Terrorism Cannot be Stopped by Banning Hardware

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Yesterday I was at the Downtown Core, the financial, commercial and cultural heart of Singapore. This was home to banks, shopping centres, hotels, areas of cultural interest. Five minutes from a major train station, I entered a convenience store and found a box cutter on sale for $2.50. A distant relative of the same box cutters used by nineteen men to hijack four planes and bring down the Two Towers.

For just $2.50 a terrorist could obtain a weapon and immediately run amok in one of the most crowded and significant places in Singapore.

In the wake of a terrorist attack or mass shooting, it is always tempting to push for more restrictions and bans. It creates the appearance that the government is Doing Something to prevent the next attack. If the bad guys can’t get their hands on weapons, they can’t pull off an attack, or so the narrative goes.

History laughs at that notion. Weapon bans only disarm law-abiding citizens. Terrorists and criminals feel no compunction to obey the law. 92% of mass shootings in America from 2009 to 2014 took place in so-called gun-free zones. In China, where firearms are strictly forbidden, Uigher terrorists used trucks and knives. Two weeks ago, in the United Kingdom, terrorists from the Islamic State copied that technique. France’s gun laws did not stop gunmen associated with Daesh from raiding Charlie Hebdo and massacring everyone around.

Demanding a weapon ban is like wearing a cross to ward off Hollywood vampires. If you have the cross, no vampire can touch you. Similarly, if you have a weapon ban, no more weapons will be used, or so the thinking goes. But the real world is not Hollywood. Enacting a weapons ban will not automatically make all weapons disappear from the jurisdiction; it will simply make more citizens criminals and temporarily inconvenience evildoers. Weapons are just tools, and tools are everywhere.

Even if a weapons ban is followed by mass confiscations and continuing inspections to ensure compliance with the law, it still won’t stop terrorist attacks. If a government bans guns, terrorists will turn to the black market (as in France) or knives (as in China). If a government bans knives, terrorists will ignore the law (as in the UK) or use tools like hammers, sharpened screwdrivers and other implements that are too useful to be banned. Explosives may be strictly controlled, but you don’t need military-grade explosives to build a suicide bomb or improvised explosive device. You just need a stable chemical compound that will explode on demand, and obtaining the right materials is simply a question of chemistry and social engineering. In the face of increasingly sophisticated counterterrorism solutions and complex legislature, terrorists turn to stealthy low-tech solutions.

Laws will not stop someone hell-bent on martyrdom. They will only take away the ability of the innocent and the just to defend themselves from aggression.

Terrorism is not a hardware problem. Terrorism is a software problem. It is driven not by weapons but by the contents of the human heart. Instead of banning hardware, civilizations around the world need to address the roots of terror.

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Citizens should be allowed and encouraged to carry firearms. When an attack occurs, the first responders are the people around the attacker. If a nearby armed citizen intervenes in a shooting, one of three things tend to happen: the citizen stops the killer, the killer shoots himself, or the killer is delayed long enough for the police to respond. The ultimate result is that fewer innocent people get shot.

In America, lawfully-armed citizens have repeatedly prevented mass shootings in recent history. They never get the recognition they deserve because the body count is usually too low to be considered a mass shooting — so to the media, they do not count as mass shootings. Such citizens tend to be a self-selecting population who will seek out training and equipment of their own accord, and many American civilians are actually better shooters than the average police officer who only gets in official range time every few months.

When seconds count, the police are minutes away — and no number of phone calls can make them arrive faster. Arming citizens decentralises society’s defenses and empowers the people. Against a decentralised threat like terrorism, these citizens can respond quicker than the police, either buying time for everybody else or stopping the threat outright.

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Ideology motivates terrorists, and when dealing with terrorist propaganda and preaching, I am in favor of strict measures. While I am normally leery of hate speech laws, speech that incites people to violence cannot be protected speech. It is weaponised intent and a declaration of war against society. Anybody who preaches violence against anyone for any reason should be investigated and, if necessary, arrested and detained.

The key standard is ‘violence’. It is not simply enough to say that he hates Jews, Muslims, Martians, or other victim group. That is a personal opinion and, no matter how repugnant, must be protected. If, however, someone preaches holy war against a group, he is encouraging others to aggression, and must be stopped. If someone teachers others how to conduct holy war, such as publishing explosives manuals or tradecraft, he is an enemy combatant and must be treated accordingly. Singapore has yet to experience a homegrown terrorist attack because individuals who spread terrorist propaganda or have been radicalised are decisively dealt with.

Detaining terrorists is not enough. Like criminals, if they are willing to be reformed and rehabilitated, they should be given a chance to do so. Rehabilitation is a cornerstone of Singapore’s counterterrorism strategy. Imams reach out to detained terrorists to confront their ideology and help them see the error of their ways. Successful rehabilitation dissolves ideological programming, defeating terrorism one heart at a time.

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In societies where the rot of radicalisation runs deep, harsher measures are necessary. To borrow from Mao Zedong, the successful terrorist moves among the people as a fish swimming in the sea. In areas where there is widespread support for terrorism, the sea must be drained.

Terrorism in Europe is inextricably linked to the migrant crisis. There are presently 23000suspected jihadists in the UK, and this year alone has seen a terrorist attack attempted every 9 days in Europe. Frontex, the European border agency, admitted that terrorists exploit mass migration, trafficking networks and lax border controls to enter the continent.

In marked contrast, Poland has closed its borders to refugees, and has not suffered a single successful terrorist attack since the migrant crisis began.

The jihadists have to go back. The illegals have to go back. Illegal migrants and foreign terrorists must be deported immediately. The nations of Europe must enact stringent border controls, repudiate the European Union’s migrant quotas and deport the terrorists and those who facilitate their activities. Any nation that will not enforce its sovereignty will cease to remain one.

Terrorism is a complex problem. It cannot be wished away simply by forbidding people to defend themselves from aggressors. It demands a comprehensive solution that strikes at the root of evil instead of reinforcing talismanic thinking.

