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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Complex Nature of Countering Terrorism: Prevention

In my previous post ("On the Complex Nature of Countering Terrorism"), I argued that unlike the simplistic solutions being offered by current presidential candidates (e.g., banning all Muslims from entering the United States), we need to recognize that counter terrorism is a complex problem requiring a multipronged approach. In particular, I argued that we need to adopt (1) measures that lower the probability that groups will radicalize, (2) methods that help detect those that have already radicalized, and (3) strategies that can disrupt groups that have already carried out attacks or are planning to.

In this follow-up post, the first of three, I take up the first item, that is, adopting measures that lower the probability that groups will radicalize. As I have argued elsewhere ("Social Networks and Religious Violence") internally dense religious groups that maintain few ties to the wider society are more likely to embrace extreme views and engage in violent behavior than are those that are not. Thus, we need to adopt policies the keep groups from withdrawing from the wider society.

Perhaps, the most important thing is to maintain ties with groups that are in danger of radicalizing. Such an approach was taken by the State of Oregon in its dealings with the Rajneeshpuram, an intentional community that settled in central Oregon in the 1980s. Although the community possessed a large cache of semi-automatic and biological weapons, it never acted on its potential for large-scale violence largely because the State continued to maintain ties with the group (Marian Goldman 2011). A similar approach was adopted with Chen Tao, a Taiwanese group that settled near Dallas in the Summer of 1997 in anticipation of God’s arrival the following March. “Police and popular media in Garland, Texas, developed ongoing dialogue with Chen Tao representatives that facilitated the group’s calm departure after their prophecy failed. Members of these groups… avoided violence because they cultivated external social networks and diminished their social isolation” (Goldman 2011: 313).

Of course, sometimes groups have already withdrawn from the wider society. In such situations authorities need to take steps to reintegrate them. Access to the political system may be the most effective because it encourages them to “become more like political parties and interest groups, and less like social protest movements or revolutionary groups” (Hafez 2003: 208). This “may explain why communist and green parties in Western Europe were willing to make ‘historical compromises’ and abandoned revolutionary strategies, even if some of them did not completely abandon revolutionary rhetoric” (Hafez 2003: 209). It may also explain why the 1922 founding of the Irish Free State marked the beginning of the end of the Southern wing of the Irish Republican Party (IRA). Although the Irish Free State did not grant Ireland complete sovereignty, it provided political access to those who had previously fought for Ireland’s independence, and membership in the IRA fell dramatically (English 2004: 46).

A third course of action is to minimize media scrutiny and public ridicule. To be sure, this can be difficult to do but nevertheless it is worth the effort. For instance, Oregon’s attorney general’s adopted a strategy that limited the interference, harassment, and ridicule of the Rajneeshpuram community. “Throughout [the group’s] sojourn in Oregon, the attorney general’s representatives carefully monitored activities as Rajneeshpuram and at the same time tried to calm insurgent local opponents” (Goldman 2011: 318, 319). This is not to suggest that individuals and groups should not be prosecuted for criminal behavior that injure others, but that can be done while still respecting religious freedoms. For example, after five members of the Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, the Japanese government pursued those who were guilty of the crimes, but it did not outlaw the group. “This action defused the violent side of the religion without further radicalizing the group" (Grim and Finke 2010: 213).

This leads to a fourth course of action: authorities should avoid repressive and discriminatory policies that cause groups (and communities) to withdraw and become increasingly isolated. As Donnatella della Porta (2013) documents, repressive policing in Italy and Germany during the 1970s and 80s led to ever escalating violence between authorities and left wing and right wing underground groups. Similarly, Mohammed Hafez (2003) argues that government repression has resulted in higher rates of violence in Algeria, Egypt, Kashmir, the Southern Philippines, and Chechnya. And Brian Grim and Roger Finke (2010) have demonstrated that net of other factors, government restrictions on religious freedom are positively associated with religious persecution and violence ("Religious Freedom and Religious Violence").

In short, then, because groups that maintain few ties to the wider society are more likely to embrace extreme views and possibly commit acts of violence, we should look to adopt policies and practices that will prevent communities and groups from withdrawing and cutting ties with the wider society. Although it is impossible to prevent the withdrawal and isolation of all groups, the fewer that do, the better.


della Porta, Donatella. 2013. Clandestine Political Violence. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univesity Press.

English, Richard. 2004. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. London, UK: Pan Books.

Goldman, Marion S. 2011. "Cultural Capital, Social Networks, and Collective Violence." Pp. 307-323 in Violence and New Religious Movements, edited by J. R. Lewis. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grim, Brian J. and Roger Finke. 2010. The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hafez, Mohammed M. 2003. Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

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