Available Leaderboard




21st Century Warfare
War Theory
Asymmetric Warfare
Unrestricted Warfare
Weapons of Mass Perception

Recent history reveals that most counter-terrorism strategy is ineffectual - conflicts drag on for years or decades without solutions and countries incur enormous costs in lives, money and lost opportunity. Clearly, it's time for a new approach.

When confronted with violent opposition, governments and poeple in power tend to fight fire with fire. The immediate reaction if to meet force with force, despite the fact that this approach rarely works. This analysis reviews a wide range of counter-terrorism responses and lessons learned from various situations. Hopefully,
it brings some new perspectives and suggests new approaches to dealing with a deady phenomena.

Background & Problems
U.S. Counter-Terrorism Policy
Broad Objectives and Basic Tactics
State Counter-Terrorist Actions
Bans & Restrictions
State Counter Measures
The Quest for Resolution
Applications to International Islamist Terrorism







Background & Problems

The first responsibility of any government is to provide security for its citizens. Without security from foreign attack or internal violence there is no foundation on which to build economic and social institutions. Hence states claim a legitimate monopoly on violence to compel law and order or repel foreign threats. Dissidents logically claim that an illegitimate government cannot claim legitimate monopoly on violence and will assert their right to violent opposition.

The test of legitimacy stems from international recognition of a state government by other states, or the United Nations. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan claimed to be the country’s legitimate government, however only two states, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia recognized that claim to legitimacy.

Presumably, a regime, or an opposition movement’s claim to legitimacy is based on the degree to which they represent mass support. The struggle then is to attract mass support, or alternatively to quell internal dissent and opposition. Recognized governments must establish police services to maintain civil order and security forces to protect against foreign threats. Political violence and terrorism fall into a gray area that may entail both foreign and domestic threats to state security.

The challenge is to develop counter-terrorism strategies that deal effectively with the threat without antagonizing citizens or neighboring states. Most counter-terrorist strategies focus on a military or police perspective and overlook the prospects for diplomacy, negotiation and reform, especially in the early stages of conflict, when possibilities may exist to deflate the pressures at least risk and least cost.

Current counter-terrorist strategies draw on experiences from such regions as Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine, Sri Lanka, and others, where states have developed and tested extensive counter-terrorist campaigns over long periods of time. However, the fact that these campaigns have been relatively unsuccessful in ending protracted conflicts suggests that state counter-terrorist strategies may be flawed.

Military forces are organized and trained to fight and win wars. Police are organized and trained to provide normal police services, maintain public order and deal with ordinary crime. Special police forces, like SWAT teams, and special military elements are often used to fill the gap. The use of special security forces introduces a host of problems, including legal authority, oversight and accountability, as well as the potential for abuse and oppression.

One of the central debates has been whether political violence and terrorism should be viewed as a military or criminal phenomenon. Most insurgents, guerrillas and rebels view themselves as soldiers engaged in a war against state repression and demand to be treated as combatants. However, guerrilla warfare is traditionally associated with agrarian societies and undeveloped regions where rebel forces have room to maneuver, may control territory, and act like a military force. Such opportunities are not available in urban settings.

Urban environments pose an entirely different set of circumstances that force insurgents into clandestine operations. A dissident movement is invariably outnumbered and out-gunned by the state security forces. They can’t wear uniforms or parade down city streets, maneuver openly in daylight, mobilize a mass following, or engage state forces in open combat. However, insurgents can easily blend in with the local population and usually have a deep knowledge of their environment. Hence urban guerrilla warfare lacks many of the characteristics of military operations.

In the case of Northern Ireland, a classic study in urban guerrilla warfare and counter-terrorist strategy, the United Kingdom initially dealt with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a military engagement – one army versus another. The UK later adopted a different strategy of “criminalization” that denied IRA activists certain rights under international law ordinarily available to enemy combatants. Currently, the U.S. appears stuck in a similar quandary in its “war on terror” as it attempts to determine the status of prisoners and the proper courts for trial, if any.

