May 8, 2013
The Relationship Between Radicalization and Terrorism

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.

These trends should also call into question the things we look for to prevent terrorism as well as how to respond to it.  As the Soufan Group pointed out, “attacks like the Boston bombing are nearly unpreventable.”  The FBI and other agencies have limitations on how they carry out investigations (as well they should), and none can peer into the soul of a potential terrorist.  Other pre-attack factors may be more important for stopping terrorist attacks.  And understanding that it’s not possible to stop all terrorist attacks should make us think more about building resiliency, not only in physical systems but in societal views.

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.

March 3, 2012
Thoughts on Terrorist Disengagement and CVE

Recently, Will McCants wrote a pair of posts on Jihadica covering the topic of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).  Part 1 dealt with developing a good definition of CVE, while Part 2 evaluated what the scope of CVE programs should be.  I have to admit, I struggled with McCants’ definition before I fully wrapped my mind around what he meant by it.

This is not the first time McCants has commented on the issue of CVE.  For example, when Google ran a CVE conference in Ireland last year, McCants wrote a piece for Foreign Policy arguing that Google should put its technological might behind CVE efforts, rather than re-hashing ideas various governments have already gone over.

In his FP piece, McCants noted that CVE isn’t as easy as we’d like to make it out to be, stating “I am not ready to give up on the enterprise of countering violent extremism just yet, but I am less sanguine about its chances of success than I was before I started working on the problem.”  (The byline identifies McCants as a former “senior advisor on countering violent extremism in the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism.”)

All of this is to say that McCants is not new to the issue of CVE, and should probably be listened to when he writes about it.

My own research has focused more on deradicalization and disengagement, particularly in Yemen.  (More on distinguishing between CVE, deradicalization, and disengagement follows below.)  Moreover, as will become obvious, I’ve found John Horgan’s writings on the subject of disengagement to be among the most compelling, which also influences my view.*  I’ve written about Horgan before, both specifically and in passing.

It was with Horgan in mind that I evaluated McCants’ proposed definition of CVE:

Reducing the number of terrorist group supporters through non-coercive means.

As context, McCants first provided several reasons why a new definition was necessary:

The United States and its allies devote considerable financial and human resources to countering violent extremism (CVE). Nevertheless the definition of CVE is unclear, ranging from fighting bad guys to creating good guys. This lack of precision makes it hard to design, execute, and evaluate CVE programs and makes it easy to slap the CVE label on all manner of initiatives, including many that seem to have little to do with stopping terrorism and might otherwise be cut by Congress. The lack of precision also inhibits thinking about whether the CVE enterprise is worthwhile and what should constitute it.

Horgan and Kurt Braddock made a similar point in a 2010 article in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence, titled “Rehabilitating the Terrorists?: Challenges in Assessing the Effectiveness of De-radicalization Programs.”  Horgan and Braddock warn of the potential danger of even those released through rehabilitation programs, especially because success rates are determined by governments initiating the deradicalization schemes; recidivism, if tracked, is subject to the host country’s definition.  ”To date, there is no consensus on what constitutes success in reforming a terrorist, let alone what even constitutes reform in this context,” they say.  Moreover,

it has been practically impossible to ascertain what is implied by or expected from programs that claim to be able to de-radicalize terrorists. No such program has formally identified valid and reliable indicators of successful de-radicalization or even disengagement, whether couched in cultural, psychological, or other terms. (p. 268)

However, CVE isn’t quite the same as deradicalization, which isn’t the same as disengagement.  While definitions vary (much like with the word terrorism itself), Horgan distinguishes between deradicalization (the process of changing belief systems) and disengagement (separating from terrorist movements).  CVE, by contrast, is a little harder to pin down.  An Australian Department of Defence literature review on CVE notes that:

Given its basis in government policy rather than scholarship, the notion of ‘countering violent extremism’ is rarely defined let alone conceptualised or theorised within the literature. Rather, it stands as a phenomenon that is both self evident and taken for granted. The focus in the literature on countering violent extremism is generally on strategies that aim to respond to, or prevent violence, with recommendations for policy rather than on understanding how ‘countering violent extremism’ is constituted and emerges in particular ways. (p. 16)

Tellingly, checking out the White House’s CVE strategy leaves the reader without a clear view of what CVE entails; thus the need for a definition like McCants’.  However, McCants himself notes that what he’s proposing isn’t quite CVE in full, stating “I might also propose a new label and acronym for this activity but ‘CVE’ is so bland and prevalent that it’s not worth jettisoning.”  In the comments section, McCants further explains, “If it were just up to me, I’d use Countering Terrorist Recruitment.”

