To defeat terrorists we have to get inside their minds

Our collective consciousness, impelled by populist media, sees terrorists as demons driven by inhuman urges and hellish objectives, and ignores the fact that terrorists are just people. We’re urged to respond as crusaders, making plans to wage wars that will eradicate terrorism. Donald Trump has revived and reinvigorated this language, possibly largely owing to the dulcet tones in his ear of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who may actually desire a global conflagration.

Yet, it’s a false starting point and a doomed prospectus. To declare war on terror is to incite more terror. From many years of experience of counter-terrorist initiatives both operational and strategic, and dealing with precisely these issues (though admittedly not from the point of view of a politician with a theatre to play to), I know that bullish aggression is not the way to secure safety or durable resolutions. We must first understand terrorism at the human level if we are to persuade terrorists of an alternative direction. This is an exercise in empathy, but not appeasement.

It’s vital to have an appreciation of the terrorist organisation as a human organism with intellectual and emotional depth

Imagine briefly that you’re a terrorist (though no doubt you wouldn’t describe yourself that way but as a freedom fighter with just cause). Like most people you’re a package of frailties and uncertainties looking for a plausible piece of wreckage to cling to that offers belonging, purpose, solace and hope. You’ve been taught – whether you’re an inhabitant of rural Colombia, a Kurd, a Northern Irish Catholic or a Salafi Muslim – that your people have been subjected to generations of injustice and repression, which continues. (And this, however much we in our establishment comfort choose to bluster, is probably true at least in part.)

You’re in your teens, when testosterone (if you’re male, which you probably are), endorphins and adrenaline surge unpredictably and confusingly. You’re confronted by a big ogre, threatening to destroy your family, religion or culture, which provides a powerful incentive and a moral imperative to fight back.

You’re setting out on life and terrorism seems to offer a path more meaningful than that of a wage-slave conformist or a member of the impoverished oppressed. You must meet extreme demands and make huge sacrifices to achieve competence, but it’s worth it. You can’t believe you’ve been groomed: you’ve made a free, conscious and courageous choice. You thrive on the danger and can make things happen.

And you do. You kill and maim and wreak havoc, and you get away with it. You’ve gained the admiration of your peers; planted your flag firmly on the moral high ground; developed some niche aptitudes and skills; and now command the awed respect of your community. You’re a force to be reckoned with, telling yourself that you’re truly advancing the cause. The ends clearly justify the means. You may spend some time in prison but it’s a price worth paying. You thrive on the notoriety and the danger. You may not be well off but what is affluence compared with your sense of burning injustice and the standing you now have?

In your 30s little disappointments may appear and begin to aggregate into a larger malaise. You expected to be leading others by now, but you aren’t. You disagree with your bosses over tactics. Younger, brasher bloods are forging their reputations at your expense. You may find your own reactions slightly slower and your physical condition marginally worse, and the next generation has a better grasp of the technologies. It’s increasingly difficult to watch their boundless enthusiasm.

Life’s not quite as simple as it was: there are nuances where there was once complete certainty. You may have children with whom you’ve spent all too little time. You begin to wonder how you will provide for them as you grow older. You own no house, your income is small and your prospects still slimmer. How will you achieve a transition from this life to the more prosaic, steady existence that you are beginning to crave?