Monday, November 16, 2015

Understanding and Responding to Terrorism

Terrorism is a symptom of persistent social problems. It seeks to express resistance and create change by means of out-sized aggression. It uses “blind criminal violence” to motivate others to include the terrorist in their calculus of choices and behavior – or weaken themselves by reacting poorly.

Terrorism is usually a form of communication that is meant to produce powerful emotional responses. Whatever motivates any given terrorist, we are obliged to notice their act. Certainly, understanding terrorists’ motives is vital to designing an appropriate counter-terrorism response. Terrorism is not a single-issue problem and does not have a single-tactic solution.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to discuss terrorism with James Hippensteel, a professor of history in North Carolina. He startled me with an observation that I remember as: “Terrorism is the last resort of the desperate and impotent to gain recognition of their grievances and prosecute their struggle against a superior and overwhelming power.” Dr. Hippensteel was careful to point out that he was not arguing that the use of terrorism was defensible but that, like smoke from a fire, it should be recognized as an indicator of an underlying unresolved issue.

Initially, I thought this “last desperate resort” observation on terrorism only applied to those who were oppressed and disenfranchised. These might include peoples experiencing genocide, slavery or subjugation. I thought of these as fundamentally sympathetic people, deserving empathy and active intercession. There are certainly many whose lives feel so hopeless that it becomes easier to choose to die than continue to struggle. And, why not die with honor, believing your death has meaning?

Eventually, it occurred to me that terrorism is also used by those who are very isolated and inflexible such as primitive tribes, authoritarian religions, and the politically indoctrinated. I thought of these people as deserving careful nurturing while they are encouraged to learn how to relate to their neighbors with greater maturity.

Later, I recognized that terrorists include some who simply seek to gain some advantage and have no compunctions about hurting others to get what they want. I think of these as sociopaths, deserving contempt and active prosecution to prevent their continuing aggression.

Finally, just when I was self-satisfied with my analysis and deconstruction, I realized that most terrorists fall under more than one of these categories. The world’s problems are complicated and any effort to resolve them requires well-informed, nuanced, manifold, dynamic and flexible responses.

Topics included below:
  • Terrorism Motives and Objectives
  • Counterterrorism Tactics  Methods and Options
  • Strategic Responses to Terrorism
  • Summary

Terrorism Motives and Objectives

Further research finds additional perspectives on why some might choose terrorism. Let me regroup and offer this list:

A good day to die — What can you do when life, every day, is a desperate struggle with no hope of improvement? Even a sane person may become depressed and want to die. Nevertheless, they will prefer to spend themselves to die for a purpose. They will prefer that their death have meaning (if only symbolic) to their family and community. Everything else about deciding to die is subject to the vagaries of belief, circumstance and opportunity.

Dying with honor — One’s belief system may honor martyrs. (Compare John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”) In fact, most religions teach that the faithful will be rewarded in an afterlife. Prospective martyrs also consider the honor and other benefits they expect to accrue to their name and family. The communities of martyrs often generously support their surviving families.

Curiously, sacrificing oneself with honor goes straight to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Martyrdom immediately dissolves all further concern for future survival, safety and relationships. It requires the ultimate in self-mastery and guarantees the esteem of others. Self-sacrificing nihilation for a worthy cause becomes the ultimate expression of self-actualization — especially when no other expression seems available. And, what righteous person does not want to win the approval of their god?

Psychosocial immaturity — Increasing maturity typically improves our capacities to accept delayed gratification and to tolerate change and differences in others. The fundamental explanation for individuals and groups adopting terrorism is the impatience, absolutism and authoritarianism of immature psychosocial development. Psychiatric studies attest that terrorists are not collectively insane or irrational; they are just poorly equipped to behave civilly. They own a hammer and every grievance is a nail.

A first resort? — Some researchers have observed that terrorism in Western Europe “tended to appear from the very beginning of the protest cycle.” Terrorists often neglect to pursue viable political alternatives at the start. They also usually fail to embrace (or overtly boycott or sabotage) non-violent political activism when it becomes available. Totalitarian states (which would seem to be the most oppressive and protest-worthy) are the most effective at suppressing terrorism.

