Small Wars Journal

War on Terror: Radicalization and Expansion of the Threats

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Criminologists use the experience of the law enforcement community to construct concepts. We try to give strategic logic to tacticians in the field. We do not collect information, we try to analyze it.

But, to understand what is evolving so rapidly in a pressure cooking society, it is absolutely imperative to remind that : “In criminal or terrorist matters, what we regard as new is actually what we have forgotten.”

In national security matters, disasters occur when we fail to see the threats confronting us as they are instead of how we want them to be.

As the former U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones stated at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in February 2009,

It is hard to overstate the differences between the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. We have already experienced many, many differences in the twenty-first century. When this conference first met, everything was viewed through the prism of the Cold War. And in retrospect, life was simpler then. It was certainly more organized. It was certainly more symmetric.

Year in and year out, the strategic environment was fairly consistent and predictable. Threats were “conventional.” . . . But to move forward, we must understand the terms “national security” and “international security” are no longer limited to the ministries of defense and foreign ministries; in fact, they encompass the economic aspects of our societies. They encompass energy. They encompass new threats—asymmetric threats involving proliferation, involving the illegal shipment of arms and narcoterrorism, and the like. Borders are no longer recognized, and the simultaneity of the threats that face us are occurring at a more rapid pace . . .

The challenges that we face are broader and more diverse than we ever imagined, even after the terrible events of 9/11. And our capacity to meet these challenges, in my view, does not yet match the urgency of what is required. To be blunt, the institutions and approaches that we forged together through the twentieth century are still adjusting to meet the realities of the twenty-first century. And the world has definitely changed, but we have not changed with it. But it is not too late, and this is the good news . .

Terrorism, easily the most visible danger today, is not in the longer term the most serious threat to the future of human society. But it is visible and frightening and needs, on an Internet timeline basis—meaning “right now”—answers and responses from public authorities.

All the known forms of modem terrorism—anarchist, revolutionary, nationalist, state, and religious, among others—without exception emerged originally in Europe: a continent that, since the nineteenth century, was the first victim of these different forms of terrorism and continues to suffer from them.

To fight it successfully, it is crucial to have a body of thought when dealing with it. This enables us to establish positions on solid ground before starting to build, and it allows us to lay solid foundations, hammer out sound ideas, and forge the necessary tools, conceptually and operationally.

Of course, there is a huge difference between what we seek, what we believe in, and what we really know, which is the smallest part.

To establish a framework for understanding the threats and dangers facing us today—including terrorism, of course—it is necessary to define a common field of investigation before going on to make any direct observation of the phenomenon itself. Omitting this essential stage condemns us to short-termism, to confuse ourselves using a microscope instead of a telescope.

In the question of threats and dangers, our too-hurried society frequently ignores, sidelines, or neglects perspective, the context in which a given event occurs. Without access to it, durable and effective action is impossible. You first have to understand what “time” is before you can comprehend the use of a watch—not its mechanism but its application, its end purpose. The same is true for anything that has to be thought about. And we know for sure that time in the desert does not have the same rhythm as time in Paris, Berlin, Madrid, or Washington.

Crisis and Crime

The economic and financial crisis and its effects on crime (and the effects of crime on the economic and financial crisis) is “ginormous.”

Crime is not in a recession. It is the only real example of an effective, long-term, expanding globalization conglomerate, expanding and integrating vertically and horizontally. Growing, investing in research and development, and giving incentives to its employees, crime is the model of the capitalist liberal enterprise of the twenty-first century. Of course, the management of competition is a little deadly, but this is the only real difference that can be noticed.

Crime has an effect on the economy. Three decades ago in Japan, using fake loans on real estate, the Yakuzas created a crisis that never ended. At the same time, in the United States, mafia members generated the savings and loans crisis. In Argentina, Thailand, and a few other countries since, criminal organizations have prospered using Ponzi and pyramid schemes. In China, clandestine banks possessed almost the same amount of cash as the official system.

Crime does very well in creating economic crises and sustaining itself during economic crises.

Crime is now hybrid. Criminal organizations use terror and terrorists use the means of the criminal organizations. Frontiers and borders have totally disappeared all over the world. The economic crisis, accelerated by greed and the use of a cocktail of derivative funds based on nothing—not even sand—is much more effective than a dozen 9/11s.

