(Image credit: NPR) At the Brussels Airport, March 22, 2016
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is a sign of the depraved nature of Earth humans that they dared to give as the name of a country a word that is one of the worst curse words in all the known languages of the galaxy. At one point, the scape-grace President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox, uses the forbidden word and even his fellow pirates look askance at him. But the human, Arthur Dent, defends humans: “it’s kind of a small, damp, and not very interesting country”, he says.
Interesting enough, anyway, to the enemies of civilization that they should go there and randomly kill a couple dozen people this afternoon. Welcome, Belgium, to the club of countries that these folks hate enough to give up their lives to attack.
Leaving me wondering what the point is. Attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast I can understand. Burkina and Cote d’Ivoire have both recently held democratic elections. In both countries, democracy is a new concept and not too stable. Mali’s democracy is older but it has an ongoing ethnic/regional civil war. Provoking a disproportionate response – imposing terror – in these countries might well derail the democratic experiment and bring an authoritarian government (back) to power. That authoritarian government might well oppress Muslims, or at least do something that Muslim radicals could interpret as oppression, helping them gain recruits and nourish an insurgency that stands a chance of actually advancing some real goal. But Belgium? Yes, of course, Belgium has its own ethnic politics, like many an African country. And they haven’t had a functioning government for quite some time. But habits of democracy and civil peace and order die hard, once they have been inculcated. I can’t see any attacks provoking a response in Belgium that would create the sort of chaos Daesh needs to build a power base there. For one thing, less than a fifth of Belgians are Muslim.
You’ll notice that I’m assuming that the attackers are rational. I know that the default assumption in the public discourse is that terrorists are maniacs driven only by the desire to kill. I don’t buy it for a second. There are homicidal maniacs, of course, but they don’t work well together, and these guys are pretty good at organizing and cooperating. Homicidal maniacs also don’t have the self-control and discipline to organize large territorial governments. Daesh and its various franchises in West Africa, North Africa, and Mesopotamia have. So they are rational actors, or at least we must assume they are. They seek some goal. They are enemies, not a force of nature as a psycho-killer would be. So it behooves us to think about how we are going to defeat them.
Defeating them does not mean hardening targets to make it harder for them to attack. Airports, in our world, are among the hardest of targets. Anybody who has ever traveled by air knows how thorough the scanning of hand baggage and so on can be before you get admitted to the concourse. Of course, what that does is it just moves the point of vulnerability a ways back from the gate, back to the check-in lines or the security lines, which is where today’s attackers struck. If you set up bag checks and metal detectors at the door to the terminal, you would just be making people standing around out in front waiting to be checked vulnerable. Security guards and bag checks are good “security theater”, to make travelers feel safe, but they don’t really make us any safer. Here in Burkina, after the January 15th attacks, restaurants and bars responded by hiring private guards to sit outside and look through people’s bags and purses and run metal detecting wands over them before they get in. In the last couple of weeks, they’ve stopped even caring if the wand detects anything. “What’s that in your pocket sir?” “My cell phone.” “Oh, OK, have a nice meal.” If it was a gun or a bomb, he wouldn’t know. But the presence of the guard makes us feel better, or at least makes some people feel better. Anyway, maybe I’m less likely to get my bike ripped off if there is somebody sitting in front of the place.
If you have a target that is really important, you can secure it. President Obama is quite well secured – there are a whole bunch of people who would like to kill him. I’m glad that the Secret Service makes it harder for them. But the price he pays is that he is basically a prisoner of the security precautions. I remember when Bill Clinton came to DC in the nineties and wanted to go for a jog out on the Mall and stop for a burger on the way home. The entire downtown was paralyzed by his security detachment. Finally, he got the point and started doing his running on a treadmill. Ordinary people can’t live that way. Important public buildings can be reasonably well secured – American embassies we’ve already discussed, after the Inman Report in the eighties the State Department began investing in protection for its diplomats, an effort that was notably stepped up after the embassy bombings and the 9/11 attacks. Diplomats don’t quite have the security that President Obama has, but they are so well protected that it is increasingly hard for them to do their jobs. My ability to roam around Ouaga and see and hear things is not shared by my embassy colleagues because the security guys put a lot of limits on them (without being too specific). There’s always a trade-off for security: perfect security means locking yourself up and throwing away the key.
