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Rethinking Intelligence: Interview with Arun Kundnani

Arun Kundnani is the author of “The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror,” (Verso Books, 2014). Kundnani, an adjunct professor at New York University, has studied terrorism and the effects of counter-radicalization policies in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Published: October 7, 2014

Interview Transcript

Arun Kundnani is the author of “The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror,” (Verso Books, 2014). Kundnani, an adjunct professor at New York University, has studied terrorism and the effects of counter-radicalization policies in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Mike German, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, interviewed Arun Kundnani on July 10, 2014. The following is an edited transcript of that interview.

Q: Hi, my name’s Mike German. I’m a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School.  Today I’m with Dr. Arun Kundnani, the author of The Muslims are Coming: Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror Arun, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a lot of Western governments have struggled to try to understand what makes a person become a terrorist, in the hopes that if they can identify some indicators, they can stop violence before it actually happens.  You’ve argued that this has created a mini-industry- think tanks, university terrorism programs, law enforcement, intelligence task forces and agencies trying to come up with models for radicalization.  But radicalization is not a new theory.  So can the history of radicalization teach us about this new model that’s being promulgated?

KUNDNANI: So the thing about radicalization is that it blurs the distinction between someone being involved in some kind of criminal violence, and the political ideas that are associated with that violence. It blurs that distinction.  That is what is distinctive about this concept.  If you understand that and go back through the history of national security agencies in the US, over the last century you can see that’s a recurring theme.  One of the things that I write about in the book is, where do you first see a government agency that is using informants to target political activism?  And actually, as far as I’m concerned, the first time that happens is in the Philippines – when the U.S. has a colonial regime in the Philippines in the beginning of the 20th century.  You have, in Manila, political activists who are organizing for the independence of the Philippines from U.S. colonialism, and the specialist police units set up by the colonial regime to run informants among the Filipino nationalists to uncover information about their political activities and to run agent provocateurs to criminalize people – to push them into committing acts that you can then arrest them for, and to run disinformation campaigns. That’s the first time that you see that kind of systematic thing going on.  And then after World War I, you see those same kinds of practices coming back to the U.S. mainland.  So one of the things we know about when you have colonialism, the practices that you think are legitimate in that colonial setting sooner or later come back to the homeland.  Coming from Britain, we’ve seen that repeatedly, whether it’s colonialism in Ireland or India – these things always come back home.  So the same thing happens in the US after World War I. You start to get the creation of a national security set-up that aims to use these kinds of practices and these ways of thinking to target people who are engaged in legitimate political activities. So at the time, the main concern is around labor activism.  And so you blur the distinction between someone who’s involved in trade union activity, organizing workers, and you frame them as a subversive faction that’s some form of communist extremism or something like that.  So it’s essentially the same move you get with the kind of radicalization models that we see today but in a very different setting. And that’s when you see the Palmer raids, when large numbers of people who were involved in the labor movement are rounded up and deported.  The famous wording from the legal process around this is the famous phrase from Oliver Wendell Holmes, when he talks about the limit of free speech is when someone shouts “fire” in a crowded theatre.  It’s the famous thing that any law student quotes.  But the actual case that that comes from is the case of anarchists who were writing articles criticizing the U.S. involvement in World War I.  So it’s a classic example of how a totally legitimate constitutional activity advocating for a particular political position can get interpreted as criminal activity.  Obviously, the irony is, in a context where huge numbers of people are dying in this war in Europe, the one who’s shouting “fire” is the anarchist advocating for peace.  So if you come forward to the post-World War II period, obviously in the Cold War, again it’s communism that is the extremist threat of the day. But then within that notion of communist extremism, all kinds of different kinds of politics and activities can get wrapped up.  So whether it’s the civil rights movement, whether it’s people advocating for Puerto Rican independence, whether it’s student activists, they can all get folded into this notion of extremism – and therefore targeted using these same kinds of practices.  Informants, disinformation campaigns, provocation strategies to criminalize people- the most famous case being Cointelpro, which was the FBI’s program to initially to target communists. But eventually it becomes used against black power movements and so-forth.  So there’s a continuity going back 100 years right up to the present period of post-9/11– a period of these kinds of ways of thinking and these practices.

Q: And part of the idea of tying… because in all these cases there was violence on the fringe of these movements…


Q: …but the idea is to tie the inappropriate violence to the appropriate political activity to smear the political activity as in league with or supporting the violent actors.

