Terrorism’s continued growth and unrelenting grip paralyze law enforcement and citizens. In a conversation with an expert on terrorism, we further relay the scope of the problem.
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No serious candidate for political office in modern times can ignore the ongoing problem of terrorism. Political speeches now include pledges to keep cities and neighborhoods safe from future attacks along with the usual assurances of more jobs, better foreign relations, lower taxes, and improved social welfare. These sweeping promises of protection are a permanent fixture in any campaign, testifying to the public’s desire for safety and security.
According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, terrorism’s global economic impact reached $89.6 billion in 2015, with expenses due to terrorist acts increasing eleven fold since 2000. The U.S. Department of State tracked the number of terrorist events in 2015, reporting 11,774 separate attacks resulting in 28,300 deaths and more than 35,300 injuries. These statistics reveal the scale of this fear-provoking violence.
The increasing number of lone-wolf attacks, such as the high-profile incident in Manchester, England, only add to the unpredictable carnage and mayhem. Terrorism—whether state-sponsored or independent, religious or political, rightist or leftist in origin—is an enduring and universal threat.
In a previous issue, Real Truth managing editor Edward Winkfield spoke with Dr. James Pastor, a Real Truth contributor and terrorism expert. Dr. Pastor described his extensive background in law enforcement and how terrorism has changed over the last 40 years. During our talk, we examined the roles of both the media and government in communicating and stopping the problem of terrorism. We also explored the issues of viewing terrorism as merely a criminal act versus an act of war, and how each drive public policy.
Our discussion continues with topics such as the Islamic State terror group, the underlying mindset of a terrorist, the increase of lone-wolf assailants, security versus rights, and more.
Edward Winkfield: It has been 16 years since 9/11 and we are already nearing the three-year anniversary of the opening of One World Trade Center—built on what at one time was smoldering rubble.
Those indirectly affected by this disaster may find it difficult to recall just how much this horrific event changed America. It stripped away a certain innocence and sense of invincibility from the world’s foremost superpower.
Dr. James Pastor: Readers may recall from my Real Truth article “Shake-up: Will World Order Soon Collapse?” that I defended my doctoral dissertation on securing American streets just one day before those planes smashed into the towers. This tragedy changed everything for me and obviously for the country. September 11 was a key point in a sequence of world events and crucial in shaping the view of, and war against, terrorism.
Most people think of the obvious impact of the attacks that day in New York, and rightfully so. But in many less obvious ways, bringing down the Twin Towers deeply affected the fabric of our society.
Take the construction and insurance industries, for instance. People at the time openly wondered, “How are we ever going to build a building again knowing it may become the target of a terrorist act?” and, “Even if we could complete construction, what insurance company would be willing to provide coverage knowing a future attack is possible?” To this latter point, the federal government had to step in and essentially say, “We will insure you.” Now the costs and damages associated with terrorist attacks will likely be paid by taxpayers. This may seem nuanced, but terrorism has the power to shut down major elements of our world—at significant costs to governments and taxpayers. The impact is felt 16 years later.
EW: September 11 was deemed a success for the terrorists given the scale of damage and number of deaths. High-profile targets in major metropolitan areas and the highest risk for loss of life seemed to be where authorities chose to focus at the time in order to fight the problem.
JP: Yes, 9/11 was very different from many of the attacks we see today. It was very sophisticated and took nearly a decade to plan. Several of the 19 hijackers had extensive knowledge of Western culture and language skills to better acclimate up to the moment of attack. They traveled across the country, trained in U.S. flight schools, and otherwise blended into society. It’s amazing how much time and energy and precision went into it. Yet this was the earmark of al-Qaida—they were into big terrorist events.
EW: Though they may be on the verge of a comeback, we hardly hear of al-Qaida in the news as much as we used to, especially after the death of Osama bin Laden. It is as if they disappeared. What happened to them?
