The Perils of Security Policy Making in the 21st Century

security-perils-blog

If I were to chose an epigraph for a book on the topic of challenges faced by security sector today, this quote from the recent book of Wilhelm Agrell and Gregory Treverton would say it all: ‘We are living in a social environment transcended by growing security and intelligence challenges, while at the same time the traditional narrow intelligence concept is becoming increasingly insufficient for coping with diffuse, complex, and transforming threats.’ [1]

Below is my take on the issue, on the example of UK’s anti-terrorism and anti-extremism strategies. This post aims at sharing opinion on certain themes and generating a cross-disciplinary discussion (ideally with the involvement of both practitioners and scholars), without pretending to present any comprehensive, all-encompassing analysis of the intelligence. [2] It serves as an introduction to a series of episode studies/essays I am writing on security policy (employing, to extent possible, the knowledge from various social sciences), namely on the UK Government’s strategies to counter the threats posed by militant Islamists. [3]

Rethinking Security, Realistically

A few month ago, a group of British charitable organisations and think-tanks, The Ammerdown Group, has published a discussion paper on the UK’s security doctrine and strategy. Written by academics and practitioners having first-hand experience working with communities affected by conflict all over the world, Rethinking Security offers valuable insights into the present state of affairs in the field of preventing crises, responding to threats, and building peace. The paper points to a number of factors impeding a change from ‘heavily militarised’ approach towards civilian instruments of peace building, such as influence of powerful social elites and business interests on the policy-making, institutional inertia and politicisation, and preference for values associated with dominance.

In conclusion, it recommends a new strategic approach where instead of interventions based on military power the UK ‘would develop non-military response capabilities, such as early resort to state and civil capacities for violence prevention, conflict transformation, diplomacy and peacemaking, as well as cooperatively devised, civilian-based violence reduction interventions’.

Welcoming the publication of this well-thought-out and timely discussion paper and agreeing with the analysis findings and general direction of recommendations therein, I still have certain reservations with regards to abandoning intelligence and military altogether in favour of soft measures, such as passionately building community cohesion through shared responsibility and common action. I am convinced that the change is necessary, even imperative, but with security sector in the equation (and not only in the US and UK, but in many other countries across the globe which need more effective and more democratically controlled security forces) – a new security sector, adapted to realities of the day and capable of effectively fighting security risks that have resulted from globalisation, such as global terrorism, cyber threats, cross-border human trafficking, and organised transnational crime.

Four features, three themes

Security sector in the twenty-first century faces a number of unprecedented challenges, both by their scope and complexity. One set of contributing factors relates to globalisation. The nature and pace of technological advancements, and especially the revolution called Web 2.0, have exerted enormous influence on all aspects of life. Security environment being by definition dominated by uncertainty, nowadays becomes increasingly volatile—it is multifaceted, nuanced, filled with potentially large-impact surprises, and is very dynamic and rapidly changing. This makes planning, collecting and processing intelligence, and making decisions immensely difficult.

On the top of it, militant Islam has evolved over the last three-and-half decades into a kind of security threat that the world has not encountered before; it keeps evolving through the mutually reinforcing relations between its political and religious causes and economic, political and social contexts as within certain countries, so regionally and globally. By the way things are developing it is clear that at present neither states nor societies are prepared to deal effectively with such a threat.

Western liberal democracies, in particular, are ill-prepared to counter modern extremism, due to certain limitations inherent to them as a governance system; moreover, they are showing reluctance to reform the established practices and procedures and to introduce more flexibility into security policy making. Societies, in turn, are undergoing a painful generational process which is characterised by declining trust towards governments but also deepening divisions between various social, cultural and religious communities.

[*I am particularly interested in exploring social and cultural adaptation of migrants (and possibly newly arriving refugees) from the conflict-torn countries: (unmet) expectations, stereotypes on both sides (hosts and incomers), group identities – all this creates a fertile ground for misunderstanding, isolation, animosity, radicalisation, hate and violence.]

There have been various explanations offered in the literature, to democratic governments’ weakness in handling security sector issues. Four features of the present day decision making, which relate to the national security policy, deserve a close look. First is the sensitivity of issues dealt with by intelligence. Second feature is the urgency of the action required by citizens, from the state. These correlate and I will consider them in tandem, under the ‘pressing circumstances’ below. The third feature is an inherently political nature of the policy making, which in the case of security policy turns to be quite problematic (briefly addressed under the ‘political constraints’). And the fourth is the policy’s reactive rather than proactive positioning against the extremists, especially with regards to their very aggressive propaganda campaign (under ‘communication: a reactive stance’).

