November 25, 2015


How to Counter Violent Extremism : Heavy-handed tactics don't stop terrorism. Good policing and public trials do. (PHILIP GIRALDI,  November 16, 2015, American Conservative)

I recently attended a very interesting conference in Washington that considered how to analyze the problem that has been called "violent extremism" and questioned what should be done about it, if anything. Several expert panels quickly made clear that the label violent extremism is meaningless, an expression of convenience that actually serves to obscure the broad range of motives that can push someone to become part of a terrorist attack. Several speakers noted that the problem itself has clearly been exaggerated for political reasons, to create a wedge issue to attack the administration. Participants observed that of the thousands of mostly Muslim Americans who have sympathy for the fate of their coreligionists overseas and peruse what are too often loosely described as radical websites, few accept that violence is an appropriate response--and still fewer are willing to do something about it.

So law enforcement and intelligence agencies are actually dealing with a tiny subset within a small minority of the American population. I would add that this marked lack of genuine "homegrown" militants explains the frequency of arrests in terrorism cases where the accused have actually done nothing whatsoever and sometimes appear to have been motivated largely by the ubiquitous FBI informants that are often inserted into such investigations at an early stage. Most cases are consequently resolved with either a plea bargain or with a reduced charge relating to "material support" of terrorism. [...]

One thing that was largely missing from the discussion was a sense of history, not particularly surprising given the age and background of most of the participants. I began my career in the CIA working against the largely European terrorist groups that were active in the 1970s and 1980s. To be sure, there were Middle Eastern groups like Abu Nidal also prominent at the time, but the best known and most lethal terrorists were Germans, Italians, and Irishmen. They were just as ruthless as anything we are seeing today and, interestingly enough, the same questions that are being raised currently regarding the radicalization of young Muslims were raised back then regarding middle class Europeans, with a similar lack of any kind of satisfactory explanation. This is largely due to the fact that no simple answer exists because the road to radicalization, as the panels noted, can be quite complicated. Any attempt to create a model can result in erroneous conclusions that inevitably lead to the simple expedient of increasing police and governmental powers.

The defeat of terrorist groups in the 1980s and 1990s should be the starting point for any discussion of potential domestic terrorism. That era tells us what works and what doesn't. Heavy-handed military style approaches, employed initially by the British in Northern Ireland, do not succeed. Terrorist groups come in all shapes, colors, and sizes but at the end of the day they constitute political movements, seeking to replace what they see as an unlawful government with something that corresponds to their own sense of legitimacy. Identifying them as fanatics of one kind or another or as "mentally ill" obscures what they really represent--even if it is clearly useful from a propaganda point of view to energize public support for government initiatives.

Avoiding heavy-handed attempts to penetrate and control identifiable communities that the terrorists operate within has failed since the French tried it in Algeria. Relying on the existing courts and law enforcement does work because the justice system has an inherent legitimacy. Identifying terrorists as criminals and dealing with them as such openly and transparently through the criminal justice system provides a guarantee of at least a modicum of due process, particularly when honest efforts are also made to obtain the support and cooperation of the moderates in the local community. That is how the Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof, ETA, and the IRA were eventually brought to heel. It also led to the dismantling of radical groups including the Weathermen in the United States as well as the Tupamaros and Dev Sol in South America.

Posted by at November 25, 2015 5:16 PM