Tag: terrorism (page 1 of 3)

ISIS and the Future of Counter-Terrorism

[I’ve been debating whether to post this…it’s a “transcript” of a talk I gave yesterday here at the University of Puget Sound. It’s a bit basic as it was intended for a general audience of, primarily, undergraduate students. I wrote this up for friends who wanted to hear the talk but were unable to attend. It’s a bit disorganized too. So be warned it’s kind of ramble-y and general. Also, I haven’t provided source information or links. If you want any, please ask!]

It’s been a few days since the Paris bombings, and we have some more information about what happened, which has prompted me to reflect on what the attacks—along with those in Ankara, Beirut, and the Sinai—tell us about what ISIS is doing and why, and what these attacks mean for counter-terrorism efforts.

First, it’s important to note that these attacks are occurring in the context of an increase in mass casualty attacks (defined as terrorist attacks causing more than 100 deaths). Between 1978 and 2013, there was an average of 4.6 mass casualty attacks per year. In 2014, there were 26 while to date in 2015 there have been 15. While this is indeed a small n in terms of both number of events and time, it’s interesting to note that there might be a trend among terrorists towards soft target mass casualty attacks.

While we still don’t know for sure the degree to which the ISIS leadership in Syria was involved in any of these attacks, it’s looking increasingly likely that they played a role in at least three of the attacks (the Sinai bombing is the most likely to have been done by some other organization, with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula being the leading candidate). But, if we assume that ISIS is responsible for these attacks, it would represent a shift in their tactics and overturn many of the analytic assumptions about the group’s strategy.

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Terror in Paris


The horrifying events in Paris tonight are almost beyond comprehension. While we don’t know much more than the specific facts on the ground–coordinated attacks, suicide bombers at Le Stade de France, drive-by shootings at a Cambodian restaurant, the massacre at Bataclan, at least 150 are dead–I’ve been thinking all day about this still unfolding tragedy.

It’s still early and we don’t know much about who is involved or why. As with the recent destruction of the Russian charter plane, I doubt that this would be the work of ISIS. I just don’t buy that they’d want countries like France or the US to step involvement in Syria. The coordination and methods seem most like the work of al Qaeda. Many observers have been waiting for al Qaeda to carry out a high profile attack, if only to steal some of the “spotlight” from ISIS who has been dominating the headlines and the recruiting channels of late.

It’s also possible–and I’ve seen some reports supporting this–that it’s the work of so-called “foreign fighters”, French citizens who traveled to Syria for training and combat, only to return under the guise of their passports. States have been worrying about “foreign fighters” for some time now, fearing an influx of dangerous radicals with combat and explosives training who would be able to travel more or less freely due to their status as citizens. The sophistication and synchronization of the attacks make me wary that it could be carried out by a few individuals on their own; if it turns out to be the case, it will likely result in states reevaluating their policies towards those returning from ISIS land. France generally arrests anyone who traveled to Syria, but other countries prefer to screen for risk or try to de-radicalize the returnees.

If it is indeed the work of the ISIS core, it’s going to force the US and the rest of the West to rethink policy in Syria. It seems unlikely that this attack or any others would lead the international community to back off of ISIS.

Again, it’s early. Presumably we’ll know more soon. For now, it’s enough to remember that the world can be a dangerous, terrible place. And that is why we study and teach about dangerous, terrible things. At times like this I think of my students who have gone on to work in government, the intelligence community, those studying security policy at Georgetown or George Washington, and I hope that I have adequately prepared them to face and analyze these threats.


UPDATE: I’m not a Twitter user, but I did find this from Richard Engel of NBC News quoting a US “counter-terrorism” official naming al Qaeda or an al Qaeda affiliate (like AQAP) as the most likely suspect given the level of coordination.

