Le’ Notes #22: A toolkit for approaching counterterrorism studies

This post is mostly a summary — with additional commentary — of Rohan Gunaratna’s talk in his first session of the Terrorism, Intelligence, and Homeland Security module at RSIS.

The first thing that we need to distinguish is that there is the threat of terrorism and the response to terrorism. Like any good strategist, we need to know what exactly the threat is before issuing a response. It’s the same like answering a question. If we don’t know what the question is or what it wants from us, we can never arrive at an answer. This was exemplified correctly and hilariously in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when the pan-dimensional beings created Deep Thought to calculate the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life and the universe. But it turns out that the beings gave Deep Thought the wrong question, which resulted in the answer “42”.

So, we need to know what we’re facing and the responses that we have in our toolkit.

A history of “modern” or “contemporary” terrorism can be found in the 9/11 Commission Report. In brief, the history of contemporary terrorism began roughly in 1968, but it was only 20 years later conditions allowed for Al-Qaeda to be founded. In 1979, the botched Soviet invasion on Afghanistan and Iran Revolution provided fertilizer for the growth of terrorism, which eventually led to Al-Qaeda being born in 1988. From thereon, a majority of terrorist networks were linked to Al-Qaeda, mainly due to its large influence in spreading anti-West rhetoric and Bin Laden’s wealth. Bruce Hoffman [paywall] notes that Bin Laden was especially experienced in exploiting the Internet and other media in his propaganda machine, a strategy which would later be perfected by Islamic State (IS). Hoffman also gave Bin Laden the moniker of “Terrorist CEO” due to his success in applying modern management principles in running a transnational terrorist network.

Al-Qaeda’s golden age has passed and what we’re now seeing is the age of IS. Of course, the moniker ISIS still sticks and is the thing of internet memes, but de facto, in June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate [HTML], which meant that ISIS had become a quasi-state entity. This also affirms that Al-Qaeda is an old, washed-up grandpa and has been overtaken by his more powerful son.

Threat of terrorism

What is a threat? There are three components of a threat that makes up a “threat matrix”. Previously, I’ve talked about Schelling in deterrence theory, which deals a lot with threat. We can apply similar principles in this assessment of threat. A threat can be “credible” if the agent that delivers the threat has an intention, the capability, and opportunity to deliver whatever the contents of the threat are.

As the case with deterrence, you may issue a threat against another state to deter them from entering your territory. However, the other guy will not think your threat is credible enough if you only have crappy weapons from the Napoleonic age of warfare and if your troops are so poor, they’re in acapella groups. Similarly, you may have intent and capability, but without the opportunity, your threat may not be manifested into a physical action.

In countering terrorism, similar principles can be applied. But how do we know whether an anonymous bomb threat on a mall is credible enough? This involves a lot of intelligence gathering to be certain. But one is for sure, we need to know in detail what we’re dealing with before issuing a response.

Response to terrorism

Before responding to terrorism, we need to know who we’re dealing with. The following poorly drawn diagram represents a theoretical structure of a terrorist organization:


terrorism pyramid.png
Diagram of a typical terrorist organization. Conceptual idea of Rohan Gunaratna.


First, recognize that the pyramid is divided into roughly 2 halves that constitute a terrorist organization. The upper one is a terrorist group, which is what usually makes the news and executes the attacks. This is also the part where America just loves to use their drones against. The idea is, echoing John Warden’s Five Rings, decapitate the leader and the entire organization will crumble. That would be cool in theory, but terrorist organizations are more like hydras; cut one head off and another grows in its place. If a leader dies, then a new one will emerge from the grunts. The Revenge system in Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor simulates this idea quite well.


Damn, those orcs just won’t die.


However, the terrorist group is literally the tip of the iceberg and comprises only half of the organization. Thus, though drone strikes and targeted assassinations are cool and all, they’re only part of the solution. The latter half, the terrorist support base, is usually neglected. This is unfortunate since the base of the pyramid is what keeps the pyramid standing. This part of the pyramid is composed of sympathizers and supporters. Supporters are the ones that have actually pledged support, either by donating money or going to Syria to train to become full-fledged members, whereas sympathizers are the ones that are sympathetic to the idea of a caliphate, but don’t have the motivation to support the organization… yet.

And outside the pyramid, we have normal people who have not yet been radicalized or are potential recruits. This is the fodder of terrorist organizations.

This rough conceptualization of a terrorist organization then provides us with an idea on how to respond to terrorism. We can either work at the top or from the bottom; but either way, both fronts need to be engaged at once. Or in military jargon, we need a full spectrum response. Simply put, according to this belief, there is a spectrum of terrorist acts and an equal spectrum of counter-terrorism approaches. Matching each one with the other is the key idea.

The top part of the pyramid is usually engaged in a “hard” manner. This refers to the means used to counter them, such as drone strikes, enhanced interrogation, and targeted assassinations. Whereas, the bottom part of the pyramid is engaged in a “soft” manner. This refers to two methods which include deradicalization and counter-radicalization. We’ll discuss those two briefly.

Deradicalization can also be called rehabilitation. The idea is, like a drug addict, a terrorist can be “deradicalized” so they can reintegrate into society and forsake their radical ways. Whether or not it works is still up for debate, but the Religious Rehabilitation Group in Singapore is a model for such an approach. For further analyses, see Ashour, The deradicalization of jihadists [Google Books] or M. A. S. Hikam, Deradikalisasi: Peran masyarakat sipil Indonesia membendung radikalisme [book].

Counter-radicalization, or otherwise known as community engagement, is a process that attempts to prevent radicalization from happening. This can be done in many ways according to the needs and societal structure of the community, such as through inter-faith dialogue, workshops, or even community events. The idea is the strengthen the general public from radical ideas. Or in fancy jargon, “win the narrative war” by convincing the public that terrorism is bad and being a law-abiding citizen is good. An example would SGSecure.

We should remember, though, that due to the unique nature of communities across the globe, there is no “one-size-fits-all” counter-terrorism approach that can be applied to everyone equally across the globe. Counter-terrorism is, sadly, not a science, but rather an art. As such, agents against terrorism, which includes the military’s counter-terror units, law enforcement CT units, national security agencies, and also elements of civil society, should cooperate and coordinate in responding to the threat of terrorism.


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