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Why Stopping Terrorism Is Harder than You Think


Why Stopping Terrorism Is Harder than You Think

Despite intense worldwide focus and attention, the fight against terrorism drags on. A conversation with a terrorism expert reveals the complexities of the issue.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Boston. San Bernardino. Paris. Orlando. Berlin. Istanbul. Fort Lauderdale. London. Saint Petersburg. Stockholm. No longer just locations stretching across the globe, these cities now call to mind tragedy. Each fell victim to a terror episode, leaving them to be associated with carnage, controversy and confusion as to why it happened, how it could have happened, and who caused it.

Since the attacks of 9/11 in New York City—when many awoke to the reality of terrorism—authorities have endeavored to prevent the next attack. Though law enforcement can almost certainly claim victories in thwarting numerous plots—people only remember the occasional failures. Billions of dollars are being poured into prevention efforts yet terrorists seem to remain one step ahead. Terrorism is rampant, unpredictable and destructive—and we are virtually helpless to stop it.

To shed more light on the issue, Real Truth managing editor Edward Winkfield spoke with Dr. James Pastor, a Real Truth contributor and terrorism expert. Dr. Pastor spent nearly four decades of his career in law enforcement and dealt personally with the issues and effects of terrorism. The first part of the discussion is presented here, with a second part to follow in the coming months.

Edward Winkfield: Thank you, Dr. Pastor, for taking the time to speak with me. We have wanted to pick your brain on this difficult yet pervasive subject for our Real Truth readers for quite some time. I know that terrorism is a subject we all hear about, especially after a tragic event. However, I also think it is a complex and widespread topic that is difficult for the layperson to fully wrap his mind around.

Dr. James Pastor: You’re welcome, and I’m honored to help in any way that I can. Yes, terrorism is complicated. I have dedicated a significant portion of my career to the subject and though I’m clearly not in the mix in the way I used to be, there are fundamental principles that have not changed and I hope to shed some light on them.

EW: Our audience is of course familiar with your work on several Real Truth articles such as “Gangs in America – A Deadly Game,” “One Nation Under Terror – Three Realities America Can Learn from Life in Israel,” and more recently “Shake-up: Will World Order Soon Collapse?” In this latest effort, you alluded to your background in law enforcement. Can you give our audience a more detailed explanation?

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Aftermath: A man is loaded into an ambulance after he was injured by an explosion during the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts (April 15, 2013).

JP: My background has a number of interesting twists and turns. I have a combination of academic, tactical and legal experience, all with a common theme of public safety and security. I am the author of three books, and hold a Ph.D. in public policy analysis, a juris (law) doctor degree, and a master’s degree in criminal justice, having done my master’s thesis on terrorism. I also have a law enforcement and sociology bachelor’s degree, which was a double major. I was a professor and have written numerous articles.

I started my law enforcement career working the streets in the Chicago Police Department’s Gang Crime Enforcement unit. Using my experience as a police officer, I then worked as a department advocate, which is an attorney who deals with police disciplinary and policy matters. Later, I was an attorney for two police unions and several security firms.

I eventually started moving away from my law practice into a consulting practice, where I did security consulting as well as worked as an expert witness in about 25 cases. It was while establishing my career as an expert witness that I became a member of the Church [The Restored Church of God, which publishes this magazine].

EW: That is quite an extensive law enforcement background. How did you become interested in terrorism and eventually become what many consider to be an expert on the subject?

JP: I developed a fascination with terrorism 40 years ago as a college student in the late’ 70s during the Iran hostage crisis. That whole situation intrigued me. Even as I sat 7,000 miles away from the action, in Macomb, Illinois, with my college roommates, I was captivated, along with the rest of the U.S. population.

Day by day, events played out and terrorism became the cause celebre [a controversial issue or incident that attracts a great deal of attention]. What is the U.S. going to do? What’s our next move? What’s happening? Are they going to let the hostages go? It was a fascinating thing to watch for 444 days.

The study of law enforcement and sociology in school connected really well with the subject of terrorism. Terrorism is a crime that involves deviant behavior. Sociology has a whole host of literature about radicalized individuals, including why and how they become radicalized.