KUNDNANI:   Right. What you see in all these cases is almost a willful desire to actually not really care about the distinction between violence and non-violence, right?  So what seems to matter most of all is the political position that someone’s taking.  Whether they advocate for that position in a violent or non-violent way doesn’t seem to matter that much.

Q: So it’s more about suppressing the political activity than the violence?

KUNDNANI: Right, exactly.

Q: So, discuss the development of the modern radicalization theory and the problems that you’ve seen with that.

KUNDNANI:   So after 9/11, I think for the first couple of years when people were trying to make sense of this question of terrorism that suddenly became the preeminent question in national security policy. People are using these very simple formulae of, well these people just hate us, they hate our freedom.  There’s an evil ideology out there.  This is the neoconservative kind of analysis – but very soon you start to get academics and people who are a little more thoughtful in the national security communities who are trying to say, well, let’s try and develop a model of how someone goes from being an ordinary member of the public to becoming a terrorist.  And actually that’s absolutely right, that’s exactly what we should be doing here is thinking about what causes terrorism – not just seeing it as this thing that comes out of nowhere.  So you start to get the concept of radicalization introduced as a way to describe that process of how is someone made into a terrorist.  Unfortunately, rather than pursuing that question in an objective scholarly way, you have a very narrow idea of what might make someone a terrorist. And what it comes down to in all these models, whether it’s the academic ones or the law enforcement agency ones, it comes down to the idea that some kind of ideology can grip someone and turn them into becoming violent.  When you look at these studies that try and come up with empirical data to back that up, the studies just don’t stand up to even the most basic level of scholarly rigor.  So if you wanted to say, “What is it that causes terrorism?” you’d look at a number of terrorism cases and you’d notice that a lot of these terrorist cases, before someone is involved in some kind of criminal activity, they have some kind of ideology, right?  So you say, “Okay, well the ideology causes the terrorism.”  Well, that only works if you also have a control group where you find a whole load of people who did have the ideology and work out whether the ones who weren’t terrorists also have that ideology.  If for every person who has the ideology, for every thousand people who have the ideology, one becomes a terrorist, the other 999 don’t, it’s not actually causing the terrorism; it’s something else that’s doing that.  But you never get a control group in these studies, so the empirical evidence is strikingly weak.  But one of the consequences of adopting these models is that if you think that ideology is the root cause of terrorism, then you’re going to look for expressions of ideology as your indicators, that give you this predictive power that law enforcement agencies obviously ought to have in order to intervene at an early stage.  So you start to look for indictors that are to do with someone’s religious and political opinions, which are the expressions of the ideology, or things like changes in the kind of clothing that they wear, or growing a beard.  These are the ways in which supposedly this ideology is being expressed and that’s why you then end up with a situation where you say, “Okay we want to make sure that we have such an intense level of surveillance in the community that we believe has this problem, i.e. Muslims in the United States- we want to have such a high level of surveillance of that population that we can know when someone is displaying these indicators of political and religious opinion.”  And that’s what we’ve seen happen.  That’s why we have from the New York Police Department or from the FBI, such high levels of informants being run in these communities and other forms of surveillance.

Q: And if they were looking at the violence as opposed to ideology, obviously there are a lot of different kinds of terrorism.


Q: …right-wing terrorism, animal rights terrorism, all kinds of different groups have engaged in this technique.  So is the model…?

KUNDNANI: Right, if the question was, “Let’s identify who is carrying out politically motivated violence within the United States,” you would start with the far-right, because the number of people who’ve been killed in far-right violence by Americans is much larger than [those killed] by Muslim Americans.  So if you were trying to adopt an objective approach to this question of domestic political violence, you’d have a very different picture of how you would define this threat.  You certainly wouldn’t define this threat as something that’s all about being Muslim, right?  And when you start to look at that, then you would also start to think – much more obviously in the case of the far-right- trying to find some kind of ideological precursor is not going to work.  Because what would that ideology precursor be?  Would it be someone who has a hatred of black people?  Right, okay, that’s a lot of people in the United States, unfortunately.  Once you start thinking about how this might apply to other groups, the idea of using ideology as your guiding basis for conducting surveillance starts to fall apart much more obviously.

Q: And in fact when that model was applied by the Department of Homeland Security, in an intelligence product they produced to the far-right, there was quite an outcry, deservedly.

KUNDNANI: Exactly.  And that speaks to one of the reason why we have the approach we do, it’s because if it’s applied to other groups, those groups have certain political power to defend themselves in a way that Muslims in the United States currently don’t.  And so part of the reason that this can happen is because this community is an easy victim.  Because it’s been so demonized in the media, and has been put on the back foot in so many ways, agencies can get away with this without too much comeback at the moment.

