Fighting Terrorists, Part II

How do we as a free society protect ourselves from terrorists without in the process losing our freedom to our protectors? To the extent that terrorists are part of organized groups, our counter terrorism agencies need to identify and track the members of such groups with tools and techniques that do not violate our individual privacy. As such groups often operate internationally, the information collected should be shared with similar agencies in other trustworthy countries, though this has been and will remain challenging given quite different data standards from one jurisdiction to another. Individuals identified as part of a terrorist network, or suspected of such involvement, or suspected of having potential interest in such involvement should be closely watched wherever they are. The risks of such state scrutiny to our civil liberties are obvious, but should be pursued with proper oversight and care. The careful balancing of these conflicting objectives is a critical aspect of successful, largely free societies.

The above measures can be helpful up to a point, but they cannot eliminate all risks of terrorism even if we should give up all of our liberties to a security garrison state, which hopefully we still have the courage to resist. Throwing up our arms and bunkering down every time a terrorist blows himself and others up only feeds the enthusiasm of the terrorists. Just as even the safest societies have and will always have some criminals, we can never be fully free of terrorists. Effective policing and a respected, fair, and efficient court system will minimize but not eliminate crime. Most mass murders in the U.S. have been the work of mentally disturbed individuals. While we can do better at identifying and helping those who might otherwise undertake mass murders, we will never succeed fully even if we lock up every person we think has such potential, and those Americans who still value their freedom enough to face such risks would not want to live in such a society.

In the past, terrorist attacks and mass murders in the U.S. have been perpetrated by a wide range of groups and individuals, including white supremacists, black extremists, anarchists, anti-Semites, Puerto Rican nationalists, anti-abortion radicals, and the emotionally disturbed, to name a few. Today’s best identified terrorist risks come from the Islamic State (Daesh) and the radical Islamists who join them or are inspired by them, though the vast majority of deaths in the U.S. from mass murderers since 9/11 have not been at the hands of Muslims.

The threat from Daesh is particularly challenging because it is built upon religious beliefs. The radical religious beliefs of Daesh are incompatible with modern civilization.[1] Killing non-believers, whether by suicide bombings or otherwise cannot be justified by the religious or moral beliefs held by most of humanity, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, humanist, or whatever. Virtually all terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 have been, and can be expected to be, committed by Americans. Of those few claiming to act in the name of Islam, we have benefited from American Muslims reporting radicalized, potential terrorists in their midst to the authorities. This helps explain why so few of these attacks have been by Muslims. Attempting to protect us from such attacks via the police methods noted above cannot stop those who are driven by what they believe is right in the eyes of their god (or those who are mad more generally). They are prepared and even eager to die for those beliefs. If some individuals are willing to blow themselves up for what they believe in, it will never be possible to totally prevent them from occasionally achieving their goal.

Deterring radicalized Islamist youth from their terrorist plans would require convincing them that their understanding of Islam is wrong. Given their willingness to die for their beliefs, undermining those beliefs is likely to be insufficient, though it is important. Virtually all young people seek an understanding of the purpose of their lives and moral values to guide their behavior. Muslims are best equipped and best placed to convince radical Islamists that their understanding of their religion is wrong. But all of us through our Churches, Mosques, Synagogues, schools and our culture more generally must do a better job teaching our young the moral values, and where appropriate the religious beliefs, that should guide their and our behavior toward our fellow man appropriate to living together in the modern civilized world. Coercion will not be enough.

[1] See my earlier blog:

The Levant

President Obama has announced his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State (a.k.a. the ISIL—Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Does it make sense? In thinking about the answer to that question, consider Kevin Lees’ thoughtful assessment — five-thoughts-on-obama’s-isis-announcement – some reflections by Daniel Drezner– four-questions-about-obamas-isil-strategy and the following fantasy.

In order to kill all 28,000 ISIL fighters now in Iraq the United States and its allies Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Turkey and, dare I say, Iran, deploy 50,000, 100,000, 150,000 (whatever it takes) ground troops in the region (which includes, of course, Syria). These are augmented by U.S. logistical support (intelligence, aerial bombing, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies etc.). Leave aside the detail that their involvement in Iraq would be at the request of the government of Iraq, while their involvement in Syria would constitute war against the government of Syria. They succeed fully. Then what? Countering-islamic-state-will-be-hard-in-iraq-and-harder-in-syria-officials-say/2014/09/10/

The key question is whether a fully successful, foreign led military assault will result in or lead to a sufficiently strong Iraqi army to defend the country going forward, and in Syria I am not sure what, and that the ethnic/religious groups within Iraq and Syria will have, or soon be able to, resolve their governance issues sufficiently to function effectively as countries. Experience with foreign intervention in civil wars (e.g., Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq in 2004) suggests that progress toward resolving internal issues is suspended as foreigners take over the fighting. Moreover the foreign liberators quickly become foreign occupiers and thus targets of unhappy citizens—if not the ISIL fighters, then their successors.

In that likely case, the United States and its allies will need to govern Iraq and Syria for a few years until local institutions and political forces develop sufficiently to take over self-governance. We did this before in Iraq from 2003-5, with the Coalition Provisional Authority of which I was a part (Senior Monetary Policy Adviser to the Central Bank of Iraq). While some useful institution building was accomplished, the overall effort was a failure, with Iraq’s governance under al-Maliki about where it was in 2004 or worse. Do we really want to try it again?

Aside from deep concerns about war with Syria, I think that President Obama’s strategy as outlined yesterday (Sept 10) is about right if not a bit overly aggressive. Iraq will not address and resolve its internal issues unless they do the fighting to defend their country, working out and making the compromises needed for peace and cooperation among its Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish populations. Limited, non-combat assistance from the U.S. and others can make a large difference, but it is and must remain Iraq’s war. To my taste Obama is leading a bit too much from the front when he should be leading from behind, but he has so far set out a strategy that could work. I hope that he sticks to it.