Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Terrorism and Terrorism Counter-Strategy: Some Rudimentary, Necessary Thoughts

I share Tim Lee’s disagreements with our colleague Roger Pilon’s WSJ op-ed. Roger received far less gentle treatment elsewhere. I’m impressed, as usual, with Tim’s depth on the FISA law and the FISA debate.

This stir reminds me of a broader problem that pervades debates on anti-terror policies. Many perfectly intelligent public policy experts still lack a sound understanding of terrorism as a strategy. This degrades their ability to conceive of counter-strategic responses, causing them to promote ideas that would not help and that would even hurt our efforts to control terrorism.

In early January, I presented at a conference held by the International School on Disarmament and Research on Conflicts, the Italian branch of the 1995 Nobel-Prize-winning Pugwash Group. The topic of the conference was “Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and Human Rights.” I have done some work on the privacy implications of technical anti-terrorist efforts, of course, and am increasingly (and necessarily, it seems) focusing on terrorism strategy and counter-strategy. I presented on both and learned a great deal from the perspectives represented at the conference.

Though I don’t feel fully expert yet, I’d like to share some more detailed thinking about terrorism and counter-terrorism strategy. I hope more people will put their thinking into this kind of context.

To Define or Not to Define “Terrorism”

The terrorism definition I offered was: “a strategy used by the weak to goad the strong into self-injurious overreaction.” Rightly, my colleagues prompted me to refine this to “A strategy of violence used by the weak to goad the strong into self-injurious overreaction.” Civil disobedience is designed to elicit overreaction, of course, but it is as far from terrorism as one can get.

Some questions emerged during the conference that are relevant:

  • Can states use terrorism? Or is it only used by non-state actors? - These are important questions. My preference is to find that terrorism is only used by non-state actors. When a state tries to provoke another in some way (even using proxies who look like non-state terrorists), this can and should be treated as a tactic in war. The terrorism counter-strategy I’ll discuss below is inapposite for when a state does terrible things, and this should be treated as a separate problem.
  • Is terrorism only used by the weak? - Regrettably to me, I have heard the United States cited as a possible example of a “strong terrorist.” It is possible that the strong might use terror to provoke, but the strong are almost always states whose use of terror may be acts of war or crimes against humanity, but not acts of terrorism that can be addressed with terrorism counter-strategy.
  • Does terrorism require attacks on civilians? - I think not. Terrorism can be committed by attacks on civilian or military infrastructure, or even without attack - by making a credible threat. To the extent it can be defined at all, terrorism can not be defined with reference to specific targets or acts.
  • Is terrorism a crime or an act of war? - Placing terrorism in a conceptual box like this is a part of developing a counter-strategy, which I discuss below.

Intentional creation of fear would also seem to be an element of terrorism. Not all fear-creating is terrorism, of course. Legitimate war-making probably includes and requires instilling fear at key times in key populations.

Despite all this, I’m tentatively persuaded that it is not actually useful to spend a lot of time parsing it down to the “definitive definition” - not for these purposes, at least. Terrorism requires a definition if you’re going to extradite people for “terrorism,” but as I conclude below, terrorist acts are best treated as crimes and made extraditable as such. States, especially, will use the process of defining terrorism for self-preservation, treating all non-state violence as terrorism. They do this to have a rhetorical upper-hand when confronting any rebellion, even a legitimate one, fought fairly. George Washington’s army may have been considered “terrorist” by the British.

What matters is not the definition, but how terrorism works.

