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Fashioning a Response to Terror: Action versus Overreaction

By Rachel A. Epstein for Denver Dialogues

On January 30th, 2011, members of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula advise, train, and assist Iraqi Security Forces in preparation for counter-terrorism operations during Operation New Dawn, Baghdad, Iraq. By by Army Sgt. Andrew Jacob, Special Operations Task Force-Central.

On January 30th, 2011, members of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula advise, train, and assist Iraqi Security Forces in preparation for counter-terrorism operations during Operation New Dawn, Baghdad, Iraq. By Army Sgt. Andrew Jacob, Special Operations Task Force-Central.

A Symposium with Deborah Avant, Sarah Glaser and Martin Rhodes

In recent weeks, I’ve been party to a number of heated conversations among otherwise like-minded people about the appropriate response to terrorist attacks. The catalyst for disagreement was the Paris attacks, but of course there have been many attacks, both before and after those, in Lebanon, Turkey, Indonesia, Somalia and elsewhere. On the one hand, the wall-to-wall media coverage, stepped-up surveillance, military action and reinvigoration of a ‘war on terror’ seem appropriate to many, given the savagery of the attacks. But on the other, overreaction also carries risks—namely that we will encourage more attacks by providing terrorist events so much profile; that we will misallocate resources; or that we will fuel our worst nativist impulses.

To answer the question of what constitutes an effective response to terror versus an overreaction, I turn to three well-informed colleagues with strong views on this subject. Professor Deborah Avant specializes in international security with a particular focus on non-state actors. Sarah Glaser is a research scientist with One Earth Future who has researched East Africa extensively. Professor Martin Rhodes is a Europeanist who works in comparative and international political economy.

EPSTEIN: Does the media and do politicians hype terrorist attacks too much?

AVANT: Yes. Terrorist attacks are very rare events. We have all heard the statistics; as an American you are much more likely to drown in your bathtub or be struck by lightning than to die in a terrorist attack. Even with the rise in terrorist attacks worldwide (generally associated with ISIS) in the last couple of years (here are some statistics on that), Americans and Europeans are relatively unaffected.

RHODES: Probably, and politicians who seek to gain votes or US presidential primary support thereby are especially culpable of fear mongering. But those politicians who try to treat the topic with greater rationality than others have to tread a difficult line; downplaying a threat can be as dangerous politically as overplaying it—especially when nationalist/nativist politicians portray moderation as disregard.

GLASER: Yes and no. Yes, if you’re asking about the risk to Americans on American soil. But countless terrorist attacks occur around the world—especially in Africa—that receive little or no media or political coverage in the U.S. For example, since the attacks on Paris in November there have been attacks by al-Shabaab (the al-Qaeda linked jihadist group based in southern Somalia) on a bus of citizens in Kenya, on an African Union base in Somalia (killing between 50 – 100 Kenyan soldiers), and on a hotel and restaurant at a popular beach in Somalia (killing at least 20), but there was virtually no US coverage of these attacks.

EPSTEIN: Would you estimate, referring first to the United States and Europe, that this set of countries devotes too many resources to anticipating, preventing and responding to terrorist attacks?

AVANT: Yes again, referring specifically to the US, the numbers are staggering. Check here for a running tab of the amount the US has spent in wars since 9/11.

The puzzling thing is why?

One idea about “why” was what started the debate between Martin Rhodes and me. A mutual friend who runs a tech start-up was talking about an idea to pull signals about potential threats from social media. His claim was that the US government missed Facebook posts that could have made them aware of the malign intent of the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. This friend has no particular knowledge about terrorism or responses to it but saw a business opportunity in what looked like a missed possibility to head off a terrorist attack. I suddenly had a Michael Moore moment. Remember how in Bowling for Columbine he showed how average Americans employed in weapons industries were part of the structure ensuring that it continued? In this sense, there is too much money attracting energy and innovation to address terror where the actual threat of terror (at least in the US) doesn’t warrant it.

Terrorism—and fighting it—has become a structural part of our politics and economy (for more on structural arguments, check out the recent Duck of Minerva symposium). Many receive benefits from playing up the threat no matter what they actually think. This then plays into other psychological factors that exaggerate fear and make it even less likely that we will have a reasoned response. In the worst case, a fearful response generates fear (or resentment) that actually worsens the problem. And that is something we should consider seriously given the potential relationship between America’s response to 9/11 and the growth of ISIS.

GLASER: I would add that it’s problematic to overstate terrorism in one case and understate it in another. Hyping terrorism scares people. A NYT/CBS poll from December showed 19% of Americans believe terrorism is the top issue facing the country, up from just 4% the month before. That fear creates real anxiety, but it also elevates reactionary, isolationist, and racist policy responses—see Donald Trump’s suggestion to ban travel by Muslims to the U.S., or the movement of certain states to ban Syrian refugees. This, in turn, fuels one of the terrorist narratives of anti-Muslim hatred in the West that perpetuates self-radicalization in the U.S. and Europe and recruits foreign fighters to travel around the world to join ISIS, the Taliban, or al-Shabaab.

RHODES: Maybe the US does devote too many resources, where it can justifiably be said that other problems are far more pressing. The US government spends around $1 trillion a year countering terrorism; or to put it another way, as a headline on website Think by Numbers puts it, “Anti-Terrorism Spending 50,000 Times More Than on Any Other Cause of Death”.

But that argument becomes casuistic when ‘relative risk’ statistics are tritely deployed. Richard Jackson, for example, states that given the actual relative risk of being killed in a terrorist attack, we’d be better off having a ‘war on bees’ or on lightning or suicide.

That’s not a very a helpful way to frame a complex public debate. Indeed it is the worst kind of trivializing sophistry. It ignores the difference between risk and uncertainty; we know how to reduce our chances of dying in a car crash, or of alcohol consumption, and we and our governments can deploy resources accordingly. But we do not fully understand terrorism—what causes it, when and where it will happen, and with what effect. It also ignores the fact that the ‘risk’ of dying in a terrorist attack (the number of incidents in a given place and period) is only the most immediate manifestation of the problem. In the case of Jihadism, governments have to deal with many unknowns (e.g. the success of internet recruitment strategies; the profile of the terrorist; the capacity to cross borders unchecked). In some European countries—notably France—a new wave of virulent anti-Semitism (not unrelated to the terrorism there) is more than just a low-level threat, measurable simply by the number of physical attacks. It causes widespread distress and outward migration by Jews and costs both the state and local Jewish communities a fortune to police. The ‘relative risk’ discourse thus ignores the collateral damage that terrorism inflicts.

