Monday, October 15, 2012

The Problem of Prevention:

Five Points Towards Defense Against Terrorism

Submitted 14 December 2011
to Professor David Schmitt
POLS7361 – US National Security Policy
Northeastern University
Boston, Massachusetts


i. Introduction
ii. Five Points
1. Depth in understanding, honesty in rhetoric
2. No one agency, no one approach
3. Diversity in training, versatility in response
4. Cure the disease, not just the symptoms
5. Humility and wisdom, in policy and politics


In this paper, I explicitly refer mainly to the United States in my analysis, and not a larger group, such as ‘Western countries,’ ‘democracies,’ or ‘NATO,’ because I believe that the steps I outline are easily exportable to non-American or trans-national situations – and that solving the United States’ problems with terrorism will require steps and actions that will decrease the global level of terrorism, including in allied countries. Put another way, there is little remarkably different about the particular targets of the method of terrorism that I am discussing here, so my writing is focused on the United States, both as my own country and as the focus of this course. Further, the current enemy in this conflict – the radical extremism of al-Qaeda and similar organizations – articulate their motivation as being anti American cultural and imperial/hegemonic influence, so I believe it safe to describe the United States as the prime target as well as the main agent to resolve this conflict.

This paper borrows in form from the work of Russell Howard in Terrorism and Counterterrorism, who gives his own five step recommendation for ending the 'campaign against terrorists'. Perhaps the most important aspect of his article is the discussion of why he makes a point to not use the phrase 'war on terrorism' in his writing, describing it instead as a ‘campaign against terrorists.' As he says, “the U.S. and its allies are not at war with the means or tactic [of terrorism], but with those seeking those political ends—who happen to be terrorists.”

In his view, our conflict with al-Qaeda and its off-shoot organizations will eventually come to end in their defeat, and it seems that he views that on the end of the road. I would go further, though, and make the point that the past decade has seen a proof-of-concept of the effectiveness of terrorism as method in the 21st century (which I will talk about more in Point 1, below); the success with which al-Qaeda has met in their efforts could very easily inspire others to utilize similar methods for vastly different political ends, and we should therefore not fool ourselves into thinking that defeating al-Qaeda will be the end of having to worry about national security against terrorism.

But, on balance, I side with him against the terminology that has come to describe the conflict in which we are currently engaged, and, mirroring his work, I will begin my recommendations with a discussion of rhetoric.

Five Points

1.) Depth in understanding, honesty in rhetoric

We must understand that we cannot and must not try to fight 'terrorism,' as it is merely a method, a tool that is centuries old and separate from those who utilize it. To fight 'terrorism' is to fight a symptom rather than a cause, and it falls far short of addressing the reality of the situation.

This is not to say that we should not devote study to the methods of terrorism – to the contrary, they are a crucial aspect of the problem. In particular, understanding that there has been a recent shift in these methods is prerequisite for combating them. As has always been the case, the core strategic aim behind the deployment of terrorism is to undermine the consent that drives the legitimacy of its enemy, the nation-state. It accomplishes this through disruption, destruction, and the threat of both, and has proven highly effective in these efforts. Philip Bobbitt wrote a book in 2009 entitled Terror and Consent, which is a cogent and insightful articulation of this idea to accompany our in-class discussions and the collected works in Terrorism and Counterterrorism, the sum of which underlay this Point.

Contemporary terror takes its strategies and methodologies from and is intertwined with the market, and distances itself from the nation-state. According to Bobbitt, it “neither relies on the support of sovereign states nor is constrained by the limits on violence that state sponsors have observed themselves or placed on their proxies,” and, because of this, “it is horrifyingly more violent. Its undiscriminating violence against civilians, however, is not indiscriminate; it is calculated and carefully prepared.”

This new market-state terror, which is “transnational, borderless, and prosecuted by virtual states (like al Qaeda) or by non-state actors (like the Colombian drug cartels) sheltering in weak states,” is distinct in a few ways from classical, nation-state terrorism:
  1. It is more lethal.
  2. It is better financed.
  3. It can be outsourced to smaller, local groups.
  4. It is less explicitly and formally hierarchical.
  5. It is competent at utilizing modern technology to avoid suppression.
  6. It is willing and able to acquire WMD, and to make use of them.
  7. It is theatrical, producing spectacular imagery for worldwide digestion via media networks.
  8. It is principally directed against leading market states (the U.S. and the E.U.)
  9. It is a technique as well as an end in itself.
In sum, these differences amount to a paradigm shift in the parameters and methodologies of terror. This new form of terror, however, does not exist in isolation. Rather, from the perspective of the states that it targets, including the United States, market-state terror is understood as being one part of three separate tracks, all of which require defense through preemption, prevention, and mitigation of effect – against attacks by the global networks of market-state terrorism, against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and against “natural catastrophes and nonnatural assaults that result in gross diminutions of humane conditions, including human rights.”