UPDATE 2: French President Francois Hollande is blaming ISIS for the attacks, and ISIS has claimed responsibility. If ISIS is indeed responsible, this attack represents major change in their strategy. The difference between ISIS and al Qaeda has been that al Qaeda focused on attacking the “far enemy” who propped up illegitimate governments ruling Muslims while ISIS focused on building a state right away. Given that focus ISIS had not carried out large scale attacks like this, presumably because they didn’t want states coming in to Syria and Iraq to destroy their territorial control. If it is indeed ISIS it signals a marked change in their strategy and a very scary one. It might be a response to a worsening situation on the ground (although not the recent seizure of Sinjar and Route 16 by the Kurds or the droning of “Jihadi John”. An operation this sophisticated would have been planned well before the events of the past few days, although it’s possible those events do explain the specific timing.). ISIS has depended on territorial expansion and control as a signal of their success; US and coalition air strikes seems to have blunted ISIS’s territorial expansion and even pushed it back in some places, even if they haven’t been able to dent the flow of recruits. If ISIS feels that it is losing on the ground or even not winning sufficiently, it could turn to a more provocative strategy in order to maintain its appeal in the jihadi world. While it’s too soon to say whether France, the US, and other western powers will step up their involvement in Syria, President Hollande has described the attacks as an “act of war” and promised a “pitiless” and “merciless” response.

Sadly, the big winner (if such a word can be used in this situation) might just be Syrian President Assad, who has long been castigating the western powers for ignoring the problem of ISIS and focusing instead on helping rebels unseat his regime. It seems likely that, at the very least, France and other countries currently carrying out airstrikes in Syria will indeed focus more on ISIS, even if it means buoying the Assad regime.

What’s Going On in the Sinai?

The mysterious crash of a Russian charter plane in Sinai over the past weekend is causing all kinds of turmoil in the international arena. As you probably know, there is lots of confusion about exactly what happened to bring the plane down. Shortly after the crash, the ISIS wilayat (province) in the Sinai claimed responsibility, releasing a video purporting to show them shooting the plane down with a surface-to-air missile, a claim that was quickly debunked as ISIS does not have the kind of missiles capable of reaching 31,000 feet, the cruising altitude of the plane. Furthermore, the plane shown in the video is the wrong type. Russian authorities have been arguing among themselves whether internal failure could or could not be involved. English Prime Minister David Cameron has claimed “it’s more likely than not” that a bomb caused the crash, but President Obama backed that claim down, only saying that “there’s a possibility” that a bomb was on board. Meanwhile, the Sinai affiliate of ISIS continues to claim responsibility, but now without any kind of supporting evidence. And, now Egyptian officials are admitting that not only is a bomb possible but that it is the most likely scenario and Russia has suspended all flights into the Sinai.

So what the hell is going on the Sinai?

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There is No Lone Wolf Terrorism: but there is anxiety about brown men, loneliness, and mental illness

There’s something about ‘lone wolf terrorism’ debates that stinks. I can’t quite find a singular source of the smell, but after further investigation, it seems the relatively recent surge in the use of  the category ‘lone wolf’ to describe individual acts of political violence draws on extremely rank racist, sexist, and alarmist logic. When you compare the sparse literature on lone wolf terrorism and the slough of articles on the topic, one thing is clear: definitions of lone wolf terrorism are “fuzzy”, disparate, and often rely on contradiction and assumptions about mental health and motivation. The defining feature of the lone wolf terrorist is his or her (actually it is almost always a male) lack of wolf pack (I can’t get past the Hangover reference either, but stay with me). They are loners, committing political violence. Below, I raise several questions about the literature and discussion on lone wolf terrorism in the hopes of inviting dialogue and debate about why this term has such political purchase.

1. Is it possible that ‘lone wolves’ are neither lone nor wolves? The problems with definition:
The US Government defines terrorism as “premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” The overarching argument is lone wolf terrorism differs from ‘regular’ terrorism in that it is orchestrated by an individual. Yet the existing definition of terrorism seems to include agents as well as groups. So what purpose does ‘lone wolf’ serve? If ‘lone wolves’ are defined as acting politically, doesn’t this assume- by definition- the affiliation, or at least association, with a larger group? Recent research into 119 lone-actor terrorists in the United States and Europe, concluded that the individuals clearly expressed their beliefs and grievances to others, primarily family, friends, or an online community. This seems to indicate that ‘lone wolves’ aren’t that lonely. Continue reading