Oddly, however, terrorists often strike at open societies where peaceful non-violent political activism is more likely to get results. The evidence is that terrorists simply have a deeply held preference for violence that is stronger than their desire to actually remedy their expressed grievances.

Religious fanaticism — Throughout recorded history, religion has been a persistent source of violence. Fundamentalist-on-fundamentalist conflict is especially pernicious. When a group believes god is on their side or, especially, that god has blessed (or directed) their violence, they can justify almost any aggression. In fact, religiously oriented and millenarian groups tend to produce the highest levels of casualties; willing to sacrifice their own lives (often with the expectation of a blessed afterlife).

Fundamentalists often believe they act out of moral duty and that their victims deserve death. Their attacks often target symbols of competing religious groups such as missionaries, funerals and houses of worship. Even seemingly minor variations of belief may trigger extreme prejudice. There is little to be done to remedy such behaviors except to encourage the development and embrace of more-developed worldviews.

No possible compromise — Terrorism tends to arise from peoples harboring authoritarian, absolutist, intransigent belief systems that are not open to negotiation or compromise. Their actual political positions are not always extreme, but their chosen means are. They will tolerate (and even stimulate) a protracted deadlock before accepting a partial win with a platform for negotiating further change.

Flexible focus — In order for a terrorist organization to persist, it must be able to fluidly identify new enemies and opportunistic grievances as changes in circumstances, societies or membership resolve old issues. Certain levels of worldview simply require concepts of absolute good and bad (with a defined enemy to resist, fight or even annihilate). In some circumstances, this worldview effectively promotes survival. Too often, it is a vestige of persistent delinquent development.

Strategic indifference — Terrorists often fail to make policy demands before (or even take credit after) an attack. They are squandering opportunities to harness their actions to an objective. Terrorists thus appear to focus on violence disengaged from, and indifferent to, any coercive purpose.

Intramural fratricide — Terrorists also often lose focus on external objectives and redirect their hostility toward related groups with similar policy platforms. This also reflects a focus on competitive violence over tactical purpose. Violent gangs provide the same environment of membership exclusivity, pride, intolerance by their attempts to generate respect through aggression. Cynical observers are left to shrug their shoulders in confusion and suggest, “Let God sort it out.”

Personal importance — We all seek meaning and purpose in our lives; simply surviving is not enough. Acceptance and activity in a group provides a sense of belonging and value – subscribing to the shared story and receiving the embrace of fellow believers. One can be persuaded to do almost anything to avoid being put out of tribal fellowship. Urban gangs are a typical example of greater societal environments limiting personal options.

Conservative membership cohesion — Individuals within conservative groups typically embrace the dogma and ethics of that group. In fact, they tend to do so with the certainty, faith and self-sacrifice of classic tribal true-believers. They see such faithful commitment as a virtue. Such groups tend to collect around strong authoritarian leaders. Compliance to conforming behavior is an implicit factor of their continuing self/group-identity. Their membership (with its requisite compliance) gives their life meaning.

Some terrorist groups continue to be active long after they have achieved their objectives their ostensible purpose has passed. They may adapt new beliefs and goals to retain their group identity. They may even fight against indistinguishable alternate groups having identical goals. Sometimes, their motivation is more about belonging than achieving a specific end-point. The violence gives identity, meaning and a feeling of purpose, regardless of any actual purpose.

Attacking dissimilar groups — The powerful conviction of conservative membership groups easily translates into “we are right and you are wrong.” This attitude may extend to “we are God’s true people and you are agents of Satan who need to die.” This can apply to differences in dogma between seemingly similar sects or large differences between social philosophies. Such animosity between competing groups can apply to race, national origin, sports teams, and much more.

There is no easy cure for such conservative group-identification. Explained elsewhere, breaking free requires a personal realization that one also belongs to a larger, more-diverse group, which transcends into an enlarged concept of “we.” Such an individual’s worldview expands to cope with greater complexity than their previous belief system explained.
This increasing personal tolerance for diversity is achieved with great difficulty. Because psychosocial development produces a discontinuity, each person who advances to this threshold easily becomes an unfit lured-to-sin apostate in the eyes of their former group members.

