by Paul Pillar
International terrorism has evolved in significant ways even just in what could be called its modern era, over the past 45 years or so. Policies and practices in responding to it also have evolved during the same period. Useful lessons have been learned and applied. Enough time has gone by, however, and there have been enough discontinuities both in preferred terrorist methods and in official responses, that some of the lessons have been forgotten. This has been especially true in the United States, where much of the public appears to believe that the whole problem of international terrorism began on a September day 13 years ago.
In the 1960s, 1970s, and on into the 1980s, international terrorists—including Middle Easterners, as well as Western leftist radicals who were still active then—periodically seized headlines and public attention, in the United States as well as Europe. They most often did so by seizing hostages and threatening to kill or otherwise harm them if certain demands, often relating to release of previously captured terrorists, were not met. Sometimes the hostage-taking occurred on the ground, such as with the takeover of a meeting of OPEC leaders in Vienna in 1975. Sometimes it was accomplished by hijacking a commercial airliner along with its passengers and crew. Some of the hostage-taking incidents became extended dramas that played out over days. One that involved Americans, for example, was the hijacking by members of Lebanese Hezbollah of TWA Flight 847 in 1985. The hostages were held (and one of them killed) during three days in the plane while it crisscrossed the Mediterranean and then for another two weeks in Lebanon before they were released.
Groups that employed such tactics were using them as theater. Getting their demands, such as release of incarcerated comrades, met was surely a plus for them, but at least as important was the impact on larger audiences, in the sense either of intimidation or of getting attention for a cause. Brian Jenkins, one of America’s earliest genuine experts on terrorism, summed up this principle with the observation, “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”
After enough of these incidents, there arose a general awareness among officials and the media that anything that increased attention to these incidents and enhanced their dramatic appeal was, intentionally or not, serving the purposes of the terrorists. There was much soul-searching by the press about this. There was not really a school solution that was developed and adopted; even the most responsible news organization cannot completely self-censor coverage of what is still a genuine news event. But at least there was awareness and discussion of the interests at stake, and some effort to find ways to minimize the harm of giving free publicity to terrorists.
Further evolution of terrorist tactics over the next couple of decades saw a shift away from capturing people to threaten to kill them and toward operations that killed people straightaway. 9/11 was not the start of this trend but was the most spectacular and deadly example of it. Jenkins’s observation remained partly correct in that terrorists still wanted a lot of people watching, but killing a lot of people was the way of getting other people to watch. Countering terrorism (by the government) and covering it (by the press) became focused on bombs suddenly going off without warning. Awareness of the issues and interests involved in hostage situations atrophied.
Now the group sometimes known as ISIS represents a further turn in terrorist groups’ tactics. This is partly a matter of the use of armed force to capture and hold territory, but what has captured our collective attention at least as much is the serial drama of the group’s hostages being individually threatened with death, and some of those threats being carried out—a drama being served up in slick videotaped fashion to milk as much publicity as possible from it. We, the public, and the media have responded by being duly fascinated and horrified and by being stimulated by the drama to push our policymakers into deeper military engagement in the Middle East. Meanwhile the sort of soul-searching about hostage dramas that was evident three decades ago is hard to find today. The lessons about this sort of thing that were learned back then seem to have been forgotten.
This is one of the ways, though not the only one, in which we have been playing into the hands of ISIS. As with those hostage incidents back in the 1970s and 1980s, the demands terrorists make are not necessarily their main objectives. Although the threats by ISIS to kill more hostages are ostensibly intended to deter Western military action, it is at least as likely that they are intended, as in fact is happening, to stimulate such action—all the better for the group to pose as the chief defender of the Sunni Muslim umma against depredations of the U.S.-led West.
We also serve the group’s objectives every time we (including our government or the press) portray the group as ten feet tall and strong enough to warrant something akin to a declaration of war. A specific objective served is to increase the group’s allure in the eyes of would-be Western recruits. We even serve those objectives with the way we label the group, with much of the Western press using its preferred name of Islamic State even though we have no interest in suggesting that the group’s practices are consistent with Islam or that it is worthy of being recognized as a state. The press does not necessarily refer to other entities by their preferred but non-descriptive names (how many newspaper articles about North Korea do you see that identify it as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?); why should it do so with this one? At least the U.S. government has wisely been using instead the mundane acronym ISIL.
Just about everyone who expounds on what the United States ought to be doing these days in Syria and Iraq seems to be claiming to be an expert on terrorism. Before making that claim they ought to learn some of those lessons that had been learned 30 years ago.
Paul Pillar is on the faculty of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. Concluding a long career in the Central Intelligence Agency, he served as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission.