Skip Navigation
Fellows

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.