Attacking outside authority — Secular attacks for political issues often target specific symbols of established governmental or economic power. These targets may include banks, business installations and government offices. These attacks may embarrass or weaken the existing authority.

Destroying facilities may damage an organization directly or provoke it to over-react, expend resources or withdraw. Citizens may fear that their government can’t or won’t act effectively to protect them or their interests. Soldiers may abandon their posts and uniforms.

Hatred of freedom and democracy? — Some have claimed that anti-western terrorists simply “hate our freedom and democracy.” Although this may contain an element of truth, it is a ridiculous oversimplification. Typically, conservatives of all stripes tend to be put off by the liberties and permissiveness tolerated by those who are more liberal. When you believe that God has established fixed standards of morality (but others flaunt that morality and seduce those like you into vile lives of intolerable sinfulness), liberality would, admittedly, be off-putting. Now, add acts perceived as greedy to brutal interventions by a disrespectful and hypocritical international super-power and you’ve got game on.

Retribution — Many terrorists, explaining their actions, point to the misdeeds committed by some entity represented by their targets. Middle-eastern terrorists often talk about economic exploitation, military occupation, or moral corruption by/of foreigners. Timothy McVeigh (the “Oklahoma Bomber”) was offended by the actions of American law enforcement agencies against members of militant religious and political movements.

Domestic actors — Homegrown terrorists have conducted numerous attacks on American soil. Recent violent citizen-activists have had issues with both conservative and liberal causes (including abortion clinics, environmental exploitation, animal rights, white supremacy, Christian identity, civil rights, capitalism, taxation, secession, end-times, and more). One cannot help but be alarmed by the extreme rhetoric and weaponization of some self-styled anti-government militia movement “patriots.”

Foreign sponsorship — Security organizations of some governments encourage, support, and initiate terrorist acts for political advantage. This terrorism is usually intended to destabilize a foreign government. Consider the training manual, Psychological Operations in Guerilla Warfare published by the CIA.

Hide and run — Terrorists typically organize themselves from within weak states that do not have the will or resources to deal with them under civil law. Terrorists usually do not act as native fighters against a foreign army. Instead, like the worst kind of criminals, they exempt themselves from being subject to community standards of law, dignity, rights and responsibilities. Terrorists must hide because they know what they do is universally wrong.

Pure hatefulness — Some violence and terrorism is committed for no particular reason beyond personal animosity, cultural hatred, or just perverse gratification. This can include initiation rituals, team hazing and bigotry.

Social mimicry — Some violence and terrorism is committed to gain the approval of peers or desired membership groups. Many independent acts of terror are modeled after the violence of popularized news, movie or gaming figures.

Attacking moral turpitude — Secular attacks for social issues often target specific symbols of what are considered by some to be moral corruption such as hotels, theaters, clubs and abortion clinics.

Coordination for impact — Attacks for political and religious issues are often targeted for holidays or commemorations in order to increase their impact. The terrorists increase fear by demonstrating their ability to attack at will or to coordinate multiple attacks. The attack is made more memorable by happening on a day (or in a place) that holds special meaning.

Opportunistic monetary gain — Terrorism may include discreet acts of extortion, kidnapping, or hijacking for ransom. Groups may steal money, supplies or equipment to sustain or arm their operations.

Economic advantage — This is in the sense of getting “the most bang for your buck” (pun intended). That is, terrorists are political utility maximizers; they expect that their economic and/or political gain (less their losses) is greater than what they can achieve with any other strategy.

Time compression — Terrorism gets immediate attention while social protests and diplomacy may require the persistent commitment from multiple generations to produced desired changes.

Force expansion — Terrorism allows fewer individuals to get attention where other groups may lack the organization, resources or courage to act together.

