The Evolving Threat: Policy Alternatives

“We must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.” – Margaret Thatcher

Tom Warwick 

This is the sixth installment of an on-going series exploring the evolution of the US’s policy concerning global non-state terrorism.  you can read part five here.

In today’s world, the response to global non-state terrorism cannot be defined in terms of just a law enforcement option or just a military option. While there has been some amount of success from the individual strategies identified earlier, none have been effective in combating the threat posed by al Qaeda or similar terrorist organizations on their own. Even the “War on Terror” itself has been partially abandoned in favor of a leaner, less grandiose strategy. Regardless, the United States still faces a real threat from global non-state terrorism and requires some sort of policy for dealing with it.

The “Starve the Beast” Strategy

It doesn’t matter if you are a powerful nation, global terrorist organization, or local Boy Scout troop, funding matters. For those unable to raise money through pinewood derby competitions, enterprises such as the sale of oil, taxation, and kidnapping for ransom become major income generators.  Through just these three sources of revenue, ISIL has been able to raise almost 1.5 billion dollars (Swanson, 2015). This money, combined with additional sources of revenue, has been reinvested into “schools, a religious police force, food kitchens, an Islamic court system and even a Consumer Protection authority” (Swanson, 2015). The nearly ten million people living under ISIL have come to expect these services as compensation for living under such strict rule.  By limiting and eliminating the sources of funding available to ISIL and its partner organizations it may be possible to not only draw funding away from its acts of terror but destabilize its state building aspirations.

A “starve the beast” strategy would aim to reduce and eliminate the funding sources of terrorist organizations with the hope of limiting their operation capabilities and inciting discontent among their supporters.  The first step in this strategy would be to limit ISIL’s ability to sell its most profitable commodity: oil. While the United States and member states of the United Nation have successfully blocked the oil being produced in ISIL controlled regions from being sold on the open market, ISIL has been incredibly successful in selling it on the black market (Swanson, 2015). ISIL does this by “ refining oil in small, mobile refineries, and then ships it by truck to the Turkish border, where oil brokers and traders buy or barter for it” (Swanson, 2015).  The United States has responded to this illegal trade by directly targeting the oil fields where the product is being produced; in November of 2015, the Department of Defense announced that they had destroyed about half of ISIL’s refining capabilities (Swanson, 2015).  Despite these small victories, ISIL has employed engineers who have been able to quickly put the refineries back into service (Gordon, 2015).  If the United States wants to prevent this lucrative trade from continuing efforts would have to be made to disrupt the transportation of the refined oil across state lines.  This could be done either through military action such as directly attacking the supply lines; or through more diplomatic action such working with the Turkish government and other neighboring states to improve border control and reduce the areas where the black market thrives.

The second step in a “starve the beast” strategy would be to reduce ISIL’s ability to demand a ransom for the return of a kidnapped person. In recent years governments and corporations have paid millions of dollars to ISIL for the safe return of citizens and employees that had been kidnapped by the terrorist group.  In most cases when a government or employer has paid the ransom the individual had been safely returned, but when they have refused to pay the hostage is often brutally murdered (Fantz, 2015). This creates a tough policy position where the safety of the individual must be weighed against the safety of the whole.  By giving in to ISIL’s demand for a ransom a nation runs the risk of, not only helping to directly fund their organization but encouraging future kidnappings (Fantz, 2015).  The United States so far has stuck to a strict policy of not negotiating with ISIL, but has come under major criticisms for doing so (Fantz, 2015).  The unfortunate fact is that moving forward, the United States must not only continue this policy but encourage other nations and private individuals to do the same.  Only by limiting the funding available to these groups, and showing them that ransoms are not a profitable enterprise, will we see any type of improvement?.

ISIL’s third largest source of income comes from a domestic source: taxation. While there is not much that the United States or its allies can do to limit this source of funding, they can make ISIL become more dependent on it.  Taxation in the Islamic State is based on a two-tier system, ISIL fighters, high-ranking officials, the influential and their families pay no taxes while the rest of the society is heavily taxed (Swanson, 2015).  This creates a natural tension in their society that could be exploited.  By placing limits on ISIL’s other sources of funding, taxation and exploitation will have to be increased.  If only one-half of society is tasked with these burdens, or if services provided by ISIL begin to decrease, the benefits of living in such an oppressive society disappear.  If combined with a strong propaganda campaign (see “Madison Avenue” strategy) it could be possible to destabilize ISIL from within.

The “Madison Avenue” Strategy

The goal of terrorism, “to provoke irrational fear among large numbers of people in order to influence policymakers and thus advance their goals,” has always been dependent on the media and publicity (Burke, 2016). Without a means of spreading their message, it is impossible to instill this fear or to bring others into the cause.  The Islamic State, arguably the biggest terror threat to the United States today, understands this and has been extremely effective in their use of propaganda. ISIL has managed to build what has been called the “most potent propaganda machine ever assembled by a terrorist group” and have used it to create legitimacy within their occupied territories, encourage young women to travel to Iraq to become wives for their fighters, and lay the groundwork for “homegrown” terrorist attacks (Miller and Mekhennet, 2015). To counter these threats, the United States needs to counter and expose the messages being broadcasted.

