By Bertil Haggman
The discovery recently of tunnels between Egypt and Gaza for the purpose of smuggling weapons is reveals the modern use of tunnelling in the Middle East. One must keep in mind the Oriental technique of “tunnelling” the enemy’s both spatial, political and psychological terrain. This art originated with the Mongols, and was copied and perfected by the Ottomans. There is, however, also a physical aspect to tunnelling. Here will be treated three cases of this use of psychologically oriented warfare of Oriental origin.
North Korean Tunnelling
There is a long history of North Korea attempting to undermine Seoul and take over South Korea this way. There is an extensive literature both in the United States and South Korea on the attempts by the regime to tunnel under the border between South Korea and North Korea. Several Palestinian terrorist organizations in the 1960s established close ties with North Korea. Another example of North Korean contacts in the Middle East area in general was the Turkish People’s Liberation Army (TPLA). A historical link perhaps to the Ottoman past.
The Ottomans in the 1450s used undermining technique during the last phase of the siege of Constantinople. This was described by the Venetian ambassador Nicolo Barbaro in his diary (W. Carew Hazlitt, The Venetian Republic, 2 volumes, London 1915). Neither bombardments nor scaling the walls, nor pitched battles at sea was so disheartening as the daily discovery of new tunnels being dug under Constantinople. Indirectly it was an attack on the willpower and identity of the Byzantine empire.
The Ottomans learned the tactics of tunnelling from the Mongols. Psychological warfare was common not only in the pre-Islamic and Islamic times in Persia, the Ottoman empire and among the Arabs.
Viet Cong Tunnelling
The infamous Viet Cong (VC) tunnel system was located 15 miles north of Saigon in the Iron Triangle. It comprised around 125 square miles of jungle and rice paddies. The United States forces in January 1967 in Operation Cedar Falls attempted to destroy the tunnel system. Residents were evacuated from the area and the system of tunnels was destroyed. The communists did return, however.
The United States had special soldiers who fought the VC and the North Vietnamese in the tunnels and the bunkers. Only the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions had formal units of the Tunnel Rats, but the units were small. The 1st Division had only two squads.
The basic equipment was a .38 caliber revolver, a flashlight, and a knife. Standard procedure required three men in the tunnels at a time. The biggest success was in 1968 when 3 VC soldiers were killed and 153 forced backward out of a tunnel into captivity.
Outside these formal units mostly volunteers were employed. One important complex of tunnels was some 25 miles north of Saigon. It was probably the prime VC lifeline to Cambodian supply areas. There was a headquarters complex at Cu Chi. This vast complex was discovered by United States forces already in 1966. The 25th Infantry Division later established its base camp in Cu Chi and assumed the task of clearing the system. Different approaches used were tear gas, acetylene gas, and explosives. The American “tunnel rats” were almost always small in stature and had minimum equipment.
Tunnel networks were later discovered in other parts of Vietnam. In 1967 the Cu Chi tunnels hade been cleared, an example of tactical ingenuity and tenacity facing the United States Army in Vietnam (Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, St. Barbara 1998, 3 volumes).
As seen from the three examples above it is not hard to detect the background of Palestinian tunneling to smuggle arms to Gaza. How large these systems are and where is not in the public domain. American experience has shown that tunnel complexes can be dealt with.