Typically, a violent political group becomes a terrorist group as soon as its actions claim the lives of civilians, or non-combatants. In some cases, property damage alone prompts a government to label dissidents as terrorists (animal rights and environmental activists); in other cases violence against security forces or installations is considered terrorism. States, however, dismiss civilian casualties as “collateral damage” and expect the public to accept this as an unfortunate result that can, itself, be blamed on the terrorists.

Two high-visibility incidents point out the differences in perspectives. In January 1972, soldiers from the British Parachute Regiment fired into an unarmed crowd of protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland, killing 13 civilians. Subsequent official investigations sought to justify the killings by state forces, while the victim communities viewed the events as an act of state terror designed to instill fear and intimidate them into compliance.

In February 1996, an IRA bomb devastated London’s financial district, causing over $500 in damage and disrupting England’s financial infrastructure, but caused only one fatality. Despite the minimal collateral damage, and the fact that the IRA had issued a specific advance warning, this was viewed in England and elsewhere as an act of wanton terrorism. To the IRA it was an act of war, designed to raise the cost of continued British oppression and encourage English citizens to support disengagement from Northern Ireland.

The point is neither to justify dissident violence or condemn state violence, but to encourage people to view violence in its fullest context. There are situations where state dictatorial and authoritarian regimes lack legitimacy, and others where legitimate states are beset by purely radical, or criminal elements There are cases where neither the regime or its opposition have any substantial public following. There are situations where violence is justifiable, or defensible, by either citizens or states, and conversely either party can be guilty of unjustified violence and even terrorism. There are also cases where the only solution is civil war, an inevitable and necessary human catastrophe that ultimately sets the stage for reconciliation and advancement.

Discussions of counter-terrorism strategies invariably draw on the experiences of states that have dealt with protracted political violence. Many of the tactics developed have proved damaging and counter-productive. Some tactics may work in one situation but not in another. But in a world where terrorism has become such a critical high-profile issue, involving high costs, communal fear and uncertainty, every potential solution must be examined and debated. Some options entail sacrificing civil liberties, or human rights, others involve pre-emptive attacks on sovereign states, and still others involve sate-sanctioned assassinations, interference in the internal affairs of other countries, or imposition of coercive policies. Some tactics that sound plausible are simply impractical.

There are endless opportunities for solutions that, despite good intentions, make the problems worse.

To date, there has been little public discussion and debate without such dialogue and without citizen involvement. It seems likely that terrorism will remain a serious problem far into the future, which compels us to develop truly effective counter-terrorism strategies and tactics that also protect civil liberties.

U.S. Counter-Terrorism Policy

U.S. counter-terrorist policy stresses three general “rules”:

1. Make no deals with terrorists and do not submit to blackmail.

2. Treat terrorists as criminals, pursue them aggressively, and apply the rule of law.

3, Apply maximum pressure on states that sponsor and support terrorists by imposing economic, diplomatic, and political sanctions and by urging other states to do likewise.

Four enduring policy “principles” guide US counter terrorism strategy:

First, make no concessions to terrorists and strike no deals. The US Government will make no concessions to individuals or groups holding official or private US citizens hostage. The United States will use every appropriate resource to gain the safe return of US citizens who are held hostage. At the same time, it is US Government policy to deny hostage takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes, or other acts of concession.

Second, bring terrorists to justice for their crimes. The United States will track down terrorists who attack Americans and their interests, no matter how long it takes.

Third, isolate and apply pressure on states that sponsor terrorism to force them to change their behavior. Seven countries have been designated state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria.

Fourth, bolster the counter terrorist capabilities of those countries that work with the United States and require assistance. Under the Antiterrorism Assistance program, the United States provides training and related assistance to law-enforcement and security services of selected friendly foreign governments. Courses cover such areas as airport security, bomb detection, hostage rescue, and crisis management. A recent component of the training targets the financial underpinnings of terrorists and criminal money launderers. Counterterrorist training and technical-assistance teams are working with countries to identify vulnerabilities, enhance capacities, and provide targeted assistance to address the problem of terrorist financing.” - Source: Patterns of Global Terrorism – US State Department

U.S. counter-terrorism policy is targeted on international terrorist groups. With the exception of small rogue groups or individuals, America has not experienced organized domestic terrorism since the Viet Nam era when the underground Weathermen prompted the FBI to launch its controversial COINTELPRO program to infiltrate domestic groups opposed to the war. Recent passage of The Patriot Act has renewed fears that sweeping powers granted by this law will result in government abuses and curtailment of civil liberties, including freedom of speech, assembly and personal privacy.