EPSTEIN: What should the public policy focus be for terrorism, in light of your views about the value of action versus the risks of overreaction?

AVANT: Public policy is best when it is based on reason rather than fear. So the first thing I advocate for is a calmer public discourse. Once it becomes politically and economically expedient to play on fear, as it has now, generating calmer discourse is an uphill battle. As academics, though, I think we have the responsibility to continually point out the “facts”, to take note when we see structural forces at work, and to engender debate about the degree to which terrorism is such a threat and whether treating it as we have is making things better or worse. We have overreacted, and it has made things worse.

GLASER: The public policy response should take into account that Americans currently misperceive who are the most numerous victims of radical jihadist movements. ISIS is killing Muslims. Al-Shabaab is killing Muslims. The Taliban is killing Muslims. Boko Haram is killing Muslims. But too many Americans feel terrorism is an us-versus-them situation in which us = US/Europe and them = Muslims. This makes our policy response not only ineffective, but counterproductive. Moreover, it misses the fact that most victims of terrorism are actually Muslim.

RHODES: True: only 3 per cent of terrorist deaths have occurred in the West since 2001. This number is used by those who say (rightly) that we should “put terrorism in perspective”. But it also tells us something equally if not more important: that we should avoid an isolationist view of terrorism and recognize that the fight against Jihadist terrorism is a global one, in which Al Qaeda and ISIS and their affiliates are now competing to out-brutalize each other. Potentially this means spending more money but differently. A Marshall Plan, for the fractured parts of the Middle East, called for by US politicians as different as John Kerry and John McCain, would be massively expensive and certainly opposed by nativists and isolationists. But it would be ‘rational’ and proportionate to the scale of the problem.

In Europe, where populists and nationalists are calling for a dismantling of the EU in response to terrorism and large-scale migration, the correct response is to get smarter and devote more resources, not fewer, to fighting terrorism and its root causes. European countries have had to deal with domestic terrorism in the past, but they are ill-prepared to deal with new cross-border security challenges. Not only have they depended for too long on US spending on NATO for their broader security, but they have neglected to put in place effective security coordination within EU countries and across them. The establishment of a new European Counter Terrorism Centre within Europol in January is a step in the right direction. But a broader, coordinated, and yes, costly, global strategy is in order.

Dr. Deborah Avant is the Sié Chéou-Kang Chair for International Security and Diplomacy and Director of the Sié Center at the University of Denver.

Dr. Sarah Glaser is a research associate for Secure Fisheries, and an affiliate research scientist at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

Dr. Martin Rhodes is Professor of Comparative Political Economy, and Academic Co-Director of the Colorado European Union Center of Excellence.

 

 

Weekly Links

By Sarah Bakhtiari

Temporary Water Mirror on Notre Dame. By Loïc Lagarde.

A  temporary water mirror on Notre Dame, Paris. By Loïc Lagarde.

The U.S. continues to struggle to find its way in foreign policy (or is just simply failing altogether), despite its seeming importance on the national election circuit. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates claims that the United States lacks an overarching strategy to inform individual policy decisions—on the other hand, the proliferation of “gray zone” conflict makes grand strategy even more complex. Where should the U.S. turn for insights? Last month, Stephen Walt touted a realist foreign policy as producing better outcomes than the administration’s purportedly liberal internationalist approach. Josh Busby challenged Walt’s claim with his own: realism is not a powerful discourse, not least because it ignores discursive power, but also due to its own rhetorical ineffectiveness. And last week, Carnegie released a report grounded in realism about U.S. capacity and regional realities in Central Asia, which recommends the United States abandon its human rights requirements for security cooperation.

Not unrelated to U.S. foreign policy, armed Chinese drones have been discovered (but not officially acknowledged by the Chinese) in Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. U.S. export law prevents drone sales around the world if subsequent use is potentially at odds with America’s national interests—instead, the U.S. has been supporting the Nigerians with intelligence via U.S.-operated but unarmed Reaper drones. China’s relatively relaxed export policy is expected to make them a major global export of drone technology and systems.

Meanwhile, political economists are speculating about the “new normal”—or its end—and the “new abnormal” in the global economy, all which foretell of the potential for increased volatility and inequality, and slower growth…not often a combination that promises calm.

Drawing on the English School’s conceptualization of international society, Andrew Linklater suggests that international society has outgrown Europe, but not necessarily outgrown European or Western civilization.

Is democracy in decline? Freedom House presents statistics on what they call the “complicated picture” of freedom in the world over the past decade. The bottom line: more countries experienced democratic setbacks over the past decade than improvements. Even the United States demonstrated deterioration during that time frame: flawed electoral processes, increased private monies in electoral and legislative processes, deficiencies in the criminal justice system, and legislative gridlock characterize the new deficits. And how do Americans feel about some of these developments, like legislative gridlock, for example? This data shows Americans favor domestic compromise, despite their increasing partisan polarity.

Finally, if you want to improve your data interpretation chops, here’s a game that might help! And if this sounds terrible and boring, maybe you can will yourself into it by using “temptation bundling.”

Can Ugandans Achieve True Democracy? The Battle for Systemic Change

Guest post by Erin Mazursky

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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Photo by U.S. Department of State.

In the lead up to presidential elections on February 18th, incumbent Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has publically declared that he will train up to 11 million “crime preventers” – armed civilians with the mandate to maintain peace should violence break out. In a country of just over 37 million, this number is unlikely, but insiders put it closer to two million. Either way, the reality of the situation does not change. In the name of security, Museveni is expanding his army to quiet any dissent against what most Ugandans see as a pointless or inevitably rigged election.

Museveni has ruled Uganda under the auspice of democracy for nearly three decades. However, time has forced a change in tactics to maintain power and, in a world where veneers of democracy are thinning, Museveni’s tactics have become even more despotic—increased intimidation, imprisonment, expansion of state surveillance, stricter control of state media, and a recent law that requires police permission for gatherings of more than three people. In fact, Uganda’s freedom rating has plummeted to its lowest score in nearly fifteen years.

Museveni’s renewed iron fist does not come out of nowhere; unfortunately, this Ugandan story is not unique. Despotic leaders take notes from each others’ playbooks, and similar crackdowns have closed democratic spaces in numerous countries. Increased technology provides citizens greater voice and ability to communicate, which in turn gives rise to new protest movements globally. Government backlashes against these courageous activists prove their protests are working. However, citizens are not learning from each other as quickly as these despots.

