Counterterrorism: the fundamentals

This post is a review of the book Counterterrorism by Ron Crelinsten. Any quotes should be attributed to him unless otherwise stated.

Terrorism is communication. The selection of victims, the actions and their spectacular nature all have communicative functions. It uses violence against one group (the victims) to coerce another group (the audience). Terrorism is the weapon of the weak, either non-state actors who cannot put a guerrilla movement together, or a state that cannot spread the rule of law where it likes. It is singularly economical: “kill one, frighten 10,000”. To truly understand terrorist acts, we must view them in the context in which they occurred and listen to what message they send.

The 1990s brought terrorism into the world’s living room in a process that culminated on 9/11. Since 9/11, two basic schools have thought have emerged among the public, known pejoratively by the supposedly different eras they reflect. “September 10th thinking” holds that terrorism should be about domestic law enforcement. The right laws and the right policing can prevent and punish terrorism just as they do with other crimes. “September 12th thinking” defines counterterrorism purely in military terms, believing we are at war with an implacable foe that cannot be reasoned with or deterred, wants to kill us all and might take generations to defeat. If we have to suspend human rights to achieve victory, such thinkers maintain, it is worth it.

Both of these lines of argument are based on straw men, or painting one’s opponent’s argument as simplistic and then defeating it. More importantly, like the “liberal”-“conservative” divide, they limit how we perceive the problems in question and narrow our options in addressing them. Discourse following 9/11 was often polarised into such ideological camps without recognising the complexity of terrorism.

More robust and useful extensions of these patterns of thought are the criminal justice and war models of coercive counterterrorism, Prof. Crelinsten’s second chapter. In the criminal justice model, terrorism is a crime. It is punished without special anti-terror legislation that suspends suspects’ rights. This model has similar benefits to regular law enforcement: deterrence, incapacitation, stigmatising the criminal, and so on. On the other hand, if there is no law (nulla crimen, nulla poena sine lege), insufficient evidence, a compromised trial or unwillingness to extradite (for instance, EU members are not allowed to extradite criminals to countries where they might be tortured), the suspect goes free. It also does not address the root causes of the crime.

When the criminal justice system is badly used, in an unfair or unjust manner, or when criminal justice procedures become politicized, such as in political prosecutions or show trials, or are compromised, such as when amnesties and early release are given to people convicted of murder, then it can inflame grievances, trigger counter-grievances, or create the impression that violence is the only way to achieve anything. In such cases, a criminal justice approach to counterterrorism can prove counterproductive. In short, other approaches are necessary to address the grievances that charismatic leaders and ideologues use to mobilize recruits, supporters and sympathizers.

Proactive counterterrorism means preventing terrorists from acting. The norm in the criminal justice paradigm is reactive policing, solving crimes and arresting people after they are suspected of one. The proactive approach deals with detection, intelligence gathering and blocking terrorist financing. In this chapter, as in later ones, Dr Crelinsten warns of the dangers of intrusive measures that violate norms of privacy, racial profiling, incarceration without charge and torture.

Moreover, the either-or mentality–either you preemptively tap phones, incarcerate suspects without trial and invade rogue states or you get attacked–limits discourse and the imagination of alternatives. To September 10th thinkers, who hold the law paramount and who fear too much government, Dr Crelinsten says enhanced powers should be tried if they are considered essential. Nonetheless, they need to be accompanied by oversight of counterterrorist agencies and sunset clauses for laws that are only for emergencies. To September 12th thinkers, who advocate preemption at the cost of liberty, he urges the sensible use of intelligence that must be reliable and made available to oversight committees, not cherry-picked and politicised as it was in the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Persuasive counterterrorism, like terrorism itself, is communicative. Its function is to dissuade potential or actual terrorists from carrying out their missions. Propaganda, appealing to hearts and minds, incentives to abandon violence and disincentives to engage in it are in this category. One form of preventive communication was nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction, or MAD. The message was, our retaliation will be so massive that both of us will be destroyed.

Persuasive counterterrorism can take four basic forms. The first is offensive external psychological operations (psyops). The terrorist organisation and its supporters are targeted (external), as counterterrorists assure the terrorists that their actions are pointless. Public demonstrations, media coverage that ignores the terrorist message and widely-viewed successful conviction and punishment of terrorists are examples. In 1998, the Real IRA killed 29 people in a bomb attack. The result was that leaders worked even harder to achieve peace at the negotiating table. It could also mean penetrating terrorist organisations and spreading disinformation.