The Appeal of the Islamic State

Yesterday The Middle Ground published an opinion piece titled A Young Muslim on ISIS. While it approaches the Islamic State (henceforth called Daesh here) from the perspective of a Muslim, the writer makes a few generalities that don’t hold up. Crucially, he says:

“My sense is, if you add a dash of ignorance and a sprinkle of mis-education to a person with violent traits, you get a self-radicalised individual. And if you add the zest of youth and thrill to the mixture, you get the most dangerous kind of self-radicalised individuals.”

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ISIS’ version of Islam offends my senses, just based on the fundamental principles of ethics and morality. It just feels wrong, and I am certain that for many people, that feeling outweighs any other feeling of isolation or marginalisation they may face in their current communities. Religious differences aside, there is something inherently wrong about killing and torture. There is something inherently wrong about raping women and children. There is something inherently wrong about slavery. There is something inherently wrong about stripping someone of their dignity and worth on the account that they don’t share your religious beliefs. Everything about the tenets ISIS preaches goes against the natural order. Contrary to their mission, I don’t think ISIS is more concerned about ‘saving Islam’ than it is about its own political and personal agendas.

I am aware though, that there are many who genuinely believe they are ‘saving Islam’ and to that I would ask “from what exactly?” Islam does not need any more saving than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism does. If there is anything or anyone that Islam needs saving from, it is ISIS, because I don’t think any group has been more successful at tarnishing the image of the religion in this 21st century.

While the writer’s sentiments are understandable, they are sentiments. They are feelings and they do not necessarily offer any greater insight into Daesh, its appeal, and the phenomenon it embodies. Women have joined Daesh for the express purpose of being wives — not combatants. Yet they are self-radicalised individuals who learned about Daesh over the Internet. Further, while Daesh may feel wrong to the writer and offends his sense of morality, its ideas certainly do not feel wrong to its adherents.

Daesh cannot and must not be seen in isolation. It must be seen in the context of transitional violent non-state actors and civilisations.

Violent Non-State Actors in Transition

This is an invented term I will use to describe violent non-state actors that are in transition to becoming a state or something in between, by taking on the functions of a state in part or in whole. In modern times, there are multiple examples we can look at.

Mexico’s long and bitter drug war have left the federal government weakened and local government nonexistent. Drug cartels have moved in to occupy these territories. Some rule with an iron fist, bribing authority figures and assassinating the incorruptible. Others are more benevolent, establishing welfare programmes and donating regularly to charity. As John Robb argues in Brave New War, the cartels intend to hollow out the government but not to replace it. They are seeking a space where they can conduct their business in peace, using Mexican sovereignty as a shield against foreign (read: American) military intervention.

Since 1996, the Palestinian territories have held elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. The first election went to Fatah, which was riddled with corruption and caught in a conflict with its archrival Hamas. This led to widespread poverty and chronic underdevelopment. Hamas took on the functions of state, building schools and organising drought relief missions, in the place of Fatah. Hamas won the 2006 elections, transforming from a guerilla organisation into a legitimate political authority.

Even in the West, non-state actors are undermining the authority of the state. The Shariah Project deployed Shariah patrols to East London in 2013, confronting passers-by and demanding that they conform to Shariah law. Swedish police have ceded control of 55 zones to Muslim criminal gangs. Violence from Mexico’s cartel wars are spreading to the American border regions, moving illegal immigrants into America and embedding among these immigrants a network of spies, lieutenants and other facilitators.

Seen in this context, Daesh is no different. During the Syrian civil war, the secular nationalist forces battled the remnants of the loyalist military, while radical Islamic fighters shored up their power. The Americans destroyed the central governments of Iraq and Afghanistan during their invasions, and they have not created adequate replacements, leading to a void filled with insurgent groups. The Islamic radical groups banded together, forming Daesh and its allies. Now Daesh is seeking to expand into Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and are developing the infrastructure of a state: they are minting their own currency, enforcing laws, and building schools. Daesh is becoming a true Islamic State.

As Daesh expands into Kurdish lands, they have triggered a backlash. The Kurds are a people without a nation, but in modern history they have been pushing for a state of their own. Daesh’s invasion of Kurdish lands prompted many people of Kurdish descent to travel to Kurd territory to fight Daesh. Other non-Kurdish volunteers have also volunteered to join the fight. While there is no Kurdistan per se, one outgrowth of the war in Iraq was the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is pressing for independence from Iraq, but is endangered by Daesh, and the Iraqi military seems powerless to stop Daesh. A successful defence of Iraqi Kurdistan could be the impetus for a Kurdish nationalist movement — one that encompasses Kurdish lands in Turkey and Iran.

Common to these phenomenon is the failure or nonexistence of states. By failing to provide core services to the people — security, food and water, infrastructure — they lose the loyalty of their citizens. Disenfranchised, these people turn to different identity circles that would provide a sense of community and necessities.

Civilisation, the State and the Islamic State

Using Samuel Huntington’s definitions, a civilisation is the broadest possible grouping of people along linguistic, cultural, historical, genetic or other markers. A state, by contrast, is a political entity that exercises control over a given geographical region. Therefore, a civilisation can contain multiple states, a civilisation can be a single state, and large states (as in the case of empires) may encompass different civilisations. Daesh is that strange animal of a single-state civilisation, a distinction usually held only by Japan, India and China.

Daesh is based on ultra-fundamentalist views of the Qu’ran, effectively transposing the worldview of Qu’ranic times into the 21st century. Being in the Middle East, it has a heavy Arabic cultural influence, and as it happens many Muslims are either of Arabic descent or else are familiar with Arabic. The last great Islamic civilisation, the Ottoman Empire, dissolved in 1922. Through propaganda and deed, Daesh promises a return of a golden age of Islam and the formation of a new Islamic civilisation. Its numerous military successes give sympathisers and believers hope that this dream would come true, and Daesh’s efforts to build a statea long Qu’ranic lines signal that it is serious about building both a state and a civilisation.

