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Friday, March 11, 2016

The Complex Nature of Countering Terrorism: Disruption

This final post with regards to the complexity involved in countering terrorism ("On the Complex Nature of Countering Terrorism") focuses on the disruption of terrorist networks. My colleague Nancy Roberts and I have outlined strategies for disrupting clandestine networks ("Strategies for Combatting Dark Networks" "Monitoring and Disrupting Dark Networks"), and we sorted them into two generic approaches: kinetic and non-kinetic. The former involves aggressive and offensive measures that target terrorists for the purpose of neutralizing, capturing, or eliminating them, while the latter employs restrained, non-coercive means that seek to secure the population’s safety and support and undermine the enemy’s influence and control.

Of the two approaches, the kinetic approach tends to attract headlines and generates popular support. Recall the media attention (and spontaneous celebrations across the U.S.) that the killing of Osama bin Laden engendered. Reactions such as this are largely due to the symbolic value of capturing or eliminating a high-value target. However, the results from kinetic targeting are often mixed. For example, as General Flynn and his coauthors (2010: 8) warned in their much-publicized report, Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan, “lethal targeting alone will not help U.S. and Allied forces win in Afghanistan.” In fact, “merely killing insurgents usually serves to multiply enemies rather than subtract them.” And although Israel’s decapitation policy led to the removal of older Palestinian Liberation Organization leaders, all this accomplished in the long run was the emergence of younger and more radicalized leaders (Gunning 2007). Similarly, while 19th-century Russia’s use of trials and executions successfully eliminated the terrorist group, The Terrorist Section of the People’s Will, the brother of one those executed swore “I will revenge myself on them” (quoted in Cronin 2009:25). A few decades later, he, that is, Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin, did just that.

More of a concern is that the use of kinetic measures runs the risk of harming innocent bystanders. While in a war zone some may be considered this permissible, when it comes to combatting domestic terrorism, it suggests that targeting decisions be made with care and probably limited to raids that seek only to arrest group members. Of course, raids can devolve into shootouts. Thus, we need to “adopt standards that are closer to Philadelphia than Afghanistan. In a war zone, collateral damage cannot be avoided; it can only be minimized. The hard question in war is what degree of risk we are willing to accept for our own soldiers in order to reduce the risks we impose on enemy civilians. But when the police are chasing criminals in a zone of peace, we rightly give them no latitude for collateral damage” (Walzer 2009:276).

Non-kinetic approaches are more likely to avoid the loss of innocent life, but they are often less attractive because they tend to attract far less attention, partially because of their lack of newsworthiness, and partially because they often require subterfuge that would be compromised through media attention. Still, in the fight against domestic terrorism they may offer the best long-term approach and should be seriously considered. At least five broad strategies are associated with the non-kinetic approach: tracking and monitoring, institution building, psychological operations (PsyOp), information operations (IO), and rehabilitation and reintegration.
  1. The tracking and monitoring strategy builds on John Arquilla’s (2009) insight that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. However, sometimes our information on a clandestine network is incomplete, so rather than taking immediate action, it is better to track and monitor the network with the hope of improving what we know, which should improve the selection of strategies adopted later.
  2. In war zones institution-building involves the construction of healthy host-government institutions involving governance, rule of law, and economic development (Fridovich and Krawchuck 2007; Kilcullen 2009). Domestically, it might involve the construction or rehabilitation of institutions that address, either directly or indirectly, the (legitimate) grievances of the community or communities out of which a particular terrorist group emerged. For example, discriminatory practices with regards to housing and lending or perhaps the quality of schools may need to be attended to.
  3. Psychological operations (PsyOps) involve the dissemination of (mis)information for the purpose of influencing the emotions, perceptions, attitudes, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of clandestine groups. They can also be used to counter terrorist propaganda or sow mistrust among group members so that they direct their violence at one another rather than outside targets. Indeed, this latter approach was used successfully in Iraq in order to disrupt an insurgent network (Anonymous 2009). However, while sowing mistrust within a terrorist network may be appropriate in a war zone, it may not be in a domestic setting. The last thing we need is for members of a terrorist group or perhaps members of rival terrorist groups to open fire on one another in a crowded street, restaurant, or bar in a major metropolitan area. That would almost certainly lead to the loss of innocent life similar to what occurred when rival mafia gangs were at war with one another.
  4. Information operations (IO) are used to attack, deceive, degrade, and disrupt information operations capabilities and to deny, exploit, and defend electronic information and infrastructure. Examples include the disruption of fund transfers, the monitoring of charitable donations, the detection of money laundering, black market activity and the drug trade. Activities also include interventions to compromise terrorists’ cell phone and online connections and the use of these platforms to locate jihadist leaders and their followers.
  5. Finally, rehabilitation efforts seek to reintegrate radicalized individuals back into civil society. Singapore’s counter-ideological program, founded by Muslim scholars who seek to “correct” the thinking of its detainees, is one such example (Ramakrishna 2005, 2009, 2012). Established in 2003, it involves unpaid, all volunteer group of Islamic scholars who supplement their formal religious training with a yearlong course in counseling. It also extends its influence into the wider Muslim community by giving talks, disseminating publications, and hosting a website. Similar rehabilitation programs have also been introduced in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
In short, there are two general approaches to countering terrorist networks: kinetic and non-kinetic. The former pursues aggressive measures designed to eliminate or capture network members and their supporters, while the latter employs neither bombs nor bullets but instead uses non-coercive means to counter networks and impair a combatant’s will to fight. It includes activities such as the rehabilitation and reintegration of clandestine network members back into civil society, misinformation campaigns designed to disrupt clandestine networks from within, the construction or rehabilitation of institutions within certain communities, and efforts at and the tracking certain members in order to improve our knowledge and understanding of the network.

All of these strategies must be implemented with an eye to keeping the wider community safe, not only from future attacks but also from any collateral damage. Put differently, the strategies we adopt to disrupt terrorist networks should be guided by a moral framework that seeks to create and sustain societies in which all individuals are free to flourish.


Anonymous. 2009. "Deception 2.0: Deceiving in the Netwar Age." Unpublished Paper. Task Force Iron, Iraq.

Arquilla, John. 2009. Aspects of Netwar & the Conflict with al Qaeda. Monterey, CA: Information Operations Center, Naval Postgraduate School.

Cronin, Audrey Kurth. 2009. How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Flynn, Michael T., Matt Pottinger, and Paul D. Batchelor. 2010. "Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan." Center for a New American Security, Washington DC.

Fridovich, David P. and Fred T. Krawchuck. 2007. "Special Operations Forces: Indirect Approach." Joint Forces Quarterly 44:24-27.

Gunning, Jeroen. 2007. Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence. London: Hurst.

Kilcullen, David. 2009. The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Ramakrishna, Kumar. 2005. "Delegitimizing Global Jihadi Ideology in Southeast Asia." Contemporary Southeast Asia 27:343-369.

________. 2009. "Governmental Responses to Extremism in Southeast Asia: 'Hard' versus 'Soft' approaches." Pp. 31-36 in Conflict, Community, and Criminality in Southeast Asia and Australia: Assessments from the Field, edited by A. de Borchgrave, T. Sanderson, and D. Gordon. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies.

________. 2012. "Engaging Former JI Detainees in Countering Extremism: Can it Work?". RSIS Commentaries, 003/2012.

Walzer, Michael. 2009. Thinking Politically: Essays in Political Theory (selected and edited by David Miller). New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

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