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Counter-terrorism Needs to Recognize the Complexity of New Terrorism

Terrorism is increasingly risky. The “newest” terrorists of the recent decade regard al-Qaeda and the other “new” Jihadi groups that matured during the 1990s as too moderate. Rhetorically, the newest terrorists are irreconcilable with any society, any sect, any leader, any law but their own, and are intent on converting or killing everybody else, unless we otherwise learn how to manipulate them.

Unfortunately, a different strand of the literature on terrorism portrays all terrorists as reconcilable – as open to rational negotiation or de-radicalization – and portrays any judicial or violent intervention as antiquated. For instance, Jonathan Powell is a former civil servant who was so politicized by the time that Tony Blair was elected prime minister in 1997 that Blair appointed him as chief of staff, and thence to negotiate peace with Northern Irish terrorists. Subsequently, he wrote no less than three books arguing that all terrorism ends by negotiation. This is nonsense – most terrorist groups burn out after achieving some but not all of their aims; almost none renounce terrorism through negotiation. The “peace” for which Powell claims credit was with groups that were burning out – and were bribed with political jobs and immunity from prosecution; other groups remained irreconcilable, and continue with terrorism today.

To portray all terrorists as reconcilable is ignorant and puts idealism before public safety. To portray all terrorists as irreconcilable is ignorant and encourages extra-judiciality.

These contradictory trends leave counter-terrorist practitioners with many quandaries and dilemmas, which are always imperfectly resolvable, always subject to criticism for being either too soft on terrorism or too hard on human rights.

What practitioners need is accurate analysis of what the newest terrorists intend, what their capabilities are, how they behave, which of them is reconcilable, which is irreconcilable. Then, practitioners need guidance on how to exploit the terrorists’ contradictions rather be exploited by our own contradictions.

First, let’s accept the fact that the newest terrorists are increasingly risky. My analysis of nearly 50 years of data proves that terrorist hostage-takings, kidnappings, and active attacks are increasingly frequent and deadly. Increasingly, these activities are used by terrorists as means to other ends – including, unfortunately, to lengthen the public terror before mass killings.

Second, let’s accept the fact that the newest terrorists are increasingly irreconcilable. My analysis of behavioral data and terrorist manuals shows that the newest terrorists are dramatically more ideological, murderous, and suicidal; they are generally less trusting of official negotiators, less likely to release detainees, and more likely to kill detainees; they are more informed about the official side’s policies, tactics, techniques, and procedures; they make use of new information and communication technologies to communicate with suppliers, controllers, the public, and officials; they are more capable fighters (they kill more people even though they deploy fewer fighters per hostage); and they make use of freer societies to access easier targets.

Third, let’s compare the difficulties of countering the newest terrorist with the poor guidance that is received by the practitioner.

Counter-terrorist practitioners must assess the hazards to forecast which will become threats. They must work out when to intervene – ideally, after gathering evidence of the transition to threat, but before the public is exposed to harm. They must decide how to intervene – either to prosecute judicially before the threat can harm, or dissuade the threat that is about to harm, or incapacitate a threat that can’t be dissuaded, or negotiate just to try to clarify the information.

Surprisingly little guidance has reached practitioners on how to assess reconcilability, in part because of political reluctance to be pinned down, in part because of reductionism from self-righteous entrepreneurs like Powell.

I have read the guidance for negotiating and assaulting, participated as a trainee and a trainer, and consulted the doctrinal centres from America to Europe. In most cases, practitioners are given no guidance on how to respond to terrorists in particular: instead, their training scenarios and cases and datasets are usually built on non-terrorist crimes. I have not found any official categorization of terrorists as “reconcilable” or “irreconcilable” – or any other semantic frame to that effect.

Worse, practitioners are given dissatisfying advice (such as: negotiate until they start killing) or are told to look for extreme behaviors as guides to response (such as: if they haven’t harmed anybody yet, assume they won’t ever; if they have harmed anybody, switch from negotiation to assault).

However, my analysis shows that the newest terrorists hold more complex interpretations of legitimacy and strategy than such guidance allows. For instance, the newest terrorists are more likely to kill hostages and less likely to demand ransoms – yet more likely to release hostages in cases in which they do demand ransom. In some cases, a peaceful solution can be negotiated even after the initial murders, but in other cases the hostage-takers were intent on killing everyone all along, despite killing nobody at the start.

I have read the newest terrorist manuals and other doctrinal documents, and have found many contradictory traditions that are not reaching our counter-terrorist practitioners. For instance, some groups order followers to kill infidels at every opportunity but also to profit by ransoming them. Some groups detain some prisoners covertly for intelligence but detain others overtly for publicity. Some groups trade hostages for money, while other groups consider this improper. Some groups will trade hostages for prisoners, while others insist on converting or killing them.

Terrorists have different views on these things. The counter-terrorist practitioner, therefore, needs to assess the different beliefs, ideals, and traditions and other ideational factors within the particular subject group, then exploit them.

This complexity can seem both overwhelming and full of opportunity. At worst, one might look at a group that is both asking for a trade but treating any offer as an insult to their ideology, and wonder how on earth to respond.

At best, however, this complexity can be exploited – turning the terrorists’ contradictions to our advantage. For instance, the newest terrorists generally deny that their victims have any status except as hostages or carcasses, but they also routinely talk about being at war with infidels, in which case the counter-terrorist side can invoke the protections due to prisoners of war, who are protected similarly in international law, classical Islamic law, and early modern and contemporary Islamic interpretations.

Similarly, the uncertainties about the terrorists’ intents can seem overwhelming – are they intent on trading hostages or just murdering as many people as possible? Some of the newest terrorists expect to exploit the counter-terrorist side’s uncertainties and preferences for negotiation, by posing as negotiable hostage-takers, while planning a murderous and suicidal end game given maximum publicity. Yet, if the counter-terrorist side is sufficiently knowledgeable, then it can intervene to incapacitate the irreconcilable terrorists before they can maximize their publicity and murderousness.

If governments are to counter the newest terrorists effectively, they need to admit the differences between the newest terrorists and earlier terrorists, they need to provide guidance for countering newest terrorists in particular, they need to practice the separation of the reconcilable and irreconcilable, and they need to prepare their counter-terrorist practitioners with the knowledge and skills to exploit the opportunities. Otherwise, the complexity of newest terrorism will overwhelm the inaccurate expectations and unrealistic ideals of old counter-terrorism.