Contrast this promise and hope with modern society. The lynchpins of the modern economy are under fire everywhere: the Euro faces the possibility of Greece exiting the monetary union, capitalism is seen to have led to ever-expanding wealth inequalities, jobs are perceived to go to foreigners who demand lower wages than locals. Police and military personnel face heavy scrutiny, and even the slightest hint of impropriety leads to accusations of racism/sexism/prejudice, which are inevitably followed by outrage, media circuses, apologies and resignations. Identity and gender politics threaten to divide people along arbitrary identity markers, taking states with them.

To impressionable minds, Daesh promises hope and society promises victimisation. China has long suppressed Islam in Xinjiang province, and consequently many Muslims are travelling to support Daesh. Malaysia and Indonesia are nominally Muslim states, but despite their racial and religious politicking they do not promise victory and a golden age like Daesh, leading idealists who seek a ‘true’ Islamic state to the Middle East. In the West, where immigration policies are liberal and integration is optional, entire communities see themselves as Muslims but not necessarily citizens of the state they live in. When they hear of Daesh’s victories, they feel more obliged to support their fellow Muslims than the state they do not feel loyalty to.

Daesh’s appeal lies in portraying themselves as Good People. And Good People can justify any number of atrocities to themselves because they believe they are in the right. This is further compounded by Daesh’s Arabic roots and cultural influence. Being tribal based, Arab societies are sometimes described as amoral familist in nature. In effect, morality is defined by the impact on the tribe: if something supports the tribe it is good, and if it harms the tribe it is evil. Amoral familism treats everybody outside the tribe as strangers at best and enemies at worst, and since terrifying the world will increase the standing of the tribe, atrocities like beheading captives and raping slaves are not only permissible but a moral imperative.

Now the question is: what can we do about Daesh?

Daesh brands itself as an Islamic state and the inheritor of Islamic civilisation. It is therefore incumbent on the Muslims of the world to reject the brand of Islam Daesh represents, and to actively participate in civic affairs. It is not enough to shout down distasteful ideologies; people need also to build societies along their preferred ones. In the First World, this means adopting the norms of racial and religious harmony and tolerance, rejecting prejudice and working in tandem with all peoples to build a society based on common values.

For everybody else, this is a call to unity. Violent non-state actors emerge where the state is weak or nonexistent. Daesh is merely the most high-profile VNSA at this time. As states crumble, other VNSAs and transitional NSAs will emerge. To prevent this, states and civilisations have to remain strong. This means rejecting the politics of division and identity, of isolating the extremists and working together with the reasonable people along the rest of the political spectrum. It means cohering as a nation, a people, a civilisation, and to build a better world.

For people in Singapore, this means rejecting the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other model. We cannot define ourselves primarily as Buddhist, Indian, Malay-Muslim, Christian, whatever. We must define ourselves as Singaporeans. In effect, to be one people, one Singapore. Most of all, it means participating in the community of nations, rejecting the extremists and the rogue states, and to be ready to defend ourselves against those who would do us violence with as much violence as we can muster.

Between the Points of the Pen and the Sword

The pen is mightier than the sword only as long as it takes for the swordsman to get within range of the writer. At which point the former will be free to make an example of the writer, and write his own message with the writer’s pen and blood.

As the tragedy in Paris has shown, it is not enough to say that people should be free to exercise their right to free speech. Free speech is lip service unless that speech is defended against all that seek to silence it — be they terrorists, militaries, or governments foreign and domestic. While Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue, depicting an image of the Prophet Muhammad, may be seen as a symbol of defiance, it is also guaranteed to provoke Muslim extremists — the equivalent of a wounded matador, alone and unarmed, waving a crimson flag in front of a blood-maddened bull.

The world is seeing a clash of cultures. France has a long and storied history of satire and political irreverance in the grand tradition of Voltaire; to these jesters, everybody and everything is fair game for insults and criticism, and they are not required to pay a high social cost for their words. Muslim extremists, on the other hand, brook no dissent and tolerate no slight towards the symbols and articles of their faith, and will not hesitate to turn their ire on anyone who contradicts these values. This is especially pronounced among people from honour- and tribal-based cultures in the Middle East, for whom every insult must be returned with blood or blood money.

The language of satire, or indeed any kind of intellectual discourse, is not necessarily universal. Some brands of writing appeal to some people, others will offend those same people, and published ideas do not necessarily influence everyone they come into contact with. But violence is a universal language, and any given degree of violence has predictable first- and second-order effects on the target. Left unchecked, the extremists will win.

The modern terrorist employs fourth generation warfare to achieve strategic effects. One of the key principles of fourth generation warfare is to control the narrative. Extremists with the capacity and willingness to do violence in addition to spreading propaganda are going to seize the narrative. Whenever they encounter organisations that criticise them, insult them, or otherwise publish ideas contrary to what they stand for, extremists will target them for assassination and destruction. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is just the latest and most public of a long and lamentable history of violence against journalists and writers. The individual shooters may be motivated for any number of reasons, personal or ideological, but the strategic effect would be to punish and terrorise people who disagree with the extremist ideology, publicise their own ideology and demonstrate their power to the world.

News organisations, and by extension societies, targeted by such extremists will tend towards two courses of action. The first is to cease and desist publishing ‘inflammatory’ or ‘provocative’ material, either out of a sense of self-preservation or some misguided notion of respect for diversity. In which case the terrorists win the war of ideas, since they will be the only ones publishing inflammatory, provocative and therefore eye-grabbing content. The second is to puff up their chests and continue publishing provocative material. People will naturally laud these acts and naturally let the whole world know — and, naturally, the extremists will redouble their efforts and continue targeting such people and organisations until their staff are intimidated into resigning or until they are annihilated.

Between the jester with a pen and a terrorist with a machine gun, bet on the terrorist.

The next question, then, is what can be done in the wake of the Paris attacks. The easy approach, of course, is to condemn everybody that publishes offensive material — either of all kinds, or more commonly, offensive to Muslims. While benevolent, this is misguided. Terrorists do not care about offensive material — they just want to be the only ones offending people.