Q: And there was actually… in your book you talk about the ideal enemy and this didn’t start on 9/11. 

KUNDNANI: Right. The reasons why we have this approach to counter-terrorism are complex, but some of the strands that you can pull out – to some extent you can see individual groups or even public intellectuals – who’ve been advocating to construct Muslims as this ideal enemy.  The ideal enemy that can serve political purposes.  The key thing about neoconservative thinking is that for them, they believe that you need to have an enemy in order to cohere society and mobilize your political project.  So it’s pretty obvious if you go back to the early 1990s when people like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, these kind of neoconservative thinkers, it’s pretty obvious that they began, after the end of the Cold War, to identify Islam as this new enemy,  and have been, to some extent successful in propagating that idea.  You can also go back to the 1980s and see how people who were advocating within the United States on behalf of the right-wing groups in Israel have also had the same thinking, where it’s a convenient story for the Israeli right to talk about Islam as inherently violent. Because it means when U.S. people are watching the news about the Middle East, rather than thinking of this as a political problem to do with a longstanding military occupation that Israel has run and Palestinians are trying to resist- rather than looking at it like that, which would be problematic for Israel, it’s much more convenient for everyone to think well, that’s just the way Palestinians are.  So it’s not surprising that there’s violence going on.  I think the key issue here is how we manage to use all these words like extremism, radicalization, even the word terrorism- to depoliticize our understanding of why there are these different forms of violence in the world.  So we lose sight of the political contexts that give rise to this kind of violence.

Q: So when an event happens, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, the question is, how did they radicalize? What was the matter with them rather than what is the political context?

KUNDNANI: Right, and in any individual case like that, there’s going to be a part of the story that’s the individual story of what happened to those two kids-  which is going to be something where we might get some insights through thinking about the kind of psychological journey that they went on. There’s been some reasonably good journalism that’s tried to unravel that.  And that’s important. But what we tend to ignore if we just have that kind of conversation – and that conversation tends to always end up by saying they had some psychological vulnerability that made them easily brainwashed by this extremist ideology, and that’s basically why they ended up doing what they did – what that ignores is the fact that there’s a wider set of foreign policy questions that are implicit here.  One of the brothers makes that very clear when he writes his message on the side of the boat that he’s hiding in where he explicitly says that he sees his motivation as to do with the violence inflicted by U.S. foreign policy in different parts of the world.  And so he sees himself as a combatant in this global war. And in a way, he’s the mirror image of our own official story of what the War on Terror is about.  War on Terror talks about how we need to be at war against this extremist threat. And in a way he’s just turning that upside down and saying, “Okay, well if we’re at war, I’m also at war.”  So it’s a flawed logic but we don’t really want to confront the fact that that is the rationale that these people are using. And that means that we actually make it harder for us to achieve a situation where we reduce the threat of this violence, because we’re not looking at how our own foreign policy continues to create these contexts in which a small number of people are going to decide that terrorism is a legitimate response to this.

Q: And if a government believes in this radicalization theory – the funnel that once you have these ideas you’ll inexorably go towards violence – obviously what they want to create is something to counter that conveyor belt, as they’ve called it.  And in the United Kingdom where you originally started studying this problem, they developed some of these counter-radicalization programs. How did they fare?

