Given the interest in determining why the Boston bombers carried out their attacks, it is unsurprising that radicalization has become a hot topic of late. Take two young men who have lived in the United States for the better part of a decade who then decide to carry out a bombing against unsuspecting civilians – of course questions are going to arise as to how and why such a thing could happen.
In light of this circumstance, it’s also understandable why journalists would turn to someone like Dr. John Horgan to explain the relationship between radicalization and terrorism. What’s perhaps a bit more surprising is that Rolling Stone would be the one to publish an article called “Everything You’ve Been Told About Radicalization Is Wrong.” While the title is a bit misleading compared to the content, Horgan does make a strong statement in the piece, arguing that “The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research.”
This assertion drew a bit of feedback from, among others, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who wrote a retort for al-Wasat called “Radicalization and Political Violence.” In his piece, Gartenstein-Ross argues that Horgan doesn’t provide the empirical evidence necessary to back up this claim.
The discussion between Horgan and Gartenstein-Ross touched off a cascade effect of input and analysis, including a post from J.M. Berger called “Myths of Radicalization.” I half-jokingly tweeted Berger saying that he wrote the blog post I intended to. As you can tell by reading this, that didn’t quite turn out to be true, although it did change the nature of my post a bit.
Before I go any further, I want to point out that I respect the work of all three of these men. I have written often about the role Horgan’s work on de-radicalization and disengagement had on my MA dissertation on Yemen’s de-radicalization program, and I positively reviewed books by both Gartenstein-Ross and Berger. I also happen to think that this is a needed discussion, partially because it helps elaborate on the way people mean different things while using the same language. It’s quite easy to talk past one another, as the Australian Department of Defence’s lengthy document on Countering Violent Extremism makes clear.
Consider Horgan’s statement: “The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research.” Gartenstein-Ross takes this to mean that radicalization doesn’t lead to terrorism, and disputes the logic under that understanding. I wonder if a clearer meaning might be the way Berger put it in his first myth about radicalization, which is that radicalization leads to terrorism. “But there are hundreds of thousands to millions of people in the world who are radicalized, and only a handful take up violence,” he writes. “So the road of radicalization by no means leads invariably to terrorism.”
It is the word invariably here that may be the most important. To say that it is a myth that radicalization causes terrorism, by my reading, is not the same thing as saying radicalization never leads to terrorism. Rather, the point is that the causal link between the two is overstated and misunderstood. Thus, one could argue like Horgan does that radicalization’s role in terrorism research is misplaced without arriving at the conclusion that Gartenstein-Ross proposes, that the myth means radicalization never leads to terrorism.
The problem here is how we think about radicalization. Radicalization means many things to many people. I’ve found the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales’ document “Preventing Religious Radicalisation and Violent Extremism: A Systematic Review of the Research” helpful because it presents several models of how radicalization works, including the NYPD one discussed in the Rolling Stone piece. (On that subject, I think the way the FBI presents its version of the radicalization process to be slightly better than the NYPD’s, though the two are similar.) The short takeaway from these various models is that radicalization is a process; it involves several steps that are not clearly separated; it is not pre-ordained to go from start to end (in fact, the vast majority do not); and a number of internal and external factors come into play. It’s also clear that models are only useful so far, and cannot be applied universally.
Bad policy arises from assuming that radicalization inevitably leads to terrorism. Incorrect public opinion and media narrative focused heavily on the subject don’t help either. It’s possible that having more academic work studying radicalization separate from terrorism would be helpful for contextualizing the relationship between the two. Having clear definitions spelled out in the academic work that discusses it would undoubtedly be beneficial. I was annoyed by this constant focus on definitions when I first seriously delved into the academic world, but it’s become apparent to me that you can’t assume that concepts are self-explanatory. For example, radicalization defined as believing violence is an appropriate way to further a political or religious cause is different from radicalization defined as believing in violent, offensive jihad. Moreover, believing that something is appropriate is yet different from acting on it – and it is through action that (at least in the US) one can step over the line from free speech to criminal activity.
Gartenstein-Ross raises some valuable points in his piece. Among them is the view that terrorist motivations are multifaceted, and can include borderline understanding of Islamist concepts. There is a lack of nuance in this area of study, with one side essentially arguing that Islam necessarily leads to terrorism (it doesn’t) and the other arguing, as this piece does, that because many terrorists do not have a good understanding of Islam the role of Islamism should be left out of the discussion completely (it shouldn’t, although it shouldn’t be limited to Islamism either). Going back to the Boston bombers, if the two brothers intermixed shallow religious and political beliefs to derive their motivation, it’s still important to try to understand how that worked.
