Is Flawed Terrorism Research Driving Flawed Counterterrorism Policies?

More than 13 years after the U.S. intelligence community named terrorism prevention its number one goal, it still seems to have little understanding of what drives terrorism or how to counter it.

April 7, 2015

Crossposted on Just Security Blog.

More than thirteen years after the U.S. intelligence community named the prevention of terrorism its number one goal, it seems to have little understanding of what drives terrorism, or how to counter it. And, if the recently increasing criticism is correct, the government’s investment in academic terrorism research isn’t helping. It may be because the government is continuing to fund research supporting discredited theories of terrorist radicalization, rather than objective empirical analyses.

After the September 11th attacks, President George Bush described our counterterrorism efforts as a “new” and “different type of war.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel likewise called the threat from the Islamic State “beyond anything we’ve seen.” Framing the problem as “new” prevents the application of lessons learned from previous conflicts. But there is nothing new about terrorism. It is a tactic the weak and politically powerless have been using since antiquity, and government reactions to terrorism have often proved counterproductive. Today, our government’s continuing refusal to learn from the history of its misuse of radicalization theory only ensures a repetition of previous mistakes.

During and after World War I, an FBI hunt for German spies and anarchist bombers devolved into wide ranging investigations of thousands of people based on their ancestry, associations, and political views. The Bureau targeted so-called “radicals” — which included peace activists, draft resisters, socialists, civil rights activists, journalists, academics, clergy, and labor organizers — because it equated opposition to war as support for the enemy, and advocacy for economic and social justice as a threat to the existing political establishment. J. Edgar Hoover, then the director of the FBI’s Radical Division, categorized all leftist political ideologies as “Bolshevism” in order to imply a foreign origin, alien and invasive to the United States.

The political establishment in turn supported the FBI’s effort to defend the status quo. Wealthy business interests funded vigilante organizations like the 250,000 member strong American Protective League, which acted as government-sanctioned informants and strong-armed strike breakers in communities across the United States. The U.S. Congress and the New York State Legislature held “radicalization” hearings in which the FBI opened its files, denouncing hundreds of Americans as disloyal and dangerous based on guilt-by-association accusations of these dubious informers.

The logic was that if some people commit violence in furtherance of a particular political ideology, those promoting similar beliefs share responsibility for the violence and are equally if not more dangerous because they will continue spreading the ideological contagion that drives the violence. Many lost their jobs and political futures, or suffered prosecution under anti-sedition laws banning certain speech and political activities. Thousands of immigrants were arrested without warrants or charges and deported.

The goal of these investigations and hearings was never to identify those committing violent acts, but to suppress dissent against U.S. policies and political organizing for progressive social change. Not surprisingly, given this diversion of investigative resources, the FBI solved very few of the major anarchist bombings during this period.  After the hearings, the FBI came under public rebuke for its excesses in these misconceived investigations and was forced to disband its “Radical Division.” But its flawed conception of “radicalization” remained, fueling McCarthyism and the second “red scare” of the 1950s, as well as the FBI’s suppression of the anti-war and civil rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s.

The FBI resurrected the concept of radicalization once again after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, this time as a formal theory depicting a linear four-step process to becoming an “Islamic extremist.” It identified common religious practices and participation in Muslim social and political groups as “indicators” of a progression toward violence. The theory that terrorists incubate through predictable steps from adopting a radical ideology to committing an act of violence has been soundly discredited by empirical studies of terrorists. Yet the government continues to maintain that terrorism can be prevented by controlling the spread of extreme ideas.

Like its predecessors, this modern radicalization theory is used to justify targeting American Muslim communities with oppressive surveillance, infiltration with informants, guilt-by-association smears, and selective prosecution, based not on evidence of wrongdoing but on their religious and political activities. The FBI’S radicalization model has been adopted by local police, including the New York Police Department (NYPD), which conducted its own broad surveillance and infiltration programs in Muslim communities throughout the northeast.