KUNDNANI: So the Tony Blair government introduced a policy program called Preventing Violent Extremism which was introduced after the 7/7 terrorist attacks on the London transport system in 2005.  And  the idea was that they’d bought into this model of radicalization. They wanted to work out how they could intervene in these earlier stages before someone is actually involved in criminal activity, but has this ideology that they perceive to be a precursor to being a terrorist.  So there’s two different ways in which they came up with ways that you could intervene.  One was, “Why don’t we fund Muslim community leaders with a whole load of money to promote a message that challenges this extremist ideology?”  So you’re involved in a public relations campaign where you’re recruiting Muslim community leaders to push a pro-government message.  Now the problem is that because of the flawed radicalization model, one of the things that you’re identifying as extremism is someone who’s critical of Tony Blair’s foreign policy.  So suddenly you’re spending a whole load of money to pay people in the Muslim community to not criticize the government on the question of foreign policy.  So you’re shutting down what should be every citizen’s legitimate right to challenge government policy on any issue.  The second aspect that was introduced was a system of surveillance that involved teachers and youth workers, doctors… anyone who interacted in a professional capacity with young Muslims in Britain. They were given training to spot these supposed indicators of radicalization and then pass on information about young people who were supposedly displaying those indicators. [They were] passing that information onto the police who would then come up with some of intervention in that young person’s life, which, because none of these indicators constituted crimes, wasn’t about a criminal justice system intervention, but would involve maybe a police officer spending a lot of time with that young person, and trying to change their ideology.  Again you have a situation where a government is deciding certain ideas are wrong and deciding that it can recruit a whole load of professionals to try and identify who has those ideas, and then go in and try and shift those ideas.  It’s a profoundly undemocratic approach.  The first thing that happens is that, as it becomes apparent what this policy actually involves, you get a backlash from the community who perceive accurately that this policy has an effect of demonizing this community, because it’s singling out Muslims in a very mechanical way.  It’s not talking about other kinds of extremism.  And that it shuts down your freedom to express political views that the government disagrees with.  So you get a backlash.  So it’s counter-productive in a sense, because on paper at least, the whole point of the policy was to build trust with the community and so forth.  The other thing that happens is obviously people start to feel less able to express themselves.  You do have a lot of people in Britain who very fervently opposed Tony Blair’s joining of the War in Iraq in 2003.  They stopped talking about that.  Now I think there’s a strong case to be made that if you’re serious about stopping terrorism, that approach is counter-productive, because the more that people are prevented from expressing themselves in normal political channels, it seems to me, the more likely they might be tempted to use criminal means to express themselves.  So I think we soon realized that this policy was a failure. We had a parliamentary inquiry in 2010 that reached that same conclusion.

Q: But despite the failure of this methodology overseas, it came to the United States including some of the actual theorists coming over here, and they created now what they call Combating Violent Extremism program.

KUNDNANI: I mean interestingly, some of the key activists who are involved in propagating this policy and some of the key thinkers, once they had been discredited in the UK, found a new audience for their ideas over here in the U.S. and… so around about 2010, 2011 we started to see very similar things happen here in the U.S. They were done in a less overt way but nevertheless the same kind of thinking was there in the background.  And so we imported a failed model to the United States. Essentially the reason that that happened is because the radicalization model that underpinned it was imported.  So you might have some minor differences in terms of the particular ways in which you implement the policy. But because the thinking beneath the policy that informs the policy was imported without criticism, we’re repeating the same mistakes.

Q: And one might expect because terrorism is distinguished from other types of violence by its political motives, that counter-terrorism studies and counter-terrorism policies would have a political edge to them.  But you would hope that the intelligence agencies and the law enforcement agencies would be more focused on empirical evidence, sound scientific methodology in determining it. But it seems that these agencies, the FBI, the NYPD have actually been the ones that have clung most strongly to this theory, despite ample empirical evidence that they’re unsound.  Why do you think that is?

KUNDNANI: Well you know, if you look at the NYPD for example and look at their published material on radicalization, it’s heavily informed by academics actually. And so one of the issues here is the way in which after 9/11, we’ve had the creation of so-called Terrorism Studies departments, funded to a large extent by the Department of Homeland Security and other federal government sources. And these are not producing academic material of the scholarly standards that you might expect.  They don’t stand up compared to other social science work that’s done.  There’s a revolving door between these academic departments and national security agencies or law enforcement agencies.  And so one of the problems here is that academia becomes an adjunct of the government national security world, and its independence and potential for objective knowledge gets compromised for that reason.  The best work on terrorism in academia doesn’t get done in terrorism studies departments.  It gets done by anthropologists, by sociologists and by area study specialists…

Q: Criminologists?

KUNDNANI:  …and criminologists, right.  But those folks aren’t involved in this intimate relationship with government agencies.  So you have… the academics who are involved in that kind of work see themselves as servicing the needs of law enforcement agencies –and what are the needs of law enforcement agencies in this area?  Law enforcement agencies want a neat, simple formula that will tell them how to direct their surveillance resources, essentially.  And that’s what these very simplistic radicalization models do, albeit in a misguided way.  At least they have the benefit, from a law enforcement point of view, of ‘Here’s the one simple formula. That’s all you need to know.’ And I think that is a big part of why these things are attractive.  So when I was researching the book, I actually asked FBI agents working on counter-terrorism- why do they like this radicalization model that they’ve absorbed from these terrorism study scholars?  And the answer generally would be ‘Well, we know that these models don’t stand up all that well academically but we need something simple. And in the absence of some other simple formula, we’re going to have to carry on using this one.’