Why is all of this important? For one, it matters how it drives our use of resources. David Petraeus rather famously stated that we can’t kill our way to victory, which (while not speaking of terrorism per se) highlights the need for “softer” approaches to terrorism. But there’s the rub: is counter-radicalization the same as counter-terrorism? More specifically, will counter-radicalization lead to less terrorism? To the first question, the answer is no; to the second, it’s hard to show that the answer is yes. So many counter-radicalization programs are vague and lack measureable goals that its impossible to gauge their effectiveness, even before getting into questions of free speech and inadvertent alienation of target audiences. What, then, is the best approach to stopping terrorism; is it focusing on radicalization?
Even if we are looking primarily at terrorist motivation, it’s worth separating assumptions about radicalization from data. For example, Horgan mentioned to me recently that in the research he’s performing common trends appear to indicate that many people join terrorist groups based on personal relationships and only adopt radical beliefs after joining, and that radical beliefs tend to be more common among lower-tier members than among leaders. The second point is anecdotally seen in Ken Ballen’s book Terrorists in Love. As Gartenstein-Ross points out, this doesn’t negate the relationship between radicalization and terrorism, but it does make us think about it differently. It will be interesting to see how Horgan lays out this data in more detail.
Assumptions and opinions about terrorism are a dime a dozen, and the debate about radicalization’s role is far from over. If Horgan is correct in arguing that de-radicalization – changing people’s beliefs – is less important than disengagement – getting people to leave terrorism behind, even if their beliefs do not change – then it stands to reason understanding engagement with terrorist activity and groups may be more important than showing how radical beliefs lead to terrorism. The two are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they mutually inclusive. Well, at least depending on how you define radicalization.
A couple of weeks ago, as I was pondering the role the public plays in countering online radicalization, I thought I would open the discussion up to Twitter. After all, if radicalization to violence can occur online, shouldn’t the Internet be a natural place to look for answers on how to counter it?
Both participants were responding to the generic questions, “How should people respond if they think they know someone being recruited or self-radicalizing into violent extremism? What is John Q. Public’s appropriate response if he thinks someone is radicalizing?” What I wanted to get at was what the individual’s role is alongside government or community efforts.
Dr. John Horgan’s response:
Some general ideas:
Fill the gap.
Don’t de-legitimize emotions.
Make available alternative channels for expression.
Given a hypothetical uncle concerned that his 16 year-old nephew is visiting radical websites online:
Try to determine, what answers is the nephew looking for?
Are those answers something he can’t find elsewhere?
Engage with the nephew.
There are multiple stakeholders at multiple levels, each of which can play a critical role.
You have to address the Internet behavior. Is the nephew: Searching for specific answers? Being groomed/recruited by someone else? Bored? Showing emotional avoidance?
Research on community CVE may offer some insights as to how individuals should respond. Responses are all very context-specific.
Humera Khan’s response:
There are different approaches depending on where the potential radical is located, what type of radicalization we are talking about [e.g., I presume, Islamist vs. white nationalist, etc.], and how far along the person is in the radicalization process.
Given a hypothetical uncle concerned that his 16 year-old nephew is visiting radical websites online:
Response depends on how involved the uncle wants to be as well as his relationship with the nephew
Some general suggestions for parents/family members/friends/concerned individuals include the following:
1. Do not ignore the situation. [This was emphasized quite strongly.]
2. Move some of the conversations from the online forum to the living room.
You have to have rapport with the person to have any conversation.
Telling a 16 year-old not to go online or not to visit a specific website will backfire.
Engage softly; head-on confrontation with a teenager is not going to work well.
The person engaging needs to control his anger/temper/emotions when engaging.
Honesty is necessary, no matter how taboo an issue is that comes up. Youth are not stupid.
Don’t pretend to know answers if you don’t know.
3. Get help as needed (i.e., from imams, parents, mentors, youth directors, counselors).
Countering radicalization is not an overnight process so don’t try to rush it.
The teenage years can be very angst-filled. Consider what other things are going on in the teen’s life.
What alternatives exist to divert the teen’s attentions, such as youth group, sports, etc.?
4. After determining other factors in the teen’s life, apply steps 1 through 3 to those as well, and not just the immediate issue of radicalization.
5. The theoretical age of 16 is young for action, but if involvement is more than just talk then different responses are required.
Look at who the teen’s friends are and what other things he’s doing.
If he is in the U.S. and is planning on acting alone, then guns are the easiest means to access to commit violence.
Does the teen have friends or groups that he hangs out with? What is happening in those groups?
Clichés like “it takes a village” are actually on point.
Is the teen trying to acquire weapons or other methods of hurting people? Is he making travel arrangements?
Is he trying to save large amounts of money, or receiving money from unknown sources?
6. If it seems like the teen is involved in more than just rhetoric, then law enforcement involvement is essential.
It’s not just a matter of telling the FBI, but making sure other appropriate adults are involved in the process as well.
Some communities, imams, schools, etc. have good law enforcement liaisons that can be used.
