October 1: Christopher Harper-Mercer shoots up his Umpqua community college English class in Roseburg, Oregon, killing nine and injuring nine more. November 13: At least eight men attack three different locations in Paris, killing 130 and injuring hundreds more. November 27: Robert Lewis Dear shoots up a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, killing three and injuring nine more. December 2: Syed Rizwan Farook, with his immigrant wife's help, shoots up his office holiday party in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 and injuring 22.
All these attacks, some dubbed terrorist attacks, some not, have been ratcheting up the anxiety of Americans and the rest of the planet, especially in the wake of obsessive cable coverage. And we're already overreacting, as when Los Angeles shut down its public schools in response to a dubious bomb threat, or when Rochester, New York, canceled its New Year's Eve celebrations after the FBI arrested a mentally ill panhandler on terrorism charges—a man the feds paid informants some $20,000 to set up, and Walmart $40 to outfit.
In other words, we're letting the terrorists terrorize us, and it only feeds more attacks.
"The government and media sensationalize [terrorism] in a manner that spreads fear and misunderstanding that drives ineffective policies," says Mike German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a former FBI counterterrorism agent. "We have to take the terror out of terrorism."
Right now, we're not even close to doing that.
In October, in response to the Umpqua Community College attack, President Obama emphasized that gun deaths, generally, are a bigger threat in the United States than what most of us consider terrorism. He asked the media to "tally up the number of Americans who've been killed through terrorist attacks over the last decade and the number of Americans who've been killed by gun violence, and post those side-by-side on your news reports." Even by conservative measures, that weighs 150,000 gun deaths in the US between 2001 and 2013 against the roughly 3,000 terrorist attack deaths between 2001 and 2014. In that context, it becomes clear that mass shootings, of all sorts, are the problem, and that mass shootings inspired by Islamic terrorism are a subset. So solving terrorism—at least in the US—should be about solving crimes.
But in response to the San Bernardino attack (and the cable news obsession about it), Obama gave a speech treating the San Bernardino mass shooting and those 14 deaths differently. That incident, he said, was terrorism. Because Farook and his wife had "gone down the dark path of radicalization" before their attack—as if Dear had not)—Obama called for several policies focused exclusively on terrorists, such as "mak[ing] sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun" and, obliquely, creating weaknesses in communications technology to make it harder for terrorists, and everyone else, to encrypt messages.
Rather than remain silent about America's deadbeat Sunni "allies," its leaders need to demand they work to combat the extremist ideology fostering Islamic terrorism most threatening to the country.
Worse still, even though Farook first started planning a terrorist attack way back in 2011, before the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) even existed in its current incarnation, Obama promised more air strikes against ISIS in response, just as the French bombed a bunch of mostly empty sites in Syria in response to the Paris attack. The problem is that's likely to help the group recruit more fighters to travel to Syria or inspire more attacks by individuals in the West.
"The use of military force to bomb terrorist organizations in so-called safe havens appears to be one of the most powerful recruitment tools there is," Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at Council on Foreign Relations, says of attacking failed states like Syria or Yemen in the name of denying terrorists safe havens. "If you believe the Safe Haven Myth, you must continually use force to attack terrorists organizations, which provides the basis for their recruitment to replace the foot soldiers you killed."
While some of what Obama laid out in his December speech makes sense—especially his determination to avoid another major ground war in the Middle East—even that effort lacks a larger strategy. Most tellingly, Obama's speech described our closest allies against ISIS to be other Western countries: France, Germany, and United Kingdom. The push from Western countries to bomb more is a tacit admission that those who should be fighting the threat—predominantly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey—have largely backed out of that effort, with the Saudis escalating a proxy war against Iran rather than fighting ISIS. That makes it difficult to fight ISIS's ideology, as Saudi Arabia's own extremist strain of Sunni Islam arguably serves to legitimize that of ISIS.
Rather than remain silent about America's deadbeat Sunni "allies," its leaders need to demand they work to combat the extremist ideology fostering Islamic terrorism most threatening to the country. "We need to come clean with how we feel about the inaction or support of our allies" for Sunni extremism, former CIA analyst Nada Bakos argues. "When it comes to ideology," she adds, "this issue has to be solved by regional governments."
Experts recommend an analogous approach domestically when it comes to dissuading those who might join overseas or try to carry out their own attacks. For years, people within the Muslim community have tried to intervene as family or friends got sucked in by the lure of terrorism. Perhaps the most unfortunate example of that came when the father of Mohamed Osman Mohamud called the FBI in 2009 to ask for help with his son, who had ties to some terrorist propagandists. Instead of helping, FBI informants spent a year coaching the teenager into a bomb attack on Portland's Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Mohamud is now serving a 30-year sentence for pressing a button he believed would set off a bomb, the unfortunate outcome of his father asking for help.
Rather than make it easier to step in before young (usually) men do something stupid, the US government has perennially tried to set up programs, called "Countering Violent Extremism," to intervene. The Muslim community distrusts such efforts, in part because they usually focus exclusively on Muslims, not extremism generally, and in part because such outreach has been used to spy on the community in the past. The FBI "is not an agency that is set up to handle interventions, nor is it tasked with the rehabilitation of suspects," argues Samer Khalaf, President of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "The Arab and Muslim Community does not trust the FBI because of the past and well-publicized actions of using strong-arm tactics to force members of the community into becoming informants and its practice of profiling."
