Psychological Counterterrorism and the Response to the Paris Terror Attacks

By Caleb R. Newton

    In the aftermath of the Nov. 13 Paris terror attacks leaving over 120 dead, including Americans, British, Spaniards, and Jews, France and the West perceive brute force as a reasonable response. On Nov. 14 and 15, airstrikes against ISIS intensified, who had earlier claimed responsibility for the Nov. 13 attacks. A senior ISIS leader in Libya was reported as killed on Nov. 14.

    But the brute force response extended to the European home as well. In the aftermath of the attacks on the night of Nov. 13, France's borders were closed, leaving stranded persons around the world. Roadblocks were set up around the city of Paris. One reporter affiliated with CNN told of a young man driving away from his home who was confronted by police with an automatic weapon and told to "turn around." He complied, and other incidents similar almost certainly took place.

    And there is the element of the future of the counterterrorism operation and continued force against the citizens of France and other nations of the European Union and the world. Will all public gatherings be suspect in Paris from now on? Will they be required by law to have a restriction on the number of attendees, the venue for the event, among other requirements and restrictions? Will France, like Israeli Moshe Ya'alon suggested, adopt a law similar to the American Patriot Act in which mass surveillance of the citizenry is forced by law? Are intensified airstrikes and increased actions at home like the American Patriot Act really effective at counterterrorism?

    Force entailing airstrikes and entities such as the Patriot Act may stop some terrorism, but it is not the most effective response mechanism. Force is responsive and it provides a further stage for the terror attacks. Think of it like a criminal and security systems - a criminal arrives at a random home intending to break in and commit robbery. He sees that there is a security system, so he moves on to the next house and breaks in.

    Overall, then, the security system has not prevented a robbery, it has only made the next stop more vulnerable and therefore increased the expense required to stop the criminal without him doing any more acts. It is highly questionable that force should actually be able to cover 100% of the possible scenarios - in a local district of Central Florida, as elsewhere, it is difficult to even cover 100% with bear-proof garbage cans.

    It is conceptual - even in science, to a certain extent, there is always a smaller particle, as has been discovered by physicists. The terrorists will use the stage provided by the force to commit their acts of terrorism. Such a scenario was the case in France - the French and the rest of the anti-ISIS coalition bombed ISIS in the Middle East, so strategically they moved to Europe, both in Paris and in proxy in the Russian airliner over the Sinai.

    Furthermore, the psychological brutalization of the population through restriction and surveillance is exactly what the terrorists want - it extends their reach and the reach of their attacks and makes the citizens of the world go into an enclave of continuous psychological terror.

    Brute force has questionable effectiveness - something smarter must be used. To start, the terror attacks themselves must be placed in the proper context. Calling on University of Central Florida Professor Jonathan Matusitz's summary of the academic definition of terrorism developed in the late 20th Century, terrorism is "the use of violence to create fear for political ends." Fear is a psychological concept and must lend such an understanding to effectively understand terrorism like the attacks in Paris. Terrorism is psychological warfare, and as such, it is able to withstand a conventional military response.

    The response that is most efficient at establishing an effective confrontation with the psychological warfare of terrorism is psychological counterterrorism. With a fleeting 2003 reference to the concept in an article by Dr. George Everly, the focus has instead been on "blowing the terrorists off the face of the earth." Such an approach would be fine, if it worked. However, one can't destroy an ideology and an attribute of the human psyche.

    Instead of focusing on conventional counterterrorism for unconventional warfare, there should be much less pressure placed on innocent civilian populations by the stress of conventional counterterrorism. The ideology of the terrorists should be attacked. Their ideology includes a wide range of components - from violent Islamism to the degradation of the value of the individual person. Reversing these ideologies is the answer to the terrorism in Paris, Israel, Beirut and potentially the United States and elsewhere in the near future.

(Image: State of Emergency in Paris [Edited] - Google Images)

[The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dissecting Society]


  1. Hi Newton,

    First, there's a state of emergency, so it's natural that people's freedom will be limited. I think we all understand that. Then there were three days of national mourning, everything had to be closed out of respect for the victims.