In some places, law enforcement will monitor the teen but allow the community to continue engagement with him.
Remember that the process is not accomplished overnight, and that containing/preventative actions need to be repeated over and over.
Work to bring the teen back from the edge of action, which means identifying alternative ways to let off steam are necessary. The people who are engaging can’t withdraw when the going gets tough.
7. Parents, mentors, good friends, and positive role models are necessary for a strong social support network on an ongoing basis.
8. In a nutshell, engage, empathy, redirect, support.
Sometimes the library doesn’t have the book(s) I am looking for, so I end up checking out another tangentially-related work in the hopes of learning something new. I don’t mean this as a slight, it’s simply the explanation for how I came across Catherine Herridge’s book The Next Wave: On the Hunt for Al Qaeda’s American Recruits. I didn’t look at the author’s bio – it turns out she’s a reporter for Fox News, which is neither a plus nor a minus for me because I don’t watch news television – but I thought the premise sounded like a good follow-up to J.M. Berger’s book Jihad Joe, which I recently reviewed. Unfortunately for Herridge, reading The Next Wave so closely after Jihad Joe left her book coming up short.
Herridge tries to tell the story of al-Qaeda’s growing reliance on American recruits largely through connections to three stories: Nidal Hasan’s shooting at Ft. Hood in 2009, Carlos Bledsoe’s attack on the military recruiting office in Little Rock a few months before that, and Faisal Shahzad’s attempted bombing of Times Square in 2010. (It’s fairly clear from reading the book that it was largely written prior to 2011, the year it was published, although it does include some off-hand references to 2011 incidents like bin Laden’s killing.) A few other people and plots do appear, including brief descriptions of Omar Hammami, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Najibullah Zazi, Colleen LaRose and Zachary Chesser.
The thread holding it all together, though, is Anwar al-Awlaki, who is apparently described in later versions of the book at “Al Qaeda 2.0’s leader.”* From Herridge’s telling, Awlaki might be responsible, in one way or another, for nearly every terrorist plot involving Americans to any degree for at least the past five years. He is an internet radicalizer and recruiter par excellence, and is (at the time of writing) a dire threat to the United States.
Awlaki is certainly something of a lighting rod in the counter-terrorism community. Herridge repeatedly mentions government officials clamming up at the sound of Awlaki’s name, and describes the (ultimately unsuccessful) struggle she went through to obtain Awlaki’s mug shots from his prostitution arrests. (One was later leaked by the FBI, but not, she points out, not to Fox News.) By reading this book, one would suspect that Awlaki headed up al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (that would be Nasir al-Wuhayshi) and that his participation was essential for AQAP to persist (a theory disproven by the past 15 months).
Herridge’s writing is rife with speculation about Awlaki, particularly related to the arrest warrant against him that was vacated the same day Awlaki returned to the United States from Yemen. Herridge eventually lays out why she thinks that happened: “Neither the FBI nor my law enforcement contacts ever challenged our conclusion that the Bureau was trying to cultivate al-Awlaki as a human intelligence asset. Or at the very least, the Bureau wanted to track the cleric after he entered the country” (p. 216). In the paperback version, Herridge apparently doubles down on this concept, writing “a confidential source said [to Herridge], ‘The question is not whether the FBI was running al-Awlaki. The question is how many were running the cleric.’”** Despite the 9/11 Commission’s reluctance to identify Awlaki as a key player in the September 11th attacks, the circumstantial evidence in Herridge’s book leads the author to conclude that Awlaki was essentially the ringleader of al-Qaeda’s pre-9/11 American cell. (As an aside, Berger has engaged with Herridge’s reporting recently on the level of connection between Awlaki and the 9/11 hijackers.)
At times its difficult to tell whether this is a book about al-Qaeda recruitment in the U.S. or about Awlaki’s life and nefarious actions. There are some very interesting parts to the book, however, often appearing as tidbits of interviews with intelligence professionals. For example, former National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) director Michael Leiter is quoted as saying “We are a resilient country, and small attacks like that [Fort Hood, the failed bombings of Christmas Day and Times Square] don’t threaten us, and the only way we can actually threaten our society is to overreact and give terrorists a victory that they otherwise wouldn’t have” (p. 111, bracketed portion in the original). It’s a valid point, and one that’s too easily missed in media-hyped stories about terrorism.
Similarly insightful is a quote from pseudonymous NCTC analyst “Victoria,” who expressed displeasure with the oft-used phrase “connecting the dots” as it pertains to intelligence analysis. “As a culture, she said, we were too reactive and too busy playing catchup. ‘The really crucial thing for our organization is trying to get ahead of these trends, Victoria said [.…] It’s thinking ahead and it’s trying to understand the terrorists from their perspective, not just ours’” (p. 114). Importantly, this includes bringing in people who intimately know the subjects they are analyzing, including indigenous speakers and former criminals.