So what explains the government’s continuing reliance on a simplistic and factually flawed theory of terrorist radicalization in constructing counterterrorism policies? I learned from working undercover among terrorists and other criminals that it is very difficult to discern a person’s motive, and that individual actors within a group often have very different reasons for participating. Just as there isn’t one theory that can accurately describe the behavior of all terrorists, there isn’t one rationale that explains the government’s reaction to terrorism. Instead, there are many different factors influencing its choices.

One such factor is the cottage industry of government-funded academic programs that propagate flawed terrorist radicalization theories. Terrorism studies programs have come under significant criticism for failing to uphold rigorous standards of empirical social science research. A NATO Security in Science review found that, “of 1535 scholarly papers published on the subject of terrorism between 2000 and 2004, only 121 had the word ‘data’ in their abstracts and a careful review reveals that genuine new data was reported in less than 10% of that subgroup.”

Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslim’s are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror recently explained to me how these flawed academic studies programs have great influence intelligence and law enforcement agencies:

The FBI agents Kundnani interviewed said they preferred a simple explanation of terrorist radicalization over a more complex one, even if it was contradicted by evidence. But there may be more to why the government prefers these theories than mere simplicity.

Dr. Lisa Stampnitzky, of Harvard University, shares Kundnani’s view that terrorism studies often have an unhealthy financial and intellectual dependence on government:

“Terrorism expertise has its origins as an adjunct to the developing counterterrorism apparatus of the state, with the earliest organized efforts at terrorism studies largely sponsored by the state, and often explicitly oriented toward developing practical techniques of control.”

This insight is crucial to understanding the government’s continuing embrace of radicalization theories. Simply put, the government continues to be the primary sponsor of radicalization studies because they justify counterterrorism policies that maximize its policing powers. As Kundnani has written, “[s]cholarship that associates a particular kind of ‘disposition’, be it ‘cultural,’ ‘psychological’…, with terrorist violence enables intelligence gatherers to use that disposition as a proxy for terrorist risk and to structure their surveillance accordingly.”

Treating terrorism as the spread of an ideological infection within a vulnerable community also allows the government to put aside difficult questions about the role U.S. foreign and national security policies play in generating anti-American grievances, which the Defense Department raised in this 2004 report. Studies supporting government radicalization theories rarely mention U.S. military actions in Muslim countries, lethal drone strikes, torture, or the Guantanamo Bay prison as radicalizing influences, though many terrorist reference them in attempting to justify their actions.

The reliance on radicalization theory also provides benefits to those who support the current political, social, and financial status quo, particularly in regard to U.S. foreign policy. The support for these theories comes from a broad array of organizations.

At one end of the spectrum are groups funded by wealthy conservative donors that take explicitly bigoted anti-Muslim positions to attempt to diminish American Muslims’ political influence. According to the Center for American Progress, this “Islamophobic Network” mischaracterizes Islam as an inherently violent religion in an effort to “cast suspicion upon all observant American Muslims” through an echo chamber of right wing media outlets. Tellingly, they criticize American Muslims’ participation in “civic, social, and political life” as an attempt to “infiltrate” American society, essentially branding Islam as an alien religion the way J. Edgar Hoover besmirched American leftists as Bolsheviks. Unfortunately, anti-terrorism training materials from state and local police, the FBI, and the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Defense indicate this Islamophobic lobby has had an influence on government counterterrorism programs.

Neo-conservative think-tanks, private terrorism investigators, and cyber vigilantes that typically support the maintenance of interventionist Middle East policies and aggressive counterterrorism measures also stand to benefit from the government’s reliance on radicalization theory. These self-styled experts have the appearance of independent researchers, but often serve as echo-chambers for government theories of extremist organizations and behavior. As a defense attorney explained to The Nation, “[t]hey all work for the government or they work for government-funded agencies or government-contracted projects… [a]nd so when the government calls them, they are ready sources of government-approved information.”

Developing sound counterterrorism policy requires an objective understanding of the threats we face. The intelligence community’s continuing confusion about the nature of terrorism more than a decade after 9/11 amply demonstrates the need for a new, more objective approach to the study of terrorism.