Message amplification — It is not uncommon for small groups to experience trouble having their grievances heard. This is especially the case when those in power feel that those grievances are illegitimate (or disadvantageous). Because terror events are dramatic (and relatively uncommon), they easily become media events, which amplifies the desired publicity.

Repeat what works — Anyone, in any endeavor, will be inclined to repeat what works. If targets and victims do not work very hard to make it difficult for terrorists to succeed, acts of terrorism will proliferate rapidly. This relates to the controversy about whether or not to negotiate with or pay ransom to terrorists.

Ability to adapt and change — People are endlessly creative. When a counter is devised for one tactic, terrorists will invent another. This type of direct oppositional confrontation will inherently escalate until one party is crushed. Even then, if the underlying issue is unresolved, a new conflict will eventually reignite.

Failure to adapt and change — Curiously, some terrorist groups have declined to “accept success” by participating in non-violent political alternatives to achieve their stated goals. It is also common for a group to not “accept failure” when it becomes obvious that what they are doing is not working. It seems the meaning in their lives is preserved better by conserving their identity than by accepting victory or defeat for their cause.

Counterterrorism Tactics – Methods and Options

Counterterrorism efforts try to recognize the motives, tactics and organization of terrorists and then work to undermine the perceived advantages or ease of committing terrorist acts.

Deterrence — Deterrence is as much a part of law enforcement as crime investigation and prosecution. Conventional law enforcement and intelligence services may monitor, investigate, infiltrate and disrupt terrorist organizations. Governments often organize special dedicated counter-terrorism efforts.

Enforcement — When illegal violence occurs, governmental rule of law may respond, investigate, and prosecute those responsible. Stable governments are usually organized to deal with a wide range of crimes ranging from public nuisances to organized crime.

Extra-judicial actions — Because terrorists may operate globally and outside the law, many governments feel compelled to respond with covert and preemptive actions against them. This response may include unilateral strikes and operations inside foreign territories.

Cut their heads off quietly — Terrorism springs from a conservative and authoritarian worldview composed mostly of followers and a few malignant leaders. Quietly “disappearing” these leaders creates disruption and weakness in their organizations. This is opposed to the tactic of noisily martyring these leaders, which recruits more followers. Of course, new leaders will appear, but the terrorist organizations are weakened in the near-term.

Vigilantism — Where governments lack the resolve or resources to prevent terrorism, citizens may become vigilantes – forming their own guard or militia groups. This represents a seriously degenerative backlash. Citizens should never have to feel compelled to come to the point of taking law into their own hands. On the other hand, vigilantism satisfies the same personal and social needs that tend to produce terrorism. It should not be surprising to see these twin heads growing together from the same soil.

Deny access to weapons — Those who act from parochial ignorance and intolerance often lack societal restraint. The lives of their enemies hold too little value and the value of their own cause may be inflated — such as by perceptions of divine mandate. They may be willing to use weapons that produce indiscriminate harm wildly out of proportion to their grievance. They should be denied access to such destructive technology. Such weapons of mass destruction should be generally deprecated in any case. Increasingly, weapons that can be precisely and selectively targeted are to be preferred.

Economic ineffectiveness — When negotiators refuse to offer concessions and media refuses to publicize terrorist acts, the purpose and advantage side of the equation of terror disappears.

Economic costs — Terrorism becomes less practical when it brings down economic sanctions or targeted lethal attacks on the heads of terrorist organizations and those associated with them. Terrorism can be analyzed in economic terms. Any organization that finds it too difficult to retain supporters will weaken or fail. This is as true for a terrorist group as it is for a new restaurant with bad food in a poor location.

Strategic Responses to Terrorism

Economic interdependence — Groups that trade fairly and liberally with each other have a built-in disincentive to damage each other.

Economic access and justice — When people finally resolve injustices (such as achieving dignity and economic and social parity in their societies) their cause for complaint may rapidly dissipate. Frankly, this is a powerful argument for trade (and other) treaties that serve to reduce the gaps between privileged elite classes and the intractably disadvantaged. [Sentiments like this are often taken to promote political philosophies that posit equality of outcomes. I mean nothing of the kind. I mean to promote greater justice in access to opportunity.]

