The announcement, on a Sunday night five years ago, from President Obama: "Tonight, I can report to American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, leader of Al Qaeda, and the terrorist responsible for the murders of thousands of innocent men, women and children." Terrorism is as old as humankind, and as new as Twitter, and keeping up with its faces and changes has occupied Brian Michael Jenkins for four decades. He's a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, and one of the world's foremost analysts and experts on terrorism, as his body of writings and his work consulting for national and international agencies attest. Here, he sizes up the new direction and demands of terrorists, and how this country is coping with them.
What, for your purposes and ours, is terrorism?
Terrorism is violence or the threat of violence that's calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm that will cause people to exaggerate the threat posed by the terrorists and the importance of their cause.
In the 40 years you've been studying this, what's the arc of how terrorism has changed?
In terms of the basic tactics there have been incremental changes, but this is still about killing people, it's about taking hostages. The basic arsenal of the terrorists has remained pretty much the same, with striking exception: and that is when we think about arsenals, we tend to think only about weapons, when in fact communications are very much part of the struggle. Because terrorism itself is about the manipulation of perceptions, it's about communication. When we were, back in the late 1970s, trying to figure out what would be the weapons of the future that terrorists might incorporate into their tactics, one we missed of course was the Internet.
That has had a tremendous impact on the trajectory of terrorism. Indeed, if this is violence aimed at the people watching, then the ability to reach an audience of global proportions through the news media enhances the utility of terrorist tactics.
But the Internet took it further, because that enabled these groups to reach audiences unmediated by an editor, and with social media, to go even a step further and to have terrorists talking directly to their supporters and others they want to recruit into their cause.
Have the goals of terrorists, and who they are, substantially changed?
In some cases, yes. Certainly terrorist activities associated with the anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s; it was associated with ideological conflicts, and separatist movements in the 1970s and '80s, the Basque separatists in Spain, the Irish Republican Army, other groups like that. There was a shift, however, in that in the '80s we began to see increasingly ideologies drawn from religion become the driving force of much of the terrorism. If the violence was carried out on behalf of either an ideology or a specific set of political goals, then that meant there was a constituency. The existence of a constituency imposed constraints on the terrorists themselves. Terrorists worried, If we go too far, we will alienate our supporters -- and they imagine themselves to have legions of supporters.
But if you move it into the realm of ideologies drawn from religion, then your constituency is God. That reduces the constraints. And what we saw beginning in the 1980s was an escalation in terrorism, not just an increase in the volume.
You know, the worst incidents of terrorism measured in terms of lives lost in the 1970s were in the scores of individuals: 70 people, 80 people, 90 people. In the 1980s, this ascended into the hundreds of people and it kept creeping upward. Of course on September 11, it went into the thousands.
How well have understandings of this threat evolved? There has been a great deal of resistance in this country to even using the word "understanding," and where they're coming from, which is necessary of course to combat it. People don't want to understand -- they say, We just want to get 'em.
The word understanding is slippery and therefore dangerous in this territory. If you say we need to understand our terrorist adversaries -- how do they view the world? On the one hand, of course, that's something obviously you would do in any type of an armed struggle. We paid a great deal of attention during the Second World War to understanding the strategy and tactics of the German generals. I mean, General Patton said of his foe General Rommel, when he defeated him in North Africa, Rommel, I read your book!
During the Cold War, we devoted a great deal of scholarship to trying not simply to count the number of Soviet nuclear armed missiles that were pointed at the United States, but to understanding how the Soviets thought about the world. In fact, our strategies were based upon that understanding.
But when it comes to terrorists, there's a tendency to say, Terrorists are evil, witches are wicked, why are we wasting our time understanding them? And indeed, that slides into the perception that one is being understanding OF terrorists, which is completely unacceptable. Much of what we do in terms of our own counter-terrorism measures are based upon an understanding of our adversaries.
Now we do face a dilemma in this country. We agree that we will use military force against terrorism. And I'm a former soldier. I'm not squeamish about the use of military force when it's absolutely necessary, and appropriate. It's one component of the things we do.
But at the same time we now find ourselves in a state of perpetual war. I remember testifying before the Senate only months after 9/11. I was asked by one of the senators, Mr. Jenkins, it's been three months since 9/11, nothing has happened – are we through it yet?
And I responded that this wasn't some episode of "The West Wing." That was a question you could ask me in ten years. Well, we're coming up to the 15-year mark now and it's still ongoing.
Perpetual warfare is new territory for Americans. It's not just a matter of patience; it's what does this begin to do to our institutions? You know, if we were in a finite battle, we would say, Okay there are certain specific measures we have to take, security measures, measures to enhance our ability to collect intelligence. At the end of the war we would then say, alright, the threat is over, we can now dismantle this.
As we did in the Second World War – declare victory and go home.
