As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve long been interested in the relationship between academia and national security.
This post has some of my favourite videos on the topic.
The first video is of a panel discussion held last year on social science and how it can inform the future of warfare.
The Ivory Tower Goes To War: What Lessons Does Social Science Hold For The Future of War?
Panel held at the New America Foundation’s 2016 Future of War conference.
Speakers: Christia Fotoni, Christian Davenport, H.R. McMaster, Will H. Moore and Erin Simpson.
This is a largely US-focused discussion, and a really engaging and enjoyable one. Two people from this video have now taken up some prominent new roles. The panel chair, Erin Simpson, now co-hosts the podcast Bombshell. One of the speakers, H.R. McMaster, is now the National Security Advisor for the Trump Administration and has become increasingly controversial.
The next video is on the academic field of terrorism studies.
The Future of Terrorism Studies
Panel held at the Georgetown University Center for Security Studies’ Future of Terrorism conference .
Speakers: Richard English, Gary LaFree, and Arie Perliger.
The first talk in this video, by Richard English, is excellent. He starts by highlighting the three regularly cited dilemmas in the field: the lack of a consensus over the definition of terrorism, the supposedly stark divide between “orthodox terrorism studies” and “critical terrorism studies”, and the critique that the field has stagnated. But he quickly points out why these dilemmas matter less than they may appear to. He points out there’s plenty of common ground between different terrorism definitions and between the best scholars from the field’s “orthodox” and “critical” variants, that these sorts of contestations aren’t unique to this field, and that the concerns over “stagnation” are overstated. He then moves on to many more serious problems in the field, particularly a five-fold fragmentation between different methodological approaches.
Then Gary LaFree talks about statistical data-gathering in terrorism studies, and different ways the data can be used, such as to find “microcycles” in terrorism. He also talks about how all the different datasets are going to be linked with each other more, and how this could provide stronger evidence about which counter-terrorism measures work best, and how important social media is becoming for research. Then Arie Perliger talks about some of the core conceptual dilemmas involved in attempts to “profile” terrorists.
But I enjoyed Richard English’s talk the best, as I strongly agree with him about terrorism studies needing to move beyond some the debates that have bogged it down for so long, and with his warnings of new dilemmas emerging. If you don’t have time to watch the video, read this article of his here (paywalled unfortunately).
The final video looks at the development of knowledge on one particular brand of terrorism: al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
What did scholars and policy makers know about al-Qaeda and Affiliated movements before 9/11? Part 2
Panel held at the Conflict Records Research Center’s 9/11 10 years Later: Insights on Al-Qaeda’s Past and Future Through Captured Records conference.
Speakers: Dr. Thomas Hegghammer, Dr. Mark Stout, Ms. Cindy Storer, Dr. Mary Habeck, Prof Yonah Alexander.
I want to highlight a quote from Cindy Storer, a former al-Qaeda analyst in the CIA. She was part of a group of mainly female analysts (referred to as “the Sisterhood“) who were warning before 9/11 that al-Qaeda wasn’t being taken seriously enough.
In one part of the video, Storer reflects on her experiences with academics, which unfortunately weren’t positive. She suggests that academics failed to appreciate the al-Qaeda threat before 9/11, and that this fed into the reluctance in upper CIA and government levels to listen those analysts who warned of the impending danger.
Before 9/11, we tried to reach out to academia a lot, and it was hard because, nobody studied al-Qaeda. There were people who were very good understanding of terrorism. Bruce Hoffman, Martha Crenshaw, a lot of people like that we reached out to. And we were able, especially from Martha Crenshaw, to learn a lot about in general how terrorist groups work, how terrorism comes about, so to be able to put al-Qaeda into this broad context of being a terrorist organisation. But since nobody was really talking about al-Qaeda itself, comments that academics made on al-Qaeda itself generally were counter-productive. Because again, we [al-Qaeda analysts in the CIA] were a small community, we were women in an operational environment, and so it was really easy to ignore us frankly. Because people wanted to anyway, Hezbollah was the important issue and Iran and all of that, so people in the agency tended to look to “outside experts” more than to us. And when those outside experts hadn’t studied the organisation they’d say things like “well I assume it’s XYZ based on my study of whatever happened in the 1980s or the 1970s” and it was just wrong. It was wrong. And it gave people a false comfort, I think, on the policy and upper management levels, that they weren’t dealing with anything significantly different. So, that was a problem.
Now, if you had been able to marry up, that broader understanding of issues with the details that people can see in the intelligence community of an emerging threat of an emerging issue, then wow, what you could have done earlier would have been spectacular. But there are all these barriers that counter cooperation, not least of which is the restrictions placed on academics who get access to classified material. It just doesn’t work very well. And we need to find a way to do something about that problem. I should also mention there were journalists. Honestly a lot of our early outreach efforts, in terms of what we would like to read, were journalistic efforts. People on the ground seeing what was happening.
I found this interesting because academic discussions about whether to engage with the policy world sometimes start from the assumption that academics have valuable knowledge which government officials need, and less often reflect on the risk that they will provide misinformed advice and have harmful policy impacts.
It’s also interesting because terrorism scholars are regularly accused of overstating terror threats, but on some key occasions they have tended to underestimate threats, and this video suggests that academic assessments of al-Qaeda prior to 9/11 are another example (though there is rarely uniformity in the field).
Its these sorts of issues, which all of the videos touch on, which most interest me. They go to some of core questions in this area that need to be regularly reflected on:
- How can academia best contribute to national security policy and practice?
- Should academia even try to influence national security policy and practice, or should it not try to play any such role at all?
- When might academia harm people by providing intellectual cover for unjust government actions carried out in the name of national security?
- Or alternatively, when might academia harm national security by giving ill-informed advice?