Ballen: Terrorism Can’t be Taken out and Shot

Ken Ballen, author of Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals, writes in a guest column for Informed Comment :

The policy of targeted assassinations and drone strikes as the cornerstone of an evolving U.S. counterterrorism policy carries some short-term tactical benefits but little in the way of lasting strategic success. Rather, the recent deaths of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki from an American drone strike and Osama bin Laden from a raid deep inside Pakistan should instead remind us a fundamental fact: the Muslim world is engaged in a broader war of ideas. While the U.S. may have individual victories, if we reduce the thrust of American policy to targeted assassinations, we could well end up stoking the radical flame we are trying to extinguish.

The name of al-Awlaki’s radical Al Qaeda magazine was the source of his power: “Inspire.” And al-Awlaki’s ability to inspire came from waging a holy war for God—where individuals do not matter, only service to the greater cause does. He is now a martyr for that cause.

Over the course of six years, as a former federal prosecutor and investigator, I have interviewed at great length more than a hundred radical Islamic extremists and terrorists. One common theme emerged: they were fighting for their vision of the Islamic faith, where death is simply a means, human dignity a foreign concept, and Heaven the reward. As one Taliban fighter told me: “If I live, I fight against the American infidels for God; if I die I go to Heaven.”

Nearly all the extremists I interviewed were young men between the ages of 18 and 30, with a deep desire to be good Muslims, and highly impressionable to the teachings of al-Awaki and others. But they do not depend on those men.

The ideas of fighting in a holy war for God and their fellow Muslims inspired the Jihadists I interviewed. Not bin Laden or al-Awaki. In fact, of the more than one hundred Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters I interviewed over the course of almost six years, not a single one cited bin Laden as his inspiration to fight.

Other religious Muslims and scholars must counter the ideas of jihad. Indeed, I chronicled many Jihadists leaving the path of violence when exposed to the corruption of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and to a different interpretation of Islam. In Iraq, I have documented how Al Qaeda routinely lied and manipulated vulnerable young men into becoming suicide bombers. Indeed, our greatest weapon against bin Laden would have been to continually re-broadcast the impromptu taping of December 2001 where bin Laden laughed when recounting that some of so-called “muscle hijackers” from Asir in the south of Saudi Arabia never were told they had embarked on a suicide mission until the very end. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, I also interviewed many young Taliban fighters who became disillusioned by the theft of oil and other commodities by Taliban leaders, in alliance with the Pakistani Army and its intelligence agency. Al-Awlaki’s three arrests for the solicitation of prostitutes in San Diego and the Washington, D.C., area would have accomplished more to discredit him than a drone strike.

The role of the United States must be to take a back seat to the wider religious, cultural and political debate occurring throughout the Muslim world. We cannot afford to continually place the U.S. front and center by reducing this struggle to the assassinations of individuals. Our ultimate danger lies not in these men, but their message of extremism. Our ultimate hope lies in the courageous Muslims who have led the path away from the hatred of the radicals. By a policy that emphasizes killing alone, in the end, we may simply harden the resolve of the most recalcitrant.

Ken Ballen is the author of
Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals

(Free Press) (Oct 2011).

Posted in al-Qaeda | 22 Responses | Print |

22 Responses

  1. Like so many other aspects of life, the whole purpose of the current strategy is to “solve the symptoms” … that way the problem never really ends and they are able to keep justifying funding their programs.

  2. Yes. I like where your thinking is going. How about we continue by thinking about why younger people would replace their sense of self with the cause?

    Have they lost their original source of peer and community influence and community values? Why are they so vulnerable to following different ideas as they seek personal purpose, importance and power?

    What has been destroyed so that their minds follow radical and destructive leaders?

    Thanks–Bob Spencer

  3. The US seems to think it can deal with the entire Muslim world in the same fashion Israel deals with the Palestinians, that being a jack boot to the neck.

    I don’t know how much it would soften the heart of the Taliban or al Qaeda if the US would stop being a sponsor of brutality in the Gaza, but let’s use Cheney’s One Percent Doctine…which is… “Even if there’s just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty.” Using his own doctrine, even if there was only a one percent chance of success or the “Unimaginable” happening (Peace) then we should persue it. Right Mr. Cheney?

  4. This article highlights the incompetence of the US effort to deal with “terrorism.” Among other things it assumes that the American Empire sees the world is the way the world really is.

    Our policy of assignation of “leaders” is right in line with our cult of leadership. I just did a search in Google for the term leadership and got 451 million hits. Leaders are exhaled to justify how the top 1% who runs the government is doing the right thing. We assume that good things are caused by “leaders” so they must be well paid if they are successful leaders and bad things are caused by bad leaders and their “followers” will stop if the leader is eliminated.

    There is more in the world than simple minded leadership worship. We are practicing Ignorance and arrogance of “the other”, as was seen in the Roman Empire, (“Are We Rome: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America” by Cullen Murphy, 2007, well written book.) About the only thing that we are not doing like the Romans is crucifixion and beheading.