I founded Rhize to change this equation—so that activists, who vastly outnumber those in government apparatuses, can create a citizens’ playbook. I recently returned from a workshop with Ugandan leaders working towards free, fair, and peaceful elections. Rhize helps activists around the world gain access to and apply the foundational strategies and principles of successful social movements such as the Indian movement for independence, the US Civil Rights Movement, the Serbian Otpor movement, and the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

Many of the Ugandans I met took part in the noteworthy Walk to Work campaign after the last election in 2011. Since then, each had been working in various ways to attempt to stand up to the government. Museveni’s security army effectively disbanded Walk to Work and every campaign since, but these activists  learned from their mistakes and recognized the need for a more effective framework going forward. At the beginning of the workshop, we asked participants what they wanted to get out of the training and what the barriers were to them uniting under a common cause. The answer was simple: lack of organization and lack of strategy.

Strategy and organization can be taught. Sustainable movements – groups that are able to continue their efforts with at least a 5-10 year horizon – realize that this type of struggle not only creates clear outcomes but also engenders greater social cohesion and more democratic foundations in the process. Movements’ power comes not only from the political outcomes they create; to be successful, social, cultural, and behavioral transformation must result in greater inclusion, access, and justice for the long run.

The Rhize philosophy is that movements can reflect the societies they want to build. But how does this happen? What key factors contribute to this type of change and how can it be sustained? What type of external support have movements received in order to achieve such success? We know what tangible wins look like—the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the British handover of governance to the Indian people in 1947, the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, the Egyptians’ take down of Mubarak in 2011.

But if movements can truly move mountains, should their success also be judged on what happens afterwards? Even with its marked moment of success in 1994 – when Nelson Mandela assumed the South African presidency – the Anti-Apartheid movement has been brought into question. As movement leaders became government leaders, they left a critical vacuum in civil society which remains largely unfilled. Without this critical check and balance on institutionalized power, many black South Africans question if their lives are truly better off than during apartheid. To be clear, I am not suggesting that apartheid should have remained – only that the structural racism did not disappear simply because of a new government or legal revisions. Cultural, economic, behavior, and other structural changes are still a work in progress.

Successful movements naturally create extra-institutional systems—markets, schools, people’s parliaments, medicine distribution networks, sanitation systems—that make up for government incompetency. These systems push institutions to change and adapt. However, we do not yet know the line between true institutional, systemic change, co-optation of civil society such as in South Africa, or complete marginalization as with the Free Papua Movement in Indonesia. In South Africa, activists wanted their government to acknowledge black-owned businesses, ensure equal education, and access to healthcare. But government adoption of certain policies should not mark the end of a movement. Civil society must continue to challenge structural injustices and not rely on the government as the sole driver of change, no matter who takes office. Otherwise, these leaders risk unintentionally undermining the movement’s ability to bring their vision to fruition.

As this case illustrates, there is a need for activists and scholars alike to further their understanding of movement dynamics. Such learning has tangible applications – just look at the seminal challenge faced by Ugandans this February. Almost 80% of the population has lived with no president other than Museveni. Yet seasoned activists understand that an ousting of Museveni alone will not heal Uganda’s fractious wounds. In the coming months and years, leaders and activists will need to build parallel systems that force a shifting of power away from the regime and towards the people. Like activists who came before them, they will have to determine for themselves what that change looks like and how to balance the need for a fair political system with the need for ongoing social change.

Erin Mazursky is the Founder & Executive Director of Rhize—a global platform that helps movements sustain active participation in service of more inclusive democratic societies—and a recent Practitioner-in-Residence at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

Interpreting the Migration Crisis: A Symposium

By Cassy Dorff, Faten Ghosn, Alex Braithwaite, and Andrew Linke for Denver Dialogues

Syrian refugees at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, 4 September 2015. By Mstyslav Chernov.

Syrian refugees at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, 4 September 2015. By Mstyslav Chernov.

In 2015, the UN stated that the number of people forced to flee war is expected to surpass 60 million, suggesting that violence-driven instability will lead to a record high of asylum seekers in 2016. The UN high commissioner for refugees has argued that humanitarian groups are no longer able to meet the minimum basic needs of refugees. This symposium examines the different intersecting political elements of the current refugee crisis and its influence on violence around the world. Our contributors include three members of the Four Corners Conflict Network: Faten Ghosn and Alex Braithwaite, both Associate Professors at the University of Arizona’s School of Government and Public Policy, and Andrew Linke, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

DORFF: Migration has been a major component of human life for hundreds of thousands of years, brought on by both environmental and socio-political disasters. Can you place the recent surge of migration in context for us? What constitutes it as a crisis?

GHOSN: What we are witnessing today in terms of migration is not necessarily new. However, the rise in population growth (almost 5.5 Billion in the 20th century alone), consequences of climate change (such as the rise in temperature and sea levels), as well as unresolved conflicts, have intensified and exacerbated the conditions of individuals living in poverty and war zones. Since 9/11 two major wars have been raging on in the Arab and Muslim world (Iraq and Afghanistan). These wars have not only impacted the inhabitants in the conflict zones but have also led to spillovers of violence as well as massive migration of people into neighboring countries. Fourteen years later, the conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq have gotten worse, and the political, economic, as well as security problems have intensified in the whole region, especially with the outbreak of civil war in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Two important factors have intensified the crisis: first, the majority of those coming into Europe are Muslim. Given the surge in attacks in Europe by Al Qaeda and ISIS, this has intensified the tension between the refugees and the local population. Second, a majority of those fleeing to Europe are coming from war zones that do not seem to be waning any time soon, leading many to fear that there will be more refugees in the years to come (i.e. mass flight). Therefore, the mass flux of Muslim refugees has created a crisis in the Western world.

BRAITHWAITE: The present situation represents the largest mass migration and refugee crisis since the Second World War. This visualization demonstrates the growth in the refugee population over the last four decades or so. There are a number of factors that make it especially troubling. First, it is comprised of refugees from multiple conflict zones, as demonstrated by this especially impressive visualization. Certainly the Syrian population is the largest among the refugees currently on the move; however, there are also large flows of people out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere. Second, the refugees are ultimately targeting a wide variety of destinations. This means that there are at least eight significant routes being followed by these populations into Europe. This has created a series of public policy problems that we don’t yet have a handle on. Third, and perhaps a little more cynically, one could argue that the current situation—especially as it relates to flows of refugees out of Syria—is somewhat unique because it has the potential to more directly affect the West than have earlier refugee crises. The vast majority of news coverage and the policy debate focuses on the relatively small proportion of individuals entering the European and North American continents, neglecting those refugees that remain in Syria’s neighborhood.