This tripartite matrix of risks, emphasized by Bobbitt as well as Snow (in his concluding discussion on extending the definition of security), encompasses an astounding range of responsibilities and threats, which require a flexible and agile infrastructure of response; this will be discussed more in Point 4. For now, though, its consideration of terrorism deserves more focus. Most notably, in its failure to remember or point out the pitfalls of focusing exclusively on terrorism as method, at the expense of its enactors, we are compelled to do so ourselves.

We must take the utmost care to distinguish between and pay equal attention to the methods of terror and those who utilize them. When we define our conflict as against the weapons of our enemies, rather than our enemies themselves, we make ourselves blind to wide swathes of why and how we and they are fighting. Our enemies become vague and nebulous, sterilized of the dirty, complicated morass of their motivations and grievances without regard to legitimacy or relevance. In short, we create a category of ‘Terrorist’ that is stripped of all humanity and comprehensibility, and is instead simply the Other, an Enemy, not worthy of a cause for his action.

Correcting this, and dealing with the conflict with a full and honest understanding as has begun to be pursued above, is only the first step; just as importantly, this understanding must be disseminated to the American public writ large, and demonstrated to the world beyond our borders, through a reflection and reevaluation of the rhetoric that we use when talking about this conflict. To adapt Howard's simple and effective tone, if you aren't going to commit to fighting a war, stop calling it a war. To do so is counterproductive as well as pointless and confusing. The United States has a very particular set of expectations and tolerances when the category ‘war’ is invoked (as I discussed in my midterm paper), and the continual disconnect between those expectations and the realities of this conflict jarringly make obvious the fact that this does not fit within that designation.

The United States is currently engaged in a staggeringly complex effort to maintain and improve the apparatuses of national security against the machinations of an emergent threat determined to acquire weapons of massive destructive and disruptive ability for use against the United States and its citizens, while we simultaneously attempt to aggressively root out this threat and destroy it. This does not translate well into a sound bite, and has not captured the attention of the American public in the same way as the term ‘global war on terrorism’ did in the months following 9-11, but it is crucial that we find a way to transform our national dialogue about terrorism into something more closely resembling this understanding. As it stands, our rhetoric belies a headstrong and naïve attitude towards our task, which does us no favors in our efforts, or in the pursuit of help from others.

The necessary re-conceptualization of our approach to talking about how we are fighting this conflict must be partnered with a reconsideration of how we approach actually prosecuting it. This will carry with it a necessary follow-up question: if not war, what are we doing?

2.) No one agency, no one approach

This question is so complicated in part because this conflict cannot be reduced to any of the templates for understanding and responding to threat that the United States possesses today. The US Army can no more fight this conflict on its own than can the CIA or the NYPD. For that matter, the US can no more fight this conflict on its own than can the UN or INTERPOL.

The novel complexity of non-state-centric terror does not map well onto the conventional state v. state model that the United States, and most of the Western world, maintains from the 20th century legacy of war-making. Continuing to fight with a mechanized, hierarchical, fundamentally symmetrical military against a non-hierarchical, networked collection of individuals aiming to maximize asymmetry through subversion of rules and expectations will prove as foolish as marching in ordered regiments became almost a century ago. The existence and effectiveness of al-Qaeda, and the proofs-of-concept of their methods from the last decade – in New York, London, Madrid, Baghdad – mark a sea change in the techniques of warfare, in the company of the machine gun and atomic bomb, and it will do nothing but harm to continue to conceptualize this conflict solely from within a 20th century Western frame.

Russell Howard confronts this issue through the lens of the National Security Act of 1947, which he convincingly argues is an outdated approach to the organization and doctrine of the mechanisms of American national security. From this legislative perspective, the government has failed to update the toolset with which the country can enact its national security goals, an oversight that is costing us in blood and treasure while we continue to attempt to fight a new threat with old techniques.

To replace this approach, we must synthesize the many varied approaches to threat response that we have developed: the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the US military, local and state police forces, the Department of State, and early attempts at this effort, such as the Department of Homeland Security, each have their own particular strengths and weaknesses to bring to the fight, and the thoughtful integration of these into a cohesive interacting force will be necessary in honing our ability to combat our enemies and mitigate the effects of their efforts on our citizens and the world.

