Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Just What Are We Dealing With?

Anyone who has spent much time wading through the literature on violent non-state actor groups, especially literature on terrorism, knows one thing: what we know about the subject seems dramatically different than what we actually understand about it. Blinded by preconceived notions that inform our theoretical structures, all too often we apply the assumptions of rationality, purpose driven behavior, and utility maximization to violent sub-national groups and their members.

One author on the subject of Terrorism, specifically suicide terror, is Robert Pape. His contention is that suicide terrorism is an asymmetric tactic used to expel occupiers. He uses statistical techniques to arrive at this conclusion, then sets forth a rather broad policy prescription that, in a nut shell, equates to something like “if we leave them alone, they’ll leave us alone.” Many have bought into Pape’s argument, believing his methods for arriving at his conclusions are sound and scientific. In reality, they are not. Assaf Moghadam, fortunately, has written an extensive critique of Pape’s book, Dying to Win, in which he identifies in detail the problems with Pape’s analysis, technique, and conclusions. I refer you to the article itself for details.


Another author given great regard is Louise Richardson, particularly for her book What Terrorists Want. Ms. Richardson draws upon her personal experiences with members of the IRA and on several interviews she conducted with other terrorists, and concludes that they are rational actors pursuing specific political goals. Although the case studies she presents are illuminating, the overall prescription, once you’ve read through the bulk of the book, is to discover "how and where terrorists operate, how they organize themselves, how they communicate with each other, how they finance and plan their operations." Apparently the details of how to do that are left to others. I’d also add that anyone who didn’t know that before they started to read the book has been living in a cave.

Applying assumptions of rationality and so forth to violent non-state actor or terrorist groups and the related research is sometimes referred to as the structural or strategic model. From that perspective, counter-terrorism policies usually involve notions of reducing the political utility of terrorism such that terror groups no longer care to pursue the tactic. Evaluation of that frame of reference would seem to indicate failure, as the last time I checked, terrorism is still with us.

Max Abrahms, in a recent article (the title of which plays upon the title of Richardson’s book) What Terrorists Really Want (http://maxabrahms.com/pdfs/DC_250-1846.pdf) pokes some serious holes in the structural approach. He does so by presenting seven puzzles:

1. Terrorism fails to achieve the stated goal almost all of the time
2. Terrorism is almost never used as a last resort
3. Terrorist organizations almost always reject compromises despite significant policy concessions
4. Political goals of terror organizations are, without exception, protean
5. Terrorist attacks are usually anonymous
6. Competing terror groups with identical or highly similar goals generally prefer to attack each other than any other target
7. Terror groups seldom disband despite the consistent failure of the tactic to actually accomplish their objectives

Abrahms’ seven puzzles illustrate clearly that the structural model for approaching terror groups cannot yield useful results because each of the requisite assumptions simply do not, in reality, apply. And that leaves us with a serious problem indeed.

But before we start thinking too hard about the solution, perhaps we should think some more about the actual problem. What is it that we actually fear from terror groups? The clear answer, far and away, is that thanks to the diffusion and accessibility of advanced technology, we fear terror groups could do significant damage through the employment of NBC weapons, or cause significant hardship, economic and otherwise, through cyber or eco attacks and so forth. One reason that the structural model provided us with some level of comfort was that if we assumed a rational actor, we could tell ourselves that specific policy behaviors could deter the use of such weapons or tactics. Removing that safety blanket leaves us exposed indeed.

But it’s an exposure that we’d better get used to. And getting used to it requires that we recognize that withdrawing from the world is not a solution to this problem. In fact, we need to do the opposite. Ms. Richardson’s bromide of know your enemy is particularly apt, despite her reticence to provide some method for accomplishing it. The fact is that any terror group can only be understood and contained by detailing its network and identifying its identity entrepreneur. Accomplishing that requires penetration into societies where such groups are likely to spawn, and we do have some fairly specific understanding of what those societies actually look like. But our marriage to technology and the social remoteness that it has engendered has created obstacles both psychological and physical. Our ultimate salvation does not lie within the walls of ivory towers, but on the streets of the cities of the world. As Americans we have a deep distrust of the word “empire.” Yet empire is what we are, and our security depends upon understanding that being a citizen of that empire means we cannot address it via remote control, stare at it from orbit, or apply convenient assumptions. To do so may give us the sense of security we crave, but it will ultimately prove false, and may cost us all we hold dear.

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