s brief rule of Arrakis, the Fremen have continually suffered slaughter at the hands of offworlders: during the Sardaukar-Harkonnen invasion approximately twenty thousand were killed, and around nine thousand more by Harkonnen forces since then.¹ The great majority of these are not combat deaths — they are mass killings bordering on pogroms aimed at pacifying a restless indigenous population. And while nigh on thirty thousand does not near endangering the total Fremen population of close to ten million — most secreted throughout around five hundred cave communities (“sietches”) in the deep desert — it is still a meaningful toll nonetheless.²

There is no voice in Imperium advocating for the human or political rights of the Fremen. The Imperium is a feudal system, and within a feudal system subjects of one ruler are that ruler’s business and no one else’s. Especially given the galactic demand for spice, the Imperium is even more apt to turn a blind eye to the viciousness of the Harkonnen so as long as the spice flows. In fact, my father was the first governor of Arrakis who ever attempted to legitimately win the support and loyalty of the Fremen — a fact I have not let go to waste as I have built my influence among them.

I am in a similar position. My family was conspired against by the most powerful leaders in the Imperium, and I am believed dead. Should I announce my survival to the galaxy, I would either be called a charlatan or assassinated — most likely both. By circumstance and geography, the only allies available to the Fremen and I are each other, which builds on my House’s earlier sincere attempt to align with them. So while the Fremen and I have mutually accepted one another, we individually and collectively lack peaceful domestic or interplanetary mechanisms with which to attempt to change our overlapping conditions. I believe that this leaves only one viable avenue for us both in light of their goal of ending their subjugation and my goal of restoring my family to its rightful place: violence.

Without any method of nonviolent redress or recourse, in the face of butchery and subjugation, it is only natural for a group to turn its thoughts to violence. In the case of the Fremen, it is not something unfamiliar to them. Aside from the brief period of Atreides rule, Fremen insurgents operated at varying levels of magnitude against all previous governors of Arrakis. They are skilled fighters, naturally toughened by growing up on the harshest planet in the Imperium and seasoned by surviving years of oppression. However, their previous campaigns have been incoherent at best. Those who do attack Harkonnen military or spice-harvesting facilities are typically small groups which, while often successful, do little to inflict meaningful damage on the larger Harkonnen apparatus. The attacks amount to harassments that only incite greater Harkonnen fury and bring the Fremen no closer to self-rule. While no Fremen harbor pro-Harkonnen sympathies, many of the deep desert tribes prefer isolation to confronting as technologically superior a foe such as the Harkonnen.

The concern driving Fremen restraint when it comes to wider employ of violence is essentially two-fold: of the Harkonnen using their established capabilities to attempt larger scale counterinsurgency operations that could endanger Fremen safe havens in the deep desert; and of an intervention by other offworlders should the Fremen succeed in uniting and expelling the Harkonnen given the intergalactic demand for spice. I believe that now that I am present to lead them, both of these concerns can be mitigated, thus paving the way for more concentrated, offensive violent action. The first Fremen concern — regarding Harkonnen capabilities — is now an eminently rectifiable asymmetry. The Fremen outnumber the Harkonnen on-planet by whole orders of magnitude, and are better fighters as well. The Harkonnen advantage lies in technology and external support: but a cohesive, all-Fremen effort would be able to effectively dislodge them. So then the problem becomes an internal Fremen one: they are not wholly united in their determination to the meet the Harkonnen threat with force. I am the solution to this dilemma.

Though the construction of my hybrid Paul-Muad’Dib identity, especially through manipulation of the Fremen belief of Lisan al-Gaib and my ducal right to the governorship of Arrakis, I can fashion myself as the figurehead and voice of a critical mobilizing ideology that can unite the Fremen tribes.³ A whole-Fremen front makes up in capacity what it lacks in technological capability, and a united Fremen would be open to widespread instruction in the weirding way — a deadly martial art known to my mother and I. The result would be an unmatched fighting force with superior knowledge of the battlespace, fulfilling my father’s farsighted belief that “desert power” is essential for combat supremacy on Arrakis.⁴ For example, the Harkonnen may control the air with their fleet of ornithopters, but masses of trained Fremen riding gigantic sandworms would unquestionably control the desert.

And not only will that ideology galvanize the Fremen to united action, it will provide an avenue out of their second restraining concern: destruction by offworlders in the event of Harkonnen defeat. Once the planet has been secured under the banner of my rightful ducal claim to governorship, my unique knowledge of the planet’s ecology coupled with my physical control over it will grant me the ability to halt all spice production — permanently. “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.”⁵ That threat will allow me to leverage anything from the Emperor and the rest of the Imperium, not least of all preserving the Fremen’s freedom from renewed subjugation.