JP: The death of Osama bin Laden naturally played a big part, but they have had other leaders. I think one thing that President George W. Bush did that few give him credit for is taking out the legs of al-Qaida. It has taken them years to recover. Enough people—many terrorists—died during those years and it has taken some time for the next generation of young men to come along and be ready to fight.
I think the U.S. just beat the daylights out of that group and it has taken them some time to regenerate and stand back up. However, as you noted, many are now saying that al-Qaida is reemerging.
EW: ISIS seems fundamentally different from al-Qaida. They seem to prefer individual attacks and displaying inhuman levels of brutality—beheadings, burning people in cages, using trucks to run over people, etc. They recently called for more killing, stabbing and slitting throats in major cities. The threat to the U.S. and other Western nations is different than that posed by al-Qaida, and is very real.
JP: The rise of ISIS on the world stage was impactful and significant. Terrorist groups have become decentralized over the course of the last 15 or 16 years. Al-Qaida’s leadership and membership was decimated, leading to a vacuum that resulted in the rise of ISIS.
Now, ISIS was defeated in Mosul, and they will soon fall in their self-described capital of Raqqa in Syria as well. I read a report from Reuters that stated fighting in Raqqa is raging in “every last block” and ISIS is “fighting for their own survival.”
Ironically, if their caliphate is destroyed, which seems imminent, ISIS likely poses an even bigger threat. They will have a choice to make: Do they fold up their tent, abandon the idea of a caliphate, and cease to exist? Or do they export action directly into the West? The short-term answer is predictable: they will redirect their approach from securing land to exporting terror. After all, it was the West, with the help of the Iraqis and Kurds, that have caused the caliphate’s demise.
Always remember, the mindset of an Islamist is that America is the “great Satan.” The U.S. is the ultimate enemy, as it dominates the existing world order. Diminishing the U.S. and western Europe through terrorism may be the best option for ISIS once its caliphate is destroyed.
EW: I find it interesting how al-Qaida diminished and ISIS stepped in and took its place. If ISIS is defeated, do you think something will eventually replace it?
JP: The ideology is long-term. Their movement thinks in terms of infinity. People tend to get lost in the name.
The people who run ISIS are, frankly, just like kingpins in the Mafia or leaders of a gang. They run an organization that pushes an ideological framework. The organization is just a name that is run by people. But ultimately the name and the people are not that important. What’s really important for them is the movement. If ISIS is defeated, there will be another name that will take the baton or move the ball in terms of fostering the goal of a worldwide caliphate. The goal or movement is sustained, not the name or the people.
EW: I feel we have gone from bad to worse in terms of threat. Attacks seem so random nowadays. Perpetrators, many of them young and with no strong terror group connections, commit vile acts, then later claim affiliation with ISIS or are claimed by the terrorist organization. In this way, ISIS has managed to outsource terrorism. How can security agencies effectively respond to such an approach?
JP: It’s very difficult. The notion of outsourcing involves recruiting free agents—we would call them lone wolves in the lexicon of terrorism—who are given free rein to cause whatever level of destruction they’re capable of causing, all under the umbrella of the ideology or allegiance to the group.
And factions like ISIS foster this by propaganda. They use magazines and internet sites to not only publicize the attack, but also to tell people exactly how to carry out further attacks. These independent contractors, if you will, are given the means via specialized information, the motivation via religious ideology, and then—most troubling—the discretion via their own time, place and choice of weapon. As they do their dirty work, ISIS stands on the sidelines cheering and takes credit for the act.
EW: This sounds exactly like the attacks in Orlando, San Bernardino, Fort Lauderdale, London and Manchester.
JP: Yes, these all represent the lone wolf approach. The attackers were radicalized either by traveling to foreign countries or even deciding on their own to become a religious warrior. These types of attacks are not as catastrophic as 9/11, but are increasingly difficult to stop. They are more of the “nickel and dime” approach to terrorism in terms of number of deaths. In Orlando, you had 48 or 50 people die. In Manchester Arena—Britain’s deadliest terror attack since the 7/7 London subway bombings—22 died from an explosion, many of them young children. These were terrible events with a large number of deaths. But they are still “nickels and dimes” compared to the nearly 3,000 who died on 9/11.