So if the answer is not better security, then what is it? George W. Bush told us after 9/11 that the answer was war; we would go to war with “terror” around the world. We would seek out the terrorists and kill them or capture them and put them beyond harm and then we would no longer need to fear terrorism. I’m oversimplifying. Of course, so did W. But, just because W said it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong, though. War may well be the answer. But the kind of war is open to question. A really good book I make my students in American Military Conflict read is The Accidental Guerrilla, by David Kilcullen. Kilcullen is an Australian army officer with plenty of experience, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Indonesia. He points out that killing people is sometimes counter-productive. This is especially true when you send soldiers to invade a country in order to hunt down a small group of attackers who hid amidst a large, generally neutral civilian population that they share ethnicity, religion, and family ties with. Assuming that you, the invader, can somehow figure out where the members of the small group are hiding and capture or kill them, you may have created as many enemies as you have neutralized. Each terrorist you kill will have a family, friends, tribesmen, many of whom may not have been ready to support his cause in the abstract, but when it becomes a question of defending their own guy against some rude foreigners, then they will fight. The key to winning this war, says Kilcullen, is to wage it as if it were a global counter-insurgency campaign. You do all the things you would do in any country that was experiencing an insurgency – protect local people from the insurgents, make sure civilians’ needs are being met as far as food, shelter, health, jobs, etc. are concerned, respect their agency, and as much as possible get them to do any killing that may be necessary. This is how the US triumphed – temporarily – over Sunni extremists in Anbar province in Iraq. The Al Qaeda folks had made themselves unwelcome by trying to implement their strict form of Islamic law and shooting anybody who looked like resisting. Everybody they shot created a score of accidental counter-insurgents. When we offered those accidental counter-insurgents our support, they cheerfully killed as many of the Al Qaeda guys as they could catch. As soon as we were out of sight, of course, the Shi’a government of Iraq started behaving itself much as it had before and the country was back very quickly to having a Sunni extremist insurgency.
Warfare today includes a good deal of remote strikes by drones, air strikes, and so on, which have the advantage at least of not having the rude strangers right in front of the local people to be hated (and potentially shot or blown up). However, these strikes are also much more random and indiscriminate, and thus risk creating more accidental guerrillas.
Also, you have to realize that war is not the only answer. During the Clinton administration, in the nineties, the American public was not prepared to go to war in faraway places in response to attacks like the USS Cole bombing or the first World Trade Center attack. So the Clinton people mostly treated terrorism as a law enforcement problem (while launching the occasional ill-considered missile strike). When an attack would take place, the cops – the FBI – would be the responsible agency. They would collect evidence and turn it over to prosecutors, who would indict somebody. Then, armed with an international arrest warrant, the State Department and CIA would go to their contacts in Pakistan or wherever the culprit was hiding out, and get those countries to turn the suspects over. The FBI would take custody, the prisoners would get read their rights, and a trial would ensue. Everybody they arrested in those days ended up doing a bunch of time and at least one, Mir Amal Kaisi, the CIA HQ shooter from 1993, was ultimately executed.
And there is another answer, one that nobody will like but the only approach that has definitively ended a terrorist campaign – the one the Brits used on the IRA in Northern Ireland. Sometimes, you give them what they want. The Good Friday accords in Northern Ireland brought to power a triumvirate of not-quite-acknowledged terrorist chieftains, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein and Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionists. And until our ill-considered adherence to the idiot Sarkozy’s campaign to overthrow him, Muammar Gaddafi had abandoned his former career as an international terrorist, given up his weapons of mass destruction, and Libya had joined the community of nations. Of course, there has to be something that the terrorists want that the government is prepared to give. I don’t know that this is possible in the case of Daesh.
But, you can use diplomacy to wean some of your enemies away from their coalition with the irreconcilables. This is what is behind the ongoing attempts by the US and Afghan governments to negotiate with the Taliban and, through them, their patrons in the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence. Pakistan is a country with territory and voters and so on; there are certainly many things they need that we are willing to give them. The Taliban might perhaps be purchasable too. If so, we may be able to separate the people who are fighting because we invaded their country from the people who are fighting because they “hate our freedoms” or whatever it was that W said. In the case of Daesh, I don’t imagine that we are prepared to give them anything that they might want, but the people who give them money in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia and Turkey certainly want something that we can provide – security. If we can separate Daesh from its money – and I don’t believe for a second that they would be able to go on waging offensive war if they didn’t have big sugar daddies behind them – if we can take this away from them through negotiation, we pull their teeth to some extent.
Daesh will still be able to launch attacks like the one they did today for a long time, though. It appears sadly that we will have to get used to this sort of thing. While tragic, these attacks do not pose an existential threat to Belgium or any other developed country. As I said on the occasion of the January 15th attacks here in Burkina, I also say to the Belgians: terrorists cannot destroy your country. Only you can destroy your country, with an ill-considered or disproportionate response to the terrorist attacks. Belgium is unlikely to go wildly about invading people, but they are members of NATO and the famous Article VII does give them the right to ask their allies, specifically us, to invade on their behalf. They might well also take some steps to further grind down their Muslim population, making them feel less and less like Belgians and more and more betrayed, thereby creating accidental guerrillas. They might stop taking refugees from the war in Syria, and help turn Europe against refugees, making it easier for Daesh back in Syria to tell people that the west all hate and fear them, so they have no alternative but to join the holy war. With such impressive options, how could they fail? Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail, but given the impressive nature of terrorism, it seems unlikely that they will.