Fighting terrorism is a matter of law enforcement.

The post 9/11 security environment has been dominated by the spectre of terrorism, mostly if not exclusively of the Islamic-inspired sort. In most liberal democracies the response to the threat of this type of extremist violence has been the promulgation of a raft of anti-terrorism laws and organisational changes in national security agencies, the sum total of which has been an erosion of civil liberties in the pursuit of  better security. Some have gone so far as to speak of a “war” on terrorism, arguing that Islamicist terrorism in particular is an existential threat to Western societies that demands the prioritisation of security over individual and collective rights.

Although ideological extremists see themselves at war, this response on the part of democratic states, and the characterisation of the fight against terrorism as a “war” marshalled along cultural or civilisation lines, is mistaken. The proper response is to see terrorism not in ideological terms, with the focus on the motivation of the perpetrators, but in criminal terms, where the focus is on the nature of the crime. Seeing terrorism as the latter allows those who practice it to be treated as part of a violent criminal conspiracy much like the Mafia or international drug smuggling syndicates. This places the counter-terrorism emphasis on the act rather than the motivation, thereby removing arguments about cause and justification from the equation.

There is no reason for Western democracies to go to war. Whatever its motivation, terrorism poses no existential threat to any stable society, much less liberal democracies. Only failed states, failing states and those at civil war face the real threat of takeover from the likes of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. For Western democracies under terrorist attack, the institutional apparatus of the State will not fall, political society will not unravel and the social fabric will to tear. But there is a caveat to this: both the democratic state and society must beware the sucker ploy.

As an irregular warfare tactic terrorism is a weapon of the militarily weak that is not only a form of intimidation but a type of provocation as well. It has a target, a subject and an objective. Here is where the sucker ploy comes into play. Terrorist attacks against defenceless targets are designed to lure democratic states into undertaking security measures out of proportion to the real threat involved. The weaker adversary commits an atrocity or outrage in order to provoke an overreaction from the stronger subject, in this case from Western liberal democracies. The overreaction victimises more than the perpetrators and legitimises their grievances. In doing so, the democratic state plays into the hands of the terrorist objectives by providing grounds for recruitment, continuation and expansion of their struggle. When democratic societies, panicked by fear, begin to retaliate against domestic minority populations from whence terrorists are believed to emanate, then the sucker ploy will have proven successful.

The sucker ploy has been at the core of al-Qaeda’s strategy from the beginning. Enunciated by Osama bin Laden, the idea behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, then the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, was to cause the entire West to overreact by scapegoating all Muslims and subjecting them to undemocratic security checks, to include mass surveillance, warrantless searches and arrest and detention without charge. With the majority supporting such moves, the Muslim minorities in the West become further alienated. That serves to confirm the al-Qaeda narrative that the West is at war with all of the Muslim world, which bin Laden and his acolytes hoped would generate a groundswell of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims on a global scale.

The US and UK duly obliged by using 9/11 as one pretext for invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with the events of that day and which had no Islamic extremists operating in its midst at the time. It does now.

After the possibility of staging spectacular large scale attacks like 9/11 became increasingly difficult due to Western counter-measures, al-Qaeda 2.0 emerged. Its modus operandi, as repeatedly outlined and exhorted by the on-line magazine Inspire, is to encourage self-radicalised jihadis born in the West to engage in low-level, small cell (2-5 people) or so-called “lone wolf” attacks by single individuals on targets of opportunity using their local knowledge of the cultural and physical terrain in which they live.

In recent years the Syrian civil war and rise of the Islamic State have provided recruits with the opportunity to sharpen their knowledge of weaponry, tactics and combat skills with an eye towards future use at home in the event that they survive the foreign adventure (although less than 50 percent of them do). With reportedly 15,000 foreign fighters joining Syrians and Iraqis in the Islamic State ranks and a number of Westerners gravitating towards al-Qaeda, that leaves plenty of returning jhadis to be concerned about.

Shopping malls, sports venues, transportation hubs, entertainment venues, non-military government offices, media outlets, houses of worship, schools and universities–all of these present soft targets with significant symbolic value where a relatively small criminal act of violence can generate waves of apprehension across the larger population, thereby prompting a government overreaction as much in an effort to calm public fears as it is to prevent further attacks. The range and number of these targets makes guarding all them very difficult, and if the perpetrators plan in secret and maintain operational secrecy up until the moment of engagement, then they are impossible to stop regardless of the security measures in place. Short of adopting a garrison state or open-air prison approach to society as a whole, there is no absolute physical defense against determined and prepared low level operators, especially when they have access to not only to weapons but common household or industrial products that can be used to untoward ends.