That said, I can make a case that the smaller, more frequent, less predictable attacks actually have a more devastating psychological impact on society. These kinds of attacks can be considered “commotions” that Christ in Luke 21:9 said would occur. The original Greek term for this word means instability and disorder. Significantly, this verse came with a warning to “be not terrified.” Of course, this biblical warning is understandable—as people are terrified!
EW: You said that “lone wolf” is a familiar phrase in your world. So, this approach by terrorists isn’t new?
JP: The concept has been around for a while, but it is now reemerging as a viable tactic.
Looking back, terrorists tended to operate in cells. A cell was usually three, four, five or six people who didn’t know each other and functioned separately as a way of maintaining security. Within a typical terrorist cell, there would be a person who cased the place of attack and provided data, a person who obtained finances for the attack, a person who secured the explosives or weaponry, and a person or people who were the actual attackers. These roles were all filled by different people.
With a lone wolf, one person does the three, four or five different things the entire cell did. All this has made policing and providing security much more difficult for authorities.
EW: The increase of lone wolf attacks seems to make it impossible to stop attacks beforehand.
JP: You throw your hands up and say it is impossible. Think about this: There was a time that no one would take the leadership role in the New York Mafia because the FBI made it very clear they would do all they could to take that leader down. This created a void of leadership that eventually led to a lack of discipline within the group and ultimately less predictability and more brutality. The same scenario has played out with criminal gangs over the years.
The lack of a solid leadership structure and organization within terrorist groups has likewise led to fracturing within its ranks, less discipline among its membership, and—to the frustration of law enforcement—less predictability, as lone wolf attackers are extraordinarily difficult to detect.
EW: This pursuit of predictability by law enforcement under increasingly difficult circumstances likely explains the increased use of controversial tactics such as the NSA’s surveillance program and more restrictions at airports.
JP: Yes, intelligence services rely on technology and the internet in the fight against terrorism. Much of the communication, propaganda and marketing for terrorism is being done via the web. Security, law enforcement agencies, and intelligence agencies are spending more and more time paying attention to social media and other web channels, as well as attempting to track communications via cellphone, the internet, social media, and text messages—all things that are increasingly becoming encrypted. There is a real possibility that electronics such as laptops could be completely banned as carry-ons on all domestic flights due to the threat. It is the classic “cat and mouse” approach where each side tries to outflank the other.
EW: Take us inside the minds of these terrorists and their groups. They seem so beyond normal human behavior.
JP: A terrorist organization is first a human organization. In that way, it is no different than any other organization. It has people who are natural leaders. People who are followers. People who are more adept at violence and aggression. It also has people who are more cerebral, the thinkers and planners. Terrorists and their organizations are not necessarily all the same.
That said, I spent a lot of time dealing with gangs. The only real distinction between the two is that terrorists have the larger cause. However, both gang members and terrorists have a huge tendency or mindset about the use of force or asserting strength.
The average member of a gang understands strength. Strength is what drives the streets, and determines who rules the streets. It is about the ability to intimidate and manipulate people. The goal is to be stronger physically, financially, mentally and, from a religious terrorist’s standpoint, spiritually.
Understanding and respecting strength drove my thinking as a tactical police officer and projected well into the world of fighting terrorism. Strength is what terrorists understand. Osama bin Laden used to call America the “weak horse.” He saw the U.S. as a strong country, but weak-kneed and weak-willed.
This notion that we can somehow get terrorists to like us is foolhardy. Nature abhors a vacuum. Somebody will rule. Someone’s strength will prevail. It’s just a matter of whose. The idea that being friendly or amiable to draw in, frankly, evil people is foolhardy and defeats anything that I know about human nature.
