“One of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror. ”
George W. Bush
“The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”
George Orwell, 1984
I have lived with, and studied, small wars, guerilla wars, irregular wars, and terrorism for most of my life. I have done other things too—but this area has remained a consistent interest. I have put myself in harms way to fill in the gaps—and have been nearly killed for my pains on several occasions. I have experienced terrorism directly in Ireland, the UK, Cyprus, and Italy. I flirted with it in Japan.
I have written five books featuring it (and five books on other matters).
Am I an expert? I make no such claim. Terrorist experts appeared as if by magic after 9/11. Those who really knew—who had fought and warned—were sidelined. It was yet another American tragedy. If they had been listened to—we would be in a better place. Their crime was to know too much of how the threat had been ignored. Some were friends of mine—and I take that ill. They were American heroes who were treated badly. They were—and remain—great people. I feel honored to know them.
At a certain point, being an expert becomes academic. You are a veteran. You develop instincts. You suddenly realize: “I know this shit.” And you do. You don’t know everything—that would be impossible—but you have a deep understanding of why, how, when, and where, terrorists do what they do. You also know a great deal about how to stop them—and the related tactics, techniques, and procedures.
What is your greatest qualification? You are still alive.
In the Nineties, I warned that something like 9/11 would happen—but few people paid any attention. In those days, as far most Americans were concerned, terrorism was the stuff of movies—not life. It was entertainment. It was distraction. But it wasn’t a real threat. It couldn’t be. This was America—Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.
I never understood that mindset. This was isolationism gone nuts. Why should the U.S. be exempt? Terrorism was a global phenomenon.
Also, the first World Trade Center Bombing happened in 1993. It was a pretty clear warning. I’m going to blow you up. These people were serious. They did exactly what they had promised—and had a track record of persistence. They also had certain patterns. For instance, they liked to mount simultaneous attacks on different targets. Greater shock value.
Why did we not understand? Their message was scarcely subtle.
The Bojinka plot (yes, it really was called that)—devised by Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should have given us an indication of the threat from hijacked aircraft. Among other things, it involved crashing a plane into CIA at Langley, VA. It was discovered by the Philippine National Police in January 1995.
We were told—and we didn’t listen.
Osama in Laden was a known enemy who had publicly declared war on the U.S. after moving to Afghanistan in 1996.
The dots were there, but our numerous intelligence agencies and massive law enforcement apparatus were not connecting them. In fact, it is far from certain some were even paying attention. Bureaucratic wars—the primary occupation of the Pentagon, for instance—tend to be all consuming. They are wars of resources—and, within the Beltway—what else matters?
One day in the Nineties, after just having lunch with Jim Fox, then an assistant director in charge of the FBI in New York, while walking back to his office, Jim and I actually discussed the World Trade Center—and the probability of a second attack.
We stopped walking and looked up at the twin towers for a minute or two.
In Jim’s opinion, we were woefully ill prepared. He told me a story about Grand Central Station where we had escaped catastrophe by pure luck. The bomb just hadn’t worked. We both thought a follow up attack was likely.
Jim Fox was in charge of the 1993 investigation and was also the man who put John Gotti away. He was a talented man who spoke Mandarin. He had made his bones in counter-espionage. He was an exceptional human being. I became very fond of him. He died in 1997 at the age of 59.
Deeply distressing. In truth, much, more. When I think of him, I feel a great sense of loss. You just don’t meet people of Jim’s caliber that often.
I spoke to him at length shortly before that. What he told me was disturbing.
It had to do with the political reasons why we refused to connect the dots. And I’ll say no more about that for the time being.
As you will gather from my comments below, I don’t think we’ve handled counter-terrorism particularly well since 9/11. We have over-reacted massively—and, in the process, have done this country a great deal of damage in terms of both spilled blood and wasted treasure. And our invasion of Iraq has proved to be a disaster for us, for our allies (such as the British) for the Iraqis—though not for the Iranians or Islamic fundamentalists.
The law of unintended consequences? More the consequences of deliberate ignorance.
Though Al Qaeda has undoubtedly been severely degraded, our Jihadist enemies—as a whole—are now more numerous and stronger than they were back in 2001, and the conflict has spread geographically (to parts of Africa, in particular). Our international efforts, in many ways, have been counterproductive. Actions have a disconcerting tendency to breed reactions. By acting like the crusaders we are accused of being—for instance, through drone strikes—we validate the claims of our accusers, and aid their recruiting efforts.
How do we break out of this mutually destructive cycle? Frankly, it’s not easy when you are dealing with an enemy who espouses an entirely alien ideology—but it is notable that we have devoted scant efforts to determining whether there is any core validity to the Islamist concerns.
Here I would like to make the point that what appears to be a clash of ideologies often has, at its root, much more practical origins—and that they are frequently economic. For instance, the egregious behavior of oil corporations in Nigeria has had a great deal to do with the rise of terrorism there. Similarly, the Troubles in Northern Ireland—often portrayed as a clash of religions—had much more to do with the fact that the Protestants, who used to have a monopoly of the levers of power, blatantly favored fellow Protestants when it came to jobs, housing and economic matters in general.
