After the September 11 attacks, the United States sought to eliminate terrorism around the world. Has the United States been effective in reducing terrorism? The answer is not straightforward. For every effective counterterrorism effort, there is another ineffective effort.
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This essay will explore the United States’ use of active and passive counterterrorism strategies and under which circumstances, they are effective. Whereas active policies, such as preemptive strikes, military raids, and covert operations are often viewed favorably in the United States, passive policies of deterrence, conciliation, and instituting laws are often more successful in quelling terrorism because they do not radicalize moderates. That is not to say that active counterterrorism strategies are not useful.
While effective passive strategies prevent groups from growing, effective active strategies protect the United States from immediate threats and can eliminate an isolated group. Neither strategy is superior per se. Both active and passive strategies are useful in certain circumstances, but the circumstances in which each will be useful must be known. Without detailed knowledge of the political, cultural, and social situation of the area where the United States is fighting, any strategy will fail.
To determine the effective of counterterrorism strategies, criteria for effectiveness must be laid out. There are currently a wide number of measures of effectiveness in counterterrorism strategies; however, these measures are often problematic. They often leave out important factors necessary in determining if strategies are working. Measures of effective counterterrorism strategy should include the number of terrorist attacks, victims, and number of arrests.
These are all reasonable measures of effectiveness that use hard data to determine effective counterterrorism strategies. However, data alone does not provide a complete picture. While it answers the question of effectiveness firmly yes or no, the numbers themselves do not provide the full picture. Some important counterterrorism issues are not quantifiable. A more detailed measure of effectiveness must be put in place that considers both national security and the inner-workings of the terrorist organizations themselves.
Proponents of using the number of terrorist attacks as a measure for effectiveness argue that a decrease in attacks signals counterterrorism strategies are effective and an increase in attacks signals ineffective strategy. This is one of the easier measures of effectiveness to assess given the availability of data of terrorist attacks. However, an increase in attacks does not necessarily mean that counterterrorism strategies are ineffective, and vice-versa. A struggling terrorist group or a group with new leadership can launch terrorist attacks to show credibility and attempt to attract support. Simply counting the number of terrorist attacks from year to year does not consider how terrorist organizations are organized or where they are targeting.
A terrorist organization killing political leaders or heads of states is more damaging than groups of civilians, which is why number of victims is also a lacking measure of effectiveness. The death of Yitzhak Rabin is a good example of this. Assassinating Rabin in 1995 was much more damaging than if the assassin had chosen another target to protest the Oslo Accords. If a government’s securities policies become too effective in which the terrorist group cannot target places they would typically such as embassies, they may target areas they deem easier like
schools or populated areas. Targeting the vulnerable can decrease support for terrorist groups and can drive away moderates who may have eventually sided with the group.
A frequent measure of effectiveness used by the Bush administration is the number of terrorist arrests. This measurement is only positive, however, when terrorist organizations are declining and have no outside support. In this case, arresting more and more will deplete the group’s resources. Otherwise, terrorists are easily replaceable. In addition, arrests can have negative consequences and can draw moderates into the terrorist organization. Arrests can also create a power vacuum where new leaders seek to prove their credibility by attempting attacks.
These quantifiable statistics are certainly helpful in determining if counterterrorism strategies are effective and they should be used to some extent. However, they are most useful when terrorist groups are in decline and lack the resources to recruit new members. Therefore, effective strategies must seek to arrive at this point where terrorist organizations are isolated from the general population and unable to radicalize moderates to join their cause. Effective strategies must also dismantle terrorist networks so that terrorists cannot find sanctuary or assistance. These make up an improved measure of effectiveness. Once terrorist groups are at this point where they are unable to recruit new members and links between other terrorist organizations are broken, the measures above that use data are more relevant in determining to what extent terrorism poses a problem to the United States. Otherwise, effective counterterrorism strategies aim to maintain strong national security, separate the radicals unwilling to concede from the general population, and dismantle terrorist networks.
Both active and passive strategies have weaknesses; however, they can be used complementarily to overcome these flaws. As Peter Sederberg argues, the negative effects of immediate concessions may be offset by increased defensive or repressive measures. The negative effects of immediate repression may be offset by a long-term strategy of concessions. This points to the idea that effective strategies are not passive or aggressive. While they may lean a certain way, the type of strategy doesn’t determine its effectiveness. Effectiveness depends on the situation in which a strategy is implemented.
The foundation of violent separatist conflict in the southern Philippines began in 1971 when Nur Misuari founded the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) with the goal of obtaining an autonomous region for Muslims in the Mindanao region of the Philippines. Throughout the early and mid-1970’s, the MNLF conducted guerrilla attacks against the Philippine government. Internal conflicts existed within the group. A leader of the MNLF, Hashim Salamat, disagreed with Misuari’s dictatorial leadership and divergence from what he considered truly Islamic goals.
