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NMSU researchers team up to study alternative methods for combating terrorism

The recent appointment of longtime presidential confidante Karen Hughes to be undersecretary of state for public diplomacy underscores a point that NMSU researcher Mike Coombs has been trying to make for a long time: military power isn't always the solution to the problem of terrorism.



From left: Mike Coombs, Gerri McCulloh, Ken Hacker and Chris Weaver are collaborating on research related to the use of "soft power" to combat terrorism. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

ive measures can end up backfiring and bringing about phenomena such as the radicalization of second-generation Islamic youth who are now using tactics like martyrdom and suicide bombing," Coombs said.

Rather than using coercive measures alone to combat terrorism, Coombs said the U.S. government is realizing the need to find some other means to address the issue. One possible method is "soft power," which involves using tactics such as the media, discussion, negotiation and persuasion to extend our foreign policy influence rather than coercion.

"Karen Hughes' appointment is an indication that the government is seriously looking at soft power as a counter-terror tool," Coombs said.

The challenge in using soft power, Coombs explained, is that in order for it to be effective, governments need to honestly address the causes of conflict.

"You have to be very honest about what you might be doing to provoke an event and what the other side is doing to provoke a response in you," Coombs said. "For example, if you put yourself in the shoes of a citizen of a Middle Eastern country, it's not hard to see some of their concerns as rational, such as the dominance of the United States over Middle Eastern oil, the death of children in Iraq due to U.S. sanctions and U.S. support for oppressive regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia and Chechnya."

Coombs leads a group at NMSU called the Information Operations Futures Team, which was created two years ago to study the issues related to the effective use of soft power and the tools that can be employed in this strategy. The team is based in the Physical Science Laboratory, but includes researchers with backgrounds in psychology, math, computers and communication studies.

The team plans to test some of its concepts in Las Cruces and Dona Ana County using funding it received through a new partnership NMSU has with Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Because Las Cruces is such a multicultural town, Coombs hopes their findings can be applied to international situations to take the heat out of future conflicts.

"We hope that if there is another terrorist attack and you have a population that understands the process more, maybe you'll get less of a knee-jerk response against Middle Easterners in general and more of a rational response," Coombs said.