If we applied this analytical approach to the grievances of the various Islamist groups—and initiated some remedial action—I suspect that it might work to our advantage. It wouldn’t be easy, and wouldn’t yield immediate benefits, but the alternative is endless war, and mutual destruction. Right now our counter-terrorist strategy is almost completely based upon repression and destruction. We need to think more creatively and try carrot as well as stick.
By and large, the reorganization of our security services—including law enforcement—has been a success. Unfortunately, in the process, we have created something of a surveillance state. We need to think about the implications of that and buff up our freedoms. Mind you, they are equally at risk from various corporate activities.
CAVEAT. The following comments have to be modified in the light of particular circumstances. They are guiding principles, no more—but I don’t pretend that the situation in Nigeria is exactly the same as that prevailing in Northern Ireland during the troubles. On the other hand, some of the parallels are striking.
SUSPECTED BOKO HARAM LEADER ABUKAR SHEKAU
- BEHAVE LIKE A DECENT HUMAN BEING AND KEEP THE MORAL HIGH GROUND. This is incredibly important—and common sense. It really should not need explaining. Suffice to say, that we have lost a great deal of it since 9/11. By using torture, and frequently treating those we have arrested very badly, we have handed our enemies a massive propaganda victory—and undermined our own professed values. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and our general treatment of those we have imprisoned represent a stain that won’t go away—and which is extensively documented on the internet. Where prisoners are concerned, we have an additional problem. We incarcerate way too many people in the U.S. itself—and treat them badly. In short, our values do not seem to include a tradition of treating a prison population decently. This fact—like our continuing racism (which really shows up in the economic plight of African Americans) —is widely known and further serves to undermine our moral standing. As a society, we have great strengths—but, in many ways, we are found wanting. Where the moral high ground is concerned, what counts is not just how we fight terrorists, but the totality of our culture and consequent behavior.
- WHERE THREAT IS CONCERNED, KEEP A SENSE OF PROPORTION. Governments like to claim that their foremost obligation is to keep us safe. If that was really the case, they would prioritize threats and deal with them accordingly. On that basis, terrorism would not be high on the list. Medical error almost certainly would be—as would the dangers of legal drugs. An American hospital is a vastly more dangerous place than an American airport. Fast food kills way more people each year than terrorists have in the last hundred.
- TAKE REASONABLE PRECAUTIONS AGAINST TERRORISM AT ALL TIMES. Prior to 9/11, our various law enforcement and intelligence services were scarcely talking to one another. If they had been, 9/11 might not have happened. It is hard to be sure because perfect security is neither desirable (it constitutes repression) nor possible (cost and the human factor) but there were, in fact, plenty of indications as to Al Qaeda’s intentions.
- DETERMINE THE CAUSES OF TERRORISM AND—INSOFAR AS IT IS POSSIBLE—ELIMINATE THEM. Terrorists, almost always, have some validity to their claims. Such root causes need to be addressed—or they fester on. We have virtually ignored this approach. It is a major—and unforgivable—omission.
- DISTINGUISH BETWEEN THE FANATICS AND THE MODERATES. People get involved in terrorism for all kinds of reasons—including idealism. Appreciate that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. However, at a certain point, some just cross the line and terrorism become an end in itself. Violence is brutalizing and can be addictive. You get to like cutting off heads. The first group can (sometimes) be won over. The second group normally have to be killed or imprisoned for life.
- DON’T DEMONIZE TERRORISTS—AND CERTAINLY DON’T DEMONIZE THE GROUP THEY COME FROM. It’s never a good idea to demonize anyone. Your judgment goes to hell. You need to think of terrorists as people—albeit you loathe what they do. Though it is very hard to do, you also need to respect their dignity.
- LEARN TO THINK LIKE TERRORISTS DO. EMPHATHIZE WITH THEM. Thinking like a terrorist means you can begin to predict what they will do. That is vastly helpful. Empathy does not imply agreement. It merely means you have an emotional understanding of your opponent’s mindset. You can appreciate their cause, their courage, and their strengths. You can assess them realistically. You can, if necessary, communicate with them. This latter attribute is the key to eventual resolution.
- BE GUIDED BY INTELLIGENCE AT ALL TIMES. INFILTRATE THEM. Intelligence is really the key to counter-terrorism. Lashing out blindly, as we tended to do in the early days in Iraq—by arresting all men of military age, for instance—just builds enemies.
- CONSIDER THE CONSEQUENCES OF YOUR ACTIONS VERY CAREFULLY BEFORE MOVING. The law of unintended consequences plays a significant role in counter-terrorism. Things go wrong. Actions and statements are misinterpreted—or deliberately re-interpreted.
- DETERMINE WHAT TERRORISTS EXPECT AND WANT YOU TO DO—AND DON’T DO IT. A great deal of terrorist activity is based upon the notion of provoking one’s enemies into unwise actions.
