ATbar Counter-Terrorism Dilemmas
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Counter-Terrorism Dilemmas

15/04/2002 | by Herren, Eric  

This article was originally written before the September 11th attacks. Much has been said about the failure of intelligence in preventing such an attack on the United States. At the same time, the latest attacks in Israeli population centers have only emphasized the horrifying methods used by terrorist organizations. Are Western democracies helpless in dealing with the evil? One of the main strategies in counter revolutionary warfare is to suit your actions to the tactics of the enemy. Thus, the tactic of “hit and run” has spread from the arsenal of the terrorists to that of the counter-terrorist.

However, counter-terrorist operations are also a battle for minds; the psychological dimension of the war against terrorism is an important one. Once the terrorist’s bullet has left the barrel, it is difficult, if not impossible to stop it, particularly when the target is chosen by random. Thus, counter-terrorism must be pro-active, rather than merely reactive.

So what can be done? The answer to combine all the existing tools in the hands of nations willing to win the war against terrorism. Terrorist organizations have become the cancer of free nations. Their aim is to destroy the vital organs of freedom and to cover the international body with a deadly network. And like the parallel in modern medicine, there are different methods and means to fight the disease, including prevention, surgery and therapy. The fight against terrorism will be a cruel fight to survive, including a lot of pain and misery. And yet, this fight is necessary, for the alternative would be surrender. 


Terrorist organizations plan and execute their attacks in order to maximize the effect on the targeted nation. Suicide attacks seem to include all the necessary ingredients to achieve maximum destruction and effectiveness, and have thus become the weapon of choice for many modern terrorist organizations.

One can ask the legitimate question about the effectiveness of counter-terrorism in acting against this type of attack. Is there any tool in our arsenal that can counter the horrifying methods and tactics of modern terrorism? The difficulties in countering suicide attacks are not insurmountable. However, the attack must be foiled before the attacker sets out on his way; once the attacker is on his way it is very difficult to protect the citizens and minimize the damage. Defensive measures to reduce the vulnerability of individuals are necessary, but they will have little effect in countering the terrorists’ strategy of disrupting the citizens’ daily lives.

Terrorist activities include diverse fields—from organized crime to charity and social activities. An activist in a terror organization could just as easily by an academic consultant, as a suicide bomber. Naturally, the attack itself grabs more publicity than does the behind-the-scenes support work. The scene of the attack is a stage for the terrorists, who have rehearsed their part of the action to achieve the most success in the light of an international audience.

Counter-terrorist forces are mostly pressed into the pattern of reaction. The range of “conventional” terrorist scenarios varies from hostage taking to a simple attack by armed assailants. Most nations answer to such attacks is to use specially trained units to use force to save bystanders and hostages and to eliminate the terrorists. However, what can we do against a suicide bomber? To find the answer to this question, we have to leave the stage of the attack and focus on backstage activities. It should be emphasized that most of the activities of a typical terrorist organization are of this type, and take place in the background. Fundraising, training, indoctrination and criminal activities are usually covered by all kind of harmless organizations ranging from religious to humanitarian institutions. Today’s backstage terrorist activities are spread all over the world. The variety of involvement and the growing threat of transnational support, together with overlapping legitimate businesses in many cases wipes out the fingerprints of the terrorists. The purpose of this article is to highlight and examine a few of the necessary ingredients for effective counter-terrorist measures.

What can be done? As long as political goals can be achieved through the use of terrorism, terrorism will exist and continue to evolve. Modern terrorist strategy is when it serves the terrorists’ long-term interest. The aim is to turn the tables and to confuse the audience about who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. If we return to the previous analogy of terrorism as theater, we can point out several interesting elements. The first is the way the media covers terrorism. Today’s media coverage often shows the attacker as a desperate warrior, who is ready to pay any price for success. Often we learn nothing about the script and the writer behind this “show of desperation.” What we see on stage is exactly the scenario that has been written to achieve the desired effect. World opinion, too, accepts almost any acts performed on this stage at face value. History shows many terrorist incidents in which the targeted nation used military force to end the situation, and yet, world opinion, following the media, will usually condemn such a reaction. This is one of the dilemmas in counter-terrorism—that the counter-terrorist risks being perceived as the aggressor. 

Public Opinion

It is worth pointing out that all this is subject, to some extent, to the geographic location of the stage on which the drama is played out. Several key factors influence the impression made by the terrorist incident and its reaction on world opinion. Among these factors are political interests and international pressure, together with economic interests. When the stage of the drama is far away and no personal interests are involved, the opinions of the spectator will inevitably correspond with whatever main stream arguments are put forward by the international media. Today’s world of “info-tainment” leads to “fast food” consumer behavior; opinions are made in a short time, and the distinction between the good and the bad guy are based on media headlines. Yesterday’s terrorist attack becomes today’s counter-terrorist attack. What stays in the public eye is the aggressive flavor of the word “attack”. The victims of yesterday find themselves view in the same light, and condemned in the same breath, as the perpetrators.

Headlines and “fast food” consumer behavior can thus lead to enormous public pressure influencing the effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures. The question of the moral legitimacy of counter-terrorist activities must be analyzed accordingly. How far can a state go in combating terrorism without risking endangering its democratic structure? Almost all nations base their policy of combating terrorism on the right of self-defense. Compounding the issue is the fact that those who use terrorism to achieve their aims are not disposed to being taken into custody. Thus, the only way to deal with the terrorist is often to eliminate the threat by killing the terrorist; he is not ready to put down his weapon and much prefers to die as a martyr.

