In World War II the Germans complained that it was so difficult to fight the Americans because the U.S. commanders didn’t follow their own written doctrine. That isn’t the case with many of our modern enemies. Most of the terrorists we face today are violent supremacist groups that have a clear and public doctrine which they use to recruit and inspire new members. They follow their doctrine; and we need to remember that when we try to counter them.
As America awoke after the Christchurch Mosque attack, I got a text from a CNN producer to get to a studio for the 8 AM show. I ended up opposite Peter Bergen discussing the similarities between white supremacist and Islamist supremacists. They both have clear and public ideologies about why they are superior to other humans and why they are authorized, in their own minds, to “defend” themselves against anyone that refuses to think like they do. They are extremely violent, deeply radicalized into their ideology, and can blend-in easily, making their attacks hard to predict or stop. Unfortunately, their idea of “defending themselves” means killing all innocent people that are in their way.
In an age of unending terrorism, is any country or international organization preparing adequately to get ahead of radicalization and violence? The short answer is likely no, based on the current rates of death from terrorism.
How do we get ahead of the terrorists? Admiral Stavridis’ recent article raises many great concepts, and they match what many in the counterterrorism (CT) community have been saying for a while. Chris Costa, who was heavily involved in the current U.S. CT strategy, has looked at counterterrorism from many angles and levels of the government; he also writes about the need to constantly adapt to face future challenges.
I am in my second year of teaching a U.S. CT policy course to adult students ages 50-90. I have learned a few lessons from trying to explain our CT policies since the 1970s. The biggest lesson is that while administrations change the headline for our policy each time the other political party takes the helm; from “combating global terrorism” (Nixon and Republicans) to using a “law enforcement model” (Carter and Democrats), they really don’t change the underlying policy. Each administration since Richard Nixon has actually looked at the previous polices and kept the concepts they think are most important. The strategy only gets richer and more detailed. So, the U.S. counterterrorism policy hasn’t been re-written every 4 years anew; instead its been steadily evolving and trying to adapt to our enemies use of terror. That’s oversimplifying it for sure, but I want to get us to the current solutions.
The evolution of terrorism continues
The NSC team gave America a very balanced and useful plan in October 2018, but the enemy always gets a vote in the usefulness of your strategy. In the ISIS era of entrepreneurial terrorist groups, the battlefield has been reset again. With low-cost entry into the ISIS franchise, today’s Islamist inspired terrorists are more global than ever and more connected to their similar ideologies. The same can be said of white and black-supremacists, Jewish-supremacists, Buddhist-supremacists, and Hindu-supremacists. The power of social media and the reach of the internet through smartphones and the internet has changed the game; the world must change with it.
We must ensure counterterrorism models prioritize the solutions in the correct order of importance. We need a model that recognizes the entrepreneur model of terrorism we are fighting today. ISIS changed the terrorist model and made entrepreneur terrorism easier to do. Franchise members don’t need to wear a jersey, they can just announce they are on the team after an attack. ISIS rode the wave of social media to the top of the terror food chain and the internet will keep it alive as a powerful group for long to come. We need a new system to counter them.
From my military experience in and around counter-terrorism operations, my academic and advisory work on CT strategy, my interfaith mission to promote religious tolerance, experience keeping at-risk middle schoolers out of gangs, and efforts with reintegration and conflict-resolution in Afghanistan, I have come up with a few findings I think might be useful.
The real test of any CT strategy contains a few key questions: are there more or fewer terrorists; are terrorists getting more brutal and inhuman or less; and is the strategy flexible enough to head off the next generation of terrorist groups. You are likely thinking, so far, most nation’s policies are failing.
Ideas instead of bullets
We should focus on understanding terrorist ideology and countering it. Bush, Obama and Trump have discussed its importance in their policies. The Trump strategy really elevates the concept. If you can counter the ideology with facts and education you can slow recruiting and suck away the inspiration that sustains a terrorist to carry out an attack. That means being honest about terrorist goals. Luckily, they are very public in their views and aims. It means getting political, religious, and civic leaders to play a key role in explaining why these violent and highly radicalized ideologies are not just illegal, but immoral and sinful.
Countering ideologies that inspire future terrorists is the long-term solution. This will mostly be done by education for those who have not been radicalized and information operations for those who have. Countering deadly ideas is a long and difficult task. It’s multi-generational; and while it might be tempting to keep sending in commandos to shoot terrorists, that is the short-term answer. It’s when words don’t work, bullets have to.
By using education and not bullets we inoculate young people from the dangerous and violent ideologies they are tempted by. The terrorist chieftains put a lot of time and energy into infecting children with dangerous ideas. We need to invest more than they do in educating young people. To cut into recruiting we must inculcate youths with tolerance and empathy towards other races, religions, and political and social ideas.
To be better at education than terrorists we must focus on using the right vocabulary. Language matters in this fight. The enemy knows it. We have trouble being honest and consistent in our usage.
Don’t try to pin terrorism to a certain religion or vague political party that you don’t like. Trying to take down opposing political movements on the left or right by saying they are the reason terrorists exist doesn’t solve anything. When you try to say that one American political party or the other is more closely linked to terrorist movements you are only helping the terrorists. They don’t care about your left and right-wing social issues. Terrorists care about their narrow view of the world and how they can change the world in their image. They will use any political party, left, center, or right, if it helps them reach their ideological goals.
Instead focus on the exact end-state of the terrorist groups and discredit it. It can be done using precise vocabulary and by unifying people into your anti-terrorism alliance from all political persuasions. Don’t use words like right or left-wing terrorism. Describe the terrorist’s ideology precisely, as left and right wing today cover such a wide swath of policy beliefs in every nation, they are useless words for describing terrorism motivations.
Define exactly what the terrorist’s goals are. Do they want religious domination? Racial superiority and genocide? A very particular political system? Anarchy? What is the end-state of their terror campaign?
Define exactly what the terrorists are doing that makes them terrorists. Do they kill innocents? Are the targeting police and military? Do they avoid killing and purposely injure and maim? You need to understand how they terrorize the citizenry. Is it simply criminal activity or actual terrorism with a political motive to change a system via terror and fear? We should loosen our definitions of terrorism in some cases so we don’t accidently call terrorists simple criminals, just because we don’t see an official link to a known terrorist group.
Why do we have to catch young people and prevent them from joining terrorist groups to make any headway? I have observed de-radicalization programs in Colombia and Afghanistan; it is very difficult and largely unsuccessful work. You can house the terrorists detained in security operations and try to de-radicalize them, but the terrorists have to want to be humanized again. Success isn’t up to you.
That means the world must be prepared to keep terrorists in prison for their entire lives. We have seen too many released terrorists go right back into the organization, or start a new one. You may not feel comfortable issuing life sentences to guilty people, but the alternative is always the loss of innocent lives. This ideological war demands we make hard choices.
As education slowly cuts the terrorist recruiting numbers, the military, police and intelligence teams will continue to have to hunt down and remove terrorists from the earth. That means we must continue to unify all the counterterrorism actors. Failure to build a cohesive global team will ensure terrorists will continue to find a place to hide and people to fund their evil works.
There is more. This is the tip of the iceberg. But we need to start the hard and long work of understanding and countering terrorist ideologies. If we can’t achieve prevention through education, none of the current operations to hunt active terrorists will make a dent in the future crop. Every new terror group wants to be more brutal than the previous ones…imagine what the ISIS replacement will do to make a name for itself.