Scribbles from the Ivory Tower



Le’ Notes #30: The hard and soft of counter-terrorism efforts

This post briefly discusses the two major approaches to addressing terrorism, the “hard” and “soft” approaches.

“We could do this the easy way or the hard way,” said the CIA officer, preparing the standard operating kit for waterboarding.

If you’re a fan of the 24 TV-series or Zero Dark Thirty and the many other terrorism-related movies out there, you’d pretty much have a glimpse of how the United States handles terrorism: showing the terrorists who’s boss. The Bush administration was notorious for launching the War on Terror, a move which did kill Osama Bin Laden, but gave us ISIS with a vengeance and a century’s worth of problems in the Middle East.

Despite some of the successes of the War on Terror, it has often been criticised as being “counter-terrorist” rather than “counter-terrorism”. The former suggests a focused obsession on killing terrorists as opposed to addressing the larger, structural issues that gave rise to the “illness” in the first place. Thus, in the recent years, we’ve seen a “softer” approach to counter-terrorism. As opposed to invading Iraq and ordering drone strikes, the soft approach attempts to address terrorism as an issue that stems from extremist ideology. What needs to be attacked is the ideology, rather than the terrorists themselves.

Both approaches have their own merits and shortcomings, and that’s what I attempt to briefly discuss.

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Le’ Notes #29: Networks and social groups in radicalisation

This post discusses the role of networks and social groups in the radicalisation process.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to attend a screening of Noor Huda Ismail’s latest documentary, Jihad Selfie. He documented the life of 17-year old Aceh boy, Akbar, who got a scholarship to study in Turkey and was inspired to join ISIS, highlighting the role of the internet and social media in expediting the recruitment process. It did open my eyes to the infinite potential of social networks as a pathway towards radicalisation.

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Le’ Notes #27: Culture as an enabler of radicalisation

This post discusses how cultural exposure can enable radicalization.

In the last post, I discussed how our basic human nature can be prone to manipulation through ideology. Now, let’s see how cultural influences can enable radicalization. Of course, this is not to say in a deterministic way that “culture causes radicalization”, but rather, several cultural traits enable certain ideologies to take root easier than in other circumstances. Another caveat would be cultural influences may vary depending on the individual; otherwise, everyone sharing the same cultural traits would be a terrorist by now.

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Le’ Notes #26: The role of human nature in terrorism

This post discusses the role of human nature as a basis of a “group tent” and how it can lead to violence.

What makes a normal person undergo the process of radicalisation? In the debates discussing the process of radicalisation, there’s a perspective that holds human nature as a principal starting point. This view is grounded in human psychology, particularly, the study of evolutionary psychology. Its main assumption is simple enough: humans have inherent traits that can be “ignited” to allow radicalisation to take place.

It is worth noting that here, the role of ideology has yet to come into play. Ideology amplifies these inherent traits and funnels them into action.

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Le’ Notes #22: A toolkit for approaching counterterrorism studies

This post is mostly a summary — with additional commentary — of Rohan Gunaratna’s talk in his first session of the Terrorism, Intelligence, and Homeland Security module at RSIS.

The first thing that we need to distinguish is that there is the threat of terrorism and the response to terrorism. Like any good strategist, we need to know what exactly the threat is before issuing a response. It’s the same like answering a question. If we don’t know what the question is or what it wants from us, we can never arrive at an answer. This was exemplified correctly and hilariously in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when the pan-dimensional beings created Deep Thought to calculate the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life and the universe. But it turns out that the beings gave Deep Thought the wrong question, which resulted in the answer “42”.

So, we need to know what we’re facing and the responses that we have in our toolkit.

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Are We Safe from Terrorists? Maybe Not

Last week, I had the privilege to attend a live recording of Channel NewsAsia’s newest TV series, Think Tank, a six-episode series they were working on in collaboration with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). It touches on six specific security issues faced by Southeast Asia, and to some extent, the whole world. And by “security”, I refer to the expanded understanding, not the traditionalist one, which covers the perils of the individual and threats in cyberspace. While waiting for the first episode to air, let me just write about my experience. For more information about the series, visit their website.

So, the big question posed by the first episode was: Are we safe from terrorists? As usual, put a bunch of social scientists in a room together and they will not be able to come up with an agreed definition of a single term, let alone a desirable framework to address the issue. That, I think, is paradoxically the beauty of the social sciences. But it’s what also makes it a pain to study.

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