Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 26, 2013

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it he does not become a monster.”

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 26, 2013

Elliot PriorAbove is Elliot Prior, his sister, and an unidentified dead man.  Elliot is the four-year-old referenced below. (Reuters photograph)


Two stories emerging from Nairobi give concrete context to a range of counter-terrorism theories.  The first as reported by The Daily Mail:

A four-year-old British boy caught up in the Kenya mall massacre showed astonishing bravery by confronting a marauding gunman who ended up begging for his forgiveness, it emerged today.

The child told one of the terrorists that he was a “very bad man” as he protected his mother who had been shot in the leg, and six-year-old sister.

Incredibly, the attacker took pity on the family and bizarrely handed the children Mars bars before telling them: “Please forgive me, we are not monsters.”

The second story I have only heard — and even then it was third-hand — on NPR’s Morning Edition. According to the report a nine year old Kenyan boy was wounded.  The attacker then turned to the boy’s mother and sister challenging them to quote a passage from the Koran.   The family is Muslim.  The mother and sister were each able to comply, but they were still shot and killed.  The boy screamed out asking why. The attacker explained the fifteen-year-old girl and her mother were not wearing the hijab.

I am prepared to believe both stories.

Another story or really speculation: Last week I abandoned a post on the apparent assassination earlier this month of Alabama-born al Shabaab commander Omar Hammami, also known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki or “the American”. He was allegedly ambushed by other al Shabaab elements.

Hammami, some claim, was a fierce advocate for the Somali nationalist narrative within al Shabaab. Those most likely to benefit from Hammami’s death are champions of an internationalist al Qaeda inspired narrative, such as we have seen play out at the Westgate Mall.

The twenty-nine-year-old US citizen was on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List.  Was he also an opponent of the Nairobi attack?  Was he a potential ally in containing — domesticating — al Shabaab?  When and how might an adversary become an ally? Can monsters be redeemed?

It is, I’ll readily admit, quite precarious, but the paradox of the first story combined with the utter brutality of the second and the tantalizing possibilities of the third, expose what may be our best bet for effectively engaging the terrorist threat.  Cold-blooded murder of Muslim women — hajib or not — and children is not an effective recruiting strategy.  No matter how disaffected, resentful, or misogynistic a potential terrorist may be, the vast majority are as capable as the four-year-old in recognizing what is “very bad.”

In her groundbreaking text, How Terrorism Ends, Audrey Kurth Cronin, finds that among several end-games is the implosion of the terrorist group.  She writes, “Marginalization from their constituency is the death-knell for modern groups… Loss of support may occur if the driving narrative is overtaken by events, contact with ordinary people is lost, or above all if groups target potential members of their own constituencies and provoke a backlash.” (page 203)

This is almost certainly the current plot line for al Shabaab and especially its al Qaeda faction.  Such marginalization is largely why al Shabaab lost local support in Somalia with over-aggressive enforcement of Salafist codes.   It’s mishandling of the 2011 drought and famine was widely seen inside Somalia as causing the death of tens of thousands. Omar Hammami is said to have decided his more al Qaeda oriented colleagues had “gone crazy” seeking power.

When the world sees the death penalty imposed for dress code violations, even the most conservative are repulsed.

When in the midst of a martyrdom operation the proto-martyr asks forgiveness, we might perceive strategic opportunities worth engaging.

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Comment by JCOMISKEY

September 26, 2013 @ 6:49 am

A picture of a boy with a Mars bar and his sister and a man killed by a terrorist might tell us something about how terrorism might end.

But, do we have to wait and endure all that happens until the current terrorism ends? Perhaps only to wait for the next terrorism cycle [likely to be concurrent] to begin to wait again for terrorism to end. So much for end states!

Counterterrorism is an ugly buisness. Terrorist are monsters. Counterterrorism is not an abstraction. It is ugly and can make monsters from the best of us. We must do all that is necessary to defeat the monsters whilst we remind ourselves that pictures of children with chocolate bars smilling are best taken without a homicide victim in the background.

My prayers are with all and especially those who do not want to be monsters.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 26, 2013 @ 7:37 am

John: I agree waiting is not an effective strategy in counter-terrorism… and seldom enough an effective tactic. But neither is action that contributes to the resilience of the adversary. Too often our actions have fueled rather than contained our adversary’s capacity. The attack on Westgate was monstrous. We need to ensure this is widely recognized. We especially ought to avoid distracting attention with our own monstrous acts. Just as terrorists are so effective at deploying our actions against us, we should learn to apply their actions against them.

