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Nowadays, when hordes of counterterrorism pundits are falling all over each other in their eagerness to push forth Amygdala-controlled agendas, designed to satisfy a spectrum of needs, from pure revenge to trying to bring some semblance of control to what appears like a frontal assault on normalcy in the heart of Western Europe, maybe it’s time to revisit an old, tested and useful (though admittedly less exciting) antidote to terrorism – resilience.

Great Britain’s legendary WWII leader Winston Churchill provides one of the greatest demonstrations of how resilience manifests itself at many levels. At the political and national level, Churchill’s career suffered many pitfalls and drawbacks. He was demoted, reviled and disliked. Yet, when the time came, he rose from the ashes of his career and took the helm of his country at the most crucial moment, steering England to victory through its most trying hours.

At the physical and emotional level, Churchill demonstrated an ability to overcome depression (which he called “black dog”), heart disease (two mild heart attacks), and other ailments (pneumonia) to personally lead the planning and execution of England’s campaign against Hitler. Churchill’s rhetoric shaped the view and conduct of Great Britain’s famously resilient stand during WWII, particularly during the German’s “Blitz” aerial assault on London and other urban centers.

Despite the apparent focus on heroes, it is actually the general public who is the most crucial element in the effort to produce a resilient society, to counter both human and nature-made disasters. People at all levels of society are instrumental, not only in resisting intimidation or minimizing the consequences of a terrorist threat or a natural disaster, but also in rising as one united community, nation, people, and government together to face the calamity, to persevere, outlive, and thrive in their aftermath.

What do Terrorists Want?

There are many definitions of terrorism. One reasonable definition is: the calculated use of unlawful violence (or the threat of unlawful violence) against civilians to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature, achieved through intimidation, coercion or instilling fear. The terrorist’s dream is an intimidated and cowed individual and society, gripped by fear, insecurity, uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety.

At the individual level, terrorists focus on inducing fear, insecurity, and anxiety because these emotions inhibit an individual’s or a group’s ability to evaluate and deal with threats and/or risk. Unabated, these emotions erode trust, disrupt routine patterns of work and recreation, weaken economic activity, and infect others.

On a broader scale, the psychological goals of terrorism are to erode a sense of national security and purpose, disrupt the continuity of society, and destroy social capital (morale, cohesion, shared values). If successful, the terrorist hopes to open or widen the fault lines that exist in any society, and to exploit and expand these potential cracks (e.g., racial/ethnic, economic, religious).

Terrorism has been practiced by political organizations with both rightist and leftist objectives, by nationalistic and religious groups, by revolutionaries, and even by state institutions such as armies, intelligence services, and police. There are several types of terrorism:

  • Single Attack, such as the Oklahoma City bombing or the Columbine High School shooting
  • Continuous/Repeated, like the DC Sniper attacks
  • Multi-site Attack, like 9/11)
  • Multi-site Continuous/Repeated Attacks, such as the Anthrax attacks or incendiary device attacks

(Note: For the purpose of this piece, acts such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the Columbine shooting are considered terror attacks. The author recognizes the lack of a uniform perspective in this regard.)

Terrorism offers nations a major challenge of “reversed asymmetry.” Despite being small and limited in resources, compared to most nation-state adversaries, terrorists usually have a large number of targets to choose from, out of which they have to choose only one or a few each time. Defenders, on the other hand, despite having more resources, must constantly defend a very large number of potential targets. Since it is impossible to defend all targets all the time, defenders must prioritize and select a limited number of targets to defend, essentially leaving the rest of the potential targets exposed. An alert and adaptive adversary will be able to take advantage of such vulnerabilities.

There is almost no limit to the “menu” of offensive options that terrorist can choose and pick from. For example:

  • Urban terrorism: This is the current “favorite” option for Daesh (aka ISIS) and similar organizations (e.g., Boko Haram). It involves attacking people and infrastructure (soft-targets) in cities, a tactic designed to achieve maximum impact and exposure.
  • Bio-terrorism: Attacks involving the intentional release or dissemination of biological agents (bacteria, viruses or toxins) that may be in a naturally occurring or in a human-modified form.
  • Agro-terrorism: The use of negative or even violent tactics to disrupt agriculture or human food supplies in some artificial fashion.
  • Cyber-terrorism: The unlawful attack or threat of attack against computer networks and the information stored in them, with the intent to intimidate or coerce.
  • Nuclear-terrorism: The use or threatened use of nuclear devices or radioactive material as a weapon of terror.
  • Eco-terrorism: The use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally oriented group.
  • Narco-terrorism: The activities of known terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and AUC (United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia), funded through the traffic and trade of narcotic drugs.

There is no comprehensive, iron-clad, defense against all these threats. Rather than play whack a mole against attacks, a proactive defensive shield of preparedness, involving an engaged and informed population, institutions, and government, needs to be employed.

This, is where resilience comes in.

Creating a Culture of Preparedness

Achieving resiliency requires the recognition that it will not occur on its own. It needs to be fostered, learned, practiced and made an integral part of our overall counterterrorism strategy. Such preparedness ought to take place at the individual, group, economic and cultural levels.