Freedom of speech must by necessity carry the freedom to offend. Puerile humour, the kind that Charlie Hebdo specialises in, is of course likely to offend people. But so can well-researched, thought-out white papers. It is only a question of audience and likelihood. Scour the Internet long enough and you will find flame wars and heated debates over everything from PC vs Apple vs console, the exact role of prebiotic starch in digestion, interpretations of the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 9mm vs .45. it is impossible to judge with any degree of accuracy how controversial something will be, and to say that materials that appear to offend a given class of people (such as Muslims) is to treat that class of people as infantile subhuman creatures, driven entirely by base emotions, guaranteed to explode into tantrums and violence when triggered. Beyond the inherent prejudice involved, refusing to publish offensive material is little more than appeasement, and appeasement is not a viable survival strategy when faced with barbarians who wish nothing less than the destruction of civilisation.

Another easy approach is to enhance security measures in the name of counterterrorism. UK Prime Minister David Cameron is calling for new laws to break into encrypted terrorist chatter. Actual enforcement may prove stickier: it would require the government to either pre-emptively ban encryption protocols it cannot break, or private corporations to give the government unilateral access to confidential communications between innocent clients. It is easy to justify such an approach by claiming that it will save lives. The problem is that terrorists do not kill for the sake of killing; they are interested in mass casualties only insofar as they inflict terror on the target population. Terrorists kill civilians to degrade the values of society, in the case of Paris freedom of speech. Security measures that sacrifice freedom in order to fight terrorists who aim to subvert freedom are doing the terrorists’ work for them.

Fourth generation warfare is a sophisticated series of tactics and strategy to exhaust and hollow the state, tempting it into self-destruction. Countering 4GW requires similar sophistication, combining both the pen and the sword.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, upholding freedom of speech, and the freedom to offend, must still be paramount. At the policy level, neither the state or the industry should pass laws or regulations, formal or informal, that suppresses anybody’s right to say anything. The only exception should be made for speech that incites or enables violence.

While states have a duty to protect their people, the greater the power a state has the greater the potential for abuse. Counterterrorism laws and policies that further increase the power of the state must include clauses for checks and balances, such as an oversight committee, requirements for warrants, and strategies that enable as precise a targeting method as possible to minimise the chances of innocents being caught in the dragnet. While swords are useful when faced with an enemy, it must be remembered that swords have two edges.

At the individual level, I think people should give some thought about the material they read and critique. This is not to say their tastes should fit mine, rather that it is useful to think about the effects of publishing something, be it in praise or condemnation of an idea. It is equally useful to make a distinction between crass or offensive material and material that promotes critical thought. All public speech, either in favour or as critique, will promote an idea to whoever happens to be the audience, followed by how the speaker frames and interprets that idea. One’s personal taste is entirely personal, but one does not need to critique every offensive thing either. Publicity is the oxygen of ideas and memes; to defeat them, I think starving them of attention would be the best approach. This would mean supporting and publicising speech that affirms the values that underpin civilisation, and ignoring that which do not — and, perhaps, by rhetorically savaging those that undermine it with the goal of discrediting the underlying ideas.

But beyond the level of the pen, people and organisations have to take personal security seriously. I will grant that this tends to be more useful against criminals than terrorists, but people who publish the kind of speech that offends terrorists are statistically more likely to be targeted by such people. Remaining a soft target exposes them and their families to death and fates worse than death — and turns them into a message for their colleagues and fellow citizens. Further, it is increasingly unlikely that the police will be able to respond in time to a defeat a terrorist attack unless they happen to be in the vicinity. People who dare to dance with the devil must be ready to defend themselves, with violence if necessary. That means seeking training from competent professionals, establishing a security plan, hiring skilled protectors, and other such measures. I suspect in the long term, only people and organisations that can bear the cost of enhanced security measures will be free to criticise terrorism and its adherents without fear of death or ruin.

Fourth generation warfare combines the pen and sword, the former through propaganda and the latter through terrorist violence. It is not enough to pick one or the other in response. Society has to choose both, the former to spread the memes that affirm civilisation and undercut those that undermine it, and the latter to deter and defeat those who would use the sword against it.

Media and the Maturation of Fourth Generation War

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W. B. Yeats, the Second Coming

2014 closed on a bloody note, and a few days into 2015 the spectre of terror rose its head again. In the space of days and weeks the world saw a hostage crisis in Australia, another in Belgium, executions of police officers in America, mass abductions in Nigeria, and yesterday the assassinations of cartoonists in France.

It’s not the end of the world, but we can see it from here.

A state is commonly (albeit not quite completely) defined as a political organisation with a centralised government that maintains a monopoly on violence in a given territory. With the advent of new information communication technologies and the growing paradigm of open source warfare, that monopoly on violence is being challenged. The logical extension is that the power of the state will fade away, and the traditional world order defined by state actors will be replaced with a multipolar world defined by the expansion and growing importance of non-state actors and empowered individuals. The method of this transition is what is known today as fourth generation warfare.

First seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel and Chechnya, 4GW is defined by a blurring of lines between combatants and civilians, war and politics. Today it is mutating even further: the line between terrorism and crime is growing hazy, with one feeding into the other as seen in the case of the Mexican cartels and Palestinian smugger/terrorist groups; the deed becomes propaganda and propaganda fuels deeds; and gaining public legitimisation is as important a goal as securing territory.

War never changes. War is violence designed to compel an opponent to fulfil the actor’s will, and violence seems eternal. On the other hand, war has changed. The means and purposes of waging war has changed, as well as the temporal goals and identities of the actors. Anybody can make war with the right tools, motivation and mindset.

Today, there seem to be three prominent kinds of 4GW actors. The first are transnational terrorist groups, loosely connected over the Internet and social networks, that aim to overthrow or replace the state. These groups include Boko Haram and the Islamic State. While their goals are ideological, they borrow criminal activities and methods to keep themselves going, such as front organisations, smuggling and money laundering.

The second are transnational criminal organisations that aim to hollow out the state to secure a space to conduct criminal activities. The most prominent example are the Mexican cartels. While driven by profit, these groups use terrorist methodology to secure its goals. The cartels are loosely organised, use atrocities to terrorise the people in their territories, and challenge the state by targeting or corrupting the military and police.

