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War on Terror Teaches How to Fight Hate Groups

War on Terror Teaches How to Fight Hate Groups

Monday, 18 January, 2021 - 05:45

I was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, a newly selected rear admiral, working in my office on the side of the building that was hit by the plane hijacked by al-Qaeda. The next day, President George W. Bush came to the Pentagon and called together senior uniformed leaders of the military. The building stank of fire and jet fuel. He looked us in the eye and said: “Remember this. Don’t ever forget it.”

Thus began what came to be known as the Global War on Terror, which continues into its third decade against the remnants of Qaeda and groups such as the so-called ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab.

Similarly, the day after the storming of the US Capitol last week, I suspect you could smell the lingering tear gas and see the some of the litter of the insurrectionists still scattered around the most sacred sites of our democracy.

Images that I will remember never forget: The confederate flag carried “proudly” through the rotunda; the American flag outnumbered on the grounds of the Capitol by the Trump flag; and the odious and jarring sight of one of the insurrectionists seated in the vice president’s chair in the Senate chamber.

Americans need to remember those images, which are of domestic terrorism plain and simple. As importantly, we need a coherent plan to deal with the challenges of domestic terror that combines both hard and soft power approaches, some of them learned the hard way over the past 20 years in our struggles with external foes.

A key concept is that we need to differentiate actual domestic terrorists — organized white supremacy groups who undertake violent and illegal acts, for example — from legitimate, legal protestors. We need to clearly delineate between free speech and hate speech, and between those with whom we have political disagreement and those who participate in riots and acts of insurrection. That line will be slender at times, but we must respect it. And in particular, we need to recognize that these are US citizens who, no matter their alleged acts, retain all the rights and privileges of our system of courts and laws.

Beyond that fundamental principle, the key elements of dealing with domestic terrorism include many of the same tactics, techniques and procedures we use in dealing with insurgencies and terrorist groups abroad.

First, we need robust systems of intelligence gathering and integration. This means involving all of our domestic law-enforcement mechanisms under the supervision of the courts.

The local and federal agencies involved — the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland security, National Counterterrorism Center, National Crime Information Center, etc. — must share data, synthesize information technically, and move it coherently to users such as frontline law-enforcement. Those users, of course, must take it seriously and act upon it in a timely and effective way. This obviously failed in the run-up to the assault on the Capitol. Better intelligence integration, a key lesson of 9/11, is perhaps the main reason we have not suffered a significant domestic terrorist attack in nearly 20 years.

A second key element might be termed the hard-power side of the equation. This is the energy with which law enforcement pursues those who undertake violent acts. A caution: Just as in countering international terrorism we cannot kill our way to success, in facing domestic terror we will not be able to arrest our way to victory. But separating the leaders from their followers, making examples with aggressive prosecutions and long jail sentences, and putting significant resources on what law enforcement refers to as the “apprehend, convict and incarcerate” side of the equation is key.

The commendable speed and efficiency of the current series of Justice Department and FBI investigations and arrests following the events of Jan. 6 is an example of legal hard power directed against these movements. As a side note, our prisons are hotbeds of violent gangs, many with terrible political agendas — we have work to do inside the walls to break down the structures that create graduate-level courses in violent extremism.

Even more important is the long-term, soft-power side of the equation. Just as I needed to win hearts and minds of Afghans as the commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission against the Taliban, our political leaders at every level — municipal, state and federal — have vital work to do in education, job creation, infrastructure building, defeating the pandemic, and a myriad of other legitimate grievances that fuel domestic terrorism.

On average in the US, we give children a smartphone when they turn 10 or 11 years old. Yet we give them next to no training in how to use it in terms of differentiating vicious lies and conspiracy theories from honest reporting. Similarly, when adults lose their jobs, face a terrible pandemic, or see a host of socio-economic or racial inequalities, their propensity to join extremist organizations rises. Yet we give them no tools to resist such organizations. Addressing these issues — with, for example, more civics education in the schools and broad public-service campaigns in the media —is much more difficult than the hard-power side of the equation.

Finally, technology can offer significant assistance. Addressing hate speech on social networks is crucial, as is taking away the unfettered ability of radicals to recruit, proselytize and conduct violent operations over social media platforms. The tech giants are coming to the realization that they must cooperate among themselves and with law enforcement to decrease the tools available to domestic terrorists.

We learned this the hard way as we watched Qaeda and ISIS expertly manipulate online resources. Some of the techniques used to defeat them in cyberspace, including not only shutting down radical websites but also re-directing searches, is important. Much more work lies ahead in this sector.

None of this is certain to work, at least not quickly, as conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan show us. But we have seen the defeat of insurgencies in Sri Lanka, Colombia, Kenya and other nations. It is a long-term process that requires patience, resources and a plan.

In the course of facing insurgencies in my career, I have seen the effectiveness and importance of intelligence collection, finding the right blend of hard and soft power, and adapting technology to help find, fix and address terrorism internationally. It is time to use what we learned in the 9/11-sparked forever wars here at home — within the bounds of our constitution, laws and courts.


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