Terrorism at Work: Overreaction
I do believe that terrorism has a defining characteristic: it seeks to goad the strong into self-injurious overreaction, with results falling into the following categories:

  • Waste of Blood and Treasure - Terrorist attacks - or well-placed threats of attack - can prompt the victim to waste its own resources, both the blood of its soldiers and the wealth of its people. The U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks provides many examples of both. It terms of blood, there is the Iraq War. (n.b., I was sympathetic to the war at the beginning and quite capable of defending its rationale, but the result now is clear: that we have wasted many lives and much treasure.) The creation and operation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration are basically permanent multi-billion-dollar drains on the public fisc. The REAL ID Act and Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative are similarly wasteful, self-destructive programs. These are just a few examples and they all were prompted by a $500,000 al Qaeda investment. Ohio State professor John Mueller’s legendary Regulation article is required reading for anyone studying terrorism or thinking in terms of terrorism counter-strategy.
  • Recruitment and Sympathy Gains - A strong power victimized by terrorism is very likely to do violence or take other responses that are badly directed, or even entirely misdirected. This will tend to engender sympathy for the terrorists and aid in their recruiting and support. The Iraq War has drawn energy to al Qaeda, as the U.S. is widely perceived as a Middle East menace, its good intentions unknown. Not just the war-making matters, of course; its conduct does, as well. Think Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo - gigantic PR victories for terrorists, and many other opponents of U.S. power. Paddy Hillyard from Queen’s University Belfast has articulated well how British responses to IRA terror won sympathy and recruits for them. Lashing out against the communities in which terrorists live, or the places where they hide, forces local neutrals into the wrong camp. These are people who are uniquely positioned to undermine those terrorists should they so choose.
  • Weakened Political Order/Society - Finally, terrorism causes what I have tentatively called a “weakened political order/society.” Terror attacks on the Western democracies have caused them to come somewhat loose from their (classical) liberal moorings. In the U.S. since 9/11, we have seen proposals for massive domestic surveillance, we have seen Americans taken prisoner and held without charges, we have seen surveillance conducted in violation of the law. These are just a few of the more prominent examples. (A list Paddy Hillyard produced with reference to Northern Ireland looks remarkably familiar.) Now, naming all these “civil liberties violations” is not mere (neo) liberal carping. Mike German’s book Thinking Like a Terrorist shows that terrorists are battling for legitimacy. With little ability to build their own legitimacy, they can at least degrade their opponent’s. Overreaction by the victim state erodes its claim of moral authority to rule. This is more relevant when a terrorist group makes a credible claim on territory or when it represents a distinct population, of course, but look at how Osama bin Laden has occasionally offered to make “great power”-like deals with European states. This is a man seeking after legitimacy. Unfortunately, U.S. officials have given it to him in their rhetoric by allowing HIM to declare war! U.S. officials have likewise undermined U.S. legitimacy (and grown the terrorists’) by seeking excessive new powers, exaggerating threats, and undermining the rule of law. It is a successful execution of the terrorism strategy when an attack causes a state to deviate from its ordinary practices and founding ideals.

So now that we have the terrorism strategy in hand, and how it works, we can turn to counter-strategy. My potentially-clever line summarizing good terrorism counter-strategy is:

Do what you can – AND NOTHING MORE!

There are lots of things to do that can thwart terrorism and defend against terrorist attacks, such as infiltrating and disrupting terror groups. (They have to operate clandestinely so they are wonderfully paranoid. This can be exploited, and has been in the past.) Targeted, lawful surveillance of terrorists and terror suspects is good. Controlling access to weapons of mass destruction and WMD precursors - vital. Taking reasonable precautions to secure against likely vectors of attack on infrastructure. Preparing for attacks and their aftermaths. Communications that accurately convey risks and appropriate responses. These are all viable counter-terrorism activities - and it’s not nearly an exhaustive list.

The counter-strategy’s most interesting part, of course, is the “nothing more” part. This is the commonsensical but elusive idea that you should not take anti-terrorism measures that aren’t going to work. Believe it or not, this implies a slight preference for inaction (or perhaps under-action) in anti-terror efforts. If it isn’t provably a good idea, don’t do it!

This is not pacifist foolishness; this is hard-edged counter-strategy taking advantage of the fact that terrorism alone is inherently self-destructive. Only when joined with overreaction does terrorism become “productive.” Overreaction must be avoided.