DORFF: What do you see as the most pressing concerns within the broader refugee crisis?

BRAITHWAITE: Two concerns stand out. First, now that Western Europe and North America are on alert, we seem to have forgotten about the fact that the vast majority of refugees remain in Syria’s neighboring states—Turkey (more than 2.5 million), Lebanon (more than 1 million), Jordan (650,000), and Iraq (250,000). According to the UNHCR, there are as many as 250 refugees per 1000 inhabitants in Lebanon. This places considerable strain on public resources and also exacerbates tensions between competing ethnic and political groups. Turkey is also demonstrating the effects of this strain on resources and public goodwill; we have seen the Erdogan government beginning to exploit the crisis to execute questionable domestic and foreign policies.

BRAITHWAITE: Second, the public relations battle is key. Initially arrivals of refugees in Europe were met, in some areas—Austria and Germany, for instance—with open arms. Since then, however, rhetoric has turned increasingly ugly. The Paris attacks, as well as those in San Bernadino, CA, have for some highlighted a potential threat to Western security. This “threat” is increasingly being characterized as part of a broader identity-based conflict.

GHOSN: The most pressing concerns within the broader refugee crisis relates to both resources as well as identity politics, but it depends on which part of the world is being directly impacted by it. If you think about the countries in the Middle East that have hosted the majority of the Syrian refugees (especially Lebanon and Jordan) the major issue facing them is the drain that this is placing on their treasury. This in turn means that they have fewer resources for their own populations, which then creates political and security concerns for these small states.

With respect to the Western countries, the major concern for them is the fact that the majority of the refugees are non-Christian. If we combine this with what is going on around the world in terms of conflict and economic crises, then the reaction in the West is not surprising.

Linke underscores the importance of identity:

LINKE: Militant conservative reactions to the arrival of refugees in Europe (for example, the appearance of the Finnish-Nordic “Soldiers of Odin,” or anonymous attacks on asylum centers in Sweden and other countries) are typical examples of non-governmental efforts to police a territorial interpretation of ethno-national identity. To the extent that many Central Americans are fleeing extreme drug cartel violence, an analogous response in the United States would be Minutemen Project patrols along the southern U.S. border that are designed to deter immigration. Historically in South Africa similar attacks have been launched against those fleeing Zimbabwe. Human geographers describe these activities, which are intended to shape interactions among individuals and groups through control of geographic space, as expressions of territoriality (see Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History by Robert Sack, for example). Contentious identity politics too often transform into violence and this is especially so when access to territory is defined along exclusive ethnic and/or religious lines rather than an inclusive civic rationale.

DORFF: Given what we know about the contagion and diffusion of conflict, what are your expectations for spillover effects to states in regions such as north and central Africa?

BRAITHWAITE: Existing research tells us that we should expect that the negative externalities of conflicts will spill across borders and that the tactics of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq will be emulated by actors elsewhere (see, e.g., here, here, and here). I would argue that both of these patterns have already been observed. First, threats associated with the spillover of conflict are likely to be most grave for weaker, less capable states. Growing state failure in areas of Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, and elsewhere, has facilitated the movement of militants and arms across borders and between violent anti-government groups. Second, in terms of emulation, we have already seen copycat uses of violence in Mali, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere at great distances, by groups with varying levels of affiliation to ISIS and Al Qaeda. These two processes have resulted in the apparent spread of ISIS-led, -facilitated, and -inspired violence across the globe.

LINKE: While a wealth of scholarship has documented the risks of conflict contagion, the diffusion of violence is not always a foregone conclusion. It may be a glass-half-full view of international politics, but the destabilizing forces associated with population pressure–whether access to food and water, shelter, or employment–can be managed in contexts where the will and, more importantly, the capacity to do so exist. Even the strongest pathways for the transmission of violence in these regions, including the proliferation of small arms and the movement of militant individuals and groups could be mitigated under the right circumstances in migrant arrival areas. Stable institutional contexts can serve as barriers to the spread of conflict when humanitarian response policies are implemented sensibly and efficiently, but these reactions do not occur without the concerted effort of many stakeholders.

DORFF: If the conventional avenues for support are faltering, where do you think refugees and origin/recipient states will find support in the future? In what ways might new forms of support need to vary from conventional strategies in order to respond to the contemporary refugee crisis?

GHOSN: Following the situation of the refugees in the Middle East, it is disheartening to see that local, regional as well as international organizations, in addition to host states are unable to keep up with the demands. For instance, last year the United Nations World Food Program slashed the monthly food subsidy for Syrian refugees in Lebanon from $30 per person per month to $13.50. This phenomenon is happening in more than one country. Traditional solutions have tended to focus on local integration, resettlement as well as repatriation. But these responses have not been sufficient to prevent future refugee crises. The best response to the contemporary refugee crisis is to help end the conflicts. However, we must not stop there; we need to help rebuild the states and ensure that the refugees not only have homes to go back to, but that there is a stable economy that allows for the pursuit of livelihood opportunities. Rebuilding war-torn countries (as well as weak states) takes time, dedication and resources. Most of the focus is always on short-term solutions/projects that may be necessary but not sufficient to ensure that the country can continue to stand on its two feet when third parties withdraw their support.

DORFF: What aspect of the crisis is better understood as a result of existing research?

BRAITHWAITE: Existing research demonstrates an empirical link between migration/refugee flows and the spread of various forms of political violence (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here). However, this research also demonstrates that the link is often indirect, always complicated, and rarely as grave as we have heard from the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Transnational flows of people appear to be associated with the spread of violence and the exacerbation of terrorism problems. Leiken (2004) notes, for instance, “while most immigrants are not terrorists, most terrorists are immigrants.” Nonetheless, many governments responded to the 9/11 attacks by imposing and enhancing blanket restrictions on migration (Tirman 2004; Neumayer 2006; Avdan 2014). In a recent working paper, Bove and Bohmelt (2016) theorize that more significant than the migrants themselves are the social ties and social capital that their flows and populations develop. They argue that terrorist networks exploit these resources in their planning of future terrorist activities.

