Understanding Terrorism: Why anybody promising to stop terrorism is lying

Washington, DC (TFC) – Every candidate in the United States is explaining how he or she will stop terrorism. From airstrikes to internment camps to constant surveillance to invasion, the candidates make their statements and the crowds cheer. The same politicians that the average American knows can’t successfully keep the roads paved are suddenly trusted to handle a situation that is honestly way beyond their depth. They don’t have a clue as to what terrorism is, they certainly don’t understand its goal, and as such, they have no possible way of knowing how to “stop it.”

What is terrorism?

Even within the federal government, nobody can exactly agree on what terrorism is. According to the CIA, governments can’t engage in terrorism. The FBI doesn’t exclude nations, but makes it seem as though the terrorists are trying to instill fear in order to obtain their goals solely through intimidation.

A different definition is put forth by the US Army in FM 3-0, Chapter 9, paragraph 37:

“Terrorism is the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear. It is intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies. Terrorists usually pursue political, religious, or ideological goals. Enemies who cannot compete with Army forces conventionally often turn to terrorist tactics. Terrorist attacks often create a disproportionate effect on even the most capable conventional forces. Terrorist tactics [range] from arson to employing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Army forces routinely conduct operations to deter or defeat these attacks. Offensively oriented operations are categorized as counterterrorism; defensively oriented operations are antiterrorism.”

This is the most complete definition in use by the federal government. The reason this definition is far superior to any other used by the feds is that it addresses why terrorism is used. Terrorism is used because terrorists cannot compete on a conventional battlefield. This is one of the most overlooked and most important pieces of the puzzle. Why? Because they cannot compete on a conventional battlefield in open conflict. Terrorism is the tactic chosen because it is superior to engaging an enemy on an open battlefield. Terrorists choose this when they are unable to compete on an open battlefield. Terrorism is the answer to the America’s technological superiority and numbers. In case you’re missing the point: pumping more troops into the area and engaging in airstrikes is the reason this tactic was adopted in the first place. It isn’t going to stop it. It isn’t going to slow it down.

What is the goal of terrorism?

Terrorists operate under six main strategies. Some groups only use one or two, some groups use all six in conjunction. Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (that’s Harvard) have produced the most concise and clear description of those strategies I have ever seen. Even though in my opinion “intimidation” should be split into two different strategies, they have combined and successfully addressed both reasons for an “intimidation” strategy.

There are five principal strategic logics of costly signaling at work in terrorist campaigns: (1) attrition, (2) intimidation, (3) provocation, (4) spoiling, and (5) outbidding. In an attrition strategy, terrorists seek to persuade the enemy that the terrorists are strong enough to impose considerable costs if the enemy continues a particular policy. Terrorists using intimidation try to convince the population that the terrorists are strong enough to punish disobedience and that the government is too weak to stop them, so that people behave as the terrorists wish. A provocation strategy is an attempt to induce the enemy to respond to terrorism with indiscriminate violence, which radicalizes the population and moves them to support the terrorists. Spoilers attack in an effort to persuade the enemy that moderates on the terrorists’ side are weak and untrustworthy, thus undermining attempts to reach a peace settlement. Groups engaged in outbidding use violence to convince the public that the terrorists have greater resolve to fight the enemy than rival groups, and therefore are worthy of support.

So the goal of terrorism is not to kill you because they hate you for your freedom. They are not out to kill just to make you scared. It is not random. It is not senseless. It is a very (go back to the Army’s definition) “calculated use of unlawful violence”. They are trying to influence your behavior and the behavior of the government. The recent attacks in the West are clearly part of a “provocation” strategy. That strategy is “an attempt to induce the enemy to respond to terrorism with indiscriminate violence, which radicalizes the population and moves them to support the terrorists.”  So when you cry to “Bomb them all!” or support the politicians that do, you have effectively surrendered to terrorism. You’ve given up. You’ve waived the white flag. You are now a victim of terrorism.