So our counter-strategies, which map to the gains terrorists seek, are:

  • Hold on to Blood and Treasure - If at all possible, don’t go to war. As I said, I was sympathetic to the Iraq War at the outset. My intellectual superiors here at Cato did a better job of it at the time, and now continue to counsel less war over more. This is consistent with good terrorism counterstrategy.
  • Don’t Give the Gift of Overreaction - As I touched on above, terrorists want their opponents to strike at them and miss. They don’t even mind too much if they get hit - as long as there is some good collateral damage. Overreaction - in war, prisoner detention and mistreatment - even in the conduct of investigation - these things are all good for terrorists because it helps them get recruits and support.
  • Stand By the Values of Your Society - Similarly, deviating from the rule of law, seeking extraordinary powers, using mass surveillance - these things all give terrorists legitimacy by admitting their power. These things also undermine the legitimacy of an incumbent government by placing the state at odds with its people. (By the way, false security measures will do yet more to undermine a state’s legitimacy when they actually fail. Placing the government’s legitimacy on the table in a bet on “security theater” is anti-terrorism malpractice.) When the terror-victim-government simply behaves well, this can be a devastating blow to terrorism because it causes the bad behavior of terrorists to dominate public perceptions. It destroys terrorists’ legitimacy and it undercuts their support, sympathy, recruitment, and fundraising.

One thing about all this is important: “War” is the wrong reaction by any measure. Going to war literally saps a nation of blood and treasure. It also will result in damage that draws sympathy and support to the terrorists. The rhetoric of “war” also gives terrorist groups legitimacy in the eyes of their current and potential allies, supporters, or members. I get very frustrated when I hear U.S. public officials give Osama bin Laden this gift.

Rather than war, terrorism should be treated as a crime problem, for at least two reasons: First, that treatment is far less likely to lead to overreaction, and, second, treating terrorism as a crime is an energy-draining “dis” to terrorists themselves. My colleague Roger Pilon is mistaken to put our efforts against terrorism within the constitution’s “Commander in Chief” power, whatever its appropriate scope is. As far as extradition, terrorists should be extradited based on the criminal acts or criminal planning they have committed. (Perhaps certain conspiracies might be added to the substantive law in some countries.) Treating them fairly - as criminals - will quickly melt the “mystique” that terrorists try to mold around themselves.

There are many pieces missing from this discussion. There are certainly many details about which reasonable people can differ. One thing I think is certain: Failing to address terrorism counter-strategically has done our nation immense damage, and threatens still more. We need to change that.

WaPo’s Marc Fisher on O’Malley’s REAL ID Misstep

Today Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher takes Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D) to task for needlessly committing his state to implement REAL ID, the national ID law.

Fisher recognizes that REAL ID will not prevent illegal immigration, but will merely foster deepened criminality: “Maryland’s highways will soon gain tens of thousands of unlicensed motorists, thanks to an abrupt reversal by Gov. Martin O’Malley.”

O’Malley backtracked on campaign commitments to keep Maryland an immigrant-friendly state when he announced that the state would link driver licensing and immigration status. Somehow O’Malley and his secretary of transportation, John Porcari, convinced themselves (and apparently Fisher) that REAL ID requires them to refuse licenses to illegal immigrants, and that moving toward REAL ID compliance would allow them to avoid standing out:

Porcari says Maryland was forced to reject the two-tier system [in which the state would still license illegal immigrants] not because the governor is suffering from low popularity and wants to glom onto the anti-immigrant movement but because “the national landscape is shifting” and Maryland could have found itself nearly alone in resisting Real ID. But seven states are refusing to comply with Real ID, and 17 have condemned the law, which was passed after the 9/11 attacks and requires states to conduct time-consuming identity checks.

States can issue licenses to anyone consistent with REAL ID. Licenses that don’t meet the federal law’s strictures would simply have to be labeled as such.

On O’Malley’s pre-commitment to REAL ID, there are two possibilities. One is that Governor O’Malley and Secretary Porcari actually don’t understand what REAL ID requires and are ignorant of sentiment about the law among sister states. The other is that O’Malley, indeed, has abruptly reversed his professed friendliness toward immigrants.

A Core 9/11 Commission Afterthought

The Department of Homeland Security often invokes the 9/11 Commission when it discusses REAL ID. A recent DHS press release called REAL ID a “core 9/11 Commission finding.”