BRAITHWAITE: In a related area, a number of studies suggest that there may exist a relationship between refugees and terrorism. This literature demonstrates that it is unlikely that radicalized individuals travel as refugees. Rather, it is likely that squalid conditions in refugee camps contribute to the radicalization of a tiny minority (Milton et al 2014) and/or that terrorist organizations attempt to loot aid-based resources that flow towards refugee camps (Choi and Salehyan 2013).

DORFF: What do we know about the social, political, and/or economic conditions that are most favorable for a refugee’s success in a new country?

GHOSN: One of the major issue facing refugees is the impact that displacement/forced migration can have on their overall health in general, and mental health in particular. According to Liebkind (1993), displacement/forced migration can lead to mental health problems as a result of the simultaneous interplay of different social as well cultural factors that have direct impacts on assimilation. For example, the decline in personal socio-economic status, inability to speak the language of the host country, separation from family, lack of friendly reception by surrounding host population, isolation from persons of similar cultural background, as well as traumatic experience or prolonged stress can all lead either independently or synergistically to poorer health outcomes among displaced refugees. Therefore, in order to ensure the success of the refugees these issues need to be taken into account by the host country as well as the organizations helping the refugees to resettle.

Cassy Dorff, PhD, is a research fellow at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver.

Faten Ghosn and Alex Braithwaite are Associate Professors at the University of Arizona’s School of Government and Public Policy.

Andrew Linke is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

 

After The Violence: Three Things We Know About the Effects of War Trauma and What We Can Do About It

By Thomas Zeitzoff

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US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, September 12, 2013. Photo by U.S. Department of State.

As the Syrian Civil War approaches its fifth anniversary, the best estimates suggest that over 250,000 Syrians have been killed since the start of the conflict, with more than 4.5 million refugees, and 7 million internally displaced. Many remain skeptical of a swift end to the violence in Syria (as well as Iraq). Civil wars last on average between seven to twelve years. It is likely that at some point the conflict will end, and Syrians will need to rebuild their country and address the psychological trauma of the conflict. Many Syrians have lost friends or family, fought in combat, been exposed to torture, or witnessed other gruesome human rights abuses. Research in political science, psychology, and economics all point to the profound effects of victimization on individuals, and how violence influences the post-war recovery of states.

What follows are three findings from academic research on the effects of exposure to political violence.

  1. Economies bounce-back from war-time violence, but individual effects persist

Civil war and political violence sharply reduce economic output during the conflict. But this effect is transitory, with many post-war economies recovering from conflict fairly quickly. While the negative macro-economic shocks of conflict don’t persist, others do. Children who are born into conflict are not as tall (due to nutritional deficits) and have lower levels of educational achievement. Even more recent research suggests that trauma can change individuals’ underlying DNA. It shows that the children of Holocaust survivors are more vulnerable to psychological trauma due to genetic changes that their survivor parents passed along.

  1. Violence makes people more generous, but mostly to their own group

Exposure to political violence fundamentally changes behavior and preferences. It makes people more willing to accept risks. Diverse findings from Nepal, Israel, and Burundi all connect exposure to political violence to increases in generosity. Yet, this generosity is largely directed towards ingroup members. Further research finds that exposure to terrorism increases support for right-wing parties, xenophobia, and opposition to peaceful compromise. Exposure to political violence is also correlated with higher levels of PTSD, which can increase support for political extremism.

  1. Exposure to violence make people more civic-minded

Other research connects exposure to violence to increased political participation and voting. Victims of political violence are more likely to attend community meetings, vote, and take an interest in politics more generally. This boost in political participation also extends to crime victimization. People who are victims of crimes are also more likely to attend community meetings and protests, but also more supportive of authoritarian anti-crime policies.

So what can the international community do to improve post-conflict recovery? First and most importantly, it can provide a mix of financial aid and economic incentives, and crucial security guarantees to credibly keep the peace. Second, it can provide psychological counseling for the victims. Cognitive behavioral therapy programs show great promise for effectively improving outcomes to those most vulnerable to re-engaging in violence. Other creative interventions, such as using soap operas to reduce prejudice following ethnic violence, have proven effective. However, more work needs to be done to design programs that channel the “positive” effect of post-traumatic growth, while minimizing its negative externalities.

Weekly Links

By Patrick Pierson

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Lighthouse. Photo via Nova Scotia Archives. 

The January 15th Al-Shabab attack on an AU forward base in Somalia still leaves many questions unanswered. Although unconfirmed, officials are saying that 80-100 Kenyan troops were killed and some analysts fear the attack represents a new strategy from Al-Shabab – namely, a shift from “soft targets” such as tourist areas towards military bases and police outposts. This has some wondering if the spate of recent attacks represent Al-Shabab’s efforts to maintain legitimacy in the face of new competition from Islamic State. While Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta insists his country will remain engaged in the fight against terrorism in the Horn, Kenyan troops have pulled out of a few Somali towns. With yet another bomb attack this week – on a police truck in Kenya’s eastern Lamu district – one wonders how long Kenyatta can maintain support for a battle that appears increasingly difficult to win.

Elsewhere in Africa, new satellite footage suggests the presence of mass graves in Burundi. In neighboring Rwanda, the US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker just wrapped up a trip aimed at furthering US-Rwandan economic ties. This comes in spite of recent condemnation from the US regarding Kagame’s bid for a third term. Further north, developments in the struggle for control of South Sudan only serve to exacerbate the country’s divisions. Elsewhere, former Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo has pleaded not guilty in the opening of his trial at the International Criminal Court.

Police officers in El Salvador are leaving the force in droves in the face of increased gang violence and threats on the officers’ families. The violence in El Salvador and other Central American countries has increased the number of refugees seeking asylum in the United States. In an important policy shift, the Obama administration is now working with the UN Refugee Agency to more fully and efficiently screen and process the migrants. While the violence is a threat to many, one group benefits from the insecurity – human smugglers. And this story demonstrates just how complex the US-Mexico border can be; it documents the story of a young woman who lives in Ciudad Juarez but attends college, just three miles away, in El Paso.

Finally, are cities the new countries? Mexico City made steps in that direction this week under a new law that grants the municipality more independence from the federal government. As urbanization gains steam in the years ahead, thinking about the role of cities will become increasingly important for humanitarian agencies as well. As of today, nearly 860 million people live in urban slums and, as IRC President David Miliband notes, 59% of refugees are now in urban areas. This, Miliband notes, does not simply suggest the need for more aid – it also places the burden on the humanitarian community to adapt and implement “better aid.”

