The Importance of Understanding the “How” Rather Than Just the “Why” of Terrorism

June 20, 2016

The events in Orlando have reignited public debate about the “why” of terrorism. Why are young people (east and west) drawn to the more violent tenets of Islam? Why do some of our fellow Americans, born and raised in the West, still feel like outsiders in their homeland? Why does the process of radicalization appear to be happening more quickly?

Understanding the “why’s” of terrorism is an important component of the global counter-terror effort; however, focusing on the “why’s” is akin to focusing on poverty to explain bank robberies. While it may be a contributing factor, it is not something that will be fixed in time to prevent the next robbery. Changing the fundamental aspects that contribute to creating terrorists is a Herculean effort that will require arguing against the teachings of radical clerics thousands of miles from our shores; controlling the spread of jihadist doctrine via the internet; and bringing about socio-economic changes in some parts of the world that will rival the Marshall Plan. All of these are worthwhile endeavors, but none will be accomplished in the near-term, if ever.

More attention needs to be paid to the “how” of terrorism rather than the “why’s.” How is a terror cell in Europe capable of repeated attacks in the same city, even after alert levels are raised to their highest levels? How is it that suicide bombers know exactly where to place their explosive devices? How do terror surveillance teams acquire volumes of intelligence against a wide variety of targets and are rarely, if ever, caught? How are we being successfully attacked even by “lone wolf” terrorists who have little to no training?

Our security experts have spent many years living and working in various conflict zones around the world. We have worked closely with local law enforcement and intelligence services in Muslim and non-Muslim countries, and still count many of our former contacts as friends and confidants in the war on terror. Because of this, we have a good understanding of both the “why” and “how” of terrorism. But it is our understanding of the “hows” that remains critically important to preventing future attacks. As we prepare for the long-term struggle that lays ahead, countering all forms of violent extremist ideology, the key to defeating this multifaceted threat will be understanding, recognizing and stopping the tactics commonly used by extremists to plan their attacks. This approach will also buy the time needed to understand and address the longer-term “why’s” of terrorism.

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