October 8, 2016
To defeat terrorism and insurgencies, we have to understand not only how terrorists and extremists operate, but also the cultural features that make up their thought process. Just like people are not predictable and take on the features of their culture, terrorist groups also take on the traits of the various cultures that are represented within them. And, like most people are not rigid and inflexible, neither are the groups. Meaning that while they may have an over-all leadership (to include at the cell level), actors within these nodes are fluid. This means that a member could be involved with a mortar cell on one day and an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) team the very next day. To further complicate matters, if a member is caught, he is quickly replaced by someone else who has a skill to offer (as long as that person is trusted a trusted quantity). And worst of all, these bad actors are typically only caught after they have conducted some sort of activity. Of course, there is then the issue of whether or not there is enough evidence to keep the person in detention. Fortunately, there are certain aspects of their cell or group’s operational cycle that offers us a chance to exploit their activities. These are windows of exposure that can be used to either neutralize or exploit their activities. In fact, every operation has a cycle of events that must take place in order for the operation to occur. There is also the human factor that plagues each member of the group. That human factor is often clouded by cultural aspects.
Culture is learned behavior that is present in a given society or group. Examples of cultural characteristics are: religion, language, beliefs, behavior, perceptions, traditions, customs and values. Of these, language is usually the most significant with family and religion closely following. These aspects influence how they act, not just in their everyday activities, but also their involvement with terrorist activities. Unfortunately, while cultural characteristics can be observed, they cannot be gauged or measured. But, they can be used as indicators of activities. Thus, if we know possible culture associated with the potential bad actors, we can then be prepared to look for those cultural indicators in addition to the other likely operational indicators. For example, the cultural indicators associated with a Ku Klux Klan operation would differ greatly from the cultural indicators associated with the Islamic State.
In past conflicts, the US Military had the playbook by which the enemy would operate. So while the USSR has a formidable military, it was fairly predictable. And based upon the intelligence preparation of the battlefield, we could out think the enemy and make our battle plans accordingly. In contrast, the war against the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab and other like groups, there are no real front lines. Typically, we are fighting these groups on their home turf, where they know the terrain and can blend as needed. Their goal is to win the war not only on the battlefield but also politically—often using information operations.
Finally, we have often heard that to defeat terrorists and insurgents, we have to be able to think like they do. But frankly, that is impossible. Even with the use of cultural experts we will never be able to get very deep into their minds. That said, with very aggressive analysis, collection efforts and counterintelligence measures we can beat them to the punch. One thing is certain, as we have seen so far, defeating terrorism is not easy, but it can be done!