As argued in Point 1, an important aspect of this effort will be the re-aligning of the national rhetoric to match our understanding of the situation. Here, we must stop ourselves from talking about this conflict in terms of ‘military solutions’ or ‘criminal solutions,’ as if the problem were as simple as a state’s armed forces or an international band of criminals, to be confronted with the appropriate deployment of the proper existing mechanisms of state. These categorical terms are as insufficient as the agencies and approaches to which they refer. In their place, we must construct a contemporary rhetoric that does not use decades-old models of understanding threat as its base; we must overcome the natural inclination towards “fighting the last war” and instead engage in the risky and necessary business of anticipating what will come next.

In addition to all of the above, we must put ourselves in the frame of mind to expect that attacks will occur (and that that means casualties), and avoid giving absolute primacy to loss of life as a measure of success and failure in this conflict. The hard, tragic truth is that there is no way to prevent all attacks; there are simply too many ports, too many power stations and water purification plants, too many black-market weapons – too many variables – for us to stop terrorism entirely in a connected, complex world. Richard Betts addresses the complexity and variety of American infrastructure in his essay in Terrorism and Counterterrorism, “The Soft Underbelly of American Primacy,” within the context of a consideration of the dual-edge of American global primacy that forms an important base of thought for Points 4 and 5 in this paper.

Even if we cease conceiving of this conflict in strictly categorical terms, create an outstanding and efficient method of response to it, and do the work of anticipation, we cannot absolutely predict or prevent the prosecution of terrorism within and beyond our borders. Attempting to do so is a waste of time and resources better put towards a non-futile task – for instance, working to counteract the grievances used to justify terrorism (more on this later).

So, how do we respond to a nebulous and emergent enemy against whose attacks we cannot always defend?

3.) Diversity in training, versatility in response

Put simply, we work as hard as we can to minimize his effect. We must work from a frame of mind that understands that 100% success is impossible; we cannot preempt all attacks. What can be done is mitigation of risk and effect, which encompasses all phases of an event. Any crisis must be understood both from the perspective of its agent, the attacker, and its target, the defender: for the former, the ideal chain of events proceeds from conception to execution to high after-effect; for the latter, it consists of success in anticipation and success in prevention leading to low after-effect.

As I have said, 100% success in anticipation and prevention is unachievable, so in following this procedure, we must prepare for dealing with the aftermath phase even as we attempt to minimize its actualization. To do so, we must train all arms of the state’s authority – the military, state and local police, the government – to be able to react competently and quickly to wide-ranging crises as well as to work to prevent as many as possible. But this awareness must extend to the civilian body as well, if we wish to maximize the chances of prevention when preemption fails, and minimize after-effects.

Simply put, we need to hold ourselves to an incredibly high standard of competence. Our nation's infrastructures need to have ready-to-deploy playbooks against all reasonably anticipated crises, but beyond this, we must be able to trust that those in the positions to respond are equipped with the tools to react to the unexpected effectively. In the language of the above procedure, we must excel both in preemption and in prevention, and in minimizing the after-effects of anything that slips through the defenses despite our efforts.

The relevance of Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow’s Essence of Decision to this discussion may not be immediately apparent, given that its subject falls decidedly into the classic state v. state model rather than this new counterterrorism model. However, as part of their analysis of the Cuban missile crisis, they delve into the specifics of how governments make decisions, and this is absolutely crucial to understand in attempting to figure out how to respond to these new threats.

The three complementary models that they posit (the model of the rational actor, of organizational behavior, and of governmental politics) constitute an encompassing illustration of how to understand the structures that influence the decisions of the American government and the people within it. Most relevant here is the central interplay between the rational actor model and the latter two, which resides in the differing assumptions that they make regarding the relationship between a given position and the person filling it.

First, the rational actor method presumes an abstract position-person relationship, wherein the two are not particularly distinguishable, because the person will act in line with a predictable, most-rational decision-making model. Of course, we understand that though this is in some ways ideal, it is not always the case. The latter two models provide the missing piece of the puzzle, explaining decisions that would be seen as inexplicable by the rational actor model as being the result of interaction between the various parts of the government, as well as the result of the character of the people who fill given positions.

Widening our lens in this way allows us to see that prediction and anticipation will only be successful insofar as the people filling the relevant positions are competent and dedicated to their jobs, and that in crafting a national strategy for counterterrorism, we must be mindful of the complexity of how decisions are made and enacted within the massive bureaucracy of the US government.

