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.