The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Do counter-terrorists make us safer?

I went to an event at the European Parliament on terrorism today. On the panel were Vikram Sood, former head of the Research and Analysis department of the Indian external intelligence service, Efraim Halvey, the former head of Israel's Mossad, and Gilles Van Kerkhove, the counter-terrorism Coordinator of the EU Council.

After giving the Israeli interpretation of the events around the Gaza aid flotilla, Halevy went on to single out Hizbollah as main terrorist threat.

Sood identified Pakistan as the main security threat and outlines the connections between terrorism and the Pakistani government.

Of course, working in counter-terrorism means fighting the bad guys. But after these polarising statements by the two gentlemen, I couldn't help to wonder whether intelligence officers in counter-terrorism are the right people to rely on when it comes to our safety.

The reasoning is quite simple: an intelligence officer fights an enemy. But this enemy is the result of realities on the ground, which in turn are created by politicians. Understandably, the ex-chief of Mossad justifies the killing of alleged terrorists disguised as peace-activist on vessels carrying humanitarian aid. But did this action make Israel safer?

Of course, the former Indian senior intelligence officer threatens Pakistan with retaliation, if an event like the Mumbai attacks would reproduce itself. But does he make the Indian population safer?

Terrorism has a reason. As Robert Fisk put it: if you don't want terrorism, you should stop killing Muslims. Is it as simple as that? Not according to the Mossad or Indian intelligence service, as it seems.

The root causes for the Gaza flotilla disaster is not that Turkey joined the rogue states club, nor that a handful of alleged IHH activists were on board. The reason is the situation in Gaza.

The root cause for the Hizbollah is not that Muslims hate Jews, nor that Hizbollah seeks to destroy Israel. The reason is the ongoing occupation of Lebanese territory by Israel.

The root causes for the Mumbai attacks are not that Muslims hate Hindus, nor that Pakistan is becoming a jihadi state. The reason is the conflict in Kashmir.

Intelligence officers cannot tackle those issues. There job is to take out the enemy. They need help by politicians. Where is the political initiative to solve the Kashmir situation? Where is the political initiative to end the collective punishment of 1,5 million Palestinians in Gaza? And where is the political initiative to solve the "border-dispute" at the Lebanese-Israeli border?

As long as we don't face those issues, we will have terrorism.


  1. Frederik, I always like your posts. I never really find myself agreeing with them, but ususally they do give me an opportunity to come up with a reason for why I disagree with you in the first place.

    This is a very good example of the sort of thing I mean. It is not true that the reason for Hezbollah terrorism is the occupation of Lebanon, nor is it true that the situation in Kashmir is the reason why Pakistanis and Indians can't stand each other. Surely, resolving these conflicts would help undermining the basic rationale for terrorism. But terrorism doesn't need a reason. Bin Laden does not hate the US for its aid to Israel (though it certainly helped him attracting followers), he hates the US because it is a non-Muslim country where women are allowed to do what they want. The unchecked spread of Saudi wahabbism figures equally, if not more important in the spread of terrorism. In a nutshell: its the manipulation of politics that allows for terrorism to spread.

  2. Andrei Dementyev13 June 2010 at 23:39

    I agree with Dustin on this one. Also, I wanted to point out that the flotilla raid was not a premeditated operation to kill the so-called peace activists, nor was it conducted by intelligence officers. So linking the incident to Israeli intelligence not making Israel safer isn't really fair.

    I don't really follow your main argument that intelligence officers don't make us safer. Of course they work within the perimeters set by politicans but operationally there are countless examples of how they have protected us - but of course because of the very nature of their work, we don't hear about these successes.

    Also, i would say the fundamental root cause of the gaza flotilla issue is actually the opposition among the activists to the right of israel to exist.

  3. @ Dustin:
    "Bin Laden does not hate the US for its aid to Israel (though it certainly helped him attracting followers), he hates the US because it is a non-Muslim country where women are allowed to do what they want."
    Can you provide any evidence to support this statement?

    @ Andrei:
    I agree that the flotilla raid was not a "premeditated operation to kill the so-called peace activists". However, there is evidence that intel services were involved: the activists got their hands on a booklet of a soldier depicting and describing prominent passengers on board (you can find the video on youtube). That proves the point that intel, most likely Mossad, was involved in the operation.

    I also agree that intel officers prevented many attacks, which made us safer in the short term. But intel officers cannot address the root causes of the attacks. Quite the opposite is the case: successful counter terrorism operations are very likely to produce more terrorists (see previous post on McChrystal's 10-2=20 theory). Addressing the root causes politically is, therefore, more important for producing security in the long term.

    ..."root cause of the gaza flotilla issue is actually the opposition among the activists to the right of israel to exist."
    Can you provide any evidence for that?

  4. The booklet could have just as easily been compliled by mil intel or even the Shayetet 13 unit (that boarded the vessel); a bit much to deduce that Mossad was involved (although people in the middle east would of course say that mossad is involved in everything that is bad in the region!)

    Some footage of the activists on the mavi marmara would indicate that some of these people held that view.

    I'd agree surrounding the importance of politics in many conflicts. But i still wouldnt necessarily agree that successful counter-terrorist ops lead to more terrorists. There are just so many different types of terrorism and therefore counter-terrorist methods; of course some prob do help terrorist recruitment. But post 9-11 for example look at the UK CONTEST strategy which involves counter-terrorist practictioners in the whole process. I guess the answer is a holistic approach encompassing all fronts.

  5. Well, I think that from all statements we have heard from bin-Laden and others that he and al-Qaida do not despise the US for what they do, but for what they are. Prior to 9/11 al-Qaida's statements were quite obviously not concerned with the US policy on the Middle East Peace Process. They made it clear that they perceived the US to be a weak, decadent and morally bankrupt state. The comparatively weak response of the Clinton-administration on the embassy-bombings in 1998 is a case in point, it clearly emboldened al-Qaida. The argument that a certain grievance directly translates into a reason for terrorism is a bit weak. We wouldn't, I suppose, believe that the Red Army Faction committed its terrorist attacks because Germany in the 1960s was "really" about to become another fascist state, as Meinhof and others repeatedly claimed. My point is this: By taking the explanation of terrorists literally we translate them into legitimate grievances that could be addressed by a policy change. We fail, however, to recognise that this is not what causes terrorism in the first place. Antisemitism, antiamericanism, religious intolerance, hatred are things that fundamentally underline terrorism and by the way are among the reasons why terrorists are terrorists and not sit-in-protesters.