Although it risks detection because of the coordination and numbers involved, one variant of the low-level, decentralised terrorist strategy is the so-called “swarm” attack, whereby several small cells engage multiple targets simultaneously or in rapid sequence, even in several countries if possible. This is designed to stretch the security apparatus to its limits, thereby causing confusion and delays in response while demonstrating the attacker’s capability to strike at will virtually anywhere. At that point the military–ostensibly used for external defense–is often  called in, thereby giving all the appearance of a nation at war. Such is now happening in Belgium and France.

The evolution of terrorist tactics notwithstanding, if we strip away all the ideological gloss what is left is a transnational criminal enterprise. The response required is therefore more police than military in nature, and requires increased intelligence sharing and police cooperation amongst nations. The legislative response should be not to create a separate body of political crimes deserving of increased (and undemocratic) coercive attention from the state, but to bolster criminal law to include hard penalties for carrying out, financing, supporting or encouraging politically motivated violence. All of this can be done without militarising the state and compromising basic democratic values regarding the freedoms of speech, assembly and movement.

What is not needed but unfortunately has been the majority response in the West, is expanded anti-terrorist legislation and sweeping powers of search, surveillance and seizure that cover the entire population rather than those suspected of harbouring extremist tendencies. This violates the presumption of innocence as well as the right to privacy of the vast majority of citizens, to which can now be added restrictions on freedom of movement for those who, even without criminal backgrounds, are suspected of planning to travel to join extremist groups abroad.

Worse yet, such measures are not entirely effective, as the Boston Marathon bombings, Sydney hostage crisis (the work of a lone mentally ill individual with delusions of Islamic grandeur who was out on bail for sexual crimes and accessory to murder) and the Charlie Hebdo attacks have shown (Australia, the US and France have very strong antiterrorism measures, to include the Patriot Act and NSA/FBI mass surveillance in the US, overtly authoritarian security legislation dating back to the Fifth Republic in France–which was a response to the Algerian Crisis of 1958– and increasingly hard anti-terrorist legislation in Australia).

There is a clear need to upgrade police intelligence gathering, sharing and operational procedures in order to combat the terrorism threat. The main impediment to that has not been a public lack of cooperation or the inadequacy of extant criminal law (which needs regular upgrading in any event due to the evolution of crime–for example, 30 years ago cyber security and cyber crime were not issues that needed to be covered by law). Instead, it has mainly been due to inter-agency rivalries between domestic security and intelligence agencies and a lack of international cooperation on ideologically charged matters such as Islamic terrorism (for example, between Israel and its Arab neighbours and the US and China). Given advents in telecommunications technologies, there has to be a priority focus on social media intelligence gathering, particularly of platforms that use encryption to shield criminal behaviour. But all of that can be done without the mass curtailment of civil liberties, and without militarising the response to the point that it gives all the appearances of cultures at war.

It should be obvious that the underlying causes of terrorism in the West need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the problem. These involve a host of socio-economic and cultural policy areas and a willingness by politicians to broach debate on sensitive topics related to them (such as the question of assimilation of migrants, minority youth unemployment etc.). But in the narrow sense of security counter-measures, the key is to not exaggerate the terrorist threat, to strip it of its political significance and to use more efficient policing and intelligence gathering backed by criminal law to treat it not as a special type of (political) crime but as just the violent acts of criminal conspirators.

Although its threat environment (including terrorist threats) is far less menacing than that of its major security partners, New Zealand has adopted antiterrorist and search and surveillance legislation that is more appropriate for the threats faced by India or Pakistan than by a small isolated democratic island state. Other small democracies outside of Europe like Costa Rica, Portugal or Uruguay have not seen the need to adopt such legislation, and Uruguay in fact has accepted released Guantanamo detainees for re-settlement. Thus the question begs as to why New Zealand has chosen to privilege security over freedom when the threat environment does not warrant it? So far, in spite of crying wolf about the spectre of home grown jihadists and returning foreign fighters, the New Zealand authorities have not provided any concrete evidence of plots or other indicators of terrorists at work that would justify the expansion of what is now a full-fledged security and surveillance state.