Another pseudonymous analyst pointed out that “The Internet is an inanimate object. The Internet can’t make people do things” (p. 116), which is a careful when thinking about the role of the Internet in radicalization. While others quoted in Herridge’s book rightly emphasize the role recruiters play in bringing potential extremists into the fold – a point summed up by Clint Watts as “the best recruiter of a foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter – not the Internet” – former CIA director Michael Hayden offered some valuable insight. In addition to pointing out that attacks like Mumbai are “really frightening to us” because they are not very complex and fairly easily carried out by terrorists with a low level of training, Hayden also noted that pre-9/11 notions of radicalization and terrorist recruitment may be changing. “The most important element in any recruitment was personal contact, and while the Web may have been useful, fundamentally it was the personal contact,” he said. “It’s the mentoring thing. I don’t know if that was true then but it seems to be less so now as some people, Hasan for example, seem to have just done it purely with the Internet” (p. 187).
Herridge’s own writing is not quite so simple to follow. It is an easy read, but the lack of chronological consistency or a clear thematic outline means that the book wanders at times and gets ahead of itself at points. For example, an entire chapter is devoted to the trials of Guantanamo prisoners. While raising some valid questions about the process, including statements by President Obama and Attorney General Holder that seem to suggest that guilty verdicts are all-but-guaranteed for Gitmo’s detainees, the relevance of this section to the overall thesis of al-Qaeda recruitment of Americans is unclear. A careful reader might similarly point out that Abdulmutallab is not American, even if he was allegedly inspired by and potentially trained by Awlaki, and Shahzad was a product of the Taliban’s tutelage, not al-Qaeda’s.
While questions certainly remain about Awlaki’s treatment by the government, including why his arrest warrant was pulled and what specific evidence led to his inclusion on the drone strike list, some of Herridge’s subtle suggestions about how to counter such radicals are a bit troubling. “[T]he enemy was also using the very freedoms we were fighting to protect against us,” Herridge writes in her concluding chapter, referencing protections under the law for all Americans, even suspected terrorists. Perhaps more telling is a quote from cyber security professional Dale Meyerrose, which Herridge includes without criticism:
Meyerrose, who had held some of the toughest technology and intelligence jobs, predicted a change in our thinking. We had to stop throwing up roadblocks that prevented us from looking at our own people. “In some cases, I’m not saying this for overemphasis, in some cases we’re protecting people from an eighteenth-century mind-set in the twenty-first century. And the eighteenth-century mind-set is that we don’t want our military or intelligence community to have any role in domestic affairs” (p. 194).
Dana Priest and William Arkin point out in their book Top Secret America just how much the military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities are doing to protect America, including their role in domestic affairs, as well as some of the technological and privacy challenges the approach raises. It might have been instructive to include a similar analysis in this book.
Despite Herridge’s attempts to frighten, anger, or otherwise coerce the reader into agreeing that the threat of radicalized Americans is severe and that, ostensibly, we should determine that it’s time to “throw away the key” (p. 227) for Gitmo detainees and other terrorists alike, the book fails to convince. In some ways, it is unfortunate that Herridge’s book does not more fully address its declared subject, because she does have some good points sprinkled throughout the book. She clearly cares about the topic, and her passion for protecting Americans from terrorism is apparent from her personal comments throughout the book. The sample size from which she draws her conclusions is too small to be representative, however, as is clearly apparent by comparing The Next Wave’s essentially 5-year view of radical American participation in violent extremism to Jihad Joe’s more than 30-year perspective. Americans have participated in violent jihad at least since the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and this fact could have been explored more in Herridge’s book. Given that the two books were published within a month of one another, the information was apparently available, even though Herridge is focused on the more narrow topic of al-Qaeda recruitment.
Moreover, while homegrown terrorists remain a threat, the danger is not quite as dire as Herridge presents it. Data collected by Charles Kurzman suggests that “Muslim-American terrorism” has essentially plateaued throughout the past decade. One of NCTC’s analyst rightly points out to Herridge that al-Qaeda should be kept in the proper perspective when compared to dangers like countries who are legitimate enemies of the US. Finally, while I think it’s fair to suggest that some terrorists are truly evil, a concept Herridge clearly embraces, I don’t think the appropriate answer is to strip away Constitutional rights or federal protections separating the military, intelligence, and law enforcement. Understanding the threat doesn’t mean undercutting the system that makes the US the country that it is.
Herridge makes a valiant attempt at writing a great book on an important topic, and had I read it a month ago I might have appreciated it more. Jihad Joe is simply the better take on the subject.
* I say apparently because this description showed up in a Google Books search when I was trying to find a particular quote. The page referenced – ix. – does not appear in my version.
Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia is a one-of-a-kind take on the rise, fall, and resurrection of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Richly detailed, it provides more than just a sequential list of attacks and their perpetrators. Instead, it’s a compelling narrative of al-Qaeda’s development and practice, including the group’s non-violent side. No matter how much you know about al-Qaeda or Yemen, you will no doubt learn something new in the pages of this book.
Johnsen is not content to tell just the story of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the post-2009 amalgam of Yemeni and Saudi al-Qaeda members that is the most dangerous terrorist threat facing the United States today. Rather, Johnsen takes the reader back to the beginning, telling the story not only of jihad in Afghanistan and the roles Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden played in that conflict, but also relaying relevant stories from Mohammad’s life in appropriate places. In this way, Johnsen’s obvious knowledge of the Middle East in general and Yemen in particular clearly shows through.
The story is not just about al-Qaeda but also about modern Yemen – the complex, at times nearly incomprehensible to outsiders, deeply complicated country that has been at times a key ally and at others a main threat in the war on terrorism. What sometimes might seems like deviations from the main thrust of the book nearly always return to violent jihad’s role in Yemeni society. To understand the role of jihadists in Yemen’s government, for example, one must know about former Yemeni President Saleh’s use of jihadists in the 1994 Yemeni civil war. That, in turn, takes one back further into the history of Saleh’s precipitous 30-year-plus rule, Yemen’s former division, Cold War politics, and Saudi and Egyptian battles for power in Yemen.
The interwoven tale of Yemen and jihad is told in fine detail, though at times I wondered if the author assumed too much about his readers’ knowledge of Yemen. The complex array of family names and tribal affiliations can confuse even those with a familiarity of the country, and I can’t imagine trying to untangle the web without previous study. I found myself wanting not only the list of key players found at the end of the book, but an organizational diagram showing their relationships to one another as well. Those who have studied Yemen will notice how Johnsen subtly slips in references to overused phrases about the embattled country, such as Saleh’s description of governing as “dancing on the heads of snakes,” the high number of guns per capita, and bin Laden’s “ancestral home” in Hadramawt.
Other reviews have rightly pointed out that Johnsen is a masterful writer. Johnsen’s fondness for literature, which he frequently mentions on Twitter, has clearly influenced his ability to tell a good story. Indeed, at times it seems like you are reading a novel, particularly in Johnsen’s descriptions of some of the major players and regions. Barbara Bodine is not merely a former ambassador to Yemen, for example; she’s a “trim, no-nonsense career diplomat from Missouri” whose “unveiled, angular good looks came as a shock to many in the conservative country” (pp. 59-60). I doubt Yemenis would appreciate as much Johnsen’s colorful descriptions of some areas of their country, including his portrayal of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, looking “more like a garbage dump” than Mohammad’s “paradise of earthly paradises.”
The only problem with this seamless narrative is that when the reader has a question or a quibble about some aspect of the text, it’s difficult to know from where the information came. There are no footnotes in the book, except for an occasional explanatory aside. I did find, to my surprise, that there are endnote references; there’s no indication of that fact in the body of the text. Because these notes are based on phrases from the book rather than in-text notations, narrowing down sources for particular statements is not as easy as in, say, J.M. Berger’s book Jihad Joe, which I recently reviewed.
Most of the time, this lack of notated source material is not a significant issue. For example, most accounts that I have seen of Abdullah Azzam’s assassination included sly references to Osama bin Laden’s potential implication in the bombing. In Johnsen’s telling, bin Laden was surprised by Azzam’s death (p. 17). At times when reading, I simply wanted to know more about the story, such as when Johnsen recounts conversations between al-Qaeda operatives in prison. In others, it seemed like it would have been worthwhile to more clearly substantiate assertions, such as alleged mistreatment of prisoners in Guantanamo. When there’s a question, it’s nice to be able to quickly and easily source a contention.
The chapter I was most looking forward to reading was chapter 10, the story of Yemen’s de-radicalization program. (This was also the subject of my master’s dissertation.) True to form, Johnsen brought new insights to the story, though to quote John Horgan in reference to a chapter in Berger’s book, Johnsen’s telling was tantalizingly short. I found myself most drawn in by the story of AQAP proper’s formative years, first in prisons and then immediately out of them. Fresh details of al-Wuhayshi’s relationship to bin Laden and the detainees’ machinations to resurrect al Qaeda in Yemen both fleshed out my understanding of the organization and reinforced its pedigree. I was reminded again of how young so many of the important players are. Perhaps most important was Johnsen’s focus on Osama bin Laden’s emphasis on centralization of decision and decentralization of execution. AQAP has finessed this approach to create a dangerous and compartmentalized threat in Yemen. Bin Laden’s leadership philosophy may be too often overlooked both by those who asserted that bin Laden was completely removed from the game prior to his death and those who argued for (one time) total control by al Qaeda Central.