Q: Which would strike me as a failure of intelligence analysis- that we want something simple, that’s afactual?

KUNDNANI: Absolutely.

Q: …rather than something that’s complex, and would form our policies and our practices in a way that actually target the people who might be threats.

KUNDNANI:   Right absolutely. I think this is also the problem of the general political culture we have in this area- where we’ve adopted this thinking that we need to do everything possible to prevent the next terrorist attack.  And everything possible includes taking away people’s civil rights. And so once you have this zero-tolerance approach, an idea that no risk can be tolerated at all- so even if there’s a minute chance that someone might be a risk, you have to invest a whole load of resources in going after them. Then that creates an environment in which you start to want to broaden out your definition of the threat as wide as possible, and that’s what these radicalization models do.  So you could imagine a situation in which you come up with a much simpler formula that is just narrow, that says ‘Go after people where you see concrete reasons that they’re involved in some actual plot- not based on their ideology, but based on what they say they’re going to do, or what their behavior displays that they’re going to do in terms of are they ordering fertilizer, and things like that.’  That’s also quite a simple formula-  but it’s not one that’s going to fly very well in a national security world, because it requires a dramatic narrowing of whom you go after.

Q: Right, and one of the problems is that there’s the identification of ideology as a precursor to violence that creates this incentive to surveil and suppress ideology.  But some of the theories actually identify political activity, such as expressing grievances against the government, expressing a sense of moral outrage against foreign policy as specific indicators, which seems specifically designed to chill advocacy against these policies.

KUNDNANI: Right, I mean I think the… assumption behind all these radicalization models is that political activism, when carried out by Muslims, is not political activism but the seed of an extremist belief system.  And so whether it’s intended or not, the effect is certainly that when you have an organization or an individual who’s making criticisms- perhaps radical criticisms of the U.S. government’s foreign policy for example- that is not interpreted as dissent as it would be for most other communities.  It’s interpreted as extremism.  And that means that you then go after those people. And that certainly means a dramatic suppression of political freedom for our fellow citizens in the US.

Q: And again it’s not new. This is what was done to the labor movement in the early 1900s after World War I.  It was done to the civil rights movement.

KUNDNANI: Right. So clearly, if you look at the civil rights example or the labor movement example, in those cases, there’s clearly a direction that comes from the leadership of the FBI that is politically motivated.  These people are seen as threats to a certain status quo that the leadership of the FBI have identified themselves with, and see themselves as the front line in defending.  Now the situation with the current scenario has some element to that.  But in a way, one of the things that I think has happened is that the academic work on radicalization has done that thinking for the leadership in a way.  So it’s not even that you necessarily need an FBI leadership, or leadership in other agencies who have this highly thought-out idea of subversion and needing to suppress political activism.  The radicalization model has already encapsulated that.  So as soon as you’ve bought into those radicalization models, which are the default way that these issues are thought about, you’ve already succumbed to continuing that historical legacy. Whether you intend to or not.

Q: And one of the things I find ironic is that some of these studies that do purport to do some empirical research behind them as you said, often with flawed methodology actually identify terrorists’ claim of having experienced discrimination of some sort as their justification for having done this.  So it’s almost circular. The theory creates this policy that treats them differently.  So again, it is sort of bad intelligence analysis that you’re creating this circular system where your counter-terrorism activities are actually, according to your own theory, providing the grist for further radicalization.

KUNDNANI:   Right, and we see that circular effect of being counter-productive. Right through the War on Terror, time and time again it seems to happen.  The classic case being the Iraq War, which was supposed to be an act of counter-terrorism, but generated more terrorism in response.  But when you’re thinking about that in terms of the domestic U.S. context- you know, a few years ago there was this whole big discussion in national security circles about young people from the U.S. going off to join al-Shabab in Somalia and fighting with them. And we had the radicalization hearing run by Peter King in Congress that was supposed to investigate why this might be happening and what could be done about it.  You had a whole load of people thinking about that question.  No one actually looked at what were those young people themselves saying about why they might do that.  There was no one who was asking that question and none of the journalists in the United States who were interested in this question actually spent very much time asking those young people.  But there have been journalists in Kenya who’ve interviewed those young people as they’ve been traveling through Kenya to Somalia. And what they talk about is precisely their experience of being on the receiving end of the very intense surveillance, the discriminatory surveillance in Minnesota where many of them were from, and how that made them feel that they were never going to be able to enjoy the opportunities that America was supposed to represent for them, that they were always going to be seen as the enemy. So you can see, if we take that seriously, you can how people who weren’t a threat initially get seen as a threat, get seen as an enemy. Then they become one, as a result of being seen as one. And then they decide to go to this whole other part of the world and join this whole movement.