At the individual and community levels, for example, the path to resiliency starts with the understanding that emergencies happen; preparing yourself and your family will make it easier to recover from the impacts of an emergency. Being aware of the risks you might face, and who in your community might need your help, could make your community better prepared to cope with an emergency. Local emergency responders will always have to prioritize those in greatest need during an emergency, especially where life is in danger. During these times, you need to know how to help yourself and those around you. The process of acquiring this knowledge and these capabilities is the process through which we achieve resilience.

Ensuring resilience is vital to our personal, communal, physical, psychological and economic security. Achieving resilience requires working with the private sector and government partners at all levels to develop an effective, holistic, resiliency plan that centers on personal and communal familiarity, accountability, and responsibility, and on investments in education business, technology, civil society, and government.

In a nutshell, a proper resilience strategy should strive to achieve the following:

  1. Inform and educate the public, teaching them to recognize threats and act appropriately.
  2. Present a homogeneous government strategy that provides the framework for all levels of government (federal, state, local, tribal, etc.) to act synergistically and in unison to recognize indications and warnings, prevent or minimize adversarial actions, implement an information-sharing process that balances protection of sources, need to know and other security concerns with the public’s need to know.
  3. Mobilize the private sector, leveraging it into a true partner of constituencies and government in the effort to counter terrorism.

These are the steps we should implement to carry out a strategy of resilience:

  • Anticipation – It is essential to conduct ongoing risk identification and analysis to anticipate and be able to manage direct, indirect and interdependent causes and consequences of threats and risks (identifying and assessing vulnerabilities and risks).
  • Preparedness – Individuals and organizations alike must recognize that they have a crucial role to play in detecting, mitigating, and recovering from threats and attacks (identifying and assessing capabilities).
  • Coordination – Decisions should be taken at the lowest appropriate level, but co-ordination should extend to the highest necessary level. Local agencies are the building blocks of the resilience required to ensure response to and recovery from an emergency of any scale.
  • Direction – Logical and achievable strategic goals create a much-needed clarity of purpose and supporting objectives, helping to achieve agreement, understanding and sustained support by all involved.
  • Prioritization – This is an essential tool, ensuring focus and proper preparedness, response and recovery (implement and inculcate coherent plan).
  • Information – The gathering, flow and distribution of information is critical to creating resilience and to ensuring that it expresses itself in times of emergency. This, of course, requires the deployment and proper use of appropriate information management systems. These systems need to support single and multi-agency decision making and the external provision of information that will allow members of the public to make informed decisions to ensure their safety.
  • Integration – Effective coordination and cooperation between and within organizations at all levels produces a coherent, focused, and effective effort.
  • Continuity – Response and recovery are predicated on all of the above elements being familiar to and grounded in the existing functions of individuals and organizations. (Establish a continuity management program and tools).
  • Testing – Ensuring that resilience actually exists requires constant testing and probing of the participants, the plan, the tools, and the procedures.

Why do we Need Resiliency in Counterterrorism?

Counterterrorism is first and foremost a risk and threat management proposition. We cannot prevent every attack or thwart every plot. But we can control our reaction. Managing risk is preceded by the ability to identify the risk, assess it, communicate and educate the public at large about it, and about managing, mitigating, and surviving it. Risk communication and education can be one of the most effective weapons used to promote and sustain a culture of resilience.

When we think about our response to disasters, we ought to pay attention to the following facts:

  • Most search and rescue is done by bystanders (50%)
  • Most casualties are not transported by ambulance (instead by cars, taxi, walking, and law enforcement)
  • The least serious casualties arrive first at the closest hospital
  • Some 80% to 95% of casualties are not admitted to the hospital, and most need treatment for non-traumatic injury

If there is one immediate conclusion that jumps out of these facts, it is that for any response to a disaster to be meaningful, the public, as well as public and private organizations (along with their resources at the most local levels) must be aware of the threats, trained for and capable of responding to them.

Since the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the Madrid railway bombings, and London underground and bus suicide attacks, and many other attacks and attempted attacks, the myth of terrorist invulnerability has been torn apart. People around the world have largely internalized the fact that terrorism is not only a “media experience” (e.g., something you watch on television) but a real possibility, something that might occur in their midst, any time, any place.

Resilience counters fear, anxiety and disruptive behavior. It directly counters the terrorists’ aim. There is no better response to terror than thwarting the terrorists, and their aims, and proving to them that their tactics will not achieve their goals. On a practical level, resiliency enables individuals, businesses, economies and cultures to minimize the physical and psychological disruption of terrorism and regain normal operation in the shortest possible time. Managing the perception of threat is, therefore, as important as managing the threat itself.

Bad things happen to good people; that’s unavoidable. What is unnecessary, at least in part, is agony and suffering caused by surprise (systemic and psychological), lack of preparedness, collapse of services and the loss of ability to respond, and the long time it takes for people and services to resume and function.

This is why a central part of the antidote to terrorism and its various threats is resilience.

Dr. Doron Pely, an expert on Muslim/Arab conflict management, is the Executive Director of the Sulha Research Center (www.sulha.org). He is also an Associate with the Homegrown Violent Extremism (HVE) Studies Program at the University of Southern California (USC) and a Director of Special Projects at TAL Global Inc., in San Jose, CA. Dr. Pely is the author of Muslim/Arab Mediation and Conflict Resolution: Understanding Sulha (Routledge: London, 2016). Read More