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The hard dilemma: counterterrorism and/or shallow freedom

How do we limit the freedom of individual terrorists, terrorist groups and support networks to operate unimpeded in a relatively unregulated environment, whilst maintaining individual freedoms, democracy and human rights?

Petre Roman
23 November 2015
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Aftermath of Paris Attacks: police officers control vehicles in Lyon.

Aftermath of Paris Attacks: police officers control vehicles in Lyon. Demotix/ serge mouraret. All rights reserved.Today, counterterrorism, or the whole national and international system of responses designed to combat terrorism, includes a variety of tools, ranging from diplomacy, international cooperation and direct engagement to physical security actions, economic sanctions, covert action and military force.

Terrorism is both a global phenomenon and a pressing political problem. As such, it requires maximum international cooperation. In the meantime, there are crucial policy challenges. In a CRS Report for Congress from January 2007, these are presented as conflicting goals and courses of action: (1) limiting the freedom of individual terrorists, terrorist groups and support networks to operate unimpeded in a relatively unregulated environment; versus (2) maintaining individual freedoms, democracy and human rights.

These conflicting goals are now visibly turning into increasingly hard dilemmas. Perhaps the most powerful expression of the intellectual, as well as practical dilemmas facing our democracies comes from Isaiah Berlin’s two apparently contradictory sentences, written in his book, The Power of Ideas, in 2000:

“Freedom for you is the living of life, for me it is its condition”… and  “Liberty and equality, security and spontaneity, happiness and knowledge, mercy and justice – all these are supreme human values when regarded separately; however, they are incompatible, cannot be all fulfilled; there are choices to be made and  tragic losses pursuing one preferred supreme goal.”

The global tread today means an increasingly open space, open social networking, open commerce and open attitudes (tolerant, as well as non-tolerant). One question takes on more and more meaning: doesn’t an enhanced security environment, as a result of counterterrorism measures, play, to some degree, into the hands of the terrorists, i.e. since their central aim is to disrupt our democratic systems?

It is also important to see that, in all democratic countries, a substantial majority strongly holds that no compromise of constitutional rights is acceptable. A direct consequence of this prevailing opinion should be that combating and condemning terrorist activity, as well as the extremist and violent ideology that accompanies it, is by no means anti-Islamic.

However, it is very difficult to preserve and continue to affirm our democratic principles of religious tolerance when confronted with the horror of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ISIS seeks to create a “pure” Sunni Islamist state governed by a brutal interpretation of sharia. This brutality is designed to augment the image of its strength, to exhibit raw power and a sheer propensity towards of revenge. ISIS is not concerned with religions arguments and does not seek a reputation for religious legitimacy.

Only a few years ago, the reports on the future of terrorism did not foresee the fact that organized terror could take the shape of ISIS. For instance, in 2007, the US Department of State was more concerned about “a new form of non-state warfare that resembles a form of global insurgency.”

To conclude these introductory words, I would use Herbert Marcuse’s concept of “the limit which drives the revolution beyond any accomplished stage of freedom: it is the struggle for the impossible.” Under the principle of freedom, no society can ever enjoy freedom on a permanent basis. Freedom, in order to become a reality, must lay claim to an ongoing transformation of any society. No institution – either singly or in concert  - could ever solve all the conflicts of the world.

Acknowledging culture and people; knowing the enemy

My wish to contribute to the debate on terrorism was prompted by a single sentence from France on Fire, by Mark Lilla (New York Review, March, 2015). He said:

“What is entirely out of a government’s control – out of anyone’s control – is what happens next in the larger Muslim world.”

Terrorism is a global issue, mainly related to the actions perpetrated by radical/extremist Islamic groups. When politicians insist on differentiating those criminal groups from the core values of Islam, they are trying to arouse the consciousness of human solidarity. This consciousness is nothing less than attesting the value of culture in solving the issues of civilization.

Because of the big gaps existing between developed and developing or undeveloped nations, to have joint projects on issues other than health or education is rare. Instead of producing wealth, it is poverty - its opposite - which currently gives substance to projects. Terrorism should be treated as a joint interest, precisely because it is essentially a destructive project. It is propelled by a destructive energy of a very special kind, because it cannot be brought into the service of life, as it is always in the service of death.

At the same time, it is also wasting and consuming the future of nations and people. Dividing the world along cultural lines is a recipe for the terrorist to thrive. We should cultivate cognitive flexibility. “For the Muslims, their assimilation into the Western societies is a sign of disavowing their civilization, their profundity, i.e. the religion and the civil right based on their religion…I’m worried that, some day, we could have a religious war we certainly do not need. Islam risks to be violently projected towards an uncertain future” wrote the great French historian Fernand Braudel, in 1966, in his book The World Today. Braudel was convinced that “Islam has to modernize itself at any cost” and “ it will adopt a great part of the Western technologies, a fact that, today, constitutes the foundation of global life.” He did not agree with those historians and analysts that viewed Islam as “impermeable” and “uncompromising”. To support this, he refers to the intimations of the Prophet and concludes that:

“The effort of personal interpretations, the Ijtihad, will play a considerable part in the future development of Muslim thinking”. But he also warned: “Islam can also be fooled, allow itself to be fooled”.

