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Experts: battle terror with minds, not guns

By Michele Neubert, NBC News Producer

STOCKHOLM, Sweden Trying to counter the world's myriad terror threats is like "learning to eat soup with a knife." That mantra, which is actually the title of a counterinsurgency manual written by Lt. Col John Nagl, seems to sum up the tremendous challenges facing the West's top military and terror experts, many of whom invoked the phrase at a recent counterterrorism conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

The conference, which was co-hosted by the Swedish National Defense College and the UK's Defense Academy, brought together American and European defense officials, police, intelligence agents, and academics, who sat in a converted brewery overlooking the Stockholm skyline, trying to get a handle on the slippery problem of terrorism, radicalization and insurgency.

Perhaps fittingly, the conference began with a one-minute moment of silence to commemorate the anniversary of the Madrid bombings on March 11, 2004. Few in the room needed reminding that Europe is not only a likely target for future terror attacks, but also a potential breeding ground for future radicals.

Former EU counterterrorism coordinator Gijs de Vries discussed tactics at the conference. He said that since 9/11 there has been solid cooperation between the U.S. and Europe, but he conceded that there is a "fundamental difference of approach – which makes it all rather messy."

"The U.S. approaches terrorists as if at war," he said, which he believes gives suspected terrorists greater status than they deserve.

VIDEO: Gijs de Vries discusses terror tactics

"People who blow up men and women are common criminals and belong behind bars, but according to a fair trial," he said, expressing concern over what he considers the U.S. disregard for the rule of law in its war on terror.

"We do not see eye to eye on the way we fight terrorism," he said, cautioning that "the U.S. cannot win this fight alone, but needs to listen to its friends and allies."

According to other delegates, the war on terror being played out on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq is counterproductive. They said the brutal images broadcast from those wars are helping radicals' recruitment efforts.   

"These images are full of humiliation and they are skillfully packaged to exploit the vulnerabilities of young people," explained Dr. Magnus Ranstorp, one of Europe's leading experts in radical and extremist groups. 

"We need to better understand their alienation, their lack of hope and employ new vehicles, maybe even soap opera stars or Hollywood to try and harness the imagination of young Muslims," suggested Ranstorp. He pointed to an experiment in Indonesia where a famous pop singer's lyrics were used to try and turn some young hearts and minds around by asking, "Who do you want to be with? The warriors of love or the warriors of jihad?" 

VIDEO: Dr. Magnus Ranstorp discusses innovative anti-terror approaches

Since the war on terror is not always fought on traditional battlefields, many believe new tactics are required.

"Modern warriors are different. Now it's a war of ideas, a battle for perception, mostly played out in cyberspace," said seasoned military commander Sir John Kiszely, of the U.K. Defense Academy. "The challenges are broader and more cerebral. These days you need to out-maneuver your opponent mentally rather than militarily."

Which is why Lt. Col. John Nagl, author of the oft-quoted "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" book, is concerned. He said it is important to keep in mind the dramatic strategic changes taking place due to the information technology revolution and how it makes terrorists more nimble.    and adapt more rapidly," he said. "The dumb insurgents are dead, the smart ones still alive."