Why Restraint in Counterterrorism is So Important, Yet So Hard to Achieve

Processing the horror: people in Tel Aviv light candles to mourn the victims of the Hamas attack on 7 October. Image: Tomer Neuberg / Alamy

The response to a terrorist atrocity is best conducted carefully but actively over a period of months. Hasty action leads to mistakes and losing public sympathy. However, the atmosphere in crisis meetings does not lend itself to restraint.

When terrorists commit an atrocity there has almost always been a failure of intelligence. In most cases, the greater the crime, the bigger the failure. This means that the intelligence and security services are in a weak position during the many crisis meetings which follow an attack. After all, they have just failed to keep the country safe.

As the 2012 documentary ‘The Gatekeepers’ demonstrated so clearly, the security and intelligence community are the people who best understand the cultural environment of the population within which a terrorist group operates. They often speak the local languages and have officers who mix in the surroundings and meet terrorist sympathisers. This does not necessarily make them moderates, let alone appeasers, but the more mature services are painfully aware of the damage that can be done by precipitate action. Their motto would be to ‘proceed with care’ before working out how to find the perpetrators, bring them to justice and dismantle their structures.

This is because intelligence and security services know from long experience that governments make their biggest blunders in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, and then spend years trying to undo the harm caused. The initial British response to the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ in the early 1970s is one example. ‘Bloody Sunday’ is the best-known event, but almost equally damaging was ‘Internment’ (Operation Demetrius) in August 1971. Dawn raids were made on the houses of ‘suspects’, doors were kicked in and people pulled out of bed when, in many cases, the actual terrorists had been forewarned and were not there. This is a sure-fire way of radicalising a population without even killing anyone.

Restraint does not mean inertia. Governments need to be alert for opportunities to use Special Forces to release hostages and neutralise terrorists. The gold standard was set by Israel at Entebbe in 1976. In that operation, a careful calculation was made between the chances of success and the risk of killing innocent people.

Intelligence and security services know from long experience that governments make their biggest blunders in the aftermath of a terrorist attack

When people are killed and maimed, there is a multiplier effect. Research has shown that each UK death caused by a road traffic accident has a considerably wider impact. In countries where families are less dispersed than in the West, the effects are much greater, as we saw with some of the early US bombing errors in Afghanistan. Whole communities, many of which had no sympathy for either the Taliban or Al-Qa’ida, were alienated. Two decades of generous aid provision and infrastructure spending never won their loyalties back.

Furthermore, there is much to be said for giving time for the full horror of the terrorist action to sink into international consciousness. This sounds like a cynical calculation, but winning the publicity narrative against a terrorist group is crucial. In 1998 when Al-Qa’ida blew up the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es Salaam there was widespread outrage in Muslim and African communities that so many innocent local people were killed and maimed. Osama bin Laden even came under pressure within Al-Qa’ida for not possessing the religious credentials to order the attack. However, the over-hasty and ineffective US response of launching Cruise missiles at Afghan camps and a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory soon eclipsed the outrage at the original offence.

There is also the fundamental point that an intelligence failure reveals weaknesses in intelligence coverage. In such cases, services feel obliged to dig out files on previous targets which were earlier deemed not worthy of action. Far better to allow the intelligence and security services to take their time, develop new and actionable intelligence (often exploiting divisions within the terrorist group caused by the atrocity itself) and pursue justice over a longer period. This is what former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir did after the Olympic massacre in 1972. She did authorise the bombing of Palestine Liberation Organization camps in Syria and Lebanon (where some innocent people must have died), but the main response was a painstaking tracking down of those behind the attack.

However, the circumstances of crisis meetings do not lend themselves to restraint. At COBR, the British government’s crisis response centre in the Cabinet Office, a meeting is called within hours of a terrorist event. The attendees will not have had time to sort out their thoughts, and they are often scrambling to assemble their background knowledge. When the Chair – often the prime minister – arrives, a sense of urgency pervades. For a politician, the meeting must produce a convincing outcome which can be communicated to the press within minutes. This means tangible measures – the more dramatic the better. This can lead to absurd decisions. In 1988, the British government forbade broadcasting the voices of Sinn Fein spokesmen, although their words could be spoken by others.

There is much to be said for giving time for the full horror of a terrorist action to sink into international consciousness

The UK has been fortunate not to have suffered an attack on the scale of 9/11 in the US or 7 October 2023 in Israel. In such circumstances, it is easy to see how the atmosphere in crisis meetings would be affected by personal emotions such as anger, fear and a desire for revenge. This is when calm advice from friends is required, such as the wisdom delivered in Tel Aviv by President Joe Biden.

With hostages at risk, the prospect of brutal urban warfare, the possibility of a wider Middle East conflagration and long-term questions about the political future of Gaza, the case for restraint could hardly be stronger. Meanwhile, Israel’s allies must use the coming weeks and months to help it dismantle Hamas as a terrorist force once and for all.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG

Senior Associate Fellow

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