I also tell people that my interest in the subject can be traced back many, many years ago when I woke up on a Saturday morning to a voice saying, “The world will not end in nuclear holocaust!” and, “Russia will not attack the U.S.!”

I initially thought I was dreaming. Turns out it was the voice of Mr. Herbert Armstrong on the radio and I came to learn that my brother had set the alarm to the station. I was already developing a fascination with geopolitical events, and this happened right after the Iran hostage crisis when I graduated from college.

As far as being considered an expert on the subject, I’m humbled. In my view, what makes an expert in this field is that you have to be street smart as well as book smart. You need the practical and tactical experience of dealing with extremist mindsets, but also a grasp of the literature because the sophistication of the issues associated with terrorism is astounding.

Alexander Bulekov/AFP/Getty Images
Shaken: An injured man is in shock after two explosions rocked the metro system in Saint Petersburg, Russia (April 3, 2017).

There are scores of substantive disciplines affected by terrorism—anywhere from insurance policy, to immigration policy, to national security. A practical understanding of the law is also critical. Banking law. Constitutional and criminal law. At some level, even sharia or Islamic law is needed to understand the extremist mindset. The underpinnings of society and the disciplines related to a society’s institutions are all touched by terrorism.

EW: How has terrorism changed over the 40 years since you became interested in it?

JP: Forty years ago, most of the terrorist activity was essentially from Marxists. You had the Red Brigades in Europe. The Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany. In the United States, you had the Weather Underground. FALN [Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional, which is translated Armed Forces of National Liberation] was active, as well as the Black Panthers. These leftist-oriented groups were largely the main cause of terrorist activity.

But the Iran hostage crisis, I think, brought the religious component into terrorism in a bigger way and we have seen that increase over the last four decades.

The tactics of Marxist and religion-based terrorists are similar in some ways, but religious terrorists are definitely more committed. Partially because their cause is larger. There is a difference between wanting to overthrow a government to assert some Marxist/Leninist orientation versus overthrowing a government to provide for “what Allah requires,” as in the case of an Islamic terrorist. A willingness to die and undergo great hardship to assert an agenda caused a dynamic shift in the war on terror.

EW: There are many labels used (or not used) by the media and others when reporting on or discussing terrorism. Some are quick to use terms while others seem to avoid them no matter what—especially when Islam is involved. We often hear terms such as terrorist, extremist or radicalism.

JP: There is a certain level of semantics involved. However, there are also legal statutes that define these labels. For instance, a terroristic act is separate and distinct from extremism. There is not, to my knowledge, a law against being an extremist.

Extremism is an overarching term. It is related to a person holding views outside the norm, with that person engaging in or advocating extreme action. It is a very broad term. Radicalism is similar in that it is related to a person having extreme views.

Saleh Al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images
Living with terror: A Yemeni man looks at a burning vehicle following a suicide car bombing in Huta, Yemen (March 27, 2017).

Terrorism, on the other hand, falls under extremism. It is essentially the use of force or violence, or threat of violence to cause a political, religious or ideological end. It is designed to create fear in the larger populace.

The terrorist label obviously carries a negative connotation with it. Once you become a “terrorist,” you are generally considered to be “bad.” Therefore, some are reluctant to use it—even after a blatant attack. One of the political debates over the last number of years has been, “What do we call these people who want to kill us?”

If we call them terrorists, we now have put a normative label that a lot of people want to avoid. But again, a terrorist is generally someone with extreme views who is willing to kill and die for those views—you can’t be a terrorist without being an extremist but you can be an extremist without being a terrorist.

EW: Staying on the subject of the media, you made the point in one of your books that “terrorism and the media are tied at the hip” and that they have a “symbiotic relationship.” Even more curious is your assertion that “each need each other,” and “each fuels the interest of the other.” What did you mean by this?

JP: I will begin to answer that question with a question. If a bomb blows up in Sri Lanka and the media doesn’t cover it, did it happen? Of course, it did. But consider the implications of media coverage.

Terrorism is primarily theater. The people who die in most terrorist attacks are largely irrelevant to the attack itself. The attack is designed to speak to the people who are watching that attack. They think, “That could be me, and maybe will be me, in the future.”

