What Whac-A-Mole Can Teach Us About How to Fight Terrorism

Yes, really. I asked the game's inventor.

LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 674 -- Pictured: (l-r) Mike Tyson, Jimmy Fallon -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 674 -- Pictured: (l-r) Mike Tyson, Jimmy Fallon -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

How does one authentically describe the metastasizing threats of the Islamic State, al Qaeda, foreign fighters, bleedout, Iranian proxies, homegrown jihadis, black widows, brainwashed suicide bombers, crazed lone wolves, and killers self-radicalized on the Internet? Some still use the vague term “Global War on Terrorism,” while others prefer to describe fighting these groups even more fuzzily as “countering violent extremism.”

Another favored way to describe the fight against terrorist groups is by deploying the “whack-a-mole” metaphor. For those who haven’t spent any time at Midwestern county fairs or on New Jersey boardwalks, Whac-A-Mole is an amusement park classic where one takes a mallet to a seemingly unending set of furry rodents that pop up at random from holes in a big board. When one mole gets hit, another one quickly jumps out elsewhere on the board to take its place.

Many people seem to think this describes what occurs when one terrorist group pops up in, say, Pakistan and gets whacked, and another takes its place in Syria. Or Yemen. Or Mali. Or maybe one day in your neighborhood. The president used this metaphor recently: “What we can’t do is think that we’re just going to play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up.” Sen. John McCain used it. Top generals fall prey to the whack-a-mole trope. Even in 1993, a State Department official wielded the metaphor in a congressional hearing.

But could “whack-a-mole” be more than just a speechwriter’s throwaway turn of phrase? If fighting the terrorist threat is indeed like a game of Whac-A-Mole, then let’s follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion: Like all games, there are ways to improve your score. And that might apply to both find-fix-finishing terrorists and smiting rubbery rodents.

To this end, I recently asked Aaron Fechter, the inventor of Whac-A-Mole, what’s the best strategy to play the game.

He replied: “The technique I found most useful is to take a hit and return to middle position above the playing field, never looking at any of the moles, but using your field of vision and peripheral vision to watch the playing field…. Just look at the whole field, and react when you see something out the corner of your eye, then immediately return to center position ready to hit the next one.” Moreover, Fechter notes, “If you look at any particular mole, you will miss another one.”

Could it be, then, that America’s laser-like focus on a few groups detracts from our interest in other groups — or other security threats entirely?

This might indeed be the case. Since 9/11, the United States has reoriented much of its national security apparatus from confronting nation states to building a manhunting capability able to reach out and arrest, or smite, al Qaeda or affiliated personnel. For example, most of the analysts working at the National Counterterrorism Center are primarily focused on the United States’ conflict with al Qaeda (and increasingly the Islamic State) — but not, say, Hezbollah. Despite al Qaeda’s core being a pale shadow of its former self, the whack-a-mole analogy still feels right: Some of the group’s franchises have made significant gains in the last several years. Remember that the Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, was on the ropes only a few years ago, its leaders dead or incarcerated, yet the group is now back and even more powerful than it ever was.

But how to combat these groups? Striking with unfocused force is not useful in playing Whac-A-Mole or decimating a terrorist organization. The carnival machine registers when a certain amount of pressure is placed on the rodent’s head, so you don’t need to hit it with maximum strength to achieve the goal, even if it feels good. In fact, you’re just wasting energy and slowing down your response time.

The same principle applies with fighting terrorist organizations, where ill-considered violence can become a boon to the adversary. For example, the overall number of cruelly treated detainees at Guantanamo Bay and the U.S.-controlled Abu Ghraib prison are relatively few in number, but their real or imagined plight has been endlessly recycled in terrorist propaganda for recruitment purposes. They are “nonbiodegradables,” as David Petraeus put it in 2010. “The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick.”

But what about anticipating future trends in terrorism or trying to predict where and how terrorist organizations will strike next? This has been a conundrum the intelligence community has struggled with for some time. Do past patterns inform the way things will be in the future?

Again, look at Whac-A-Mole. “Memorizing the pattern,” Fechter says, “is too hard and may not work since, depending on who is writing the algorithm, there may not be one particular pattern to memorize.” The Islamic State’s global reach via social media is powerful and was unpredicted even a few years ago. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s takeover of half of Mali in 2012 was generally unexpected. And attacks by self-radicalized loners are very difficult for law enforcement to stop. Just as the mole’s last hole doesn’t tell you where he’ll pop up next, neither does the history of terrorist attacks prepare us well for their future.

And there are other ways Whac-A-Mole teaches us about counterterrorism: You need to invest significant time and money in order to become better at both. America has become more adept in hunting terrorists in the last 20 years, but the costs have been great. And fighting terrorism effectively — or even battling it ineffectively — across the globe is far more expensive than buying boardwalk tokens.

Finally, Fechter offered me the big takeaway about the game he invented. Unfortunately, it jives perfectly with how to best understand America’s war against shadowy terrorists: “You never really win. You just get a higher score and bragging rights if you increase your skill level.” No matter how good you are at Whac-A-Mole, every now and then one of the moles will rear its head and retreat before you can bring the hammer down.

It’s the same for terrorism. There will always be cells and political organizations that seek to cause mayhem in society and violence against civilian targets. We as citizens must not expect our intelligence services and law enforcement to stop every terrorist attack with 100 percent accuracy, because spies and cops are mere mortals, because we value our open society, and because there are just too many potential targets out there. The bad guys will occasionally succeed.

In any case, America simply doesn’t have — and Americans probably don’t want — a globe-sized mallet that can hit everything all the time. We must understand “winning” may not actually be the best yardstick for success in fighting terrorism; rather, it’s playing as well as we can, given our social, political, and human limitations. We should acknowledge Aaron Fechter’s advice about his infernal invention and center ourselves, look at the whole field, and get ready to play a terribly long game that only really ends when the electricity finally sputters out.

Photo credit:Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Aki Peritz is a former CIA counterterrorism analyst and coauthor of Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda. Follow him on Twitter @akiperitz.