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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…

KUND­NANI: Right. 

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.

KUND­NANI: Right.

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.