What Truly Makes a Terrorist?
No issue has drawn more public scrutiny during the first month of the Trump presidency than the travel restrictions placed upon nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries. The Trump administration frames this issue as one of national security: restricting travel from these countries will make us safer because security agencies in those countries are simply unable or unwilling to cooperate with the United States. Opponents’ arguments vary, but some contend that the order harms national security by acting as fodder for militant groups seeking new recruits. A casual observer might reasonably wonder if the competing schools of thought exist in alternate universes. The divergence is not the fault of so-called alternate facts, but of different frameworks for analyzing where terrorists come from and where they are going.
Counterterrorism hawks believe that force is the primary, if not only, solution to terrorist threats, and that the recruitment base for these organizations is largely fixed. In other words, for jihadi recruiters, followers and foot soldiers are found almost exclusively within defined ethnic and religious circles. Some people are Muslims, and others are not. Within those groups some are extremists, and others are not.
People are radicalized when they are plucked from the bin of potential radicals and turned into terrorists. Making changes to that framework of analysis is not particularly helpful in counterterrorism, because there are only so many people in the bin, and their individual transformation into terrorists is not all that important. What matters is that they make that transformation at all. Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake captured this worldview well in a recent article, writing “the process by which an individual gets sucked into the death cults of al Qaeda or the Islamic State cannot be reduced to a single cause.” This statement is not only factually correct, but uncontroversial among experts. What is controversial, however, is the role that factual statement plays in determining policy.
Counterterrorism doves, on the other hand, believe that counterterror efforts can include measures such as policy concessions, in part because the potential recruitment base for terrorism can change. While doves accept that primal identity, like religious identity, rarely changes, they do not see primal groups as the source of terrorism. It is in fact smaller groups, whether a sub-group of a primal identity or not, that make up the bulk of the terrorist threats.
Importantly, those sub-groups are subject to change more than primal identities. While Islamic terrorist groups recruit primarily -- though not exclusively -- from people whose primal identities are Islamic, doves believe the recruitment base from which Islamic terrorists can draw will vary according to the alternatives available to potential recruits. If U.S. policy appears increasingly hostile to a Muslim’s interests -- as the travel ban seemingly does -- then a potential recruit’s willingness to associate with al-Qaeda and Islamic State goes up.
The Terrestrial Terrorist
Hawks also generally believe that strategic institutional preferences matter in counterterrorism. Those preferences frequently focus on the world the terror group aspires to create rather than the terrestrial and temporary concerns of modern day states and societies. Hawks consequently believe terrorists’ claims are often not closely tied to immediate political concerns.
“The fanatics who seek to recreate an eighth-century caliphate have an endless supply of grievances about our open society,” argues Lake.
Hawks therefore believe that people join terror groups because they wholeheartedly embrace that organization’s mission and motives. If true, fanatics would surely have an endless supply of grievances. But the linkage might be a little murkier. Interestingly, the U.S. government in 2015 released a letter from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in which the 9/11 mastermind enumerated his grievances against the United States, sounding like a political science freshman spouting dorm room philosophy. Given the level of discontent among even our privileged youth, it should be no surprise when we cannot appease the downtrodden of the Muslim world.
On the other hand, many doves tend to believe that the preferences of individual recruits must also be taken into account, and that individuals join terror groups not because of an organization’s often abstract goals, but because they are driven by immediate political realities. Therefore, while al-Qaeda and ISIS clearly do desire an Islamic caliphate, people who join those groups may want a job, a date, or just some respect. A recruit’s disposition toward terrorist organizations and the West depends on how likely they think they are to get whatever it is they want by supporting one side or the other.
How these viewpoints affect policy preferences can vary, of course. One can hew to the importance of primal identities in political choices and still be opposed to the travel restrictions by arguing that the groups being targeted for travel restrictions as potential jihadis are the wrong ones. Those who argue that the travel ban is inappropriate because no refugees from the targeted countries have carried out fatal attacks against the United States since Sept. 11 are making such an argument. This is a fundamentally different argument than the contention that the travel restrictions increase recruitment of terrorists.
Motives and Mission
While not without its merits, the hawkish school of thought on counterterrorism often makes the mistake of treating terrorists as states. But states have populations that they can readily and relatively easily coerce into action, whereas terrorists generally do not -- the Islamic State notwithstanding. Therefore, while a state can usually marshal forces whether people in those forces want to be there or not -- as the Soviets and United States did throughout the Cold War -- terrorists rely heavily on voluntary association, and in the West on volunteers who will operate with little institutional support or oversight. Therefore, focus on institutional objectives is not helpful to counter the types of terrorist attacks that occur in the United States.
The social science on high-risk behaviors, coupled with my own personal experience in counterterrorism operations, do not support the idea that people frequently engage in dangerous, potentially lethal activities for the high-minded objectives terrorist groups declare. Recruits will for a variety of reasons pay lip service to those objectives, but they will also be fairly forthcoming about their real motivations, which are much more terrestrial in nature. It is only when terror groups begin to take on state-like characteristics, such as the ability to coerce large populations into action -- as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, or Hamas has in Gaza -- that countering such groups at the organizational level becomes essential.
These conditions of course could change. Were a terrorist organization to become reasonably and reliably able to coerce populations into action -- or if an entire state or society became mobilized by non-immediate political concerns -- then the calculation for dealing with terrorist organizations would undoubtedly change. But until then, it remains imperative that we arm ourselves with an understanding of our enemies, and embrace humane policymaking that allows us the flexibility and foresight to defend against terrorism.