To my mind, then, CVE is the overarching (non-military and non-law enforcement) process of responding to terrorist groups; McCants’ definition is really one small part of the process at the forefront of terrorist group development, while deradicalization and especially disengagement are facets of the end of the process.  While this isn’t quite a definition, it suggests the CVE is very broad-based, made up of several components specific to various stages of activity and engagement.

I think the distinction is important, because what I see McCants saying is that US policies for CVE should be very limited in scope, rather than that CVE itself is actually limited to “Reducing the number of terrorist group supporters through non-coercive means.”  I think this was what bothered me all along in reading McCants’ posts, because I don’t think CVE is or should be universally focused on dissuading terrorist supporters at the forefront.

If we are focusing on the CVE component of reducing the number of terrorist group supporters, then we can apply all of McCants’ arguments for it — limited to terrorists rather than skinheads or gangs, empirically measurable, etc. — while also acknowledging that CVE for another country might look different, and might include additional components.

It is precisely this look at the scope of US policies that constitutes McCants’ second post.  With the caveat that what we are talking about is which domestic US policies on CVE we should be implementing right now (as opposed to what CVE should be in general, or even what CVE policies we should implement or support abroad), McCants is right on: it should be measurable work aimed at identifiable audiences of both law-abiding and incarcerated terrorist supporters.  It should not be about monitoring large portions of the population, attempts to control thought crimes or to implement social engineering, or otherwise exaggerating the threat or violating civil liberties.

In short, domestic CVE policies should be based on realistic goals of what we can and should do, and they should be held to a pre-determined rubric of success, with frequent re-evaluation of both goals and accomplishments.  Succinctly, do what you can do, and do it well; don’t try to do what you can’t and shouldn’t do.  (Or, as they put it over at Selected Wisdom, “broad, top-down federal strategies to deal with local issues routinely fail” because “The individuals, ideologies and threats of extremism arising from local communities vary wildly from place to place.”)

If there’s anything we can learn from the Yemeni model (which was, admittedly, quite different than what McCants suggests for the US), it’s that clear goals are absolutely essential.  Under Hamoud al-Hitar from 2002-2005, Yemen essentially tried to argue with al-Qaeda detainees and other jihadist prisoners that the Yemeni government was based on an Islamic and thus violent jihad should not be carried out in Yemen, resulting in the release of over 350 prisoners who signed paperwork saying they had turned from their ways.  It ended partially because some of these same released prisoners’ remains were found in the aftermath of suicide attacks in Iraq.

For all the structural criticisms of Yemen’s de-radicalization program (and there are many, including corruption and a revolving-door policy for prisoners), the clearest critique and most necessary change is the need for an unambiguous statement of goals for jihadist rehabilitation.  By Horgan’s theory, the Yemenis stated a goal of disengagement while trying to accomplish it through deradicalization.  However, most of the deradicalization process focused on altering perceptions of state legitimacy to appear properly Islamic, rather than on intense Quranic re-education.  The several well-founded criticisms of Yemen’s program essentially stem from the lack of needed goals and guidelines. Without measurable aims, effectiveness is impossible to gauge. Without documented, successful practices, Yemen could expect little outside help for its deradicalization efforts and even less from its own troubled government.

Why should we hold the American government to any different standard?  I’m not suggesting that we try the same approach that Yemen did; we couldn’t, even if we wanted to, and Yemen showed the danger of too heavily associating Western governments with attempts to change Muslims’ thinking.  I do think we should be able to learn from their mistakes, though.

CVE has to be dynamic, able to change with the threat (a challenge Yemen had a hard time overcoming as al-Qaeda in Yemen became more hardened and ideological), and it must be tailored to the specific culture and context.  Moreover, it must be carried out by the appropriate party.  Legitimacy is a key issue of deradicalization, which explains the lengthy debate over the propriety of the Yemeni state in al-Hitar’s dialogue in Yemen.  There as in the US, if a non-state organization ran CVE programming, it might be able to skirt some of the legitimacy issues, but it could face other obstacles, including finding the right leadership and sufficient resources.  (I’m very interested to see what McCants has to say about this in his third post of the series.)