Under pressing circumstances

It is well known that in a daily life some people are ready to pay more for a quick gain instead of waiting a bit for getting it at a nominal cost. However, things change when we as individuals, communities, society feel endangered.  If there is a perceived threat to our lives and well-being or that of our beloved ones, we react sharply and our immediate gratification mood spirals with an enormous magnitude. At this moment of collective anxiety we are ready to overpay significantly (actually, no one even thinks about costs) and tend to put a massive pressure on the decision makers to act promptly and effectively.

The state’s reaction to public pressure in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 can serve as a textbook case: Initial shock gave place to the public outrage, then intensive media reporting took off and this followed by a panic that we were the next target of militant Islamists—all in all, for the officials finding themselves under huge pressure to make last minute amendments to the Strategic Defence and Intelligence Review, pledging significant additional human, technological and financial resources committed to the security strategy (additional investment of £2.5 billion and employment of 1,900 more staff) and then to hastily pass a decision on joining the airstrikes of the ISIL’s targets in Syria.

In this case, the Government’s actions did not seem rational but rather emotionally charged, under the intensity of public outrage. Such decisions tend to result in immediate gains at the expense of long-term priorities. They are also costly. A few days after the publication of the Defence Review and the reports on first airstrikes by RAF planes in Syria, there was no panic anymore. No one thought about the cost of the response.  Obviously, those funds will be taken from some other budgetary items, if not borrowed, and the society will bear the cost of it in the years to come.

Political constraints

Key features of intelligence, such as fragmented knowledge and lack of timely and complete information, as well as difficulty gauging the progress make decision making in security sector notoriously complicated. The uncertainty of the environment where security policy operates partly explains one known weakness of democratic governments—that is, their indecisiveness in taking difficult decisions, also known as the ‘lack of political will’ to act on complex and sensitive problems. At the same time, there are situations when governments tend to act on security issues swiftly and with minimal hesitation. At least two political factors can be distinguished as contributing to this phenomenon.

Decision making in democracies is in many ways defined by electoral cycle, what limits politicians to implementing only those policies that can produce visible results in short time. Taking bold decisions is always difficult, as the cost of risk taking might be prohibitive, and hence, the time must be ripe. For example, the decision to launch the military campaign against al-Qaeda and their hosts, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, was only possible because of conducive environment created by September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and the declaration of the ‘war on terror’.

Similarly, the UK Government’s decision to join airstrikes in Syria was long on the agenda of the Prime Minister, but got the real chance to pass through the Parliament (without damaging his and the Conservative party’s image by the humiliation of possible defeat) in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, when the emotional tension was high and thus, conditions were favourable to overcome the opposition.

By its nature the policy making inevitably brings about change which affects the interests of various stakeholders. In foreign, defence and security policy domain, along with domestic interest groups (such as government ministries and agencies, and state and private contractors and providers of products and services) there are international (governmental, inter-governmental, international public and private) actors who have vested interests in the government taking this or another course of action under external obligations.

Government ministries/agencies elsewhere are constantly competing for funding, in a bid driven by the consideration of the scope and quality of work and, partly, by their political ambition to grow strong and exert more influence. For example, the Government’s reaction to Paris attacks, along with airstrikes, resulted in significant additional public funds pledged by the Prime Minister. This being a precedent, right after the terrorist attacks in Jakarta in January 2016, Scotland Yard went ahead announcing quite considerable increase in the number of trained marksmen (by more than 27 percent) in a move that cost £2.5 million of taxpayers’ money.

On the other hand, international allies put additional pressure on decision makers, either supporting or discouraging them, and not necessarily in the best interest of the nation but rather for the sake of the common good (NATO and European Union related policies stand as an example). Today, Syria and Iraq are not merely a battlefield where the war with ISIL, al-Qaeda, and other militants is fought. It is also the place where local actors (national governments vs. diverse opposition groups in Syria and Sunni tribes and former Ba’athists in Iraq), backed on either side by key regional players (Saudi Arabia vs. Iran) and global powers (US and allies vs. Russia)—all collide in their contest over exerting larger influence in the Middle East theatre, in a dramatic, complicated geopolitical stand-off.

