Author: Rational Insurgent

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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Five Lessons from “The Hunger Games”

So I recently read Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” series after being pleasantly surprised by the movie. I easily breezed through all three books on plane rides, on which I prefer reading fiction (yes, even teen fiction) rather than my typical literary fare.
Collins is no Steinbeck.Nonetheless, I (slightly hesitantly) confess that I was impressed with many of the underlying themes within the series—particularly with how well Collins seems to understand how people build and take power in oppressive systems. Besides the strong “shame on us for our oblivious, exploitative, violent consumerism…arise!” message of the series, here were my key takeaways from a conflict perspective. Spoiler alert, by the way.
1.     All oppressive regimes end. Even totalitarian ones. In fact, the longer they endure, the more vulnerable they are to failure. Why? Because the more generations live under oppressive rule, the more likely they are to develop the skills they need to eventually undermine it. Katniss Everdeen develops survival skills—hunting to sell food on the black market, making tools out of basic objects, and knowing how to deprive the regime of what it really wants (her obedience)—that eventually help her to totally outsmart the Arena. The deprivations imposed on the districts of Panem turn out to give them the very tools that empower them to challenge the Capitol’s rule in the end.
2.     Every oppressive regime has ambivalent insiders. All regimes are, in the end, totally dependent on the obedience of those who support it—economic, military, media, and civilian elites. When such insiders (Sinna, Plutarch, etc.) stop obeying the regime, and its pillars of support begin to crack, it’s the beginning of the end. Insiders, too, are often intimately familiar with the regime’s vulnerabilities and are therefore quite well-disposed to challenge it. 
3.     Power is essentially psychological. No regime can repress all of the people all of the time. So many regimes rely on terror to suppress dissent. And by and large, it works—until it doesn’t.
4.     It’s all about exposing the lie. The psychological power of terror ends when people simply decide to stop being afraid. Then it’s all over. Like in the books when the Districts end up rebelling once they realize that 1) the Capitol is (and always has been) vulnerable to challenge; (2) all information coming out of the Capital is (and always was) lies; and (3) all they have to do (now and ever) is coordinate their uprisings. The people of the districts realized they had the power all the time. As soon as this “cognitive liberation” was achieved, it was all over for the Panem of the Hunger Games.
5.     Girl power is real power. Of course a strong, smart, and independent female protagonist distinguishes the series from many others like it. This is a rather fantastical feature of the series—the apocalypse must have truly come and gone for such gender equity to be standard practice in society. In fact, many of the key political players in the story turn out to be female, with many of the male characters depicted as weak, passive, or possessing a level of self-doubt or naïve goodness that exasperates the heroine (um, role reversal!). Those female characters who are fairly weak and uninspired to action (e.g., Katniss’ widowed mother) are viewed with disdain by the stronger characters, but not because they are female–just because they are apathetic. But here’s the thing about girl power. I have a hunch (yet to be fully tested empirically) that in our contemporary, pre-apocalyptic earth times, when women are willing to mobilize against oppressive systems, their movements have far greater potential to win. Jay Ulfelder, Orion Lewis, and I recently looked at which factors are associated with the onset of major nonviolent popular uprisings and found that higher rates of female literacy (maybe a proxy for increased social engagement, economic influence, political power, or all of the above) are significantly associated with such onsets. When women join the fight, movements can become twice as large. Maybe women are more organized or more tactically disciplined (at least one colleague has mentioned this as a possibility). There are often taboos against public repression of women that can be used to the movement’s advantage. And women can deprive the regime of many things it wants—cultural, political, economic, and sexual obedience. In other words, I have a feeling that when men hit the streets, dictators shrug. But when women get fired up, dictators tremble.
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New Political Violence Blog Launched

Barbara Walter and I have started a new blog called Political Violence @ a Glance. Check out the About page to see, well, what we’re about. We have a great group of contributors lined up (including Duck’s own contributor Steve Saideman), a handful of posts already published, and plenty more on the way.

Feel free to cruise by.

–reposted from the Monkey Cage–

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Terrorism in Democracies

Yesterday the FBI arrested a Massachusetts man, who has been subsequently charged with a number of crimes related to terrorism. [1] This is the latest in a string of plots that the U.S. has successfully thwarted, yet it raises alarms for many Americans who have felt immune from Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism on U.S. soil. Erik Dahl, of the Naval Postgraduate School, has identified dozens of credible plots (as many as 45 by jihadist-inspired groups or individuals, according to John Avlon) since 9/11, all of which have been either botched by offenders or thwarted by the authorities.

Americans should not be too surprised by this latest wave of domestic plots. After all, domestic attacks make up the vast majority of terrorist activity–jihadist or not. Neither should they be too surprised about homegrown AQ-inspired activity, which is simply part of the current wave of terrorist activity around the world, as Karen Rasler and William Thompson tell us. Some scholars have even argued that Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism is simply a “fad” that will eventually go the way of all other other fads.

Nonetheless, this brings up three important questions:  (1) Will the current wave of jihadist terrorism be replaced? (2) If so, by what kind of terrorism? (3) Where?

My answers: (1) Probably. (2) Who knows? (3) Largely in democratic countries, most likely.

One of the most important continuities during the past forty years is the fact that terrorism tends to occur much more in democratic countries than in nondemocratic ones–the subject of the book I am currently completing for Columbia University Press. Take a look at this chart, which shows the the number of terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2008 according to the Global Terrorism Database, distributed by regime type:

This chart shows that democracies remain the most frequent targets of terrorist attacks around the world. Additional research confirms that despite all of the concern about terrorism in weak states, democracies also remain the most frequent sources of terrorist activity.

There are lots of reasons why, about which much has been written.

But here’s the good news: terrorism is incredibly rare, even in democracies. As John Mueller insists, a person is more likely to drown in one’s toilet than to be killed (or hurt) by a terrorist. Although there is a fascination with terrorism among the public and in the media, and although it is certainly destructive, violent, and terrifying to those who experience it, terrorist attacks almost never occur.

Moreover, in a recent working paper with Joe Young, he and I find that terrorism does not actually threaten “our way of life,” as some argue. Democracies are incredibly resilient to terrorist threats, and although democracies occasionally do circumvent limits on civil liberties, such measures are usually temporary and are typically repealed over time. Martha Crenshaw has found that democracies almost never retaliate against foreign terrorist attacks using military force, although when they do, it can be quite consequential as we’ve seen in Afghanistan.

My point is that terrorist plots and terrorist attacks are rare but normal in democracies–and that’s likely to continue. Although terrorism is a nuisance, it is not an existential threat to the United States, nor is it ever likely to be.

On the whole, there is nothing to fear but fear itself.

The Department of Homeland Security should put that on a billboard.
—–
[1] I shan’t dabble in definitions of terrorism because the caveats and qualifications could go on ad nauseam. For those interested in debates on how terrorism should be defined, Chapter 1 of Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism is great on the subject. I use a fairly noncontroversial definition: terrorism is politically-motivated violence by non-state actors directed at civilians to produce fear in a broader population.

[cross-posted to Rational Insurgent]

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