Until we get a good idea of what we’re trying to accomplish, we have no chance of success.  McCants’ definition gives us a good start on what the US should try to do in the here-and-now.  Hopefully, it will help start a broader discussion about what CVE means in general, and how governments can maximize their investments and achieve their goals related to CVE, rather than throwing money after well-intentioned but obviously muddled programs.

(For the record, J.M. Berger’s re-imagined charts are far superior to the one accompanying McCants’ posts, and he’s got some good points on CVE of his own.)

[Update: McCants and I had brief back-and-forth on Twitter that helped clear up some miscommunication arising from this post being not clear enough.  You can see it here.]


* Other interesting works include Michael Jacobson’s “Terrorist Dropouts: Learning from Those Who Have Left,” Jaret Brachman’s Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, and the other writers in Horgan and Tore Bjørgo’s Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement.  Of course, this is just a small sample.  The Australian literature review mentioned above has more, of course, and then there’s this.

January 22, 2012
Al-Qaeda and Jon Stewart

As 2011 waned, and 2012 began, many scholars adopted the “year in review” approach to their blog posts.  They commented on all that had happened in 2011, and postulated about what might come in the current year.  It was, the consensus seems to be, a bad year for al-Qaeda: Osama bin Laden was killed, as was Anwar al-Awlaki.  Al-Qaeda Central in Pakistan was scattered by a constant barrage of drone strikes, and the charismatically-challenged Ayman al-Zawahiri seems unlikely to unite a common front of jihadists.  The Arab Spring showed how irrelevant terrorism is to replacing autocrats with proper governance.  Defeat of al-Qaeda, Defense Secretary Panetta claimed in July, is “within reach.”

The problem with the viewpoint that al-Qaeda is dead (or, as Miracle Max might say, mostly dead) is that it is largely based on wishful thinking.  Right now, al-Qaeda is like a balloon: squeeze in one place, and it bulges up elsewhere.  Another analogy is that al-Qaeda’s affiliates and leaders appear Hydra-like: cutting off one head (say, with a drone strike) only brings about another, perhaps with more followers sympathetic to the cause.  Even if al-Qaeda Central is removed from contention - an event that has yet to be proven - its offshoots have become among the chief threats to American security.

This fact calls into question Fawaz Gerges’s recent claim that it is a myth that, “While Al-Qaeda Central has suffered a defeat with the loss of bin Laden, local ‘branches’ of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Indonesia will continue to try to attack the U.S. and the West.” 

Regarding al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross notes that in the past two years, it “has successfully placed three bombs on board airplanes destined for the United States in the attempted Christmas Day bombing of 2009 and the subsequent ink cartridge plot of October 2010.”  Similarly, the folks at Selected Wisdom - while arguing that “2012 will constitute al Qaeda’s sink or swim year” - place AQAP at the top of the list of al-Qaeda dangers other than Pakistan: “Given a relatively stable safe haven, AQAP retains a base of talent which will likely allow them to project attacks outside the region in the future.”

I think there’s certainly some validity to questioning al-Qaeda’s future.  No organization, no matter how powerful, endures indefinitely - and al-Qaeda wasn’t all-powerful to begin with.  Moreover, Gerges wasn’t totally off the mark in emphasizing al-Qaeda affiliates’ focus on local issues.  AQAP has targeted Yemenis and Saudis more often than it has targeted Americans.  Recent events in Yemen suggest that AQAP is currently focusing largely on regional issues, probably because Yemen’s political chaos offers a lot of targets of opportunity to al-Qaeda.  However, as one former high-ranking CIA official put it to the Washington Post, AQAP still has a lot going on:

Still, there are at least three key reasons to remain concerned about the persistent threat posed by AQAP, according to John McLaughlin, who was deputy CIA director from 2000 to 2004 and, briefly, the agency’s acting director.

The reasons, in short: speed, simplicity and strategy.

“Their operation that sent Abdulmutallab here in December of 2009 was something — it was a pick-up game. It took about a month to get that thing going,” McLaughlin said Tuesday during an event on homeland security at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “They’re cheap: The package-bomb operation, by their own estimate, cost them about $4,200. And they have a strategy, which is a thousand cuts. So, basically, attack us where they can.”

If anything, Yemen should be a prime example of how difficult it is to really eradicate al-Qaeda.  Former Ambassador to Yemen Edmund Hull touches on this in his book High-Value Target: Countering Al Qaeda in Yemen.  Hull’s story is one of success against al-Qaeda in the early 2000s, but also of the overwhelming effort it took to get there.  Obviously, the success was not complete, either.

In the forward to the book, Ambassador Marc Grossman notes that

… progress is not linear; long-term success comes only from persistent attention.  Yemenis got distracted by tribal conflict and and paid the price of the [2006] jailbreaks illustrated by Hull in the book [that led to the rise of AQAP].  Washington may have put Yemen in the “done” category and moved on to the next set of equally important and difficult challenges.  Whatever the causes, this book demonstrates that the struggle against extremism will not only be comprehensive but also long. (pg. xv)

This is the tendency of many when approaching terrorism, I think: to try to force a group, country, or region into the “done” category as quickly as possible, sometimes even in the face of contrary evidence.

Or, to borrow (and build upon) another analogy that is outlined in the book, we stop taking the medicine before the virus is eliminated.  (I may be showing how medically illiterate I am here…)  Drawing upon others’ ideas, Hull notes that CENTCOM used a medical analogy to help explain al-Qaeda’s influence:

There are political, social, and economic conditions that create an environment in which al Qaeda is likely to prosper.  Chief among these conditions, I have found, are foreign occupation, corruption, and lack of economic opportunity.  In the case of al Qaeda, an extremist ideology is conceived as a response by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.  This ideology motivates individuals who act like viruses to respond violently to the offending conditions.  These viruses not only contaminate the original host country, but also spread throughout the international system, infecting other countries and regions where conditions are propitious.

Historically, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have needed safe havens in which to incubate their virus. […] Grant al Qaeda expansive safe haven — as in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 — and al Qaeda’s capability waxes.  Deny al Qaeda safe haven — as in Yemen 2001-4 — and its capability wanes. (pg. xxii-xxiii)

I think Hull’s description of al-Qaeda’s motivations is incomplete, as is the virus analogy itself.  However, it’s useful enough.  If al-Qaeda’s ideology is like a sickness, then the appropriate reaction is to treat it until it is completely gone.  Like actual sicknesses, there’s a lot that goes into the treatment, but one of the most important parts is to continue treatment until the sickness is eradicated - not just until the symptoms disappear.  Because if we only look at the symptoms - the outward signs - we can miss the underlying cause.  It is not enough to hope for the best; you have to ensure the right action is taken as well.

Which brings me to the second part of the (admittedly misleading and attention-grabbing) title to this post.  In a post on titled “Un-teaching extremism,” Fahad Faruqui makes the following statement:

I wish we could rely on Jon Stewart to spread the counter-extremist message, like we’re depending on him to counter Islamophobia on The Daily Show, but we really need to mobilise the entire Muslim community if we really want to counter the extremist ideology.

While I can’t say I was aware anyone was relying on Jon Stewart to counter Islamophobia, the point of Furuqui’s statement is clear: that countering extremist ideologies like al-Qaeda’s takes popular support - in addition to law enforcement, military, and intelligence reactions.  (Ken Ballen made a similar point in Terrorists in Love; there’s a quote about it at the end of my post on Ballen’s book.)  To fight al-Qaeda, the people who could support it must reject it, and I think the potential of al-Qaeda’s threat must be clearly expressed in realistic terms in order to spur such popular opposition to extremism.  In other words, by writing off al-Qaeda too quickly, part of the foundation for building a consensus against it erodes.

I’m all for pointing out al-Qaeda’s weaknesses and setbacks.  In fact, as Jarret Brachman points out in Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, it may be one of our best weapons against AQ.  However, I think it’s a mistake to count al-Qaeda completely out too soon.  Not only does it cause us to drop our defenses and allow al-Qaeda to re-group, it also undercuts the primacy of creating a broad-based opposition to al-Qaeda’s extremism.  As we saw in Yemen, it’s far too easy to allow other things to get in the way.  So lets keep the fight up on al-Qaeda, and see if we actually can reach the point of eliminating AQ as soon as possible.

December 11, 2011
On Terrorists in Love

I recently finished Ken Ballen’s fascinating book, Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals (which certainly sparked plenty of discussion from people who saw me reading it during my lunch breaks at work).  I wasn’t sure what to expect from the book, which I picked up on a whim from the library.  I thought, perhaps, that it would profile a few (ex) terrorists, and then offer some insights on how to get more terrorists to follow that path away from violence - and to be sure, there was an element of that analysis.  However, the beauty of Ballen’s book is in how little he editorializes, and how much he allows the terrorists to give their own stories.

Ballen presents the stories of 6 former Islamic radicals, while stressing in the introduction that “There’s no single path to radicalization, any more than one individual’s story should be seen as representing all radical Islamists, or, [of] course, of Muslims as a whole” (p. xiv).  Coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, the ex-terrorists Ballen profiles generally fall into three categories: 3 foot soldiers for jihad, one captain or trainer, and two representatives of the “new jihad,” or the possible future of Islam.

Though their stories cannot be said to fully encompass the story of radicalization (for there is no singular story), there are certainly some common themes between them: a search for something, often love; the desire to better their people, whether locally, nationally, or in all the ummah; the power of dreams; and, of course, the desire to put intense religious fervor to work.  And yet, other themes were common as well, particularly feeling used and abused by jihadist leaders who were searching mostly for power and who had deeply flawed views of Islam.  Though near the end Ballen recognizes the common role of human interaction in changing people’s views - for one, it was how the Americans treated him after he was captured, while for another, it was an Iraqi boy who helped him leave al-Qaeda - quite often, these terrorists were willing to leave the groups that they had joined because of their disgust with what the group was actually like.

(To that end, I was reminded of Michael Jacobson’s study, Terrorist Dropouts: Learning from Those Who Have Left [pdf], in which Jacobson argues that some of the key reasons terrorists leave their organizations are disillusionment with group’s hypocrisy, unmet expectations, poor treatment, and cognitive dissonance.  Unlike Ballen, Jacobson does offer some specific recommendations for how to put his conclusions to work in countering radicalization.)

Unsurprisingly, Ballen devotes more attention to the “Leaders of the New Jihad” - those capable of changing the narrative on jihad - than to the “Soldiers of Jihad,” who provide useful insights on what gets foot soldiers into the fight but who don’t have the pedigree, stature, or education to re-formulate the jihadist worldview.  (Most of the chapters average about 30-40 pages, while Kamal, a wealthy Saudi with family ties to both the al-Wahhab and the al-Saud families, and who has a newly tolerant view of jihad, receives nearly 90 pages.)  Perhaps the most interesting to me, though, was Zeddy, “The Jihadi Trainer and ‘Captain of Terror.’”

Zeddy, a Pakistani, was arguably the most conflicted of the terrorists profiled in Ballen’s book (though the way he is drawn in multiple directions may be a product of his chapter being fully quoted in his own words, with no dialogue from Ballen about meeting in hotels or chatting over sweet tea; Zeddy was merely given the chance to speak).  And Zeddy held nothing back, particularly about the cozy relationship between the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, and the very real threat facing the US from Pakistan; referring often to Osama bin Laden as “the skinny Arab,” Zeddy seemed to think that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were the most dangerous and most overlooked threat the US faces. 

One lengthy quote summarizes his whole chapter:

You Americans are funding both sides in the war on terror.  Sending your young men to fight in Afghanistan at the same time you pay the generals who run Pakistan billions while they covertly harbor the Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders—right under your nose.  This is the Pakistani version of the “Great Game.”  Oh, I know these freedom-loving generals also let you drop bombs from drones on some wayward radicals—but only those militants the Pak generals consider a threat to them, not to you.  I have a question for you: Do you ever think about what might happen if the U.S. suddenly stops giving the generals—at least the more secular ones—all those billions?  Would they then still protect bin Laden, Al Qaeda, or the Taliban when there’s no money in it for them?

