War on terror has a hefty price tag: $1 trillion – that is how much the United States (US) has spent on wars since 2001 attack of the twin tower. After spending so many resources to fight terrorism, the Americans and their allies are still struggling to justify and win the war on terror. And judging from Gen. Mchrystal’s insubordination and eventual sacking, the defeat of terrorism remains an elusive goal. Indeed, as evident in the bombing incident in London, Bali (Indonesia), and India, terrorism is becoming like a cancer, it is no longer contained in Afghanistan and Iraq – the two countries where Al-Queda was suspected to be in, but is spreading to other parts of the world.
Worse still, we don’t even know who the terrorists are now. Who would have thought that a blonde and blue-eyed American woman is the jihad Jane? or a US army psychiatrist – Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, 39 - could kill 13 and wound 31 of his comrades? Terrorists can be found not only in the countries involved in the war against terror – such as Afghanistan, Iraq, the US, and the United Kingdom (UK) – but also in other countries without direct link to the war, such as Singapore. Recently, Singaporeans learned that a full time National Serviceman, Muhammad Fadil Abdul Hamid, 20, is a self-radicalised terrorist.
In the light of this incident, the The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) appealed to the Singaporean Moslems to report any unaccredited religious teacher. And Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Wong Kan Seng, voicing his support to Muis, said that ‘Early intervention is the best way to save a relative or friend from the road to radicalisation.’ No doubt, there is an increasing need for intelligence to safeguard against self-radicalised terrorists. In the US alone, according to the Washington Post, there are no fewer than 850,000 people with top-secret security clearances. And it is heartening to know that the increasing intelligence units and activities help to capture the failed New York bomber, Faizal Shahzad, 30.
But as important as early intervention (Intelligence) can be, we also need to de-radicalise the terrorists so that they can return to the society. And this, I find, is where we (the citizens of the world) have failed miserably. Consider the following : 74 of the 530 detainees in Guantánamo were suspected or known to have returned to terrorist activity since their release, and Indonesia’s failed deradicalisation programme. If counter-terrorism efforts are like those of curing cancerous cells, then we are very good in identifying the affected cells (partly because they can be observed), but we are unable to effectively cure them, and thus the cancer continues to spread within our body. It’s no wonder we are on the losing side.
The gist of war on terror is fanatism to an ideology – and therefore it can also be seen as war on ideology. Should the world adhere to Islamic law? Is it true that the western countries are evil? Or should we de-radicalise the extremists? Which version of Islam is correct? The truth (rather than beauty) lies in the eyes of beholder, i.e. people may diagree with what we perceive to be true. Therein lies the problem. In order to win a war on ideology, guns, tanks, and diplomacy are not good enough, we need a more effective means. Building schools and infrastucture is a good way of quelling terrorism, but it is resource-intensive and can be undone by weak governance and rampant corruptions – which are happening at troubled countries like Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan.
So, what now? Well, as a saying goes: desperate times call for desperate measures. It is prudent that we turn the terrorists’ weapon against them. That weapon is Coercive Persuasion (a.k.a. Thought Reform, or Brain Wash). In a recent TED talk, a filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy showed us a glimpse of how the Taliban brainwashed children to become suicide bombers. Based on her research, she suggested that the conversion to suicide bombers is done through five processes:
- The Taliban separates the children of poor families from their parents by promising food, clothes and shelter for their children, and sends these children to isolated places.
- The Taliban teaches these children Koran in Arabic – a language that these children do not understand. The children are also forbidden to read newspaper, radio, or any book without Taliban’s permission.
- The Taliban beats these children and deprives them of playing time - effectively making the children hate the world that they live in.
- The Taliban starts influencing the children on the ‘glory’ of martyrdom. The Taliban talks about what martyrdom offers (in the after life): honeys and milks – unlimited food, and 72 virgins (in Heaven, of course).
- The Taliban shows photos of people dying in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Many people perceive coercive persuasion as an unethical method. But, the terrorist are using it to gain more followers. While we are considering what is the moral thing to do to win the war on terror, the terrorist are using all kinds of method (including the unethical ones) to undermine our effort. In the first place, who gets to determine what are the right things to do and what are not. Ethics, like other ideologies in life, depends on how you see it. And if there is such thing as ‘Ethical hacking’ (hacking can be seen as an unethical work), then surely we can innovate a discipline called ‘Ethical Brainwashing’.
Considering that we have limited resources to tackle the growing threats of terrorism, we need to evaluation options. And I’d say that ‘Ethical Brainwashing’ is an appealing solution since it is readily deployable. Once the terrorists are imprisoned, we would be able to control the information that they received. And according to Lipton’s brainwashing processes, unlike Taliban who beats the children, we don’t have to physically abuse the terrorist - which can lead to public outcry as in the case of Abu Ghraib prisoner torture. So in ‘Ethical Brainwashing’, we have a solution which is not resource-intensive, and does not involve torture. A winning solution indeed!
I shall leave the boundaries of this ‘Ethical Brainwashing’ for further discussions (please leave a comment on this post).