Just Do Something! The Security Paradox in Counter-terror Strategy

April 12, 2015
Just Do Something! The Security Paradox in Counter-terror Strategy
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

Over the past six months, terrorist violence has occurred almost simultaneously in many regions of the world. The casual observer may be overwhelmed by these threats and demand that “something be done” to punish those responsible and stop future acts of violence.  A counter-terror doctrine must simultaneously make people feel more secure and take effective actions to ensure the physical security of potential targets of terrorist violence.  Sometimes things done to achieve the former can make the latter more difficult.  While “doing something” in response to violence is required, success depends on a nuanced, focused strategy that both punishes perpetrators of violence and addresses political and economic stability in regions affected with terrorist violence.  This article will explore this paradox by first examining the nature of the “just do something” response. It will then consider stability as an element of counter-terror policy.

The use of force to punish the perpetrators of violence is necessary, but will always result in some collateral damage.  The coalition of Arab states confronting violent groups across the region will need to be ready to counter the inevitable propaganda used against them by terror groups to try to discredit coalition governments.  Secondly, while difficult and requiring patience and a long-term commitment, a comprehensive counter-terror strategy must also address potential economic and political “root causes” of terrorist violence.

“Do something to stop this now”

A short recital of recent events is shocking:  Somalia-based al-Shabab kills 148 students at Garrissa University in Kenya.  Boko Haram gunmen, dressed as preachers, kill two dozen in Nigeria.  In Yemen, Houthi rebels storm the presidential palace, and terrorists belonging to al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula free hundreds of their former colleagues from prisons there.  The so-called “Islamic State” fights for control of Anbar and Salladin provinces in Iraq.  Armed groups attack resorts and military checkpoints on the Sinai Peninsula.  The Taliban in Pakistan killed over 240 children in December.  This surge of terror becomes even more sinister when violence spreads to Europe and North America, as was recently realized in Paris, London, Ottawa, and as far away as Sydney, Australia.  Such a litany of violence against innocents demands justice, most often called for in its retributive form; the perpetrators of violence, their enablers and those who inspire violence need to be punished.  However, a hasty, kinetic response can be counter-productive for two reasons: quick reactions risk misperceiving the origins of the violence and result in inappropriate target selections; second, since collateral damage is almost always associated with the application of force, even the most carefully planned attack can provide terror groups with ammunition for their own propaganda efforts.

Democratic societies are especially susceptible to this rational reaction to terrorist violence.  Governments of these societies, under pressure from their people, do highly visible, literally explosive things in response.  Witness the recent violence in Kenya and the response to that violence.  In the early morning hours of April 2, at least four armed men entered the campus of Garissa University College, initially took hostages, then began to murder students—reportedly focusing their violence against professed Christians—ultimately killing 148.  In response Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta vowed that his country would respond to the violence “in the severest way possible.”  On April 6th, Kenyan Air Force planes bombed sites in Somalia described as al-Shabab training camps.  A Kenyan military spokesman reported that, “the bombings are part of the continued process and engagement against al-Shabab, which will go on.  This is part of continuing operations, not just in response to Garissa.”  Eyewitnesses told BBC reporters that the attacks killed at least three civilians and destroyed livestock and wells in an area without al-Shabab presence.[1]

  Unfortunately, this is not Kenya’s first experience with mass-casualty terrorist violence.  On September 21, 2013, al-Shabab gunmen attacked a shopping mall in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, killing sixty-seven and wounding scores more.  This attack by al-Shabab was immediately linked to Kenya’s participation in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and by extension AMISOM’s close relationship with the Untied States.  Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications, admitted, “the fact of the matter is, we’ve actually had a very aggressive effort to go after al-Shabab in Somalia, and, frankly, I think it was that pressure on al-Shabab that, in terms of their own professed motivation, led them to pursue an attack against Kenya.”[2]  Translating as “the youth,” al-Shabab was born as a youth arm of the Union of Islamic Courts that once dominated in the political vacuum of Somalia.  The AMISOM mission itself was a response to al-Shabab successes in its insurgency against Ethiopian forces that invaded Somalia in 2006 and then withdrew in 2007.  By 2011, African Union forces swept al-Shabab from the Somali capital, Mogadishu.[3]