When Salamat challenged Misuari for leadership of the MNLF in 1977 and lost, Salamat abandoned the group along with several thousand others loyal to him and renamed the new group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, these two groups diverged in their strategies. While the MNLF negotiated with the Philippine government as the representative of the Moro people, the MILF focused on developing grassroots support and attracting new members. The Philippine government has accused the MILF of engaging in terrorist activities such as bus and airport bombings and hostage takings. These claims may be exaggerated as the government has incentive to blame attacks on the terrorist organization and undermine their legitimacy. There is a legitimate known history of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front conducting bombings and attacking the government. In 2000, President Joseph Estrada ordered military attacks against the terrorist organization and within four months, government forces had taken control of the MILF’s main base. The MILF is currently the largest of the Philippine separatist groups.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the final group in the Moro conflict, split from the MNLF in 1991. They are widely considered to be the most radical of the Islamic separatist groups in the southern Philippines and both the MNLF and the MILF have condemned their actions. The Abu Sayyaf Group has carried out bombings and kidnappings within the Philippines. They primarily target Christians and foreigners. In the late 1990’s up to 9/11, the group had financial troubles and strayed away from terrorist activities toward kidnappings for ransom to raise funds.
Why did the United States get involved in the Philippines when the groups in the Philippines were focused only on an independent state in the Philippines? All three groups were interconnected with Islamic extremist groups of the Middle East. Moro Islamic Liberation Front members fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets during the 1980’s. At Osama bin Laden’s request, the MILF opened its base camp to al-Qaeda jihadists. The Southeast-Asian and al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiah has also trained members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on fighting tactics and has provided financial support to the group. The United States sought to intervene in the Philippines to cut off the terrorists’ network to other groups.
Abu Sayyaf members also fought in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and have ties to al-Qaeda and bin Laden. Notable al-Qaeda members Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed traveled to the Philippines and collaborated with the ASG in a failed plot to bomb twelve airplanes in the Bojinka Plot. Due to its interactions with prominent members of al-Qaeda, the Abu Sayyaf Group was well on the radar of the United States after the September 11 attacks. It was not, however, until two Americans, along with dozens of others, were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf Group in mid-2001, that the United States decided to work with the Philippine government to rescue the hostages.
The Abu Sayyaf Group used the hostage situation as Kydd and Walter’s strategy of provocation to involve the United States in its conflict. This method is effective for the ASG because they seek territorial change. The heavy response of the government to their actions will convince moderate citizens that their government needs to be replaced or that independence from the central government is the only acceptable outcome. In the case of the Abu Sayyaf Group, the latter is the primary goal. They want the United States to cooperate with the Philippines to inflict indiscriminate violence among the Filipino Muslims so as to radicalize moderates into the group and force the government to install an independent state.
In early 2002, the United States and the Philippines coordinated in Operation Balikatan to send 1300 U.S. troops and 3000 Philippine soldiers to neutralize the Abu Sayyaf Group and free the two American hostages and one Filipino hostage. The mission failed. One American hostage was rescued; the other two killed. Several hundred members of the Abu Sayyaf Group were killed but its leaders were unharmed. Not only did the mission itself fail, but the Abu Sayyaf Group afterward directed its efforts towards the United States military with a series of bombings, killing a U.S. Green Beret. While the U.S. itself was not the initial enemy of the Abu Sayyaf Group, their cooperation with the Philippine government gave the Abu Sayyaf Group the reaction they desired.
The United States using aggressive tactics caused resentment among both members of Abu Sayyaf and moderate Muslims who believed the U.S. may occupy their homeland permanently as had been the case prior to 1992. This aggressive action may have also had negative consequences in the United States’ counterterrorism efforts past the Abu Sayyaf Group targeting the U.S. military. By killing several hundred members of the group, moderate members were likely radicalized and pushed to join the Abu Sayyaf Group. As Ethan Bueno de Mesquita and Eric Dickson have found in their research, terrorist groups can increase political support by provoking governments to cause significant losses on a group of moderates or people who do not support the current regime, who then turn towards the terrorist group with support. This occurred after the United States’ intervention. In 2003, the ASG retaliated with two simultaneous bombings killing 48 and wounding 204 in total and in 2004 killed 116 in a bombing of the ferry SuperFerry 14.
The United States’ use of force against the Abu Sayyaf Group not only did not accomplish its mission of rescuing American hostages but worsened the terrorism situation in the Philippines as well. While the use of force is understandable against a group unwilling to negotiate with the Philippine government as the ASG is, the use of force must be within reason and must be followed by security measures to prevent attacks if leaders are not eliminated in military raids.
