Terrorism 101

Washington, DC (TFC– Terrorism is easily the most misunderstood military tactic in the world. Many people believe terrorism is simply an urban form of what at one time was called “guerrilla warfare.” It isn’t. Others believe terrorism is the use of random violence to weaken the resolve of the enemy. It isn’t. Terrorism isn’t mindless. It’s a well thought out strategy. Understanding this strategy is the only way to defeat it.

What is terrorism? When people attempt to understand terrorism they often begin by looking at the definition provided by one of the various government agencies tasked with countering terrorism. The problem is that those agencies tailor their definition to support their particular mission. That’s why government agencies don’t use the same definition. More importantly, most people don’t trust the government to get anything right, why would they base their understanding of a topic on a propagandized government-supplied definition? Take a look at some of the various definitions:

US Patriot Act of 2001: terrorist activities include

• threatening, conspiring or attempting to hijack airplanes, boats, buses or other vehicles.

• threatening, conspiring or attempting to commit acts of violence on any “protected” persons, such as government officials

• any crime committed with “the use of any weapon or dangerous device,” when the intent of the crime is determined to be the endangerment of public safety or substantial property damage rather than for “mere personal monetary gain

FBI definition of terrorism: The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

U.S. Army Manual definition 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 … [to attain] political, religious, or ideological goals.” U.S. Army Field Manual No. FM 3-0, Chapter 9, 37 (14 June 2001).

Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms defines terrorism as: The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.

The definitions are shallow and incomplete. They are designed to be overly-vague and applicable to just about anything. The most glaring omission is that they don’t even attempt to address the intent behind terrorism. Intent is a critical piece of the puzzle strategists refuse to explain to the public. There’s a reason for that, and we’ll address it in a moment. Terrorism is not creating fear for fear’s sake. So what is it really? What is the goal or intent behind modern terrorism?

Terrorism is the calculated use of an act of violence or the threat of an act of violence against a typically non-military target, the outcome of which is designed to influence the opinions of people beyond the immediate area of attack. It is a coordinated campaign by a militarily-disadvantaged opposition group with the goal of inspiring or recruiting more combatants, or creating more sympathizers while degrading the government’s resolve. As the terrorist group gains more followers, it is possible to move from terrorism to guerrilla warfare or insurgency.

Simply put: terrorism is a violent, bloody, public relations campaign and recruitment drive.

How do acts of terrorism aid in recruitment? By provoking a government overreaction. Terrorists groups are typically made up of a set demographic. You don’t have to look much further than the names of groups to see that in most cases, potential terrorists are easy to identify: Irish Republican Army, Basque Fatherland and Liberty, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Islamic State, etc. The government can see this correlation too. Governments are clumsy bureaucratic organizations that have a historical tendency to overreach. When the government begins treating all of that set demographic as potential enemies and curtails their freedoms, it guarantees that some of that demographic are radicalized. In Ireland, the more the British engaged in a general crackdown, the more Irish Republican Army membership grew. Constantly being harassed by agents of the government will eventually cause members of that demographic to take up arms.

Image Source: Elliott Brown, Flickr, Creative Commons Porter's Lodge - Portsmouth Historic Dockyard - Counter Terrorism Response Level: Heightened

Image Source: Elliott Brown, Flickr, Creative Commons
Porter’s Lodge – Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – Counter Terrorism Response Level: Heightened

This is why the government refuses to explain the goal of terrorism. When a terrorist attack occurs, people demand action from the government. Politicians who care more about getting reelected than they do about keeping their constituents safe give way to the polls and introduce legislation so they can appear to be doing something. This legislation, more often than not, is part of the terrorist’s strategy. To take the stupidest counter-terror strategy ever proposed in the United States as an example: imagine the fear felt if your demographic was ordered to register by a government that has recently approved legislation allowing for summary execution and indefinite detention. How long would it be before you purchased a weapon and prepared to take up arms against the government? What do you have to lose?

How does a country stop terrorism? It doesn’t. Terrorism is a tactic and a strategy. It’s a theory. It is unstoppable. Terrorists operate with an 85% to 90% success rate. Out of every 10 times they try, they succeed 9. If people are at the point of violence and are militarily disadvantaged, they will turn to terrorism.

Many may be raising their hands and asking about all of the terror plots the FBI foiled. They didn’t. It’s PR to make you feel safe. In military terms, determining whether or not something is a threat is a simple formula.

intent + capability = threat

A lion at a zoo may wish to eat you and have the intent to do you harm. However, the cage denies him the capability so he is not a threat. A pacifist might have inherited his uncle’s firearm collection and therefore posses the capability of becoming a school shooter, but he lacks the intent so he is not a threat. The terrorist plots foiled by the FBI all have the same scenario. They found a group of people who didn’t like the US, and arranged to have them trained before supplying them with weapons and arresting them. The “terrorists” may have had the intent, but they lacked the training and resources. They did not have the capability, therefore they were not a threat.

This brings us to the most important point: ISIS is not a significant threat. You have a greater likelihood of being killed by a cop while unarmed than dying in an ISIS terrorist attack. ISIS may have the intent, but it does not have the capability. By treating American Muslims as potential ISIS members and cracking down on their civil liberties, you are helping ISIS gain that capability.

Defeating terrorism militarily has never been accomplished with crackdowns on civilian populations or curtailing civil liberties.