There is a phrase used by terrorism experts called “the propaganda of the deed.” The “propaganda” is the message that is conveyed from a specific direct action. If the media does not cover the direct action, the message loses resonance or perhaps is not even communicated. So, when the separatists in Sri Lanka blow up a building and the media doesn’t cover it, their message isn’t conveyed.

From the perspective of the media, their operational framework is, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Big events, gory events, dramatic events, chaotic events, are therefore “perfect”—if I can use that word—for their bottom line. A terrorist event facilitates the media response. And, the reality is people like to see the traffic accident and slow down to watch. Terrorist acts are essentially these “traffic accidents.”

EW: Typically, the media is how we learn about the vast majority of terrorist attacks. Could you give us your opinion on how the media is doing on the issue of terrorism?

JP: I think it is a mix. For instance, the Frontline documentary “Terror in Europe” was a classic example of how, after the fact, the media can do an excellent job reciting the circumstances and playing out the facts that led to a series of events and describe how they played out in very poignant terms.

But let’s face it. Where was the media during the months and years when these heinous acts were being planned? More specifically, what would have been the media response if they knew certain people were under surveillance or being questioned about their activities?

I’d venture to guess that the same media would complain about authorities “harassing” young Muslims in Paris yet later describe how these monstrous people shot and blew up individuals after the fact.

When it comes to the treatment of suspects, there is a tendency for the media to err on the side of, “Why are you messing with these people?” And then on the back end, after a terrorist event has taken place, the tendency of the media then is to say, “How come law enforcement missed this?” “How did the intelligence community miss this?”

Well, they partially missed it because of the fears of being accused of harassment and putting undue pressure on certain “profiled” groups. This reluctance leads to officials backing off and being particularly careful, which then leads to things falling through the cracks and bombings and attacks later occurring.

Consider the threats facing Western nations. At any given time, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals being assessed by law enforcement and intelligence. The vast majority of these cases do not involve demonstrably illegal activities. Typical cases involve actions that could be characterized as “suspicious,” but are also legal. These include visiting extremist websites, making hateful or provocative statements on blogs, taking photos of buildings or other structures, traveling to foreign countries known for Islamist violence, and buying legal weapons. Interpreting these actions within the legal concept of the “totality of the circumstances,” one may conclude that criminal activity is afoot. Do these mean that police have the legal authority to intercede? Maybe, but if they are wrong, know that undesirable media coverage is a predictable result.

Now multiply this case by hundreds or thousands. One can understand why cases “fall through the cracks.” This is why it is extraordinarily difficult to intercede before the attack occurs. Police and intelligence officials are often reduced to “playing probabilities.” They often have a good sense that a particular suspect is up to no good, but they usually do not know when the suspect will cross the line into illegal acts. If police act too soon, they risk negative media and legal consequences. If they act too late, they failed to do their duty to the public. In the anti-police and anti-authority environment that exists in many Western countries today, where do you think the line will most likely be drawn?

The bottom line in my mind is the mainstream media has a huge role in communicating the threat as well as communicating the balance and/or the implications of terrorism. The media essentially has it both ways. They are experts on the back end and they are particularly accusatory on the front end. Or maybe they’re politically correct before the attack and they’re politically expedient after the attack.

EW: Is there some other way for the mainstream media to approach the issue? It seems to me as if they are painted into a corner.

JP: Perhaps they are painted into a corner, though I am not particularly sure I could conclude that. I do have sympathy for the extraordinarily difficult balance they, along with law enforcement, have to apply to these matters.

Most journalists are schooled with the mindset that the government is to be checked. That the requirement of a legitimate, objective press is to keep the government from becoming unduly harsh or repressive. There’s a tendency of the media to err on the side of protecting the helpless—protecting the underclass or the people who have been oppressed. And there’s certainly merit in that. There is a need to pay attention to the plight of the poor and the oppressed.

The other side of the coin is—and it’s demonstrably true—some elements of the terroristic mindset are embedded in such groups. So, the media has to find a way to err on the side of the “oppressed” without condemning the government. This is a very difficult balancing act and I don’t pretend to have the answer to that.