More recently, in 2002, in a book meant to explain the demise of Islam, What Went Wrong, Bernard Lewis wrote:

“The Muslims brought their own scripture, in their own language and created their own state, with their own sovereign institutions and their own holy law…”. “It was bad enough for Muslims to feel weak and poor after centuries of being rich and strong…to be reduced to the role of followers of the West.”

In 2011, in his book Civilization, Neil Ferguson raised a very interesting point:

“Maybe the ultimate threat to the West comes not from the radical Islamism or any external source, but rather from our own lack of understanding of, and faith in, our own cultural heritage.”

However, bearing all this in mind, we are confronted with the fact that terrorism is becoming increasingly violent and tries to destabilize the existing order on an ever-widening basis. For instance, ISIS attracts followers not only for the sake of religious righteousness but also for “adventure, personal power and a sense of the self and the community” (Audrey Kurth Cronin, “ISIS is Not a Terrorist Group”, March 2015).

This is a new stage, if not era, of both terrorism and counterterrorism. We have to focus on protecting, serving and winning the support of the people suffering from terror, alongside combating extremist groups and individual terrorists. Knowing the enemy is essential in evaluating terrorist intent and terrorist capability to act.

To conclude, I might use Herbert Marcuse’s line (“The Aesthetic Dimension”, 1977):

“Solidarity and community have their basis in the subordination of destructive and aggressive energy to the social emancipation of the life instincts.”

Public diplomacy

The use of diplomacy in general and, in particular, to help create a global anti-terror coalition does not need to be demonstrated. Face-to-face diplomacy, at all levels, but above all in the Arab world, where personal relationships are culturally important is much less expensive than security operations, not to speak about the military ones, and it may substantially contribute to improve anti-terror cooperation.

The horrific terrorist attack in Kenya made it even more obvious that public diplomacy is needed to win ‘hearts and minds’ and to mobilize the media in countries where international cooperation in law enforcement is not yet very successful. Sometimes, the battle for hearts and minds seems to be just nice talk. The dramatic reality is that in many countries in the Arab world, the western democracies  - the US above all – are not currently winning this battle. The national security interests of the western states often collide with their commitment to promote democracy and human rights by losing the ‘cold war of ideology’, as coined in a CRS Report in 2007, meaning that a growing proportion of the Muslim youth could embrace extremist views.

Ultimately, this could lead to an increase of terrorism. To ameliorate the root causes of the process of terrorism and to deter recruitment of terrorists, public diplomacy on the international arena deserves to be well-funded. Let us remember that, in the Arab world, the activity and publicity efforts of terrorist groups are well funded and have produced tangible results in the acceptance of extremist views. Democratic leaders coming from all democratic countries in the world, or from the battlefields in the non-democratic, authoritarian countries, have the capacity to raise the awareness of the people and media on the necessity of international cooperation in anti-terror issues.

They have the experience, the mental power to direct powerful thoughts, the ability to gain people’s trust and to express purpose and determination. Depression, in the form of “everything is awful here” or “the world situation is appalling, yet appears to be deteriorating” should never be allowed to prevail in the analysis of terrorism. Yes, there are devastating images of recent terrorist spots in ISIS-dominated zones, in Paris, or Kenya. However, as we have the conviction of our principles, a general and permanent way of existence that we consider the most appropriate - in the ancient meaning of virtuous - we can also grow certain and knowledgeable in matters of counterterrorism.

Aristotle was right:

“The judgment of a single man is bound to be corrupted when he is overpowered by anger, or by any other similar emotion; but it is not easy for all to get angry and go wrong simultaneously.”

Cybersecurity versus privacy

Intelligence activity is crucial to provide advance warning and to mitigate new threats. In a recent report to the US Congress on the FBI strategy, the necessity “of building a capability to produce strategic and all-source intelligence assessments that will guide planning and decisions and will help FBI to anticipate the tomorrow threats”, is underlined. Its centerpiece is simply the ability to understand what is happening in a given area by using all the sources available. Whereas the management strategy is considered satisfactory, the allocated resources are obviously unsatisfactory. And, if sharing relationships at the level of institutions such as FBI, CIA, NSA, DOJ, DOD or the Joint Terrorism Task Force does not rest on a solid foundation (unfortunately not yet mature) the relationships with the private sector may be good, but they are still potentially fragile.

In the meantime, the FBI has made cybersecurity a top national-security priority. The problem today is “to rebuild constructive partnerships with the private sector as well as with the general public, in the wake of the Snowden revelations.” In the same congressional report it is stated that there is inadequate understanding of the value of intelligence collection and of domain analysis, and this is attributed to “the lack of sufficient leadership.” Legislative initiatives to incentivize stronger partnerships with the private sector are needed. The prevailing expectations of privacy is reflected  in the response of Apple when they said, “Our commitment to customer privacy doesn’t stop because of a government information request.” On the other hand, the FBI director said that the bureau was “struggling to maintain its ability to actually collect the communications it is authorized to collect.”