The first step in a “Madison Avenue” strategy would be to prevent the dissemination of terrorist propaganda. To accomplish this, the US government will have to work with social media companies in order to develop new guidelines for taking down terrorist-related content. As a result of freedom of speech concerns, this action is easier said than done.  However, introducing more filters which could prevent the posting of ransom videos,  videos showing the executions of hostages, and lectures from known high-ranking terrorist leaders could weaken the ability for terrorists to disseminate their messages while being narrowly tailored enough not to infringe too much on the freedom of speech. Some progress in this area has already been made. Facebook, in particular, has been “aggressive when it comes to taking down terror-related content,” going as far as to adopt a “zero-tolerance policy which proactively removes posts related to terrorist organizations” (Higham & Nakashima, 2015). Facebook has also encouraged users to “alert the company to posts that promote or celebrate terrorism and hires screeners to review content that might violate its standards” (Higham & Nakashima, 2015).

The second step in a “Madison Avenue” strategy would involve countering ISIL’s claims of legitimacy.  To do this the United States should set up a campaign-like war room within the executive branch who would be tasked with actively tracking and responding to the information put out by terrorist organizations. This could include spamming the social media accounts of terrorist groups with information about recent ISIL defeats, visions of life in America and other western countries, or refuting their perversion of Islam by sharing passages of peace from the Quran.  In addition to responding in a reactionary manner this ‘war room’ could also take the initiative by broadcasting similar information into the area’s held by ISIL, much like NATO forces did during the Cold War.

There have been attempts made in the past to establish a similar office within the Department of State, but due to a limited staff and inadequate funding little progress was made (Miller and Higham, 2015).  In attempting a Madison Avenue strategy the United States would have to be willing to dedicate both time and resources to the project, with the realization that results may be hard to quantify.  While this ‘proving a negative’ problem might limit the support policy makers may be willing to allocate if given the right tools and proper support, the “campaign war room” structure of such an office could be an effective counterweight to the ISIL propaganda machine.

The “Big Stick” Strategy

A comprehensive counterterrorism strategy needs to include preventative humanitarian and economic measures aimed at undercutting terrorism before it has an opportunity to take root. However, a grand strategy must also realize the need for measured military action. The first step in a “big stick” strategy would be the careful use of special operation forces.  Special operation forces have the potential to offer flexible direct action, increased intelligence opportunities, and the ability to build foreign internal defense and partnerships.  Their training in the “precision targeting of terrorists groups and their financial, logistical, and political support networks” would give the United States the ability to “capture or otherwise target terrorists, seize their supplies, and undermine their support” without the counterproductive side effects that are inherent with large conventional military action (Jones, 2014). This sort of flexible military action has already been used successfully in the past including in the operations that targeted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Osama bin Laden (Jones, 2014).

The use of special operations would also contribute to our intelligence gathering capabilities. Operatives are again trained to “understand local culture, society, language, economy, history, and politics;” this put operatives in a position to engage with tribal and other local actors in order to “collect and analyze information about the networks, locations, intentions, and most importantly the capabilities of terror groups” (Jones, 2014).  This same training also enables operatives to “train, advise, and assist local security forces and build the capacity of local governments to provide services, secure their populations, and deal with the causes of terrorism in their countries” (Jones, 2014).

The second step in a “big stick” strategy would be the continued use of unmanned aerial vehicles or “drones.”  Up to this point, US drones have been responsible for the neutralization of an “estimated 3,300 al Qaeda, Taliban, and other jihadist operatives in Pakistan and Yemen” (Byman, 2013). This number includes “over 50 senior leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban” (Byman, 2013). While these uses of drones have been effective in rooting out senior leadership, it has also manage to hurt terrorist organizations by eliminating lower-ranking operatives who “boast special skills [such as] passport forgers, bomb makers, recruiters, and fundraisers” (Byman, 2013). The use of drones has also been effective in undercutting terrorist’s ability to “communicate and to train new recruits” (Byman, 2013). In order to avoid being targeted by a drone, al Qaeda, and Taliban operatives have decreased their use of electronic devices and try to avoid meeting in large numbers (Byman, 2013). This has led to a leadership blackout amongst al Qaeda and the Taliban, severely dulling their abilities to plan or train recruits on a large scale.   By continuing to use drones, based off of reliable intelligence and only when we can be sure that civilians will not be harmed, the United States can keep well-organized terrorist groups more preoccupied with looking at the skies instead of planning their next mission.

While these three policy alternatives are only a few of the possibilities available, they help to demonstrate the need for a broad multifaceted approach to combating terrorism. Much like the nature of the threat itself, responses to terrorism must be flexible and implemented in a methodical manner.  While it’s nearly impossible to completely eradicate terrorism, it can be mitigated and individual attacks prevented.

Photo Credit: The World’s Finest Fighting Force (US Navy) 

Read the next part of the series here.

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