Jason McCue

Terrorism is a failed brand

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We most certainly do talk to terrorists, no question about it. We are at war with a new form of terrorism. It's sort of the good old, traditional form of terrorism, but it's sort of been packaged for the 21st century. One of the big things about countering terrorism is, how do you perceive it? Because perception leads to your response to it. So if you have a traditional perception of terrorism, it would be that it's one of criminality, one of war. So how are you going to respond to it? Naturally, it would follow that you meet kind with kind. You fight it. If you have a more modernist approach, and your perception of terrorism is almost cause-and-effect, then naturally from that, the responses that come out of it are much more asymmetrical.


We live in a modern, global world. Terrorists have actually adapted to it. It's something we have to, too, and that means the people who are working on counterterrorism responses have to start, in effect, putting on their Google-tinted glasses, or whatever.


For my part, what I wanted us to do was just to look at terrorism as though it was a global brand, say, Coca-Cola. Both are fairly bad for your health. (Laughter) If you look at it as a brand in those ways, what you'll come to realize is, it's a pretty flawed product. As we've said, it's pretty bad for your health, it's bad for those who it affects, and it's not actually good if you're a suicide bomber either. It doesn't actually do what it says on the tin. You're not really going to get 72 virgins in heaven. It's not going to happen, I don't think. And you're not really going to, in the '80s, end capitalism by supporting one of these groups. It's a load of nonsense.


But what you realize, it's got an Achilles' heel. The brand has an Achilles' heel. We've mentioned the health, but it needs consumers to buy into it. The consumers it needs are the terrorist constituency. They're the people who buy into the brand, support them, facilitate them, and they're the people we've got to reach out to. We've got to attack that brand in front of them.


There's two essential ways of doing that, if we carry on this brand theme. One is reducing their market. What I mean is, it's their brand against our brand. We've got to compete. We've got to show we're a better product. If I'm trying to show we're a better product, I probably wouldn't do things like Guantanamo Bay. We've talked there about curtailing the underlying need for the product itself. You could be looking there at poverty, injustice, all those sorts of things which feed terrorism.


The other thing to do is to knock the product, attack the brand myth, as we've said. You know, there's nothing heroic about killing a young kid. Perhaps we need to focus on that and get that message back across. We've got to reveal the dangers in the product. Our target audience, it's not just the producers of terrorism, as I've said, the terrorists. It's not just the marketeers of terrorism, which is those who finance, those who facilitate it, but it's the consumers of terrorism. We've got to get in to those homelands. That's where they recruit from. That's where they get their power and strength. That's where their consumers come from. And we have to get our messaging in there. So the essentials are, we've got to have interaction in those areas, with the terrorists, the facilitators, etc. We've got to engage, we've got to educate, and we've got to have dialogue.


Now, staying on this brand thing for just a few more seconds, think about delivery mechanisms. How are we going to do these attacks? Well, reducing the market is really one for governments and civil society. We've got to show we're better. We've got to show our values. We've got to practice what we preach. But when it comes to knocking the brand, if the terrorists are Coca-Cola and we're Pepsi, I don't think, being Pepsi, anything we say about Coca-Cola, anyone's going to believe us.


So we've got to find a different mechanism, and one of the best mechanisms I've ever come across is the victims of terrorism. They are somebody who can actually stand there and say, "This product's crap. I had it and I was sick for days. It burnt my hand, whatever." You believe them. You can see their scars. You trust them. But whether it's victims, whether it's governments, NGOs, or even the Queen yesterday, in Northern Ireland, we have to interact and engage with those different layers of terrorism, and, in effect, we do have to have a little dance with the devil.