Overall, the media is failing—but so is every other manmade institution. I do understand that terrorism is one of the most pervasive, most complicated, most impossible matters for mankind to solve.

EW: In your writings, you also commented on the role of government with this issue. You say “the government cannot always—if ever—tell you the truth” when it comes to informing the public about terrorism.

You add that a more positive way to state this is that “the government has to err on the side of good public relations.” Tell us more about the responsibility of the government to keep its citizens informed—particularly as it relates to communicating threats.

JP: I made those comments using the Shah of Iran as an example. His days were numbered during the Iran hostage crisis. The public relations element was that the Shah was a U.S. ally and we didn’t want to “throw him under the bus” by saying he could not maintain his position. If not careful, this could have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At the same time, it did not take an expert to see that obvious events were so far against the Shah that he could not continue. Despite this, the U.S. government refused to admit it for months and months, until, if my memory serves, he was literally taken out of office. Then the government finally admitted openly that he had to go.

A general concern for the government in communicating terrorist threats is that they don’t want to unduly scare the public. There is a very delicate balance between protecting citizens and keeping things that they don’t need to hear away from their ears, if you will.

Government cannot tell you all the threats that exist because one of two things will happen. You will either—if I could use the term—“freak people out” because they cannot handle being told that there’s an imminent threat, or the opposite. If repeatedly told, “The threat is real, the threat is real,” and nothing happens, it becomes the “boy who cried wolf.” There is a very delicate psychological balance.

The government is constantly “proving the negative,” which is attempting to prove an attack with little to no evidence it will occur. Even if you know an attack is percolating, you probably don’t know enough about the “whens” and “wheres” to be able to sufficiently announce to the public that a threat is out there. So most announcements of public safety threats are more generalized, which makes you say, “Why give it?”

If threat announcements are too generalized, it is more easily construed to where it becomes, “Oh, just another threat, so why do I care?”

Recall the use of color codes to communicate threat levels. Critics pointed to the fact that a constantly heightened threat level undermined the credibility of the system and led to complacency in the minds of the public. Well, that system was the government’s effort to manage this dynamic.

And it’s tough. If the government doesn’t warn and it is later learned people died at least partially because of the failure to communicate the threat, the government will be blamed. If they communicate the threat and unduly alarm the public, the government is still blamed. It cuts both ways.

EW: Earlier you mentioned “war on terror.” I remember when that phrase was a really big deal. President George W. Bush generated controversy when he first used it in the wake of 9/11. Opponents thought the “war” metaphor was inaccurate and opened the door for ongoing, expensive military campaigns.

President Barack Obama later eschewed the term, opting instead for a “targeted” approach to fighting terrorism as opposed to what he called “a boundless, global war on terror.” Help us understand the significance of each approach.

JP: I did a breakdown about this some years ago on the Chicago Tonight television program. I was on a panel talking about the prison at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo). Let me just say that where you land on this issue follows closely along political lines.

The question the panel faced was whether the Obama administration was going to close the prison facility and I laid out the Democrats’ thought process and the Republicans’ thought process. Here is how I would describe it.

If you see terrorism as purely a criminal act, which most Democrats or shall I say liberals or progressives see it, then you defend against and prosecute terrorist actions through the criminal justice system. Underlying this approach is the emphasis that terrorists are criminals who ought to be or have to be afforded their criminal rights.

On the other side of that coin, if you see terrorism as war, as most conservatives do, then you are much more inclined to see perpetrators as an “enemy” who has declared war on your country. You therefore don’t care as much about the “rights” of those individuals as you do the security of your homeland or the security of your citizens.

If you see terrorism as war, then Gitmo is essentially a “prisoner of war” camp. Prisoners of war don’t get trials. You don’t care as much about their rights. They are just housed until the war is over.

Now if you see Gitmo as a traditional prison, then you are against its operation because what you see are individuals being improperly detained in violation of their constitutional, legal or human rights. You would instead want the prisoners to stand trial or eventually be released because of the notion of habeas corpus—which means you must have a legal basis to prosecute a detainee, not just hold them.