The second form of persuasive counterterrorism is defensive external psyops, or preventing undesired perceptions among terrorists’ constituencies. Promising terrorist recruits that they can return to their group, or rehabilitation and reintegration, can prevent them from acquiring a fixation on violence or martyrdom and help them throw it off. The US State Department openly engages in dialogue on Arabic online forums, frequently to receptive audiences. Too often, people who are “radicalised” are exposed to very few perspectives on what they are angry about. Cross-cultural exchanges can thus soften attitudes on all sides.

Offensive internal psyops aims at preventing excessive fear or other behaviours among the counterterrorists’ public. The US government and media are guilty of fomenting fear through their words and confusion through the disconnect between the values they claim to espouse and their actions. What they could be doing is downplaying the real impact of terrorism (after all, even in the 9/11 attacks, only 0.001% of Americans were killed) and simultaneously condemning terrorism. I believe successfully breaking up terrorist plots and punishing conspirators through effective legal means would also constitute offensive internal psyops, as people would see that the justice system is effective, and that circumvention of rights and wild eyed wars on terror are not necessary.

Finally, you guessed it, defensive internal psyops are defensive measures that prevent undesired behaviours among the public. A terrorist attack is a symbol of the terrorists’ ability to strike anywhere, at any time, in spite of the security forces. Dr Crelinsten says governments need to establish trusting relationships with the public through sharing information that is not politicised. Officials must speak realistically about what they know. The media should provide coverage of terrorist groups’ perspectives without accusing them of being in bed with terrorists.

Defensive counterterrorism assumes that a terrorist attack will happen, so we must minimise the risk and the damage of such an attack. Target hardening means making potential targets harder to attack, say by surrounding VIPs or major sports events with armed guards, or by reinforcing cockpit doors on airplanes. Of course, target hardening is not perfect. Terrorists, like counterterrorists, learn and innovate. Moreover, it is subject to politicisation and the taint of inefficient government that claims that any price is worth saving just one life, when there could be much cheaper ways of saving it.

Critical infrastructure protection (CIP), attempting to secure energy, water, oil supplies (especially in Nigeria and Iraq), urban transport (especially since the Madrid and London bombings), is part of defensive counterterrorism. As the list grows (add to the above banks, electric plants, nuclear facilities (even hospitals have nuclear material), government buildings, computer systems and national monuments), so do the questions. How can we possibly protect all these potential targets at the same time? Who will pay for it? Is it worth it? In the US, funds for CIP were handed out by region, which meant that cities like New York and Washington received similar levels of funding as rural regions terrorists have no interest in (which to me is evidence that anything the government touches becomes a pork barrel slush fund). An integrated approach would mean prevention, preparedness, quick and effective response, and mitigation of adverse effects. Such methods would, of course, be part of a long-term solution.

While claiming their detractors need to think outside of the proverbial box, September 12 thinkers have created a new box in which they have trapped themselves: the “new terrorism”. There are many kinds of terrorism and many different contexts in which they occur. Lumping them all in together has given governments round the world the green light to go Colin Powell on groups as diverse as Chechen rebels and the Tamil Tigers while claiming they were all part of a global conspiracy.

If we want to end terrorism in the long term, we need to understand the causes. A 2003 conference of leading terrorism experts in Oslo came to a consensus, summed up in the book Root Causes of Terrorism: myths, reality and ways forward and available in concise form in this PPT. Poverty, religion and insanity are not root causes of terrorism, whereas repression, foreign occupation, racial or religious discrimination, charismatic demagogues and rapid leaps into modernity are major causes. Moreover, far from one or two of those preconditions leading inevitably to radicalisation, the panel concluded, “terrorism is better understood as emerging from a process of interaction between different parties”.

Despite our inability to find clear causes of terrorism, it is probably inadvisable to continue to spend billions of dollars attempting to pound terrorism into the ground as a long-term tactic. Pakistan has received US$10b in aid since 2002, and less than 10% of it has gone toward education, health and democratic reform. Most of the rest has gone to the military. Surely, the Pakistani military is not naive enough to think it can buy its citizens’ loyalty this way. Not only is attacking villages that may contain terrorists not likely to reduce the number and determination of terrorists, but the corruption that helps radicalise people can be seen as a form of western imperialism through corrupt local officials. As a result, Pakistan has seen hundreds of terrorist incidents since 9/11 and the number is rising