    Assignation and torture are now official government policy and the CIA destruction of terror tapes is not only further proof that the rule of law is dead but a cover up of incompetence of the security state.

    On the legal significance of throwing out the case against the CIA see Glenn Greenwald’s article:

    link to

  5. I believe that instead of targeted killing which results in a lot of collateral damage and could push more people towards extremism, the United States should try some PR that shows Americans like they really are, ordinary people. The united states should try to become synonymous to justice, fairness, tolerance and helping our fellow man. This would reduce the pool of young people terrorist organization have at their disposal.

  6. Mr. Ballen is correct that The role of the United States must be to take a back seat to the wider religious, cultural and political debate occurring throughout the Muslim world. That debate must be settled by Muslims themselves. But I think he has created a straw-man here, as the United States has not injected itself “front and center” in that debate among Muslims.

    I would argue that the Muslim World taking the lead in that debate and the United States’ targeting of the leadership of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), are neither incompatible nor mutually exclusive endeavors. They, in fact, are complementary. As to the charge that targeted killings of the leadership are short-term, tactical successes, I can only suggest that every long-term strategic success in history that I can think of was built, in part, on short-term, tactical gains. This is not breaking news in terms of doctrine. Furthermore, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been degraded because so much of the leadership has been taken out by drones and para-military activity. The pool of competent leaders with the necessary intellectual, organizational, and planning skills has been vastly reduced.

    Finally, the thrust of Mr. Ballen’s argument seems to be that the foot-soldiers, suicide-bombers, and other Jihadists drawn to terrorist organizations are attracted because they want to be (in their version) good Muslims, not because they were “inspired” by the likes of Usama Bin Laden or Al-Awlaqi. But note that Mr. Ballen concentrates on the foot-soldiers and suicide-bombers, i.e., the cannon-fodder. The drones and targeted killings are not directed at these Jihadists. Rather, they are directed at the leadership of Al-Qaeda, AQAP, and other Jihadist organizations, not because the leadership necessarily “inspires” young Jihadists (although in some cases it may), but because it plans overall strategy and specific operational attacks against the United States and its interests.

    • Good comment.

      It is certainly true that our engagement with the Muslim world cannot only or primarily be through the killing of al Qaeda terrorists, but that’s not the same thing as saying that such “short term tactical victories” are harmful or unnecessary in and of themselves.

      Take the example of reducing crime in urban neighborhoods. Yes, the police need to engage the community. Yes, they need to constantly work to develop relationships. Yes, they need to make sure they’re seen as a positive element in the community’s life, not as hostile outsiders.

      But they still have to arrest violent gang members when they commit murder. The police have to do both.

      The key is to recognize that, just as gang activity in a neighborhood is not actually the ordinary experience of people in that neighborhood – that it is, in fact, parasitic upon that community – so are the activities of the al Qaeda ideologues not representative of the experience of the vast majority of the Muslim world. They’re two different fields entirely.

  7. Agree and Disagree with Mr. Ballen. Counterterrorism (CT) is the flip to COIN but it will be necessary (and thus rationalized) for other reasons–budgetary. It’s simply a cheaper “continuation of diplomacy by other means.” If Yemen can’t and Pakistan’s ISI won’t give up their transnational jihadis, then “Death from Above” is a bigger bang for the buck than nation building. In a world where long-term benefits are covered by mist, unintended consequences and assorted blowbacks, then short-term may be as good as it gets.

    It’s not either/or: CT or the VOA. It’s both. But Ballen is absolutely correct, as much by default as design–the U.S. inevitably will take a backseat to the Muslim discourse on modernity. That discourse is impenetrable from the outside, save what dissonant information the participants themselves choose to admit.

    I would add one other thing–Ballen’s point illuminates great diversity in this Muslim discourse, and I think it’s as important for Westerners to grasp the details of this conversation (especially the inescapable cognitive dissonance inherent in ideas that elevate the murder of civilians as the “true way” to a God described as just and merciful) as it is for Muslims to grasp notions of Renaissance, Revolution and Higher Criticism.

    • “Death from Above” is a bigger bang for the buck than nation building

      I think this gets it wrong. “Death from Above” and nation building aren’t meant to accomplish the same things. Al Qaeda isn’t an expression of the concerns of ordinary Muslims, any more than the Weather Underground was an expression of the concerns of ordinary Americans.

  8. I bet many of the guys (and gals) in the drone trailers, manning the monitors and playing with their joysticks and loosing Hellfire into the green-shaded night, might on careful examination be almost indistinguishable, morally and mentally, from many of the “jihadicidists.”

    The Technicolor screenshots might show different skin tones and degrees of hirsutism, and of course a fully armed Predator being steered in Realtime Networked Battlespace is neither an IED nor an RPG nor an AK-47 nor, for that matter, a vest encrusted with Semtex and ball bearings. And of course one might observe a slight difference in the degree of what the rest of us usually view as part of “heroism,” exposing oneself to hostile fire in “protecting” or “advancing” some sociopoliticaleconomic notion or other. That apparently indefinable, except for that same-as-pornography, “I know it when I see it,” daffynition of “national interest”?