EW: It is interesting how the mind of a gang member or criminal is so similar to terrorist thinking.
JP: Yes, but there are differences that make terrorists so dangerous. I created a table in one of my books that compared a common criminal to the average terrorist.
The typical criminal tends to be opportunistic. He is looking for opportunities to commit an illegal act. He often will go around, arbitrarily looking and seeking to capitalize. It is more random. A terrorist, on the other hand, can be much more focused. He tends to settle on a target and act in a much more sophisticated way. He will go out and case the place: take photos and make diagrams. He may plan for weeks or months to commit a single crime that the typical criminal would otherwise fall into.
Also, the criminal’s goal is to escape. He seeks to commit a crime and get away. A bank robber is a classic example. Robbing the bank itself is usually less difficult than getting away with the money. As with most crimes, the escape is the most complicated part of the plan.
A terrorist—particularly one that is suicidal—doesn’t have to include an escape plan. Taking away the element of escape from the planning and commission of the crime makes it substantially easier for the terrorist. If he died on the scene, it was likely a part of the plan.
Training is another factor. You’ve seen TV shows and movies where the gangbanger ineptly points his gun sideways. Conversely, it can be scary to realize that terrorists are often trained warriors. They may have been trained in Syria or Iraq and came back to the streets with a level of sophistication found only in a war zone.
Add to this a level of commitment. A criminal tends to be non-committed—not concerned about a larger cause. A terrorist, on the other hand, exhibits high levels of commitment—to the point that many are willing to die. Most criminals are not willing to die. While they may be willing to go to jail, most are not willing to risk their lives for whatever is in a purse or for what they can take from a bank.
EW: I can see how a person willing to kill himself makes terrorism such a unique evil. So, it sounds like strength is the answer to addressing the issue.
JP: The bully on the playground backs down when somebody stands up to him. This still holds true in the logic of terrorism.
A terrorist causes terror. He doesn’t negotiate his way through the matter. He doesn’t try to give you better logic. He tells you he is going to kill you. By using that technique, he is using strength. He understands strength and thus you have to stand up to him with strength. The 2007 troop surge in Iraq under President Bush was a good example. Bush just dumped troops into Iraq and partnered with the Sunnis to take out al-Qaida. They saw the surge as an in-your-face, you-die-or-I-die mindset. Large numbers of Islamists died in that approach. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis now speaks in terms of using “annihilation tactics” to defeat ISIS.
Now, I am not saying you take an “only strength” approach. I am reminded of the Bible passage that speaks to the “goodness and severity” of God. God has been extraordinarily merciful and patient in my life—and that is another side to the approach. Just like some gang members I dealt with on the street, you can touch them with softer approaches. And you generally don’t go with strength as the first or the only option. But with God, who gives people time to get it right, sooner or later His patience will end and His severity will become very, very obvious. There is a parallel for dealing with terrorists.
EW: How does fighting terrorism at the street level work? Talk about the challenges there.
JP: It is also difficult. If you are a good policeman, you work off probabilities, because you don’t necessarily know who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy. When engaging in investigative or tactical methods, you use probabilities to increase your chances of catching somebody doing something wrong.
When you see multiple attacks or attempted attacks committed by Muslims or those claiming a connection with ISIS, you naturally learn to profile, looking for certain characteristics to enhance your probability of finding the “bad guy.” While it is politically incorrect to say so, this greatly increases when you engage those who fit a certain profile. This logic of profiling those likely to commit acts of terror held true in the early to mid-90s, when this country experienced high-profile attacks by domestic right-wing extremist groups such as those involved in the Oklahoma City bombing. They tended to be white males.
You run the risk, however, of being labeled Islamophobic, a racist, a xenophobe, and any other “phobe” that we have now applied to the lexicon of American culture. And from a law enforcement standpoint, a reasonable officer is now less willing to risk dealing with proactive, characteristic profiling because he doesn’t want to be accused. He doesn’t want to be seen as part of some kind of “ism” when he is just trying to do his job.