The merits of the concept of terrorism

About a week ago I published a piece with the International Relations and Security Network (ISN) on the analytical and political utility (or lack thereof) of the concept of terrorism.  I cannot reproduce it here in full for Duck readers because the ISN owns it.  But, since I think the topic might be of interest to readers, here is a taste of what I argue in hopes of prompting a discussion:

With high-profile incidents of political violence continuing to make headlines, the time has come to question the labeling of these events as ‘terrorism.’ While politically or ideologically motivated violence remains all too real, approaching events such as these through the framework of ‘terrorism’ does little to help academics or policymakers understand or prevent them. Fourteen years into the Global War on Terror, the political and security baggage that accompanies the label ‘terrorism’ may even undermine such efforts. This is because the term terrorism creates the false impression that the actions it describes represent a special or unique phenomenon. Because this confusion impedes our ability to understand politically motivated violence as part of broader social and political systems, the costs of continuing to use the concept of terrorism outweigh the benefits. The simplest solution to this problem would be for scholars and policymakers alike to jettison the term…


Why Foreign Intervention in Nigeria is a Bad Idea

This is the first of two posts about Boko Haram & possible US involvement in Nigerian counterterrorism operations. For the second, see “What is to be done in Nigeria?”. Note: two sentences added shortly after publication to clarify that my concerns encompass the full range of foreign intervention, from direct intervention to operational support to limited strikes to an expanded role in shaping Nigerian policy.

Yesterday, American drones began flights over northern Nigeria in hopes of locating the 276 girls abducted a month ago from a school in Borno State. American and British counter-terror experts are on the ground; Nigeria will attend a French-convened regional security summit. Continued foreign involvement seems likely, especially as the US has confirmed that Boko Haram is a top US foreign policy priority. This kind of concrete international action is an emotionally satisfying response to a particular narrative, one that stresses Nigerian government inaction as the heart of the Boko Haram problem. In this context, the example of the speedy and successful French intervention against Islamists in Mali in 2013 looms particularly large: could foreign intervention work similar magic in northern Nigeria? Might a more limited intervention provide the same kind of low-risk, high-reward opportunity?

There are powerful forces pushing both foreign and Nigerian decision-makers toward action, perhaps limited, perhaps more substantial. As with other advocacy campaigns, the #Bringbackourgirls movement has stressed the solvability of this problem: if “serious” investments were made or if the Nigerian government were “serious” about taking action, Boko Haram would be easily countered. This narrative elides the very serious – and very flawed — counterinsurgency campaign that has been waged in northeastern Nigeria since 2009. But it also likely overstates the likelihood of success even for the most well-implemented, well-coordinated military campaign. And, since more limited intervention is almost certainly what is being considered, the likelihood of concrete gains or definitive successes against Boko Haram is even smaller.

Here are three inconvenient facts that make Nigeria rocky terrain for interventionism.

The Nigerian military is part of the problem.

In addition to garden-variety problems of capacity, training, and provisioning, the Nigerian military has serious human rights problems. Since its deployment to the three states of northeastern Nigeria (Yobe, Borno, and Adamawa) in 2009, reports have consistently documented the military’s involvement in disappearances, masses of extrajudicial killings, and general terrorizing of the civilian population. On top of these clear and widespread human rights abuses, there are sanctioned counterinsurgency tactics, such as the military’s cordon-and-sweep operations in Maiduguri in late 2010, that likely sew local resentment and boost Boko Haram recruiting.

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Tuesday Linkage

Editor’s note: this post previously appeared on my personal blog. I’ve been doing links posts on Tuesdays over there for a while now, so I guess I might as well start cross-listing them.

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What Terrorist Attacks Don’t Tell Us

This past week, terrorists struck Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Al Shabaab, a Somali Islamist organization, claimed responsibility. Frustratingly, we still know very little about the attackers, their origins, or the Kenyan security forces’ response. And the news about the last just keeps getting worse.

But there has been some analysis of the attacks – by both journalists and academics. In one of the most widely-circulated pieces, Somalia specialist Ken Menkhaus suggested that the attacks were a sign of desperation, the last gasp of an organization that had run out of an intra-Somalia game (also, here and here). Another strand of argument suggests that the growing ascendancy of a single Al Shabaab leader, Abdul Abdi Godane, has pushed the organization toward Al Qaeda, toward international jihad, toward further attacks on soft targets abroad (here and here and here). The presumption is, again, that we’re at a critical juncture for Al Shabaab, a moment of inflection at which the organization changes its character and its aims. See my AU colleague Joe Young’s piece at Political Violence @ a Glance for a roundup of some of this.

In this post, I’m going to make some empirical quibbley points about Somalia, and then I’m going to make a couple of substantive points about terrorism / COIN analysis in general. So if you’re not terribly interested in Somalia, you still might want to skip to the end.

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Monday morning links

  • The international news continues to be dominated by Saturday’s terrorist attack at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The coverage of the attacks in most major newspapers has been excellent (and peppered with first-person reflections) due to the large number of reporters and photojournalists who are based in Nairobi. Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility via Twitter, and Twitter struggled to deactivate its feeds. The immediate demand was the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia, where they have been assisting AU forces and the interim Somali government since October 2011. More discussion after the jump.
  • Taliban suicide bombers attacked a Christian church in Peshawar yesterday, killing at least 78. It’s the most deadly attack in the history of Pakistan’s Christian community. In Nigeria, government officials announced that Islamist group Boko Haram was responsible for 159 deaths in Borno State, one of the three northeastern states currently under a state of emergency. Boko Haram also allegedly launched a major attack in the capital, Abuja, but eyewitnesses claim that alleged Boko fighters were unarmed squatters.
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel scored a huge victory in elections yesterday. The Christian Democrats’ 42 percent of the vote was the strongest conservative showing in over 20 years. There’s some background on the election at the Monkey Cage. Continue reading

Time to Put “Dying to Win” out to Pasture?

This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter received his PhD from Georgetown University in May 2013, and was a Fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia during 2012-2013; he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. His research focuses on religion and foreign policy; he has also written on terrorism and religious conflict.

In his latest blog post on Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt calls for a re-evaluation of the United States’ approach to counter-terrorism. One statement–really a quick aside–caught my attention.

Walt claims that “opposition to foreign occupation and interference is one of the prime motivations behind terrorist activities.” Well he actually says: “Given that opposition to foreign occupation” causes terrorism, and then uses this assertion to justify calling for a reduction in US forces in Muslim countries. And then he specifically mentions “suicide bombing,” and links to Dying to Win, by Robert Pape.

Dying to Win is the book version of an article by Pape in the American Political Science Review, in which he argues that suicide bombing is a rational response to occupation. As I detailed in a blog post a few years ago, there are numerous problems with this argument: Continue reading

Bayes, Stereotyping, and Rare Events

Sadly, many people do not realize that even if the majority of those who engage in behavior X belong to category Y, that does not mean that the majority of people in category Y engage in X.  This point is often made, rightly, with respect to race and violent crime and religion and terror.  But most treatments I’ve seen either imply that anyone who doesn’t understand is a moron, or manage to scare away the target audience by throwing in a pile of math without explaining it.  In this post, I’ll try to actually explain why we can’t conclude that most members of Y are prone to acts of X even if most acts of X are committed by members of Y.  This post won’t insult anyone for being unfamiliar with Bayes’ Theorem, nor will you find much algebra herein.  I’m just going to try to explain, with a relative minimum of technical detail, why we can’t assume that most members of Y engage in behavior X just because most people who engage in X are members of Y.

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An Actual Expert on the Caucasus….

