The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last week quickly produced demands for stronger steps to be taken against Europe’s own domestic Islamic militants. At least some of the terrorists were indeed French citizens and the massacre of 129 innocent civilians will undoubtedly also generate new calls in the U.S. Congress to do something about the perception of a homegrown terrorist threat on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, the U.S. is extremely vulnerable to attacks against targets that are not high profile and therefore relatively unprotected by security. Think of the havoc multiple gunmen could wreak in coordinated assaults on shopping malls, sporting events, schools, and theaters. And, unlike in France, the perpetrators would be able to procure their weapons locally and even legally, easing the logistical burden on staging an attack.
Whom to blame and what to do will undoubtedly become political footballs in the next several weeks, particularly among those aspiring to be elected president in 2016. Jeb Bush has already declared alarmingly that there is “an organized effort to destroy Western civilization.” Candidates will likely promote new laws to further limit some constitutional liberties in the United States including freedom of speech, oblivious to the fact that perfect security everywhere all the time is an impossible objective while fundamental freedoms once stolen from the American people will never be returned.
I recently attended a very interesting conference in Washington that considered how to analyze the problem that has been called “violent extremism” and questioned what should be done about it, if anything. Several expert panels quickly made clear that the label violent extremism is meaningless, an expression of convenience that actually serves to obscure the broad range of motives that can push someone to become part of a terrorist attack. Several speakers noted that the problem itself has clearly been exaggerated for political reasons, to create a wedge issue to attack the administration. Participants observed that of the thousands of mostly Muslim Americans who have sympathy for the fate of their coreligionists overseas and peruse what are too often loosely described as radical websites, few accept that violence is an appropriate response—and still fewer are willing to do something about it.
So law enforcement and intelligence agencies are actually dealing with a tiny subset within a small minority of the American population. I would add that this marked lack of genuine “homegrown” militants explains the frequency of arrests in terrorism cases where the accused have actually done nothing whatsoever and sometimes appear to have been motivated largely by the ubiquitous FBI informants that are often inserted into such investigations at an early stage. Most cases are consequently resolved with either a plea bargain or with a reduced charge relating to “material support” of terrorism.
Only one speaker believed that “something has to be done” about the violent extremism problem, and he was also the only participant coming at the issue from a government perspective. Most of the others suggested that there might be other ways to look at the phenomenon and agreed, based on a considerable body of research, that there is no identifiable process whereby one becomes a terrorist. Setting up programs based on the premise that that there is some kind of behavior model has been tried in Europe and has proven ineffective. The preferred hybrid programs generally combine police and intelligence agency surveillance of Muslim communities with social service type approaches to “help” those who presumably have been either coopted or “brainwashed,” but they often only generate well-deserved suspicion and unwillingness to cooperate unnecessarily with the authorities.
Where Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs stigmatize and alienate Muslim communities they actually succeed in increasing radicalization while simultaneously discrediting any legitimate government role in preventing a terrorist incident. In one of three current pilot CVE pilot programs in the city of Minneapolis, Somali children were reportedly considered to be “at risk” and were to be monitored both in and out of school to “help spot identity issues and disaffection.” Other programs are being tested in Boston and Los Angeles while the Department of Homeland Security has created an Office for Community Partnerships, a euphemism for CVE, to coordinate efforts.
There are no specific guidelines regarding what constitutes necessary training for a designated CVE lunch monitor or even how and when that individual would be empowered to report suspicious behavior to the FBI. The lack of any framework opens the door to profiling and other abuse. And one might also note that the programs that are currently de facto focused exclusively on Muslims have been deliberately established without any specific sectarian or ethnic bias. The federal government reportedly also considers some groups opposed to gun control, immigration, abortion, and taxes to be violent extremists and potentially subject to the same type of soft surveillance combined with attempts at social engineering.
One thing that was largely missing from the discussion was a sense of history, not particularly surprising given the age and background of most of the participants. I began my career in the CIA working against the largely European terrorist groups that were active in the 1970s and 1980s. To be sure, there were Middle Eastern groups like Abu Nidal also prominent at the time, but the best known and most lethal terrorists were Germans, Italians, and Irishmen. They were just as ruthless as anything we are seeing today and, interestingly enough, the same questions that are being raised currently regarding the radicalization of young Muslims were raised back then regarding middle class Europeans, with a similar lack of any kind of satisfactory explanation. This is largely due to the fact that no simple answer exists because the road to radicalization, as the panels noted, can be quite complicated. Any attempt to create a model can result in erroneous conclusions that inevitably lead to the simple expedient of increasing police and governmental powers.
The defeat of terrorist groups in the 1980s and 1990s should be the starting point for any discussion of potential domestic terrorism. That era tells us what works and what doesn’t. Heavy-handed military style approaches, employed initially by the British in Northern Ireland, do not succeed. Terrorist groups come in all shapes, colors, and sizes but at the end of the day they constitute political movements, seeking to replace what they see as an unlawful government with something that corresponds to their own sense of legitimacy. Identifying them as fanatics of one kind or another or as “mentally ill” obscures what they really represent—even if it is clearly useful from a propaganda point of view to energize public support for government initiatives.
Avoiding heavy-handed attempts to penetrate and control identifiable communities that the terrorists operate within has failed since the French tried it in Algeria. Relying on the existing courts and law enforcement does work because the justice system has an inherent legitimacy. Identifying terrorists as criminals and dealing with them as such openly and transparently through the criminal justice system provides a guarantee of at least a modicum of due process, particularly when honest efforts are also made to obtain the support and cooperation of the moderates in the local community. That is how the Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof, ETA, and the IRA were eventually brought to heel. It also led to the dismantling of radical groups including the Weathermen in the United States as well as the Tupamaros and Dev Sol in South America.
Intelligence agencies have a legitimate role in collecting information to support the efforts of law enforcement. But where programs are set up to spy on a suspect community (as they have been most notably in Britain), such activity when exposed will turn cooperation into resistance. In fact, singling out Muslims or immigrants from a particular country either as victims or perpetrators is not a good idea. It labels those on the receiving end as being somehow involved with a poorly defined and nebulous “terror problem” even when they are not. In reality, Muslim-Americans are above average in income and education. They are regarded by most local communities where they have settled as all around good citizens. Law enforcement sources state that they have routinely cooperated with police to help identify members of their community that appear to be becoming radicalized.
So the question over whether domestic terrorism requires a heavy hand, a lighter but more social services oriented approach, or reliance on law enforcement should come down in support of the police and courts. Will there be more terrorist attacks inside the United States? Almost certainly yes, but the solution is to work hard within the limits of the law. We must identify and arrest genuine potential perpetrators while avoiding creating whole classes of alienated citizenry in the process. The criminal justice system is designed to do just that.
And it is important to remember that terrorist organizations come and go, historically speaking. Groups that employ the tactic of terrorism are not the new normal and are mostly creations of specific circumstances that rarely repeat. In the current case, the war against the Russians in Afghanistan followed by the U.S.-led “global war on terror” together triggered dislocation and security breakdowns in the Middle East and Asia. Most radical groups are essentially nihilistic in their core beliefs and they eventually fall out of fashion. Put some of them in jail while providing amnesties for the not-so-hard core and many of the so-called terrorists inevitably go off message and disappear.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.