EW: This sounds like the negative side of political correctness. I am sure this erodes strength.
JP: It does. It fuels the bad guy. He is emboldened because he has two things going for him. For one, if you engage him and he’s not “dirty” at that moment—meaning you didn’t catch him with a gun or a bomb—then he immediately becomes the victim. As the victim, he can seek redress through the legal system or through the media. Such cases result in those like him being less likely to be engaged by law enforcement and thus given more leverage or more opportunity to commit a crime in the future.
We see it in Chicago, where the police department has largely sat down in the last few years and criminals have stood up and started killing more people. This is the result of law enforcement entities deciding not to engage because of the risk of being accused of certain “isms” and either being sued, losing a job, or being killed, either politically or physically. For many in law enforcement, it is a risk not worth taking. This plays in both the criminal and terrorist spheres.
EW: This comes back to the argument of security versus rights, which you covered extensively in one of your books. You wonder how many rights people are willing to sacrifice to ensure their security.
JP: The ultimate goal in any environment, particularly in a democracy, is to find a balance between security and freedom. The case for leaning toward more security is simple—do you want to die? Another way of saying this is, are your rights worth dying for?
Most people are only willing to go so far. They don’t want to die in a quest to maintain their rights. The challenge in a terroristic environment is to find the optimal balance of security and rights.
Concerning the case for rights, we live in an environment where we can generally come and go as we see fit. The ideas of freedom of religion, freedom of association, and freedom of travel are important parts of life. The larger the threat, the more likely people are willing to give away their rights—as evidenced after 9/11 when two or three hour waits in lines at an airport became the norm and people were, for the most part, okay with that.
Now, longer lines in an airport are less tolerable because many people perceive that their security is not at immediate risk, certainly not as it was shortly after 9/11. Think about all the public relations incidents committed in commercial airlines lately. Almost all these stem from ill-fated attempts to enforce “security protocols” on passengers who did not believe they were at risk.
But you may not feel the same way if you were in France or the UK right now. The kind of dynamic that goes on in a particular environment will often dictate how much of “my rights” or “my life” is emphasized.
Plainly speaking, the war on terror can only be won when more people are willing to sacrifice their lives for freedom as opposed to those who are willing to die for a fanatical world view.
EW: I think about pivotal times in our nation’s history: The Revolutionary War, World War I, and World War II. Do you think people still have the fortitude to fight and die for freedom?
JP: Some in America do. But if you get a snapshot of the country, it’s arguably the case that most people don’t care about anything but themselves. Most go with the flow and put their finger to the air and decide to do whatever is right for them at that moment in time. That is the prevailing mindset among Americans. I don’t think most have the character to commit themselves to anything that is hard or dangerous. They try to find the easy way out in life and avoid standing up for convictions because it requires courage that most do not seem to have.
EW: Where do you see terrorism, if things continue, in the next five to 10 years?
JP: I believe that law enforcement will have to change the way it is policing. I advocated a new model of policing, which I called public safety policing. It featured a militarized police force with a huge reliance on technology, intelligence gathering, and surveillance. These could be combined with private security providers as the country’s police departments, particularly in urban areas, are simply overwhelmed by the number of threats. But even this approach is not a panacea. The issues are just so hard and complex.
I think the bigger point is that certain lessons can come out of this crisis. In the midst of perpetual fear, violence and uncertainty, society has an opportunity to look inside itself and ask: What is life for? What is my life about? Once you strip away all the niceties of everyday life, the realities of life and death become much more prominent.
In a terroristic environment in which you could lose your life at any time, questions like: Who am I? Why do I exist? Why am I here? What is life? Is there something bigger than me? Is there a God who I can look to for protection?—all prevail.
The percentage that ask these questions will largely be proportionate to the level of problems we face. The bigger and more impactful the problems, the more likely people become introspective.
I believe mankind’s inability to stop terrorism will compel many to begin searching for answers to these much deeper questions.