The Influence Component of Counterterrorism

A Systems Approach

By Paul K. Davis and Brian Michael Jenkins

Paul Davis is a RAND research leader in the areas of defense planning, military transformation, deterrence theory, and methods of analysis and modeling. Brian Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of RAND and one of the world's leading authorities on international terrorism.

Early in 2001, we were asked by the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to work together with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) in constructing a framework for thinking about the deterrence of terrorism, and al Qaeda in particular. At the time, we and other Americans had in mind rather different and unpleasant outcomes for Osama bin Laden and associates (death or capture). However, the request was a good one because the United States needs a counterterrorism strategy to supplement direct action and direct defense. Consequently, the RAND and IDA teams worked to sketch an appropriate framework, one that would be at once compact and meaningful. The result was to emphasize four principles as follows.

Four Guiding Principles

Our primary strategic principle is that the United States should move beyond the concept of deterrence and toward influence as the appropriate complement to direct military action. Deterrence—or causing an adversary to desist from an action by threatening an even stronger counteraction—is simply too limiting. It may be impossible, for example, to deter members of al Qaeda by threatening to imprison or kill them. However, there are many ways to influence an adversary, only one of which is deterrence. Other ways include co-optation and inducement on the nicer-than-deterrence end, and crushing defeat on the harsher-than-deterrence end (such defeats should, of course, help deter future events). This spectrum of influences was motivated in part by our reading of history, which reminded us that even murderous terrorists have been of different types, with some of them being incorrigible and others moving on to become part of civil society when conditions changed. If there is a model for thinking about such matters, it is that terrorism should be sharply defeated, but that conditions must then change or it may very well arise again.

This concept of a spectrum of influences and an eye on both near-term and longer-term effects lead to our second guiding principle: Terrorist groups are not simply single entities; rather, they are systems, with diverse elements, many of which may be amenable to some influences but not others. Even though zealous leaders may not be deterrable, others who support a terrorist organization with money, logistics, and sanctuary may very well be. Indeed, many such people have a good deal to lose. The larger terrorist system, then, includes merchants, suppliers, heads of state, population segments, and religious leaders sympathetic to the terrorist network. Only some parts of the system can be deterred in the classic sense. However, each part of the system can be influenced in myriad ways.

Our third principle is that because al Qaeda has no well-defined "center of gravity," the United States should conduct a broad-front, sustainable campaign against the many components of the terrorist system. With no way of knowing in advance which part of the effort may prove to be the most successful, the United States needs to wage a simultaneous campaign along many fronts. This is quite different from ordinary warfare and may seem inefficient, but there is no choice.

Our fourth principle is that to sustain this type of campaign over many years, the campaign must be persuasive, morally high-minded, and consistent with enduring American values. (Americans, and other people in fear of survival, may stretch or violate their values temporarily, but the enduring values reemerge.) The war on terrorism should be characterized not only by manifest strength, purpose, and determination, but also by a moral validity readily apparent to U.S. citizens and to our counterterrorism partners worldwide. Moreover, as signaled above, the campaign should balance shortterm efforts to destroy terrorists with longer-term efforts to diminish the public appeal and power of terrorism and to address underlying problems.

Three Troublesome Challenges

Developing and executing this strategy will not be easy. To succeed, the United States will need to overcome many vexing problems. We highlight three: (1) deterring the use of weapons of mass destruction, (2) persuading regional allies to act, and (3) maintaining American values at home and abroad.

Deterring the Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction. America's most worrisome national security concern is the specter of catastrophic terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD). We suggest two approaches beyond those already being taken. The first is to announce credibly that any state or nonstate organization that even tolerates the acquisition of WMD by terrorists within its borders will be subject to U.S. military action.

The second approach is quite different and controversial. Deterrence of the use of biological weapons could be greatly enhanced if everyone in the Middle East discussed the ramifications of biological weapons sufficiently so as to conclude—from their own common sense—that biological warfare—once begun—could not be contained. Therefore, the United States should publicize the fact that a major bioterrorism attack involving a highly contagious disease such as smallpox would, because of international travel and inevitable retaliation by one party or another, almost certainly come back to haunt the Middle East and might even result in a global pandemic. Would-be terrorists and their supporters must be convinced that such weapons cannot be "controlled" or used with impunity.

Despite major difficulties, the U.S. public health system would be able to cope with an outbreak of disease associated with a bioterrorist attack. European public health systems would cope as well. But with frail public health institutions and limited medical capabilities, the world's poorer nations, particularly those in the Middle East, would suffer enormously, perhaps losing substantial portions of their populations.