Q: But it’s still an oversimplified theory because far more people are subjected to these counter-terrorism measures than ever engage in criminal activity.

KUNDNANI: Absolutely and there’s a danger in thinking that being a victim of discrimination might be the new radicalization indicator.  It would be again flawed for the same reason that there’s a control group of a thousand more people who experienced discrimination, but decided to deal with it in other ways.

Q: And another area you’ve mentioned- that focusing on what’s wrong with the individual who engaged in this activity and whether they were brainwashed or caught an ideological virus in some of the language of these reports-  we miss that the larger discussion of the political context in which both counter-terrorism measures are taking place and conflicts around the world. You mentioned Somalia. Syria is even more complex where the United States reportedly is supporting some rebel groups with arms, and other rebel groups are considered terrorists by the United States government. Even though their behavior may not be that different at all. And yet there isn’t that sort of dynamic thinking in the intelligence community or even… I’m not sure if you saw the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board report that just came out.  One of their recommendations I thought was stunning.  It was that the intelligence agencies should create a methodology to evaluate the efficacy and effectiveness of counter-terrorism programs.  You would think that would be part and parcel of every program you initiate, but if you’re blinding yourself to facts that will contribute to your understanding of what’s going on, as an intelligence agency I think you’re making it far more difficult to find that ultimate solution of the problem.

KUNDNANI: Yeah absolutely and I think the… for me, the problem essentially here is that we have a foreign policy that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan…

Q: …including Americans that we’ve sent over there…

KUNDNANI:  …and including the Americans that have lost their lives in those conflicts as well.  I think as a society, we haven’t faced up to that. We haven’t faced up to the level of violence that we’ve been responsible for inflicting.  Unless we begin to see that we’re in a circular relationship with non-state actors who are also engaged in violence, unless we start to understand that it’s a circular relationship, we’re not going to be able to reduce that violence.  We’re going to constantly externalize violence and see it as something that other people are doing to us, and be blind to the violence that we’re doing to other people. And that’s what all these words like terrorism actually do.  So the moment you use the word terrorism, what you’re really doing is you’re saying certain kinds of violence that we separate out, carried out by other people. We’re never the terrorists, it’s always the other people that are the terrorists. Our violence is always necessary, rational, reasonable, proportionate.  Their violence is the crazy violence.  That’s what the word terrorism is doing.  That’s a comforting notion for us to have, but it doesn’t actually get to grips with the reality of the situation on the ground that we’re involved in.  And when you look at the history of terrorism or other kinds of related political violence, you do see a recurring path.  So if you go back to the first terrorist campaign that looks like a modern terrorist campaign, it’s the anarchist bombers at the end of the 19th century.  So they all, by and large, come out of the… they’re involved in the Paris Commune in 1871, which is a movement to try and challenge authority politically in France.  That is brutally suppressed very violently by the military. So then, some number of the survivors of that massacre decides, now it’s legitimate to use violence against the upper class in France.  Then look at something like Northern Ireland.  You have a civil rights movement that’s campaigning for the rights of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland. It’s operating in a peaceful way that faces very violent suppression. And that’s when young people in that community start to think it’s now legitimate to join the provisional IRA.  You look at South Africa, you have a non-violent movement for opposing Apartheid. That faces violent suppression at Sharpeville in 1960, and that’s when the ANC starts to begin its bombing campaign and sabotage campaign.  So in all these cases you have this pattern where people are trying to engage in political change in a non-violent way. You get violence from the authorities. That then triggers a small number of people thinking it’s legitimate for them to use violence in response.  And look at post-9/11 in Britain, you have… in 2003, you have millions of people on the streets in London who are protesting against Tony Blair’s involvement in the Iraq War.  There’s a sense of optimism, that with that number of people on the streets in a democracy, that should promote a shift in policy. The change doesn’t happen and it’s in that context that you start to see… again, a small number of people who believe that, okay now it’s legitimate to use violence ‘cause we’ve tried the democratic way.  So from 2003 to 2006 you see a more than doubling in the number of terrorist plots and then from 2006 to 2009 it goes back down again.  You can see a relationship there very clearly.  And so what that suggests is that radicalization, in the true meaning of the word, i.e. people getting involved in political activism, it’s the solution- not the problem.  If we enable true democratic process to function, whereby people can express themselves politically, we’re doing more to reduce counter-terrorism probably than any other potential counter-terrorism policies that we can consider.