Charles King at The Daily Beast:

In other words, the focus now should be on the Tsarnaevs as homegrown terrorists, not on the ethnic or regional origins of their family. Journalists’ initial conversations with family members in Dagestan amplify that point: a sense of shock that two nice boys who had gone to America for their education could have been involved in such a brutal act. Dzhokhar, for example, was reportedly a successful student and championship wrestler in Cambridge, Massachusetts—hardly the typical foreign jihadist. People with family roots in the Caucasus are often perceived in Russia and elsewhere as inherently rebellious and conflict-prone, a line of thinking that has deep roots in Russian culture. That imagery still affects how street crime is reported in Moscow, how Russian security services target people they believe to be potential terrorists, and how Russia’s own often brutal “anti-terrorist operations” play out in the towns and villages of places such as Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, and other republics of the north Caucasus that are little known in the West. The sad truth is that the scenes in Boston early this morning—with SWAT teams in full battle gear, a shootout on the street, and an alleged suspect perhaps wearing an explosive vest or other suicide device—are all too typical in the north Caucasus itself. The difference is that in Russia, these operations are sometimes little more than assassination missions, designed to target alleged terrorists on only the flimsiest of evidence. That is obviously not the case in Boston. But speculating about the brothers’ ethnic origins plays into the worst stereotypes that have bedeviled attempts to bring peace, stability, and good governance to Russia’s southern borderlands.

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Brief Notes on 4/15

Boston on lockdown. One suspect dead. One–apparently a CRLS graduate–still at large. The fact is that we still don’t have adequate information for much in the way of meaningful speculation. But I do think it useful to call attention to three related issues: Continue reading

Why I’m not Blogging about 4/15

Because we don’t know enough to engage in anything resembling responsible commentary.

And those things that we can say something worthwhile about–including comparisons with other terrorist attacks past and present, such as what happened on the same day in Iraq; and the socio-political dynamics of the US response so far–don’t exactly demand my input.

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Liberalism all the way down? …. six hours on a plane with Judith Butler’s Frames of War

On a plane ride a couple of days ago, I picked up Judith Butler’s Frames of War, perhaps a couple of years after I should have. Though there is a lot of the book that I disagreed with, reading it was a transformative experience. It is perhaps particularly relevant to the subject and content of Megan MacKenzie’s latest post, given Butler’s suggestion that “specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living” such that “if certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then those lives are never lived or lost in the full sense” (p.1).

Butler spends the book carefully considering the relationship between precarity, violence, and war – considerations that made me think a lot, about the book, about gender/violence more generally, and about the role of reading in our lives as scholars. My thoughts about the book are below the fold, and a separate post about reading is forthcoming.

Frames of War is to me a frustrating combination of absolute and piercing brilliance and letdown …

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Negotiating with Terrorists

When governments offer concessions to dissident groups in the midst of a terror campaign, they often see an increase in violence take place afterwards.

For example, between 1968 and 1977, attacks conducted by the ETA claimed the lives of 73 people.  Partial autonomy was granted to the Basque region in 1978, yet despite the fact that this represented a significant shift towards the desired outcome of the ETA, violence increased, over the next three years, the ETA would kill 235 people, and fatality levels remained elevated for decades.

Why then do governments offer concessions?

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Foreign Policy to the Fore: Is Romney Below the Bar?

U.S. Consulate in Benghazi 9/12/2012

I heard Dan Drezner in the car on NPR yesterday talking about whether foreign policy might matter in this election. And, last night and today, with the events in Egypt and Libya, he may be more right than even he anticipated.

We may have an incident, in the wake of the 11th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, that will shape the contours of the election and have wider repercussions for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Politically, does it constitute a disqualifying moment for Mitt Romney?
Like Dan, I’ve been of the mind that foreign policy doesn’t matter for most Americans in this election, and that barring a crisis, Mitt Romney only minimally needed to be seen as above the bar to serve as commander in chief. Foreign policy might affect the election on the margins with military families in key swing states.

As Dan suggested in recent posts, Romney did himself even more damage in recent months and during the convention in which he unnecessarily antagonized our closest allies on his foreign tour and then failed to mention our troops in Afghanistan during his convention speech.