    I do agree though that the airstrikes in Syria are fruitless. But again, they are just a way of showing that France is doing something, however in practical terms: what will it solve? Nay, if France wants to really do something and solve the problem for good, then it needs to continue cleaning its own house, and change its policy regarding Muslim countries. Without that, these attacks will only continue.

    The terrorists do not give a damn about restriction of the population, they want to instil fear in people (in that we are in agreement). They are like a rapist who "thrives" on fear.
    Dr Matusitz's definition of terror is incomplete because it doesn't answer who is the main target of terrorism (and the target makes all the difference if we want to get an actual universal definition); but I do agree with him that many many countries manipulate the word and its "significance" to persecute political adversaries.

    So, Psychological CT = countering the ideology that supports the terrorists? Having politicians changing their public discourse? I like that idea.

    Interesting work, Newton.


    1. "natural that people's freedoms would be limited"-
      Yes, and I would emphasize that force and a state of emergency "may stop some terrorism, but it is not the most effective response mechanism."

      Russia has a very intriguing CT framework where the ideology of terrorism itself is illegal. I feel that is very effective- the hundreds and thousands of known ISIS operatives should not be watched until they do something- their ideology should be recognized as doing something and they should be arrested. Such an approach characterizes effective psychological CT.

      Dr. Matusitz's definition is the bare minimum- it only addresses the act itself and places it in very little context, but it is useful.

      "change its policy regarding Muslim countries."
      -Exactly, like the measure mentioned above. If you have connections to terrorism in any way shape or form -out you go.

    2. Newton,

      Now I understand better what you mean. Thanks for that.
      But the ideology is connected to religion: what you propose, and what Russia seems to be doing, would certainly clash with the laws of freedom of religion, wouldn't it? How would we circumvent that?

    3. I'm sorry, but freedom of religion must be subordinated in the face of terror. If a religion develops that orders its adherents to kill, it is not free.

      There are two different approaches to human rights- legal allowance and legal force. In other words, simply saying that everyone is equal and free versus actually taking concrete steps towards making people free. The latter is much more effective- there are some things that are not protected by freedom. Prohibitions outweigh allowances.

      I thought of the connection to Russian law just a short while ago.

    4. "actually taking concrete steps towards making people free."-
      meaning, disallowing ideologies and religious systems that threaten people's freedom, such as Islamism.

  2. I agree with brutal force in the aftermath of a terror attack. The Patriot Act saved America, it's a shame Europe doesn't have similar provisions.

    1. Did it really save America? Since we have experienced turmoil like the Boston Marathon bombing and under the Act, there are still dozens and dozens and scores and scores of locales in the US that cannot be searched or watched because of Islamic religious protection. What is there? Who knows?

  3. Ok, let's say you're right, the Patriot Act is not the most effective defense mechanism: so what is? I think the more tools the secret services have to tackle Islamic terrorism the better. If you are not doing anything wrong why fear the NSA and others? They are not going to expose your porn habits and etc, they simply use metadata to track chatter. Is it that bad? In a state emergency there's a curfew, there's limitations to our basic freedoms but without it terrorists can just slip through our fingers. So I too support this means of response!

  4. Caleb, dude, Obama should read your last paragraph "The ideology of the terrorists should be attacked."
    I see many things that don't work but if we don't use force things can get worst. I take no issues with my freedoms being temporarily limited if it will save lives.

    1. True on the issue of force, but the key is that it is only a short term solution. Long term reliance will not get done what needs to be done.

  5. None of us have to do anything. The public in Europe will do what is necessary.

  6. The United Kingdom has ordered her security forces to shoot terrorists to kill. While this may help preventing a widespread attack, it still doesn't solve the root problem, does it? The West needs to come to terms with the fact that they need to fight the ideology and for it to happen they need to start calling things by their proper names. Good job, Caleb.


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