Tuesday, November 17, 2015

November 17 2015.The single most important thing to do when faced with terrorism is not to over-react. That advice is rarely followed. Instead, the pattern is to indulge in a positive orgy of self-righteousness—while ignoring the causes. This plays into the terrorists’ hands—and perpetuates the problem.





The answer is, of course, that I have learned a great deal—including the fact that a number of my conclusions are regarded as unpalatable, as far as many people are concerned.

That doesn’t mean they are wrong.

People get angry when you suggest that trying to determine the reasons for the terrorist actions might be worth doing—and they get really angry when you suggest talking to terrorists. In fact, I was once arbitrarily cut off by a radio station when advocating just that.

They prefer to react viscerally, emotionally, and irrationally. I happen to think that is a mistake—and a mistake we keep on making, at that. Indulging your emotions is not a substitute for clarity of mind.

The most powerful force known to mankind is the human intellect. It is under-utilized.

Emotions are wonderful things when it comes to falling in love (love) or deciding that walking across a busy freeway is less than wise (fear) but they are best kept under control when facing people who want to kill you.

Some will argue that I am advocating “being soft on terrorism.” Entirely untrue. I am advocating what works—what has been proven to work over the last century under operational conditions. I am arguing in favor of effectiveness as opposed to the emotional button-pressing which has been so characteristic since 9/11. A look at the graphic at the beginning of this piece will demonstrate that that our approach to date has been decidedly less than effective.

Here I should add a qualification re the graphic. The invasion of Iraq was both a strategic error and wrong—and including every attack there as terrorism is a debatable approach. To attack occupying powers like the U.S. and the UK, with IEDs is not terrorism. From the Iraqi perspective it was no more than legitimate resistance—no different to the French Resistance of WW II.

Those who fight calmly fight best. My point is not that terrorists should not be fought—and, if necessary, killed—but that we need to think through what we are doing—and the consequences thereof.

Mostly, we don’t—and therein lies the tragedy, and the waste. Is it so hard to stop—and really think? It would appear so.

Here are some of my conclusions.

