Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fighting Terrorism

The Rand Corporation has been the "mother of all think tanks" according to some, while others revile it as a tool for shaping US policies, controlled by a clique with vested interests. Our concern here is what its research says about combating terrorism.

According to a recent report, the best way to combat and ultimately bring an end to a terrorist group is by effective policing and intelligence.

Of the 648 groups that were active at some point between 1968 and 2006, a total of 268 ended during that period. Another 136 groups splintered, and 244 remained active. As depicted in the figure, the authors found that most ended for one of two reasons: They were penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies (40 percent), or they reached a peaceful political accommodation with their government (43 percent). Most terrorist groups that ended because of politics sought narrow policy goals. The narrower the goals, the more likely the group was to achieve them through political accommodation — and thus the more likely the government and terrorists were to reach a negotiated settlement.

How 268 Terrorist Groups Worldwide Ended, 1968–2006
How 268 Terrorist Groups Worldwide Ended, 1968-2006

In 10 percent of cases, terrorist groups ended because they achieved victory. Military force led to the end of terrorist groups in 7 percent of cases. The authors found that militaries tended to be most effective when used against terrorist groups engaged in insurgencies in which the groups were large, well armed, and well organized. But against most terrorist groups, military force was usually too blunt an instrument.

Although we know in our hearts that it is a war, what we need to focus on, is that we do not glorify it as such, because that provides some sort of legitimacy to the terrorists. We do not want to elevate them to the status of holy warriors. Instead a policy should be implemented so that the public perceives them as criminals and not warriors in a holy war.

What does this mean for counterterrorism efforts against al Qa'ida? After September 11, 2001, U.S. strategy against al Qa'ida concentrated on the use of military force. Although the United States has employed nonmilitary instruments — cutting off terrorist financing or providing foreign assistance, for example — U.S. policymakers continue to refer to the strategy as a “war on terrorism.”

But military force has not undermined al Qa'ida. As of 2008, al Qa'ida has remained a strong and competent organization. Its goal is intact: to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate in the Middle East by uniting Muslims to fight infidels and overthrow West-friendly regimes. It continues to employ terrorism and has been involved in more terrorist attacks around the world in the years since September 11, 2001, than in prior years, though engaging in no successful attacks of a comparable magnitude to the attacks on New York and Washington.

There is an urgent need to focus on developing effective continuous policing techniques, not knee-jerk reactions in the aftermath of terrorist incidents. Nipping them in the bud is a better solution than going after them with full force after an incident takes place. Because the nature of this war is such that the terrorist has the privilege of deciding the next battlefield and the state machinery is usually caught unaware. Heightened security measures, effective policing and infiltration of terrorist cells is the only way to fight them.

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