    And it would be interesting to try to tease out the motivations of CIA “contractors” and those young folks raised on “Air Combat” and “Call of Duty” and “Mission Accomplished,” and line them up against the motivations of Pashtun tribalists and Saudi Whoop-and-Hollerers and Somali desperadoes. One wonders if the “Freedom-Loving” versions would be as readily disabused of the assumed nobility of their actions, on finally learning the depth of corruption and hypocrisy of their “lead-from-the-far-rear-ers,” as the author indicates the Muslim true believers might be. Though the “Prosperity Christianists” who are busily infiltrating the US military establishment seem pretty sure where their bread is buttered.

    What’s the difference between “jihad” and “war of choice?” Other than cost, and degree of harm, and whose “side” we think we are on?

    • Excellent post. Your comment about the difference between “jihad and Bush/Cheney and now Obama “war of choice” hits he nail on the head. I alsway shake my head at the double standard used when our brilliant neocons scream….”Iran is using it’s influence in Iraqi politics” when we INVADED THE FEAKING COUNTRY, AND DISBANDED THEIR MILITARY.”

  9. Ballen writes “While the U.S. may have individual victories, if WE reduce the thrust of American policy to targeted assassinations, WE could well end up stoking the radical flame WE are trying to extinguish.”

    I have to say I am really tired of reading articles and analyses that use “we” to talk about the actions of the Corporate/Military Government that runs this country. It does not represent me in any way, shape or form.

    Even if the author had changed the pronoun, I have to question why anyone would conclude that the US war machine is “trying to extinguish” the “radical flame.” Virtually every significant foreign policy action taken in the last 15 years (and many significant ones going back to the end of WWII) seems to have no other purpose than stoking radical violence and endless war – while a lot of lip service is given to political solutions and non-violence…

  10. I agree that the U.S. must learn to not be so nationalistic, and even more so, not so xenophobic. But that is a long time coming I fear. When you have a crowd booing Ron Paul on national television for instance, when he discusses exactly the issues being discussed here, and how we need to stop policing the world, then that shows you the state of things.

    • Gee, I wonder if Ron Paul gets booed for a wider set of reasons than his apparent take on the wars of choice. The cool thing about Libertarianologists, a lot of them, is that they know how to dangle one little issue that might draw an audience as a way of getting the disaffected to buy the whole Randian-pseudoHayekian schtick.

      There’s a cute little cold fish that uses much the same kind of strategy — the anglerfish, of which there are many species. If you want to see how it works, lookie here: link to If time is pressing you, jump to 1:00.

  11. Wow. It’s hard to imagine this enlightened view coming from a former federal prosecutor. Thank you, Ken Ballen!

    This seems a pivotal sentence in your message:
    “I chronicled many Jihadists leaving the path of violence when exposed to the corruption of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and to a different interpretation of Islam.”

    This is a vital message that American civilian and military officials need to grasp. We could reframe our entire response to Middle East challenges using this one premise.

    Thank you for this post – thanks Juan for bringing him in.

  12. [The role of the United States must be to take a back seat to the wider religious, cultural and political debate occurring throughout the Muslim world.]

    What could this mean in plain English? My guess is, that’s attack drones and human death squads.

  13. The whole anti-terror strategy is working beautifully.
    The purpose was never to make anyone safer.
    It is to let the Pentagon,the contractors who own it,
    the representatives,lobbyists and even the soldiers prosper.
    If OBL and Sadam didn’t exist, someone at CIA would be tasked to create them.
    Oh wait.
    Come to think of it, they did.
    OBL was the best thing to happen to the Pentagon and all it’s hangers-on since the cold war.
    Threw him in the Indian Ocean?
    Should have retired him to a deluxe suite in AbuDhabi.
    Maybe they did.
    I sort of miss him.
    I got used to him wandering from cave to cave like a mythical creature. You never knew when he would pop up on some grainy video and scare everybody.
    Alahu Akbar!
    Do any informed people believe that the genius generals (and I believe some ARE very smart)
    didn’t understand that they were embarking on a decades-long project that would waste trillions?
    One man’s waste is another’s profit.
    They are smart, it’s just that they are not playing the game they say they are playing.
    It’s a fancy form of the three-card-monte hustle.
    Sure it’s a shame for the family when the brave soldier comes home in a box, but if you’re in the war business and want to dine as you are accustomed to, you break some eggs.
    Nothing new here. Check out “Art of War” Sun Tzu.
    And who cares if if the USA falls apart? By then I’ll be
    living large in Dubai.
    Follow the money on the drone strikes. They are the hot thing and will only become more popular. They are more profitable when they land on a wedding party than when they kill a lone cab driver in the desert. They have to land on some actual troublesome person once in a while so the PR people in the game can get a workout.
    If you wonder why generals who lose wars get promoted,
    and bankers who lose billions get a fat bonus, it’s not because you don’t know the score. It’s because you don’t even know what game is being played.

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