I think at heart you pay the Pakistani government simply to feel good about yourselves and say, see, Muslims don’t really hate Americans.  Ah, but the ones who consider themselves most pure do hate you.  To Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Jamaat, all of the Muslim Brothers and even their secret supporters like Gul among the generals and the ISI, you’ll never be more than base infidels.  It doesn’t matter how much you shower Muslims with riches or attack us with bombs.  You’ll always be infidels, deserving of only one fate decreed by the Holy Book itself: death and Hell. (p. 138)

Now, Zeddy wasn’t saying this as a threat per se, but more of a warning.  Later, he states that “power once gained becomes petty,” and the “so-called holy men, up close, quickly turned into men” (p. 142).  He works in the jails to try to turn young men away from jihad, because what they think is holy in practical application is anything but.  (Zeddy’s mind was turned when his seven year old son said he wanted to be a mujahid like his father.)  And though Zeddy can conclude by stating that Ballen is “a good man.  A good American and a good Jew too,” he immediately prefaces that by warning America of the threat of terrorists obtaining a nuclear weapon either from the Russian Federation, the ISI, or “one of Jamaat’s many friends in the military.”  Though it’s natural to respond to attack by counter-attacking (as the US did after 9/11), Zeddy asks, after a nuclear attack, “then, America, who are you going to kill here?  What will it matter then?” (p. 153)

Throughout Ballen’s book, we are reminded of the humanity of those who join jihad just as much as we are reminded of the threat facing the West.  Kamal, who formulates a view of jihad more focused on the internal (the “inner” jihad, though that term isn’t actually used), still has to respect bin Laden and eventual AQAP leader Said al-Shihri, who couldn’t be bribed away from their views.  This is even though Kamal eventually believes, as Ballen puts it,

… Al Qaeda’s jihad fell short.  Despite bin Laden’s sacrifices, his jihad wasn’t about finding the difficult struggle to better himself and others before God.  Instead, Al Qaeda offered too much of a quick-and-easy path, a simple shortcut with ready-made answers that can lure someone from the long and hard true jihad of God. (p. 283)

Though Ballen doesn’t spend much of his book talking about the answers we should draw from its pages, he does devote a little space at the end for his reflections.  In addition to pointing out that America is not the sole driving force for those joining jihad - “the far greater force propelling Islamist radicals comes from their own societies,” he says (p. 295) - Ballen also notes that America cannot be the sole answer for jihad either:

Muslims must find their own answers to extremism.  We in the West can listen; we can help when asked.  Of course, we must defend ourselves against attack.  Some of our enemies, as we have seen in this book, unshakably believe, to their death, in our annihilation.  They are religiously convinced that by killing Americans and all “infidels” they will earn a place for themselves and their families in Heaven.  We delude ourselves by not seeing clearly the implacable character of their religiously determined genocidal intentions. (p. 296)

However, unlike some of the other books I’ve profiled in the past (perhaps most notably Michael Sheuer’s book on bin Laden), Terrorists in Love isn’t a book to read to understand our enemies, per se.  That is, while it certainly offers a first-hand look into the minds of people who have willingly taken up arms against the West, the sole or main purpose of reading it shouldn’t be to understand those who fight against us.  Rather, it should be to get a glimpse of how to change that mindset - or perhaps even more accurately, to gain an understanding that the mindset can be changed.  Because Terrorists in Love doesn’t provide all the answers, and it doesn’t offer a formula of 12 steps to follow to de-radicalize a terrorist.  (In fact, its depictions of Saudi de-radicalization camps leave the reader leery of their effectiveness, despite Saudi claims.)

Just as Kamal’s view becomes one of pursuing a long and hard journey of finding God, Ballen makes a case that the path to turn from the current jihad will be lengthy and difficult.  By profiling these terrorists, though, he provides hope that, on some level, it can happen.  Lord willing, it will.

October 11, 2011
Eliminating Terrorist Leadership

As I read Stratfor’s assessment of the "fallout" from Awlaki’s death, along with Gregory Johnsen’s latest post explaining why, coming from the perspective of a Yemen scholar*, he doesn’t think Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing will be that useful for either the US or Yemen, I’ve been thinking about the impact of eliminating terrorist leadership.  No doubt, this is partially spurred on as well by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker’s book Counterstrike, which I am in the midst of reading, as a key theme of that book is the over-emphasis by the Bush administration on the capture-or-kill strategy as the only method of quashing al-Qaeda.

Throughout all this, I am reminded of Audrey Kurth Cronin’s chapter “How terrorist campaigns end” in Horgan and Bjorgo’s Leaving Terrorism Behind.  (Cronin now has a book out on the subject, appropriately titled How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns.)