Q: How much do you think race is a factor?  Obviously there are many different kinds of terrorism.  There was a Combating Terrorism Center report that said that the level of violence from far-right extremists in the United States is much higher than any other group.  One of the statistics I was somewhat surprised about in your book was that you mentioned the IRA and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, there’s actually, even in the recent past, there have been more fatalities as a result of sectarian violence than any violence brought by Muslim extremists.

KUNDNANI: Right absolutely….

Q: …and yet we don’t sort of use the same models.

KUNDNANI: The amount of resources that the UK government dedicates to countering what it calls al-Qaeda and related violence is huge, compared to what it dedicates to tackling the ongoing sectarian violence in Northern Ireland- even though they’re both, in terms of the numbers of people dying, looking pretty similar.  [It’s the] same with far-right violence in Europe.  The number of people killed by far-right activists is roughly the same as the number killed by Muslim extremists of various kinds.  And yet, we have hardly any resources from European governments to deal with the far-right.  And so partly, ultimately that is about race.  Who are the victims of that far-right violence?  It’s by-and-large people in minority ethnic communities in Europe who are more expendable as victims than the threat to… what was the purpose of the 7/7 bombers?  Their purpose was to try and intimidate Britain into changing its foreign policy.  So what we’re effectively saying is that we want to spend a lot more resources into preventing our foreign policy from being intimidated into change, then we’re willing to spend to prevent harm to fellow citizens who happen to be from minority communities.

Q: And also for the people who support the status quo, whether it’s foreign policy, domestic policy, this theory is very convenient because it helps you demonize anybody who’s challenging that status quo.

KUNDNANI: Absolutely.  And when you look at how these models understand Muslim populations, they… I mean, there’s all of the things that we would normally associate with racism.  There’s the very broad generalizations of a whole group of people, there’s the way in which people’s dress and appearance become signifiers of suspicion.  So whether that’s the bizarre mention in the NYPD radicalization report for things like growing a beard or things like starting to wear what they call ‘traditional Islamic clothing’ as indicators of radicalization.  Well, that starts to look like, the more Muslim you look, the more of a threat you are.  And so, being Muslim is not… what’s happening here is that being Muslim is being constructed as a race. And therefore it connects in with I think, longer histories of racism in the United States and in Europe. And this becomes a new manifestation of that longer racial history.

Q: And again it strikes me as bad intelligence, because in fact, the Muslim community in the United States is incredibly diverse- economically, racially, politically- and yet these agencies tend to look at them as a monolith.

KUNDNANI: Absolutely, and the moment you… I mean, I think that’s right. What’s happening with these models is that this is an assumption that Islam is this hidden force that drives people.  So you’re simplifying the way people are in their actual lives, where they have multiple identities, multiple ways of thinking of who they are, and making their decisions about things. And you’re saying no, the only thing that defines you is Islam. Moreover Islam is nothing but this set of beliefs that has this tendency to violence.  So the more literally you believe in Islam, the more likely you are to be violent.  All these kinds of ideas start circulating.  And so that cannot possibly be a compelling way to think about how actual people live their lives, and make decisions about things.

Q: And one of the ways the US government is treating this combating violent extremism is through a lot of community outreach.  How can that be problematic?

