This guest contribution comes from Timothy R. Homan, a journalist based in Washington, D.C.
Counterterrorism officials in the United States, and elsewhere, have failed to utilize two easily accessible tools in the war against terrorism, according a former FBI undercover agent who uses his personal experiences to support his recommendations in Thinking Like a Terrorist (Potomac Books, 2007).
Author Mike German’s prescription is simple: Examine publicly available texts published by terrorist groups and study effective techniques previously used by governments to combat terrorism.
So how should the United States and its allies deal with al Qaeda? Readers who are hoping to gain secret access to the mindset of Osama bin Laden and his operatives will be sorely disappointed. The book devotes a mere 10 pages, out of 200, to discuss the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Instead, neo-Nazi groups in the United States and the Irish Republican Army are discussed in great detail. In that respect, German sticks to what he knows best, and he tends not to overreach. It’s unfortunate, though, because German doesn’t apply yesterday’s lessons to today’s challenges, other than pointing out that the United States fulfilled al Qaeda’s wishes by bringing the war on terrorism to the Middle East.
In this very readable book, German’s greatest strength comes in describing his years working undercover for the FBI infiltrating neo-Nazi groups. His tales are riveting and put a human face on people known more for their appearance, as skinheads, than the complexity of their ideology. This 25-page section at the beginning of the book not only lends credibility to German’s later insights, it also reads like a primer on neo-Nazi activities in the United States, explaining how infighting and a lack of funding have rendered this fractured movement ineffective.
But from there the book takes a questionable turn as German asserts that all terrorists operate in the same way. He says terrorists “don’t behave differently just because they live in different parts of the world.” Readers in Israel would undoubtedly dispute this claim, especially when one considers the prevalence of suicide bombers in the Middle East compared with the United States. To hear German tell it, busting up al Qaeda should be no more challenging than dismantling the Ku Klux Klan or the IRA. But that’s easier said than done.
For one thing, the number of Arabic- or Urdu-speaking agents available to infiltrate al Qaeda is limited, to put in mildly, compared with white English speakers for undercover assignments in the United States or Northern Ireland.
But when it comes to the meat of the book – how terrorists think, and what they think about – German excels. He describes how terrorists hate being referred to as mere criminals. They prefer to be known as political prisoners, if apprehended, and the martyr status that comes with it.
Perhaps the most common characteristic among terrorists is having an us-versus-them mentality. It justifies all actions, no matter how violent. And these justifications come in the form of articulate and charismatic speakers, as well as prolific writers, aiming to foment fear and attract new members.
Recognizing that there are always two sides to terrorism – terrorists and their targets – a significant portion of the book analyzes the actions of governments and discusses how they can sometimes act as the ultimate recruiting tool for terrorists, from investigations to prosecutions to torture. (References to abuses in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib are conspicuously absent in this portion of the book, though he later criticizes the detention of enemy combatants.)
German takes an even-handed approach in describing the views of terrorist groups by letting them speak for themselves. He uses excerpts from communiques and manifestos rather than relying on experts to give summarized interpretations. Many readers are likely to be exposed to these unedited texts for the first time.
But in citing these texts, German often disparages modern-day terrorist groups for cribbing their mission statements from previous terrorist organizations. At times, the same could be said of German’s book. Besides his personal experiences with law enforcement, German uses the work of historians, and even philosophers, to buttress his arguments.
German eventually tries his hand at original analysis by introducing what he terms the Government Accountability Scale after writing, “First we need to find a way to evaluate the relative legitimacy of different governments using objective criteria.”c A noble goal, to be sure, but such evaluations usually require more than the four pages allotted by German.
The scale is meant to measure the extent to which a government is either repressive or free and open, as a way to determine the legitimacy of terrorist activities. The only problem is that there are only two data points on German’s scale: fascism and democracy. Governments are either like Italy under Mussolini or the United States since its inception.
This analytical tool contributes little to the existing body of knowledge about the relationship between states and terrorists. And for a book that doesn’t hesitate to lapse into government speak with acronyms like COINTELPRO, short for the FBI’s Counter-intelligence Program, the Government Accountability Scale receives no such shorthand. Perhaps that’s because referring to “the GAS” would detract from the issue at hand.
German often takes a historical approach in laying the groundwork for his analyses. In doing so, he poses several thought-provoking, what-if scenarios to highlight terrorism’s evolution, and how perception plays a determining role.
For example, should Polish Jews who attacked Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto be considered terrorists or members of the resistance? And what if Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was targeting child molesters? Would his actions be more acceptable?
Overall, the book offers overwhelming praise for the infallibility of the U.S. legal system in its usefulness in fighting terrorism. But German has harsh words for American officials conducting this war, and he offers the moral of this story with the book’s parting words: “We can’t survive as a nation committed to the rule of law if we divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We know what that kind of thinking is. That’s thinking like a terrorist.”