Cronin argues that there are “at least seven broad explanations or critical elements in the decline and ending of terrorist groups in the modern era,” which include:

  1. The capture or killing of the leader
  2. Failure to transition to the next generation
  3. Achievement of the group’s aims
  4. Transition to a legitimate political process
  5. Undermining of popular support
  6. Repression
  7. Transitioning from terrorism to other forms of violence

A handy table in the chapter provides examples of each, while acknowledging that the categories may overlap.  Interestingly enough, the ones in the capture/kill column tend to not be the groups one immediately conjures up when thinking about terrorism: Shining Path, Real IRA, and Aum Shinrikyo.  No, the bigger ones tend to fall into other categories, like the Provisional IRA and the PLO in the transition to a legitimate political process, or Abu Sayyaf’s transition toward criminality.

While noting that the capture or killing of a leader produces mixed results based on a wide number of factors, Cronin also points out that “the event normally provides critical insight into the depth and nature of the group’s popular support and usually represents a turning point.”  Later, Cronin argues that for counter-terrorism, killing a leader “can sometimes backfire, resulting in increased publicity for the group’s cause and perhaps the creation of a martyr who attracts new members to the organization (or even subsequent organizations),” while also eliminating the possibility of essentially shaming the leader and the group through public arrest and trial.

There’s several things to think about as this pertains to al-Qaeda and Awlaki, but here’s a few rough thoughts:

  1. Unlike what could happen with the Taliban, I don’t see the US allowing al-Qaeda to transition to a legitimate political organization (and it’s sure going to try its hardest to prevent al-Qaeda from achieving its goals).  The focus is going to remain the capture-or-kill strategy, with the war-of-ideas backup that is going to push for undermining popular support, while hoping al-Qaeda can’t make the jump to the next generation.  (I’ll take “al-Qaeda is irrelevant because of the Arab Spring” for 400, Alex.)
  2. AQAP could transition to another form of violence, just as al-Qaeda in Iraq largely transitioned to insurgency.  I don’t really see that happening, but it could; I’m not sure if would have that much of an effect on US policies towards AQAP or Yemen.
  3. Just as killing a leader offers crucial insight into a group’s popular support, so killing a leader offers crucial insight into his effect on the organization.  While AQAP’s English-language propaganda is likely to take a hit, I think we are going to see through AQAP’s continuing operations just how tangential Awlaki was to the overall movement.  To put it another way, Johnsen is right in pointing out that Nasir al-Wihayshi - the leader of AQAP, and bin Laden’s former secretary - didn’t need Awlaki to make him want to attack the US, and he didn’t need Awlaki’s “terrorist expertise” to make the attacks happen.
  4. While killing Awlaki could backfire - it will undoubtedly make him a martyr - on the whole it’s probably better for the US that he’s gone, even if he’s not that important overall.  It’s true that, as I said before, his death might provide his words a new platform.  It’s also true that he would have been of greater intelligence value if he could have been taken alive, and probably greater propaganda value as well.  He’s no longer able to directly influence potential terrorists through personal communication, though, and he was certainly a threat to the US.

On the whole, it’s important to remember that Awlaki is but one page in the story.  As Cronin writes:

Understanding how terrorist campaigns meet their demise is important not only so as to recognize classic patterns of ending when they appear, but also to formulate and adapt intelligent policies that push them towards the end.  Policies that fail to understand the lifespans of groups, that treat them as if they were immortal, are destined to prolong the dynamics of terrorist campaigns.

In a sense, we made Awlaki “immortal” (or at least infamous) to such a degree that we needed to then eliminate him.  Moving on past his death is probably the best way to make the most of it.


* Johnsen makes an important distinction in his post about the differences between “legal scholars, al-Qaeda watchers, and observers of Yemen.”  Their views are going to be different, a fact that is too often skimmed over, both in the media and by this blog.

September 6, 2011
Thoughts on Caleb Carr’s The Lessons of Terror

In the past few days, I’ve been reading Caleb Carr’s much-maligned book, The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians: Why It Has Always Failed and Why It Will Fail Again.  The book was recommended to me by a friend who had enjoyed Carr’s novel The Alienist, and who knew I was interested in terrorism.  That was about the extent of my knowledge of Carr’s work before beginning the book.

