Governments typically make several mistakes when attempting to separate violent extremists from populations in which they hide. First, they often overestimate the degree to which a population harboring an armed actor can influence that actor’s behavior. People don’t tolerate extremists in their midst because they like them, but rather because the extremists intimidate them. Breaking the power of extremists means removing their power to intimidate — something that strikes cannot do.
Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.
In my mind, this is one of the big problems with using the phrase “war on terror.” It gets people in a frame of mind where they’re thinking of analogies like “what would I do to a Nazi tank column?” rather than “what would I do to a crime-plagued neighborhood?” And when trying to figure out the right approach here, the right thing to do isn’t to ask yourself whether international terrorism is “really” a kind of warfare or “really” a kind of crime. The right thing to do is to ask yourself what kind of strategic goals you have and what kind of tactics are likely to achieve them. What we want is for Muslim communities around the world to cooperate with various governments around the world to smoke out and apprehend would-be violent extremists. That’s more like a crime-fighting mission.