Other nations have developed far more aggressive internal programs to fight domestic terrorism. The UK has over 30 years of checkered experience countering violence in Northern Ireland. Those efforts have come within the confines and limitations of a Western democratic society and with significant international oversight.

Israel has over 50 years experience combating terrorism emanating from within, from the Occupied Territories and from neighboring states. The Israeli approach has been far more aggressive, far less constrained by democratic institutions and often oblivious to international criticism.

Other states from Sri Lanka to Turkey, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia and Peru that have few democratic institutions, or modest human rights traditions have pursued full-blown military campaigns in efforts to crush opposition movements. Regardless of the government structure many states adopt similar strategies, while those without legal and judicial constraints are prone to pursue increasingly repressive, even illegal tactics.

Following is a listing of counter-terrorism strategies and tactics is far from complete, but attempts to highlight some of the most significant measures that have been employed. Each measure is worthy of close scrutiny and analysis to determine its effectiveness in achieving the desired objectives and conversely, in evaluating the negative ramifications, costs and consequences.

Broad Objectives & Basic Tactics

Violent Political Groups (VPGs) need money, activists, public support, freedom to maneuver, access to weapons and explosives, secrecy, and publicity. States can institute programs to deny and disrupt each of these VPG lifelines. However each such programs entail other consequences that may provoke community anger and outrage, validate dissident grievances, or encourage support for terrorism as a necessary evil. The organization, skills and training required may be beyond the scope of traditional police or military organizations.

Like soldiers that wear camouflage uniforms to blend into natural environments, or snipers seeking to disguise themselves, terrorists work at blending into their setting. As a result, they look like everybody else and can't be identified on sight. In cases where terrorists share visible characteristics there is a temptation for authorities to attempt profiling, which can alienate communities, without focusing on specific individuals. Such measures (listed below) often provoke an unwelcome backlash that deepens discord.

Since terrorists are difficult to identify, states seek to develop intelligence on their covert activities. This involves electronic measures such as wiretaps and visual surveillance (SIGINT), as well as programs to infiltrate terrorist organizations, or recruit informers (HUMINT). The inherent challenge with SIGINT is to find relevant information amidst the massive amount of material that can be collected.

Infiltrating dissident groups is both time-consuming and risky. Recruiting informers is fraught with problems. Informers are often unreliable with questionable motivations. Paid informers are prone to invent information to justify or enhance their incomes. Infiltrators, and informers that are discovered can be used as means to disseminate disinformation.

Most terrorist groups are well aware of the risks of betrayal and take drastic measures to punish and discourage snitches, touts and traitors. To further frustrate authorities sophisticated terrorists have abandoned a military-style, top-down organization and adopt secretive cell organization structures. Individual cells know anything about their counterparts, so if infiltrated, discovered or apprehended little information is revealed.

Al-Qaeda has gone a step further. Al-Qaeda operates much like a franchise, providing financial and logistical resources to kindred "franchisees" that develop targets, plans and operations independently. This dispersed and un-coordinated strategy poses extreme challenges to effective penetration and interdiction measures. It also adds an unpredictability that is less characteristic of groups under the command and direction of a central authority, with known goals, objectives and tactics.

Modern terrorism has also evolved. Today's attacks are less frequent, but more deadly. Terrorists previously acted like rebels seeking to engage the enemy. This was followed by an era of kidnappings and plane hijackings. In response states develop elite counter-terrorist forces, specially trained at hostage negotiation and rescue. Like the child's game - paper-scissors-stone - the next stage of evolution was the adoption of bombings as the preferred tactic. Bombs can be produced from common materials, placed and detonated remotely, with relatively low risk to the bombers and little opportunity for counter-terrorist forces to intercept them. Groups like the IRA developed elaborate warning methods, hoping to avoid civilian casualties. On numerous occasions, UK security forces failed to relay, or intentionally ignored the warnings as part of a plan to discredit the attackers. The latest changes in bombing tactics have been the use of suicide bombers, armed with explosive belts and al-Qaeda's use of hijacked airplanes as flying bombs.

