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Defeating extremist violence

December 10, 2008

The threat of major violence against innocent people by extremist groups is one that we’re nowhere close to solving. What are the solutions that might be considered? Here are the sorts of things that have been discussed for the past decade or so, when high-casualty terrorism became a part of the everyday landscape. These are listed in order of proximity to an eventual attack — and probably in reverse order of likelihood to succeed.

  • Provide enhanced security at high-likelihood targets
  • Establish well-trained and well-armed rapid response forces
  • Improve intelligence gathering about potential adversary individuals and organizations
  • Apply diplomatic and military pressure on training bases and refuges
  • Suppress the flows of arms and dollars to extremists
  • Suppress the ability of extremist groups to use advanced communications to coordinate attacks
  • Develop new technologies and sensors that can detect weapons before they are used (e.g. radiation monitors, explosive chemical sensors, biohazard sensors)
  • Forge strong alliances with other states who can suppress extremist organizations within their jurisdictions
  • Make determined efforts to address and resolve major grievances
  • Support community-level work in regions where extremist mobilization is likely to be greatest.

These strategies move from the level of police and military response to attacks, to attempts to reduce the capacity of extremist groups to mount attacks, to efforts aimed at reducing the appeal of extremist groups to potential recruits in relevant populations.

It is hard to see how point security could ever do the job. The attacks in Mumbai demonstrate that there are too many targets, ranging from hotels to train stations to hospitals, to permit states to provide protection against attack everywhere. This is true in every major city; and there are thousands of cities globally that could be subject to attack.

Rapid response forces are certainly needed — but this concedes the first several hours to the attacking group and works, at best, to limit casualties. (One of the complaints that Indian citizens are making about their government’s responses to the attacks in Mumbai is the delays that ensued between the onset of attack and the deployment of effective counter-measures.)

Better intelligence is certainly an important part of the struggle against terrorism; once there are committed and dangerous extremist organizations at work, it is crucial for anti-terrorist agencies to know as much about them and their leaders as possible. More detailed knowledge of plans, objectives, and capabilities will permit anti-terrorist agencies to anticipate and prevent attacks; knowledge of the leadership and command networks within these organizations permits anti-terrorist agencies to interfere with the functioning of the organizations and their ability to carry out specific attacks.

But it seems intuitively clear that the most comprehensive response to terrorism is to attend to the “peace and justice” issues that have often created massive anti-western attitudes in the first place. These attitudes in turn create an environment in which extremist organizations are able to recruit many new foot soldiers. Kashmir, Palestine, and Northern Ireland have all, in their time, stimulated waves of terrorist attacks against civilians. Just and fair resolution of the conflicts in those regions would go a long way towards reducing the readiness of individuals to participate in extremist organizations.

So this suggests a multi-stranded strategy against terrorist violence for the United States and European states to pursue: to undertake determined and committed diplomacy aimed at improving the circumstances of peace and justice in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa; to commit significant resources towards economic development strategies that improve conditions for ordinary people throughout the world; to create well-trained and well-managed security agencies that can respond to threats and attacks effectively and with precision; and to design international policies that make it more difficult for extremist organizations to gather the resources and arms they need to pursue their violent goals.

There is a lot of overlap between this set of ideas and Kofi Annan’s thinking on the subject. Here is the list of approaches to terrorism that Annan advocated as a principled, comprehensive strategy against terrorism at a global conference in 2005 (speech):

There are five elements, and I shall call them the “five D’s”. They are:

  • first, to dissuade disaffected groups from choosing terrorism as a tactic to achieve their goals;
  • second, to deny terrorists the means to carry out their attacks;
  • third, to deter states from supporting terrorists;
  • fourth, to develop state capacity to prevent terrorism;
  • and fifth, to defend human rights in the struggle against terrorism.

The United Nations has already, for many years, been playing a crucial role in all these areas, and has achieved important successes. But we need to do more, and we must do better.

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