Fighting Terror Blindfolded

The "war on terror" owes a lot to the "war on drugs." In both, governments have failed to see the nature of the beast they're battling.

Earlier this year, on the way to a conference in a Middle Eastern capital, I had a long conversation with one of America's top interrogators of al-Qaeda militants. We spoke about his work, his distaste for the muscular tactics employed by his government to "soften up" his subjects and his role in making them talk. The art, he said, was in establishing common ground and a rapport. More effective than waterboarding, in his view, were basic techniques used for decades by counselors and salesmen alike to make themselves liked, to get a subject to trust what they are saying, to feel secure in their company, to want to communicate.

A report from America earlier this week on the questioning of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the effective mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks, reminded me of the conversation. Deuce Martinez, the officer who got KSM, as he is known, to spill vast amounts of information (and no small amount of disinformation) about the preparation of the 2001 attacks and about al-Qaeda in general, established an unlikely rapport with the militant, drawing him into conversations about religion, family and world affairs, flattering and being firm in equal degree. Martinez's intervention came after KSM had been waterboarded -- or deliberately nearly drowned repeatedly. All of it sounded very close to what my interlocutor had said earlier on our way to our conference.

Another element linked Martinez and the man I was speaking to: both had been involved in the "war on drugs" -- another "long war" that long pre-dated that against "terror" and, though it is rarely recognized, heavily influenced it.

In a little-known but important work, "From Pablo to Osama," Michael Kenny, an American academic, brilliantly demonstrates this. Kenny, a fluent Spanish speaker, worked on Colombian drug networks for a decade before applying his research to Islamic militants. Kenny's conclusions are interesting and important. He says the idea of the famous cartels -- major organizations combining together to manage the totality of the drugs trade -- was always a misrepresentation of the reality of cocaine trafficking; as the idea of al-Qaeda encompassing the entire vast phenomenon of Islamic militancy is, too. Instead, Kenny argues from the basis of 100 or more interviews with individual narco-criminals that drug trafficking was always based on a constantly evolving matrix of networks, themselves based on personal connections, shared individual experiences and common worldviews as well as on individuals' personal capabilities and utility. The same, he points out, can be said of al-Qaeda.

In the war on drugs, enormous effort has been devoted to taking out individual "king-pins" and as each new major figure is taken out, the combat against narcotics is said to be at a tipping point. In fact, Kenny pointed out to me, when we met in London recently, there are now 300 so-called king pins. And in another parallel with al-Qaeda, Kenny demonstrated how, following the killing of Pablo Escobar and the dismantling of his organization in the early 90s, all that has happened is that drug trafficking groups have become more amorphous, more dispersed, flatter in terms of organization but no less effective, as the constant level of cocaine prices and quality in the USA attests.

Another key parallel is how the traffickers/militants attempt to learn from the activities of the security/military/law enforcement agencies and change their tactics accordingly. At the same time, the agencies try to learn from the militants, especially in prison. The article in the New York Times on KSM's interrogation talks of how pleased his jailers are that they have successfully established what they describe as something like a focus group of senior militants. Both sides in the battle are locked together like wrestlers, each learning from the other's moves, changing themselves in response, thus mutually changing the nature of the struggle between them as time passes.

Kenny warns against what he calls a "competence trap." He defines this as an organization or government deciding on a strategy that suits their capabilities rather than their aims and then maintaining that strategy, with a few minor tactical adjustments, whatever happens. He also warns against the creation of simplifying narratives by counter-narcotics or counter-terrorist organizations who tend to establish binary "we defend good vs. evil" narratives that reduce a complex picture to easily comprehensible simple ideas and which, despite the inherent contradiction, tend to exaggerate both a threat and their successes to justify their own activities -- and funding -- on a personal and institutional level.

Evidently both the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror" are likely to continue for some time. In Afghanistan, interestingly, they have almost fused. Today the UN announced that the Taliban has made more than $100M from opium production in the past year.