I WAS IN MY EARLY TEENS WHEN I STARTED STUDYING TERRORISM & IRREGULAR WARFARE
LATER, I WAS TO LIVE WITH TERRORISM FOR SEVERAL DECADES. THE QUESTION IS—HAVE I LEARNED ANYTHING FROM MY 60 YEARS OF STUDY AND EXPOSURE?
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.
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.