The rise of al-Shabab in Somalia has been directly linked to the United States- backed 2006 invasion by Ethiopia, described as “an operation that was intended to crush Islamic extremists, stabilize Somalia, and install more tractable leadership—but accomplished the exact opposite.”[4]  The implication is that the heavy-handed intervention in Somalia, in which thousands of civilians were killed or displaced, encouraged a radical response.  The intervention and subsequent withdrawal created the vacuum which al-Shabab filled.  Since the Ethiopians unilaterally declared victory over the Islamic Courts and began to withdraw from Somalia in 2007, “intense fighting, piracy, and war-enabled famines grind on, meanwhile, in a more radicalized Somalia.”[5]  The conclusion of this line of analysis is that as states like Ethopia, Uganda, and Kenya join the United States in its war on terrorism, more lives are disrupted by enforcement actions and the greater the opportunity for radical groups like al-Shabab to gain traction.  In other words, the way in which terrorism is fought can itself give rise to terrorism.

We know that the way in which we fight is connected to people’s perception of the fight.  There have been several recent studies that demonstrate statistically that, for example, the United States’ use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs, or “drones”) has both increased negative perceptions of the United States in the areas most affected by drone activity and changed the way terror groups advertise their positions and try to gather support.[6] The utility of negative perceptions to propaganda efforts can be considered separately from the actual effectiveness of attacks by countries fighting a war on terrorism.  In terms of effectiveness, the evidence is mixed: senior terror group leaders who are killed are quickly replaced, but those who replace them may be less capable and experienced.  Also, people who are continually in fear of being killed are less effective because they are then more cautious in how and how often they move.

This is the crux of the paradox. Actions that address security threats, and strategies that can make people feel more secure, can also encourage new, different threats. The same paradox occurs in urban combat.  I receive rocket fire from a densely populated neighborhood.  I can pinpoint the origin of the fire and I can automatically return fire on that point of origin.  But, I also know that the men who set up those crude rockets that just sailed my direction are long gone and the only casualties of my return fire will be innocent bystanders near the improvised launch rails that now sit empty.  The only sensible thing to do is to not return fire—the tragedy of killing innocent civilians will be joined by damaged credibility, will invite retaliation, and may feed enemy propaganda.  Similarly, in counter-insurgency operations, actions that reduce your security in the short-term can gain trust and cooperation in the long-term.  Dismounted patrols (out of armored vehicles, interacting with locals) have been proven to be important in counter-insurgency operations.  These options—not returning fire if fired upon, lowering your guard, reducing security in the short term—seem counter-intuitive and are frustrating positions to be in, but these can be effective security strategies in the long-term.  Clearly the application of force is necessary to remove some threats, but force cannot be the dominant strategy.

As more Arab states take action against targets on the Arabian Peninsula, in Libya, and in Iraq and Syria, these Arab coalition allies will be increasingly described as dupes and lackeys of the West or worse, as “apostate” regimes, lacking all legitimacy.  The core function of military force is to kill and destroy; collateral damage is inevitable.  Arab states taking action against terror groups must steel themselves against the inevitable use of this collateral damage against them, engaging strategic communication to present effective, convincing counter-messages.

“Do something now to stop this later”

            U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf was pilloried in U.S. media outlets for her comment during an interview that the threat posed by Daesh  (ISIS, ISIL, the “Islamic State”) cannot be undone by killing fighters alone, that “we need to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups.”  During the interview with MSNBC host Chris Matthews in which Harf was interrupted multiple times, she essentially suggested that a more effective counter-terror strategy would include addressing the “governance” of regions most affected by terrorist violence.  Her comments were met with derision and, taken out of context, they might seem naïve.  Clearly a “jobs program” in Iraq and Syria is not going to draw Daesh militants away from their jihad to lead peaceful and productive lives.  However, the essence of her message (even if delivered in a less-than-elegant way)[7] is on point and deserves more careful consideration.  The economic and political realities of the greater Middle-East and South Asia must be accounted for in any effective counter-terror strategy.

