Friday, 22 January 2016

The Terrorist's Paradox

     A while ago, I wrote a bit about the security risks of Canada taking in Syrian refugees, in which I argued that the risk that some refugees might turn out to be dangerous was only relevant if it made them on average more dangerous than the crazies we already have as part of our population. But I also expressed an expectation that DAESh would actively try to carry out terrorist attacks specifically to deter us from taking in refugees. I didn't think it likely that they'd succeed, but I fully expected them to at least try. Well, it's just occurred to me how unlikely that is, and it has to do with something I want to call the "terrorist's paradox".

     The paradox doesn't apply to all terrorists, of course. Those who just want to coerce people into doing what they want by taking hostages or threatening some other sort of violence if their ransom demands aren't met don't count. The terrorists I'm talking about here, though, are the ones who see themselves as part of a political struggle in which they hope to inspire the masses to rise up and join them against the enemy. This describes al Qaeda's objective, and to a large extent it's what DAESh is all about, too.
     So the paradox comes about like this. On the one hand, they see themselves and want to be seen as The Good Guys. They view their cause as morally righteous, and their enemy as irredeemably evil, though perhaps not yet recognized as evil by the decent ordinary people they hope to rally to their cause. If only the evil could be unmasked! If only people could see just how vicious and oppressive and cruel the enemy is!
     Well, the terrorist's way to unmask the evil brutality of the enemy is by provoking the enemy into  acting in obviously evil and brutal ways. Blow up a school bus, shoot up a shopping mall, do something to make them really angry, and then everyone will see how viciously they overreact.
     But here's the paradox. In order to really provoke the kind of overreaction you want, you need to make your provocative attack really get a lot of attention. A spectacularly damaging act, like hijacking passenger planes and flying them into iconic national landmarks, is just the sort of thing to send everyone into a panic and start lashing out like the evil brutal monsters you know they are. Except, the more spectacularly awful your act of provocation, the more you look like the bad guy and the more sympathy you create for your enemy, undermining your attempt to rally people to your cause.
     I suspect, in fact, that al Qaeda's attack on 9/11 might have actually prevented the worldwide Islamic uprising against the United States it was meant to inspire. We know, after all, that the Bush Administration was intent on invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein. It's also a fairly safe bet that American diplomatic capital was already a limited resource under Bush, and likely to be quickly depleted through Bush's tact-free handing of matters like the collision between a Chinese jet and an American reconnaissance plane. 9/11 gave Bush an instant and huge windfall of goodwill. I wonder what sort of international reaction the 2003 invasion of Iraq would have received, if not for that goodwill.

     That's how the paradox played out on al Qaeda. Now, DAESh is much more media-savvy, but they too are subject to the paradox. See, while al Qaeda organized teams of jihadists to carry out carefully coordinated missions, DAESh seems to focus, at least for its overseas mayhem, on radicalizing locals through the internet and encouraging them to carry out their own lone-wolf projects. This has the obvious advantage of stealth, in that less operational communications means less opportunity for security agencies to detect and disrupt attempts. But it also means that the guys carrying out these lone-wolf attacks aren't going to be subject to the kind of strategic discipline you can get when you're assembling a team and planning. Jihadi Joe in his parents' basement is being fired up with hatred and anger at the evil oppressive West; he wants to strike a blow against the Great Satan, and what's more, he wants to be gloriously remembered as a martyr for the cause. He's not thinking in terms of the strategic goal of making Canadians hate and distrust Muslims; if anything, it's the fact that many of us are already a bit hateful and distrustful that makes him so angry at us. And even if he did think that many moves ahead, he'd recognize that it's awfully hard for a local boy martyr to put together a convincing refugee disguise that stand up to even a cursory investigation.
     So the homegrown lone wolf attacks that DAESh likes to take credit for, then, are extremely unlikely to be willing, much less able to pull off a "false flag" aimed at tricking us into thinking that Syrian refugees are responsible. I mean, sure, there's always going to be a bunch of people who are terrified that we're letting them into the country, and will point at any old act of violence as confirming their suspicions, but for most of us, a transparent attempt to frame Syrian refugees for some terrorist act will backfire, convincing us only that some bad people really don't want us to be so nice to them.
     And, reverse psychology being what it is, if DAESh really wants us not to take in refugees, that's be a pretty good way to strengthen our resolve to do so.