Crisis is a turbo propulsor for crime. And, as usual, those who saw it before were unheard by the greedy, the blind, and the accomplices. But this time, the crisis is not as usual. It is the most impressive, the deepest, and the hardest that the open world has ever had to fight.

Geopolitically, by affecting the new giants and the tigers and the developing countries in the Middle East, with or without natural resources, the crisis harmed the other scenario of the future of the Arab world and its fragile model, Dubai. The Arab spring [an occidental way to name very different moves affecting two kingdoms (Morocco and Jordan) with no real effects on the regimes, two military/Muslim brotherhood coup d’Etat (Egypt and Tunisia), two tribal wars (Libya and Tunisia), and two sectarian conflicts (Bahrain and Syria)] did not, as any expert on the field knew it, keep its democratic promises. And terrorism expanded in the Sahel area creating a new Islamic Caliphate in Northern Mali, the first one after Afghanistan (with Pakistan staying in a very unstable situation).

Radicalization is expanding in Niger, on the borders of Algeria, in Southeast Asia, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Iran and Israel are ready for a fight that may expand to the entire world. But it is not confined to these areas. Radicalization also exists inside most of the industrial countries, as the New York City Police Department report “Radicalization in Occident, the Homegrown Threat” has illustrated. France discovered it recently with the Merah Case of terrorism in the Toulouse area, killing French soldiers and children from a Jewish school.

And, of course, with the expansion of the southern front, the Mexican cartels now infiltrate many gangs in U.S. cities.

Nothing was invisible or impossible to predict. But it is always difficult to hear the unhappy news, specifically when everybody else is hypnotized by the price of oil or the sales of unfinished skyscrapers.

The War on Terror has failed—not because war was not the right option, but rather because the enemy was misidentified. This is the same mistake that was made forty years ago when the war on drugs was launched. It was the right move toward the wrong target—at that time, toward heroin and marijuana, but not toward cocaine. As my colleague Xavier Raufer explained, the “war on terror transform[ed] itself into a nosocomial syndrome.”

 It is very difficult, not to say impossible, to combat hostile terrorist or criminal entities today by using a logic of compilation, that is to say, by compiling lists of individuals or organizations that must be captured, prevented from boarding airplanes, or eliminated. In today’s world, the enemy often has no fixed and definitive identity.

Identifying Terrorism

Collecting information is not thinking.  It is not possible to put together an effective strategy for combating terrorism or organized crime by simply collecting data (open or secret), even if it is then processed by the best available computer. Real estate is about location, location, location. Intelligence is about human resources, human resources, human resources.

As my colleague Xavier Raufer stated, the basis for electronically processing information—programming the computers—is not the essence of the entity being considered, but the prejudices of the programmers and the instructions they receive. Bold plans, sophisticated electronic systems, and leading edge investigative capacities are therefore useless if the thinking of the people devising or programming them is wrong or incorrect.

This points to a major problem: the ravages caused by the attrition of everyday life and routine in any enterprise of detection. I do not have the space to expand on this point here, but it is a problem that must be taken into account and understood as part of a perspective aimed at controlling threats and dangers in today’s world.

The next dimension is time. Watch lists, aimed at informing the officials involved, are updated according to the data collected—in other words, according to current events. But what we call “current” always lags behind reality. By its very nature, the information is inoperable for anticipating events. For instance, in the everyday activity of human beings, proactive operation is based neither on current events nor on what is reported by the media.

From this standpoint, we can see how the paralyzing and inefficient logic of compilation inevitably puts the person practicing it into the situation of a tourist who plans a trip by consulting a guide that is already out of date. Therefore, the logic of compilation assumes individuals or entities to be known and identified once and for all even though they are on the contrary, mobile and mutating.

Al Qaeda is (was ?) the perfect example of this; it is still operational after 15 years of war and the killing of thousands of operatives—more than any organization in the world may have supported before collapsing. A nebula is not a pyramidal organization with a nice little stable chart.

The whole concept underlying this logic is mechanical and fixed—it prevents an open-ended approach, not living entities and groupings in the sphere of radical Islamic terrorism. A chaotic environment is far away from this conception.

When official networks talk about al Qaeda or the Iraqi insurgents, they depict a stable, recognizable, and identified enemy—an organization, a chief, and an objective. The Jihadi currently is presented as having an Irish Republican Army–type organization, with an army council, a general staff, an officer-in-command of the Baghdad Brigade. Interestingly, none of these exist in real life.