As other reviewers have pointed out, the books is a bit like a train taking off, carefully picking its way through the story at the beginning and hurtling at breakneck speed by the end. The problem with political science, my undergraduate history advisor told me, is that by the time you have figured out what is going on, the situation has changed. Johnsen faces a similar problem in trying to recount the most recent developments in Yemen. The final pages on AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah, while all pertinent, felt at times like a mad rush to assemble all the relevant material in an ever-evolving situation and to capture it in print before things changed once again. (And, perhaps, before the manuscript’s deadline arrived.) Partially because I did not realize there were any endnotes padding out the last pages of the book, I was taken by surprise by the rather abrupt end.
Lest I seem uncharitable, Johnsen surely faced a difficult task compiling the necessary information in an appropriate timeframe. Particularly as a non-Arabic speaker, I am indebted to him for his comprehensive history of the subject. This book is certainly a must-read on Yemen and AQAP, and I expect to read it more than once. Somewhat like Victoria Clark’s book Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, the first reading set the framework for understanding, and subsequent readings will fill out extra or overlooked detail. Both in quality of writing and depth of detail, Johnsen’s book is better than Clark’s, falling somewhere on the scale of complexity between Clark and Paul Dresch’s A History of Modern Yemen. Much to Bruce Hoffman’s dismay, Johnsen’s PhD thesis is on the 1962-1970 Yemeni civil war, so I doubt we will see a scholarly work or popular book equal to The Last Refuge any time in the near future.
I received a handful of books for Christmas, among them Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge and J.M. Berger’s Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam. I decided to read Berger’s book first because I knew it was written earlier than Johnsen’s, and I was particularly interested to see how Berger’s and Johnsen’s portrayals of Anwar al-Awlaki compared and contrasted. I should probably note that I didn’t come to either of these books completely unbiased, as I have interacted with both of the authors on Twitter.
Jihad Joe holds a unique position in books on radicalization, at least that I have seen. On one end of the spectrum are biographies, profiles, and case studies of individuals or small groups of people who have become radicalized. These books tend to be very detailed accounts of how one or more persons became radicalized, and how they acted after radicalization – sometimes including how they left a radical mindset or group. Somewhat representative of books in this vein are Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’s My Year Inside Radical Islam and Ken Ballen’s Terrorists in Love, both of which I’ve written about before. From a disengagement perspective, you could also include John Horgan’s Walking Away from Terrorism.
On the other end of the spectrum are the theory-laden books on radicalization, like Tore Bjorgo and John Horgan’s anthology Leaving Terrorism Behind. These books offer the big picture on radicalization and de-radicalization without digging too far into individual stories. Both ends of spectrum offer valuable insights into the process and scope of radicalization. In the middle, there’s Jihad Joe, which surveys a vast range of Americans who chose to pursue a violent version of jihad, offering yet another perspective on the subject.
And on that subject, Berger was precise in his definitions. Unlike some government documents or academic treatises, Jihad Joe was not full of technical jargon, acronyms, or obscure theoretical terminology. Instead, Berger set out at the beginning to be clear exactly what he was – and was not – talking about. For example, Berger writes:
A key term in this book is “jihadist.” Generally, anyone characterized as a jihadist will fit into one of the following categories:
Someone who travels abroad to fight in a foreign conflict specifically in the name of Islam.
Someone who takes part in terrorist activities that are explicitly defined by the participants as a form of military jihad or that are explicitly motivated by jihadist ideology.
Someone who actively finances, supports, advocates, or provides religious justification for explicit military jihad as described previously. (p. x)
Berger also lays out useful definitions for terrorism, jihad, radicals, jihadist incitement, etc. While acknowledging that the definitions will have their critics, as any definitions on these subjects do, they do help frame the book to understand Berger’s points properly. Moreover, Jihad Joe was (mostly) neutral in its descriptions of American jihadists. A note of derision can be detected when describing some of the most incompetent jihadists, though in some cases their mistakes a truly laughable. Though not quoted directly in Jihad Joe, I was reminded of the 9/11 Commission Report’s note on the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when one of the participants was apprehended after trying to recoup the rental cost of the vehicle used in the bombing:
[A]lthough the bombing heightened awareness of a new terrorist danger, successful prosecutions contributed to widespread underestimation of the threat. The government’s attorneys stressed the seriousness of the crimes, and put forward evidence of Yousef ’s technical ingenuity. Yet the public image that persisted was not of clever Yousef but of stupid Salameh going back again and again to reclaim his $400 truck rental deposit. (p. 73)
It’s difficult to remain entirely neutral in the face of such incompetence, or the similarly foolish choices made by some of the jihadists Berger recounts. However, Berger’s writing stands in contrast to, say, Jayna Davis in The Third Terrorist, who uses loaded language both to flatter those who agree with her and to decry those who disagree or equivocate. What Berger does make clear is that his derision is not for Islam on the whole. In the conclusion especially Berger emphasizes the miniscule proportion of Muslims who choose to pursue violent jihad, as well as the roles Muslims and non-Muslims alike can play in combatting the threat of extremists.
