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Terrorists and Terrorism Experts

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August 23, 2003

Warbaby says:

What's behind current U.S. doctrine on terrorism?  What makes someone an expert on terrorism?  Who are some of the terrorism experts?  And where is this all leading?

Here's a somewhat free-ranging excursion into terrorism policy, terrorism experts and what we currently do and don't know about terrorism.  It includes some links to some of the people doing serious research into the phenomemon of terrorism.

America's recipe for failure in the War on Terrorism(tm)

For a nation that has adopted a War on Terrorism(tm) as the top national interest, we have done a really terrible job of education about terrorism.  U.S. terrorism policy has never been coherent.  Instead, "terrorism" is what we don't like.  This whole problem is summed up in the fallacy "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."  The U.S. approach to terrorism, like a lot of other security issues, suffers terribly from delusions of American exceptionalism -- the notion that the rules don't apply to us. 

The schizoid attitude is inherent in the split between "domestic" and "international" terrorism.  Domestic terrorism policy fell under the Department of Justice and the FBI, now it is subsumed into the world's most worthless showboat of bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security.  International terrorism is the domain of the State Department.  State spends a lot of time on using "terrorism" as a club to attack nations we don't like;  the moronic list of "State terrorism sponsors" is the result of this approach.  There is almost no overlap at all between the Fools Bunglers and Incompetents at Justice and the striped-pants gas bags at Foggy Bottom. 

The result is the U.S. doesn't have a terrorism policy.  We don't even have a single workable definition of terrorism to guide policy.  Instead, the FBI has a definition they apply so arbitrarily and selectively that fifteen years of anti-abortion terrorism was denied to exist.  And while denying that anti-abortion terrorism is a reality, the FBI declares that "ecoterrorism" is the #1 domestic terrorism threat.  This was the official FBI policy on the day the Oklahoma City bombing occurred.  Homeland Security hasn't even attempted to play a coordinating role in working out a coherent policy.  So it's a mess. 

Officially speaking, terrorists are people we don't like 

Operationally, U.S. defines terrorism by the ideology of the actors (and the domestic political implications of those ideologies) so that a bomb which kills a bunch of innocent bystanders is sometimes terrorism and sometimes not.  This only makes sense if one wants to be a terrorist sponsor one day -- as in backing the Contras in Central America or the mujahdin in Afghanistan -- and then wake up one morning to the reality of blowback and invade Panama (with a fantasy rationale of a "nexus" of drugs and terrorism) or Afghanistan (to overthrow a Taliban government created with our connivance by our valiant allies the Pakistanis).  So what it really comes down to is terrorists are people we don't like.  And that's a pretty fickle way of setting policy for the #1 policy priority of making War on Terrorism(tm).  It's bound to be confusing.

This confusion on the bridge spreads naturally by a process of cultural leakage into the punditocracy down in the stokehold of the ship of state.  Thomas Friedman (the most confused of the non-psychotic pundits) offers us his sad state of confusion about  the mess in Iraq as if it is some profound insight:

In the wake of the bombing of the U.N. office in Baghdad, some "terrorism experts" (By the way, how do you get to be a terrorism expert? Can you get a B.A. in terrorism or do you just have to appear on Fox News?) have argued that the U.S. invasion of Iraq is a failure because all it's doing is attracting terrorists to Iraq and generating more hatred toward America.

I have no doubt that the U.S. presence in Iraq is attracting all sorts of terrorists and Islamists to oppose the U.S. I also have no doubt that politicians and intellectuals in the nearby Arab states are rooting against America in Iraq because they want Arabs and the world to believe that the corrupt autocracies that have so long dominated Arab life, and failed to deliver for their people, are the best anyone can hope for.

But I totally disagree that this is a sign that everything is going wrong in Iraq. The truth is exactly the opposite.

See what I mean about being confused?  Life must be very difficult for Mr. Friedman.  Lord knows it's bound to be hard to play a role as an entertainer who defends the establishment delusions, but it must be especially hard when big name players like Fox become the standard for comparison.

What makes someone an expert on terrorism?

Mercifully ignoring Friedman's delusions about the chaos in Iraq being a good thing, I'd like to turn to addressing his parenthetical questions about terrorism experts.