One can only hope that as part of the forthcoming intelligence agency review an honest discussion of terrorism and other threats can be had so that perspective can be gained and the proper response undertaken. That may well mean rolling back some of the security legislation passed during the last decade while refining specific provisions of the Crimes Act and attendant legislation so that the balance between security and civil liberties can be re-equilibrated in more even fashion.

For an interesting take on the subject, here is an article by a US security academic with clear pro-establishment views.

20 thoughts on “Fighting terrorism is a matter of law enforcement.

  1. Good article Pablo.

    This reminds of an essay written by Umberto Eco about left-terrorist groups operating in Italy in the 1970s and early 80s.

    The essence of his essay is the realisation that, regardless of any ideological props, terrorism is merely the criminal conspiracies of psychopaths.

    Which immediately tells you a) even if you have some empathy with the terrorist’s purported ideological goals, the actions of the terrorists cannot be supported, and b) that the effective solution is simply “routine” police action against the criminal acts planned or committed by these criminal conspiracies.

  2. RJL:

    I could not have said it better myself–and it was said in far less words than I mustered.

  3. I like both the original post and RJL’s succinct comment.

    But what’s still bugging me about this is that at roughly the same time as the Charlie Hebdo attack and subsequent hostage takings/sieges were going down in Paris, Boko Haram was busy wiping a couple of villages off the map. Even the lowest estimated death tolls are far higher than the total body count in Paris. The Charlie Hebdo attack does highlight, for those who care to see, some serious social stratification and the alienation of certain social groups in France, but it is still simple criminality. The real terror is happening far from anywhere Western and to people the West doesn’t particularly care about.

    But, hey, Charlie Hebdo has provided another good excuse to bolster the police state. Keep the people scared, they’ll be easy to control.

  4. Good point Chris, about the relative inattention given to Boko Haram’s atrocities (although to be fair several commentators have mentioned this outside of the MSM).My focus here was simply on Western responses to the threat posed by the latest iteration of local extremists using terrorism to make a statement.

  5. I used to agree with this attitude: it fits with the counter insurgency technique the British used in Northern Ireland: treat the terrorists as criminals and engage a process of political negotiation around the conflict that is justifying terror.

    But I am no longer sure about this. I inadvertantly found myself reading 4th generation war theory — the key issue being that the warring parties are no longer nation states and the usual rules of conflict are completely ignored.

    In short war becomes Hobbsean: the use of children as terrorists, or deliberate targeting of civilians is acceptable, and the guerillas not only fade into the populace like carp in a rice field but the organisations they pledge allegience to fade into the landscape, in a state of continual flux.

    I don’t think this is a socialist dialectic — that was tried last century and failed. I think it is something bleaker, and implacably against any sense of pluralism, discussion or tolerence. It sees Orwell’s boot crushing a head as a desireable outcome.

    In the West, we want to use justice, see things as lawful, use the courts, and stay within the rules of engagement. The current terrorists piss on these things, And there lies the problem.

    Is the solution a systematic use of rendition to form a gulag throughout the Western Hemogeny? I hope not.

    Last time this happened the West got nasty, and people like Charles Martel and Vlad Dracul became national heroes. For all their faults, the americans have not gone genocidal.

    No answers but one: this is going to be a long war.

  6. Chris:

    The so-called 4GW is not unique or new, and was a term introduced by Lind and his associates to critique the US military’s inability to cope with irregular warfare (the lessons of Viet Nam were discarded by the brass in favour of the narrative that the lack of public will had undermined the war effort).

    The truth is that the so-called unique aspects of 4GW have been around for millennia, and it is technology that has shaped the way in which it is applied in contemporary times. But really, it is nothing new and has had many critiques applied to it because of its overly broad claims to being a generational advance in warfare.

    In fact, I was brought into the Pentagon in the early 1990s in part because I had experience with 4GW in Latin America before it was called 4GW. At the time we were re-focusing on SOLIC and COIN as the future of US wars and even then the conventional military bosses had their knickers in a twist about losing their status and toys in a resultant organisational shift (which never eventuated).

    Since mission definition determines force composition, the dye was cast for the US to continue to miss the mark when it came to future adversaries. But in any event those adversaries were overseas, not at home.

    Although some nation-states fight wars of choice, convenience or opportunity (such as the US in Iraq), most nation-states fight wars of necessity to defend and preserve core interests (wars of annihilation such as those called for by deluded Islamicists and mentioned in the early 4GW literature are not possible even when attempted (such as by the Serbs in the 1990s) due to the interconnected nature of the international system and the presence of defensive technologies). Anything short of that can be confronted as something less–a revolt, an insurgency, a criminal conspiracy. That may even require some element of militarisation of the physical and kinetic response (e.g. Northern Ireland), but it is not a “war” properly speaking nor should in be seen as such.

