Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Ordinarily, terrorists rarely get beaten in the field. Granted the security forces have the occasional victory or takedown. Except for the 1950s Malay campaign, most long-term terrorist engagements either fade-out or drift to a stalemate. Eventually, a political solution of sorts takes centre stage.
Conversely, when terrorists play the game of conventional warfare, they get their butts kicked. ISIS or ISIL (whichever name you prefer) soon discovered that going ‘conventional’ left them vulnerable. Since 2015, they’ve lost territory including Tikrit, Baiji, Ramadi and Fallujah. Today, Islamic State has given up 98% of the land it once controlled. Pockets of militants have fled to remote areas, including along the Euphrates River Valley. In the process, their revenues face depletion.
The ethos of terrorism means you don’t play by your rules. No set piece battles, no laws of war, and no distinction between combatants and civilians. Terrorism, similarly, is continuously changing, evolving with rapidity. Thus you don’t win the war on terror in swift military operations with aircraft-carriers and tanks. Nevertheless, to succeed you need tireless focus, innovation and to be as dynamic as your opponent.
The so-called ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland illustrates the point. The British Army, the intelligence services and robust policing was unable to defeat PIRA in 30 years of struggle. At its height, PIRA had an estimated 30,000 members, but only about 500 were active soldiers. Confined to a small geographical area, you’d assume that surveillance with overt tactics would soon round up the terrorists. It did not happen. Working in ‘cell-structures’ PIRA was able to remain active. The efforts to disrupt its activities failed.
The security forces had some wins. Ambushes caught PIRA units ‘in flagrante’ as they sought to bomb police stations. Despite this, PIRA survived as a functioning entity. When it decommissioned as part of the peace accord in 2005, PIRA produced a vast store of arms. Included was over 1000 rifles, two tonnes of explosive, 30 heavy machine guns and seven surface-to-air missiles. This cache of weapons illustrates the point.
As the London bombing of 7 July 2005 awoke the UK to the failure of its multiculturalism, the shortcomings of the security services were evident. 56 people, including the four bombers, died in the attacks. These home-grown terrorists had no affiliations nor support network. What they did have is a sense of alienation from their host nation. In their suicide videos, they mentioned al Qaeda amongst other influences.
Osama bin Laden’s genius was to franchise terrorism by harnessing Islam and the Internet. The call to jihad acts as an ideological bond to unite fighters across borders and diverse groups. His idea transcends typical structures, as he leveraged religion for this purpose. Without a hierarchy or unified command, al Qaeda operates through a networked system. Eliminating al Qaeda by force is impossible. To defeat it you need to tackle the idea that drives the radicalism.
‘Religion poisons everything’ is the sentiment espoused by polemicist Christopher Hitchens. At the forefront of the current wave of poisoning is Islam. None of this is possible without conditions that drive people to terrorism to seek the change they desire. The social conditions in the Middle East help the spread of militant Islam. It’s playing the role of providing a focal point for the disaffected and those seeking an identity.
The intrinsic nature of Islam is not the pivotal point; instead, it acts as the rally point. It may be that broader inclusiveness could damper the ardour of young men that rush to actions. For this to work, it will need improvements in the underlying economic and social factors. Then young men can enrol in regular societal activities.
"In the long term the best way to beat radical ideas is to make them redundant," says Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of fundamentalist Islam. She believes we need to give young men (its mainly men) an alternative narrative. Radical Islam offers them one version of events. In simple terms that description is the West hates us and wants to dominate. By switching that story, you in effect immunise young Muslims.
When the Muslim Brotherhood says Islam is the answer to political and economic problems, we must provide reasons to why it's not. Islam may meet your spiritual needs, but can't realistically address all societies problems.
There is a historical precedent for this approach. Accelerating the fall of Marxist ideologies was information why the communist system failed. In the 1990s, Eastern Europeans embraced an alternative narrative, leading to the fall of governments.
These days the radicalisation message passes through tools Facebook and Twitter. Accordingly, the first step to derailing that process is to occupy the space with a better narrative. Take part in the debates, make counter-arguments and disrupt the extremists.
For this, to work it's vital to listen to what the radicals are saying. Do your research on their branding and objectives. Understand their means of recruitment and the hooks; what are they saying to get people on their side. Once you know that tact, you can then compose a counter-narrative.
Of course, none of this is glamorous work. Neither is it headline-making nor easy to sell to a public seeking quick answers after a terrorist attack. Cruise missiles and the deployment of special forces make for superior PR, but poor long-term outcomes.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.