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The Effect of Groupthink on the War against International Terrorism

By Priye S. Torulagha


In carefully examining the manner in which the war against international terrorism is being fought, it could be said that the pace of victory is hindered by the prevalence of groupthink in the policy making process of the global antiterrorism community.

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon or a practice or habit that compels people in a group to think and make decisions alike in a manner that discourages alternative perspectives or points of views.  It discourages creativity and innovation in thought.  It beclouds the ability to think rationally and come up with alternative means of dealing with a complex situation. It forces the so called security experts to ignore other important elements that could enhance the war.  Groupthink contributes to the prolongation of agony among the civilian population as the countries repeatedly adopt the same tactics to fight the antiterrorist war.

As can be seen, it appears that whenever a terrorist incident takes place somewhere in the world, especially in a Western country, certain experts, consultants, specialists and professionals are called upon to analyze the situation, develop strategies and make recommendations on how to deal with international terrorism.  Generally, the experts, consultants, specialists, and professionals tend to come from certain occupational backgrounds.  Most commonly, they are associated with the intelligence, military, police and national security services.  These services or fields can be collectively described as the security/military community.

The fact that most of the terrorism experts came from occupational fields that deal with security, in one form or another, tend to make them think alike, express similar views and make similar decisions.  They have proclivity toward reducing complex political, social, economic, religious, and military situations into simplistic security matters or issues.  Most of them tend to believe strongly that terrorism can be wiped out through tactical deployment of intelligence gathering machinery, targeted assassinations of important terrorists and robust military offensive against terrorist organizations.  Due to the security orientation of their perspective on terrorism, governments have been compelled to deal with the complex issue of terrorism in a very simplistic manner.  This contributes to the slow pace of victory since the terrorists are able to change tactics, disperse and regroup and strike back to create fear among citizens.

Quite often, most of the experts come from Western societies.  Even those who originate from non-Western societies are compelled through groupthink to think like their Western counterparts and focus most of their energies in devising security measures to deal with terrorism in their countries.  This is understandable since most of them probably received their intelligence, military and police training in Western countries before going back to their countries to serve.  This is why many Third World countries that have joined the antiterrorism war, follow the Western model for dealing with the issue by focusing excessively on the maintenance of security and paying less attention to important other variables that contribute to the growth of international terrorism.

The global media exacerbate groupthink on the antiterrorist war by always inviting the same experts to come and offer their professional opinions on what should be done whenever a terrorist incident takes place.  In fact, going back to September 11, 2001 and ending up with the terrorist incident in Brussel, Belgium in March 2016, it could be inferred that most of the terrorist experts that have been called upon to analyze terrorism on television by CNN, Fox, BBC and other major television networks, have been the same individuals. It does not matter whether the incident took place in Afghanistan or India or Libya or Mali or Nigeria or Somalia or Kenya or France or Pakistan or Spain.  They always argue in favor of intelligence gathering, targeted killings, security crackdowns and heavy-handed military operations. Rarely do they focus their discussions on the causative factors.

Apparently, it is hypothesized here that the undue concentration in the use of intelligence, targeted assassinations, security crackdowns and heavy-handed military operations hinder the ability to win the antiterrorism war.  It is further hypothesized here that those strategies and tactics actually assist in boosting terrorism, instead of degrading it, due to their undue focus on security and less consideration on the social, political, economic and religious factors that contribute to the problem.

It is believed here that the war would be more successful if political leaders, policy makers and national security specialists also seriously look at the causative factors that contribute to the growth of terrorism in various parts of the world.  The reason is that the security/military approach only seems to deal with the symptoms and not the causative factors.  For instance, it is critical to examine the reason why so many French and Belgian young men from the Islamic community in those countries decide to join Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  It is necessary to find out why so many young men in Northern Nigeria joined Boko Haram. It is necessary for governments and higher educational institutions to find out why restlessness in the Islamic world is fueling undue militancy and the excessive use of violence by some young men and women.

Apart from making effort to identify the causative factors, it is also necessary to develop a countermeasure that would be able to reduce the belief or ideology that is the wellspring for fueling the need for someone to join a terrorist organization.  This is even more difficult to achieve than the security/military measures that most conventional experts in terrorism seem to support.  The reason is that it is very difficult to eliminate a belief system after it has been successfully planted in the minds of people.  It is not possible to win the war if a system or a program is not developed to neutralize the belief or ideology that is driving so many young men and women to join terrorist organizations.  For example, having fair governance, creating educational and cultural environment that enhances social and economic mobility, and appreciation for cultural diversity would go a long way in reducing terrorism. Merely targeting, bombing and killing would not eradicate the belief that has been planted like a seed to grow and flourish.

It is also important to develop a global criteria for defining what constitutes a terrorist organization and who is a terrorist.  The reason is that while there is a general agreement on what constitutes terrorism, there is no general agreement on who is a terrorist.  Countries pick and choose who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter based on their short-term strategic interests.  As a result, while some countries may refer to a particular organization as a terrorist entity, other countries may view the same organization as a liberation army.   Due to the confusion, while some countries might be trying to destroy a particular organization, other countries may be supporting the same organization with arms and funds.  The lack of clarity in defining which organization constitutes a terrorist group makes the war unwinnable.  The ongoing conflict in Syria clearly shows the difficulty of determining which armed group is a terrorist organization and which is not as various countries sponsor, train, equip and finance various groups to extend their geopolitical influence in Syria and the Middle East generally.

To find out the causative factors as well as neutralize the belief or ideology, it is necessary for governments, terrorism experts, and scholars to carry out serious studies involving sociological and political analysis of various issues that promote terrorism.  Therefore, merely focusing on the security measures will not result in any remarkable victory against international terrorism.

Consequently, to win the antiterrorism war, it is essential to reduce groupthink by expanding the scope of those who are considered as terrorism experts by including sociologists, political scientists, policy analysts, psychologists, and former diplomats.  These experts should be able to reflect and deliberate on the cultural, political and religious beliefs of various groups in order to minimize groupthink. This will allow the subject matter to be discussed in ways that allow for the consideration of alternative strategies, tactics, policies and points of views without boxing everyone in, to assume that only security measures are necessary to win the war.

It should be noted that terrorism is an unconventional warfare and it cannot be won in a manner that is similar to a conventional war.  For instance, it is very tricky to determine when a terrorist war has been won.  The reason is that terrorists can fight one day, then melt away a second day to create the impression that they have been defeated and only to reappear later to continue the war.  A very excellent example is ISIS.   It started as part of the Sunni resistance from the Iraqi military against the U.S. intervention in 2003, then changed into Al Qaeda in Iraq and has now changed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Similarly, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, and so on and so forth, have been able to adapt and recreate themselves to fight another day.    So, a combination of strategies and tactics is critical.  Likewise, countering the belief or ideology is a must to reduce the attraction that compels young people to join terrorist organizations.

In conclusion, it could be inferred that, perhaps, President Barack Obama of the United States, is uncomfortable with the security/military orientation of the war because of the realization that it suffers from groupthink. Indeed, groupthink is an impediment to achieving victory in the antiterrorist war.  Consequently, to win the war, a combination of different strategies, including identifying and ameliorating the causative factors, having a cultural understanding of the different points of views among different groups and deploying security/military measures are necessary.

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