The short answers are:

  • People become terrorism experts by research, study and applying their knowledge in the real world.  This may be difficult for pundits to grasp, since they work in the entertainment industry.  But there actually is a substantial number of people who work very hard at understanding terrorism.
  • Many of them have PhDs (mostly in international relations but the range of disciplines applied to terrorism studies is quite broad.)  Some have street smarts from being at the sharp end of things.  And quite a few of them do very good work.
  • Many work in academia, some work in think tanks, some actually work for the government -- though you'd never be able to tell by the mess we've made out of terrorism policy.
  • Appearing on the news is not much of a basis for evaluating expertise.  Appearing on Fox probably does more to disqualify someone as an expert if that's the best they can do.
  • Since much of terrorism studies is entangled in national security and law enforcement issues, even the published literature isn't always a good guide to who possesses wisdom about terrorism and who is simply pursuing a careerist path.  In many cases, the people who have the most insight are less visible to the public, though there are many notable exceptions -- a few of which will be found below.

The longer answers are, of course, longer.  For the time being, here are some pointers to some of the many people with knowledge and occasionally wisdom about dealing with terrorism.  As Danius Maximus once famously said, "You don't have to write a book to be an expert.  Reading a book is a good first step." 

In my case, I started looking at a sudden change in local society and wanted to find out what had caused such a rapid and dramatic shift in social and political attitudes.  In so doing, I had to confront -- in a very direct and face-to-face way -- the reality of extremist behavior.  Like most people with a background in research, I consulted the standard literature for guidance.  And what I found was terrorism was changing faster than the accepted doctrines about extremism, political violence and terrorism.  So I had to figure things out, not from scratch but with a skeptical view.  The people listed below all had new and useful things to say about terrorism.  Listening to them helped enormously as I shaped my views.

I'll pass on being considered an expert.  I'll settle for being considered knowledgeable.  Expert usually conveys some form of institutional endorsement.  I've been somewhat jealous of my lack of institutional affiliation, as it allows a degree of intellectual freedom unavailable to many.

Below are some of the people whose views and insights have helped me form my own.  I don't necessarily agree with all of the positions these people have taken.  I'm sure that they wouldn't endorse all of my views either. There are several more, but listening to the views of these folks will cast a lot of light on a troubled and chaotic world.

Some good starting points for understanding what terrorism is all about

Here are a couple of salient quotes from a recent NYT article on suicide bombers:

"The fact that they've been able to sustain the tactic suggests that this tactic is applauded in the community, and it reflects a society under considerable stress," said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert with the RAND Corporation. "I think we'd all agree, and it's not just a Western view, that suicide bombing is abnormal. The fact that abnormal behavior is applauded reflects abnormal conditions. If normal conditions are restored, then normal behavior should return — at least they'd be less tolerant of abnormal behavior."

Jenkins founded the terrorism studies program at RAND.  The RAND/St. Andrews database grew out of this program.  It is an immensely useful chronology of terrorist events.  In the late 80's, Jenkins summed up the view of terrorism as a form of coercive negotiation in a series of articles containing the now famous phrase "terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead."  As time went by, a new evolution in terrorist behavior became clear, mostly as a result of careful studies like the RAND/St. Andrews chronology.  Called 'the new terrorism' to distinguish it from past trends, a new form of terrorism began to arise.  Differentiated from previous patterns, the new terrorism emphasized mass casualty attacks and was motivated not from political but from religious and ethno-nationalist motives.

The emphasis on 'new terrorism' got a big jolt from the Oklahoma City bombing -- an event many of us had warned against, but were thwarted by the inertia of domestic law enforcement and the persistence of outmoded ideas about terrorism.  The stereotyping of terrorists continues to be a major barrier to formulating reasonable policies for addressing this problem, as the above cited NYT article notes:

"It is the general consensus that martyrs hate democracy, and are crazies — this is not true," said Scott Atran, a scientist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and at the University of Michigan. "These people showed no sign of psycho pathology. They were from middle and upper class families. Poverty is not a factor. The factor is diminishing expectations. No matter how rich or poor, if you have not achieved what you expected, you are more likely to back a radical policy."

Josh Marshall has an excellent interview with Peter Bergen in two parts here and here.  I was particularly impressed by this passage:

TPM: I think I saw an interview you did on CNN in which you discussed the question of who, if there are foreign fighters in Iraq now, who are they? And I think you had said that a lot of them seemed to be Saudis who'd actually come in through Syria. Whatever details you have -- who are these people? Where are they coming from? Are governments assisting in bringing these people in?