The last are lone wolves who attack seemingly at random. These people have a huge array of motivations: workplace dissatisfaction, anger at the police or government, the creation of a caliph, or just plain mental illness. They adopt criminal mindsets, either obtaining weapons illegally or turning off-the-shelf products into weapons. They use terrorist methodology to gain maximum publicity, hitting soft targets and boasting on social media, relying on news cycles to gain their spot in history.

Central to all three actors is the use of media to conduct propaganda of the deed. They perform the deed, and they use media of all kinds to transform it into propaganda. They can count on the media to rapidly propagate news of their attacks across the world. This leads to three distinct media strategies.

First, 4GW actors will use the 24/7 news cycle to generate maximum terror. A sufficiently large and resourceful group will strike rapidly and retreat just as quickly, creating maximum impact for global publicity. Then they regroup and do it again, and again, and again. Think the Paris or Mumbai shooters on a larger scale. Alternatively, following a terrorist attack, fellow travellers or non-connected 4GW actors will use the increased focus on insecurity and fear to amplify press coverage of their next attack to create the perception of an unstable world. They may also conduct operations that synergize with each other, deliberately or otherwise. The chain of attacks I described above, for example, imply just that. These attacks need not be exclusive; in fact, one can happen alongside the other.

Second, 4GW actors will rely on operational pauses. When there is too much heat for the actors to operate, when competing groups have generated too much white noise and drawn too much attention away from their ideology, 4GW actors will retreat and halt operations for a time. They will wait until the news cycle clears and the local environment returns to a calmer state, and then strike again for maximum impact. This is the hallmark of the Islamic Caucuses Emirate, and it would likely be adopted by other groups in the future.

Thirdly, larger and more powerful 4GW actors will attempt to influence the news cycle. They want the media to portray them as an unstoppable force to be feared and respected, building up their credibility. They will likely make contact with media organisations that portray them favourably, or at least allow foreign correspondents a glimpse into their life. There was a reason why the Islamic State allowed a German journalist to chronicle them instead of turning him into a hostage. These actors will also target media organisations that portray them in an unfavourable light to intimidate everybody else. Think of the attack on Charlie Hebdo yesterday.

The newspaper is no longer just a newspaper; it is also a newsmaker. The mass media will become increasingly important targets, either of influence or coercion or both, in the coming days. Non-traditional media outlets and personalities will likely also be targeted: celebrities, blogs, social influencers, ordinary people with extraordinary reach. The days of traditional warfare and state protection are gone; a brave new war is coming, and anyone can take up the sword.

If, through your death or through your tweet, you can help a 4GW actor advance the cause, you will be a target. There is really only one answer to this. Stand up and be counted against the barbarians, or make your peace with the chain and the grave.

Looking Beyond Terror

If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles

-Sun Tzu, Art of War

This letter on the TODAY newspaper forum reflects an understandable, but naive, sentiment about terrorism. The writer argues that terrorism has no religion, and that all terrorists should simply be called terrorists without ascribing them a religion. To modern sensibilities and paradigms, terrorism must clearly fall outside the peaceful practices of conventional religion. But it is a mistake to say religiously-motivated terrorists are not religious.

If a terrorist keeps a long beard, prays five times a day, demands his friends and family live by the strictures of the Koran, enters battle chanting “Allahu Akhbar!”, fights to establish a Caliphate governed by shariah law as codified in the Koran, judges himself and others by principles laid down in the Koran, beheads innocents in the name of God, and dies believing that he will be served by 72 virgins, what motivates him? If a group of terrorists act in a similar way, what unites them and motivates them, and what do they use to recruit others to their cause?

The answer is religion. In their case, their version of Islam. If one does not, or will not, understand an enemy’s motivation, it is impossible to defeat him. The purpose of war is to break the enemy’s resistance and to force him to submit to your will; if one refuses to attack the source of the enemy’s motivation, the enemy will continue to resist, and there will be no way to end the war without shedding oceans of blood.

The author of the letter claimed that “Like all other extremists, they do not care who they kill as long as they continue to instil fear in people.”

This is a shallow interpretation of extremism. Groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram do in fact care about whom they kill. They perpetuate genocides, target minorities, and launch attacks on soft targets to instil terror and inspire fellow travellers. They target government forces wherever they can to undermine the state, utilising unconventional warfare strategems to undermine the power of the state to resist them.

Terror is not merely a goal. Terror is a tool, and to understand it you need to look beyond terror, to its effects. Terror frightens enemies into fleeing, intimidates fence-sitters and civilians into submission, and inspires fellow believers to greater violence. By carefully picking soft targets, terrorists ensure maximum shock value for minimum cost in lives and munitions. While it is a blunt instrument, terror is a very effective tool so long as no other party is willing to perpetuate ever-greater terrors on the original actors. Witness IS’ rapid gains, or Boko Haram’s ability to command global media attention through a relatively small cost in time and effort

Terror is a tool, but it is not necessarily a motivation. While I believe there will be no end of wolves in human skin, whose greatest pleasure in life is to prey on others as sadistically as possible, such psychopaths are historically a minority of the human race. Most people require a great deal of motivation before they can inflict violence on others, even more so when talking about lethal violence against non-resisting targets.

As described in On Killing by David Grossman, this usually requires a combination of factors: a higher cause, a respected superior giving the order to kill, peer pressure, and a dehumanisation of the target. Religion offers a quick and easy means to fulfil these requirements: Islam, a mullah, the presence of fellow believers, and by viewing the victim as non-Muslim and therefore a worthy target. Participation in such an atrocity, combined with religious indoctrination, provides a heady psychological cocktail that encourages unit bonding, making it harder to sway terrorists from the cause and encouraging them to fight harder for the organisation. In this case, religion is as much a weapon as it is a motivation.

The author is afraid that ascribing terrorist violence to religion “may create wrong impressions of certain religious groups, which may then lead to rifts in our multicultural, pluralist society.”

This may be so, but the creation of rifts is exactly the kind of strategy needed to defeat religiously-motivated terrorism. The key is to be targeted, separating the terrorists from civilisation while still giving individual members a means and motivation to rejoin society.