Berger walks a fine line in his book. On the one hand, there’s the pressure to ensure a coherent narrative so that the book is both pleasant to read and logically intact. On the other hand, there’s the danger of making all of the many jihadists described sound like they are connected by a single thread. While some plots are certainly linked – the 1993 World Trade Center bombing shared some participants/planners with the planned attacks against New York City landmarks, for example – it’s not true that there is an unbroken succession of jihadist generations starting in the 1970s and continuing to today that links every American jihadist to every other American jihadist before or after. Berger handles the challenge admirably, showing how American jihadism has progressed in the past few decades without making it sound like one giant conspiracy or cabal.
The sheer number of names referenced within Jihad Joe can be a bit overwhelming. Berger does try to help by reminding you who some of the key players are, though that was a bit repetitive at times. The number of individuals described does show the extent of Berger’s research, which is is chock full of footnotes and quotes from primary sources. (I love both knowing exactly where information comes from and seeing primary sources used heavily, so I appreciated Berger’s approach.) However, while you can see the broad arc of American jihadism in Jihad Joe, you don’t really get a detailed look into any one person’s life. Even Anwar al-Awlaki, who received probably the most detailed biography in the book, does not get a full accounting. (As an aside, Berger’s contrast of Awlaki to bin Laden is quite good. It was also interesting to read about both Awlaki and bin Laden from the perspective of a few short months before their deaths.)
Of course, the intent of Jihad Joe is not to detail each person’s life. It serves as a primer on the subject of American jihadism, letting readers pursue further research on any of the individual subjects they desire to know more about. Necessarily, that means if you know a fair amount about one of the people or plots described in the book, you’ll see some of the minutiae that was beyond the scope of this book. If you’re like me, though, by reading Jihad Joe you’ll also learn about a number of individuals and planned (or successful) attacks that you weren’t aware of before. It’s well worth the read.
In my previous post, I talked about the Biden Doctrine of counterterrorism operations built on Special Operations, drone strikes, and cruise missiles. Wired’s Danger Room has an article out about Defense Secretary Leon Panetta discussing that very future for the Defense Department. And Gregory Johnsen has written a scathing op-ed in the New York Times decrying this approach to counterterrorism in Yemen. Both pieces hit at the “small footprint” shadow wars that are likely to continue in the near future.
Note: Unfortunately, this post likely will not mark a regular return to blog posting. I will try to post semi-regularly, as time constraints allow.
As the dust settles from the presidential election and the fallout in Washington over the Petraeus scandal, questions arise about what the next few years of American politics will mean for Yemen (as well as, of course, other countries around the world). A number of articles and video segments have recently covered various aspects of this broad question:
As PRI’s The World host Marco Werman put it in an interview with Johnsen, AQAP’s obvious danger means “Defeating Al Queda [sic] in Yemen is one of the top priorities on President Obama’s national security agenda.”
So what do the last couple of weeks in American politics mean for Yemen? Probably very little – or, that is to say, probably very little that’s different from the past few years.
The overwhelming result of the national election is that the status quo held. Congress largely returned the same members to Washington, and Obama was re-elected. While there will certainly be a new head of the CIA, and allegedly new heads of the State and Defense departments, what we’re likely to see in the next four years is a renewal of the focus on “smart power” in fighting terrorism. This is encouraged by what some have called the “Biden Doctrine,” based on Vice President Biden’s focus on narrow counterterrorism efforts like using special operations forces, launching cruise missiles, and initiating drone strikes. It is probably bolstered as well by the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound.
As Sharqieh points out, Yemeni President Hadi strongly emphasized counterterrorism efforts in a cable congratulating Obama for his re-election. The status quo hasn’t changed all that much in Yemen, either, in the transition from Saleh to Hadi. There have been shakeups, to be sure, but the primary basis of the relationship between the U.S. and Yemen remains the battle against terrorism. (As Foust pointed out in the HuffPo video, the U.S. does give a lot of money to Yemen for reasons other than terrorism. The application of American policies in Yemen shows a strong focus on counterterrorism, however.)
Potentially, changes at the CIA could affect American policy in Yemen. A de-militarization of the Agency, for example, could mean fewer drone strikes. A greater focus on HUMINT would have a number of benefits, among which could be more accurate strikes and/or raids. A shared understanding of the goals for Yemen and other countries, incorporated by the broad spread of American agencies involved with national security and foreign policy, could achieve a focused end state towards which to strive. (This point was eloquently stated by Heather Hurlburt in the HuffPo discussion.) Whether or not any of these will happen is anyone’s guess. Whether or not any of them will happen in the very near future is doubtful.