BERGEN: I don't think governments are assisting in bringing these people in at all. Because if you think about, Syria has been quite cooperative in the war on terrorism, Jordan has fallen all over itself. That's one of the reasons the Jordanian embassy was attacked. Kuwait, don't have to explain that. But judging from what US counter-terrorism officials say and what Saad al Fagih says they're predominantly Saudi, which makes sense. Saudis were predominantly the people in Afghanistan, and the major group of people at Guantanamo Bay are Saudis. So that all kind of coheres. Some Kuwatis, and I would imagine a sprinkling of other nationalities, although I haven't heard any other than the Saudis and Kuwatis--that's all I've heard about. Now you know, if Zarqawi is in Iraq--although apparently he might be in Iran. So maybe there are some Jordanians, I don't know. But it doesn't sound like people from the Philippines are coming to Iraq, as it were, and coming to Afghanistan.

Bruce Hoffman's recent cover article in Atlantic about suicide bombers contains a wealth of information about how that all works and describes some methods of dealing with suicide attacks, but then sums up the "inevitability argument" saying we'll experience them just like the Israelis do. 

Given the relative ease and the strategic and tactical attraction of suicide bombing, it is perhaps no wonder that after a five-day visit to Israel last fall, Louis Anemone, the security chief of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, concluded that New Yorkers—and, by implication, other Americans—face the same threat. "This stuff is going to be imported over here," he declared—a prediction that Vice President Dick Cheney and FBI Director Robert Mueller had already made. In March, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge also referred to the threat, saying in an interview with Fox News that we have to "prepare for the inevitability" of suicide bombings in the United States. Anemone even argued that "today's terrorists appear to be using Israel as a testing ground to prepare for a sustained attack against the U.S." In fact, Palestinians had tried a suicide attack in New York four years before 9/11; their plans to bomb a Brooklyn subway station were foiled only because an informant told the police. When they were arrested, the terrorists were probably less than a day away from attacking: according to law-enforcement authorities, five bombs had been primed. "I wouldn't call them sophisticated," Howard Safir, the commissioner of police at the time, commented, "but they certainly were very dangerous." That suicide bombers don't need to be sophisticated is precisely what makes them so dangerous. All that's required is a willingness to kill and a willingness to die.

Bruce's book Inside Terrorism remains the best single work for a public audience.  I found his attempt at defining terrorism by a process of distinctions (differences that make a difference) very useful.

And Jessica Stern's recent editorial in the NYT makes some very salient points about the Bush administration's success in creating environments where terrorism flourishes:

While there is no single root cause of terrorism, my interviews with terrorists over the past five years suggest that alienation, perceived humiliation and lack of political and economic opportunities make young men susceptible to extremism. It can evolve easily into violence when government institutions are weak and there is money available to pay for a holy war. America is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of committed terrorists. After some time on the job, it is hard for them to imagine another life. Several described jihad to me as being "addictive."

Thus the best way to fight them is to ensure that they are rejected by the broader population. Terrorists and guerrillas rely on getting at least some popular support. America's task will be to restore public safety in Iraq and put in place effective governing institutions that are run by Iraqis. It would also help if we involved more troops from other countries, to make clear that the war wasn't an American plot to steal Iraq's oil and denigrate Islam, as the extremists argue.

Remember the product roll-out of the War On Terrorism(tm) when U.S. officials promised it would be "just like the war on drugs"?  At the time, one wag said to me that would mean they have a policy that will make terrorism more available to American consumers while simultaneously lowering its price and increasing its supply.

Jessica also has a Foreign Affairs article, "The Protean Enemy" on Al Qaida that's worth a peek.

Al Qaeda seems to have learned that in order to evade detection in the West, it must adopt some of the qualities of a "virtual network": a style of organization used by American right-wing extremists for operating in environments (such as the United States) that have effective law enforcement agencies. American antigovernment groups refer to this style as "leaderless resistance." The idea was popularized by Louis Beam, the self-described ambassador-at-large, staff propagandist, and "computer terrorist to the Chosen" for Aryan Nations, an American neo-Nazi group. Beam writes that hierarchical organization is extremely dangerous for insurgents, especially in "technologically advanced societies where electronic surveillance can often penetrate the structure, revealing its chain of command." In leaderless organizations, however, "individuals and groups operate independently of each other, and never report to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction, as would those who belong to a typical pyramid organization." Leaders do not issue orders or pay operatives; instead, they inspire small cells or individuals to take action on their own initiative.

Lone-wolf terrorists typically act out of a mixture of ideology and personal grievances. For example, Mir Aimal Kansi, the Pakistani national who shot several CIA employees in 1993, described his actions as "between jihad and tribal revenge" -- jihad against America for its support of Israel and revenge against the CIA, which he apparently felt had mistreated his father during Afghanistan's war against the Soviets. Meanwhile, John Allen Muhammad, one of the alleged "Washington snipers," reportedly told a friend that he endorsed the September 11 attacks and disapproved of U.S. policy toward Muslim states, but he appears to have been principally motivated by anger at his ex-wife for keeping him from seeing their children, and some of his victims seem to have been personal enemies. As increasingly powerful weapons become more and more available, lone wolves, who face few political constraints, will become more of a threat, whatever their primary motivation.