  • Nuclear terrorism apart (a separate subject) terrorism is not a serious threat as far as most of us are concerned. In fact, it is insignificant—especially if assessed in comparison with many other very real threats which most of us are likely to face. For instance, if you really want to put your life in your hands, go and be a patient in an American hospital. If that is a step too far, the food industry, or Big Pharma, are far more likely kill you, or cause you serious harm than terrorism. Go check the figures. Look at the evidence. The threat from terrorism is orders of magnitude less serious than those emanating from normal life (which we do disturbingly little about). Corporate malfeasance is a vastly greater threat to life, limb, and our general wellbeing than terrorism. Compare the impact of Al Qaeda with the Great Recession. The latter inflicted vastly more damage. Impoverishment and stress kill way more people than terrorist bombs or bullets.
  • Most people react to terrorism irrationally—much as if they were reacting to snakes. Snakes aren’t a significant threat either. Wallowing in fear—which can be weirdly enjoyable—isn’t a problem when a horror movie in involved, but it is downright dangerous in real life. Much better to assess the threat realistically. Unfortunately, that is a less than common reaction.
  • The worst consequences of terrorism largely stem from the reactions to it. Terrorists know this, so their primary intention is to provoke—and normally they succeed.  Governments almost invariably over-react regardless for political reasons (“We can’t do nothing.”) and thus do much of the terrorist’s work for them. How do you fight provocation? You either don’t react—or if you do—you do so calmly and at a time and place of your own choosing. That is not the way most governments behave—and it is not what the public have been educated to expect—and, needless to say the media cry out for retribution. There is a need for re-education here. The smart thing is to do the unexpected.
  • The media love terrorism on the “If it bleeds it leads” principle, and delight in whipping people up into a frenzy of fear. Calm analytical analysis is rare. Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism. There is a strong case to be made for censorship in this context. Whereas that is open to debate, the case for media moderation when covering terrorism is overwhelming. It isn’t happening. This is a serious problem which needs addressing. The media could do a great deal more to control the situation than they do.
  • Terrorism rarely happens without cause—and such causes are frequently valid, at least if seen from the terrorist perspective. It is vital to understand such causes and to eliminate them if possible. Such valid grievances don’t justify terrorism—but they do help to explain it. The West rarely addresses the causes of terrorism—and is now living with the predictable consequences. Refusing to get to grips with the causes of terrorism represents arrogance and irresponsibility on a truly epic scale—and virtually guarantees that the terrorists concerned will neither be defeated, nor adequately contained.
  • Terrorism is largely a tactic of desperation—at least in its initial stages. However, violence has a habit of developing a momentum of its own so, over time, a hard core of terrorists tends to revel in violence for its own sake. On the other hand, typically, a larger proportion of terrorists become battle weary, and can be persuaded to either quit, or become turncoats. It is worth adding that terrorists don’t have a monopoly of becoming addicted to violence. Counter-terrorists are just as prone to it—typically with adverse consequences. Violence, even in a good cause, breeds violence. You may have no choice in the matter—but actions have consequences. Here, I am not suggesting that one should turn the other cheek—but more that there are times when restraint is in order.
  • One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Typically, terrorism is a tactic which people resort to when they are faced with a much stronger enemy, and they know conventional force is likely to be futile. However, it is hugely a matter of perspective. The IRA, who fought for Irish freedom in 1916, are regarded today as heroes by the Irish, but were classified, at the time, as terrorists by the British (and shot). George Washington, in his day, was a terrorist—and Americans fighting the British used terrorist tactics on occasions. Terrorism is a tactic emanating from an asymmetric situation. Overall, the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” are used way too loosely.
  • Terrorists are almost invariably demonized. This is a huge error because the moment you demonize someone you not only stop thinking clearly about them, but you spread the contagion. This is a major problem where politicians are concerned. As with the media, they tend to whip people up into a frenzy by describing terrorists in the most pejorative language they can find—and then find it near politically impossible to negotiate. How can you negotiate credibly with someone you have described as a monster, less than human—and so on. And, since people don’t like being insulted, you have almost certainly hardened their resolve. You are also, unintentionally, playing their game. You are doing what they want you to do. That is not how one should deal with an enemy.
  • It is common for politicians to refuse to talk to terrorists—and to announce this repeatedly. This makes no sense  because short of killing every potential enemy, the only way unconventional conflicts end is as a consequence of some type of negotiation. As Churchill put it: “Jaw, jaw, jaw, is better than war, war, war.” Refusal to talk just makes the whole wretched business last longer—often for decades or more. Beyond that, talking to terrorists doesn’t mean you don’t fight—and kill—them at the same time. One does not exclude the other. A final point is that when you talk, you invariably learn something about your enemy. The most touted objection to talking to an enemy is that by doing so, you are giving them recognition. But why not—since they clearly do exist, or you wouldn’t have anyone to talk to. Also, if the terrorists agree to talk, it implies that they have something to gain—and this to lose if talks fail. Anyway, it is no bad thing to recognize a reality. But, the underlying theme has to be: Know your enemy. Talking with him helps greatly in that regard.
  • Terrorism is used by various interest groups for their own purposes—many of which are not in the public interest. A wide variety of people and interest groups use the threat of terrorism for all kinds of self-serving reasons to the point where the damage done directly by terrorism is relatively minor compared to the havoc created by such opportunists. First and foremost, terrorism tends to be used as a distraction from much more serious issues—such as the mismanagement of the economy, or the destructive consequences of the American Business Model. The MICC—the Military Industrial Congressional Complex—use it to create a climate of fear and pump up the money flow. The media fan the flames to sell more advertising. A wide variety of people see it as a profit opportunity. Security interests use it to increase surveillance to the further detriment of freedom. Law enforcement uses it to become increasingly militarized. The ultra-rich use it to commercial advantage (inevitably) as a significant propaganda tool, and as an excuse to tighten social control. Unfortunately, many of the legal and other tools put in place to fight terrorism, can—and are—also used to neutralize protests, and otherwise keep people in line. The list of people who exploit the terrorist threat is long and lengthening.
  • Conventional troops are a clumsy tool to use against terrorism. Conventional forces—not to be confused with special forces—no matter how well trained—are really no more than immature, inexperienced, young men and women with guns under an authoritarian and somewhat mindless regime—who have a disconcerting tendency to be overly violent, who are largely incapable of understanding nuance, and who have a tendency to alienate the local population. That is tough to say about a bunch of courageous young people who are risking their lives in the service of their country—but it is no more than the truth. They are often used in the absence of any alternative, but they tend to be a disastrous choice. This is compounded by the fact that they tend to be used in over-large numbers (so are expensive to deploy and tend to become targets in themselves). If they are going to be used at all, they are best used in support of the civil power.
  • Terrorist campaigns take a long time. Conventional combat is so resource hungry, expensive in both blood and treasure, and destructive, that it is hard to keep going for more than a few years—at the most. In contrast, a small number of people, armed with very little, and helped by media publicity and over-reaction from the government concerned, can keep terrorism going near indefinitely. Certainly, it is a good idea, when faced with terrorism, to think in terms of decades rather than years. Unfortunately, democracies are ill-suited to think and act in such time-frames—but such is the reality.
  • How should you fight terrorism? Because terrorists rarely go head to head with their enemies, they are rarely defeated, as such, by conventional forces. They can be whittled down, but if their cause is perceived to be just, they may attract additional recruits even faster—as seems to be the case where ISIS is concerned. That doesn’t mean that firepower doesn’t have a role—but the most important resource to have, by far, is intelligence. You need to know who and where the enemy are, what their capabilities are, and what they intend. 
  • The following are some principles to do with combating terrorism.

