Know thine enemy

Counter terrorism (CT) is big business. What follows is a rationale for more of its resources to be devoted to refining the sociological, cultural, and psychological understanding of terrorism.

This is not the ingenuous demand from a cossetted ivory-tower academic for abstruse moral concerns to be injected into the ‘real world’ of professional engagement with terrorists. Rather it is proposal for responsible, efficient minds to recognise the pragmatic need for ‘methodological empathy’ (ME)when pitted against the human embodiments of the terrorist threat. By enhancing and complementing other sources of intelligence concerning terrorist motivations, mindsets, and actions ME could make CT more operationally effective and cost-effective.

Conflict Analysis
CT has a built-in tendency to take on an operational logic and momentum of its own which leads its decision‑makers to lose touch with core realities of the very social and political issues it has been set up to deal with. It is a story familiar from the histories of studies of civil services, hospitals, educational systems, big government, and the military. Disturbing case studies in the flawed logic of official policies which ‘lose the plot’ are provided by the escalation of the commitment to material and human resources by the combatant states in WW1 (which claimed 57,470 Anglo-French casualties on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme), the Vietnamese War, just one episode in which, the ‘secret’ bombing of Cambodia, meant over 500,000 Cambodians were killed by 2.7 million tons of bombs.

Indeed the whole of the Cold War was arguably fought on the basis of the impaired reality principle and institutionalised paranoia prevalent on both sides and unforgettably parodied in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. In each case, had a more realistic appraisal of the situation been made which did not involve demonising the enemy and underestimating ‘his’ own ideological or existential stake in the conflict, enormous material losses would have been avoided, not to mention the shocking loss of lives. Similar considerations arise from a study of Suez Crisis and the Second Gulf War. By contrast, in the case of the UK’s Appeasement policy before WWII, greater methodological empathy with Hitler and Nazism might have led to political decisions to keep the evil genie in his bottle.

Understanding the enemy
Such reflections have major implications for the ‘war on terror’. Greater ME would have prevented the dirty wars waged with the ‘liberation forces’ of the Mau Mau in Kenya, the FNL in Algeria, and the IRA during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and might have led to peaceful settlements. Failure to stop 9/11 contributed to by failure to understand the nature of Global Salafi Jihad and the significance of the first WTT attack. There is also every likelihood that the UK’s military intervention in Suez Crisis, the Second Iraq War, and the ‘counter-insurgency’ war in Afghanistan would not have been launched had more been known about the terrorist ‘enemy’ (or ‘his’ absence), saving innumerable lives, acts of barbarity by both sides, and billions of pounds. Hard evidence exists suggesting that had ME been applied to understanding Jihadist terrorism and the Islamist world view underpinning it, CT agencies would have been able to foil the 9/11 and 7/7 plots. To take just one example, ME profiling may well have picked up more acutely the deeper significance of the first attack on WTC in 1993, and barred young men of Middle-Eastern origin with dubious credentials, means of payment, and behaviour from being allowed to train as pilots in the US with no questions asked.

Even when ‘lone-wolves’ are concerned better resourced ME could still be a vital tool. The FBI were at a loss for years to unmask the Unabomber as Ted Kaczynski (finally identified by his brother); McVeigh wrote a revealing letter to the local newspaper and was known to the FBI before the Oklahoma bombing; David Copeland went off surveillance radar when he left the BNP because this was not interpreted as a possible sign of radicalisation; Breivik was a familiar figure on Norway’s virtual far right and bought six tons of fertilizer two months before his attacks, but it seems that naïve assumptions prevailed about ‘home grown’ radicalisation as they had in the UK in relation to 7/7.

Terroristic ‘heroic doubling’

My own research has focused on one aspect of ME in a CT environment, namely the radicalisation process. In Terrorist’s Creed I explore at length the insights which flow from recognising the potential for the fanatical embrace of a religion, ideology, or cause as integral to what it is to be human. Some individuals whose sense of a legitimate place in the world whether socially or existentially is under extreme stress, are susceptible to a psychological syndrome known as ‘splitting’ without displaying overt socio-pathological symptoms. By dividing the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (Manicheanisation) they can become warriors in their own (though possibly collectively shaped and sustained) cosmic drama.

‘Heroic doubling’ can make previously impotent, marginalised, atomised victims of personal or historical forces beyond their control into the avatars in a covert war against ‘evil’ in one of its many guises (Western materialism, abortion, multiculturalism, the desecration of womankind, the Homeland or the True Faith). In the next stage the commitment to act on this fantasy is focused and finds its target. It is a process brilliantly illuminated in the films Tax Driver and Fight Club, and ironically in Four Lions, and documented in excruciating detail by Breivik’s 1,500 page manifesto giving the background to his symbolic strike against those who he alleged were responsible for the erosion of  ‘Norwegianness’.

Enhancing counter terrorism
Were this line of analysis to be integrated into the common sense of CT expertise it would become clear that there is much method in terrorist ‘madness’. It often represents a mischannelling of all-too‑human quest for a sacred cause worth killing and even dying for. Such a working hypothesis could be invaluable both in profiling potential terrorist suspects and in the deradicalisation process. At the very least it would help if CT practitioners see themselves engaged in an ideological and existential conflict to preserve a certain idea of pluralism, individuals and tolerance against the fanatical upholders of social, moral, racial, or religious truths of a deadly simplicity.

This in turn may help stop the agents and front-line soldiers in the counter-terrorist struggle from engaging in their own form of splitting and heroic doubling which depersonalises and demonises them, and sanctions acts of inhumanity in the cause of defending our vision of humanity.

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