Therefore, statements by some British pundits and politicians in justifying the airstrikes, that ‘we must show our solidarity with France’ or ‘we must go out there and prevent this threat from coming and hitting us next’ sound at the very least as naive (or misleading). Britain must join the fight because, first, that is what her allies demand of her; and two, that is the place to be, if you want to be regarded as an influential global player.

In their turn, the policy makers attempt at putting political pressure, or unduly intervening, in the intelligence process (which is there to provide an impartial specialist advice in support of the policy making).  This politicisation of intelligence may take various forms, from ‘soft’ framing to ‘hard’ manipulation of evidence and/or simply imposition of pre-formulated constructs, disregarding the intelligence advice. To these I would add another type, when policy makers simply reject the intelligence offered to them and rely on other information or their own reasoning. Given the degree of secrecy in decision making on the national security issues, we never actually know for sure how certain decisions were made and which type of politicisation was applied (if any at all).

Strategic communications: A reactive stance

The Government counter-terrorism strategy’s protective function is implemented by specialised forces quite effectively: the fact that there has been no successful attack by militant Islamists on the British soil in more than ten years stands as a proof. However, the responsive stance taken by the state enables militants dictate the pace, location and even the format of engagement. It is obvious when it comes to the terrorist propaganda: the state, the society, and the media are not doing well in countering it as could have been expected. This gives the Islamist extremists a possibility to manipulate individual perceptions and public opinion, media coverage, and eventually the decision making.

Aggressive propaganda undertaken by militants, first of all, targets the young Muslims and serves to justify violence. Traditional themes exploited are jihad (interpreted strictly as ‘just war’) and the protection of the Muslim lands from ‘infidel’ invaders. Their interpretation allows for preemptive attacks and killing civilians—to silence the critics among the Muslim community, of the methods they use. The propaganda also aims at glorification of the images of Islamist fighters (take, for example, Mohammed Emwazi aka ‘Jihadi John’), to promote the case of martyrdom and afterlife heaven. As for non-Muslims, through various video footages, particularly those with execution of hostages, militants intend at inflicting mayhem, so that to put additional pressure and diminish the resistance of targeted states/societies.

One of communication techniques used by militant Islamists is about imposing certain messages and symbols to influence the target audiences’ associations and perceptions. For example, the organisation which has its formal name as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, instead of being called by its acronym ISIL is frequently referred to in public discourse and in the official documents as Islamic State. No one seems to pay attention to this fact, but that is exactly what they want—to be seen as the state. And the attributes of the state, as known from classical definition, include an ‘exclusive authority to use violence for establishing law and order within its borders.’

Consider this (for conclusion)

You have already noticed that I used the case of the British Government’s hastily taking decision on amending the strategy and joining the airstrikes over Syria, under different thematic parts of this post. In one part, the decisions are explained by the desire to calm down the public anxiety (‘availability cascade’), in another it suggests that the decisions might be the result of political maneuvering of the Prime Minister, or the successful lobbying of political elites and military and intelligence agencies. It is also implied that this might have been the result of pressures from the allies, in the geopolitical struggle over the Middle East.

All these explanations seem equally plausible, and I believe that more than one (if not all, to various degree though) have contributed to the decision in question. Think about it. And think about other similar instances (in any country) and their consequences. I will try to elaborate in the future posts, too. Especially from the point of what could be done to minimize the politicisation of intelligence and to increase the transparency and accountability in the defence and security policy domain.

Notes

[1] Wilhelm Argell and Gregory F. Treverton, National Intelligence and Science:Beyond the Great Divide in Analysis and Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 196

[2] I owe my understanding of the sector’s present-day developments and challenges to a number of excellent works produced recently by the leading authors in this field, such as: Loch K. Johnson (ed.), Handbook of Intelligence Studies (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007); Loch K. Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of National Security Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Mark M. Lowenthal, Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2006); Peter Gill and Mark Phythian, Intelligence in an Insecure World, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012); and Wilhelm Argell and Gregory F. Treverton,National Intelligence and Science: Beyond the Great Divide in Analysis and Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

[3] There is no globally agreed terminology, but depending on the context (whether related to terrorism or to extremism) the most recent UK Government strategies and policy documents employ the ‘Islamist terrorism’ and ‘Islamist extremism’ phrases. I will use the ‘militant Islam’ alongside these two, as an overarching phrase. See: David Anderson Q.C., The Terrorism Acts 2014, Report of the Independent Reviewer on the Operation of the Terrorism Act 2000 and Part 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006, September 2015; and Counter-Extremism Strategy, October 2015, Cm9148

 

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