    • Appreciate that terrorism is rarely militarily effective. Its main leverage is through propaganda. For that reason alone (apart from society’s moral standing) it is vital to seize and retain the moral high ground. Bad behavior by the authorities almost invariably rebounds and ends up acting as a recruitment tool for the terrorists. Torture and harsh treatment of prisoners tends to be counter-productive because the idea is to turn them. Experience shows that a useful percentage of prisoners can be turned—regardless of how fanatical they seem to be initially—if well-treated and given the opportunity. This is tough to do, specially after some particularly horrendous outrage has taken place, but it is what works best. Advice intermittently followed.
    • Don’t over-react. Advice rarely followed.
    • Put the threat in proportion. Advice rarely followed.
    • Try and persuade the media not to over-hype the situation. Advice rarely followed.
    • Find out the causes that motivate the terrorists—and eradicate them as far as possible—if they are  valid. Commonsense only intermittently followed.
    • React (if you do) only at times and places of your own choosing. Advice rarely followed.
    • Use both carrot and stick. Talk to the terrorists insofar as is possible—while hunting, and if necessary, killing them. The two are not incompatible. Advice rarely followed.
    • Limit the use of conventional troops as much as possible. Primarily, use the intelligence services, police, and special forces. Advice rarely adequately followed.
    • Be unpredictable. Governments are alarmingly predictable, brutal, and badly behaved. They do a great deal of the terrorists’ work for them. Advice rarely followed.
    • Seize and retain the initiative. By and large, governments tend to react to terrorism—and rarely have the initiative. Advice rarely followed.
    • Settle in for the long haul. Most democracies seem incapable of this. Implications rarely understood.
    • Be violent in hot blood but magnanimous when the dust settles. Counter-terrorists have no problem with violence but, quite understandably, have a hard time being magnanimous. It not infrequently means letting murderers go free. All I can say is that if you want to end the conflict, magnanimity works. It is very tough to do. It is necessary.
    • Understand the concept of psychological dominance. Although I advocate restraint, there are times when it is both expedient and effective to be absolutely merciless. This is particularly the situation when terrorists are caught in the act. Even the most fanatical terrorists are deterred—at least to some extent—if they realize that their deaths are inevitable. The point is not that all terrorists will be made cautious—suicide bombers are an obvious exception—but the virtual inevitable destruction of terrorists caught committing an outrage does have an impact. As with so much, judgment comes into the picture—and achieving the right balance is not easy. But the objective is to make the terrorists feel that what they are doing is futile—and there is a way out, which is where magnanimity comes in.

    Reactions to terrorism are so emotional that the very substantial body of knowledge we have on the subject tends to be ignored. The information is readily available but few seem to have studied it. History is more important than many seem to think—and context is king. You have to understand terrorism to the point of empathy to defeat it.

    You also have to acknowledge where you are to blame.

    We are paying a high price for our collective ignorance—and our refusal to look at the evidence and focus on what works.


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