Counter-Terror Lessons from America's Civil War

The essay below first appeared a year ago in The Asia Times, under the headline, "Why the terrorists are winning the intelligence war." There's a tried and true American approach to suppressing terrorism, and it worked quite well during Gen. Sherman's 1863 Kentucky campaign and Gen. Phil Sheridan's subsequent reduction of the Shenandoah Valley. We don't have to be particularly smart; we merely have to do some disgusting things. Sherman and Sheridan suppressed sniping at Union soldiers by Confederate civilians by burning the towns (just the towns, not the townsfolk) that sheltered them. In other words, they forced collective responsibility upon a hostile population, a doctrine that in peacetime is entirely repugnant, but that in wartime becomes unavoidable. By contrast, the peacetime procedure of turning petty criminals into police snitches has backfired terribly. No doubt we will learn that the perpetrators of tonight's horror at London Bridge were known to police, like the Manchester Arena suicide bomber and most of the perpetrators of large-scale terrorist acts in Europe during the past several years. (Update: "At Least One London Bridge Terrorist Was a 'Known Wolf'") The remedy is time-tested and straightforward. We merely require the will to apply it.

Why the terrorists are winning the intelligence war

Yet another criminal known to security services has perpetrated a mass killing, the Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel. Why did the French police allow a foreign national with a criminal record of violence to reside in France? Apart from utter incompetence, the explanation is that he was a snitch for the French authorities. Blackmailing Muslim criminals to inform on prospective terrorists is the principal activity of European counter-terrorism agencies, as I noted in 2015. Every Muslim in Europe knows this.

The terrorists, though, have succeeded in turning the police agents sent to spy on them and forcing them to commit suicide attacks to expiate their sins. This has become depressingly familiar; as Ryan Gallagher reported recently, perpetrators already known to the authorities committed ten of the highest-profile attacks between 2013 and 2015.

These attacks, in other words, are designed to impress the Muslim public as much as they are intended to horrify the western public. In so many words, the terrorists tell Muslims that western police agencies cannot protect them. If they cooperate with the police they will be found out and punished.  The West fears the power of Islam: it evinces such fear by praising Islam as a religion of peace, by squelching dissent in the name of fighting supposed Islamophobia, and by offering concessions and apologies to Muslims. Ordinary Muslims live in fear of the terror networks, which have infiltrated their communities and proven their ability to turn the efforts of western security services against them. They are less likely to inform on prospective terrorists and more likely to aid them by inaction.