Clearly, I am a personified force multiplier for the Fremen, representing a critical acquisition in resources.⁶ But none of that means anything unless I can demonstrate to them that my ideology is worth adopting and that uniting is a feasible option. I must demonstrate the validity and effectiveness of it, and the surest way to that with a Fremen audience is propaganda of the deed. A systematic terrorist campaign against the Harkonnen presents the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the credibility of my ideology and strategy, hopefully creating revolutionary conditions and gathering enough support to surge the campaign into full blown insurgency and insurrection.⁷ Within the campaign there would three strategic logics at work: outbidding isolationist tribes for intra-Fremen credibility, attrit the Harkonnen presence on Arrakis, and provoke the Harkonnen into a response which would galvanize more Fremen to action.⁸

These logics are reflected in something the late Duncan Idaho, my father’s Ginaz-trained swordmaster and ambassador to the Fremen, once told me:

When your opponent fears you, then’s the moment when you give the fear its own reign, give it the time to work on him. Let it become terror. The terrified man fights himself. Eventually, he attacks in desperation. That is the most dangerous moment, but the terrified man can be trusted usually to make a fatal mistake. You are being trained here to detect these mistakes and use them.⁹

Faced with a relentless tempo of Fremen attacks conducted by Fedaykin death commandos, the Harkonnen will likely do two things. First they will panic on a rising scale in proportion to their decreasing loss of a sense of control over Arrakis. And second, in their panic, they will respond the most familiar way they know how: violent oppression, which will spur more Fremen to action in my cause. While some Fremen may still remain on the sidelines, none would take up arms against those of us fighting the Harkonnen; it would be considered among the entire Fremen community anathema to all of their deepest tribal norms relating to duty and honor.¹⁰ It is because of those same norms that I dare not direct any attacks on recalcitrant Fremen tribes aimed at intimidating them into action.¹¹

The campaign of violence will be dual-pronged. First is an escalation of already ongoing attacks conducted against Harkonnen ruling infrastructure, both physical and human. Harkonnen garrisons and smaller outposts are ideal installation targets, while Harkonnen military personnel and political personnel provide abundant human targets. Fremen collaborators (strictly defined as informers, mercenaries and those benefiting from Harkonnen largesse — so as to avoid inadvertently violating Fremen tribal norms mentioned above) are also viable targets. These attacks will be carried out by Fedaykin in groups ranging in numbers from a fireteam to a platoon, depending on the type and size of target.

The second and more critical prong will be an unyielding tempo of high-impact attacks on spice-harvesting infrastructure. Target sets will include active harvesting operations, spice storage warehouses, and non-Fremen-aligned smuggling operations. These attacks would utilize forces ranging in number from a single platoon up to a battalion, depending on the size of the target. A combined goal of these two prongs will be to strangle spice production. Lacking spice revenues would weaken the Harkonnen — demonstrating to reluctant Fremen our ability to inflict pain on their oppressors — and force offworld intervention to address the damage we have caused, thus bringing the Emperor and his allies within striking distance. In both cases, Fedaykin losses will be expected. However, I do not foresee losses as deterring Fremen from participating, as death in battle is glorified by their religion. To a lesser extent, Fremen may be convinced to participate in 21st century “fedayeen-style” attacks in which none of the participants are expected to survive if they can be convinced the mission is of sufficient importance to the overall success of the campaign. Regardless, due to religious beliefs, outright suicide attacks will be unfeasible.

While the circumstances of this campaign echo those of an insurgency, it would be incorrect to characterize my proposed campaign as such — yet. The initial operations would in reality more closely resemble terrorist operations mounted from safe havens (i.e., sietches the deep desert) in hopes of rousing the wider support necessary to propel the campaign into an insurgency capable of effectively seizing and holding enemy territory. While we now have the operational strength equal to several brigades, hopefully as our effectiveness is demonstrated by our deeds we will amass entire divisions of fighters to overcome those of the Harkonnen. Not only will these fighters already naturally be accustomed to operating in Arrakis’ harsh climate, they will be dispersed and concealed within the unforgiving desert and thus not present a clear geographic center of gravity for the Harkonnen to target. Operationally, they will generally plan and execute attacks from the sietch level (each participating sietch will likely have several companies of fighters at its disposal), but all large-scale operations will be coordinated at some level with a high command led by myself and key tribal leaders.


[1] Frank Herbert, Dune. (New York: Ace Books, 1990), p. 375.

[2] Herbert, pp. 375–376.

[3] Herbert, pp. 426–429.

[4] Herbert, pp. 89–90.

[5] Herbert, p. 476.

[6] Martha Crenshaw, “The logic of terrorism: Terrorist behavior as a product of strategic choice.” In Origins of Terrorism. Walter Reich ed. (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1990), p. 58.

[7] Andrew Kydd and Barbara F. Walter, “The Strategies of Terrorism,” International Security, Volume 31, Number 1, Summer 2006, p.58; Crenshaw, p. 60.

[8] Kydd and Walter, pp. 59–60, 69–70, 76.

[9] Herbert, p. 304.

[10] Herbert, p. 426.

[11] Kydd and Walter, pp. 66–67.

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Open source counterintelligence referent. Views here are personal, not my employer’s. All original content © Alex Orleans, 2014–2021.

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