Toward a Common Vision of Hostility?

However vague or fuzzy, the world’s major countries and coalitions do have a common vision of the real dangers of the modern world—those that really threaten us today. All official texts highlight the same prevailing threats: terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regional conflicts, failing states, and organized crime.

They all say more or less the same thing as this excerpt from the European Security Strategy: “The combination of all these elements, a terrorism firmly resolved to use maximum violence, access to weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, the weakening of the state system and the privatization of force, could expose us to an extremely serious threat.”[3]

Firm advocates of the deregulated market economy and believers in happy globalization (or those who survived after the subprime crisis) see the terrorist or criminal manifestations of the modern world as insignificant pieces of grit jamming the motor or as minor breakdowns or hitches: annoying, but unimportant incidental malfunctions.

Criminologists, conversely, believe that these terrorist-criminal manifestations of world chaos will, if we continue to ignore them, lead to an even bigger international crisis. We need to consider the growing international criminal organizations, a threat that is obscured by terrorism, but one that is increasingly serious. Just one figure significant to Europeans is that the amount of heroin smuggled into Western Europe along the Balkan route has risen from two to three metric tons each month in 2001 to more than ten tons each month by the end of 2008.

We must consider as a whole the present and emerging threats in the real world. The political media practice of the sound bite chops the vast and complicated reality of crime into separate little chunks; it dooms us to looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Focusing solely on terrorism, for instance, within this chaotic criminal magma condemns us to understand nothing at all about it. On the contrary, we must look at and think about the terrorism-organized crime continuum (gangs to terrorism) together; we must not separate aspects of the same thing.

All our observations conclude that there is a real phenomenon of communicating between the different players in this world chaos. These players

- have common harmonies;

- frequent common lands and territories;

 -have a common (submerged) economy; and

- offer real opportunities for symbiosis, despite having different biological systems.

Therefore, to use the concept described above, these threats must be thought about together, from the vantage point of the same common field of investigation. Only in this way will we be able to move out of the culture of reaction, retrospection, and compilation.

Only in this way can we arrive at the stage of forward thinking, early detection of the threats, and dangers of the modern world.

Is Early Detection Possible?

Criminologists have been working for several years on the capacity to detect potentially dangerous entities or activities as early as possible, well upstream of electronic intelligence gathering, with the idea of more accurately directing intelligence activities, bringing it to bear earlier on interesting targets. This work of detection is almost purely conceptual, does not require enormous material means, and yet considerably sharpens the senses of intelligence operators by alerting and informing them.

Early detection is a little like preventive medicine. It provides the capacity to

1. identify and then eliminate superficial appearances, that is, gain access to what is real;

2. make a rapid and effective diagnosis; and

3. act early, with accuracy and authority.

Where to detect? What to detect and how? In this world chaos, a multinational company or a state is like a jeep on an unmade road, careering along a rocky path with unpredictable twists and turns.

What is the sensitive point? A well-known American expression is “where the rubber meets the road.” This is the point that controls the trajectory, the point at which the jeep holds to the road and avoids overturning. For a state or a multinational company, it is also located there.

Early detection is therefore an original proceedinga decision to take a certain path.

Early detection is expert observation grounded in the future of the bud, not the adult tree. It is also a work for the whole law enforcement community, from little towns to large cities, where expert knowledge is a day-to-day connection with the real world.

In a chaotic space, winning necessarily means forestalling events. We must decide not based on the past, but on what is to come.

Experts in the threats and dangers are not working in a vacuum. They live in a society whose major characteristics are not particularly conducive to performing tasks.

Look around yourself, spend an hour in front of the television: our society is unstable, superficial, concerned primarily by impulsive and immediate satisfaction of its desires.

This impatient, pressure-cooker society is a prisoner of an eternal present, a prisoner of shortsightedness, chronic urgency, hurry, just-in-time. It is a society in which crowds tend to act like schools of fish, rarely escaping from the net.

Sherlock Holmes, the criminologist’s master, was quoted as saying (reported by Conan Doyle) “When you suppress the impossible, what stays, even unbelievable, must be the truth.”[4]

For strange reasons, what was effective for crime was not for terrorism. What was unbelievable in this field was supposed to be impossible.