Why ISIS Will Not Thrive in Indonesia

Guest post by Ioana Emy Matesan

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Scene shortly after ISIS attack in Jakarta, January 14, 2016. Photo by Tommy Wahyu Utomo.

When suicide bombers and gunmen hit the heart of Jakarta last week, ISIS immediately claimed the attacks, proudly announcing that its soldiers are striking the crusader alliance in Indonesia. Making inroads into the third largest democracy and the largest Muslim majority country in the world would be a big propaganda boost for the group. But ISIS affiliates in Indonesia remain a relatively minuscule presence. The Islamic State entity in Indonesia varies drastically from its counterpart in Syria in terms of motivations, organization, and perhaps most importantly, ability to challenge the state or claim territory.

From its inception, ISIS manipulated local grievances to mobilize support. In Syria, these included the revulsion at the atrocities committed by Assad (for weekly reports on human rights violations see Syria Watch). In Iraq, the grievances were primarily towards the repression and inequalities perpetrated by the Shia political powers that be. What enabled ISIS to grow and eventually start building a skeletal state structure was the collapse of the rule of law (in both Syria and Iraq), the crisis of the state, and the descent into civil war in Syria.

Indonesia has seen its fair share of violence, and even some earlier attempts to build an Islamic state. During the state-formation process, the Darul Islam (DI) group formed to fight Dutch colonialism (access a classic study on DI here). The group quickly turned against the newly established Republic when the national leadership refused to give in to its demands and retained Pancasila as the state ideology. Somewhat reminiscent of ISIS aspirations today, the highly charismatic DI leader Kartosuwirjo rejected the political and physical contours of the newly established Indonesia Republic (for one of the most comprehensive studies on Kartosuwirjo, see here).

On August 7, 1949, he proclaimed the Islamic State of Indonesia (Negara Islam Indonesia – NII) in West Java. He envisioned the Islamic State as an alternative to the Republic and as the basis of an eventual regional caliphate. Kartosuwirjo developed a parallel state structure and his movement spread to other provinces of Indonesia, where Islamist goals overlapped with separatist aspirations and grievances against the Javanese domination of politics. But as the Indonesian state consolidated and gained legitimacy as a republic, DI started losing ground. Regional leaders struck agreements with the central government, individual fighters deserted when offered incentives or amnesty by the government, and the DI project eventually fizzled out, laying down its arms after its leader was arrested in 1962.

From the DI ashes emerged other networks of activists who contested the foundation of the Indonesia state. The leaders of the Jama’a al-Islamiyyah (JI), for example, envisioned the creation of a regional Islamic community that would eventually grow into an Islamic caliphate. JI members travelled to Afghanistan, where they received military training and established connections to Al Qaeda, which also infused the movement with new ideas about global jihad. But this radicalism did not lead to any violence in Indonesia until communal clashes broke out between Christians and Muslims in Ambon (in the Maluku Islands) in the beginning of 1999, and in Poso (Central Sulawesi) in 2000.

After 9/11, inspired by Al Qaeda and strongly opposed to the Indonesian cooperation with America in the Global War on Terror, some JI leaders broke off on their own and even though their cells were very small, few fighters were able to organize terrorist attacks in Indonesia between 2002 and 2009. The targets were primarily foreigners and Western symbols such as night clubs in Bali, the Marriot and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta, and the Australian Embassy. Since 2009, however, there have been no major terrorist attacks in Indonesia. The trend that has been emerging over the last five years is a move away from hierarchical organizations and large scale attacks towards online, individual self-radicalization and decentralized networks of radical ideologues. Such is the case also with ISIS supporters in Indonesia, who are no more than several hundred across the entire archipelago.

This number is large enough to stage attacks such as the recent ones in Jakarta. But the number is minuscule when compared with the 50 million strong, pro-democratic and tolerant Nahdlatul Ulama (on their anti-ISIS and anti-extremism activities, see here). Compared to Syria and Iraq, there is also no significant challenge to the legitimacy of the Indonesian state or Indonesian democracy; there is no power vacuum or disintegration in the rule of law that these ISIS fighters could take advantage of.

To be sure, the threat of violence might not disappear in Indonesia. But it is important not to overreact to these attacks, not to overestimate the reach of ISIS, and not to conflate developments in the Middle East with developments in Southeast Asia. American involvement in counter-terrorism and harsh tactics by the police or Densus 88 (the counter-terrorism unit) have only spurred violent attacks before. Unlike many other countries countering terrorism, Indonesia has done many things right – it adopted a legalist rather than militaristic approach to counterterrorism and it has combined soft and hard tactics, understanding the importance of incentives, exit options, and respect for the rule of law. Rather than give in to an ISIS hysteria, the country should keep building on the lessons it has already learned from its tumultuous past.

Ioana Emy Matesan is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University. 

Seeing Flight as a Non-violent Option: One Way to Change the Discourse about the World’s 60 Million Refugees

By Erica Chenoweth and Hakim Young for Denver Dialogues

In Brussels, more than 1,200 people protest against Europe's unwillingness to really do something about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, April 23rd, 2015. By Amnesty International.

In Brussels, more than 1,200 people protest against Europe’s unwillingness to do more about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, April 23rd, 2015. By Amnesty International.

Today, one in every 122 humans living on the planet is a refugee, an internally displaced person, or an asylum-seeker. In 2014, conflict and persecution forced a staggering 42,500 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, resulting in 59.5 million total refugees worldwide. According to the UN refugee agency’s 2014 Global Trends report (tellingly entitled World at War), developing countries hosted 86% of these refugees. Developed countries, such as the U.S. and those in Europe, host only 14% of the world’s total share of refugees.

Yet public sentiment in the West has been tough on refugees lately. Resurgent populist and nationalist leaders routinely play to public anxieties about refugees as “lazy opportunists,” “burdens,” “criminals,” or “terrorists” in response to today’s refugee crisis. Mainstream parties aren’t immune to this rhetoric either, with politicians of all stripes calling for increased border controls, detention centers, and the temporary suspension of visa and asylum applications.

Importantly, none of these panicky characterizations of refugees is born out by systematic evidence.

Are Refugees Economic Opportunists?

