Probing for Soft Spots in a Terrorist’s Irrational Armor

Suicide vest“Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many senior U.S. government officials and national security experts argued that terrorists were undeterrable. After all, how do you deter people who are irrational or willing to give their life for a cause?” ask Barry Pavel and Matthew Kroenig at Foreign Policy.

It’s become conventional wisdom: troubled suicide bombers look ahead to the afterlife for rewards denied them on earth as surely as European serfs did in the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, al Qaeda and the Taliban are unconcerned with casualties to civilians caused by their operations or by retaliation against them.

In fact, Pavel and Kroenig maintain that militant leaders of the likes of al Qaeda and the Taliban can be deterred. First, as is becoming common knowledge, terrorists

… value tactical success … the United States can deter terrorism by. … convincing the adversary that the action is unlikely to succeed or result in substantial benefits. … Any terrorist, even a suicide bomber, will be reluctant to jeopardize resources, reputation, or martyrdom on a failed attack. … Ideally, Washington should aim to persuade them that terrorism entails high costs and minimal benefits and that, on balance, it doesn’t pay.

Also, the authors state, a seed can be planted in the terrorist’s mind about whether a planned operation is truly in accord with Islamic teachings.

By working with mainstream Muslim clerics and employing other measures to … sow doubt about whether killing oneself and other innocent civilians is consistent with Muslim theology, the United States can convince would-be terrorists to choose a different career path.

In an aside, yes, the authors actually refer to terrorism, apparently with a straight face, as a career path. Okay, it does pay and if you can manage to avoid being sweet-talked into becoming a suicide bomber, it’s likely that room for advancement exists. Meanwhile, Pavel and Kroenig also write

While it might be difficult to deter people willing to die for a cause, many of the most important members of a terrorist network are not suicide bombers. State sponsors, financiers, logisticians, radical clerics, and even some leaders highly value their lives and material possessions; they can, therefore, be deterred by simple threats of imprisonment or death.

Or, presumably, closely targeted sanctions. It isn’t long, though, before the authors stumble into dangerous terrain.

… the U.S. government can seek to deny publicity to terrorist groups. When cable news stations broadcasted the images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center over and over again in the days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, they played into al Qaeda’s hands by amplifying the terror of the event throughout American society. To avoid repeating this mistake, the United States should follow Israel’s lead in developing a private-public partnership in which media outlets agree to limit the amount of coverage devoted to terrorism. These purely voluntary agreements should aim to strike an appropriate balance between the public’s right to know and government efforts to combat terrorism. …

U.S. policymakers should do more to work with friends and allies to put laws on the books (where they do not already exist) to punish terrorist activity, develop capabilities and partnerships to increase the probability that those participating in terrorism are identified.

Put laws on the books? Sure, the Patriot Act has worked like a charm in conjunction with the embarrassment of national-security riches we enjoy with our legion of intelligence agencies. Not to mention the warrantless electronic surveillance blanketing our phones and computers.

If much of that were rolled back, maybe then we could start talking about “voluntary” (wouldn’t consensus require a vote by the public?) censorship. As national security is presently constructed, asking news organizations to limit our exposure to terrorist acts only adds insult to our civil liberties injury. Also, aside from the impossibility of constraining the Internet, the terrorists will take credit for the disruption to the American way of life that censorship represents.

While Islamist violence is a fire that can never be stamped out, it can be deprived of fuel by admitting that there’s some merit to their grievances, such as U.S. presence on their soil and our reluctance to address Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.