Le’ Notes #30: The hard and soft of counter-terrorism efforts

This post briefly discusses the two major approaches to addressing terrorism, the “hard” and “soft” approaches.

“We could do this the easy way or the hard way,” said the CIA officer, preparing the standard operating kit for waterboarding.

If you’re a fan of the 24 TV-series or Zero Dark Thirty and the many other terrorism-related movies out there, you’d pretty much have a glimpse of how the United States handles terrorism: showing the terrorists who’s boss. The Bush administration was notorious for launching the War on Terror, a move which did kill Osama Bin Laden, but gave us ISIS with a vengeance and a century’s worth of problems in the Middle East.

Despite some of the successes of the War on Terror, it has often been criticised as being “counter-terrorist” rather than “counter-terrorism”. The former suggests a focused obsession on killing terrorists as opposed to addressing the larger, structural issues that gave rise to the “illness” in the first place. Thus, in the recent years, we’ve seen a “softer” approach to counter-terrorism. As opposed to invading Iraq and ordering drone strikes, the soft approach attempts to address terrorism as an issue that stems from extremist ideology. What needs to be attacked is the ideology, rather than the terrorists themselves.

Both approaches have their own merits and shortcomings, and that’s what I attempt to briefly discuss.

The hard approach

Getting physical requires at least one person to get hurt. Death is optional.

The hard approach is generally understood as using kinetic force to achieve an objective. This covers a broad range of activities, but usually, involves one party getting hurt. Aside from deploying the entire arsenal of democracy in the Middle East, two often-used methods in the “hard” approach that we’ve seen during the course of the War on Terror are torture and drone strikes.

Torture: a pack of cigarettes and beer works better

The movie Zero Dark Thirty, which chronicles the struggle of a fictional CIA agent in tracking down Osama Bin Laden, makes an attempt to highlight (or rather, glorify) the use of torture in obtaining information that would lead to future kinetic force being applied to a terrorist organisation. Similarly, the hit series 24 does the same thing. In real life, the CIA used “enhanced interrogation techniques” (which is really just a fancy term for torture), such as waterboarding, sensory deprivation, and cramming someone into a box for 48 hours. These methods have long been controversial, especially when their actual effectiveness comes under scrutiny.

In 24 and Philosophy [book], O’Mathuna discusses the ethics of torture. Torture is defined as “not just a physical beating; it is a violent raping of a person’s soul.” The classical utilitarian argument is used to justify the use of torture on a suspected terrorist; that the number of lives that can potentially be saved outweighs the one life of the terrorist in custody. The utilitarian scenario is justified under circumstances of extreme uncertainty and time pressure, known as the “ticking bomb scenario”. Under such parameters, Jack Bauer would be morally justified to waterboard the life out of a terrorist until Jack gets information on where the bomb (either figuratively or literally) is.

While this argument is indeed attractive (not only because it provides Hollywood with a good movie plot), it can only under the assumption that it works all the time: the terrorist actually knows where the bomb is and that he will always provide correct information. When torture gets a reality check, the U.S. found out it didn’t work. Torturing terrorists would often lead to no intelligence or faulty intelligence, which is suspected to be fabricated because the terrorist would say anything to escape the pain.

“I’ve never found it [torture] to be useful. Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I’ll do better.” – General James Mattis, New York Times

Does justice rain from above?

U.S. reveals newest new super soldier prototype: the Pharah Democracy Deliverance System.

Another signature approach in dealing with terrorism is the use of drone strikes. Drone strikes, the favourite weapon of the Obama administration, are often praised for being surgical tools that limited collateral damage. However, they come with their own set of controversies.

A brief history of the drone can be found in Wood’s Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone WarsThe first drone strike recorded was sanctioned by Bush and targeted Mullah Omar, a Taliban mujahideen. It was a failure, but drones would soon gain a chance for redemption in Operation Enduring Freedom. Drones would later become increasingly useful for carrying out targeted assassinations of Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, such as Abu Hamza Rabia and Nek Muhammad. In Pakistan alone, there were around 300 drone strikes and much more in Afghanistan and Yemen., though the real number remains undisclosed.

The issue with drone strikes mostly concerns their legitimacy. As of current, there is no international law that regulates the use of military drones in counter-terrorism operations. Does it constitute a violation of sovereignty, especially when we consider the terrorists’ hiding place to be within a populated area? Wouldn’t launching a Hellfire missile be tantamount to an act of war? This often unlawfully-perceived use of drones, as Boyle [paywall] observes, has led to resistance from local governments, which hinders the U.S. efforts in advancing a more holistic and full-spectrum approach to winning an ideological battle with terrorists.

While drones are excellent tactically due to their precision, their strategic effectiveness has come under question. Marranci, in Wars of Terror, [book]  found that living constantly under the fear of being “justice’d from above” is correlated to an increase in radicalisation among the youth in Muslim communities. As Kilcullen and Exum write in the New York Times:

…every one of these dead non-combatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.

Hard approaches usually focus on destroying the terrorist threat physically but tend to ignore the larger picture of a strategic victory through a prolonged ideological battle of words. While they have their shortcomings in being strategically ineffective, the hard approach does have some merits, especially against hardened terrorists that won’t respond to reason. The assassination of Osama Bin Laden was a necessary measure to weaken Al-Qaeda significantly. The current offensive against ISIS is a physical attempt to reduce their power by reducing their operational territory. Of course, the hard approach should ideally be the last tool to be whipped out from the counter-terrorism toolkit. It also needs to be meticulously managed and controlled to prevent unintentional consequences, such as the rise of ISIS.