That's the kind of war that we like. But if it's open-ended, an involves not only threats from abroad but the possibility of radicalization and recruitment of people in this country into terrorist activity, then these measures that we put into place become a permanent feature of the landscape. And we really have to take care that we don't incrementally walk ourselves into a tyranny.
So we're not doing very well, then, in being realistic about what's out there?
In some cases we don't' have a realistic view of it. And by the way, I am ferociously nonpartisan in terms of politics. But understanding terrorism and how to combat terrorism is very difficult in an election year, because it 's popular to pound the podium and to use very tough-sounding language about what we're going to do. When people actually arrive in office they find out that it's not that easy. If it was easy, we would have solved this one decades ago.
We have done, actually, in many respects, remarkably well. It would be erroneous to say that we have savaged civil liberties since 9/11. We Americans fortunately are a cantankerous bunch. We push back when we think our privacy is being invaded too much, or when security gets too heavy-handed.
Our intelligence has been remarkably successful in terms of uncovering and thwarting terrorist plots since 9/11. Our FBI and police departments are batting about 900; about 90% of the plots are being uncovered and thwarted. Only a handful are slipping through.
The United States has liked to position itself as morally superior, that we have civil liberties in this country, that we have due process, versus people who will as soon kill you as look at you. How much does that factor into the larger "war on terrorism"?
There is a moral issue in terrorism. Even in warfare, nations have agree that there will be certain rules which will for example try to limit violence against civilian non-combatants, that they will not harm hostages, that there be certain kinds of targets that will not be attacked. And over the centuries, we have agreed upon these rules.
Terrorist tactics deliberately violate those rules. And so therefore there is a moral quotient when we look at combating terrorism. It is important that we maintain the moral high ground.
First of all, in part, the terrorists hope to create this atmosphere of fear and alarm which will provoke us into taking extreme measures which then will attract recruits to their cause, and say, They're no different than we are.
How good have we been at not taking the bait?
It clearly is a mixed record. I don't want to set the bar so high; the idea that one can apply surgical military force is not realistic. We do, in the United States armed forces, really go out of our way to try avoid or minimize the risk of civilian casualties. Can I say therefore that all U.S. military operations are absolutely clear of any civilian casualties? No. you cannot say that. That's simply not realistic. But we do make an effort in doing so; we don't always succeed.
As to broader values -- and I would say here American values, things that we value in our society, courage, self-reliance, tolerance – it is extremely important that we hold on to those. It's not a matter that those are some sort of luxuries that we're going to toss overboard when we get into stormy waters.
It is those values that motivate our own soldiers and sailors and marines. It is those values that, despite the mistakes we have made in the world, that still have many of the people in the world desperate to come to the United States. It is those values that prevent us from alienating populations that could otherwise provide support to our adversaries.
So these aren't luxuries; they are weapons. And we want to be very careful about not giving those up.
As a student of the humanities and a historian, you would know to some extent whether this century becomes the critical century the way, say, the 14th century was.
There are several directions we could go. The hopeful one is that we will keep this in perspective, we will effectively deal with it. At time's it's going to be scary, it's going to be tough, we're not always going to get it right.
But ultimately, we will contain this threat and our society as we understand it will prevail.
Other, darker futures include sort of the re-creation of a neo-medieval society in which we are surrounded by walls. They may be modern electronic forms of walls, but we are surrounded by walls, live behind moats, dash from inner perimeter to inner perimeter.
Another dark vision is that ultimately we will decide that our freedom is a luxury, that we will impose upon or own society whatever surveillance is necessary to maintain our everyday security. This has been something we have been struggling with now in its contemporary form for 40, 50 years.
It's the admonition from Ben Franklin that those who would sacrifice essential liberty in exchange for a little security deserve neither liberty nor security.
I think ultimately, one, we are a tough nation; that ultimately we will prevail not because of how many bollards we plant in front of public buildings or how many procedures we install at airports or how many cameras we put up. We will prevail because of our essential values.
You fly tens of thousands of miles year. Do you ever get exasperated with TSA?
You know, not really. I understand it, and therefore you adopt the position that I know why these procedures are here. I can take you through a security checkpoint like an archaeological dig: I can point to every machine and every procedure and say, That came about because of that incident in 1988, that came about because of that incident in 2001. We take off our shoes because there was a shoe bomber, we have restrictions on liquids because there was a plot involving liquid explosives.
Now, having said that, on a busy day when you're waiting in line, yes it's annoying. I think we are becoming smarter about this with some of these new programs like Precheck, that basically says, Look, everyone's not an equal threat. We know more about some people than others. So we can distribute our limited resources in a way that's going to be more effective in getting people through this.
Some day, we may have an x-ray for a man's soul and we won't need all of this elaborate stuff. But until we have that, we're going to face these more burdensome requirements.