In short, U.S. information strategy should aim to induce the populations who support terrorists to recognize the likely self-defeating consequences of biological warfare. Potential advocates or tolerators of such warfare should conclude that this is "not a game we should even think about playing."

Persuading Regional Allies to Act. Our systemic approach to counterterrorism distinguishes among the various kinds of adversaries who support terrorism. We decompose the terrorist system into several different types of actors, what they hold dear, and what could threaten or influence them (see table). Identifying these actors and the levers of influence, however, is the easy part. The hard part is making the proposed actions actually happen, especially when many of the actions need to be taken by states from which terrorists come or in which they reside. Clearly, many of the actions proposed in our table need to be performed by other countries.

America's allies in Europe began vigorous crackdowns on terrorists immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, and have reportedly cooperated closely with U.S. authorities since. Middle Eastern governments—notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan—must also take action. Egypt and Pakistan have been increasingly cooperative, despite difficult internal challenges, and major arrests have recently been made in Pakistan. As of the time of our report, we judged Saudi Arabia to be a special case. On the one hand, the United States and Saudi Arabia have had a long and mutually beneficial strategic relationship. On the other hand, the spread of what is called in shorthand "Wahhabiism," long actively promoted by Saudi Arabia, has helped encourage intolerance that transmutes into religious extremism. The Saudi government (and governments throughout the Middle East and elsewhere) need to strongly discourage extremist and intolerant teachings and impede organizations that support terrorism.

Maintaining American Values at Home and Abroad. Core American values can be preserved in the war on terrorism—if not always, then in the main. America must be true to its own enduring values and must convince others that it is doing so. Broad international support is essential for success in this war.

On the home front, America must have—and play by—rules. America should consider more intrusive legal measures (such as preventive detention, military tribunals, and secret hearings)—but it should retain appropriate forms of due process and legal protections against abuses that would otherwise assuredly occur. America should also grant appropriate access to the press, which will enhance public faith in the government's integrity and avoid dangerous rumors. Is all of this possible? In the late 20th century, every liberal democracy confronting terrorism (particularly in Europe) was obliged to modify its normal rules, yet it can be argued that each of the countries found it possible to do so without unduly sacrificing its values. This said, prosecutorial shortcuts taken out of necessity should not be allowed to become permanent or to be used as an excuse for broader limitations of civil liberties.

On the foreign front, the United States should continue to promote democracy. Many problems in the Middle East (and South Asia), including terrorism, are related to the lack of democratization. For years, the United States has failed to hold Middle Eastern states, in particular, to the same standards of democratization as it has held other nations. The time has come to begin doing so. The United States should increase its moral and fiscal support of United Nations and nongovernmental organizations that work to create the infrastructure of civil society in the Middle East. We believe that it is possible for the United States both to work effectively with current regional leaders and to encourage democratization more vigorously. And however difficult it continues to be to move toward resolution of the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict, negotiating some kind of resolution will continue to be of fundamental importance.

The United States should also exercise moral leadership in the military struggle against terrorism. Consistent with established American values in war, America can use force effectively but discriminately. America should recognize the need for reduced levels of proof before taking action—but it should avoid arrogant actions based on flimsy information. America should engage in information warfare to confuse enemy minds tactically—but it should focus as much as possible on the power of truth.

As we look at the situation a year after our original work on this topic, we note that the U.S. government has effectively adopted a systemic approach to counterterrorism. It has employed a broad range of strategies, distinguished among different elements of the al Qaeda system, and tailored tactics accordingly. It has proceeded along a broad front, rather than counting on finding a vulnerable core. The United States has also worked very closely with allies worldwide, with major payoffs. The United States has also sought—but with much less success so far—to engage in the war of ideas and to address underlying causes of terrorism, including the promulgation of intolerance and extremism, as well as the open sore that is the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Table: Threaten What the Terrorists and Their Supporters Hold Dear

Related Reading

This article is based on:
Deterrence & Influence in Counterterrorism: A Component in the War on al Qaeda, Paul K. Davis, Brian Michael Jenkins, RAND/MR-1619-DARPA, 2002, 105 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3286-0, $20.00.

See also:
Countering al Qaeda: An Appreciation of the Situation and Suggestions for Strategy, Brian Michael Jenkins, RAND/MR-1620-RC, 2002, 41 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3264-X, $15.00.


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