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the program on extremism at George Washington University, says such efforts should be localized, usually run by non-government entities. There are analogous programs used to convince adherents to both far-right extremist factions and gangs to leave the groups, both in the US and overseas. Such groups have been effective in the UK and Germany, though in some European countries (including France) there are more legitimate grievances on the part of Muslim groups as a whole. But because of laws uniquely applicable to international terrorism in the US, most notably a 2010 Supreme Court ruling finding that counseling terrorist groups could be deemed providing support, such localized interventions carry legal risks of being prosecuted as extremist. Plus, if an imam intervenes but fails to stop an attack, he might be held liable. As Hughes explains, "we need to provide legal assurances" that those who try to divert people from extremism "won't be unduly affected by it." Rather than insisting that the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spend their time trying to divert young people getting sucked into ISIS on Twitter, federal authorities ought to make it legally safer for community members to help convince people not to pursue violence.
That's especially true because career incentives for the FBI remain focused on arrests and convictions, with a current emphasis on Islamic extremism. Until that changes, it will be particularly hard to divert those who consider, but turn away from, Islamic extremism.
Online recruitment via social media presents a unique problem. ISIS's facility with using social media like Twitter to spread propaganda and videos does serve as a key recruiting platform, one other extremist groups are now mimicking. Bakos, the former CIA analyst, notes that it's not just terrorist recruiters who can use social media to motivate people to do something they otherwise wouldn't.
"Look at how teenagers use social media, how they use it to bully people, to shame others, to get them to do things they might not otherwise do," she says. In response to ISIS's exploitation of social media, US Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein have renewed their earlier efforts to pass legislation requiring social media companies report "online terrorist activity." Yet the risk of asking social media companies to arbitrarily define terrorism was displayed just last week, when Arab Spring activist Iyad al-Baghadi, after being confused by the New York Post with ISIS's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had his Twitter account shut down for a period. A better solution would be to report users who open a series of new accounts in response to being shut down, though according to testimony from FBI Director Jim Comey, social media companies have cooperated without laws that force them to.
Moreover, the US thinks too much in terms of countering ISIS's ideology and too little in offering something constructive to address perceived grievances. A recent study by Hughes and GWU colleagues on Americans attracted to ISIS found many were searching for a sense of belonging, as well as responding to grievances such as Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's repression of rebels. That, reinforced by a narrative pitting "us against them," is similar to what attracts people to other extremist groups. The proliferation of terrorism and other gun violence suggests we need to offer ways for people to address complaints and develop a sense of community without killing a bunch of people to attract attention. In Europe, with its much larger population of (largely unassimilated) Muslims, such efforts need to extend at a macro level to address some of the persistent grievances.
In the US, the parallel rise in both Islamic and domestic extremist groups invites a consideration of whether the FBI needs tools focused primarily on Islamic extremism, especially given a rising number of domestic terrorist attacks thwarted by the FBI without these tools.
"We no longer teach prescriptive interviewing as opposed to brute interrogation." —David Gomez
Immediately after 9/11, the US government tried to make FBI pursue Islamic terrorism more like the CIA would, divorcing intelligence collection from specific crimes. As recently as last year, advisors insisted the FBI should spend more time mapping out where potential Islamic terrorists might come from, which amounts to profiling, even though FBI agents reported they found little value in the activity.
Retired FBI counterterrorism Executive David Gomez argues the FBI went too far in embracing this intelligence role, unmoored from directly preventing attacks or investigating crimes already committed. "What prevents a terrorist act is getting right in the middle of them, conducting surveillance, recruiting people within the organization, recruiting outsiders to infiltrate the group, developing undercover operations," he says. "Those are different types of activities than traditional intelligence collection."
This approach needs to be embraced without an over-reliance on tracking online communications, because in the absence of human involvement, that doesn't necessarily help prevent attacks. Gomez suggests the FBI has grown far too reliant on technical toys. "We've lost ability to talk to people, recruit people, investigate people," Gomez says. "We no longer teach prescriptive interviewing as opposed to brute interrogation. People rely on electronics and Internet too much, and aren't being taught interpersonal skills." That mirrors a parallel concern that the CIA, too, has deemphasized its ability to collect intelligence directly from people.
The importance of human involvement has proven especially true in Europe, where case after case has shown authorities knew of extremists who would go on to carry out attacks, but didn't have the manpower to track them closely enough to prevent it. (To be sure, some countries in Europe also need to do a better job of sharing intelligence, as proved to be true in the lead-up and aftermath of the Paris attack.)
We need to stop letting terrorists terrorize us, because that only makes them stronger.
Ultimately though, 14 years after starting but making little progress in a global "war on terrorism," it is time—at least for Americans—to return to thinking about these attacks in terms of crime, not Terrorism. That's true, in part, because (as President Obama observed), gun crimes of all sorts are the bigger threat in the US—not to mention a great deal of violent or impactful crimes that go unsolved as the country obsesses about just one kind of attack. Both German and Gomez argue the FBI should focus on the crimes themselves, for which politics or ideology are just the motivation. Indeed, some crimes, such as weapons trafficking or robbery, may lay the groundwork for larger terrorist attacks. German further argues that by focusing on otherwise unsolved crimes, you'll end up stopping the terrorism that such crime facilitates. "Focusing on solving uncleared violent crimes will save more lives and unintentionally interdict more terrorism than mass surveillance ever will," he says.
The federal response, thus far, to the occupation by a far-right militia of a wildlife refuge in Oregon may provide lessons. Though the occupation is still in its early days, the government seems committed to de-escalating the situation, not only to avoid loss of life, but also to diminish the appeal of the occupiers. That's a dramatically different approach than the feds usually take to Islamic terrorism or even unarmed civil disobedience. But it has the advantage of treating these people as trespassers with guns, rather than as a movement that, by being targeted, might attract others.
We need to stop letting terrorists terrorize us, because that only makes them stronger. If they're treated like criminals, just as the other mass shooters are, we might begin to focus on underlying causes of all kinds of shootings, and save a lot of lives along the way.
Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist covering national security and civil liberties and a fellow at X-Lab, a technology policy think tank. Follow her on Twitter.