Brian Michael Jenkins is one of the world’s leading authorities on international terrorism, currently serving as senior advisor to the president of the think tank RAND Corp. He recently published Unconquerable Nation: Knowing our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves, and Security Management. Assistant Editor Joseph Straw talked with him about the book, terrorism generally, and private security’s role.
Brian Michael Jenkins began a lifelong study of terrorism in 1972 after the attacks at the Munich Olympic Games, and he has become one of the world’s leading authorities on the topic, currently serving as senior advisor to the president of the think tank RAND Corp. He recently published Unconquerable Nation: Knowing our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves, and Security Management Assistant Editor Joseph Straw talked with him about the book, terrorism generally, and private security’s role. (His remarks have been edited.)
SM: You take exception to the term “global war on terror.” What would you call it and why?
Jenkins: The problem is a conceptual one. The Global War on Terror brings too many things together. It is concurrently a campaign against al Qaeda and the jihadists who are responsible for 9-11 and have carried out a number of terrorist attacks worldwide since 9-11; it is combating an insurgency in Afghanistan; it is combating an insurgency in Iraq that wasn’t originally part of the Global War on Terror.
It is also a continuation of an effort that has been going on for decades to combat terrorism, and here we’re not talking about terrorist organizations—specific groups—but we’re talking about combating the use of terrorist tactics as a mode of armed conflict.
And, to a degree, we have conflated our concerns about nuclear proliferation with concerns about terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction, especially the possibility that they could acquire nuclear weapons. Therefore, in this sweeping use of the phrase, we include our concerns about nuclear proliferation.
All of those are important challenges to our national security. They all are intertwined to a certain degree. But to try to address them within a single framework, I think, is inappropriate. And in some cases, we’re going to have to disaggregate these various conflicts and develop strategies that will deal with them individually.
SM: You say that we have spent the last five years “scaring ourselves to death” and that instead we should be realistic about risk. The threat does seem fairly dire; and as they say, we have to be right every time and the terrorists only have to get it right once. How would you characterize the threat we face?
Jenkins: There’s no question the terrorist threat is real, and our operative presumption has to be that there will be, or could be, another terrorist attack. Americans have to realize, however, that even the heightened probability of a major terrorist attack does not automatically translate into a significant level of risk for every individual.
I like to point out that the average American has about a 1 in 8,000 chance of dying in an automobile accident; about a 1 in 18,000 chance of being a victim of an ordinary homicide. If we take our actuarial chart from 9-11 to today, then the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack are less than 1 in 500,000. So the measures we are taking as a nation to ensure our security, we must do, because of the enormous impact of these events. But it doesn’t mean that we as individuals ought to live in fear.
SM: You note that in the Cold War we spent a lot of intelligence resources trying to get to know our enemy, whereas we tend to dismiss the jihadists as mad dogs and evildoers, no further inquiry needed. This, you argue, has prevented us from understanding our enemy. What should we do instead?
Jenkins: We must begin by actually looking at what they say about themselves. They flood the Internet and the airwaves with their speeches, with discussions of their strategy, with discussions about tactics. We should be familiar with this because this tells us a great deal about why they think they’re fighting; the messages that they use to radicalize and recruit young men and persuade them to turn themselves into weapons; how they plan to go about pursuing this struggle.
I’m fond of quoting the movie Patton. After a triumph over the German forces, George C. Scott, playing the role of Patton says, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard. I read your book.” And in a sense that’s a good place to begin. These people are out to get us. They write volumes. They write books, and we should read them.
SM: You call for “political warfare” against the violent jihadist movement. Can you explain? Are any such efforts being undertaken by the U.S. government? If not, are you aware of any interest in doing so?
Jenkins: Well, political warfare is a broad concept, and von Clausewitz said, “Warfare is an extension of politics by other means.” Well, political warfare is an extension of warfare by other means; by means other than the application of military force. I think that it includes psychological operations; it includes public diplomacy.
We have understandably focused our efforts on pounding away at the operational capabilities of the jihadists. But what we really have to do is understand that the jihadist cycle does not begin with terrorist operations. The planning and carrying out of each of those operations is only the point at which this cycle breaks the surface.
Before that, there is this radicalization process, recruiting, indoctrination; what we might even call “jihadization,” that is, turning the anger of young men—whether they are angry at their situation in Cairo or Karachi or in some campus in Europe—turning that anger into a weapon. We have to broaden our strategy to focus on that front end: How can we blunt that message? How can we impede that recruiting process?
We also have to think about our strategy at the back end. And that is, when these individuals come into our custody, we have to explore how we might at least turn some of these people around, how we can exploit some of their disillusion and change of heart to again help us address this on the front end.
Now, how receptive is Washington to this? Theoretically we can find many people who are. But there is no institutional champion of political warfare. Public diplomacy is done by the State Department. But the State Department doesn’t have the equivalent of the United States Information Service that it had during the Cold War.
The psychological operations certainly are conducted by the Pentagon but only as an adjunct to military operations. We don’t have a place in Washington where we can try to bring together the various elements of a political warfare campaign.
SM: In your book you urge establishment of a universal homeland security volunteer apparatus. Can you explain the concept and its value? What would it take to create? How would it be funded?
Jenkins: I would be careful about the use of the word “apparatus.” I think it is very important for us to educate people, to enlist them in homeland security, to exploit America’s tradition of volunteerism, so that people will, at the very least, become savvier about security issues.
