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Can terrorism be comprehensively eradicated?

A Note by the Director (Ditchley 2006/13)
8-10 December 2006
The last and largest of Ditchley’s 2006 conferences addressed the threat of terrorism, with the particular aim of evolving a strategy, building on what we had learnt so far, for the next stage of the effort to contain the problem.  A formidable range of expertise gathered for the event, with participants talking frankly and sensitively about their experience to date and how the threat was evolving.  For obvious reasons, this Note will only seek to give a general impression of the areas covered and will not include a list of the participants.  Both sides of the Atlantic were ably represented at a senior level.
The conference started by attempting, with some success, to clarify exactly what it was that confronted our societies.  Terrorism was not a new technique, nor would it ever be fully eradicated.  But suicide tactics and modern instruments made it more lethal and globalised communications helped it to become more widespread.  Participants were clear that, for all the power of modern explosives and for all the horrific potential of weapons of mass destruction in terrorist hands, the defence against terrorism had to focus as much on the message as on the tools of violence.  The effect of terrorism was enlarged by the element of theatre in it and too readily magnified further by the reactions of targeted societies.  We therefore spent some time in discussing the right communications strategy.  The wrong one could do more damage than the bombs. 
The conference looked carefully at how terrorism had recently evolved.  One important driving force was the power of ideas and images rapidly spread.  There was no one monolithic source of terrorism:  the diversity of motivations was clear from an analysis of different geographical areas.  We spent some time on the Islamic context.  Participants rejected any notion that Islam the religion was responsible, but recognised that a temptation to turn to terrorism lay at the extreme edge of perceptions of a reduced status and power of the Islamic community.  Often the determination of particular groups to act violently lay not so much in their local conditions as in their judgement that their own governments or societies could no longer provide what they were looking for.  The comparative advantages of the techniques of terrorism, easily learnt or copied from examples elsewhere, then made themselves felt.
Al Qaeda featured as a prime example of what we were addressing.  Its aims were political rather than religious.  Its ‘single narrative’ of Islam under attack was hard to counter against the complex background of globalisation and of our own societies.  For all the powerful impact of 9/11, Al Qaeda had been set back considerably in the five years that followed.  But elements of Al Qaeda remained resilient and it retained its appeal in a wide variety of political and social environments.  There was no doubt in the minds of this gathering that it had also capitalised on the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
We also looked closely at how terrorism had affected the societies it had targeted.  (We acknowledged our inclination to look through a Western prism, but at least we remained aware of it.)  In terms of perceptions, not least through its treatment in the media, terrorism had become a new and powerful actor, seen as a successful and highly threatening adversary.  For Americans, it was mainly an overseas phenomenon, needing to be dealt with at a distance and, at its closest, stopped at the borders.  For the United Kingdom, it was combined with an increasingly home-grown threat, generated in the minds of fanatics in immigrant communities and encouraged by their links with ideas and people elsewhere.  While neither of these perceptions might be wholly accurate, there was no doubt that the range of attacks being attempted or planned had become much more diverse since 2001.  Different countries had many different variants on these themes.
Within this discussion we asked whether the threat was growing.  The most accurate answer was that we probably did not know.  Those involved in the defence of the UK thought that the home-grown dimension to the threat was indeed increasing.  It was more diverse;  the relationships between newly formed cells or franchises and their main inspirations or models was becoming more complex;  and the passing of messages and the spread of images were becoming more sophisticated.  In American eyes, terrorists were becoming more proficient and agile, technically more effective in their methods and potentially more widespread in their growth.  From the US viewpoint, too, terrorist propaganda was steadily becoming more effective.
The conference then examined what our response should be.  Perhaps the first responsibility of governments was the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath:  do no harm.  It was vital not to be tempted into actions or words that made achievement of our strategic objective harder.  Second, it was necessary to understand and frustrate the objectives of our adversaries, not least by lowering the temperature in the areas where they hoped to create future violent extremists.  Third, we had to exploit the weak points of terrorist organisations with a good degree of precision on their particular and individual characteristics.  Finally, we had to show confidence in our purpose, with more consistent communication of our fundamental values and beliefs.
This led into a very good discussion of the component parts of a comprehensive strategy for the next few years, with a strong reminder from some quarters that the response to terrorism would be at least a generational struggle in which we should pace ourselves carefully.  While there was unanimous admiration for what our security services and agencies had so far achieved in their defensive operations, few participants doubted that attacks would continue and that the temptation to use terrorist methods would intensify over the coming period.  It was important therefore not to be defeatist, but to be realistic. 