I also agree that active-shooter training and related preparedness is a good investment. Three years ago we started running Mumbai-type urban swarm exercises for neighborhoods in Washington DC. A related effort has provided ongoing shelter-in-place training that was already being very well received before the Marathon Bombing and the Navy Yard shooting. Now they can barely respond to demand.

Further, in my experience this preparedness activity is not as grim as it may sound. What happens is neighbors who have never met each other are brought together around a horrible prospect and good things result well beyond counter-terrorism: collaboration, cooperation, holiday parties, lunches, friendships… Yes, there are challenges that require an inevitably ugly response. But we can, I am trying to argue, be more creative and constructive in how we engage terrorism.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 26, 2013 @ 8:41 am

The most effective counter terrorism IMO is building a stronger and more resilient society here in the USA and helping other countries to do so. It is an abomination that USA FP is largely directly by Wall Street and the Corporations. Reading Michael Oren’s book published in 2007 [he is the former Israeli Ambassador to the USA] and its discussion of historical involvement of the USA in MENA.

But several years out we see that BP largely has escaped the major consequences of the GOM catastrophe although the DoJ suit for damages unresolved. No major book on the VALDEZ 1989 disaster appeared to date. Not sure why.

The GOM BP catastrophe at least 10 times bigger than VALDEZ!

See article below:


Comment by William R. Cumming

September 26, 2013 @ 8:46 am

I also note that lessons learned from the BP GOM catastrophe have yet to be incorporated into 40 CFR Part 300 the National Contingency Plan for Oil Spills and Hazardous Materials releases [intention and unintentional]!

As we wind up the 5th year of the Obama Administration I argue that he has largely either ignored the environment or constructively undermined EPA and environmental protection. Few final regulations protecting the environment.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 26, 2013 @ 9:25 am

Bill: I agree domestic resilience is crucial. I also like your point on the role of resilience elsewhere. But resilience is, to echo John, a kind of active waiting. As such it is, it seems to me, insufficient.

Cronin identifies the following end-games: 1) Leadership decapitation, 2) Unsuccessful generational transition, 3) Achievement of cause, 4) Transition to legitimacy, 5) Loss of popular support, 6) Repression 7) Transition to criminality or insurgency.

Which counter-terrorism approach or cocktail usually depends on the particular terrorist group and its context. The answer for al Shabaab is likely to differ than that for AQAP or AQIM or whatever. Being especially mindful, discerning, and intentional is, it seems to me, the task.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 26, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

Thanks Phil and how much does corruption of elites fuel terrorism?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 26, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

Bill: In my judgment it is certainly one of the principal accelerants. Sort of tangential — maybe not — and maybe you’ve already seen, but if not:

Corruption is like terrorism, says China journalist

Comment by Arnold Bogis

September 26, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

To go out on a limb, I would suggest it is not entirely helpful to describe terrorists as “monsters.” They absolutely carry out monstrous acts, but demonizing them tends to narrow the set of options available to deal with various types of actors.

Take away their humanity and it is much easier to ignore potential drivers of their actions and the potential steps that can be taken to address those drivers. Is there a seemingly intractable political situation? Are religious teachings being twisted to fill a missing component of a young person’s life? Etc.

The recent Rolling Stone cover controversy involving Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a case in point. Many objected to a terrorist being presented as human. But if you don’t consider that he is human and then begin to unravel what led him to his monstrous actions, the only tool left to authorities are drone attacks.

Donald Rumsfeld’s questions still ring true:
“Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?

Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists’ costs of millions.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 26, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

Good questions Arnold!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 26, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

Arnold: I think Nietzsche was warning us not to sacrifice our own humanity in pursuit of monsters. I expect the terrorist who asked forgiveness perceives he is fighting monsters, and he may be a case-study for Nietzche’s warning (From: Beyond Good and Evil). So am I.

If anything I was trying to suggest — evidently quite unsuccessfully — that my own monstrosity is what often feeds that which I claim to be fighting. How can I break this cycle of co-dependency?

Mostly I agree with what you have written. I just start from a position less certain of my — or potentially our — ethical competence to fashion such an integrated plan. But to answer my own question, “Yes, the monster can be redeemed.”

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 27, 2013 @ 4:53 am

Bill: Great minds think alike? Please see: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/27/world/us-and-turkey-to-create-fund-to-stem-extremism.html?_r=0

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 27, 2013 @ 9:28 am

Thanks Phil!

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