A major point of discussion in the debate about the future of intelligence and national security concerns the role of terrorism in the overall threat picture, and particularly the role of al-Qaeda. Some have argued, as Jeremy Scahill does in the HuffPo discussion, that the focus on terrorism is disproportionate given the other national security threats to the U.S. The challenge for achieving the right balance on terrorism is two-fold: international terrorism is quite diffuse, begging a “needle-in-the-haystack” allusion, and the political climate requires absolute success. Guiding both points is the truism that “We have to be successful 100% of the time; they only have to be successful once.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that so much money and manpower is devoted to fighting terrorism. Whether accurate or not, the widespread belief is that the U.S. will not soon find itself slugging it out with an equally large foe; a Cold War-esque U.S. vs. U.S.S.R style fight is not the major concern. Moreover, while foreign militaries undoubtedly use guile and subterfuge to mask their capabilities and intentions, the structured nature of such potential adversaries differs significantly from the de-centralized framework of terrorist threats. To put it bluntly, it takes more effort to catch people when they aren’t in uniform and can blend in with the population.
Additionally, while some advocate an Israeli-style resiliency to terrorism in the U.S., noting that we can’t be successful every time, the current political climate is such that failure to defeat terrorist attacks – at least in the homeland – is probably a deal killer for most politicians. It might not single-handedly end careers, but it certainly won’t help them. Therefore, those in power must work from a position of perceived strength.
Complicating the fight against terrorism, especially in places like Yemen, is that there are so few people who have a strong grasp of the countries in which we are operating. (I say this while acknowledging that, by necessity, I can speak only of those who are in the public sphere. The government’s stable of culturally-proficient analysts aren’t writing open-source articles.) America lost a great analyst of Yemen when Christopher Boucek died just over a year ago. Gregory Johnsen is one of the few American experts on Yemen who consistently engages the public sphere. While there are certainly others who offer good analysis, we simply do not have enough people to provide the context we need for policies in places like Yemen.
Moreover, changing political winds mean that constant analysis is required. For example, Johnsen has repeatedly pointed out that official estimates for the size of AQAP have risen from 200-300 in late 2009 to more than 1,000 today, possibly as much as 6,000. This, Johnsen argues, is largely the unintended result of radicalization arising from Yemeni displeasure over American drone strikes. Now, Johnsen doesn’t assert that Yemeni deaths are the only cause, but a major one. We also have to factor in potential implications of the Arab Spring (both pro- and anti-government sentiments), Yemeni poverty, and any number of other factors that are often difficult to nail down. The only way to get a good grasp on the situation is continual observation and analysis.
Unfortunately, too often we simply don’t know what’s going on, and that affects our decision-making. I would be interested in seeing if there has been a similar growth in jihadist groups in the same timeframe as AQAP has expanded. As Scahill pointed out in the HuffPo roundtable, we often don’t know what other groups are doing, or even if they exist. (I was reminded at that point of my dissertation supervisor, who on a U.N.-sponsored fact-finding trip to Palestine came back with a lengthy list of extremist Islamist movements the U.N. had never heard of.) Is AQAP’s growth self-perpetuating? That is to say, is AQAP’s post-bin Laden prominence as a dangerous group drawing recruits, making it more dangerous and thus more attractive? Are we under-estimating the scheming and leadership capabilities of AQAP’s leader and bin Laden deputy Nasir al-Wuhayshi?
Given our lack of knowledge, can we realistically expect anything to change in the near future? If things get significantly worse, American leadership may seek an alternative to our current approach. Just what that would look like, I don’t know. Success in Yemen requires not merely Yemeni involvement but Yemeni leadership of the approach. Unless something drastic happens to force a change, however, I think we’ll continue to see a piecemeal approach of eliminating one terrorist leader at a time with implicit Yemeni approval, rather than a grand new direction in Yemen. And if something drastic does happen, I don’t know if anyone knows what to do next.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve had to take a break from posting. Between moving and switching jobs, I just haven’t had a whole lot of down time, and what I’ve had has been spent with family. I do intend to resurrect the blog, to spend time looking at Yemen, and to start interacting on Twitter again. I just don’t know when that’s going to happen.
Sometimes I feel bad about not writing more on this blog. In times like these, though, I know that there is more value in pointing you to other thinkers than in pontificating myself. That being said, here’s the latest links dump of stories I (mostly) haven’t been able to read but wanted to (updated with a few more links):
Apparently it’s time for a new links dump of stories related to drones. I haven’t read all of these, but I highly recommend Aaron Zelin’s in Foreign Policy (the first link). It’s one of the better pieces I’ve seen, pointing out that while we know the short term outcome of using drones (terrorists = dead), we don’t know the medium-to-long term impact, either on terrorist groups or the countries in which they operate.