Terrorism works because some politicians will eventually accommodate terrorist behavior in the hopes that in so doing a “greater good” will emerge from their moral compromise. The well-known civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz believes that rewarding terrorists through appeasement and legitimization only encourages them further. Appeasing one terrorist group will only urge others to use brutality to force political, social or religious change.
Terrorism works because it is a psychological phenomenon. The acts — and especially the expectation of future acts — plays on the fear of politicians and population alike. As Alfred Hitchcock is credited with saying “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
What makes terrorism a preferred tactic is its effectiveness and the ease of planning and execution.
Terrorists train for one mission and can — usually do — plan many years in advance.
• The cultish Aum Shinrikyo took up to five years to plan the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system
• The al-Qaeda attacks against our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam took five years to plan
• Some experts believe that the planning for 9/11 took more than six years.
The plan will also be simple.
• Target information will be readily available on the internet
• The targets will be vulnerable, with a high public profile, to ensure maximum media attention. Media coverage also makes their often claptrap organizations appear more powerful than reality dictates
• The attacks will be offensive and allow the terrorists to seize the initiative Lives are sacrificed for reputation, building the organization’s myth of invincibility
Law enforcement and other government authorities, with myriad public safety and national security responsibilities, have difficulty planning for the unknown. Terrorists, of course, aren’t bound by conventional planning wisdom.
• In February 1993, Ramzi Yousef and his fellow conspirators caught us unawares when they planted the 1,300 lb. bomb in the basement of the World Trade Center that killed seven innocents
• In East Africa our embassies believed that a small bomb was the most likely and planned accordingly. Instead terrorists used larger truck bombs in the August 1998 attacks that killed over 200 and wounded an estimated 4,000
• The US Navy planned for a possible pier-side attack in Yemen, but instead terrorists attacked the USS Cole in Aden’s harbor, killing 17 and injuring 39
• On 9/11 we were prepared for a truck bomb but not for the airliners-turned-cruise missiles that killed thousands
The Dead Are Not the Intended Target
Our inability to accurately estimate a terrorist attack results in a fatal disconnect between the planned for and actual event. Mumbai is such an example. Major and often unexpected consequences cascade from the incident and into the public psyche.
For terrorists, the goal is not just the immediate deaths and wanton destruction, though for them that’s a nice bonus, but the expected “evergreen” damage — the fallout after the attack. Those surviving are the intended target — the dead and the maimed are the terrorists’ weapons of choice.
Though Vladimir Putin’s terrorist retributive justice program may find grudging admiration in some quarters, its brutality and questionable effectiveness would not be tolerated in a functioning democratic republic. Instead, western democracies face a more subtle problem: balancing civil liberties with national security and public safety.
After 9/11, Congress approved the controversial USA PATRIOT Act, which has stimulated rancorous debate between civil libertarians and those desiring a more “kinetic” solution. This dissension has continued over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, the legal and ethical problems associated with treating terrorists as “unlawful combatants,” and the use of Predator Drones to assassinate terrorists in their safe havens.
Sad Truth: Terrorism Works
Many believe that these controversies erode our legitimacy and weaken our ability to effectively fight terrorism.
Terrorist attacks also have a more immediate and personal effect. In December 2001 Richard Reid tried to ignite his shoe on American Airlines flight 63. Eight years later, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to set his underwear on fire, frying his genitalia in the process, on Northwest Airlines flight 253.
The result of these two amateurish acts has been a series of travel restrictions and increasingly inconvenient and invasive airport search procedures. This also opened a debate on the usefulness of profiling individuals before treating everyone as a potential terrorist.
To make matters worse, terrorists can modify their techniques faster than authorities can implement feasible, acceptable, and suitable responses.
The attacks don’t even have to be tactically sound or successful to influence public policy. So long as authorities believe the threat is legitimate, government institutions will respond. Through mismanagement, the “evergreen damage” may become more destructive to legitimate and democratically elected authority than the attack itself.
The only way to prevent terrorist acts is to get inside the terrorists’ decision cycle, when they are most vulnerable. Federal authorities, with support from large metropolitan police departments, use informants (paid and otherwise) to catch terrorists during the early stages. This practice remains controversial as some complain that many of those arrested were hapless victims of police trickery.
In smaller jurisdictions, the most effective tools remain vigilance and professionalism, where law enforcement is in the best position to thwart terrorists while they commit the necessary criminal offenses to support future attacks. However, such good intentions may also result in “evergreen damage.”
It’s my belief that at the end of the day, after the terrorists have returned to the fold, recriminations and criticisms of how law enforcement (mis)used their authority will surface. Officers, once lauded as our first line of defense, will now themselves turned into scapegoats in a society they swore to protect and serve. They will become the last casualties.