The Islamic State calls itself that to appeal to the Muslim diaspora. Especially the disillusioned Muslims living in secular states, seeking a higher calling or spirituality in their life. By portraying themselves as part of a religion, terrorists are preying upon believers to sway them to their cause, arguing that their deeds are in line with religion and that it is the duty of fellow believers to fight for their religion — and what better way than to sign up with the group?

It is easy to say that terrorist groups like these are not religious. But this approach only works if one’s target audience is the rest of civilisation, who are already inclined to believe that or else view terrorism as beyond the pale. If the goal is to end terrorism, to neutralise their propaganda and defang their doctrine, it is nowhere near enough. It will not reach to the people who need this message the most. If anything, this approach is self-defeating.

Should the civilised world claim that groups like the Islamic State are not religious and leave it at that, terrorist propagandists will seize upon it as proof of oppression. They will cherry pick their personal practices and claim that they are in line with religious practice, and use it to circle the wagons and draw their members even tighter. People like these have decades of experience in the dark arts of propaganda, and can justify almost anything they do by referring to the holy book of choice. The rank-and-file, those who feel they are fighting for a religion, would likely feel abandoned by the civilised world, and cling ever tighter to their parent organisation. Or defect to another terrorist group that promises a truer practice of faith. Or self-radicalise and work out their frustrations in a final act of martyrdom.

This is, needless to say, counterproductive.

The better approach is to engage terrorist propaganda head-on. It is no longer enough to say ‘these are not religious people’, not if the goal is to defeat terrorism. What is necessary is to draw a distinction between civilisation and barbarism. To whit, people must be able to say, “this is what a good believer does, and this is why these terrorists are not good believers” — and they have to be convincing. This requires a propaganda campaign for the cause of civilisation, with theologians and academics able to make religious arguments based on actual studies of the holy book(s) terrorists are perverting. Since the majority of high-profile terrorist groups in the world today claim to be Muslims, it is imperative for the Muslim community to step up and police themselves, to drive a schism between civilisation and the barbarians who would pervert their faith. Nobody else has the moral ability to do this.

The ultimate question here is, what makes a religion? It is not merely a holy book or the teachings within it. A religion is not merely the name of a god or gods and their properties. A religion is a human phenomenon, and as such it is defined by how humans interpret and practice religion, not just in worship but in everyday life. There are as many ways to interpret and practice religion as there are people on Earth.

The barbarians wish to use religion to justify wanton cruelty and terror, paving the road to Hell with promises of Heaven. To defeat them, believers of the civilised world must be able to show why the barbarians’ interpretation and practice are not merely mistaken or irreligious, but goes against the spirit of their faith, and to show people a better way to live. This is the harder way, much harder than simply claiming the opposition is not religious and be done with it.

Keepers of The Flame Excerpt 4

In Keepers of the Flame, the Sons of America rely heavily on the Cascadian information communication networks. The Cascadian Defense Force may be stomping the terrorists on the battlefields of tomorrow — but war is won and lost in the hearts and minds of the people.

The man cleared his throat, drank down a cold glass of ice water, clicked the record button and spoke into the mic. “Test, test, one, two.”

Green bars danced across his laptop screen. He hit the playback button. His voice scrambler app copied his speech into four different tracks, radically modifying octaves and pitch. The overall effect made it sound as if four different people were speaking in an electric monotone.

He adjusted the settings just so, and tried again. Satisfied, he called up his script.

“We are the Sons of America. We are the inheritors of the old United States of America, the keepers of the flame of civilization. For too long, the illegitimate Republic of Cascadia, calling itself the successor state to the North American Union, has oppressed the people, using bread and circuses to distract the masses while the elite live in the lap of luxury.”

He needed an image for this. The SOA insignia, naturally. A coiled rattlesnake against a solid gold background. Above the snake were the words ‘Liberty or Death’; below it, ‘Don’t Tread on Me’. He uploaded it into his composer program and continued with his speech.

“We speak for the disenfranchised. We speak for the forgotten. We speak for the ones forsaken by the uncaring Federal government. We represent the last percent, the people who live in the Yellow Zone. For decades, one administration after another promised to improve the lot of the Yellow Zone, to rebuild from the ashes and fulfil the dream of the Restoration. For decades, they have lied. This is the reality.”

He called up a collage of photographs, cribbed from open source images of CDF operations in the Yellow Zone. Infantrymen rolling out of armored vehicles. Spec Ops personnel blasting down doors and bursting through windows. Bullet-ridden corpses. Women and children cuffed and led away at gunpoint.

“This is reality for the people of the Yellow Zone. They live in the shadow of the guns of Cascadia. The Yellow Zoners merely wish to live in peace. But the one percent can’t abide that. They see it as a threat to their power and their profits. And so they send the Army to crack down on what they call ‘raiders’ and ‘terrorists’.”

The next image was a photo of tall black man, mugging for the camera, surrounded by a bunch of disheveled but smiling kids. Behind them was an omniprinter.

“This is Jason Green. He opened a print shop in the Yellow Zone, helping Yellow Zoners produce the things they need at low prices. He hired Yellow Zoners, giving them work skills and a means of income. But the Green Zoners called him a terrorist. Why? Because his shop wasn’t registered with the Federal government. For that ‘crime’, they sent the Combat Studies Unit to raid his shop, and killed him and two of his employees.”

Another slide show, slower this time. He had to scour the Internet for this segment. First, a shot of the entrance to Camp Archer. He zoomed in on the motto: IN DEFENSE OF FREEDOM. Then a line of men in black hoods and orange jumpsuits, kneeling to face a concrete wall, their hands cuffed behind their back. A woman in a black hood and jumpsuit crammed into a cage half her size. Dogs barking aggressively at detainees strapped to boards. A half-naked man, his face covered with a towel, struggling against anonymous hands while a stream of water splashed against his face.

“And his workers? Here’s where they sent them: Camp Archer in Alaska. There they are beyond the reach of international law. They are given just one hour of exercise a day; the rest of the day they are locked up in tiny cells. The Red Cross cannot contact them, they have no access to legal aid, and they have no contact with the outside world. There, they will be tortured into producing false confessions for kangaroo courts and tried under so-called terrorism laws.

