Monday, May 12, 2008

Winning the Battle of Ideas

I found a couple of thought-provoking comments in this opinion piece by Erik Iverson in the Harvard International Review. Although the main focus of the article is on the national counterterrorism strategy, I thought a few points were fit for consideration by state and local "first preventers." First, this is an excellent encapsulation of counterterrorism strategy:

The objective of counterterrorism efforts is to reduce the incidence and effect of terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, an element of behavior; it is not an ideology. Consequently, the objective of counterterrorism policy should not be to change what extremists believe. The objective should be to change how terrorists act on those beliefs.
In other words, focus on behavior. Focus on what they do and how they do it - not on their underlying value structure. An extremist is not likely to be deterred by a crisis of belief, but they can be deterred by a crisis of confidence in their chances for success. To that end, one of Iverson's recommendations includes:
The United States should aggressively exploit the weaknesses of Al Qaeda’s new decentralized structure. It must degrade the trust in the organization’s systems, among its activists, and between its leaders. Al Qaeda is now critically dependent on a high degree of trust for cohesion among its many elements.

Paralysis of Al Qaeda’s critical organizational systems and the degradation of its most important relationships will not eliminate the Salafi jihadist terrorist threat. It will, however, reduce the ability of the organization to execute operationally complex, high-impact, spectacular attacks.
This is the sort of thing that's possible on the local level. During the recruiting, fund-raising, and operational phases, anyone interested in launching an attack - especially a complex, high-yield attack - will have to take actions that risk exposure. All of these actions present an opportunity to sow doubt and discord.

It's absolutely critical to make distinctions, however. If the reach is too broad and innocent people are swept up, then this just feeds into al Qaeda's paranoid propaganda (i.e., "The West is against us!"). But if the targeting is accurate, then there is a potential to disrupt the trusted networks that are so critical to success.

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