In fact, the 9/11 Commission dedicated about three-quarters of a page to identification security – out of 400+ pages of substance. See for yourself. Page 390.

DoJ’s Public Lobbying - A Legal Violation?

Here’s the language of 18 U.S.C. § 1913 (“Lobbying with appropriated moneys”):

No part of the money appropriated by any enactment of Congress shall, in the absence of express authorization by Congress, be used directly or indirectly to pay for any personal service, advertisement, telegram, telephone, letter, printed or written matter, or other device, intended or designed to influence in any manner a Member of Congress, a jurisdiction, or an official of any government, to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation, law, ratification, policy, or appropriation, whether before or after the introduction of any bill, measure, or resolution proposing such legislation, law, ratification, policy, or appropriation; but this shall not prevent officers or employees of the United States or of its departments or agencies from communicating to any such Member or official, at his request, or to Congress or such official, through the proper official channels, requests for any legislation, law, ratification, policy, or appropriations which they deem necessary for the efficient conduct of the public business, or from making any communication whose prohibition by this section might, in the opinion of the Attorney General, violate the Constitution or interfere with the conduct of foreign policy, counter-intelligence, intelligence, or national security activities. Violations of this section shall constitute violations of section 1352 (a) of title 31.

Now here is some language from a Department of Justice Web site called lifeandliberty.gov:

FISA 101: Why FISA Modernization Amendments Must Be Made Permanent
FISA Amendments In The Protect America Act Of 2007 Remain Necessary To Keep Our Nation Safe

The Protect America Act modernized the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to provide our intelligence community essential tools to acquire important information about terrorists who want to harm America. The Act, which passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Bush on August 5, 2007, restores FISA to its original focus of protecting the rights of persons in the United States, while not acting as an obstacle to gathering foreign intelligence on targets located in foreign countries. By enabling our intelligence community to close a critical intelligence gap that existed before the Act became law, the Protect America Act has already made our Nation safer.

The tools provided by the Protect America Act are scheduled to expire in early February 2008 – it is essential that Congress act to make the legislation permanent. Congress must also pass legislation to provide meaningful liability protection to those alleged to have assisted our Nation following the 9/11 attacks.

A public DoJ Web site that says “it is essential that Congress act to make the legislation permanent” seems designed to influence Members of Congress. It was probably created and is maintained through the expenditure of appropriated funds. Did Congress expressly authorize this? Is a public Web site “proper official channels”? Did the Attorney General find that failing to advocate for this law would interfere with national security?

It looks like this Web site violates the law, but it’s hard bein’ a country lawyer here in the big city.

Privacy Advocacy Overreach

I originally started studying and writing about privacy policy because I thought the advocates in Washington, and Congress itself, didn’t have a full grasp of the issues. They were treating privacy as a political football, and grinding their political, ideological, and self-interest axes on “the privacy issue.”

Illustrating how that problem may persist, Declan McCullagh has a strong rip on the Electronic Privacy Information Center on his Iconoclast blog. It seems that EPIC and some of its allies recently filed a strongly worded complaint with the Federal Trade Commission about problems with AskEraser that no longer exist.

The AskEraser cookie originally had a time-stamp that could act like a unique identifier, so Ask.com changed it. Nonetheless, in went EPIC’s “Complaint and Request for Injunction, Request for Investigation and for Other Relief.”

The government’s undirected, surveillance-heavy overreaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks brought me together with lots of folks with whom I disagree on lesser issues like private-sector regulation and privacy practices. I often joke that people will know their privacy is pretty well protected when I’m back to fighting with EPIC and the ACLU. Well, I don’t intend to pick a fight now, because there’s still too much to be done, but a privacy advocacy group shouldn’t just be an FTC-complaint mill.

Declan speculates that EPIC files with the FTC rather than suing (there are some arguable causes of action) because courts would sanction them for frivolous filings. Prospectively calling EPIC’s future bluffs, he says: “The next time you see them complaining to the FTC about some alleged wrongdoing, remember these attorneys’ odd reluctance to litigate.”