Hard or soft response to global terror threat?

Candlelit vigil held for at All Saints Church Paris victims. NNL-151115-201237009
Candlelit vigil held for at All Saints Church Paris victims. NNL-151115-201237009

Following the terror attacks in Paris at the weekend, Amberley resident David Lyon, who was the non executive civilian member of the UK Field Army Command Group from 2003 to 2012, reflects on the threats of global terrorism, and how the West should respond.

He writes:

It will help to start with agreed definitions

*Terrorism: The threat or use of violence to instill fear in order to achieve change.

*State Terrorism: The pursuit of change by one country in another through the support of local groups. Iran’s support of Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and Assad in Syria.

*Non State Terrorism: Al Qeda, ISIS, which we should call Daesh,[ pron. DACE] Boko Haram, individuals.

*Global Terrorism: Terrorism that in some way impacts more than one nation.

*Hard response: The use or supply of military weapons and equipment or armed manpower to limit or destroy terrorist organizations.

*Soft response: All other means: surveillance, propaganda, education, economic and humanitarian aid, advice on governance and legal institutions and whatever else might work.

We are familiar with past terror organizations: Weathermen, Black September, KKK, Red Brigades, The Irish Republican Army, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nicholls - small groups or individuals mainly operating in a single country.

Al Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS/ISIL which should be called by the name that moderate Muslims use - Daesh [ pronounced Dace], have emerged over the last 25 years and conducted more sophisticated operations across international boundaries, particularly Al Qaeda. Since 2014 Daesh has raised politically intimidating violence in the area it controls and its publication of that violence, internationally through social media, to new levels.

It has initiated a number of small scale attacks by individuals such as that on the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and elsewhere in Europe and now, as Daesh comes under increased pressure in Syria and Iraq, it has enlarged its campaign in the west starting with the recent attacks in Paris. We can be certain of more attempts.

In the United States the number of political attacks in the years since 9/11 has, so far, been limited.

So what should we take into account when considering how terrorism, at home and across multiple states may develop over the next decades?

Demographics are a key factor. Most developing countries are experiencing dramatic increases in the percentage of their populations under 30. Opportunities for their employment have not matched those increases.

There remains substantial poverty across developing countries but there has also been, as they grow economically, a significant increase in the number of middle class families who have sent their children to be educated in the developed world.

Some of these find that post education there are no jobs for them, either at home or abroad and they are unable to integrate into western society, its cultures and values. At the same time they react against the corruption in their own societies. They find themselves in a spiritual vacuum. They see no positive future, no challenge to respond to. They are vulnerable to the siren call of a cause. Fundamental Islam provides just what they seek: with great persuasive skill through masterful propaganda and individual targeting via the internet.

So the terrorists of the next decades will include increasing numbers of frustrated, middle class, well educated, technically competent, culturally experienced, sophisticated communicators. They will provide the brains of terrorist organizations in a war of ideas.

Strategic thinkers have suggested four key principles for engaging in a war of ideas:

*Do not enter into a war of ideas unless you understand the ideas you are at war with.

*Do not go into a war of ideas unless you have an idea with which to ‘fight’.

*Wars of ideas are conducted by people who think.

*Try to reach the people who think.

Daesh thinkers will work out new means to defeat their near enemies, in middle eastern countries, by establishing regimes that provide security for an acceptable level of economic activity; based on the preaching and brutal enforcement of a particular interpretation of Islamic texts unchanged for over a thousand years.

They will attack their far enemies, western democracies, by getting them to do Daesh’s work through overreaction to small-scale attacks to an extent that seriously damages their democratic values, behaviors and institutions, to little public benefit.

Since the mid 1800s overreaction by governments, when categorized as oppression or victimization, has been well recognized by terrorists as an opportunity to be vigorously pursued and exploited to facilitate the recruitment of further adherents. They have written manuals on the subject.

There will continue to be criminals, for example Moktar bel Moktar of Al Qeda in the Mahgreb, who use religious fervor as a cover for a combination of protection and intimidation from which they can make money. Given the number of Iraqi Baathist officers, from Sadams’ time, in the ranks of Daesh we may be seeing the emergence of a new type of terrorist: the Economic Warlord. The pirate forces of Al Shebab operating from the Somali coast fall into this category.

There will also be those who are motivated by either genuine religious belief or more altruistic resistance to authoritarian regimes or ethnic oppression. Among these are those who hold to the Islamist vision which sees the human to be integral to a wider existence intractably linked and not separated as ‘an individual’ from others and the world that surrounds him or her; which sees the human as a multi-dimensional creature – larger than the sum of his or her desires or appetites, whose ability to access innate moral values, as the basis for his or her responsibility to the community, becomes the organizational principle for economics, society and politics.

This view of the human being stands in stark contrast to our belief in individuality.

We need to think long and hard about the consequences of this fundamental difference: as has Alastair Crooke in his 2009 book, Resistance, the Essence of the Islamist Revolution.

In addition to this complex mix there has existed a group of mercenary fighters that has grown over the last couple of decades and now numbers perhaps 30,000. They are mainly Muslim and come from a wide range of countries, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Algeria, the Balkans, Chechnya, to name but some.

They know no other trade. They go where the fight goes because that is their livelihood. They are seldom welcomed by local populations; but they know their weapons and how to fight. They represent a substantial long term challenge as their skills enable them to move from country to country, wherever demand and the money is highest.