Clearly, the most important task is to rebuild trust between the two. The danger, as perceived by the public is that the data gathered by the security institutions are not protected from being used by policy preferences. Is it possible to turn privacy and security into a positive sum game? Is it possible to guarantee both? The category of professionals working under the requirements of the law becomes a central factor in order to avoid abuses and intrusions into privacy.

The known risks are perceived as less dangerous than the supposed ones. But uncertainty in this very sensitive domain can be mitigated through a larger public acceptability of the consequences, versus the improved capacity of prediction regarding terrorist threats.

It is very significant that the recent anti-terrorism bill proposed by the French Prime Minister to its Parliament was strongly criticized in a New York Times editorial. The bill “would open the door to excesses in France, similar to those revealed by Snowden in the US…. There is no doubt that the French government has the duty to protect the nation from terrorist violence and Jihadist recruitment. Yet, the Parliament has the duty to protect the citizen’s democratic rights from any unduly expansive and intrusive government surveillance.” It is also clear that such laws can have a negative impact on the freedom of the press. The complexity of this issue is exemplified by a report on the persons suspected of Islamic extremist activity in the US between January 2009 and April 2011. Out of the 104 persons subjected to law enforcement, 34 were born in the US and 35 were younger than 24 years of age. The conclusion was that “no one, all-encompassing profile can be made of the individuals.”

The problem in general lies not only in the amount of information collected from the internet but also in the algorithms which are the basis of the functioning of internet and computers. The algorithms decide what results you see with any internet search and if you are a potential or valid target for the intelligence services. So concerns may also arise if, at some point, algorithms could fall into the hands of terrorist cells.

Mass-media impact

Mass-media is essential for gaining mass appeal for democracies, as well as for terrorist organizations. Today, exploring media coverage is a norm for terrorists. Their success is often measured by the ability to cause a dramatic effect of fear and uncertainty. The psychological impact of terror on a target audience is an end in itself. This is especially true for ISIS. As pointed out by Audrey Kurth Cronin in his argument that ISIS is a new and more powerful form of terrorism,  in ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group  - “Washington has found it much harder to counteract ISIS’ more visceral appeal, perhaps for a simple reason: a desire for power, agency and instant results also pervades the American culture.”

The major media compete for ratings because their best revenues come from increases in their audience size. Sensationalism is also played up by the terrorists to increase the impact of their horrific actions. We can easily sense the tension - in the media - between the need to stick to a fair, accurate presentation of facts and the imperative to tell a dramatic story, as encapsulated by this  header from the New York Times, “2 maxims at odds: Tell a story and tell the truth”. This can be problematic: “Can we still trust what we are watching?”

Social networking is, of course, yet another instrument in the hands of terrorist organizations. A report of the Brooking Institution in Washington has found up to 70.000 accounts on Twitter that seem to support ISIS; in this respect, the message of ISIS to all its followers on-line was clear: the Jihad on-line is not less important than the jihad on the battle fields.

“We are living in an era where the media war is stronger than the sword.” wrote a group attached to ISIS. It must be noted that the presence of ISIS supporters on Twitter is also a real source of intelligence. So, this is another dilemma: to expel or not the ISIS Twitter accounts.

The media can and should be a way to understand the world as a complex interaction of political, cultural, economic, social and environmental systems. The large diversity of the ways of thinking is not an impediment for the media to perform successfully. This pluralism should favor  counterterrorism.

Final remarks

After the July 22 meticulously planned massacre in Norway, a great majority assumed that it was a Jihadist attack. The killer turned out to be a Norwegian “lone-wolf”, not an Islamic extremist.

In his statement, Mr. Stoltenberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister, was very courageous: “We will not allow the fear of fear to silence us. More openness, more democracy. This is us. This is Norway.” Yet, when the Norwegians found out about the serious flaws in the response of the security forces, they voted the Prime Minister out of office.

In many European countries, the anti-immigration parties are on the rise, because they are constantly warning against the “Islamicization” of the West. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian killer, used the same argument as a justification for his murderous action.

Anti-terror policy has to be more and more a long-term strategy capable of fighting terrorism on many fronts, as the eradication of terrorism may not be achievable for a long period of time.

Being steadfast in our defense of our freedoms and civil rights does not mean that we are constrained by conventional thinking. That is indeed us. But it is a very delicate and tightrope balance that must be maintained between the freedom to react and that of existing. We should never accept submission to the blind, brutal force embodied by terrorism. And yet, when privacy and freedoms are under constant pressure from the necessities of counterterrorism, we have the feeling of being in exactly the position that complies with the terrorists’ wishes.

Lawmakers can place sensible limits on surveillance and require a considerable amount of proof, before privacy is limited by intelligence and security interventions. The salvation of our democracies lies, I hope, not in painful trade-offs between collecting information and saving freedoms, but in finding synergies, common goals and compatible opinions. We should in particular worry about problems whose solutions are neither well defined nor objectively measurable.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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