KUNDNANI: The community outreach is interesting.  There’s some ways in which meeting with community leaders is a useful thing to do.  I don’t have an objection to that in principle.  But in practice, there are some problems that have arisen.  One of them is where the distinction between community engagement and intelligence gathering gets blurred. And we’ve seen that in a number of cases, where community engagement exercises actually end up being pretexts to gathering intelligence on the participants.  And that actually was also a major issue with the preventing violent extremist policy as well in Britain.  But then one of the things that I identified when I was researching the book was that a lot of the community engagement that happens- say for example, with FBI agents who are working on counter-terrorism who do community engagement- what they’re actually trying to do is not so much meet with community leaders so that they can have a productive conversation, exchange ideas and maybe have some mechanism of accountability to the community.  That’s not really what they’re doing.  What they’re trying to do is recruit community leaders to be advocates for the FBI to the community.  So you will find FBI agents talking about, I want community leaders to be advocating a counter-radicalization message to the community.  What does that counter-radicalization message look like in practice?  It means you get community leaders who, out of this relationship with the FBI start to say things like… don’t talk about foreign policy [and] telling members of the community that to be American means that you don’t raise these issues. And ironically, the Constitution definition- if any -of what it means to be American, is precisely the opposite.  So if the relationship is set up on those terms, then I think there’s a problem in which the relationship becomes a government PR exercise and a way of again, creating a culture of self-censorship in the community- which is not only unconstitutional but also counter-productive again. The best way of tackling terrorism is for as lively as possible political conversations to be happening in the community.  The United States should be the place in the world where the conversation about politics and religion is much livelier than everywhere else, not quiet and silent and where people are feeling like they can’t express themselves.  So I think that’s one issue.  And then the last point I would make is- the community engagement model or the community policing model, historically it comes out of the gangs issue.  So the way in which it’s worked has been where the community engagement exercise enables community leaders to raise civil rights issues and the law enforcement agency responds by changing its policies.  That builds trust, and out of that trust, better intelligence emerges from the community about gangs.  And actually that doesn’t happen very often but that would be the ideal.  Now if you transpose that to counter-terrorism you have two problems.  One is, in no case that I know about has any FBI field office that’s doing community engagement, heard criticisms of its policies and then said okay we’ll look at that, and try and change that.  And that’s partly because those policies come from Washington, where the agenda is not one where Muslim community leaders are having any purchase.  But then the second aspect is… what would be the intelligence that would be on the other side of this trade?  There’s an assumption that Muslim community leaders know about all these potential plots but are just holding them back in some way.  Whereas I would say that pretty much- well I’d say every Muslim community leader has not actually got any information about plots that would suddenly emerge as this intelligence that would supposedly be part of a tradeoff.  So there’s not even a basis which is different from an issue like gangs—where you might well know a bit of useful information from your neighborhood.  So because terrorism is so rare, the same kind of logic doesn’t work in this case. 

Q: And you mentioned because terrorism is so rare, and thankfully it is still fairly rare, when you look at other types of violence.

KUNDNANI: Absolutely. There are almost 14,000 homicides a year in the United States, a couple dozen that could be called terrorism from a variety of sources.  So how much of this theory is about aggrandizing the threat?  In other words, if we’re just talking about terrorism, we’re talking about a couple of dozen people. But if we’re talking about people with bad ideas, particularly if those ideas include concerns about U.S. foreign policy and U.S. counter-terrorism policy, that’s a lot of people and a lot more risk, therefore a lot more resources. And part of this is to do with, how can we tell a story here that does bring more resources to our agency?  The FBI has to go back every year to continue its funding from Congress, and it has to have a story to tell of why it needs that money.  So that’s part of it.  I think… I don’t want to be conspiratorial about it, and think it just comes down to some clever trick to get funding for these different agencies.  I mean, I think the problem is bigger, I think the whole of our political culture is wrapped up in this.  It’s not something that just comes from the leaders of particular agencies.  We’ve all got involved in this way of thinking about terrorism that hugely exaggerates it, and projects it onto a particular community- the Muslim community- and disavows the violence of our own society, or what we perceive to be our own society.  So we disavow the 14,000 homicides that take place each year, as not as big a problem.  We disavow the violence that we’ve causing around the world.  And instead we have this projection onto Muslim terrorism, which I think psychologically, you can see why that would be convenient.  It’s a story where- for all the fear that’s wrapped up in it, in some ways it’s quite comforting.  It’s comforting to know there’s some bad guys out there are really scary and we’re the good guys that are having to defend ourselves.  Even if the reality is unfortunately much more… ambiguous.

Q: If a member of the public was trying to understand more about this topic other than your book, which of course we’d want them to read, what other reading materials would you suggest for them?

KUNDNANI: I think one of the best books on the post-9/11 counter-terrorist policy is David Cole’s Enemy Aliens which came out soon after 9/11. But [it] remains, I think , one of the strongest books that goes back into that history, through the 20th century of how, at different points, foreign nationals were seen as the enemy.  Another book that was written soon after 9/11 but was also stood the test of time is Mahmood Mamdani’s  Good Muslim, Bad Muslim  which gets into the thinking around how we’ve depoliticized our understanding of terrorism post-9/11, and how we’ve just seen it as a problem of Muslim culture.  Trevor Aaronson’s Terror Factory is great for its investigative journalism on how the FBI has run informants in Muslim communities and criminalized a number of people using that technique and Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars is very good for showing how the way we do counter-terrorism- particularly in Somalia and Yemen- has been entirely counter-productive asnd made the problem of violence much worse.

Q: Okay great, I appreciate you coming out, thanks.

KUNDNANI: My pleasure.