MESH invites selected authors to offer original first-person statements on their new books—why and how they wrote them, and what impact they hope and expect to achieve. Ami Pedahzur is associate professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin. His new book is The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle against Terrorism.
From Ami Pedahzur
One of the first steps taken by President Barack Obama after his inauguration was to start the process of shutting down the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. Supporters of the step praised the president for adhering to moral principles and international law while skeptics have argued that this would undermine the effectiveness of the war on terror. Only time will tell whether this step was successful or not, but in the meantime it should turn our attention to the reasons for creating this detention camp in the first place.
The detention center at Guantánamo Bay has raised questions of why leaders tend to choose offensive measures to combat terrorism and why these measures aren’t more successful. In my book, I address this question through the analysis of the Israeli counterterrorism endeavor over the last sixty years—an endeavor dominated by what I call the “war model.” Since the raids on Palestinian population centers in the early 1950s by the Unit 101—Israel’s first commando unit—this model had yielded very limited results. Emotion, pressures from the security establishment and domestic political considerations have shaped Israeli counterterrorism policy more than any overarching strategy to cope with the threat of terrorism.
My conclusions have implications for policymaking beyond the Israeli case. Most policymakers might be surprised to learn that the demise of terrorist groups and the end of terrorist campaigns in the past have had little to do with offensive counterterrorist measures applied against them. The only approach that has dramatically reduced the number of terrorist attacks and their lethality is the “defensive” one. Sending military forces after the terrorists is much less effective than enhancing security in public areas and relying on domestic intelligence organizations and police forces. And most democracies, despite their declared policies, end up negotiating with terrorists on a frequent basis and cut deals with them.
Terrorism is one tactic which sub-state actors of various types apply for attaining their goals. This tactic is mostly chosen in asymmetrical conflicts, when such groups suffer from inherent military inferiority. Terrorism is employed as a symbolic act of violence aimed at non-combatants with the intent of creating an atmosphere of fear and anger amongst the citizens of the target state. Media coverage of these events only enhances this sense of fear and panic.
However, it is not only civilians who are subjected to the fear inflicted by terrorism. Policymakers suffer from the same effect. A terrorist attack, especially on a large scale or of a highly symbolic magnitude, is likely to frustrate, upset, and lead to emotional turmoil. Thus, leaders are influenced by their own emotions well before they reach a decision-making point. In most cases, elected policymakers in democracies are eager to prove to their terrorized constituents that they are strong, and would like nothing more than to boost public morale as well as their own approval ratings. Consequently, and without knowing it, they limit their cognitive scope of possible decisions to a small number of offensive responses. Unfortunately, this is exactly the outcome that terrorists are interested in.
This process is reinforced by the fact that the angry leaders naturally seek the advice of the security establishment. Most military and intelligence officers are trained to see any challenge from a narrow offensive perspective, and do not have a full grasp of the political and social causes and implications of terrorism and counterterrorism. Thus, they are likely to provide policymakers with a relatively limited set of aggressive options for response.
In past wars, the enemy was identifiable, the rules of engagement were clear, and victory was easy to measure. The struggle against terrorism presents intelligence and military officers with unprecedented challenges. The heads of the security establishment are first faced with the challenge of identifying an elusive enemy. In many cases, the same sub-state actors that perpetrate terrorism, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the IRA, and ETA, are also involved in local politics and even social activities. They rarely wear uniforms and they operate from civilian population centers. Thus, the reliance on signal and visual intelligence, which is highly effective in the struggle against ordered armies, becomes secondary to human intelligence. In other words, technology is at best only a supplement in solving the intelligence puzzle.
After identifying the terrorists, comes the challenge of understanding their motivations and goals. What state actors, especially in the West, perceive as rational does not necessarily reflect the preferences of sub-state actors in other cultures. Therefore, it is very hard to make assumptions regarding the true motivations of the terrorists, identify their vulnerabilities and predict their future steps. This requires intelligence analysts who speak the relevant languages, have a deep understanding of other cultures and are capable of transforming their knowledge into policy alternatives.
But even a clear intelligence picture and a good policy are not enough. Modern militaries are not structured or trained to respond to 21st-century terrorism. They are trained to fight wars with other armies. Even elite counterterrorism units and SWAT teams are more suitable for coping with past scenarios such as hostage-taking crises than with suicide bombers. Thus, the expectations that the armed forces can carry out successful counterterrorism operations are not entirely realistic.
The reliance on the armed forces also takes a high toll in other national security areas. The resources which are needed for countering terrorism are diverted from other military units and projects, which often are more vital from strategic and national security points of view.
In the Israeli case, the best example is the misuse of Sayeret Matkal, a highly trained intelligence recon unit, the main goal of which is to supply detailed intelligence for operations like the one against the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. This unit also has been deployed for rescue, kidnapping and assassination missions since the late 1960s. After a series of failures, especially in rescue missions, Israel formed an elite police counterterrorism unit (Yamam), with the sole purpose of carrying out counterterrorism related operations. Yet, Sayeret Matkal’s commanders know that successful counterterrorism operations, unlike clandestine recon operations, are much more visible and likely to sustain the unit’s reputation and flow of resources. So they use their political ties in policymaking circles to keep on being assigned such operations. This leaves the Yamam counterterrorism experts, who have far less political clout, frustrated and marginalized.
As I indicated earlier, terrorism is merely one tactic that is employed by groups which simultaneously use other strategies, most commonly guerrilla warfare. The LTTE (“Tamil Tigers”) in Sri Lanka, the PLO in the 1970s and Hezbollah today are the best examples of highly versatile groups in terms of strategies, tactics and weapons. It is very hard to declare a war on a tactic, and thus the majority of wars against terrorism turn quickly into extended counterinsurgency operations.
While the state enjoys superiority in technology and firepower, the insurgents usually fight within a well-known territory and easily assimilate among non-combatants. This leads the states to use air strikes and artillery attacks and thus to cause collateral damage amongst civilians. This vicious cycle eventually enhances popular support for the insurgents, as was reflected in Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon and 2009 war in Gaza. In most cases, after a long war of attrition, the state, which launched the attack and refused to negotiate with the terrorists, will cut a deal with them either through direct or indirect negotiations. In terms of winning or losing, such a scenario actually strengthens those who initiated the campaign of terror in the first place.
Clearly, these failures raise the question of whether the resources now being spent on counterterrorism operations shouldn’t be allocated to other national security needs, while thinking “outside the box” on creative ways to cope with terrorism.
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