The long-term counterterrorist solution Dr Crelinsten discusses that I agree most with is building cross-cultural relations. Many of the worst problems in the world are due to a failure to respect and understand people outside our own exclusive groups, and exchange across groups (particularly at the grassroots, rather than the elite level, to my way of thinking) reverses this situation. One weakness of the thrust of such talks is that “the current fashion of focusing on Islamist terrorism and Salafist-jihadist extremism” has led to the privileging of religious leaders over secular ones. For instance, 80% of Muslims in Melbourne do not attend mosques. When religious leaders are called upon to speak on behalf of Muslims, the majority feel excluded. Moreover, sources of identity beside religious ones are marginalised when they should be emphasised. When people’s religion, nation or race is their single source of identity, or even just the dominant one, they are likely to respond violently to any slight against it. Appealing to other sides of a personality waters down the danger of one aspect’s dominating.

Education is also a major battleground in the fight against extremism. Education should teach respect and understanding of our differences, the ability to communicate across cultures and deal with misunderstandings, the ability to understand culture (I am convinced Sayyid Qutb became a radical because of his superficial understanding of American culture) and critical thinking in the face of propaganda and prejudice. Schools should also teach history in balanced ways that do not obscure a country or other group’s crimes or highlight those of others. All these measures can be more effective than a military approach to terrorism.

I found Ron Crelinsten’s Counterterrorism an excellent, comprehensive book on the theory of its subject. Its analysis is calm and clear and should be required reading for policymakers in the field.

Imbalances and violence

It is common nowadays to cite inequality between rich and poor as a reason for much of the violence in the world. Why would that be? I used to brush aside such questions with the answer “envy”. Surely, just because someone has more than I, there is no reason I should steal or kill for it. However, as we learn about the psychology of conflict, a clearer picture emerges.

Wealth inequality around the world

The UK Mental Health Foundation cites studies that have found that living in an unequal society causes psychological and physiological changes. Inequality leads in some to a constant “fight or flight” reaction and perpetual stress. It can lead to violence directly through increased crime (including homicide), and can also create the conditions in which violence festers: less trust, disintegrating families and communities, poor scholastic and work performance and mental illness. The US and the UK, the most unequal societies in the rich world, show the deepest symptoms.

Humans are endowed with the power of sympathy, which means we feel moved to help those who appear less fortunate than ourselves. On the other hand, we also possess schadenfreude, which is taking pleasure in others’ misery. Seeing the misfortune of others who do not threaten our self-worth is a boost to our own self-esteem. The combination of sympathy and schadenfreude seems to make us want to be equal with others (or perhaps a little better), and that equalising our fates brings us pleasure, whether we are helping others rise or watching them fall.

Thus, an imbalance of wealth begets violence. A different imbalance that could lead to conflict, something slowly being recognised by the cognoscenti, is the preponderance of unwed males who cannot find a peaceful outlet for their unnatural predicament. Men in China and India outnumber women by millions. In both societies parents prefer to have boys than girls, and because of infanticide and sex-selective abortion, they do. Economists project there will be thirty to forty million more males than females of marriage age in both of those countries by 2020. Others estimate 60m to 100m women worldwide are missing, meaning that, because they are more likely to be aborted, killed, neglected to death or abandoned, there are far fewer females than males. Unwed young men who cannot have sex, who cannot find mates (called “bare branches” in China), become frustrated and angry. As militaries and other violent groups know, teenage males are extremely susceptible to indoctrination, to blaming others, to channeling their frustrations toward condoned violence, easily legitimised through appeals to god, country or fraternity. Such young men are ideal vehicles for terrorism and war.

There is no doubt that other unequal situations can lead to violence. Apartheid South Africa (violence has not abated in South Africa since then because unequal rights have given way to unequal wealth), just like in many African societies today that privilege one ethnic group over another, are conflict prone because of inequalities of rights. Other psychological studies have demonstrated that humans have a desire for justice that is so strong they are willing to give up what little they have to make things fair and punish those they consider acting unfairly. Anywhere we perceive undue favour for an identifiable person or group, humans might turn to vigilante justice to level the playing field.

In the book Lost Horizon by James Hilton, a thoughtful British diplomat and his companions crash their plane in the mystical Shangri-la, a monastery inhabited by Tibetan monks. The monks’ overriding value is moderation. The novel juxtaposes the diplomat with a restive young man who cannot see value in the monks’ ways of life and thinks only of escaping to the outer world. It also juxtaposes the monks’ peaceful and sustainable approach to the world with a brewing world conflict (presciently, as the book was written in 1933). Moderation in wealth, desire and emotion can lead to peace within oneself and peace in a community. Imbalances and inequalities are everyone’s concern.