The most reliable empirical studies of refugee movements suggest that the primary cause of flight is violence—not economic opportunity. Mainly, refugees are fleeing war in hopes of landing in a less violent situation. In conflicts where the government actively targets civilians in the context of genocide or politicide, most people choose to leave the country rather than seek out safe havens internally. Surveys bear out this reality in today’s crisis. In Syria, one of the world’s major producers of refugees in the last five years, survey results suggest that most civilians are fleeing because the country has simply become too dangerous or that government forces took over their towns, placing most of the blame on the horrific politicidal violence of Assad’s regime. (Only 13% say they fled because rebels took over their towns, suggesting that ISIS’s violence is not nearly as much a source of flight as some have suggested).

And refugees rarely choose their destinations based on economic opportunity; instead, 90% of refugees go to a country with a contiguous border (thus explaining the concentration of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq). Those that do not stay in a neighboring country tend to flee to countries where they have existing social ties. Given that they are typically fleeing for their lives, the data suggest that most refugees think about economic opportunity as an afterthought rather than as a motivation for flight. That said, when they arrive at their destinations, refugees tend to be exceedingly industrious, with cross-national studies suggesting that they are rarely burdensome for national economies.

In today’s crisis, “Many of the people arriving by sea in southern Europe, particularly in Greece, come from countries affected by violence and conflict, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; they are in need of international protection and they are often physically exhausted and psychologically traumatized, ” states World at War.

Who’s Afraid of the “Big Bad Refugee”?

In terms of security threats, refugees are far less likely to commit crimes than natural-born citizens. In fact, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jason Riley evaluates data on the link between immigration and crime in the United States and calls the correlation a “myth.” Even in Germany, which has absorbed the highest number of refugees since 2011, crime rates by refugees have not increased. Violent attacks on refugees, on the other hand, have doubled. This suggests that refugees do not post a problem for security; instead, they require protection against violent threats themselves. Moreover, refugees (or those who claim to be refugees) are highly unlikely to plan terror attacks. And given that at least 51% of current refugees are children, like Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who famously drowned in the Mediterranean sea last summer, it is probably premature to preordain them as fanatics, troublemakers, or social rejects.

Moreover, refugee-vetting processes are exceedingly stringent in many countries—with the U.S. having among the most stringent refugee policies in the world—thereby precluding many of the adverse outcomes feared by critics of status quo refugee policies. Although such processes do not guarantee that all potential threats are excluded, they mitigate the risk considerably, as demonstrated by the paucity of violent crimes and terror attacks committed by refugees in the past thirty years.

A Broken System or A Broken Narrative?

Speaking about the current refugee crisis in Europe, Jan Egeland, the former UN Humanitarian Envoy who now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council, said, “The system is totally broken…We cannot continue this way.” But the system probably won’t mend as long as broken narratives dominate the discourse. What if we introduced a fresh discourse, which dispels the myths about refugees and equips the public to contest existing discourse with a more compassionate narrative about the way one becomes a refugee in the first place?

Consider the choice to flee instead of stay and fight or stay and die. Many of the 59.5 million refugees left in the crossfires between states and other armed actors—such as the Syrian government’s politicide and violence among a wide variety of rebel groups operating within Syria; Syria, Russia, Iraq, Iran, and NATO’s war against ISIS; Afghanistan and Pakistan’s wars against the Taliban; the on-going U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda; Turkey’s wars against Kurdish militias; and a multitude of other violent contexts around the world.

Given the choice between staying and fighting, staying and dying, or fleeing and surviving, today’s refugees fled—meaning that, by definition, they actively and purposefully chose a non-violent option in the context of mass violence raging all around them.

In other words, today’s global landscape of 59.5 million refugees is mainly a collection of people who have chosen the only available non-violent pathway out of their conflict environments. In many respects, today’s 60 million refugees have said no to violence, no to victimization, and no to helplessness at the same time. The decision to flee to strange and (often hostile) foreign lands as a refugee is not a light one. It involves taking significant risks, including the risk of death. For example, the UNHCR estimated that 3,735 refugees were dead or missing at sea while seeking refuge in Europe in 2015. Contrary to contemporary discourse, being a refugee ought to be synonymous with non-violence, courage, and agency.

Of course, an individual’s non-violent choice at one time does not necessarily predetermine that individual’s non-violent choice at a later juncture. And like many large mass assemblages, it is inevitable that a handful of people will cynically exploit the global movement of refugees to pursue their own criminal, political, social, or ideological aims on the fringes—either by concealing themselves in the masses to cross borders to commit violent acts abroad, by taking advantage of the political polarization of migration politics to promote their own agendas, or by extorting these people for their own criminal purposes. Among any population this size, there will be criminal activity here and there, refugee or not.

But in today’s crisis, it will be essential for people of good faith everywhere to resist the urge to ascribe nefarious motivations to the millions of people seeking haven in their countries, because of the violent or criminal actions of a few. The latter group does not represent the general statistics on refugees identified above, nor do they negate the fact that refugees are generally people who, in the context of truly dislocating violence, made a life-altering, non-violent choice to act for themselves in a way that cast them and their families into uncertain futures. Once they arrive, on average the threat of violence against the refugee is much greater than the threat of violence by the refugee. Shunning them, detaining them as if they were criminals, or deporting them to war-torn environments sends a message that non-violent choices are punished—and that submitting to victimization or turning to violence are the only choices left. This is a situation that calls for policies that embody compassion, respect, protection, and welcome—not fear, dehumanization, exclusion, or revulsion.

Seeing flight as a non-violent option will better equip the informed public to contest exclusionary rhetoric and policies, elevate a new discourse that empowers more moderate politicians, and widen the range of policy options available to respond to the current crisis.

Hakim Young (Dr. Teck Young, Wee) is a medical doctor from Singapore who has done humanitarian and social enterprise work in Afghanistan for the past 10 years, including being a mentor to the Afghan Peace Volunteers, an inter-ethnic group of young Afghans dedicated to building non-violent alternatives to war.

Weekly Links

By Sarah Bakhtiari

Archaeologists at Stone Age settlement in Ösmo, Södermanland, Sweden, circa 1929. By Berit Wallenberg.

Archaeologists at a Stone Age settlement in Ösmo, Södermanland, Sweden, circa 1929. By Berit Wallenberg.