The internet and spread of mobile phones and computers with the ability to communicate verbally and pictorially in real time at minimal cost, on a large scale, or individually targeted is a growing opportunity. Terrorists have taken full advantage of this capability to instill fear, trigger overreaction by governments, recruit and organize attacks. Their propaganda is highly sophisticated strategically, tactically and technically. It is one of their most effective weapons. Western democracies are a soft target. Believing in freedom of speech and generally antipathetic to the use of propaganda, we have been slow to respond. Only in the last month has the British Ministry of Defence begun to use YouTube, to show videos of Reaper drone attacks on Daesh targets in Iraq.

Geographical change is a continuing factor be it Physical, Economic or Human. We are bombarded with arguments about the impact of climate change but are probably less well aware of the impacts of other geographical changes, except when we travel to a place after an interval of several years.

Particularly relevant to the future of terrorism is the growth of mega cities and particularly coastal cities. As they grow the challenges of how to govern them expand logarithmically rather than in a straight line. The risk of law enforcement vacuums increases. Such vacuums provide opportunities for criminal or terrorist groups to establish fiefdoms or cells, which are extremely difficult to eradicate.

Improved internet monitoring, target acquisition and armed drones, have made life much more dangerous for mountain based terrorists. They, as has been clearly shown by David Kilcullen in his recent book Out of the Mountains, are increasingly basing themselves in towns and cities where it is easier to live undetected and the risk of causing collateral damage by killing innocent civilians is a substantial limitation on the use of drones.

Large cities also provide attractive opportunities for spectacular or combined attacks by small groups, as in Mumbai.

The outlook may be grim grim but there are positive factors.

Terrorists have operated in modern Europe since the mid nineteenth century. They have been an inconvenience, on occasions a great inconvenience, ETA, the IRA, EOKA, the FLN, but they have never brought down a democratic government. They have either been eliminated, effectively downgraded, as has Al Qaeda, or have engaged in a political solution.

The United States experience, other than the attacks of 9/11, has been principally of individual revenge or racist attacks unrelated to terrorism as we are defining it today. In the 14 years since the attacks on New York and the Pentagon nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, anti government fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims. The numbers are 48 to 26. Should we expect that to change?

Terrorist organizations have long shown a general tendency to fracture rather than to coalesce. This is particularly true of those which are Islamic. Islam divided first when the Shia split from the Sunni in 660. The Ismailis split in the 8th century, the Assasins at the end of the 11th.

The Wahabi movement began in the 18th century, Salafism developed a 100 years later. The Deobandi movement, in India, grew out of the Indian mutiny in the 1850s.

In current times Patrick Sookhdeo, in his book Global Jihad published in 2007, where he argues that Islam has always been essentially violent, identified 21 radical Sunni groups operating in the Arab world, the Indian subcontinent and internationally. Daesh[Dace] did not then exist.

There is every reason to believe that fractionation will continue. This makes it harder to track individual groups but makes major concerted attacks on the west by a combination of Islamic groups highly unlikely.

So what actions should we take, as governments, as societies, as individuals? Government officials, politicians, retired soldiers, academics, experts, journalists all urge a strong combined response. But much of the time they are short, if not very short on the detail of exactly how we should address either the threat or actuality of Terrorism.

Should we opt for a Hard Response and urge:

*Assassination by the CIA, Seal Teams, MI6, the SAS and their equivalents in other countries.

*Increased use of aircraft and drone strikes, regardless of collateral civilian deaths, even if terrorists are locating in schools or hospitals.

*Restoration of section 215 of the Patriot Act [enabling mass phone data collection by the NSA].

What should we fear if we have nothing to hide?

* Arrest more suspects on less evidence and imprison those returning from fighting abroad, for whatever cause.

*Restart a program of rendition of suspects captured abroad.

* Increase military training teams.

* Increase the capability and quantity of weapons supplied to Saudi Arabia, Gulf States, Kurds, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Mali etc. even though we disapprove of some of their government policies; with the object of getting them to do the fighting on the ground.

*Send Special Forces teams or Marine task forces to acquire targets and lead local troops on the ground.

*Provide, once again, large scale [10,000 plus] ‘boots on the ground’ forces despite the likelihood of our being regarded as ‘an occupying force’ and in the face of great reluctance if not hostility at home.

Or, should we opt for a Soft Response?

*Be crystal clear about our fundamental values and promote and publicize them.

*Prevent our legislation or behaviours from underming those values.

Our hubristic ambivalence in this areas is being exploited.

*Substantially increase our intelligence gathering capability and capacity, particularly our human intelligence [spies and infiltrators] and cyber warfare skills.

* Substantially increase our propaganda output to counter Islamic fundamentalism. The battle of ideas.

*Increase aid to help establish rules of law, which reflect local traditions, rather than ours. No more nation building in our image.

*Increase the flow of transferred technology so that

developing countries add more value locally.

* Dramatically increase our understanding of other cultures from early school years.

* Increase government support for cultural exchange programs.

*Increase food, health and education programs in states that may fail.

Or: is it a mixture of both Hard and Soft?

Some questions:

*How far should we tolerate attacks rather than allow our fundamental values of free speech, personal and democratic freedoms to be undermined by intrusive and restrictive legislation?

* Do we draw red lines - and follow through regardless of the certainty of unintended consequences?

* Should we build physical resources and create programs so that no young person has reason to feel unchallenged, excluded or without hope.

* Can we learn and adopt any principles or behaviors from within the range of Islam practices that would improve our societies?

*Do we each have a personal duty to engage with countering terrorism – if so in what ways?

* Are we in danger of vastly overrating the threat of Fundamental Islam?

*Are there other threats to our societies that need more urgent attention: drugs, corruption, financial inequality, hedonism?

* How much do we need to engage in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries now we are no longer dependent on their oil?