    Although others may think so, I believe that no core interests are being threatened by the current spate of Islamicist attacks in the West. They may be evil and deadly, but they are not existential in nature (remember that I am speaking of interests, not values, which are not rigidly uniform and homogeneously accepted in western liberal democracies, as recent events have shown).

    Moreover, as I mentioned in the post, even if the irregular actor sees itself at war and wishes to engage with the adversary as such, doing so by the latter helps justify and legitimate the cause of the former. At that point it becomes a values or civlisational clash destined to never end. That is to be avoided.

    In spite of the hype by politicians and the media, despite the physical toll exacted and despite the opportunistic over-reach of self-interested security agencies keen to expand their purviews and legal authority, the hard fact remains that the sort of terrorist threat currently posed by Islamicists to the West is neither existential or particularly innovative at a tactical level. The temptation to go all-in and medieval on terrorism (especially if selective in approach to Islamicists as opposed to other terrorist-minded groups) needs to be avoided if the West is to counter the sucker ploy.

    So far, it is not clear to me whether it has not. But with guys like Steve Emerson leading the charge against Muslims, why is that not surprising?

  7. Oh dear. First Pablo subscribed to the ‘lone wolf theory’
    then quickly across to several wolves. and now
    “The proper response is to see terrorism not in ideological terms”
    Fair go Pablo you could trip me up because you say also ;
    ” Although ideological extremists see themselves at war, this response on the part of democratic states, and the characterisation of the fight against terrorism as a “war” marshalled along cultural or civilisation lines, is mistaken. ”

    Righto Pablo, Hitler attacks Poland and lets appease.Just a local nutcase here.
    Its just these few people who are declaring War, isn’t it, it is really a peaceful religion and the local cops can handle it. Them good old boys down there Mississippi and South Sydney are fully equipped

    Try to pull brain together Pablo. This is an ideological war, and we are going to win it, but not your way.

    Pablo again:
    ” terrorism poses no existential threat to any stable society, much less liberal democracies”

    “It should be obvious that the underlying causes of terrorism in the West need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the problem”

    Sweet Jesus lets send them money and some more heads to cut off.
    Death to Islam, the disgusting violent religion should be nuked.
    Forget your transnational crime syndicate Pablo.
    This is War,

  8. Ah Paul,

    You are always good for lunatic rants. One question: have you ever met a Muslim? Are you aware of the differences between strands of Islam? If the Mongrel Mob see themselves as at war with the NZ state and act accordingly, does that means that the state should respond in kind?

    Last year an approximate total of 18,000 people were killed by terrorists attacks around the world (not all of which were committed by Islamicists) In the same year over 33,000 Americans died of gunshots indicted by fellow citizens. The total deaths from car accidents world wide runs into the tens of thousands. That is one reason why I think we need to get some perspective on the nature of the threat posed by Islamcists who are now reduced to carrying out low level, decentralised attacks on the West while trying to gain sovereign control over failed or failing states.

  9. Yes Pablo, Most of my reply was quoting you.
    Islam is dangerous .
    I have been in Islam countries quite a lot. I stayed in Turkey for 7 months, and then Morocco, up there in the 139th parallel; The Turks were especially friendly. But all this was before the terrorism from the lone wolves started.
    And Allah says strike down those who do not believe in the prophet, and the Turkish Government have a hell of a job protecting Islam when the people want to head West.
    Each act of terrorism is an unrelated event Pablo
    but the world doesn’t see it your way Pablo.
    It is not a police job it is a nuke job. Find ISIS and kill.
    Australia as you will know is now is fiercely anti Islam, and so too were the Europeans I met in Thailand. You know the type the rednecks who have to fund the collapsing EU, and the disgusting sickly United Nations and they hate it.
    Death to Islam.

  10. Paul:

    I am glad that you have enjoyed the company of Muslims although it is sad to read your blanket hatred of the entire religion (I say this as an atheist who has little time for any religion since I see them as no more than pre-modern ideologies designed to control people for the benefit of those who claim to be religious leaders–the friggin’ Pope included).