Modern advances in electronics and communications has opened a wide array of opportunities for novel bomb delivery methods using remote detonation and remote-controlled vehicles. While 9/11 has focused attention on potential uses of weapons of mass destruction sophisticated bombs remain a more plausible threat. Given the devastation possible by picking high-value targets, it's questionable why terrorists would engage in the more sophisticated, complex and costly chemical and biological and radiological weapons. Counter-terrorism experts are challenged to developed effective tactics to counter simple bombs and improvised explosive devices, which require widespread inspection and detection activities to screen travelers, baggage, and commercial shipments.

One peculiar habit of most terrorist groups is an inclination to maintain records. Even in the remote caves of Afghanistan, extensive records and documents have been regularly discovered. This suggests that intelligence remains one of the most valuable counter-terror strategies.

In cases of domestic insurgency, dissidents tend to come from a host community, or minority group that often lives in somewhat defined areas. This has led some states to attempt containment strategies designed to shrink, or limit, the conflict zone of conflict. They erect barriers to restrict, or deny access. Such measures make movement more difficult, but have never solved the problem On the contrary it has exacerbated the problems by segregating communities and fostering ghettoization, which in turn breeds greater hatreds and more terrorists.

The difficulty and frustration associated with countering terrorism, or even finding the terrorists has prompted states to adopt broad measures to drain the pond to catch the fish. The idea is to subvert community support for insurgents by imposing collective punishment on the people on whom terrorist rely for support and assistance. These measures are listed below and represent the extremes to which states will go to fight terrorism - heedless of the consequences.

Ironically, the activities that eventually help resolve political conflict are often actions, or reforms that were demanded from the beginning. The cycle of violence is ultimately broken by a cycle of reform. If there is one lesson from human history it is that people will rebel and fight for justice and equality- they always have and always will. If there is a second lesson, it is the age-old maxim that none have ever given up power voluntarily.

State Counter-Terrorist Actions

Bans and Restrictions

States ban opposition political parties

States ban opposition newspapers

States ban public assemblies

States ban religious assemblies

States ban or limit activities of community and humanitarian groups

States ban protest marches and demonstrations

States ban dissidents from appearing or speaking in public or on public media

States erect barriers to separate factions, or deny movement and maneuver

States impose restrictions on travel

States impose restrictions on employment of target populations

States impose press censorship

States revise street patterns

States introduce extensive video surveillance

States utilize electronic intelligence measures

States use aerial surveillance measures

States arrest dissident leaders

States arrest outspoken critics, theologians, teachers, and intellectuals

States impose limitations on citizenship

States impose limits on property ownership & transfer

States ban certain cultural expressions and traditions

States ban use of certain languages

States ban displays of certain flags and symbols

States restrict target population commercial activities (exports/imports)

States restrict target populations business activities (metal shops, chemical products)

State Counter-Measures

States may adopt Special Powers Laws, authorizing a wide range of extraordinary powers. Once authorized and legitimized, it is often difficult to reverse the special powers granted. State counter-measures may include:

Ability to stop and search individuals

Ability to enter and search homes, businesses and any other facilities

Ability to monitor financial records, phone, medical or library records

Ability to detain people without notice, charges, trial or legal recourse

Ability to conduct trials without legal counsel

Ability to control (fabricate) evidence

Ability to detain or convict on presumption of guilt

Ability to convict and “intent” to conspire charges

Ability to conduct unauthorized phone taps and surveillance

Ability to declare martial law

States limit press/media access

States restrict or ban press reporting

States limit, intimidate or expel human rights observers

States adopt rights to expel citizens

States organize or tolerate emergence of armed paramilitary groups

States impose “collective punishment” on target populations

States authorize the use of torture

States adopt shoot-to-kill, or assassination policies

States authorize paramilitary shoot-to-kill, or assassination policies

States arrange for “disappearances”

States condone or deny atrocities by loyalist elements

States destroy homes, villages, farms, and employment facilities of target populations ·

States limit distribution of vital services, food, education, medical care, etc.

