Flags Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park
Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

A Different Viewpoint on Stopping Terrorism

T his article was written by an officer — who has served for many years in the United States military — in response to this article on how to fight terrorism as detailed by a member of the United States Army who retired after serving 32 years with the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4. It was not written as a rebuttal; but rather “as a more deeply thought out message.”

Unless the person who wrote this article directs otherwise, I am voluntarily keeping the identity of this person anonymous for several reasons. Everything contained in this article — which is verbatim and has not been edited — is the personal opinion of the author and does not represent the views of the United States Government or its military. The words of this person start after the first subheading in this article; and end prior to the Summary section at the end of this article.

A Different Viewpoint on Stopping Terrorism

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) is a term commonly used in the military, and in particular, when writing papers. The BLUF on terrorism is that we do not have the answer — otherwise we would have done it already. Much like cancer, we do not have a cure, but do have several techniques that may prevent the spread or shrink the tumor. Several of these techniques are experiments, but at least it is trying something rather than wait for the problem to go away on its own.

Origins of Terrorism and Why It Works

Uprising of populations or groups with specific grievances have occurred throughout history. Most of the time, these groups had little power due to a lack of training and weapons and were typically put down without threatening the political order. This has changed in recent years with the ability of splinter groups to be able to attack with disproportionate power (explosives), do it with little risk (remote controlled), and create many more casualties in a single event.

The typical objective of such a group is to seize power for themselves either as overthrowing the government of the state they are in or creating a new state or sub-state. These groups do so by exploiting popular grievances to gain support of the populace. By carrying out attacks they demonstrate the inability of the existing government to support and protect the populace and therefore delegitimize them in the eyes of their people. The terrorist group then gains strength by individuals seeing the weakness of the government and coming over to the terrorist either as active fighters or passive supporters. Eventually, the terrorists are strong enough to move to a phase where they can openly defy the government with a conventional military force and decisively beat them on the battlefield. The campaign of Mao in the 1930s and 40s is considered the best example of this theory in practice.

A common misconception is that terrorists are recruited out of desperately poor individuals who see no way out of their situation. This is not the motivation of most terrorists even though it sounds logical. The vast majority of the 9/11 terrorists were from middle class families and well educated. In my opinion, what drew terrorists like these was that they wanted to be part of something larger than themselves – a cause. The prospect of a middle-class lifestyle where they married, had kids, and worked every day for 40 years until they retired had no appeal. They wanted to do something significant, even if it meant giving up their lives, for glory and remembrance. This is why most groups make a huge effort to recruit youths, not 50 year olds, and make a ceremony before they commit their suicidal acts. They are glorified as martyrs and told than their deeds will live on forever. In a twisted way, this is what we do with our own military recruitment and honoring of our war dead.

Defeating the threat takes several aspects to come together. Killing the terrorists is not the solution unless they come out in the open as ISIS has done. As GEN Petraus is quoted as saying “you can’t kill your way out of an insurgency”. That technique only creates more terrorist supporters. One stray bullet or bomb that harms innocents can create multiple supporters of the terrorist cause. They can create new terrorists faster than we can kill them.

Popular Support

T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) famously said that only 5% of the populace needs to support an insurgency for it to succeed. That is a hard bar to achieve, but it can be done as seen by several large insurrections (Malaysia 1948) or individual groups (The Red Brigade, Italy 1980s). Winning the hearts and minds of the people is absolutely a priority, but so is delegitimizing the insurgent cause through counter-messaging to demonstrate that their desired end-state is worse than what the populace has now.  This needs to be done, not only through the military’s Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations troops, but through the entire national means of diplomacy and information warfare.

Financial Support

A basic insurgency is looking to the populace to provide them food, shelter, and possibly a few bullets. However, a major organization needs financing to continue. Even though they are all fighting for a cause, they still want material wealth so the fighters must be paid. More over, the terrorists gain legitimacy of the populace by distributing essential items to them such as medical aid, food, and other basic needs items. Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S., but it has huge support amongst the Arab population because they set up hospitals and schools that the government was not providing. ISIS gained huge wealth by selling off the oil from the oil fields in Eastern Syria to the tune of tens of millions of dollars every month. Initially, the U.S. was bombing the oilfields to stop this somewhat ineffectively since it was easy to reconstruct a well and get more oil. They then learned to bomb the tanker trucks taking the oil across the border to sell and that stemmed the flow of ISIS financing.


Cutting off the head of the snake is easier said than done. It is a legitimate tactic, but finding a single individual is incredibly hard as demonstrated by it taking 14 months to find Saddam and that was in a country we controlled. Drones that can loiter over a suspected location of a leader has greatly increased our chance of taking them out, but it is something that needs good Human Intelligence (HUMINT) to really pull off. We are not good at HUMINT.

De-legitimizing the Cause

There is an official term for psychologically attacking the terrorists themselves called DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration). If we message the adherents enough, they will start to see this as a hopeless cause and want to find a way out of eventual, but certain, death. Famously, the U.S. did this with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq. They had seen that they were never going to achieve their aims, so made a deal to come over to the U.S. side and support the fight against Al Qaeda. We got the Government of Iraq to pay them a monthly salary and all went well. However, when we pulled out, the Al Malaki government stopped paying them and some of them went back to their old ways of fighting by joining ISIS. DDR needs to be done long term to succeed and we are not good at long term commitments.

So no magic answers. No dates on the calendar when this war will be won. Anyone who says different is simply lying. This will be “the long war” as espoused by President Bush. We need to dig in and be prepared to support it as such. Yes, that means continued military expenditures, but much less than we used to spent to win the Cold War. It will mean continued sacrifice, but we would much rather be fighting them overseas than in our own streets. We should take it as a victory, that there have been no major (>100 killed) terrorists attacks on American soil since 9/11, except those that we grew right here.


The analogy of terrorism to cancer is an excellent one, in my opinion; and I have definitely learned from reading this article, to whom I offer the author my sincere thanks, appreciation and gratitude.

I offer my thoughts and opinions pertaining to terrorism and its resulting effects on the safety and security of ordinary citizens from time to time — not everyone will agree with them, of course — and that is fine, as I have always believed that a different perspective from someone who is not an expert on a particular subject matter can offer fresh thoughts and possible solutions…

…but because I am not experienced in matters related to the causes and effects of terrorism — as well as attempts to quell and vanquish it — an informed viewpoint by someone who is vastly knowledgeable is always appreciated and welcomed by me.

As always, your thoughts are always welcome on this and other topics covered in articles posted here at The Gate. I have an open invitation to pass on any questions, as the author has suggested that “there are numerous areas that could be expounded upon.” I also welcome any supporting articles or rebuttals by other authors who are experienced with safety and security as related to terrorism and travel.

Finally — as today is Memorial Day in the United States — I am taking a quiet moment to remember those veterans who endured the ultimate sacrifice in serving the United States and defending its citizens. May the time come one day when we finally live in a peaceful world where there will be no need for one more member of the military to give up his or her life in combat to protect the freedoms which we still enjoy today.

Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

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