It was widely characterized, by progressives, based on this crime/war distinction, that Gitmo “caused” terrorism. They felt that many of the terrorist attacks we see are somehow in retaliation for prisoners being held there indefinitely. I find this connection dubious.

EW: It sounds like you believe “war” is the more realistic way to deal with terrorism?

JP: Yes, I do see it as war. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey recently said there is a “holy war coming to Europe.” Now, is he right? I don’t know. But he did describe what was coming as war. But there is a larger point.

Driving my thinking is the question of whether you want to deal with fighting terrorism in your own land or fighting it in someone else’s land. Either way, you will deal with it. The reality and impact of 9/11 caused many Americans to realize, “We can’t deal with terrorism in our own land. Therefore, we have to go get them in their land.”

There are a whole host of downsides to that, of course. You “blow up the world” at some level by taking a more proactive approach by going, for instance, into the Middle East and overturning or creating upheaval in an area that’s historically been a cauldron of terrorism.

But just from a narrow, “How am I going to live a calm and peaceful life?” standpoint, the easy answer for some is to “go get them before they come get me.” Obviously, the impact of that is a whole series of negative foreign relations implications. But, this is the core of the war approach.

Taking it back to the criminal approach, the prevailing view is to see attacks such as Fort Hood, San Bernardino, Boston and to a lesser degree Orlando as tragic events, but not existential threats to the country. The Obama administration said this numerous times, and it was probably right. Those individual events, in and of themselves, are not going to take down the country, but how much carnage must ensue while you deal with the threat?

Frankly, I think it could literally be a fatal threat to a country if its strategy allows terroristic activities to continue. At the very least, it does balkanize and impact our society in very, very dramatic ways.

So, though you may be able to arrest and prosecute the offenders in the aftermath of an attack—if they even survive—or you might be able to take out a terrorist cell or two—by focusing on terrorism as a criminal act versus an act of war, you inevitably, in my view, allow a certain amount of carnage into your own country.

EW: This is a little surprising coming from an attorney. Doesn’t the rule of law have to prevail? In a nation built on certain unalienable rights I would think we would have to be very careful with this approach.

JP: Well, the law is important. Terrorism is a criminal act and if criminal activity occurs on American soil, it must be prosecuted by American laws and investigated by American law enforcement—you can’t escape this. But to manage the threat, you must consider going beyond our shores and seeking to put down what is a worldwide movement. If not, and that worldwide movement appears on your shores, the question becomes, is it already too late?

EW: Your explanation sounds like some of the reasoning behind President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration. His recent moratorium on immigrants from select nations appears to be an effort to keep out what could be deemed a threat.

JP: That is correct. Whether you agree or disagree, the logic behind President Trump’s decision is, “Keep them over there, don’t let them come here.”

This war is not always what strategists term a “hot war,” or a conflict with active military combat. There are different ways to fight, including the use of “soft” and “hard” power tactics. This immigration policy, which admittedly relates to crime and war, is an acknowledgment that there is a war going on.

One way to wage the war in this case, besides attacking the other side, is to manipulate your immigration policy. The goal is to prevent, at least theoretically, some percentage of potential extremists who may land on your shores.

For example, during World War II, the Japanese were not allowed to immigrate to the United States. In fact, Japanese Americans at the time were notoriously segregated into internment camps. Was this decision a terrible deprivation of constitutional rights or a means to enhance public safety during a war?

Putting aside the controversy related to the camps for the moment, if you asked almost anyone back then whether the U.S. should have allowed immigration from Japan in the midst of a war, they would have almost certainly said, “Obviously not.”

But ironically, this is the hot issue in contemporary America. Five of the six countries named in the travel ban are essentially failed states. The sixth is Iran, which has been called the biggest sponsor of terrorism since the Iran hostage crisis. It is also where public demonstrations denouncing the “Great Satan” along with chants of “Death to America” are regularly heard. So, it leaves one to wonder why a travel ban or similar restrictions would be controversial.

Because many see terrorism as crime, not as war!

Part 2 of this conversation, to appear in an upcoming issue, will delve into the mindset of a terrorist, discuss the rise of the Islamic State group, explain how terrorism has become much more effective and deadly in the years since 9/11, and reveal further why law enforcement is struggling to keep up. 

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