“Jason’s story is just one of many. Too many.”

A line of famous ex-Presidents giving speeches at podia, culminating with the sitting President, Carlos Martinez.

“The Gray House and their cronies have grown drunk with power. Today they target the Yellow Zone. Tomorrow they will come for you, for anyone who dares to question their authority. We will not let this happen. We will be at the frontlines, fighting for you, for your future, for America.

“We are the Sons of America. Expect us.”

The last photo was an obvious choice. An American flag.

He spent the next few hours fine-tuning the video. When it was ready, he uploaded it on Cascadia’s favorite social media websites. He had several dozen dummy accounts, coordinated by a control program he coded himself, and he knew there were others in the SOA with hundreds, even thousands, of sock puppet accounts. The dummies would boost the videos, posting links to them across the Net. Another program would produce automated comments, both positive and negative—more positive than negative, of course, but all publicity is good publicity.

The mainstream media ran the full video after just twenty hours.

The government issued its own press release a day later.

But the Feds were already behind the curve.

 

The Coming of the Global Guerilla

On 12 September, the Straits Times reported that a Malaysian man has taken his Singaporean family to participate in the Syrian civil war. It is an inevitable development of globalisation and the evolution of terrorism. It is becoming increasingly easier for people to identify with extremist ideologies across the Internet, use information communication technologies to link up with terrorists of varying stripes, and use the global transportation network to travel to war zones. Britain, Australia and the United States have also seen their citizens signing on with extremists in the Middle East. As these new recruits gain expertise and experience overseas, the question is: what will they do when they come home?

The age of the global guerilla is coming. The global guerilla is an individual who uses the technologies of globalisation to undermine it. He connects with fellow believers over the Internet, learning the tips of the trade and making connections, then travels to conflict zones using air transportation and linking up with contacts on the ground. At the most basic level, he participates in a war that has little to do with his country, then returns home armed with skills and experience, and possibly a network of fellow believers, spreading the war elsewhere. More strategic guerillas will identify and target the complex structures that underpin society, such as energy, food, transportation. In 2013, for instance, unknown gunmen fired upon power transformers in Silicon Valley, knocking out an electrical substation. The intention is to use attacks to trigger failure cascades with long-lasting effects, which can include knocking out the power grid through attacking transformers, shutting down an oil refinery by blowing up the pipes, or sparking a food crisis by infecting crops with disease.

The hallmark of the global guerillas is their blend of high technology, low profile and smart targeting. They will use technology to make plans, link up with contacts, recce targets, and find reference material. They know that the intelligence services of the world will use technology to track them, so they will do everything they can to avoid being detected, such as repurposing household goods, staying off the Internet, using cash and open-source encryption, and remaining quiet. The technologies and infrastructure of globalisation are so complex that disruptions to goods and services at the local level will have knock-on effects at the regional, national and international level. This combination leads the global guerilla to employ cheap, almost undetectable attacks with a very high return on investment.

The state can’t be everywhere at once. A state that is sufficiently large to protect everywhere at once is a state likely to be paralyzed by its own bureaucracy. While there is value in obtaining and exploiting intelligence, global guerillas get to choose the time and place of attack. As the actor, they need merely wait until security profiles are reduced in a given target before striking. As the reactor, the state must constantly play catch-up.

Singapore is especially vulnerable. Singapore’s economy rests heavily on entrepôt trade. A huge number of maritime and aerial trade routes must by necessity cut through the borders of multiple states, and pass through the no-man’s land of international airspace and waters. No single state can guarantee security in this complex geopolitical environment, and even a regional partnership will have to overcome a great deal of political friction before it can begin operations. Despite the police’s best efforts, it is difficult if not impossible to secure the coastline and beaches from unauthorised intrusion 24/7. Singapore needs to import almost all of its food and water supplies from overseas, opening multiple avenues of attack — consider the impact of introducing crop diseases to food imports, or salmonella to random food suppliers. Consider also the possibility of a Uighur terrorist trademark: driving a large vehicle to run down and crush pedestrians, then jump out and stab everybody in sight.

I think it’s a question of when, not if, Singapore experiences a catastrophic terrorist attack. It would likely come in the form of either a homegrown extremist, operating solo or as a small cell, or a party of global guerillas who have received training overseas and have likely seen combat. Such a catastrophic attack would target the above-mentioned risk areas, potentially causing mass casualties, loss of core income and business, and disruption of critical services.

I also think it’s not feasible to rely solely on the state. While I’m confident the security services will do their best to secure Singapore against terrorism, the global guerilla holds every advantage. The authorities might have detected the jihadi family mentioned in the Straits Times report, but they might not be the only extremists out here. It is a sad truism that one does not know what one does not know, and that in the field of intelligence and counterterrorism, you can’t be certain of your victories. Only of your failures, in the wake of mass deaths.

It is easy to say that the solution is community outreach, countering extremist ideologies through dialogues and press releases, and to use social engineering techniques to paint terrorism in a negative light. This approach may even work, as pat of an integrated strategy. However, for as long as there will be diehard trolls on the Internet, there will be people who will not respond to the soft touch of reason and rhetoric. If a wannabe extremist chooses not to respond to dialogue, especially if said extremist is in the wild instead of in a cell, and if the state cannot catch him in time, count on his attack to succeed.

The global guerilla is a super-empowered individual who utilises loose networks and technology to execute his attacks. To counter him, it’s often wise to study and adapt his techniques.

The global guerilla seeks to create failure cascades. These cascades are possible through a lack of resilience or antifragility. The answer, therefore, is to develop resilience and antifragility. This means learning critical survival skills; stockpiling food, water, batteries and medicine; having a network of friends you can count on; and developing the awareness and self-defence skills necessary to detect, avoid, evade or defeat an attack in progress.  At the community level, it means developing contacts, learning emergency protocols and skills, building up trust, and keeping an eye out for suspicious activity.

