Terror Tactics

‘The most successful terrorist organisations are like judo black belts who know how to leverage an opponent’s strength against them’

How can terrorist movements be defeated or at least rendered harmless? Two insightful new works point the way forward.

Audrey Cronin, a Professor of Strategy at the US National War College, has just publised How Terrorism Ends (Princeton), while the former US Treasury counter-terrorism expert Michael Jacobson has suggested ways to increase the number of terrorist dropouts. 

Cronin has analysed government responses to terrorism, from repression via auto-implosion to negotiation. Blanket repression, of the sort Uruguay visited on the Tupamaros, can lead to a 12-year dictatorship. Decapitation of a leadership succeeds only when the terror group is based on a cult of personality such as Shoko Asahara of Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo. Exhibiting them in courts dissipates their spell, as it may do with the human shambles that is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed if and when the US tries him. By contrast, Cronin is sceptical of the long-term value of targeted assassinations, such as those practised by the Israelis, Russians and the US. All of the targeted terrorist groups are sufficiently broad-based and resilient for this tactic to represent little more than an operational setback. These assassinations also risk creating fresh martyrs. Anarchist and Marxist sects are most vulnerable to auto-implosion since the incoherent ideology of the founder generation is hard to transmit to their successors. “I was, I am, I will be again,” declared the remnant German Red Army Faction with characteristic solecism as it dissolved itself in 1998. 

Then there are talks. Almost one-fifth of the 500 terrorist organisations active since 1968 have engaged in negotiations, but only one in ten of the talks can be deemed to have failed. Negotiations are “easiest” when there is something territorial and tangible to talk about, or they involve incorporating a wider constituency into an altered political framework, as we did in Northern Ireland, and Hamid Karzai is trying with the Taliban. Even when talks fail, the process itself can induce less effective splinter groups. The talks themselves can influence wavering bystanders with an alternative narrative to one based on the inevitability of conflict.

Groups employing successful terror tactics usually had the winds of historic change behind them, most obviously in the case of nationalist movements in their fight against colonial rulers. The most successful terrorist organisations are like judo black belts who know how to leverage an opponent’s strength against them. The US was forced into a series of armed responses by 9/11 with unforeseen wider ramifications. Since 9/11, the West and its allies have learned some lessons, the main one being that we are not going to kill or capture every Islamist terrorist. Force is increasingly accompanied by amnesties and buy-outs of low-level jihadis. This has been recommended by US commanders and our own David Miliband, who now tellingly refers to the Taliban as “conservative nationalists”. This approach assumes that such men are solely motivated by local or mercenary considerations. This is not true of Yemeni jihadis — whose hatred of the West and Israel is immense — and it may not be true of those Taliban to whom we are about to direct a lot of Japanese yen. 

Interrupting the spiral of radicalisation is also important. There are a number of “decompression” programmes for young extremists and jihadi drop-outs in Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, schemes which aim to reintegrate young men into family life and normal careers. These schemes may work in rich countries but are unlikely to be efficacious wherever youth unemployment is rampant. 

Raising the jihadi drop-out rate is Jacobson’s main concern in a report published last August by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Since a person of Muslim origin is 54 times more likely to be killed in an al-Qaeda attack than a non-Muslim, we should be emphasising each instance of terrorist “mis-targeting”, such as the incidents in which a 12-year-old Egyptian girl was killed or an entire Jordanian wedding party wiped out, provoking an angry backlash. The dependence of terrorist groups on crime for funding is another form of hypocrisy worth highlighting. The West also needs to puncture romantic myths about the jihadi lifestyle. Even within al-Qaeda there are constant squabbles between its Egyptian “pharaoh” strategists and the Yemeni “dervishes” killed executing their plans. Jacobson thinks we should be publicising exit routes, as the Italians successfully did with the Red Brigade, if only to gain the actionable intelligence which is often lacking. 

None of these tactics will win the struggle, but it is good that people are studying history to show that there can be a positive outcome. 

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