Carr’s Lessons of Terror has been criticized for a number of reasons, as laid out by the New York Times’ Michael Ignatieff and Michiko Kakutani; Entertainment Weekly’s Troy Patterson; and Salon’s Laura Miller.  And, for that matter, by the former owner of my copy of the book, who repeatedly left notes in the margins like “Let’s see some proof!”  Indeed, the anonymous handwriting in my version gets to the heart of the (main) problem with Carr’s many assertions, namely that he does not do a good enough job of justifying his arguments. 

Carr has some good points to make, such as that violence against civilians almost always backfires, inspiring civilian populations to steel their spines and fight back.  However, the central thesis of his book - that terrorism is merely a continuation of the long-standing practice of total war (and its many permutations) - falls short of its intended mark, despite the abundance of examples Carr provides.  (Like the author of this blog, Carr has an unfortunate tendency to follow rabbit trails, which serves to make the reading more confused and to blunt the points he’s trying to make.)

This confusion reigns even regarding some of the central arguments to Carr’s book.  His allegation that violence against civilians never works is muddled by an exceptionally vague view of how such failures come about.  The Roman empire, for example, falls a couple of hundred years after fully embracing total war - during which time several elements served to weaken the empire, not merely brutalizing the civilian populations of foreign lands and then recruiting mercenary armies from such peoples. 

The United States, the Republic of Ireland, and the modern state of Israel (like many former colonies) all have as part of their roots acts of terrorism, at least by Carr’s telling.  While the American Revolutionaries might have hewed close enough to the line of guerrilla warfare that terrorism was only one small part of the fight, such an understanding is nullified by Carr’s repeated assertion that America is uniquely violent toward civilians; in other words, by Carr’s viewpoint, America is a uniquely terroristic country.  Yet America, like Ireland and Israel, has yet to collapse because of its supposed terrorist activities.  Which is perhaps the problem with Carr’s argument: in saying terrorism never works, any failure, no matter what the timeframe, can be considered the eventual failure of terrorism.  The IRA and its predecessors failed to achieve their full aims; therefore, they failed, says Carr.  Yet the Republic of Ireland is no longer part of the United Kingdom; does that mean terrorism did work?

As I mentioned, Carr makes some points that are worthy of review.  He proposes land troops over mass bombings, favoring pinpoint accuracy over widespread devastation.  He argues (in 2002) for the value of drones, as a way to limit casualties to both American troops and civilian populations.  He suggests that preemptive military action is a better way to deal with terrorism than limited, after-the-fact law enforcement or giant, coalition wars of attrition.

Some of Carr’s logic on other points is more difficult to follow.  Strategic bombing and over-reliance on air forces is a no-no, yet the 1986 attack on Gadhafi is one of America’s recent military successes (presumably because it was so limited).  The CIA should be abolished because of its out-of-control operational pace and focus, yet special operations forces should become their own independent branch of the military to do (essentially) the same thing the CIA has done.  Most problematic, terrorism never works, but we should preemptively attack terrorists to stop them.

This is the biggest problem with Carr’s philosophy; if terrorism never works, what, really, is the point of fighting it?  By Carr’s telling, the long history of warfare has shown nations are all too often sucked into over-reactions and similarly terroristic responses.  If that is the case, and if terrorism is inherently a doomed proposal, shouldn’t the best response be to simply endure, allowing terrorists to dig their own graves?

I would suspect that many reviewers of Carr’s book are more put off by Carr’s tone than by anything else, his logical gaps aside.  Carr’s writing seems somewhat arrogant, even snide, deriding others’ intelligence and competence, and otherwise raising his own analysis above all others.  In Carr’s view, for example, both Irish terrorists and American supporters of the IRA are a bunch of drunks with no real understanding of the cause, for the Irish cause is, in itself, contradictory.  His characterizations of American leaders from the Civil War, World War II, and beyond are no better.  Such gross stereotypes undercut Carr’s good arguments for limited yet powerful warfare (what he calls “progressive” war, largely based on the Prussian model) and clear goals in war.

It is one thing to argue that military options are the best way (or even the only way) to counter terrorism, and that violence against civilians is wrong.  It is another entirely to assert the modern international terrorism is merely an extenuation of the centuries-old practice of total war.  Both may be morally repugnant and horribly destructive, but that does not make them synonymous.  While Carr’s book is useful as an unusual way to look at terrorism, it falls short of convincing the reader that Carr’s view is correct.