Getting the response to terrorism completely wrong

Editor’s Note: Susan Hasler spent 21 years at the CIA in many roles, including counterterrorism analyst, and is the author of “Intelligence: A Novel of the CIA.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Story highlights

Susan Hasler says terrorists want to foster a global struggle between the West and Islam, and political candidates are giving credence to that false idea

The best approach is to try to separate the terrorists from their target audience, she says

CNN  — 

I worked in the CIA Counterterrorism Center during 9/11. At the time, the word I used most often to describe my life was “stressful.” Looking back now, the word I would use is “sheltered.”

After a terrorist attack, we dug in and worked. It was hard to find time for a bathroom break, much less to pay attention to the U.S. public’s response.

Susan Hasler

Short deadlines, demands for briefings and a flood of incoming information meant keeping your head down. Row hard and live.

At the time, I thought it was a hostile environment. It was full of opinionated, argumentative people. We had to defend every word we said and wrote, but everyone more or less kept to the rules hammered into us by our training: Back up arguments with evidence. Provide sources of information and give an honest account of their reliability. Learn to deal with people with different ideas in a more or less professional way and take their ideas into account. Keep emotion out of it.

We learned to be excruciatingly – some might say excessively – careful about what we said because words have consequences. Our words might affect policy, or diplomacy. They might guide a bomb.

Leaving the agency in 2004 and getting my information through the media (traditional and social) has been the intellectual equivalent of running out of a sauna and rolling in the snow. People make the most incendiary, irresponsible claims as if stating indisputable facts. Hardly anyone will tell you where they got their information. Repetition and volume try to take the place of verification.

Such an atmosphere can quickly turn poisonous in the wake of a terrorist attack. Anti-Muslim groups adopt the mindset of the terrorists and become their mirror image. A presidential candidate provides material for terrorist recruitment videos.

Terrorists’ goal

It is never a good idea to do what the terrorists want you to do, yet so many people are doing exactly that. The goal of terrorist groups is not simply to kill people but to influence their target group.

Groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda have set out to convince the global Muslim community that it is under attack by infidels and that the only solution is global jihad. Their own attacks are not enough to drive their message home.

They need a hateful response to those attacks to make their point. Anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric and calls for banning and registering Muslims all play beautifully into their plans.

An extremist group may scale back attacks or abandon them if the violence begins to run counter to their goals. This usually happens when the horrific nature of terrorist actions causes the group to be soundly rejected by their target audience and to lose funding and recruits.

Many Muslims have taken to social media to say that terrorists do not represent their religion and they reject them. This is a good thing, yet when a Muslim says, “I am not a terrorist,” it is often met on social media with the response, “Yes you are,” accompanied by images of beheadings. I cannot imagine anything more counterproductive.

The message from the terrorists and the anti-Muslim activists is the same: if the enemy is evil, then the only good and righteous thing to do is to hate and destroy that enemy. Terrorists write “religious” justifications for what they do, for whom they attack, for what weapons they use. They see these justifications as absolute.

Likewise anti-Muslim activists will tell you that anything short of hatred of all Muslims is immoral. They will justify their hatred by listing atrocities committed by terrorists against Christians. Both groups trade in fear. Both groups work to promote and broaden the violence.

The instinct to strike back after attacks is understandable, but calls to “turn the sand to glass” are dangerous and naive. Did we learn nothing from the “shock and awe” visited upon Iraq after 9/11? We struck a target that had nothing to do with the attack. We created a whole new generation of terrorists and increased the danger from terrorists already in our midst. That’s the thing about international terrorist groups: They are everywhere, and you cannot bomb them out of existence.

I believe that the most effective way to counter terrorism and dry up recruitment is to work harder to divide the terrorists from their target audience. Emphasize that terrorists misrepresent Islam. Focus efforts narrowly on the individuals who actually commit and facilitate terrorism and go after them hard, producing as little collateral damage as possible.

Build strong alliances in the Muslim world, because you cannot effectively fight terrorists without Muslim cooperation. We could not have achieved any of our past successes against terrorists without it. Finally, we must learn to be patient. It is more important to strike intelligently than quickly.

Unfortunately, such a response will never be popular.

Political figures take the easy way out

Politicians such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz harness the attacks to advance their own ambitions. They play to the psychological need to hit back, the need to do something quick and spectacular. Go bomb the crap out of someone – a tack which also has the advantage of using up a lot of materiel and enriching the defense contractors who contribute so heavily to political campaigns. (Trump tweeted Sunday afternoon about the Lahore attack, which he called “another radical Islamic attack” and said, “I alone can solve.”)

Original ideas and solutions to problems arise from the middle ground, from willingness to challenge your preconceived notions by considering new ideas.

Terrorists, anti-Muslim extremists, and the politicians who benefit from their anger are trying to make the middle ground a no man’s land. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Never admit that your side makes mistakes or is guilty of any transgressions.

Politicians scream talking points past each other without engaging in the type of real intellectual debate that leads to understanding and solutions. If we are ever to reduce the danger of terrorism, we must not cede the stage to the ignorant, the angry and the opportunistic.

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