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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Michael Rowan: A Solution for Terrorism and Populism
Latin American guru Michael Rowan on weaknesses of conventional tools to fight terrorism and populism.

By Michael Rowan

Terrorism and populism are both animated by anti-system resentments and employ similar asymmetric disinformation strategies which can be defeated not by pushing back against them but by pulling populist fans back to a world of reason.

After the attacks of 911, conventional warfare was conducted against terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, three wars which eventually decreased the land occupied by terrorists but greatly increased the power and volume of terrorism’s Internet message.

Terrorism is losing the conventional war on the ground in the Middle East while winning the asymmetric war for minds globally. Terrorism’s lasting power is in the internet where it radicalizes and inspires thousands of fanatics who can and do terrorize whole nations with a home-made bomb, gun, truck, or knife. It does so with an amount that would pay for only a few hours of the Pentagon’s spending.

A radicalized person in the US, which has 400 million guns possessed by the population, can strike terror in the entire nation. A mail bomber followed by a synagogue killer did so last week. And in Europe where guns are less common, radicalized terrorists killed hundreds with bombs and trucks and household tools.

The numbers are telling. Since 2001, more Americans have been killed in domestic terrorism deaths than those who died in the 911 attacks.

Globally, terrorism attacks and killings have escalated dramatically everywhere, doubling the deaths and tripling the attacks from 2001. While it attracts great TV audiences, terrorism is a blessing and a curse for media, TV, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the rest. The net effect is abject fear which has captured what advertisers call share of mind. Globally.

While conventional warriors claim the war against terrorism is being won, cyber-warfare experts realize the war against terrorism’s message and media has not even begun. The US is getting demolished by terrorism’s web capability.

The conventional cyberwar strategy is to disable terrorist websites which is supposed to destroy the message. But it doesn’t. It’s like playing whack-a-mole: a dozen new terror sites spring up in minutes on the dark web.

The terrorist message is not even dealt with. Thousands of fanatics are being inspired and taught by terrorists to wreak havoc on the world at this very moment, while conventional warriors are announcing the number of terror websites killed. It’s reminiscent of the Pentagon’s body counts in the Vietnam war which were supposed to be proving the US was winning.

As terrorism wins the social media war largely without a fight, the push-back against terrorism is surprisingly imitating it. The push-back is populism. Driven by the fears of terrorism, refugees, immigrants, and globalization, populists have emerged in Latin America, Europe, North America and Asia to reject democratic systems, institute authoritarian governments, build walls against imagined enemies, and launch pre-emptive strikes against caravans of refugees.

Populists are not preparing for another Cold War, they are arming for a hot one which has conflated terrorism with immigration to mean the same thing. As countries duck their heads into a turtle shell, global depression and nuclear warfare dangers become more likely.

American populists may not have the sharpest pencils in the class, some say. They hatch and spread conspiracy theories devoid of facts about stereotypical enemies such as Muslims, Jews, Africans or Hispanics, as well as conventional newspapers, TV networks, and government institutions like the FBI and CIA.

Did FDR plan Pearl Harbor? Did the CIA kill Kennedy? Did W plan 911? Will the Deep State kill Trump? These are vital issues to American populists.

Populist fan bases are attracted to simple solutions to complex phenomena such as globalization, trade, climate, war and peace. They are tired of conventional failure, gridlock and dysfunction.

Populists believe conventional thinking is so wrong that it is safe to disobey all its “politically correct” rules and everything should work out OK. This is a recipe for disaster.

Populists rule today in Venezuela, Brazil, the USA, Austria, Poland, Italy, Turkey and threaten to take control in Germany, Britain, and many other nations in 2019. Populism is a virus spreading through the Internet which has no conventions to check or balance its hyperinflated, sensational disinformation: it’s The National Enquirer writ large every day, hour and minute.

Terrorism and populism share a classical asymmetric warfare strategy against conventional thought -- or civilization. It’s a very old and powerful strategy: The obsolete guy fights with rules, order, and a system; the fanatic fights with no rules, disorder, and bombs for the system.

Neither democracy nor economy is defending itself against the onslaught. As populists gain power, respect for democracy, law and economic management vanishes. Finally, when the economy collapses the democracy is powerless to right the ship of state, as Venezuela is demonstrating.

I’m writing a book with Russ Dallen about how the populists Hugo Chavez and Donald Trump gained power which eventually destroyed Venezuela and could destroy the USA, entitled: “Catastrophic Hoax: Is Trump Doing to America what Chavez Did to Venezuela?” The point is, unless we understand populism, we’ll never address it no less defeat it.

In both the Venezuelan and American cases, the opposition underestimated the populist threat to democracy and the economy. After twenty years, the Venezuelan opposition still doesn’t see it and the country has collapsed with no way to recover in sight. And after two years, the U.S. opposition is struggling to figure out why populism is so powerful rather than crafting a new vision.

A deer in the headlights of a bullet train: that’s the opposition to populism.

Populism cannot be defeated by conventional politics for the same reason terrorism cannot be defeated by conventional weapons. Difficult as it may be to accept, wisdom must think asymmetrically. Let’s look at terrorism to get a handle on how to address populism.

International terrorism animated by hate for modern civilization uses the Internet to find and radicalize young, naïve Muslims to give their lives away for nothing of meaning. To succeed, only a miniscule piece of one percent of the 100 million Muslims between 10 and 30 need to fall for the recruitment hoax.

What would happen if the four thousand young Muslims who have defected from ISIS since 2014, or the tens of thousands of Muslims who were radicalized by the Internet but not to the point where they joined terrorism, told their existential stories in Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, and social media rather than remaining silent, hidden or imprisoned by conventional states? Defectors from terrorism are the best interlocutors to convince young Muslims to think again about what the recruiter is saying. They should be weaponized against terrorism.

Why aren’t defector stories inundating the web? Why are we ceding the web to the terrorist recruiters? This is an urgent question of imagination and innovation.

In 1775, why did the British keep marching in straight lines festooned by bright red and white uniforms and backed by drums and bugles, while colonists hidden behind trees picked them off with single-shots?

Why didn’t the opposition in Venezuela create a new vision, a vibrant message, for the poor, downtrodden barrio residents who cast their lot with Chavez in 1998? It’s 2018, and the opposition still only has one idea: they don’t like Chavez – who has been dead for five years.

Why haven’t the Democrats thought of the rural white working-class voters of America as Bobby Kennedy thought about them in his 1968 Presidential campaign? Kennedy got white working-class votes, black poor urban votes, and suburban ethnic voters simultaneously and in equal measure, with the same inclusive message!

Where is today’s War on Inequality resonating with Kennedy’s War on Poverty of 50 years ago? Will the Democrats rise above superficial identity politics with a message that reaches the heart and the mind? Why not?

Why do CNN and MSNBC have to mimic Fox news by contributing to the tribal polarization in America which only helps Trump in the long run? Is it because of ratings or indolence or ignorance? Why don’t we see documentaries on the plight of white working families which show that they share the same plight with black, Hispanic, Muslim, and immigrant families? Why is every story about violence, extremism and division, while stories about inclusion – like the Jewish community in Pittsburgh for example – only appear during funerals?

The defectors from terrorism have stories that, if known, that could demolish terror recruitment in the Internet. The white working families in Trump’s rallies have stories that, if aired on the media, could inspire a War Against Inequality which obsoletes Trump, who couldn’t care less about solving inequality. He’s just taking advantage of it politically.

We live in a time of maximum entertainment and minimum imagination, which has given us Chavez in Venezuela, Trump in America, and whoever comes next in the age of the catastrophic hoax.
Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America.


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