The first element in any strategy had to be to find out more and accurately analyse how the threat was evolving.  Most people accepted that there were two major areas on which to concentrate:  first, the hard core of terrorist planning, where the actual operations were conceived and implemented;  and second, the environment in which sympathy was generated for the objectives of particular terrorist cells, where recruits were inspired to sign up and where hiding places were created from the reach of the law.  There was some discussion of how strong the local, as opposed to global, motivations were for terrorist groups.  Terrorism was different from other forms of organised crime, in that local populations did not see themselves as suffering from the activity of the perpetrators:  the impact was usually at a distance.
Once the hard cores and the outer shells had been identified, a fundamental objective was to stop people moving from the outer circle into the inner one.  It was important not just to distinguish between these different groups of people, but also to understand the effect of terrorist activity through time.  As far as September 2001 was concerned, we had moved on beyond the first stage of military response to a much more extended second stage.  In this, diplomacy was a more effective tool than military operations;  and the language which we used to pursue it needed to change.  Extending the language of war, which had served a good purpose in the first stage, into this longer-term phase was a serious mistake.  It amounted not only to an undervaluation of the appeal of our societies and their values, but also to an exaggeration of the status and message of our adversaries.  As things had turned out over the past two or three years, the diplomatic and communications effort had achieved too little. 
The third area of importance was to address the reasons why terrorists resorted to their particular brand of violence or attracted sympathy in a wider community.  Here the debate distinguished between two different types of cause:  first, anger and frustration over the failure to resolve important regional conflicts, primarily Israel-Palestine but also other intense and long-running disputes;  and second, the occasionally extreme disillusionment and personal despair found within societies, perhaps aggravated by the growing gap in many countries between governments and the governed, and between different generations.  Neither of these different categories of cause could be given an overriding priority:  both had to be dealt with, though by rather different methods.
Once a full analysis had been done along these lines, it was important for decision-makers and practitioners to understand that, while a hard power response was necessary against the identified hard cores of terrorism, this might not amount to more than ten or twenty percent of the whole defence effort.  A much more complex area, and one needing far more thought and effort than was currently being allocated to it, was the outer core of sympathy and support for the hard core.  If this distinction in the tasking was made with more clarity and comprehension, then public communication and the vocabulary used in it would become more effective.
Hence the considerable part of the discussion which was spent on communications and “the message”.  Terrorist groups were good at refining a single narrative, part idea and part image.  For Al Qaeda, it was the sweeping away of all opposition to a new and powerful Islamic state based on what was claimed to be the core values of the religion.  Against this claim, the underlying political agenda of Al Qaeda had to be exposed.  The single narrative for the defence could not be “destroy them all”.  It was much more effective and necessary to advocate what we stood for: an open society under the rule of law, as offering the best prospects for this and the next generations.  The better message was a much more important tool than the bigger army.
Yet the communication strategy of the western countries targeted by terrorism remained confused, poorly integrated and relatively unsophisticated.  It could even be maintained that there was no coherent strategy in the first world’s collective effort on overseas aid, development, capacity-building and post-conflict reconstruction, some elements of which were fully relevant to our diplomacy on the outer core issues referred to above.  Iraq, but not only Iraq, had damaged the beginnings of an understanding in the months immediately following September 2001 that it might be possible to construct both a global coalition against terrorism and a broad collective effort against the reasons for disillusionment in the developing world.
We examined the strength of international cooperation in counter-terrorism.  There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the better it could be made, the more effective the overall strategy would be.  We heard that some aspects of international cooperation had improved greatly over the past five years.  This tended to be, however, in the area of bilateral programmes and links rather than collective approaches through the UN.  To that extent, international coordination was a missing element in current strategy.  It was important to use both the United Nations and the regional institutions to help de-legitimise indiscriminate killing and to change the image of terrorism (as had happened in a previous era with piracy).  On top of that, it was necessary to mobilise civil society, parliaments, religious leaders and teachers to be stronger in their condemnations.  As one participant observed, it takes a network to catch a network.  No-one was advocating the establishment of new institutions for this purpose.  It was better to think of counter-terrorism as part of effective governance.  But detailed models for legislation and for effective security defences could be shared;  and programmes for education, training, technical assistance and capacity building could be further developed.  In other words, there was an area in which international action could act effectively on “anti-terrorism”, so that “counter-terrorism” organisations could focus on a narrower operational area.
We ended with a mix of feelings:  undoubtedly sobered by the thought that terrorism might not yet have reached its peak, but confident that an enormous amount of good work had already been done to thwart it.  Most important, the conference underlined the value of a number of new strategic ideas which, if sensibly and collectively developed, might constrain terrorist groups.  As our Chairman appropriately put it, there was no point in arguing over the priority to be given to hard or soft power:  it was a ‘smart power’ response which was needed.  We had a generation’s spread of work to do and we had to gather the strategic determination and patience to do it.
This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: 

Professor Joseph Nye, Distinguished Service Professor, Harvard University .