Human beings are incredibly good at recognizing patterns. It is an amazing skill, both practically and creatively. But it can get us into trouble, too. And it is doing that now.
We observe ISIS’s horrific behavior and we see a pattern: A terrorist group bent on destroying our way of life. This pattern lends itself to certain assumptions. We assume that its propaganda accurately states its true motivations. We assume that anyone who supports ISIS must agree with all it says. These assumptions imply a purely military solution: Destroy the evildoers, wherever they are.
Insurgents cannot decide what to make of cellphones. While some insurgent groups target cellphone towers and demand companies turn towers off at night, others complain when providers are slow to fix network problems and threaten them for poor coverage. This variation reflects the fact that cellphones can hurt insurgents by allowing civilians to more safely share information on rebel activity with the government, but they also help insurgents by facilitating violent collective action, just as they help us all manage our daily lives.
Which effect will dominate is often unclear a priori. We provide an analysis in our forthcoming paper, which is part of a new special issue of the Journal of Peace Research. In some cases it is beneficial for governments engaging in counterinsurgency or counterterrorism to facilitate the spread of cellular communications. In others, the government should focus on limiting access to cell phones. To know when governments should do each, we need to know why insurgent groups vary in how they view cell phones.
I’ll open my first contribution with a confession: I chose a deliberately provocative title. Though of course I did this to draw attention, the statement is nevertheless true.
Before delving into why, let’s ask an easier question: Why is the title provocative? In other words, why would we expect military force to work in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency? The reason, I believe, is that in both terrorism and insurgency there are armed, organized people trying to kill us. This recalls war, and anything short of a show of military force in war smacks of appeasement. Even if a settlement is sought, force acts as a signal of strength. And without force, an enemy comparable to us in strength can run right over us.