            How practical is Harf’s “root causes” suggestion?  Can such “root causes” be discovered and addressed?  The decision to support or join extremely violent groups to express your political will is a highly complex one.  If experts agree on one thing, it is that the factors contributing to this decision or “radicalization” are varied.  Studying the decision is fraught with problems.  However, a consensus has developed around a cluster of “root causes” that can either create permissive environments for terrorist violence, or directly contribute to the radicalization of a segment of a population.  These are, generally: high unemployment, economic inequality and social exclusion among heterogeneous groups; rapid population growth (with a “bulge” of young people) accompanied by rapid urbanization; and a clash of values.[8]  No single factor can be identified as “causing” terrorism and the mix of contributing factors can vary in different contexts.  However, sufficient evidence exists to recommend studying “root causes” in conjunction with other contributing factors such as political stability.  Political stability and the ability of a government to actually govern and resolve political crises are cited as belonging to its own category of attending causes.[9]

Thinking about “root causes” is therefore helpful in considering long-term counter-terror strategies.  As is often said: “easier said than done.”  Even if Harf’s “jobs” comment was in fact sensible in the long-term, effecting such a strategy is highly complicated, involving the difficult task of identifying specific contributing or “permissive” factors, and then actually doing something to address those factors.  Struggling economies with governments whose legitimacy is sometimes challenged present a combination of factors that require attention when creating a comprehensive, coherent, and effective counter-terror strategy.


            Effective counter-terrorism requires making people more secure from terrorist violence while also making them feel more secure.  These two distinct, but clearly related, goals can sometimes put a government in a bind.  Sometimes the things that make people feel more secure—launching a convincing counter-attack to punish the perpetrators and their sponsors—can lead to the rise of other threats.  Equally frustrating, sometimes reducing security in the short-term can contribute to greater security in the long-term.  Finally, long-range strategies that try to sort out “root causes” of terrorism are complex and don’t contribute to immediate security advantages, but are necessarily part of a comprehensive strategy.

            Clearly a civilized society cannot countenance violent barbarism, genocide and the destruction of whole cultures, ancient or modern.  The perpetrators of violence must be punished.  But states that apply force must be ready to attend to the inevitable effects of collateral damage through effective strategic communication.  They must be willing to win the political loyalty of their people.  At the same time, a comprehensive counter-terror strategy must also include addressing the “root-causes” of terrorist violence—a difficult task requiring patience and a long-term commitment.

[1].  “Kenya bombs Somalia al-Shabab bases after Garissa attack.”  BBC News Website, www.bbc.com, accessed 6 April, 2015.  “Kenya launches airstrikes on Al-Shabab.”  Al-Jazeera America Website, www.aljazeera.com, accessed 6 April 2015.

[2].  Kitfield, James.  2013.  “The U.S. was fighting al-Shabab long before the Nairobi attack.” National Journal.  29 September 2013, p. 9.

[3].  McBain, Sophie.  2013.  “What’s next for al-Shabab.” New Statesman.  27 September 2013, Vol 142, Issue 5177, p. 19.

[4].  Salopek, Paul.  2012.  “Collateral Damage.”  Foreign Policy, Mar/April 2012, Issue 192, pp.1-6.

[5].  Salopek, Paul.  2012.  “Collateral Damage.”  Foreign Policy, Mar/April 2012, Issue 192, pp.1-6.

[6].  For examples, see:  Williams, B. G. 2010. “The CIA’s Covert Predator Drone War in Pakistan, 2004–2010: The History of an Assassination Campaign.”  Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33 (10): 871–892. and Powers, Marina 2014. “Sticks and stones: the relationship between drone strikes and al-Qaeda’s portrayal of the United States.”  Critical Studies on Terrorism, 7:3, 411-421

[7].  It didn’t help that a day later she said her argument “was too nuanced” for her critics to fully understand.

[8].  For an excellent review of this literature see: Newman, Edward.  2006.  “Exploring the ‘Root Causes’ of Terrorism.”  Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 29:749-772.

[9].  See Piazza, James.  2009.  “Economic Development, Poorly Managed Political Conflict and Terrorism in India.”  Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 32:406-419.