I have been thinking about lectures from a philosophy class that I took at college wherein we discussed terrorism. We redefined the term into asymmetrical warfare; warfare wherein one party targets civilians and non-combatants in an effort to disrupt the defense of the other party through the creation of divisive social responses, such as fear and xenophobia. We examined the logic of such tactics and what concepts they were rooted in. (Huge simplification, the terrorists don't see civilians, they consider the entire population as legitimate targets.)
One of the things that I came away from the class with was the understanding that you can not fight terrorism like traditional wars. You simply can not overwhelm them with force of arms. A lot of people make arguments like we should 'bomb the terrorists back to the stone age.' This is really saying that we should treat them like a traditional enemy. It plays into their hands because they want the collateral damage on their side because it creates a population of people who are ideologically ripe for recruiting. If a nation bombs another nation in the attempt to root out terrorist cells, they kill a lot of civilians. That angers a lot of civilians and they want to strike back at the nation bombing them.
Terrorists come in and basically play on the fears of the civilians that are angry. They set up a scenario in the potential recruit's mind where the nation they are in are either unable or unwilling to defend them from the other nation's aggression. Robbed of the venue that is traditionally accessible during a state of war for the angry civilian to strike back at their enemy, they get persuaded that the terrorist route is the only feasible option. This opens them up to the idea that the terrorist organization will enable them to prevent future assaults on their home nation by attacking the enemy nation until they are defeated.
Terrorists will make it a culture war concept in the minds of their potential and actual recruits. They spread propaganda in the regions where they are well entrenched to strengthen this idea. A culture war concept suddenly makes the targets for attack no longer strictly military. In a culture war, every person from the opposing culture is viewed as a combatant. It is probably the height of the US vs THEM mindset. Terrorists benefit from the target nation having this kind of mindset as well.
The target nation's increased fear and anger with the terrorists serves three goals. First, it creates a scenario where the culture becomes increasingly focused on the terrorists to the detriment of their own culture. (Don't believe me, take a look at how many rights have been undermined in the USA since 9/11. Take a look at how the culture's view of people from the Middle East has changed.) Second, it encourages the culture to become increasingly militarized which serves to legitimize the claim that there are no non-combatants. Third, it perpetuates the attacks upon the nation where the terrorists are operating which creates a larger pool of potential operatives.
But wait, this is not the only way that terrorists gain operatives. They actually have that population level off after things hit a certain ratio because of the amount of the civilian population that will flee the region increases with the increased aggressions against the nation where the terrorists are operating. The terrorists gain operatives in other nations and regions by demonstrating how the target nation is assailing the country they operate in. They gain operatives by way of spreading the culture war meme through a population that may potentially be sympathetic to the terrorists. They gain operatives by way of presenting the allies of the target nation as potential enemies and scaring their prospects into joining out of fear that they will be targeted by said nation and allies for various reasons. (This is where the culture war thing is really the terrorists strongest recruitment tool.)
Now, if you can't fight terrorists by way of traditional warfare and the terrorists are successfully recruiting operatives from people who have been taught that your culture is a threat to them, how do you defeat them?
There's two things, I think, that will be effective. First, resist the creation of fear from the terrorists and the erosion of culture that comes with it. This shows the world (and that population that the terrorists want to recruit from) that there is a distinction between civilian and military targets. It makes the people in the target nation and culture more human to the viewers. Second, actively work to cultivate the good will of others within and outside of the target nation. People will be less likely to take up arms and attack you when you present yourself as their ally or at the very least a non-threatening presence.
The real war in terrorism is not fought with bombs or bullets. It is fought with ideas. And right now, I am concerned that we are losing. When I see increased fear of terrorists and xenophobia in my neighbors, I see people who are fitting the mold that the terrorists are creating for them. I refuse to do so. Am I afraid of the idea of a bomb going off when I go out grocery shopping? No. My grocery store really doesn't make a good target for attack. Am I afraid of a bomb going of during Black Friday? No, because there is no logical reason for someone to attack shoppers. (Except for the insane shoppers who cudgel each other over toys. But, they're just acting in accordance with the brand of insanity that overcomes them in the scenario.)
Will I be afraid if something like that happens? No. I will be disgusted. I will be angry but I will not be afraid. I've got two reasons for that. Number one, I really don't enjoy when people tell me what to do (except for in specific circumstances with specific people). I'll resist it out of pure stubbornness and irritation with the concept. Number two, the terrorists, I have decided, are beneath my standard of people to worry about. They are almost always a small population and lack the formal organization of a traditional military to truly do any damage.
Because, terrorists can only do a small amount of damage in the terms of physical harm and loss of life. They don't have the numbers to do it. They want us to think they do. They want us to think that they could strike at any time, but realistically, they can't. They simply don't have the organization or forces to do so. If they did, traditional warfare would be an option because they would have a structure to disrupt, supply chains to break, and troops to eliminate.
You want to fight terrorism? Go about your day unafraid. Or, even better, go out and help someone and cultivate that idea that we're human after all and give a damn about the rest of the world.