States force involuntary migration (ethnic cleansing)

States impose forced relocation of target populations (ethnic cleansing)

States engage in mass killing of target populations (genocide)

States expand counter-terrorist activities into foreign states

States support foreign insurgents that target the same enemies

The Quest for Resolution

States open back-channel (secret) negotiations with dissidents

States adopt reform programs to satisfy target population concerns

States invite third-party reports and peace proposals

States invite or accept visits from foreign statesmen and diplomats

States invite international intervention · States invite third-party negotiations

States agree to proximity talks

States agree to direct negotiations with dissidents

States reverse bans and restrictions imposed on Phase One (above)

States reverse policies or tactics adopted in Phase Two (above)

States offer amnesty and prisoner exchanges or releases

States sponsor reconciliation projects

States adopt political reforms to better represent target population groups

States adopt reforms to provide better economic opportunity

States adopt reforms to provide equal justice for all groups

States punish war criminals

Despite the myriad counter-terrorism measures available, those states that have experimented with counter-terrorism have had only limited success and often run the risk of alienating significant elements of the population.

In most situations, terrorism is better classified as a criminal phenomenon that should be dealt with using police services, rather than a predominately military response. Arguably, the best results are achieved through cooperation of joint state security forces. Police forces supported by intelligence assets and backed-up by military elements as required appear to offer the best chances for containing terrorist activity.

Addressing the fundamental grievances that initially provoked political violence and instituting the reforms demanded by opposition groups brings about the eventual resolution of a protracted conflict. The underlying purpose of political violence is to provide the motivation that is lacking to reform a system inherently inequitable and unjust – political systems that do not represent the interests and aspirations of all the citizens.

Applications to International Islamist Terrorism

Terrorism and counter-terrorist responses typically have been related to nationalist and self-determination movements, where inequities and injustice are rooted in the historical or colonial experience. In certain countries, or regions political violence stems from efforts to change the regime to one that is less authoritarian and that shares the collective wealth more equitably, as in many Latin American countries. One can argue that the current surge of Islamist terrorism stems from the same kind of frustrations and relative deprivation.

Virtually all, dissident movements strive to justify their goals by subscribing to a lofty ideology. In many instances dissidents have adopted socialist, communist or Marxist ideologies, as the justification for demands to redistribute wealth and opportunity. Are these deeply held beliefs or convenient ways to explain the goal and purpose of the movement?

The frustration of Islamic Fundamentalists (Islamists) may be no different. Most Muslim states have no positive experience with democracy, or with communism or any other secular political formula. There political experience has been with totalitarian regimes and colonial emperors. The result has been frustration, relative deprivation and continual hopelessness.

The emergence of a charismatic leaders like the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and Usama bin Laden give voice to some form of change and some hope for change. Their ideological justification is in the Koran, and in the distortion of its traditional teachings. There is little doubt that committed extremists, willing to martyr themselves for their cause, pose an immediate and deadly threat, especially if they gain access to weapons of mass destruction - chemical, biological and radiological weapons.

The international activities of al-Qaeda present vast challenges to authorities, and require sincere international cooperation to disrupt financial and communications networks, interdict arms shipments, curtail freedom of movement and eliminate their leaders.

Al-Qaeda's success has come from attacking soft targets, or where vigilance was lacking, not from sophisticated technical operations. To over estimate their capabilities is to lose focus. To over react is to inspire fear that is disproportionate to the practical threat. And to impose collective punishment will serve only to recruit new followers to their cause.

Perhaps, the path to peace and prosperity will lie in gradual evolution not revolution. Iran and Afghanistan have experimented with government based on religion. The results have not been encouraging. It may require yet another revolution before they attempt a government that represents the interests of all and that can function effectively in a global economy.

One approach to a counter-terrorist policy to deal with Islamist extremists, then, is to view their struggle in terms of its similarities with other violent political conflicts. This will entail identifying paths to the reforms that remove repressive regimes and support the collective aspirations of a frustrated, bitter and angry people.

Back to top>>>