Even Terrorists May Be Persuadable

Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, one astonishing fact sticks out: there has not been another similar attack on American soil during all this time. If you recall those days in the aftermath of those horrific attacks, one common theme that came from national security officials was that another attack was a certainty.

As with any complex problem, there are multiple reasons for this so-far fortunate situation: the loss of a sovereign base with the invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban, the relentless pursuit and killing of thousands in the Al Qaeda network, including UBL himself last May, hypervigilance on the part of law enforcement, efforts to dry up their sources of financing, and of course, luck. I’m sure there have been other reasons that have not and may never come to light.

But a new book I am reading (Counterstrike: the Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker)  brings out one more element that may be surprising: deterrence. Older readers may remember this concept—it’s what prevented the US and the USSR from going directly to war with each other for almost half a century, in spite of antagonistic and irreconcilable differences and the two largest militaries in the world, facing each other across barbed wire and minefields in Europe and other points around the globe. Each adversary knew that there were lines that could not be crossed because the result could be catastrophic.

The common thinking has been that terrorists can’t be deterred. First, how do you threaten severe consequences to someone who thinks irrationally (at least by our standards) and is willing—even eager—to die for their cause? Second, terrorists hold no identifiable territory that can be attacked. If, for example, Al Qaeda managed to detonate a nuclear weapon in an American city, where would you strike? Would you bomb Pakistan? Saudi Arabia? In fact, that is exactly what the terrorists would want us to do.

Yet in the months and years after the 9/11 attacks, some of our finest minds went to work on just that question, which led to a presentation to President Bush in 2005 entitled, A Concept for Deterring and Dissuading Terrorist Networks. As Barry Pavel, one of the proponents of “new deterrence”, said: “…terrorists are human beings and they have various incentive structures and it is not likely they don’t value anything—they value something.”

If you want to deter someone, you have to threaten something they value, and careful examination of the terrorists’ methods of operations and their motives led them to list the following:

  • Calculus of chances for success of their attacks
  • Personal glory
  • Personal reputation
  • Support among Muslim populations
  • Publicity
  • Network cohesion and dependability
  • Trust in fellow cell members
  • Well-being of their family
  • Enhancement of the Muslim community
  • Material assets
  • Growing membership for the movement
  • Strategic success

Here are some ways the new mindset of deterrence can work: If a suicide bomber thinks he’ll only kill himself, he probably won’t do it. If terrorists know that imams will denounce the fact that their operations kill mostly Muslims, they may hold back. If they know that failure can make them look ridiculous (e.g. “Underwear Bomber”), they might become much more cautious. It’s also possible that back-channel messages to AQ leadership have made clear which lines must not be crossed. Even the story that broke last night about a possible threat to New York and Washington on this anniversary weekend may have been a deterrence move. (I pray that’s the case.)

Whether or not these efforts have made or will make a difference in the behavior of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, there is a key lesson in all of this: it’s all about Outside-In Thinking—if you want to influence the thinking and behavior of another person, start by understanding what makes them tick.[1] Persuasion is not about you—it’s about the other person. Understand what they want first, and then credibly show them how you can prevent or facilitate those goals, and you have a good chance of getting what you want.

[1] This is not a pacifist plea that implies that if people could just understand each other they would stop fighting. Quite the opposite: if understanding the minds of the terrorists helps to kill or capture them faster, I am all for it. If understanding them prevents incidents that could kill or maim thousands, I’m all for it. I’m also glad that the last thing that went through Osama bin Laden’s mind was a SEAL bullet.

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1 Comment
  • Top Notch as usual! I was wondering how you were going to weave all those great “ass kicking” successes into a business sales concept. Bravo!


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