- DON’T OCCUPY OTHER COUNTRIES. Unless you are prepared to act with complete brutality—as the Romans were in their day—occupations rarely work. People just don’t like being occupied—and the terrorists are regarded as freedom fighter by the local population.
- APRECIATE THAT TERRORISM CAN BE CONTAINED BUT ALMOST NEVER ELIMINATED. Here, a great deal depends upon whether you have eliminated the causes of the terrorist campaign.
- SETTLE IN FOR THE LONG HAUL. TERRORIST CAMPAIGNS TEND TO LAST FOR A LONG TIME. I had lunch in the Pentagon with the Vice chief of Staff of the Army shortly after 9/11. I have never seen such shocked faces as when I pointed out that the campaign against Bin Laden and his followers could well last decades. At that time, the other lunch guest were thinking months, perhaps a year or two. As of now, Bin Laden may be dead, but his cause lives on—and we have already been at it for 13 years.
- DON’T OVERREACT. We have broken this rule repeatedly to our great cost.
- CONSIDER NOT REACTING AT ALL ON OCCASIONS. This is politically very hard to do—but you can out-psyche your enemy by not reacting on occasions. Not reacting does not mean you never react. It merely means that you proceed in your own way in your own time. It means you have the initiative.
- DON’T BE PREDICTABLE. It’s actually amazing how predictable the official response to terrorism normally is. Typically, it is heavy handed and just makes the whole situation worse. Restraint and imagination are called for.
- IT DEPENDS UPON THE COUNTRY, BUT UNDERSTAND THAT TERRORISM IS RARELY A MAJOR THREAT IN A DEVELOPED COUNTRY. You’ll have more freedom of action if this is explained to people. Politicians like to hype up things like terrorism. They distract from the more serious issues.
- APPRECIATE THAT WHEN YOU LOCK UP TERRORISTS, YOU ARE, IN EFFECT, SENDING THEM TO A TERRORIST UNIVERSITY. Prison allows terrorists to network, train, and plan. Internment without trial was a disaster in Northern Ireland. Imprisonment after due process is not much better. No, I don’t have a solution.
- DON’T SPEND TO EXCESS TO FIGHT TERRORISM. This is a fairly obvious principle—which we have violated. In fact, one of Bin Laden’s primary goals was to damage the U.S. economy. We handed him victory on a plate. Our present level of National Security expenditure—over $1 trillion a year—is insane.
- DON’T MILITARIZE COUNTER-TERRORISM (IF YOU CAN AVOID IT). Armies are prone to be a crude instrument when it comes to counter-terrorism. They tend to be excessively violent and to alienate the population. You do need special forces for certain tasks, but there are risks to using regular soldiers and marines en masse. And, in themselves, they become targets. Of course, when you are dealing with a full scale insurgency, then you have no choice but to use troops. If you do, they should be out there protecting the population—not in big bases.
- AVOID THE CONVENTIONAL. The conventional military (as opposed to special forces), in particular, have a bad habit of doing things because they feel they should—not because they work. Searching for weapons is one example. If that is done too thoroughly—which involves smashing drywall and ripping up floors, it is one of the fastest ways of alienating the local community. It tends to be forgotten that British troops were initially welcomed by the Catholics in Northern Ireland. Overzealous searches, by the Parachute Regiment in particular, turned regard into hatred—and laid the groundwork for further decades of conflict. Another convention is patrolling. Soldiers like to patrol because that’s what soldiers do—and it is a “show of force.” Arguably there are situations where patrolling is a good and necessary thing, but often it is military make-work which makes the patrolling soldiers targets and—as far as the local community is concerned—represents in-your-face repression. Generally speaking, the military should operate in support of the civil power and be as unobtrusive as possible.
- BE RUTHLESS IN A HOT BLOOD SITUATION. In a hostage situation, or similar, it can make sense to shoot to kill. This tends to be accepted by all concerned. This is the stick side of the equation. The U.S. tends to be long on stick and short on carrot. The stick is certainly needed—and may, at times, be needed to be employed ruthlessly—but balance is required.
- BEHAVE AS WELL AS CIRCUMSTANCES PERMIT AND STAY WITHIN THE RULE OF LAW. Common human decency is a powerful weapon against terrorism. Bad behavior by you just strengthens your enemies. Special laws may well be needed to deal with terrorism but such laws much be seen to be fair, and need to be adhered to.
- KEEP PUBLIC OPINION ON YOUR SIDE. After a major incident like 9/11, people will accept a great deal—but eventually they will resent a heavy-handed government.
- SHOULD YOU NEGOTIATE WITH TERRORISTS? Short of killing every terrorist—which tends to be both impossible and politically unacceptable—the only way a terrorist campaign comes to an end is through dialog. Talking is not the same as giving in. I believe the West makes a grave mistake by refusing to talk to terrorists—specially since we actually do (though not enough). Failure to talk encourages extremism, polarization—and ignorance of what the other wants.
When I consider these principles I find it hard not to conclude that our strategy—in relation to terrorism—is flawed. We seem to have committed to a state of permanent war.
I find that an unacceptable option.