This is my favorite part of my speech. I wanted to blow you all up to try and make a point, but — (Laughter) — TED, for health and safety reasons, have told me I've got to do a countdown, so I feel like a bit of an Irish or Jewish terrorist, sort of a health and safety terrorist, and I — (Laughter) — I've got to count 3, 2, 1, and it's a bit alarming, so thinking of what my motto would be, and it would be, "Body parts, not heart attacks." So 3, 2, 1. (Explosion sound) Very good. (Laughter) Now, lady in 15J was a suicide bomber amongst us all. We're all victims of terrorism. There's 625 of us in this room. We're going to be scarred for life. There was a father and a son who sat in that seat over there. The son's dead. The father lives. The father will probably kick himself for years to come that he didn't take that seat instead of his kid. He's going to take to alcohol, and he's probably going to kill himself in three years. That's the stats. There's a very young, attractive lady over here, and she has something which I think's the worst form of psychological, physical injury I've ever seen out of a suicide bombing: It's human shrapnel. What it means is, when she sat in a restaurant in years to come, 10 years to come, 15 years to come, or she's on the beach, every so often she's going to start rubbing her skin, and out of there will come a piece of that shrapnel. And that is a hard thing for the head to take. There's a lady over there as well who lost her legs in this bombing. She's going to find out that she gets a pitiful amount of money off our government for looking after what's happened to her. She had a daughter who was going to go to one of the best universities. She's going to give up university to look after Mum. We're all here, and all of those who watch it are going to be traumatized by this event, but all of you here who are victims are going to learn some hard truths. That is, our society, we sympathize, but after a while, we start to ignore. We don't do enough as a society. We do not look after our victims, and we do not enable them, and what I'm going to try and show is that actually, victims are the best weapon we have against more terrorism.


How would the government at the turn of the millennium approach today? Well, we all know. What they'd have done then is an invasion. If the suicide bomber was from Wales, good luck to Wales, I'd say. Knee-jerk legislation, emergency provision legislation — which hits at the very basis of our society, as we all know — it's a mistake. We're going to drive prejudice throughout Edinburgh, throughout the U.K., for Welsh people.


Today's approach, governments have learned from their mistakes. They are looking at what I've started off on, on these more asymmetrical approaches to it, more modernist views, cause and effect. But mistakes of the past are inevitable. It's human nature. The fear and the pressure to do something on them is going to be immense. They are going to make mistakes. They're not just going to be smart.


There was a famous Irish terrorist who once summed up the point very beautifully. He said, "The thing is, about the British government, is, is that it's got to be lucky all the time, and we only have to be lucky once."


So what we need to do is we have to effect it. We've got to start thinking about being more proactive. We need to build an arsenal of noncombative weapons in this war on terrorism. But of course, it's ideas — is not something that governments do very well.


I want to go back just to before the bang, to this idea of brand, and I was talking about Coke and Pepsi, etc. We see it as terrorism versus democracy in that brand war. They'll see it as freedom fighters and truth against injustice, imperialism, etc.


We do have to see this as a deadly battlefield. It's not just [our] flesh and blood they want. They actually want our cultural souls, and that's why the brand analogy is a very interesting way of looking at this. If we look at al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was essentially a product on a shelf in a souk somewhere which not many people had heard of. 9/11 launched it. It was its big marketing day, and it was packaged for the 21st century. They knew what they were doing. They were effectively [doing] something in this brand image of creating a brand which can be franchised around the world, where there's poverty, ignorance and injustice.


We, as I've said, have got to hit that market, but we've got to use our heads rather than our might. If we perceive it in this way as a brand, or other ways of thinking at it like this, we will not resolve or counter terrorism.


What I'd like to do is just briefly go through a few examples from my work on areas where we try and approach these things differently. The first one has been dubbed "lawfare," for want of a better word. When we originally looked at bringing civil actions against terrorists, everyone thought we were a bit mad and mavericks and crackpots. Now it's got a title. Everyone's doing it. There's a bomb, people start suing. But one of the first early cases on this was the Omagh Bombing. A civil action was brought from 1998. In Omagh, bomb went off, Real IRA, middle of a peace process. That meant that the culprits couldn't really be prosecuted for lots of reasons, mostly to do with the peace process and what was going on, the greater good. It also meant, then, if you can imagine this, that the people who bombed your children and your husbands were walking around the supermarket that you lived in. Some of those victims said enough is enough. We brought a private action, and thank God, 10 years later, we actually won it. There is a slight appeal on at the moment so I have to be a bit careful, but I'm fairly confident.


Why was it effective? It was effective not just because justice was seen to be done where there was a huge void. It was because the Real IRA and other terrorist groups, their whole strength is from the fact that they are an underdog. When we put the victims as the underdog and flipped it, they didn't know what to do. They were embarrassed. Their recruitment went down. The bombs actually stopped — fact — because of this action. We became, or those victims became, more importantly, a ghost that haunted the terrorist organization.