The soft approach

Do deradicalisation programs work?

If the hard approach can be likened to the First Foundation’s obsession with military force, the soft approach is the Second Foundation’s obsession with countering ideas and influencing change through the use of mental powers. Unlike the hard approach that focuses on the physical, the soft approach addresses the core problem: extremist ideology. The general idea is to prevent the spread of extremist ideology and furthermore, prevent vulnerable segments of society from being radicalised. Additionally, it also attempts to rehabilitate ex-terrorists and help them reintegrate into society to prevent them from sliding back to the dark side.

Two programs are prevalent in the soft approach: deradicalisation and counter-radicalisation. The former is focused more on ex-terrorist rehabilitation, while the latter on preventing the spread of ideology.

Making terrorists normal again

Deradicalisation programs operate on the assumption that terrorists can be reconditioned to renounce their extremist ideologies and live life like normal people. There are two objectives of deradicalisation programs, depending on their objective. Disengagement usually refers to programs that encourage terrorists to renounce violence, but not necessary their worldviews or connections to terrorist networks. The idea is, at least they won’t be willing to fight anytime soon. Full deradicalisation is harder to achieve as it requires the terrorist to fully renounce violence, their extremist worldviews, AND connections to terrorist networks.

Now, deradicalisation programs come in all shapes and sizes. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to tailoring these deradicalisation programs. These programs need to be tailored to fit cultural, social, and political contexts of the countries adopting them. As such, a program in the UK  would take on a very different form than in Indonesia. But the underlying idea is the same: to rehabilitate ex-terrorists.

Idris and Taufiqurrohman provide an interesting account of the Indonesian deradicalisation program, which involves the Police, the National Terrorism Prevention Agency, and NGOs. In Indonesia, deradicalisation is often understood as

“…any attempt to neutralise the radical ideas through interdisciplinary approaches such as law, psychology, religion, and social culture for those who are influenced by radicalism and have been involved in terrorism.” (p. 72)

The program involves a three-pronged deradicalisation approach proposed by Petrus Golose, the incumbent Chief of Police of Bali, which constitutes the following elements:

  1. Humanist: Efforts to combat terrorism must be in accordance with human rights.
  2. Soul approach: Building rapport with law enforcement and terrorists without the use of violence.
  3. Touching the grassroots: Combating terrorism should not stop at a convicted terrorist; it should reach the entire community.

The Indonesian deradicalisation program involves rehabilitation and providing a “counter-story” to deradicalise terrorists. The idea is to make them renounce their extremist worldviews through dialogue with ex-terrorists (Nasir Abas, a former figure in the Jemaah Islamiyah is often cited as an example) and religious scholars. Rehabilitation programs generally focus on providing ex-terrorists skills training to expedite their reintegration into society. This was brought up by Noor Huda Ismail in his documentary, Jihad Selfie, where his institution provided training for ex-terrorists so they can open up their own businesses.

The success level of these programs is open to question, however, since there are no metrics of success and programs are usually run on an ad-hoc basis in the absence of an integrated approach. Furthermore, there are concerns of the effectiveness of these programs, especially when it comes to potential recidivism.

It’s the story, stupid

Counter-radicalisation programs usually attempt to counter extremist ideology and prevent the spread of extremism within the population. This ties in nicely with Ramakrishna’s proposal to “attack the story”, rather than the person. In It’s the Story, Stupid [PDF], he argues that counter-terrorism efforts should focus on delegitmising the jihadi-driven “story” with a more moderate “counter-story”. Ramakrishna proposes the promotion of liberal interpretations of Islam that are compatible with the 21st century and exposing the truths behind terrorist propaganda. The general idea is that if people understand that ISIS’ propaganda is a bunch of bullshit, they won’t be tempted by ISIS propaganda.

The UK’s PREVENT program is an example, albeit controversial, of a counter-radicalisation strategy. It operates on the assumption that exposure to extremist ideology would lead to involvement in terrorist activity. However, the program’s operations have been widely criticised as being counter-productive as it may lead to the alienation of Muslims.

As we’ve seen, soft approaches focus more on the ideological aspect of terrorism and preventing it from “infecting” the people. The good thing about these programs is that they prevent people from getting hurt and provide hope for ex-terrorists to reintegrate into society. It also allows combating terrorism more strategically, by attacking the ideology that fuels it rather than the people committing it. However, they may be considered controversial, especially when dealing with abstract issues like extremist ideology. Maintaining such programs also requires a sustained input of trained professionals and money, two things that are often short in supply. Furthermore, there is the question of effectiveness; do these programs really work in the long run?

Which one to pick?

Having gone through the different approaches briefly and having considered their merits and shortcomings, which one should be prioritised? I believe that both approaches are feasible but under certain contexts. The hard approach should be conducted carefully to prevent grievances which could fuel future development of extremist ideology. It shouldn’t be discounted altogether; it should be used as a final option, for cases that require force. The soft approach should be prioritised, as it targets the ideology, which is the main enabler of terrorism. However, these soft approaches also need to be monitored carefully lest they backfire and end up creating more fault lines within society that terrorists may exploit. In the end, both approaches are needed in the fight against terrorism. It’s all about how and when you use them.


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