A Different Strategy to Combat Terrorism

The attacks in Lebanon, Paris, and California were tragic. They were tragic because many innocent people were slain. They were also tragic because they are being used to remove the very freedoms that the terrorists intended to attack.

It’s disturbing to see all of the reactions from politicians around the world. Some are proposing allowing arrests without warrants. Others want to close mosques that are ‘too radical’. In our own country, governors have reacted by promising to not allow any Syrian refugees into their states, the House has passed a bill to further scrutinize refugees, and our own loud mouth of the year, Donald Trump has decided we should be keeping a database of all the Muslims and mosques in America.

The scariest part of the above reactions is that these politicians actually believe they might prevent terrorism. The reactions from around the world show that we still don’t understand the enemy. Terrorist groups, like ISIS or Al Qaeda, are at their core ideologies. They’re not nations or even a particular group of people. If you kill one or all, you haven’t ‘won’ or defeated the enemy. In most cases, you end up creating more. A good analogy is fighting the Hydra from Greek mythology. When you cut off one head, two more grow in its place.

You would think that most countries at this point would see that this is what’s happening. The problem is that for almost all of human history the world’s nations have been fighting a different kind of enemy. These enemies were clearly identified by soldiers’ uniforms and well defined territory.

This time the enemy is different, yet we use the same strategies as in the past. It’s like if a basketball coach was put in charge of a football team and still played 5 players at a time. The coach is using the same strategies she always has but doesn’t realize that the game has changed entirely.

So what kind of strategy do you use when your enemy is an ideology?

Often when trying to answer a difficult question like this one, the best way to think about the problem is by flipping it on its head. Instead of thinking how you would get rid of the problem, try thinking about it in the reverse. How would you create the problem? If you figure out how you might create the problem, you’ve figured out what you need to eliminate[1]. And that’s your strategy.

Alright, let’s try it. Instead of thinking how the US can get rid of terrorists, let’s flip it on its head and ask: how might the U.S. make a person become a terrorist?

The first thing you would want to do is to make the person feel like an outsider. Make them feel unwelcomed, unwanted, and unimportant. Another thing you would want to do in order to get them to hate you would be to make them feel unequal, give them less opportunities, and make sure they have nothing better to do with their time. And finally to top it off, you would want to make sure they have easy access to weapons that can quickly kill many people at once.

Is this starting to sound familiar? They’re the exact same things terrorist groups around the world are tapping into to get new recruits. They’re also the same methods being proposed by politicians. The aggressive reactions globally are doubly problematic. First, they don’t work. And second, they are doing exactly what their enemy wants them to do. The very people who want to protect us, are driving people right into the arms of terrorist groups.

Here’s what a top ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said about the goal of their attacks: “Compel the crusaders to actively destroy the gray zone themselves. Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one and two choices. Either apostatize or emigrate to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution.”

We can’t keep playing into their hands. It needs to stop.

Now that we know what creates a terrorist, we know what we need to remove. If terrorists are made from people who feel like outsiders and feel unwelcomed then if we wanted to prevent more terrorists, we should be doing the exact opposite. We should make all people feel accepted. We should be opening up our borders even more and showing that America is a place for all. We should not be tightening our borders and essentially declaring martial law against a particular group of people. Not only does having more open borders improve national security, it also helps us economically.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that terrorists take advantage of impoverished areas with high inequality. When you have little yet see many others in the world who have a lot, you become jealous and angry. That’s why we should be spending more time and money on aid, not bombs. How can a place that is under constant bombardment create a strong economy. It can’t.

Also by opening our borders more, we can give more people throughout the world the promise of the American dream. Let them come here and try to help themselves. They’ll be able to not only help themselves but help our economy as well. After all, the iPhone you are probably reading this article on was made by a company that was started by the son of a Syrian immigrant.

But having an open border policy isn’t an excuse to restrict freedoms within our own borders. How are we any better than the enemy if we remove the individual freedoms of our own people? Making arrests without warrants, citing previous internment of U.S. citizens as a model, and introducing stricter surveillance measures will only increase the problem.

Finally, it’s no secret that many of the weapons and ammunition used by terrorist groups around the world can be traced back to our country. We have a tendency to arm rebel groups in other countries where once they gain power, end up using those same weapons against us. And the very politicians in the US calling for adding more people to a terror watch list still don’t want to pass stricter gun laws despite over 2,000 of them being able to purchase guns legally in the US.

Maybe you think this is a naïve strategy. That there are bad people in the world who will not quit until they are dead and the only way to stop them is through the use of force. It’s true that force is needed to prevent the here and now attack. And it’s true that in a destabilized region, it’s hard to just tell people to go live productive lives if they fear being captured and decapitated on their way to the market. But it’s also true that this is a band aid strategy. If you’ve cut your hand, a band aid can help heal your skin but in the long run it’d be better to stop grabbing the knife by its blade. We need more long-term thinking.

Just remember that the US didn’t defeat the USSR by dropping atomic bombs all over Russia. Instead, the US had a better ideology, making the collapse of the USSR inevitable. Let’s use the same strategy against terrorism.

[1] This method of thinking is called inversion. It comes from algebra but has been popularized by Berkshire Hathaway Vice President, Charlie Munger.