I’m not talking about creating street-corner posses to go out and hunt terrorists. But we certainly want people to know what they would do in a terrorist-created disaster, as well as in a natural disaster, to take care of themselves, their families, their neighbors, in that order. It’s not easy to educate 300 million people, but that has to be our goal.
Having said that, we need not create a national structure. This is something that is best done at the community level. What I really want to see is homeland security get out to the homeland.
If people know what to do, even if they are not called upon to do that, the mere fact that they have been educated—not alarmed—and enlisted in some fashion, becomes an important psychological achievement.
SM: You cite the potential contribution of the private security industry in such an undertaking. What specifically could the private security industry do?
Jenkins: Private security is a component of our homeland security, and it has to be recognized as such. It is in the interest of the entire community—the entire nation—that those people who are already in private security receive the education, the additional training, and perhaps ways that they can even be mobilized in a disaster, whether it’s a man-made, terrorist, or natural disaster.
Much of our vital infrastructure in the United States is privately owned, but the government can set standards for different components of our infrastructure to make sure that there are performance standards and training standards.
We can also, I think, create close relationships between the private sector, local police departments, and private security to ensure that there are mechanisms to share information that may be picked up as easily by a private security guard as by a policeman or member of a joint terrorism task force.
This is being done in some cities. They’ve actually made an effort to do this with Project Griffin in London, where companies providing private security network with the police to regularly share information and set up protocols so they can be informed and can rapidly respond to a large-scale event.
SM: You express deep concern about alleged human rights abuses by the U.S. government since 9-11. The administration contends that its broad use of the authority to interrogate or track suspected terrorists is one reason there has not been an attack in the United States since 9-11. What is your response to the argument that some civil rights must be sacrificed for the sake of security?
Jenkins: First of all, whatever we do must be consistent with American values. That does not mean that we cannot alter the rules to facilitate the collection of intelligence, broaden police powers, perhaps even to change trial procedures. But there must be rules, and there must be oversight. We must protect these values we have. And when I say “fundamental” values, I’m talking about our belief in liberty, our respect for fundamental human rights, our sense of fair play. These values are not luxuries that we toss overboard when the ship of state hits stormy waters. And they’re not constraints. These define us.
We’re in a very long contest, and it is those values which in fact will sustain us. When it comes to how we’re going to deal with people in custody, we have to keep that in mind. This is not simply because of legality, perhaps it’s not even because of morality. It’s a strategic imperative. To get into the business of torture is to take enormous strategic risks for what are likely relatively modest gains in intelligence.
People say, “Well, of course we’re going to do what we have to do; torture works.” Actually, we have no evidence it does. And so I would say that torture firmly remains a crime.
Inevitably, someone comes up with the exquisitely crafted scenario in which we have a terrorist in custody who knows where the nuclear device is that’s going to go off in 30 minutes. First of all, that’s a fictional scenario. It belongs on 24. That’s Jack Bauer stuff. That’s not real life.
But let’s say it’s conceivable that it might occur. If an individual is so absolutely convinced that he must break the law and commit a terrible crime in order to get that information, then let that person do so with the knowledge that he is committing a crime and that he will be held accountable even if he saved life as a consequence.
What is important here is maintaining our values. And having said that, I’m not naïve. I’m a former soldier. I’m not squeamish about the use of force. It’s not that kind of an argument. For me, it’s a strategic imperative that we maintain these values, and, moreover, I think we can; I’m convinced we can win, and we can win right.
SM: What are your thoughts about how the Department of Homeland Security reacts to new threats?
Jenkins: Well, when we look at the recent example of fluids on airlines—once there was a clear indication that there were terrorists who may be attempting to smuggle liquid explosives on board airliners, then certainly we were obliged to take that into account in our security measures. And yes, it created great inconvenience. But had the measures not been taken, and heaven forbid an airplane in flight had been sabotaged, the government would be crucified. People would say, “My God, you knew this. You had intelligence, and you failed to take appropriate measures.”
Now, in the longer run, we may decide that with something like 10,000 flights a day, that we can afford to accept the risks. That’s a decision we make as a society. But I think in that particular case, it was appropriate to do it. It’s important there that people understand, and be helped to understand, why we do something.
And, in general, we have to educate people and have security-savvy citizens. There are certain aspects of security that are helpful if some people have an understanding. A concrete example of this process is selective searches. Because of threats or high-threat environments, some communities have imposed selective searches on individuals getting on subways or trains.
Why selective searches? Well, we obviously cannot have 100 percent passenger screening. That simply would not be possible. Does it make sense to look at some? Well, it makes sense to look at some. How should we select them? On a mathematically random basis? That’s one approach, but not always particularly useful.
On the basis of their observed behavior? Clothing? Appearance? Yes. We are training people to understand this process better and to use appearance, behavior, and clothing as indicators, that’s another possibility.
We’re not going to do it on the basis of racial profiling. It wouldn’t be particularly useful. It wouldn’t be good security.
People say that if you don’t search everybody, and if the search is voluntary, people can just go away and go to another station, so what use is it? Well, it still has utility. It does have a deterrent value because it’s unpredictable.
It does complicate the planning of the adversary. It may lengthen the time of their reconnaissance, which increases the opportunity to identify them and discover the plot. It complicates their operations. They may be planning on going to one area and may decide to move at the last minute because of selective screening. Once you set the timer on the bomb, you probably don’t want to do that.
Is it absolute prevention? No. That’s where we have to educate people. We have to get people away from thinking about absolute prevention. Very few security systems can achieve that.