Take, for example, the phenomenon of suicide attacks. Here the weapon of the terrorist is a human bomb. The one wielding this deadly weapon remains behind the scenes; he remotely controls the puppet he chose to be his weapon. Still he must be held responsible for aiming the weapon and must face the consequences. From this point of view, the killing of the behind-the-scenes terrorist responsible for sending the suicide bomber is an act of self-defense. But is it so portrayed by the media?

Effective counter-terrorist policy must include the role of the media. The media have great responsibility on how and which part of the stage is spotlighted and what stays in the dark. The aspect of censorship and “the right to know” has to be carefully analyzed within the framework of democratic freedom.

Public opinion is also influenced by the rules of the game. What counter-terrorist activities should be seen as legitimate? What actions should be defined as terrorism? In order to co-ordinate international efforts in counter-terrorism we need answers to these questions from the international community. As long as terrorists can hide behind the term “freedom fighter” or any other chosen designations, it will be more than difficult to assess the necessary steps.

Public opinion as part of an effective counter-terrorist strategy is also important among the citizens of the nation affected by terrorism. Here, the key will be to establish a learning process about the motivations and the long- and short-term interests of the terrorist organizations. This can give rise to psychological and practical recommendations for daily life. The counter-terrorist organizations also need to obtain visible success in their work. Words alone cannot reduce the enormous strain caused by the constant threat of terrorism. Therefore the apparatus to fight terrorism depends both on results and practical relief. 


Intelligence is the key to every successful counter-terror operation. On a tactical level, intelligence is fully integrated in any counter-terror activity. The interface between the operational force and its tactical intelligence part is in most cases a matter of highly professional teamwork. On a tactical level, intelligence is produced for a very hungry operational end-user, who uses it to complete surgical counter-terrorist operations with the aim of preventing, deterring, or responding to terrorist activities. The end-users of tactical intelligence in counter-terrorism are mainly highly trained operational units speaking more or less “same language”. To achieve the most effective co-operation between the involved partners, everyone needs to know his advantages as well as his weak points. Thus, it is important to bring about a synthesis of the different organizations working together.

At the same time, intelligence is vital for illuminating the backstage activities of terrorist organizations. The nature of intelligence and security activities demands a high degree of secrecy. Like the open world-wide economic process and market, the international market for intelligence products has its own regulations. Here too, there is a counter-terrorism dilemma, which leads to a lack of effective intelligence co-operation. The closer a nation is to a potential threat, the greater its willingness for national and international co-operation. Nations that are not under immediate threat of terrorist attacks have a harder time ensuring the legitimacy of their counter-terrorist measures, including the intelligence activities of their services. The lack of these activities is, in turn, used by terrorist organizations to expand and intensify local networking in those countries. In order to achieve success in the international fight against terrorism, we will need to detect and bring to light all the various means used by terrorist organizations, including these backstage activities. 


Today’s growing threat of terrorism demands international consensus and understanding. To be realistic, we must face the fact that a global understanding of the problem is far from realization; too many different national interests stand in the way of a global strategy. One necessary ingredient in increasing the efficacy of the struggle against terrorism must be, at the very least, national consensus. The political will to fight terrorism is the fundamental motivation for all the individual organizations involved. Out of this political will, the state can formulate the necessary laws to enable its counter-terror forces to fight terrorist activities successfully. This is particularly true in dealing with the interface where terrorism and crime meet. Devising an effective policy to counter these activities is a good test of the reliability of the existing national laws in the fight against terrorism. At the same time, all those faced with the task of counter-terrorism must sharpen and develop their tools in order to improve their ability to counter new forms of terrorism as they appear, and preferably, before they appear.

Consensus also includes the will to welcome new partners to the table. Existing structures have to be broken to allow new and talented partners to offer their contributions to a common national strategy. Consensus also means popular support; a nation affected by terrorism needs to strengthen its roots. Thus, most of the effort, and a good portion of the results in successful counter-terrorist activities is in the hands of the targeted population itself. It is the people on the street, who have to shoulder the greatest burden of their nation’s counter-terrorist strategy.


What are the necessary tools for an effective counter-terrorist strategy? From the example of suicide attacks, we can learn that what happens on the stage of terrorism is only the visible effect of a whole backstage production. In order to successfully fight the phenomena of suicide terrorism, we must concentrate on what’s happening backstage. We have to confront the suicide terrorism at its origin, with the mastermind behind the attack—the trainers, the bomb factory and the terrorist shelters. According to one definition used by the United States government, counter-terrorism includes offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, and respond to terrorism.1

The role of intelligence in illuminating the underpinnings of terrorism is of critical importance. One of the questions regarding the product of these efforts must be its use in co-ordination with the long-term strategic goals of counter-terrorism: how far we can go in the use of such information, balancing the influence on public opinion and the necessity of secrecy. Pictures of training camps in Gaza showing small children learning the business of becoming as suicide bombers have had great impact on public opinion and illuminated an aspect of terrorism that was more or less unknown to the international audience.

Counter-terrorism must be aggressive, using the dynamic of the hunt. It must dry out the swamp in which the terrorists flourish, the safe havens around the world that give the terrorist organizations the ability to recover and develop new strategies. The lack of international co-operation is an unnecessary obstacle complicating the fight against terrorism.

Effective tools in the hands of counter-terrorist organizations range from sophisticated technical equipment to professional communication methods. The work and efforts, as well as the products of counter-terrorist efforts need to be sold to the public through the channel of information. Terrorism will loose its mythos if we can give to it faces and names. What is needed is that for every terror attack, we lift the curtain and allow the audience to look behind the curtain and view the script written by the masterminds of terrorism.

Joint Pub 1-02