    But you are conflating two sides of the counter-terrorism coin. Countering terrorism in the West is a law enforcement issue. Fighting the Islamic State and various al-Qaeda spin-offs with territorial pretensions is more properly a military and diplomatic matter. But if the West keeps idolising despots like the late Saudi King Abdullah and demonising IS and AQ (or Hamas and Hezbollah), then the fight is doomed from the start.

  11. RJL,

    Yes, there was a bit of left-wing terrorism in the 1970s, 1980s. It was state sponsored and when the sponsoring state(s) collapsed the terrorism stopped. It had nothing to do with good police work.

  12. Pablo,

    Terrorism costs way too much to be a criminal enterprise. Terrorism is warfare or diplomacy or internal politics or somewhere in between and it is vastly expensive.

    A police response is as useless and wasteful as the intelligence state response. Both of these exercises in utter futility are doomed to fail, because they solely target the active end of the network.

    Islamic terrorism is vast and therefore vastly expensive. Expensive things are not funded by the poor and downtrodden. No amount of police amongst the alienated of Europe’s slums will help. Nor will nation building in failed states.

    Islamic terrorism exists solely to cater to the needs of its rich sponsors and their only need is to remain very rich. You’re left wing so presumably familiar with the following cynical prognostication – “The first order of business after the revolution is to kill all the revolutionaries.” If you are a despot, you live in continual fear of revolution. Terrorism exists solely so internal Arab rebellion can be directed outwards. Costs a lot, but they have a lot to spend.

    The only response to terrorism is diplomacy.

  13. umaha-closp:

    Your last two comments are wide of the mark. To call all left-wing terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s as state-sponsored is absurd. Do you really think that guerrilla groups like the Montoneros, Tupamaros or the Red Brigades were fronts for the Soviets? C’mon.

    Likewise, do you really think that the Sydney siege gunman, the Boston Marathon bombers of the Charlie Hebdo killers were funded by the likes of the Saudis so that “an internal Arab rebellion can be directed outwards?”

    The complicity of Gulf elites in funding AQ and IS is well-established and being addressed. But that has very little to do with the self-radicalised home grown jihadists, whose motivations are based on their own experience and not some mythical Arab rebellion.

    You also neglect the fact that Interpol and many domestic police agencies increasingly cooperate to locate and disrupt terrorism funding networks. In fact, the core of legislation such as the NZ anti-terrorism laws passed in the early 2000’s have specific clauses regarding funding of terrorist groups. That is one reason for the move towards decentralised, autonomous, small-cell or lone wolf operations.

    To be sure diplomacy needs to be part of the picture. But this post is focused on how to handle domestic terrorism, which has more to do with social policy and law enforcement than it does with foreign relations.

  14. I think the Sauds sponsor a particular form of Islam, primarily to act as an opiate for their own people. Wahhabist Islam stresses purity and self assured belief its adherents are making the world Allah and the Prophet desire. It encourages religious study that promises a great satisfying reward on Earth and in Paradise. It encourages community spirit within Saudi Arabia and quashes dissent. It is a truly marvellous form of government.

    Wahhabist government does have a few of what we would consider problems. It discourages people from working and as such is hugely wealth consuming. By fostering a sense of superiority within its adherents, they become highly disdainful of others. Inside Saudi Arabia, because they don’t need to work and there aren’t any other people (that matter), it is a near perfect system.

    Outside Saudi Arabia Wahhabism is less than perfect, it is awful and most of its adherents are peaceful (though generally confused as to why their devotion has not resulted in any Earthly gain). However because its core message is that Paradise on Earth is being prevented by the actions of those others – some people self motivate from their own experiences and apply their teachings directly to change their surroundings.

    I think there is no criminal activity for you to find. And I think there is no real network of terrorists for the surveillence state to interdict. Both approaches are equally pointless.

    ps – The Czech StB was helping the Red Brigades. Police activity didn’t work for 2 decades, but then at the end of the 80s worked perfectly? C’mon.

    pps – I really don’t mind Islam, it is a fascinating religion and culture. I’ve been tempted to join, but I like beer too much. So whilst I realise the above reads sort of like the anti-Islamic drivel you can find anywhere on the internet, it isn’t. The above is an anti-Saudist rant, I think that 20,000 or so mega rich arseholes are causing global terrorism and that they are doing it mostly inadvertantly. Funny old world, eh?

  15. pablo, you just gotta get real with this thing, stop you pussy foot , get back into the camp. there is somne serious gear out there , and nigrebama dreaming , you can see for yourself

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