- Jacob Burkhardt
Since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in late 2015, the prevention of future attacks has increasingly been on the minds of many Americans. According to a December Pew Research Center survey, 29 percent of Americans cite terrorism, national security, or ISIS as the most important problem facing the country today, up from 4 percent a year ago. This is especially true of Republicans, of whom 41 percent cite one of these three problems as the most important problem facing the country today. Moreover, 71 percent of Republicans, as compared to 54 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Independents, stated that their greatest concern is that anti-terrorism policies do not go far enough in protecting the country, up from from 57 percent in January and 38 percent in July 2013. Thus, it’s no wonder that a large swath of the the American public responded favorably to Donald Trump’s call to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States.
However, as the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer points out (“Why Take the Trump Stunt Seriously”), Trump’s proposal is absurd. Islamic terrorists are not stupid. The average Islamic terrorist tends to be well educated, to have come from a middle class background, and to have attended a secular, rather than a religious, school as a child (“The Root Causes of Terrorism”). Thus, it strains credulity to assume they would openly admit to customs officials that they were Muslim. As Krauthammer puts it:
So how exactly does this work, Donald Trump’s plan to keep America safe from Islamic terrorism by barring entry to all Muslims? He explained it... on TV. The immigration official will ask the foreigner if he’s a Muslim.
“And if they said, ‘yes,’ they would not be allowed in the country?”
Trump: “That’s correct.”
Brilliant. And very economical. That is, if you think that bloodthirsty terrorists — “people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life,” as Trump describes them — will feel honor-bound to tell the truth to an infidel customs officer. They kill wantonly but, like George Washington, cannot tell a lie. On this logic hinges the great Maginot Line with which Trump will protect America from jihad. I decline to join the chorus denouncing the Trump proposal as offensive and un-American. That’s too obvious. What I can’t get over is its sheer absurdity.If we truly want to prevent future terrorist attacks, we need to recognize that it’s a complex problem requiring a multipronged approach. I believe we need to adopt (1) measures that lower the probability that groups (Islamic or otherwise) 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 order to keep this post relatively short, I will discuss these three aspects of counter terrorism in separate posts. Briefly, however, this is what they will cover (Note: links to the posts are now included):
- Prevention: Internally dense religious groups that maintain few ties to the wider society are more likely to embrace extreme views and behavior than are those that are not as dense and/or remain tied to the wider society. Thus, we should adopt policies and practices that will not cause communities and groups to withdraw from and cut ties with the wider society. In the present context, this means that anti-Muslim rhetoric is almost certainly unhelpful in the fight against terrorism and, in fact, may help promote to it. Indeed, apparently some Islamist groups are already using clips of Donald Trump in their recruitment videos ("Al-Qaeda Group Uses Donald Trump in Recruitment Video").
- Detection: Detecting radicalized groups can prove elusive. If groups wish to remain undetected, for the most part, they can do so. However, if they actively begin to plan for attacks, it’s likely that their activities are detectable. For example, recently developed “geographical profiling” software can help identify which areas should be searched or be put under surveillance. Such an approach is somewhat analogous to Bayesian statistics, an approach that begins with a priori assumptions about what is true, which are then repeatedly updated as new information becomes available.
- Disruption: Finally, there are two general approaches to disrupting terrorist networks: kinetic and non-kinetic. Kinetic approaches pursue aggressive measures that seek to eliminate or capture network members and their supporters, while non-kinetic approaches use non-coercive means to impair the ability of terrorists to operate. The former is limited by moral concerns, such as the need not to place innocent life at risk. The latter is not and includes activities such as the (1) tracking of certain members in order to improve our knowledge and understanding of the network, (2) building institutions that offer alternatives to terrorist institutions, (3) misinformation that seek to promote mistrust among network members, (4) campaigns that attack, deceive, degrade, and disrupt information operations capabilities, and (5) efforts at the rehabilitation and reintegration of network members back into civil society.
In a nutshell, countering terrorism is far more complex than many of the current candidates for President let on (or realize). Hopefully, their rhetoric reflects political maneuvering and not what they truly believe. I confess, however, that I have little hope that this is in fact true. One can only pray that I am wrong.