Another problem of using active policies like the military raids is that they fuel terrorist networks and lead to organizations cooperating with one another where groups can interact, obtain resources, and get training. Effective counterterrorism efforts seek to isolate terrorist organizations from the general population and dismantle networks between other terrorist groups. Neither of these were successfully done against the Abu Sayyaf Group. Instead of separating the group from the general population, the United States engaged in military efforts that radicalized moderates and brought more members into the group. Given that the ASG is the smallest of the three separatist groups, it should not have been difficult for the United States to develop a strategy that would allow for others not to be brought into the group. Using force was not the solution.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is not as radical in their beliefs as the Abu Sayyaf Group, and has even engaged with the Philippine government over the last twenty years. This opens the door for the United States to use more passive strategies in dealing with the MILF. The military action ordered by Estrada in 2000 caused major suffering and displacement of civilian populations. These events radicalized moderate members and established the group as the largest separatist group in the southern Philippines. When Gloria Arroyo assumed the presidency, she shifted counterterrorism policy from the active policies of Estrada to more passive policies seeking to negotiate with the group.
Also, three weeks after 9/11, the Philippine Congress passed the Anti-Money Laundering Act to locate and freeze terrorists financial assets. These actions demonstrate the Philippines’ pursuit of fighting terrorism through passive strategies.
The United States also decided to pursue a more passive strategy toward the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in an effort to discontinue the group’s links with Jemaah Islamiah. Instead of using military action, the United States threatened to take away funding and aid to the Moro communities unless the group cut its ties to Jemaah Islamiah.
This was not the first time threats had been made to the group, as the U.S. and EU had made similar threats for years. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front caved to the demands and cut its ties to Jemaah Islamiah and denounced the actions of the Abu Sayyaf Group, although there were supposedly still links between members of the group and the other terrorist organization after Salamat agreed to the United States’ terms.
All three terrorist groups in the southern Philippines are simultaneously engaging in outbidding strategies. Since the three groups all have almost identical goals of an independent state, each group uses violence to convince the public that the terrorists have greater resolve to fight the enemy than rival groups, and therefore are worthy of support. The MILF has the greatest advantage given they are the largest of the three separatist groups. They also have a history of a willingness to negotiate with the Philippine government. Together, these facilitate a passive counterterrorism strategy of deterrence.
Whereas the ASG has stated they are unwilling to negotiate with government and will only create their independent state through violence, the MILF is open to discussion. This also provides an opportunity for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to cooperate with the Philippine government. Since 2002, the group and the Philippine government have coordinated in working to bring down the Abu Sayyaf Group. Since the MILF is more moderate than the ASG, the government’s goal is to bring the group into the political sphere while promoting the isolation and disintegration of the remaining extremist faction, in this case the Abu Sayyaf Group. This reduces the number of enemies the regime has and brings in an ally in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front who, for their own interests, wants to eliminate the ASG.
The deterrence strategies used by the United States and the Philippines proved effective. In 2002, the MILF promised to help local authorities arrest about 100 suspected [operatives] of al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah. The counterterrorism strategies also brought the group back into the political sphere, reducing tensions and allowing for deliberation. Since 2010, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s leaders have frequently engaged in talks with the Philippine government. Legislation has been proposed to establish a Moro state with regional autonomy after the MILF discarded its demands for an independent state.
While minor conflicts have still arisen between the group and the government, they are infrequent and a formal agreement is likely to be passed in the near future which gives Muslims control over the Mindanao region. While the ASG and MNLF reject these agreements for different reasons, the nearing agreements show the progress being made by the Philippine government and the MILF in their efforts to reconcile differences.
The use of passive strategies of deterrence and conciliation demonstrate the pinnacle of an effective counterterrorism strategy. The United States and the Philippines dismantled the network between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and other terrorist organizations without having to resort to forceful measures that would radicalize moderates. While passive strategies do not always work as will be explained further below, when they are a viable option, the strategies can be more effective than active strategies. Active strategies tend to be short-sighted, especially when the group has the ability to expand or if strong security measures are not in place but can be useful as complementary parts to passive strategies.
Active counterterrorism strategies in Afghanistan:
Given that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front was willing to negotiate with the Phillipine government shows that there is a difference in methods between the MILF and other terrorist groups, particularly radical Islamic groups. The passive counterterrorism strategies may have only been effective against the MILF because they were willing to be accepted back into the political system. Their demands were reasonable, and the government was willing to sit down and concede various issues so long as the group cut its ties to other terrorist groups and moved away from violent acts. This is not the norm, however. As seen by U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, passive strategies do not work in all situations.
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