4.) Cure the disease, not just the symptoms

Each of the points thus far has related to the mitigation of the effects of terrorism, rather than addressing its roots; that is to say, they have been related to treating the symptoms rather than the cause. There is no short-term, preventative prescription for ‘curing’ terrorism, as discussed in Point 1. Rather, as we focus in the short-term on the reduction of factors leading to the efficiency of terrorism as method, we must focus in the long-term on the redress of grievances against the United States that are used as justification by those who turn to terrorism, and on doing good in the world beyond the direct pursuit of our national interests. In fact, the two may not even be that far apart in this case.

A good number of our readings address this idea – most notably, Howard’s concluding piece in Terrorism and Counterterrorism, mentioned above, and Snow’s work in the later chapters of National Security for a New Era. Howard argues convincingly and elegantly that our enemy is the distorted ideology of ‘al-Qaeda and its ilk,’ and that the best weapons to combat that non-hierarchical religious extremism are (matching with each descriptor) networks as opposed to traditional hierarchies, moderate Islam, and education.

There is thus a major element of patience required; as we reassess and realign where we apply our efforts in the world towards focusing on strictly defined vital national interests and (preferably internationally cooperative) humanitarian work, attacks against us with either slow or continue unabated – and both are good for us, in their own ways. If attacks continue unabated, groups such as al-Qaeda will struggle to justify their actions morally, strategically, and visually – blowing up an aid center doesn’t win points with anyone, and least of all the people who you claim to be helping by resisting the Americans. This is the definition of counter-productive terrorism (as discussed in class and in Simon and Martini’s “Denying Al-Qaeda Its Popular Support” in Terrorism and Counterterrorism), and it will have the net effect of strengthening America’s position against these groups.

5.) Humility and wisdom, in policy and politics

This effort will never succeed, though, it we continue to be as aggressive and shortsighted in our interactions with the rest of the world as we have been recently. The attitude and doctrine of preemptive attack has caused tragic and immeasurable harm, especially in Iraq, over the past decade, but it is merely symptomatic of a larger ignorance in the United States – one that threatens to undermine any efforts towards counterterrorism in our national strategy.

Snow’s major contribution is the distinction between anti- and counter-terrorism, which he defines as being, respectively, the building up of defenses for preemption/prevention of attacks and the minimization of their after-effects, and offensive operations against perpetrators of past and future attacks. I discussed these two tracks in Point 3, but I mention Snow here because he discusses these within the context of peacekeeping/nation-building operations, placing counterterrorism and those operations in the same category. These operations, emblematized by recent efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, can have a substantial effect on our anti- and counter-terrorism, and must not be entered into lightly or naively. The processes outlined by Howard get their power from steady pressure, which takes time and consistency to work, but foolish endeavors such as the invasion of Iraq can take a fraction of that time to undermine years of work towards good ends. Put quite bluntly, we cannot those mistakes.

A version of this argument is advanced by John Stoessinger in the closing chapters of his Why Nations Go to War – specifically, in the conclusion of his chapter on America’s 21st century interactions with the Muslim world, and his writing regarding learning from history in the tenth chapter. Above all else, he calls for restraint, wisdom, and careful consideration in American decision-making, especially when related to war-making and national security, in order to avoid taking the turn towards empire at the fateful crossroads at which he argues the United States stands today.

My contribution, such as it is, is to plead for humility, wisdom, and restraint in American foreign policy, within the context of anti- and counter-terrorism as well as for their own sake. The method of terrorism is likely not going to abate any time soon, and it certainly will outlast the specific groups that use it to enact their political ends against a United States (or any other country) that holds primacy of force and power in the world. In the simplest terms, the most effective thing we can do to combat this trend, protect our citizens and others, and encourage stability and prosperity in the world is to do our very best to stop being a country that people believe needs to be resisted, attacked, and reduced. There is no way to know for sure whether or not this will work, but there is hardly a better place than this for the phrase “there’s no harm in trying.” _____________________________________________________

Appendix: References and Related Reading

A Note on Citation: Professor Schmitt preferred in-line references, as I have used above, over formal citations and a bibliography; I'm not sure why, but I think it had something to do with trying to encourage students to produce work that was mostly theirs, rather than merely a report on that of other people. In any case, I believe I've done a good job of delineating when in my writing I am referencing someone else's work. Obviously, let me know if I'm not; the last thing I want to do is plagiarize.

Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2nd ed. (New York: Longman, 1999).
Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century. (New York: Anchor Books/Random House, 2009).
Russell Howard and Reid Sawyer, eds. Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Understanding the New Security Environment 3rd ed. (Guilford, CT: McGraw-Hill, 2011).
Donald M. Snow, National Security for a New Era 4th ed.(New York: Pearson, 2008).
John G. Stoessinger, Why Nations Go to War 11th ed. (New York: St. Martins, 2011).