Both actions, somewhat minor at the time, may now be overshadowed by Romney’s ill-timed and intemperate rush to blame the Obama administration for apologizing for actions by private actors in the U.S. that might have outraged Muslims (namely a bizarre and crude anti-Muslim propaganda “film” by a mysterious person who claimed Jewish, American, and Israeli roots who appeared to be none of those things). Never mind that the so-called “apology” was a tweet issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo at a time before the protesters’ attacks were launched where the embassy sought to defuse a volatile situation. Never mind that the Obama administration quickly distanced itself from this tweet.

All of this would have been small beer had it not been for the tragic events that unfolded over the night that took the life of U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, who was killed by a mob apparently outraged by the same film (or, what may have been an pre-planned attack by Islamists taking advantage of the moment to exact revenge for a recent assassination in Yemen).

All of these events remain murky (here’s a timeline) so what’s the sensible thing for a presidential candidate to do in the face of incomplete information? Well, most Republicans issued outrage about the loss of life of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. Senator John McCain, for example, along with Senators Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman issued a statement: “We are anguished and outraged by the death of four citizens of the United States.” Most politicians said something along the lines of President Obama who said that there was “no justification” for the kinds of violence that had occurred in the wake of publicity of the film.

So what did Romney do? Romney issued a statement last night blaming the Obama Administration for what he called a “disgraceful” apology, that is the tweet by the embassy in Cairo:

I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.

Then, this morning, Romney doubled down with a press conference sandwiched in between Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks and the President’s. By this time, it was clear that the events had escalated in the region and between the time Romney issued his first statement and today, the Obama administration had rejected that so-called apology and, more importantly, our Ambassador in Libya and three other Americans were now dead.

Romney’s statement to rally our country at a potentially perilous moment went like this:

“It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.”

“America will not tolerate attacks against our citizens and against our embassies. We’ll defend, also, our constitutional rights of speech and assembly and religion.” 

“Apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

The reaction by many in the media as well as a number of establishment Republicans is that this statement was unseemly and ill-timed political opportunism, especially since the situation is dangerous and as we mourn the loss of life (look at my Twitter feed for today for a long list of detractors like Peggy Noonan, David Frum, Ed Rogers, Joe Scarborough, Nick Burns, even Romney flak John Sununu).

Ben Smith captured a number of off the record reactions by Republicans that were scathing (“Bungle… utter disaster…not ready for prime time… not presidential… Lehman moment.” It is certainly too soon to elevate this moment to be more than it is, but the swift condemnation by both the media and many Republican insiders could redound upon those handful of undecideds for whom presidential candidates must at least meet a basic threshold of competency.

Beyond the politics, with the situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan especially volatile, the next 24 to 48 hours may determine whether or not this moment is more consequential in terms of U.S. interests in the region. While the Libyan government has repudiated these attacks, Egypt’s leader Mohamed Morsi was slow to condemn them. Let’s hope the situation settles down and this doesn’t become a bigger issue.

Terrorism and Terrorists: Political, Analytical, and Methodological Issues

Some commentators have suggested posts that pose questions to our readers. I think that the discussion on Peter Henne’s piece, “A Modest Defense of Terrorism Studies,” provides just such an opportunity.

In Remi Brulin’s most recent comment, she asks:

… I am very much interested in better understanding why Peter (and others of course) do believe that the distinction between state and non-state “terrorism” is so important and necessary from an analytical point of view. 

For my part, I would tend to think that it could in fact add a lot to our understanding of “terrorism”, of the non-state or state variety. But even if it were not so, even if such difficulties do appear: that is a problem that scholars would deal with at their micro level, at the level of their case studies, of their datasets. I donot see how this can possibly be a reason or argument for defining a whole field of research and expertise.

My flip answer to Brulin is that there’s a significant literature on subjects such as the of targeting civilians, state repression, and mass violence that already engages with “state terrorism.” Some of that literature, I believe, extends its purview to non-state actors. Nevertheless, I think it worthwhile to begin with a premise, disaggregate some issues, and then throw things open to our readership for their opinions.

Let’s begin with a definition: terrorism is a strategy that seeks to instill fear in non-combatants for coercive purposes. This definition faces problems: what is fear? what is a non-combatant? But, for the sake of argument, let’s begin with a definition that does not render all violence in warfare as terrorism, yet is broad enough to include such disparate activities as nuclear deterrence, torture, collective punishment, and blowing up cafes.

