The New York Times has published a profile of Russia’s anti-terrorism tactics that contains an awkward admission: Donald Trump’s controversial proposal to target the family members of terrorists has a strong record of success in suppressing Islamic terrorism.
“When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump said during a December 2015 interview. “When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.” Trump later denied he was calling for the killing of terrorists’ families, but instead simply meant the U.S. should “go after” terrorists’ family members.
Trump’s comments have served to fuel claims that he is too dangerous to be allowed into the Oval Office. But while his proposed strategy could be illegal and morally wrong, that doesn’t necessarily mean it would fail, the Times’ research suggests.
Since the fall of the USSR, the Muslim-majority region of Chechnya has had a long-running insurgency against the Russian government, including many incidents of terrorism. Russia hasn’t shied away from using brutal methods to keep terrorism in check, and according to Andrew E. Kramer of the Times, it’s often been effective.
“In the conflict that began in Chechnya and has since metastasized into a loosely organized Islamic rebellion throughout the Caucasus region, Russian security services routinely arrest, torture and kill relatives [of extremists],” he writes. “The Russian approach, enough to make supporters of waterboarding wince, has by some accounts been grimly effective. Abductions of family members unwound the rebel leadership in Chechnya, for example.”
Russia also uses less brutal but substantially intrusive tactics, such as putting young children on watchlists if family members are linked to terrorism. Moscow doesn’t have the legal authority to target family members, the Times says, but that just means the strategy exists informally.
“In Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan, they routinely burn or demolish the houses of people suspected of being insurgents or terrorists,” it says. “Most strikingly, whole extended families are rounded up in high-profile cases, and are often held until the militant either gives up or is killed.”
The Times credits the strategy with Russia’s triumphs in the asymmetrical conflict with Chechen Islamists. From 2000 to 2005, as many as 5,000 unresolved disappearances occurred in Chechnya (which has a population of just over a million), and many rebels were pushed into disarming or assisting the government. While Chechen terrorism remains a threat, it has been dramatically weakened.
The targeting of family networks makes some sense, even independent of massive retaliation. Extremism often proliferates within families, and about one-third of terrorist attacks involve attackers who are related to another attacker. As a result, retaliating against a family can serve as an effective means of suppressing future terrorist networks before they’re created.
Of course, just because it works now doesn’t mean it will work forever, or that it serves a nation’s moral trajectory well.
“You can prevent some episodes of violence at the moment, but you are radicalizing whole communities,” Caucusus expert Ekaterina Sokirianskaia concluded the Times.
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