This week Marie Berry blogged here about the migration-gender-insecurity nexus, pointing to the many overlooked but interdependent dimensions of human security today. With quotes like this, “We thought it was normal in the United States that in order to keep your job, you had to have sex,” from an immigrant female farmworker in Iowa, it’s difficult to dispute Marie’s claim. This review of the EU’s response to new security challenges reflects the interconnectedness of these phenomena. What’s to be done? This New York Times op-ed lays out some recommendations to protect female farmworkers, in particular. The European and African Unions, along with other key countries, met this past week at the Valetta Summit to deepen cooperation on the issues of migration and mobility. Are these issues fueling the rise of “illiberal democracy” in Europe today—or, are undemocratic practices masquerading as illiberal democratic ones? (Not that democracies in decline are only found in Europe.)

The Islamic State debates continue; Paul Pillar argues that ISIS is following the well-worn and identifiable path of Maoist large-scale insurrections, and what we should expect from the group in the future based on this template.

Was war with Iran more likely during Obama’s tenure than at any other time? David Sanger writes about how a third world war might have been avoided by the administration.

Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections this past week yielded a victory for Taiwan’s first female president, along with a legislature that will be comprised of 38.1% women. Equally important, however, was the success of the Democratic Progressive Party, winning an absolute majority in the legislature. Some are calling these victories a potentially disruptive mandatebecause they reflect an increasingly distant possibility of reunification with China. How predictable are these elections, anyways? Forecasting future electorates is tricky, but there are some models that perform better than others.

Need research funding? Pew data shows that Kickstarter funded hundreds of independent journalism projects (including blog, documentary, magazine, website, newpaper, book and radio formats) since its launch, and the numbers just keep rising. If it’s data you’re seeking, Kaggle just opened up a new forum for data exploration, viewing prior work on a dataset, and participating in online conversations about datasets. On that note, did you know that the U.S. Census Bureau committed to an open source policy that seeks to build a community around their data and tools? And not because it has much political science content, but because it’s very cool and offers great visualizations of how you might display data—Nathan Yau’s “A Day in the Life of Americans: This is How America Runs.”

Lastly, be sure not to miss the latest from Celestino Perez on reforming military education to enable more ethical, efficacious warfighting.

The Cult of Jihad: A Practical Theology Perspective on ISIS

Guest post by Joel Day and Scott Kleinmann.

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President Barack Obama enters the Outer Oval Office with Shaun Donovan, Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Via The White House.

In his final State of the Union Address, President Obama made a forceful case for refraining from calling ISIS “Islamic,” saying, “We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious… by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions.” Republicans are quick to claim that “What ISIS Really Wants” is “extremely Islamic.” While the President’s approach highlights how far out of the mainstream these murders are, it is undeniable that ISIS and other such groups envision themselves as the vanguard of Islam. The fighters are serious about their Islamic identity. Not addressing the ideational foundations seems to completely misunderstand the enemy and mis-specify what is necessary to beat them.

At stake here are not just semantics – real world policy prescriptions result from each side of this debate. Trump’s call for a pause on all Muslim refugees is an extension of the argument that ISIS is intrinsically Islamic. Those who downplay the religious link seem to suggest that “jobs” will magically end violent ideology. Serious policy must find a third way within this paradox, one which forces a serious discussion about the ideational nature of terror groups, while simultaniously delegitimizing them with religious audiences. Rather than secular, Western-funded twitter-shouting matches, we need programs with the goal of assisting religious community leaders in clearly articulating how ISIS distorts, distains, and defiles their religion. As Day argues in a current article in Perspectives on Terrorism, counter-extremism campaigns should get very specific about the Islamic doctrines and rituals ISIS fans leave behind in the radicalization process. Specific, practice-oriented counter-narratives (rather than mere condemnation of violence) ultimately build deeper, stronger religious institutions, directly refuting the cult-like detachment these terror groups have from mainstream Islam.

Viewing these groups through the lens of practical theology is a unique way to bridge the gap in the “naming debate” – giving credence to the religious underpinnings of these groups, while refusing to legitimize their actions with the label of “Islam.” A practical theology lens would provide analysts a new way of evaluating patterns of terrorism. For example, a key observable pattern is that these groups actually segregate and exclude themselves from mainstream religious practice and create their own alternatives. In their treatment of textual interpretation, law, and authority, many terror groups extricate themselves from orthopraxis and orthodoxies. In the place of orthodox frameworks, ISIS affiliates are demanded to pledge allegiance, “bay’ah,” to al-Baghdadi, an arguably heretical “6th Pilar” of compulsary practice. The pledge of bay’ah severs relational ties to the Ummah and extricates a group from the practices that simultaneously bind and moderate. Examining the observable practices of these groups allows us to label them what they are: cults.

A core observation of cult practice is how isolation and exclusion are built into groups’ identities. Cults often socially encapsulate prospective joiners, luring them away from outside social connections and forge new, codependent relationships within the movement. Cult research shows that this practice of social discontinuity is especially important for recruitment into communal groups and/or groups with deviant perspectives and practices. Extra-cult attachments are impediments to communal life. Social encapsulation inoculates the recruits from outside influence, “neutralize[s] the stigma frequently associated with participation” in such groups and masks their deviant behavior.

For ISIS, much of the work of social, economic, and political isolation was done for them: the war destroyed trillions of dollars of infrastructure and bad governance dismantled the Baathist state sending thousands of Sunni military officers home, jobless and humiliated. The Shia-dominated state and economy is systematically closed to Sunnis, which pushes 10 million people into the dark alternative of the Caliphate. Like a cult, ISIS feeds on the isolated, victimized, and abandoned.

The practices of lone-wolves like the two San Bernardino killers are also instructive. Acquaintances have indicated that the killers became less tolerant of “kafiri” lifestyles and lackadaisical practices of fellow Muslims. This led them away from the Mosque, away from community prayers, and away from mainstream faith. They instead began seeking out propaganda online which would validate their interpretive frameworks, eventually pledging bay’ah to al-Baghdadi. Within this context, Malik and Farook are not Islamic, committed to a struggle with a community of believers, but show cult-like practices of exclusivity.

The path to ending violent extremism is not to downplay the religious nature of terrorism, but to seriously examine the observable practices of these extremist groups, since it is ritual and practice that forges identity. The task is to then build campaigns centered on celebrating Islamic communities and their rich orthodox traditions. Since denying the religious nature of ISIS and Al Qaeda mis-specifies the threat we face, a better alternative is to celebrate and resource Mosques for outlining these group’s exact violations of Islamic practice and ritual.

Joel Day (@joelkday) is Assistant Professor of Security, Criminology, and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and research associate at the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies. Scott Kleinmann (@smkleinmann) is a Senior Research Associate in the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University.

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