So what is at stake — from an analytical and methodological perspectives — in limiting study to non-state actors that engage in terrorism? Will we learn more or less if we include every possible instances of terrorism in our universe of cases, or will we efface causal processes specific to different kinds of actors and contexts?

PS: for additional related arguments, see Phil Arena’s post on the matter.

Notes: First, Morning Linkage regularly runs Monday-Saturday, but only occasionally on Sundays. Second, due to Labor Day and the start of school last week, there will be no podcast this weekend. Podcasts will resume next week.

A Modest Defense of Terrorism Studies


This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He formerly worked as a national security consultant. His research focuses on terrorism and religious conflict; he has also written on the role of faith in US foreign policy. During 2012-2013 he will be a fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia

With Remi Brulin’s piece on Foreign Policy today, the debate over the “terrorism industry” continues and I am compelled to respond. I guess I am one of these beneficiaries of the terrorism industry. I’ve published in Terrorism and Political Violence and was an employee of a big defense firm before entering academia. And as someone who studies posty topics–religion, identity, rhetoric–with quantitative and neo-positive qualitative methods, I often fall into these debates.

First, the caveats.

Yes, I agree the “war on terror” is a problematic term/campaign. No, I do not support torture of terrorism suspects or indefinite military actions around the world. And yes, I agree that numerous states have committed acts of mass violence against their citizens, and many of these incidents have been enabled by the United States. So I say all this as a fellow traveler; I am just as irritated with the misuse of the term terrorism as the rest of you. And Brulin has done us a service by analyzing the official US discourse on terrorism.

That being said, I’m not sure I’m on board with this issue of “what is terrorism?” There seems to be three prongs. First, as Patrick Porter recently argued here, terrorism is not as great a threat as it has been made out to be. Second, as Porter, Brulin, and others have argued, the focus on terrorism often represents the interests of the state, hawkish think tanks, and corporations. Third, as Brulin most clearly argued, the term “terrorism” is problematic, as it does not encompass state violence against civilians, or “state terror.”

I have issues with all of these claims, primarily their implications for the study of terrorism.

First, debating what constitutes terrorism, rather than studying cases of terrorism, will not help to broaden our understanding of this phenomenon. If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “well, I don’t think your definition of terrorism is sufficient” at conferences, I could buy a fancy Belgian beer. Such statements are meant not to improve the study of terrorism but shut it down.

That is not to say definitional debates are useless. Indeed, they can be invaluable in refining our theoretical claims and empirical conclusions. For example, the democratic peace theory was seriously challenged by questions concerning what a democracy really is, as seen in studies by Ido Oren and David E. Spiro.

A similar debate over terrorism could be incredibly helpful. Are there issues in using individual attacks or groups as observations? Can we replicate results from analyses of terrorism using data on state terror? Do models of terrorist behavior–ideologyinternal dynamics, etc.–explain state terror? Answering these questions would be of great value of to everyone involved in this debate. Pointing out that states commit acts of terror too, not so much.

Second, it would not be helpful for scholars to combine non-state and state acts of violence into one overarching concept. Concepts need both a well-defined positive pole and negative pole. It must be clear what the concept covers, and what it does not cover. Expanding a concept too much results in conceptual stretching, which undermines its utility.

Think about it empirically. What would we accomplish by undertaking studies of “terror,” state and non-state? Datasets combining every type of violence would lead to insignificant or–worse–significant but nonsensical results. Case studies that compared state and non-state terror would not tell us much besides “oh, both are pretty bad.” Narrow definitions may be annoying and normatively problematic, but they are the most useful in empirical studies.

Finally, even if terrorism does not threaten to destroy the American way of life, we should still study it. Yes, some terrorism pundits have an agenda. And yes, the threat from terrorism was used to justify two wars. But non-state groups that use violence for ideological purposes exist, and have killed people. It helps to know why, and what we can do about it.