Social relationships — For millennia, leaders have negotiated marriage relations for the sake of peace. It’s harder to attack each other when you might hurt members of your own family. Leaders have also deliberately dispersed conquered peoples throughout their existing domains. They expect that once people learn to tolerate (and even adopt) elements of each other’s recipes, holidays, languages, and religions, this assimilation will reduce hostility.

Defuse regional, racial and religious bigotry — As a corollary, isolation promotes bigotry, suspicion, and hate. Groups that only communicate within their own “echo chamber” may learn to believe the most extreme falsehoods. Neighbors may even be perceived as less-than-human or too-sinful-to-live. Exposure to diversity gradually produces acceptance of diversity. This is a good thing, overall, but it really bothers existing bigots.

Take national action — Terrorism is a problem that cannot be adequately addressed at the individual, community or state levels. Even national governments are challenged to respond adequately. Terrorism will find us where we are and will wait for us where we go. Both Libertarian isolationism and Tea Party privatization will damage America’s necessary federal responses.

Collaborate with other nations — Countries that share stable frameworks for civil society and the rule of law often cooperate successfully to discourage the organization of terrorist networks and prevent acts of terrorism. It is desirable to respond to terrorism with conventional law enforcement systems whenever possible.

International interventions — Some popular fiction supposes the action of a secretive international counter-terrorism response force. This is either an entertaining fabrication, a realistic option, or a covert reality. Take your pick.

International justice — Most terrorism is targeted against religious and/or social issues instead of specific countries. It has been suggested that an international court should be established to authorize action and render justice within the scope of this international problem. Coordinated international pressure could also be organized to dissuade countries that willingly harbor terrorist organizations.

Just kill them — The less-sophisticated your outlook, the more attractive you will find the option to simply annihilate the opposition… or even the potential opposition. The “Bush Doctrine” of unilateral preemptive self-defense against entire nations demonstrated a profound lack of subtly. President Obama’s use of covert operations and targeted drone attacks at least attempts to dramatically limit the carnage.

Killing people without the benefit of a trial has been an accepted part of war for all of recorded history. However, it creates enduring resentments and is best used sparingly. Nonetheless, when others demonstrate that they are out to indiscriminately kill us (and those we are responsible for), it may be necessary, as a provisional tactic, to take the fight to them. Unfortunately, this is precisely the argument made and the motivation claimed by many terrorists.

I feel it is wrong to call terrorism “modern warfare.” For one thing, the term “war” should be reserved for military conflicts conducted between nation states. Historically, many wars were winner-take-all affairs conducted expressly to plunder land and other resources. More-recently, more-limited wars have been waged for more-limited objectives of security, control and economic advantage. Increasingly, national combatants are expected to target military objectives while trying to exempt civilians. On the other hand, terrorists deliberately and explicitly target civilians. By contemporary standards, this is a very bad thing.

Attrition — Frankly, violence against citizens rarely achieves any viable purpose. It doesn’t work. This fact doesn’t seem to matter to existing groups who struggle to remain active – despite success or failure. However, with persistent counter-terrorism work, fundamental remediation of grievances (and without a history of success), the attraction to terrorism should eventually run out of steam.

Look to the future — Killing extremists who are willing to use short-term and desperate tactics, is, itself, a short-term and desperate tactic. Cultivating societal justice and access to opportunity will promote mutual tolerance and trust – a necessary and much-more-promising long-term strategy.

Unfortunately, climate change is already producing the same kind of regional distress that gives birth to new terrorism. Terrorism’s short-term reaction to local grievances may be expected to out-run long-term global strategies to equalize opportunities for quality of life.

This difference in strategic vs. tactical time horizons elevates the urgency of global commitment to dramatically reduce the sources of climate change and create effective interventions to support those being harmed. We must anticipate the needs of all manner of refugees.