We have to learn from the crisis that changed and continues to change the world. None of it was not predictable. Strategic surprise is mostly strategic blindness. There is no chance for the world to be better if we do not work together to detect, diagnose, analyze, and respond to the new threats. This is the job we can do using the best of the Law Enforcement Community professionalism and some of the skills Academic research can offer.


1Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat (New York City Police Department, 2007), (accessed December 3, 2010).

2This paragraph and the some paragraphs that follow paraphrase Xavier Raufer, “Hostility, the nature of the enemy in the 21st century: a European vision” (speech, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Rand Corporation, and the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Security Series, Washington, D.C., October 11, 2005), (accessed December 9, 2010).

3A Secure Europe in a Better World: European Security Strategy (Brussels: Council of the European Union, December 12, 2003), (accessed December 3, 2010).

4Vonda N. McIntyre, “The Adventure of the Field Theorems,” in Sherlock Holmes in Orbit, ed. Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg (New York: DAW, 1995).

About the Author(s)

Alain Bauer is Professor of Criminology, National Conservatory for Arts and Crafts, Paris; Senior Research Fellow, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Beijing University of Law; President, French National Council on Strategic Research; French National Crime Commission, Consultant, New York City Police Department, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and Surete du Quebec, Canada.


Bill C.

Sat, 10/13/2012 - 1:20pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Or, could we say that the author hit the nail squarely on its head with his discussion of the United States/modern world's attitudes, views and beliefs -- and the actions taken regarding these attitudes, views and beliefs -- when he referenced:

"Firm adovcates of the deregulated market economy and believers in happy globalization ... " ?

This, indeed, providing us with the proper "framework for understanding the threats and dangers facing us today -- including terrorism ..." ?

Bill C.

Fri, 10/12/2012 - 11:04am

"In the question of threats and dangers, our too-hurried society frequently ignors, sidelines, or neglects perspective, the context in which given events occur. Without access to it (context; perspective) durable and effective action is impossible."

Thereafter, the author seems to point to the financial and economic crisis as the appropriate context.

If, however, we reject this notion and suggest, instead, that the financial and economic crisis was simply an event that occurred within a much larger context -- and, more-or-less, simply a result of "crimes" itself -- where then do we go to obtain the essential perspective that we must have in order to take durable and effective corrective action?

Herein, might we suggest that the perspective and context that we are looking for are the attitudes, views, and beliefs of the post-Cold War United States/modern world -- and the actions that the United States/modern world has taken based on these attitudes, views and beliefs. These would seem to be the items that might best describe the context within which the events we are seeing today (to include increased criminal activity, terrorism and the financial/economic crisis) have unfolded and continue to unfold.

Thus, with the benefit of this potentially more correct and more accurate depiction of the context/perspective, how then do we proceed to take the corrective action that is necessary and required?


Fri, 10/12/2012 - 4:31am

I think there is an urgent need to define the Police State. Given the discretionary latitude of the enforcement and prosicutorial powers in the USA, they can do as they please. E.g., policing of welfare fraud is serious business; policing bank fraud, not so. Human rights have been compromised beyond recognition, supposedly for security objectives.
We have, not rule of law, but rule of men. Our government has many of the hallmarks of a criminal enterprise--its a band of particularly self-righteous brigands.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 10/11/2012 - 9:57am

<blockquote>Sherlock Holmes, the criminologist’s master, was quoted as saying (reported by Conan Doyle) “When you suppress the impossible, what stays, even unbelievable, must be the truth.”[4]

For strange reasons, what was effective for crime was not for terrorism. What was unbelievable in this field was supposed to be impossible.</blockquote>

I think this is because in many ways we are in collusion with that which we purportedly fight. The connections matter as much as the stark dichotomies of "state" and "non-state" which are sometimes a fiction. And I include us, the West, in that collusion - often without meaning to be in collusion. But we are, it may be unavoidable given the connections of diaspora, globalization, etc. In that case, failure to face facts may be the reason we make the impossible possible.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 10/11/2012 - 9:47am

Wow. Thought provoking post.

(And the amounts of money sloshing around AfPak due to illicit economies, many of which are "hooked" up to state actors in S Asia and the MidEast and the West as much as to non-state, is astounding. How much of that money ends up in banks in the West, propping up the system? I think I posted something about UN official Antonio Maria Costa around here before....)