“Violence begets violence. Only professionally executed violence ends violence.”  – Lt. Col. Oliver North

The team at Harvard put what must have been a considerable amount of effort into developing a very concise summary. I can’t applaud them enough. I’ve studied terrorism for most of my life and have never seen it laid out that well, and I strongly recommend reading their entire journal article. In the search for brevity things must be simplified. It should be pointed out that radicalization can occur through responses other than indiscriminate violence. Internment, mass deportations, failure to provide humanitarian aid, constant harassment by security services or the general population can radicalize people within the demographic. It might even radicalize people outside of the demographic who see these responses as an injustice.

For proof that the Islamic State is using a provocation strategy, I submit the fact that an Islamic State soldier wrote this in a letter to a professor:

“Now that the war with the far enemy [the United States] has really started it is so much easier for us to present the case that the Islamic world is once again under attack from the Crusader-Zionist conspiracy, and we can point to all the other examples – Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali, Libya and the rest.

Already we are seeing an increase in the numbers of young men and even women coming to our cause. I saw a recent western estimate of 18,000 joining us so far, including 3,000 from outside the region. Surprisingly, they are not too far out with these figures except that they are seriously underestimating the numbers from western Europe.”

Why are we fighting it the way we are?

When Americans begin to understand terrorism, they immediately ask one question: Why are the politicians advocating these policies? The answer is two-fold. The first is that they are telling you what you want to hear. They follow polls and act in accordance with the whims of the American people. The real question is: Why are you listening to candidates whose only military experience is filling out the forms necessary to avoid the draft during Vietnam? The war on terrorism has been politicized, and therefore is simply used to push other agendas like mass surveillance or gun control. The second reason politicians are advocating these policies is much scarier and something that will be addressed below.

For most Americans, the war against terrorism began on September 11th, 2001. That little fact strikes most with knowledge of terrorism as funny because most of the counterterrorism teams in existence were founded in the 1970s and 1980s. Until 2001, the war against terrorism raged all over the world, but it was done in secret. After the debacle known as “Desert One” in 1980, the military decided to form a new counterterrorism team. A Navy officer was asked to develop a full-time counterterrorism unit. The men selected were combat veterans and (I say this with love) “dirtbags.” They were men with blue-collar skills as well as foreign language skills. The structure of that team shows the strategy of counterterrorism when it isn’t being manipulated by politics. They operated at platoon size. That’s 16 people. In special cases, they operated in groups of 30 or 40. Compare that with today’s deployments of thousands. This team later became known as Seal Team Six.

Defeating terrorists is done with a scalpel, not a hatchet. It uses a single bullet rather than a carpet bombing campaign. It is quiet and it is dirty.

How do you defeat terrorists?

Image Source: Jagz Mario, Flickr, Creative Commons Terrorism definition

Image Source: Jagz Mario, Flickr, Creative Commons
Terrorism definition

Bombing terrorists into submission only creates more terrorists. Waiting for them to strike and attempting to interrupt their plot only leads to civilian casualties because the terrorists can hit and miss while the counterterrorist must always be successful. The successful counterterrorist knows that the most effective method of disrupting terrorist organizations is to interrupt command and control through the selective use of in-person assassinations to create a power vacuum. As in any organization, not all terrorists are good at their jobs. Selectively assassinating charismatic, influential, and competent confirmed terrorist commanders while leaving the dull, politically inept, and incompetent commanders in the field places the terrorist organization in the hands of bad leadership. This negatively impacts their ability to operate, recruit, and obtain funding. Eventually, these organizations become bygone relics. When’s the last time you heard of an attack by the Red Brigades? Baader-Meinhoff? The Irish National Liberation Army? Islamic Jihad Organization?  Three of these groups still exist in a combat-ineffective capacity.

That brings us to the final point. It’s that second reason politicians aren’t forthcoming about terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic. It’s a tactic that works. The proof of that is in your fear and desire to bomb Syria, knowing it will kill innocents. The proof can be seen in the US invasion of Iraq. An entire nation was struck with so much terror that two years later they invaded a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the attack of 9/11, thereby radicalizing the people the US is fighting today. The proof is in you being willing to surrender your rights and be under constant surveillance. Terrorism works. The thing no politician will ever tell you about the war on terror is that it can never be won. Much like a Chinese finger trap, the harder you fight the stronger it is. Terrorism can be slowed. Terrorism can be deterred. But it can never be stopped.

As long as people are willing to use violence against a technologically advanced military, terrorism will exist.

The war on terror is unwinnable.