Look for the positive — The management technique of “Appreciative Inquiry” seeks to supplement the usual effort to reign-in out-of-parameter situations with a focus on discovering and reinforcing desirable behaviors, practices, and interventions. Finding what is good in other people improves our own attitudes while allowing us to express our appreciation and gratitude to others. This can become a self-reinforcing positive cycle.

Wait it out — Terrorists claim that they are trying to achieve specific policy objectives. History shows that acts of terror against civilians reliably fail to achieve their stated political ends. In fact, the public opinion and political consequences of using terrorism are usually negative. Citizens and governments typically become less willing to bargain with (or grant concessions to) terrorists.

Terrorism, as a strategy, is less than a failure; it is often counterproductive and thus irrational. About the only desirable result, from a terrorist’s point of view, is that feelings of insecurity provoke liberal populations to elect conservative hardline governments. Unfortunately, such repression by authoritarian governments contributes to further grievances, which produce a self-reinforcing downward spiral that invites the growth of groups organized for reactive violence.

Change the paradigm — The only effective strategic response to terrorism is to resolve the underlying issues. Obviously if the problems were easy to remediate, they would have already been solved. Nonetheless, as long as the core conflicts persist, no tactic will succeed; defiance will continue to erupt.

Terrorism is not rational; it is a primitive emotional response. It springs from the persistent inability of a society to satisfy the survival, emotional, and spiritual needs of its members. It is a natural and normal anger response to chronic stress and misery with feelings of impotence. It springs from the extreme end of the same ubiquitous fountain as crying or complaining.

Unlike some well-organized popular revolutions and guerrilla campaigns, terrorism does not work and it doesn’t seem to matter. Terrorism will never be eradicated; it can only be moderated and mitigated. It resembles an independent activity more than a coordinated project.

Promote spirituality — The highest, most-honored, spiritually-realized among all religions tend to retire from confrontation and emphasize individual harmony and loving self-sacrifice. Such spirituality promotes awareness, self-control, contentment, compassion, gratitude, tolerance, patience, peaceable relationships, universal brotherhood, and nurturing love.

Immature psychosocial development insists on grasping after short-term gratification and fear of (and pride in) differences which produce escalating conflict between groups. Maturity develops strategic patience and tolerance that springs from a sense of oneness with others. The more-broadly spiritual maturity can be practiced and promoted, the more peaceable our world will become.

Wisdom — No one can expect to succeed reliably without cultivating wisdom. In order to solve any problem, it is necessary to understand what is going on. The understanding and solution to any problem must exceed the complexity of the problem; this is especially challenging as our world rapidly becomes more inter-connected and complicated.

Sincere interest leads to knowledge of situations, relationships, constraints, beliefs and meanings. This, in turn, permits an informed response. Persistent effort allows for experience with success, which produces understanding. Persistent success is the hallmark of wisdom.

Solving relationship problems becomes especially difficult when some participants lack the 1) maturity and wisdom to recognize and understand the underlying issues and relationships and 2) the capacity to accept potential solutions.


Terrorism is a predictable social response produced by the conjugation of:
  • ·         an individual’s and/or community’s struggle to find meaning in life. This struggle is often related to frustration with limits imposed by circumstances and society.
  • ·         a conservative worldview that seeks the acceptance, approval, certainty, and control of group membership.
  • ·         an identified grievance with a clearly-defined enemy to blame.
  • ·         malign authoritarian leadership.

The primary solutions to terrorism include:
  • ·         making the world a better place so that it becomes easier for all people to lead productive and satisfying lives within communities of meaning.
  • ·         education, communication, and socialization that promotes expedited progress through stages of psychosocial development.
  • ·         undermining or eliminating the influence of individual authoritarian leaders who promote indiscriminate violence.

Terrorists should care that what they do is not very nice and makes it more difficult for people to like them and invite them over to play table games.

Terrorism is dishonorable and those thugs who commit it forfeit their dignity and any respect they might have earned for their cause.

Like stealing in the market, violence is easier than the alternative; it is the choice of those who are too lazy, impatient or cowardly to work at cultivating change in their own hearts, communities and societies. Terrorists squander the moral authority to make their case in the courts of law and public opinion.

David Satterlee