Summary

Terrorism is a changing mode of behavior.  Some of the picture is fairly static and past understanding stands us in good stead.  Other aspects have been continuously evolving.  A large part of the recent changes in the terrorist picture are the result of successful past policies for dealing with the phenomenon.  In the early 1970's, when terrorism studies first emerged as a distinct field of knowledge, state-sponsored terrorism and the use of terrorist methods for proxy warfare were accepted norms in the dealings between nation states.  Much of the counter-terrorism doctrine assumes terrorist organizations are subservient to state interests and control.  That may have been true in the past, but it is clearly becoming less and less true as time goes by.

With the end of the Cold War, things had changed a great deal.  Proxy warfare and state-sponsored terrorism in no longer a norm.  Indeed, it is beginning to be considered a crime against humanity.  This is mostly due to the successes of diplomacy and international law enforcement. 

At the same time, the collapse of the bi-polar world of the Cold War was accompanied by the rise of a new form of organized power.  I've chosen the term "cryptarchy" to convey the meaning of these new types of uncivil society organizations.  Some exemplars of cryptarchies are the Iran-Contra "enterprise," the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, the Moon Organization, the Nugen Hand Bank, Al Qaida and Hizbollah. 

Many, if not most of them, had their origins as deniable instruments of state power.  Most of them evolved so that they are independent of state organizations -- or at least unregulated by states.  There are historical parallels in the use of mercenary armies which turned against those who created them. 

That captures part of the evolution of cryptarchies, but past history and particularly ancient history does not have much explanatory power for the close relationship between cryptarchies and corporations as forms of social organizations.  During the 1970s, most terrorist organizations looked much like criminal gangs in terms of their organization, recruitment and methods of operation.  The international efforts at suppressing state sponsored terrorism and terrorism as a form of proxy warfare made great strides in forcing the terrorist gangs out of existence.  At the same time, the suppression of international terrorism produced a kind of evolutionary pressure which led to the adoption of methods, organization and recruitment which looks much more like a corporation than anything else.

Some of these newly evolved cryptarchies were explicitly terrorist in nature.  Others used terrorism as a means of wielding power.  Some exploited market niches between covert warfare and legitimate finance.  Many have some connection to transnational crime organizations.  One feature that distinguishes cryptarchies from other forms of uncivil society organization is the central importance of covert or illicit foreign exchange transactions.  In fact, the single characteristic shared by all cryptarchies is degree to which they are dependent on untraceable flows of finance.  This is also their greatest weakness, but one that is still tightly shielded by the existence of other interests that also depend on the ability to conceal, exchange and transfer sums of money that rival the annual budgets of many countries.

As the War on Terrorism(tm) shows, cryptarchies have evolved in sophistication and grown in power to the point they are serious rivals to the largest and most powerful nation states.  The key to "winning" against terrorism will be found in international cooperation -- and to some extent in the surrender of some aspects of individual national sovereignty to a cooperative scheme of mutual security.  This approach has shown great success in reducing the extent of state sponsorship of terrorism. 

What is certain is that unilateralist approaches like the United States is now pursuing are not only doomed to failure, but are both counter-productive and contrary to national interest.  It is going to take a while for this to become evident to policy makers.  It may even take some horrendous disasters before workable policies can evolve.  Military means are at best of secondary importance to reducing terrorist violence, but this may be a hard and bitter lesson to learn.

The motivation for violence has changed in the last thirty years, just as the organizational forms of terrorism have changed.  Religious and ethno-national motives are much more prevalent than political ideology as a motive for terrorist violence.  This change in motivation and the implications for controlling the spread and severity of terrorist violence are a tremendously important contribution to understanding terrorism.  Religiously inspired violence differs significantly from political violence.  Religious violence is an end in itself rather than a means to an end.  As a result, past doctrines for confronting terrorist violence -- when sub-state terrorism looked more like gangs than religiously inspired corporations -- have lost their effectiveness.

And this is where research, analysis, debate and contending viewpoints become so important in organizing an effective response to terrorism.  Understanding terrorism cannot succeed in a politicized atmosphere where intelligence is twisted to suit organizational, political or ideological goals.  It is impossible to base policy on flawed understanding.  Free inquiry, open debate and honest analysis have never been so important to the shared interest of nations.

And that's what terrorism experts are all about.