It is fine and well to talk about preventing terrorism and countering terrorist ideology, and indeed many commentators have written at length about such things. However, one also has to have a plan for the possibility that these approaches will fail, that the global guerilla will be able to execute an attack. The question, then, is how to structure your life so that even in the event of a catastrophic attack, the individual and the community can pick up the pieces and resume daily life as soon as possible.

Recommended reading:

https://marcuswynne.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/preparedness-for-the-unprepared/

www.resilientcommunities.org

http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/

http://www.teotwawki-blog.com/

Hashtags Won't Stop Barbarians

In the wake of Boko Haram’s mass abduction of girls in mid-April, activists have responded with a social media campaign. With the hashtags #saveourgirls and #bringbackourgirls, photos and short videos are circulating across the Internet to…

…Well, do what, exactly?

Raise awareness of the issue? It’s already a crisis of international proportions. The world is outraged. Nigeria is already locked in a bitter conflict with Boko Haram, and while this campaign might spur them on to redouble their efforts, they — being the primary victims — are painfully aware of what Boko Haram has done. The objective has long ago been achieved.

Call to action? I would almost believe that, but what action? The Nigerians are mobilising the military against the terrorists, but they’ve been at war with Boko Haram since 2009. The United States has pledged to assist Nigeria and has dispatched advisers — since 2011. #saveourgirls is not calling for greater international intervention, nor indeed is there any kind of call to action inherent in the campaign. What else is #bringbackourgirls doing?

Asking, nay demanding, Boko Haram to return the girls they have kidnapped?

Scientists would sooner find proof of a Christian Hell.

The echo chamber of slacktivism

Slacktivism is simple. Identify an issue, do up a signboard with a marker and a convenient piece of cardboard, take a photo of yourself with your sign, post it on social media with a witty hashtag, and watch the likes come rolling in.

Slactivism is also rewarding. Do it right, get your friends to get their friends to jump in on the movement, and soon enough you’ll be rolling in likes, shares and retweets. Bloggers and fellow travelers will jump on the bandwagon and create more content supporting you. With enough public attention, the playbook of democracy virtually ensures that local political leaders, and later international media and politicians, will give air time to your campaign. These are signifiers of social acceptance. Or societal approval. In people who desire such approval, this sort of attention would trigger cascades of hormones that stimulate the reward centre of the brain. It makes them feel good. And to keep on feeling good, all they have to do is propagate the campaign.

Feeling good is not the same as doing good. But man is not a rational animal; man is a rationalising one. If a set of activities makes an airhead feel good, she is more likely to believe she is actually doing good — regardless of the outcome of her actions. This creates a self-reinforcing loop of behaviour, publicly meant to drum up attention for a cause, privately — even subconsciously — designed for emotional self-gratification.

I wouldn’t necessarily have any objections if, in the process of this campaign, actual, tangible objectives are achieved. Or, at the very least, the aforementioned campaign also works towards accomplishing objectives alongside the social marketing effort. Yet slacktivism makes social marketing, a means to an end, and turns it into an end into itself.

Funny thing about marketing: different audiences need different marketing techniques.

The real target audience

Who is #bringbackourgirls aimed at? The primary demographic will be English-educated people fluent with social media, most likely Western liberals, largely because they tend to be the primary inhabitants of social media activism spaces and will jump on a bandwagon like this. The secondary demographic is the international media, which wishes to grab and propagate the news of the day. #bringbackourgirls is crafted to appeal to these audiences, with emotive pictures, social media language, images portrayals of female disapproval and suffering, and a simple message.

But what will bring the girls back?

In military terms, Boko Haram has seized over 200 hostages, threatening to sell them into slavery. If the objective is to bring the girls back home, then legitimate authorities would need to identify the location of the hostages, and rescue them. In the medium term, to avenge previous atrocities and to neutralise a growing regional threat, Boko Haram needs to be eliminated. This means infiltrating their networks and sanctuaries, isolating them from their bases of support, discrediting their ideology and capturing or killing key personnel to disrupt the organisation’s operational capabilities. In the long term, to prevent groups like Boko Haram from emerging, the local inhabitants would have to identify the systemic causes that enable and empower the emergence of similar threats, and address them through holistic means.

Nothing I have seen of #saveourgirls will achieve this.

There is the forlorn hope that maybe #bringbackourgirls pressure Boko Haram into returning their hostages. But see above, scientists proving existence of Christian Hell.

Modern Western civilisation relies heavily on what is essentially structured peer pressure. Democracy is an exercise in mass approval or disapproval. Social media functions the same way, and so does slacktivism. If you approve or disapprove of something, create content to generate mass approval. And your right and ability to do this without being killed is guaranteed by the armed forces and the police.

But groups like Boko Haram come from a different perspective. Their name means ‘Western education is sinful’, and the cornerstone of their ideology is that interaction with the Western world is forbidden. Western cultural norms and expectations would not work on people who have closed their hearts and minds to them. This might yet have worked when Boko Haram was still working through peaceful means in the early days of its existence (2001-2008), but since the uprising in 2009, Boko Haram has transitioned into an armed terrorist group. They want to establish a country ruled by Sharia law, and do this by attacking Christians, bombing schools and police stations, assassinating government and prominent figures, and kidnapping Western tourists.

They have placed themselves outside the reach of Western cultural norms and memes. Slacktivism won’t speak to them. Neither will social media marketing aimed at generating Western disapproval against them. Quite simply, they don’t care about #saveougirls, and are not affected by it — except maybe in the twisted minds of their recruiters and propagandists, who will do what they can to portray it as a moral victory for the cause. (“See, our operation has agitated the West! We can reach across the seas and touch the minds of our enemies! Join us and you, too, will be strong enough to strike at the government and the far enemy!”)

Hashtags won’t stop barbarians. Analysis will. Planning will. Action will. If people are truly interested in stopping Boko Haram, then they have to step up and do actual work. It is hard, it will be difficult, and is nowhere near as immediately rewarding to the monkey brain as a constant stream of likes and retweets. Yet there is just one way to truly save the girls and bring them home — and slacktivism like this is not it.