Milwaukee Biz Blog: How to combat terrorism

Bob Chernow

Recent domestic and foreign terrorist incidents and the ill-informed responses of many politicians drew me to a talk I gave in 2003 on the nature of terrorism and future of combating it.

Not much has changed.

Terrorism is the act of the weak on the strong. Its purpose is to generate civil unrest by showing that government cannot provide security. Indeed one objective is to get government to overreact.

Insurgent movements differ from terrorism since the guerilla uses the stronger power’s vulnerability to their advantage. Insurgents have a military objective (usually defensive). They want to gain publicity and sympathy for their cause. The Viet Cong were skilled at doing this.

Terrorists desire to bring insecurity to society through fear.

Traditional American military power is at its strongest when it confronts a known enemy that has concentrated its force. When we control the air or the seas, we win.

We do not do well against insurgencies and less well against terrorism. There are many reasons for this, but the core reason is that we do not understand what motivates the terrorist. We look at the world through our own myopic lenses. Obtaining and interpreting intelligence on terrorists is like nailing Jell-O to the wall.

I recall creating a system in Vietnam when I was at the G-2 for 1st Division. Political and military intelligence was combined in patterns. It succeeded.

The idea was offered to Saigon, but we were told that it could not work because politics had no influence on military action although our system worked. Indeed the Viet Cong military structure had both military and political officers in command. Saigon’s bias prevented them from using this successful tool.

What is needed to combat terrorism is a combination of hard and strong techniques that recognizes our weaknesses and strengths. In military parlance, use the iron fist and the velvet glove.

A basic start to understanding what makes terrorism work is to look at the work of Eric Hoffer, whose book, “The True Believer” offers an understanding of what makes terrorists tick. He thought that the true believer was a person of “fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause.”

Terrorists are not to be confused with those who risk their lives to save others nor the soldier or guerrilla who fights against extreme odds for a cause or his duty.

Hoffer thought the following helped to identify terrorists:

First, the terrorist desires change. He wants to correct the wrongs in a society that is repressive or backward.

Second, he sees a need for substitutes, that is something to live for so he can devote himself fully as a selfless act. This is a form of idealism which outsiders rarely equate with terrorists

Third, these movements have a role for undesirables who are “wholly without reverence toward the present. “They crave dissolving their spoiled, meaningless selves, in some soul-stirring spectacular communal undertaking,” says Hoffer.

So what steps are needed to neutralize or reduce terrorist attacks?

First, we need to understand the terrorist mindset. We cannot understand how they view the world and their part in it if we only see them from our perspective. It is like interrogating a POW in English, when he only speaks Vietnamese and expecting an answer.

Second, we need to improve our human intelligence gathering. Technological advances are useful, but there is no replacement for the human approach. Getting good intelligence to the right place in a timely manner must be improved.

Third, we must recognize that there are legitimate complaints such as discrimination, poverty, corruption, and the suppression of religion, languages and nationalism. One step that could reduce tensions in the Middle East would be for Israel to stop all new settlements, for example.

Fourth, recognize that the “one size fits all” perspective is wrong. Muslims, like Christians and Jews, come in many forms, from liberal to conservative. We generalize at our own risk.

Fifth, counter the publicity the terrorists gain through propaganda. The U.S. attempted to discredit Bin Laden, for example, by publicizing his “supposed” use of porn.

Use the velvet glove and the iron fist in combating terrorism, and recognize that we have much to fear from domestic born terrorism as well as movements like ISIS.

Containment of terrorism needs to be considered as a prime approach. Care must be used to insure that local populations are not forced to join terrorists. A basic tenet of terrorism is to sow the dragon’s teeth. There is no need to harvest the dragons.

Bob Chernow is a Milwaukee businessman. He was a military intelligence officer at the Special Forces Warfare Center and served at 1st Division’s G-2 in Vietnam. He is a graduate of the Phoenix Program and was an agent recruiter. He is also the former vice chair of the World Future Society.




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