Friday, March 31, 2006

Counter-terrorism for Dummies

Part 1

Before launching into this first of two posts, I'm going to reveal something about myself. Regular readers will know that I'm concerned about the suffering endured by populations in other countries due to British foreign policies. It is, I believe, morally objectionable to intentionally conduct the "war" on terror in the country of a people who had basically nothing to do with it until we came knocking. Some would say that's a left-wing view. I'd argue that it's simply the only morally acceptable view to take if we are to claim to be civilised.

But there's another aspect to my objections to current policies (this is the revealing bit). I'm very concerned about the effects British foreign policies are having on my country and the effects they'll have on myself and my family in the years to come. Good old self-interest, in other words. For the good of humanity and for the good of me, I desperately want the UK to adopt practical, workable and effective policies to deal with Islamic Wahabbi terrorism. I don't see any sign of it happening though. So I rant. Like this.

Counter-terrorism is always a complex, multi-faceted thing and the exact policies depend on the circumstances in each situation. There are, however, a few basic points which hold pretty much in every case.

Critics of the current policies of the UK and US governments are often labelled "soft" on terrorism. There's obviously an element of politicking in that accusation but as I've read various opinions over the last few years, I've come to realise that many of those making these charges do genuinely appear to believe them. This, I think, is based on a misunderstanding of the difference between terrorism (or indeed insurgency) and conventional warfare.

The point is not that critics of the current approach object to tough action against terrorists. The point is that critics object to counter-productive actions which are only going to make the problem worse*. Tough actions are necessary when fighting terrorism. There's no getting away from that fact. But, and this is a huge but (we're talking J'Lo sized here), you must never take tough action against the wrong target.

One of the key elements of terrorist doctrine is the need to provoke harsh indiscriminate responses from "the enemy". Ideally, this indescriminate reaction will be directed against the population in which the terrorists operate and recruit. This strategy, if succesful, will provide the terrorists with more and more new recruits as people are alienated by the unjust actions of those they too increasingly come to see as "the enemy". This can, in the ideal world of the terrorist, create a vicious circle in which increased recruitment leads to increased attacks leads to harsh responses leads to increased recruitment... In the long term, they're looking to achieve a critical mass of support which will then empower them towards their ulimate goal.

So if you attack the wrong bloody country, you've made an error so large, it's impossible to over-state.

The bigger picture version goes something like this. When fighting terrorism, the essential first step, always, is to understand what it is that the terrorists want you to do. Step two, unsurprisingly, is to make sure you don't do it. It's not brain surgery and yet any number of people including, unfortunately, those making our policies, clearly do not get it. The terrorists want you to be "tough". They want you to take the gloves off. They want you to change the rules of the game. It is at the very heart of their strategy.

Over to Global Guerrillas** for words from bin Laden on this subject (from November 2004).
"All that we have mentioned has made it easy for us to provoke and bait this administration." [NOTE: See Superpower Baiting for more on this topic.]

"All that we have to do is to send two Mujahideen to the furthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies. This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the Mujahideen, bled Russia for ten years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat."
Worth reading both linked posts. Bin Laden, as I've said before, wanted the US to invade Afghanistan. For bin Laden's followers, you see, things are not going too badly. (Not perfect either though - they had expected that the US reaction to the attacks on New York and the Pentagon would generate a wider response among Muslims generally and in the Middle East in particular.) It should be clear, by the way, that they will not normally publically express their desire to provoke the US into attacking Muslims for obvious reasons.

I have to say again that I personally doubt whether bin Laden expected to be chased out of Afghanistan quite as easily as he was but this setback, while disrupting al Qaida's network and its command and control functions, has had almost no effect on the overal strategy.

The attacks of September 11th were designed specifically in order to provoke a certain kind of response. Bush and Blair, easily baited, delivered pretty much exactly what bin Laden wanted of them.

Part two coming up shortly. In the meantime, here's something to think about (via).
Whitehall officials have told the BBC they are now facing an unprecedented number of terrorist plots in Britain.

They say the threat of home-grown terrorism has increased substantially since the Iraq invasion of 2003, and that 50% of recent disrupted plots are home-grown, involving British nationals living in Britain.
Next time Blair tries to deny the obvious with some logic mashing nonsense about how it can't be getting worse because it was already there, can we hear the words "unprecedented" and "increased substantially" from the questioner please?

* As the above concentrates practical issues, I've put this down here. There are, I believe, actions which must never be practiced by a democratic government for reasons of morality. Torture, for example. Can't be practiced, can't be condoned, can't be outsourced, and can't be willfully ignored. There are, in the end, certain fundamental principles which must be maintained. To abandon them is to abandon the very thing we're defending. If you advocate torture to deal with this, you've already run up the white flag of surrender and cowardice. (And it's also counter-productive as it make you look like a hypocrite in the eyes of the potential recruit.)

** Thanks to Steven in the comments to a previous post for pointing out Global Guerrillas. Much appreciated.

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