By Nicholas Searle
Our collective consciousness, impelled by populist media, sees terrorists as demons driven by inhuman urges and hellish objectives, and ignores the fact that terrorists are just people. We’re urged to respond as crusaders, making plans to wage wars that will eradicate terrorism. Donald Trump has revived and reinvigorated this language, possibly largely owing to the dulcet tones in his ear of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who m ay actually desire a global conflagration.
Yet, it’s a false starting point and a doomed prospectus. To declare war on terror is to incite more terror. From many years of experience of counter-terrorist initiatives both operational and strategic, and dealing with precisely these issues (though admittedly not from the point of view of a politician with a theatre to play to), I know that bullish aggression is not the way to secure safety or durable resolutions. We must first understand terrorism at the human level if we are to persuade terrorists of an alternative direction. This is an exercise in empathy, but not appeasement.
Imagine briefly that you’re a terrorist (though no doubt you wouldn’t describe yourself that way but as a freedom fighter with just cause). Like most people you’re a package of frailties and uncertainties looking for a plausible piece of wreckage to cling to that offers belonging, purpose, solace and hope. You’ve been taught – whether you’re an inhabitant of rural Colombia, a Kurd, a Northern Irish Catholic or a Salafi Muslim – that your people have been subjected to generations of injustice and repression, which continues. (And this, however much we in our establishment comfort choose to bluster, is probably true at least in part.)
You’re in your teens, when testosterone (if you’re male, which you probably are), endorphins and adrenaline surge unpredictably and confusingly. You’re confronted by a big ogre, threatening to destroy your family, religion or culture, which provides a powerful incentive and a moral imperative to fight back.
You’re setting out on life and terrorism seems to offer a path more meaningful than that of a wage-slave conformist or a member of the impoverished oppressed. You must meet extreme demands and make huge sacrifices to achieve competence, but it’s worth it. You can’t believe you’ve been groomed: you’ve made a free, conscious and courageous choice. You thrive on the danger and can make things happen.
And you do. You kill and maim and wreak havoc, and you get away with it. You’ve gained the admiration of your peers; planted your flag firmly on the moral high ground; developed some niche aptitudes and skills; and now command the awed respect of your community. You’re a force to be reckoned with, telling yourself that you’re truly advancing the cause. The ends clearly justify the means. You may spend some time in prison but it’s a price worth paying. You thrive on the notoriety and the danger. You may not be well off but what is affluence compared with your sense of burning injustice and the standing you now have?
In your 30s little disappointments may appear and begin to aggregate into a larger malaise. You expected to be leading others by now, but you aren’t. You disagree with your bosses over tactics. Younger, brasher bloods are forging their reputations at your expense. You may find your own reactions slightly slower and your physical condition marginally worse, and the next generation has a better grasp of the technologies. It’s increasingly difficult to watch their boundless enthusiasm.
Life’s not quite as simple as it was: there are nuances where there was once complete certainty. You may have children with whom you’ve spent all too little time. You begin to wonder how you will provide for them as you grow older. You own no house, your income is small and your prospects still slimmer. How will you achieve a transition from this life to the more prosaic, steady existence that you are beginning to crave?
At the same time there is no light at the end of the ideological tunnel. You cannot see progress being made and you hang on in there only by a slender filament of faith. The only thing that can sustain you and give you further motivation is the intractability of your adversaries and their continued inhumanity.
In your 40s you hit the brick wall. By now it’s clear that, despite your evident abilities, you won’t receive the recognition you deserve and you’re outside the golden circle. Already you’re being overtaken by younger people. You carry numerous grudges, built up over the years, against several colleagues.
Your organisation is pursuing the wrong direction despite your objections. You suspect you’re now seen as dispensable and that it will take little for your superiors to betray you. The fight has got you nowhere and the line that was sold to you, that violence was the only route to justice, looks darkly absurd. All you have to look back on after 20 years or more, your life constantly at risk, is minimal progress – if any.
You’re in a trap of your own making, and it’s a very secret trap. To confide in anyone of your anxieties and doubts would likely lose you your life and cause your family still greater suffering. It is for this moment that, classically, the intelligence services will have been waiting, ready to offer you what you regard as the only way out: a new life and sufficient cash to escape and give your children the life they deserve.
But if they are to have you, these intelligence services have to know you as a human being with complex emotional needs, and to find something in you to like so that you may like them back. And even at your weakest point, any official rhetoric of exterminating the terrorist threat by waging war with your people is likely to have the opposite effect to convincing you to give up.
In the battle against Islamist terrorism, the language of the Trump administration will only make things worse, as will its alienation of the very people who can play a vital role: those in moderate Muslim communities. A key component if we are to come to terms with this form of terrorism will be to discover, and feel, what it is that compels a young man to give up his life for it. What induces such despair and such hatred? Until we know, and give up our tabloid cod-psychology, we’re unlikely to be able to unravel it.
The human dimension of terrorism centres on, but is not restricted to, the individual. It operates also at the strategic level. For sure, those who set out to counter terrorism need to comprehend fully the big picture and to respond accordingly. Seismic political shifts will probably be necessary in the form of previously unconscionable changes of policy. An assured supply of data about terrorist organisations’ structures, dispositions and intentions will be vital to stop attacks and apprehend those responsible. Big government initiatives may take place to generate counter-narratives. It’s vital to have an appreciation of the terrorist organisation as a network of relationships and a human organism with intellectual and emotional depth. It was on such an understanding that the engagement with the IRA that led to the Good Friday agreement was built. Careful timing, nuanced language and emotional gearing on all sides enabled the moment to be won.
This is not to say that the Irish situation is a template to resolve other terrorist conflicts. We are some distance, I suspect, from the human heartbeat of Islamist terrorism. I’m not sure even it knows what it’s about. It isn’t a consistent, coherent corporate structure in the same way as the Provisional IRA (though the IRA’s military discipline was often overstated). In fact there is no single brain or heart to come to terms with. But we’re blinded by fear and abhorrence at Islamist atrocities, which can lead to blind, ill-informed responses.
The United States (and Russia is probably its equal in breathtakingly crass, bludgeoning responses), has always had a tendency to regard counter-terrorism in unduly simplistic ways. The danger for the rest of us is that the US shapes and polarises the global environment to the point where (in the terrorists’ minds) “we” become synonymous with it.
At some stage this “we” will need to stop repeating the same mistakes. The more we set out explicitly to destroy Islamist terrorism, the less likely we are to do so. We need to steer away from empty, ill-informed rhetoric and reintroduce reason and human understanding.