There's other examples. We have a case called Almog which is to do with a bank that was, allegedly, from our point of view, giving rewards to suicide bombers. Just by bringing the very action, that bank has stopped doing it, and indeed, the powers that be around the world, which for real politic reasons before, couldn't actually deal with this issue, because there was lots of competing interests, have actually closed down those loopholes in the banking system. There's another case called the McDonald case, where some victims of Semtex, of the Provisional IRA bombings, which were supplied by Gaddafi, sued, and that action has led to amazing things for new Libya. New Libya has been compassionate towards those victims, and started taking it — so it started a whole new dialogue there. But the problem is, we need more and more support for these ideas and cases.


Civil affairs and civil society initiatives. A good one is in Somalia. There's a war on piracy. If anyone thinks you can have a war on piracy like a war on terrorism and beat it, you're wrong. What we're trying to do there is turn pirates to fisherman. They used to be fisherman, of course, but we stole their fish and dumped a load of toxic waste in their water, so what we're trying to do is create security and employment by bringing a coastguard along with the fisheries industry, and I can guarantee you, as that builds, al Shabaab and such likes will not have the poverty and injustice any longer to prey on those people. These initiatives cost less than a missile, and certainly less than any soldier's life, but more importantly, it takes the war to their homelands, and not onto our shore, and we're looking at the causes.


The last one I wanted to talk about was dialogue. The advantages of dialogue are obvious. It self-educates both sides, enables a better understanding, reveals the strengths and weaknesses, and yes, like some of the speakers before, the shared vulnerability does lead to trust, and it does then become, that process, part of normalization. But it's not an easy road. After the bomb, the victims are not into this. There's practical problems. It's politically risky for the protagonists and for the interlocutors. On one occasion I was doing it, every time I did a point that they didn't like, they actually threw stones at me, and when I did a point they liked, they starting shooting in the air, equally not great. (Laughter) Whatever the point, it gets to the heart of the problem, you're doing it, you're talking to them.


Now, I just want to end with saying, if we follow reason, we realize that I think we'd all say that we want to have a perception of terrorism which is not just a pure military perception of it. We need to foster more modern and asymmetrical responses to it. This isn't about being soft on terrorism. It's about fighting them on contemporary battlefields. We must foster innovation, as I've said. Governments are receptive. It won't come from those dusty corridors. The private sector has a role. The role we could do right now is going away and looking at how we can support victims around the world to bring initiatives.


If I was to leave you with some big questions here which may change one's perception to it, and who knows what thoughts and responses will come out of it, but did myself and my terrorist group actually need to blow you up to make our point? We have to ask ourselves these questions, however unpalatable. Have we been ignoring an injustice or a humanitarian struggle somewhere in the world? What if, actually, engagement on poverty and injustice is exactly what the terrorists wanted us to do? What if the bombs are just simply wake-up calls for us? What happens if that bomb went off because we didn't have any thoughts and things in place to allow dialogue to deal with these things and interaction?


What is definitely uncontroversial is that, as I've said, we've got to stop being reactive, and more proactive, and I just want to leave you with one idea, which is that it's a provocative question for you to think about, and the answer will require sympathy with the devil. It's a question that's been tackled by many great thinkers and writers: What if society actually needs crisis to change? What if society actually needs terrorism to change and adapt for the better? It's those Bulgakov themes, it's that picture of Jesus and the Devil hand in hand in Gethsemane walking into the moonlight. What it would mean is that humans, in order to survive in development, quite Darwinian spirit here, inherently must dance with the devil.


A lot of people say that communism was defeated by the Rolling Stones. It's a good theory. Maybe the Rolling Stones has a place in this. Thank you. (Music) (Applause) Bruno Giussani: Thank you. (Applause)

In this gripping talk, lawyer Jason McCue urges for a new way to attack terrorism, to weaken its credibility with those who are buying the product — the recruits. He shares stories of real cases where he and other activists used this approach to engage and create change.

About the speaker
Jason McCue · Lawyer

Jason McCue litigates against terrorists, dictators and others who seem above the law, using the legal and judicial system in innovative ways.

Jason McCue litigates against terrorists, dictators and others who seem above the law, using the legal and judicial system in innovative ways.