Maybe terrorism isn’t the best term. Personally, I’d be thrilled if we all adopted Tilly’s framework for political violence. But given the dominance of the term in popular and scholarly debates, those of us who would like to see a different approach to “terrorism” should avoid demonizing the counter-terrorism community and pulling down the walls of terrorism studies only to stand in the rubble.

No More Cups of Tea: Terrorism Research and the Law

This is a guest post from Tanisha Fazal, a professor of political science at Columbia University, and Jessica Martini, a human rights and international trade attorney based in New York City.

To conduct research on terrorism and insurgency, it’s best to be able to talk to people.  Combing through incident reports is helpful, but often an informal conversation over a cup of tea is as, if not more, illuminating.  But according to ban on providing “material support” (18 United States Code (U.S.C.) 2339B), buying a cup of tea for a terrorist can land you in [US] jail.  In 1996 the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) prohibited providing “material support or resources” to terrorists, which included providing goods and financing, in addition to intangibles such as training and personnel.  This was expanded in 2001 in the wake of the September 11th attacks, as part of USA PATRIOT Act, and subsequent court decisions interpreting this law, to include “expert advice and assistance” and coordinated advocacy.

As part of the government’s broader counterterrorism strategy, The Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security all have major initiatives and funding today to develop and promote better research on terrorism.  But another element of US counterterrorism – the material support ban – not only directly hinders the conduct of exactly this type of research, but also puts scholars in a position where they risk being fined or even imprisoned for researching terrorism and/or insurgency.
According to the American Bar Association, the material support ban

prohibits “providing material support or resources” to an organization the Secretary of State has designated as a “foreign terrorist organization.” The material support ban was first passed as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The provision’s purpose is to deny terrorist groups the ingredients necessary for planning and carrying out attacks. Congress was concerned that terrorist organizations with charitable or humanitarian arms were raising funds within the United States that could then be used to further their terrorist activities. The provision outlawed any support to these groups, irrespective of whether that support was intended for humanitarian purposes.

The list of foreign terrorist organizations, or FTOs, contains many groups whose members scholars would like to interview to further their own research.  In addition to the restriction on contacts with FTOs and other entities listed on a number of other US Government lists, there are restrictions on bringing the modern tools of research, such as laptop computers and cell phones – into sanctioned countries like Syria or Iran due to trade sanctions and  export controls.

Prominent NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, The Carter Center, and the International Crisis Group and academic centers such as Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute have protested these restrictions, specifically by submitting amicus briefs (see more such briefs here, here, and here) in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which was an unsuccessful test case challenging the constitutionality on First Amendment grounds of the material support ban.  Ambiguity in the Holder decision creates uncertainty about what is legal when conducting research involving people who may be affiliated with terrorists.  Any resources transferred to these groups – be it a discussion of your broader research that could be translated into advice, or buying lunch for a subject to thank them for taking the time to speak with you – could, in theory “free up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends,” according to the majority opinion of the court.

The Holder decision is an issue not just for academics, but also for journalists and activists.  Many of the groups co-sponsoring the amicus briefs were engaged in peacebuilding activities with groups such as the LTTE in Sri Lanka.  But the court’s ruling was that training members of these groups in international human rights law was illegal.

The material support ban and export control restrictions serve an important purpose. Terrorists are a proven threat to the US, and we shouldn’t abet them.  But in restricting resource transfers wholesale, we limit our ability to understand and help these groups find alternative means to achieve the ends they currently seek violently.  There are, in other words, important unintended consequences to the law and to the subsequent decision on its constitutionality.

The main danger for scholars is the vagueness of both the law and the court’s decision.  Insofar as academic research tends to stay within the academy, it’s highly unlikely that a terrorism scholar will be prosecuted for buying a cup of tea for an interview subject on the FTO.  But to the extent that scholarship makes it up to the levels of policy debate – which is partly the point of government programs such as the Minerva initiative, as well as foundation and university initiatives such as the Bridging the Gap program – these laws make conducting research on terrorism and insurgency even riskier than it already is.

— Cross-posted from The Monkey Cage

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