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Bringing Reason to Terror

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

July 26 -- Nearly 100 policy aficionados got an inside look at the kind of top-level analysis that’s shaping America’s response to international terrorism at the RAND Corporation Monday.

Following a provocative overview of the war on terror by RAND terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins, the audience broke out into workshops to identify and compare the assumptions underlying four alternative anti-terrorism plans at the interactive program sponsored by RAND and the League of Women Voters of the United States (LWVUS).

“It’s not important that people agree or not agree,” said Jenkins, a rugged former Special Services man wearing a blue and white checked shirt and wide-striped orange and gray tie. “It’s important that people think about these things.”

“We need to get people over the fear of talking about terrorism, thinking about terrorism,” said Xandra Kayden, a UCLA senior fellow and political scientist.

The RAND workshop was part of a larger project spearheaded by the LWVUS designed to inspire rational discussion and analysis of the war on terror and its effect on civil liberties.

Jenkins, whose clients have included the Catholic Church, the U.S. Department of State and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, painted a picture of American shortsightedness he says has played right into Al Qaeda’s hands.

While we hold a pragmatic view of the War on Terror as a finite struggle, the Jihadists see it as a centuries-old drama, “a perpetual struggle against evil…war until evil is eliminated or judgment day, whichever comes first,” Jenkins said.

“They know that with their superior determination, they will wear us down,” he said. “God promises them victory.”

In Bin Laden’s sense of “flattened” history, warriors of Islam brought down the Byzantine Empire (the Roman Empire in Bin Laden’s eyes), the Persians under Mongol rule, and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, said Jenkins. America is just the next in a long line of belligerent infidel empires out to destroy Islam.

“The U.S. plays a convenient role in Bin Laden’s ideology,” he said. Al Qaeda “needs a global enemy.

“Al Qaeda has transcended its international boundaries to become an ideology,” Jenkins said.

The War in Iraq gives the terrorists a new training ground, and justifies their narrative, he added.

“The legacy of Iraq is that for the next 15 years, we’re going to be dealing with a cohort of Iraqi veterans who know how to operate in an urban environment,” he said.

And through the Internet, the “continuous epic narrative, inspiring to young men” attracts recruits the world over.

“Get a 17-year old, give him a rifle, give him a narrative, you’ve got him for life,” Jenkins said.

The key to winning the war is to understand the mindset of our adversaries, something America seems reluctant to do, he said.

During the Cold War, American policy makers put a lot of effort into understanding their Soviet adversaries, said Jenkins.

“When it comes to terrorists, we tend not to do that,” preferring instead to see them as “crazy or evil.”

“To understand can be misunderstood as being understanding of” the terrorists, said Jenkins.

Fortified by Jenkins’ call to dispassionate analysis, the audience, mostly League of Women Voters members with a sprinkling of stray RAND professionals and unaffiliated academics, was instructed in the tenets of “Assumption Based Planning,” before breaking out into small groups to try it themselves.

The key to APB, as it’s called at RAND, is to avoid value statements, such as “is this assumption good or bad, right or wrong,” but instead to identify whether it’s necessary to support a proposed course of action.

Those assumptions are called “load-bearing” and if they fail, the whole course of action comes tumbling down.

For instance, if a plan contains the assumption that introducing democratic practices in a nation will lower that nation’s support for terrorism, and that assumption turns out to be erroneous, democracy-building will have been a failed, perhaps even counterproductive, action along with all the military and other actions taken to support democracy-building.

The working groups’ challenge was to identify load-bearing assumptions and then to compare and contrast them among four real-time proposals:

  • The 2003 U.S. National Counter-terrorism Strategy, the plan that guides the Bush administration,
  • Philip Heymann’s Enhanced Law Enforcement Strategy, which calls for international policing based on common law and respect for civil liberties,
  • Michael Scheuer’s Disengagement and Deterrence Strategy, which calls for a simultaneous U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East while okaying all out war on terrorist enclaves and their supporters, and
  • Thomas P.M. Barnett’s Gap-to-Core Strategy, in which the have-not nations are brought into the “core” of nations that have benefited from globalization.

After two hours of argument, arrow-drawing and filling out giant charts, a picture emerged.

Among other differences, the U.S. plan views terrorists as an “existential” threat -- they’re just evil. The law enforcement plan sees them as criminals, the disengagement plan sees them as rational political enemies, and the gap-to-core plan sees them as marginalized victims of globalization.

And while the U.S. plan and disengagement both feature the use of military force, the law enforcement and gap-to-care plans see its usefulness as limited.

Some groups took as long as an hour to put their biases and political passions on hold for the duration of the discussion, a number of participants noted.

But once they did, many felt their understanding deepen and grow more sophisticated.

And some felt that they had given RAND something to think about.

“Two head are better than one and many heads are better if they aren’t dumb, and not all of us are dumb,” said a young Middle Eastern professor of communications commented to appreciative laughter.

If funding comes through, the LWVUS will train a cadre to go out to communities throughout the country to train locals to “replicate” Monday’s program, Kayden said.

“Our goal is really to get more communities discussing this,” she said.

For more information on the continuing dialogue on counter-terrorism and civil liberties, see the LWVUS website. RAND Corporation also has information on its website.


“It’s not important that people agree or not agree. It’s important that people think about these things.” Brian Michael Jenkins


“They know that with their superior determination, they will wear us down,” he said. “God promises them victory.”


“Get a 17-year old, give him a rifle, give him a narrative, you’ve got him for life.”


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