Many updates

In November I said that I would be blogging less to focus on finishing my PhD. To my surprise, I stuck to that, and only published one post since.

I’m nearing the end of the PhD, and successfully passed the pre-submission seminar in early March. There’s a lot to do over the next three months, so blogging will still be rare. But there’s a bunch of terrorism and security updates from the past few months I want to share, so this is another post of resources that may interest regular readers.

 

The Independent National Security Legislation Monitor James Renwick has been reviewing Australia’s encryption legislation, and the public hearings provide the most informative discussions I’ve ever seen on the topic. See:

Renwick also published his latest annual report.

 

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security held public hearings as part of its review into Australia’s data retention legislation. Stilgherrian wrote an interesting piece about the social license implications and you can read the full transcripts here:

The 28 February transcript is particularly worth reading for Mark Dreyfus and Anthony Byrne’s contributions, seeking answers as to why so many more agencies are about to access the data than was initially suggested when the legislation was introduced.

 

On 24 February the new Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Mike Burgess, gave a public speech to deliver his first Annual Threat Assessment. The speech highlighted the threat of extreme-right terrorism and foreign interference, along with longstanding concerns about the threat posed by jihadist movements such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda as well as traditional espionage.

He then testified at a Senate estimates hearing on 2 March 2020.

 

Federal Member of Parliament Tim Watts, from the Australian Labour Party, gave an important speech to the National Press Club on 27 February about disinformation and democracy. Watts plays an extremely valuable role in Australia’s national security debates and is worth following on Twitter. On this topic it’s also worth reading:

 

There’s also been some new security-focused journals and outlets released:

 

Most importantly, it will soon be the one year anniversary of the Christchurch massacre, when an Australian white supremacist carried out a mass shooting attack against worshippers at two mosques, murdered 51 people and injured nearly 50 more.

The attack should be considered the most significant development in Australian terrorism in recent years. I will discuss it more in my next AVERT post, but in this post I want to share some resources focused on the victims.

The 7am podcast has released a 3-part series on the massacre, hosted by Osman Faruqi, which I highly recommend:

The New Zealand Journal of Psychology published this special issue in 2019, with every article examining the massacres, its context, and the aftermath.

The Guardian published this valuable article on 8 March:

 

Books I read in 2019, with recommendations

Contradicting my previous post on blogging less, I want to end this year (like last year) by sharing the books I’ve been reading and some thoughts on them.

Listed below are the books I finished reading this year, ordered chronologically. Then there’s a list of books I read a lot of and enjoyed but did not read in full this year (this excludes books I dipped in and out of for the PhD and other projects). This is followed by a bunch of comments and recommendations about the ones I finished, because I greatly hope you enjoy some of these books too.

Books I’ve finished reading in 2019:

America vs the West, by Kori Schake

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking

On Grand Strategy, by John Lewis Gaddis

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (fiction)

The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, by Eric Hobsbawm

City Life: The New Urban Australia, by Seamus O’Hanlon

Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Steve Coll

The French Art of War, by Alexis Jenni (fiction)

Out of the Wreckage, by George Monbiot

The Traveller’s Guide to Classical Philosophy, by John Gaskin

Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age, by Sebastian Smee

Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy, by John Hirst

The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, by Eric Hobsbawm

The Memory Chalet, by Tony Judt

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (fiction)

Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks (fiction)

The Overstory, by Richard Powers (fiction)

Van Diemen’s Land, by James Boyce

Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap, by Annabel Crabb

The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft, by Tom Griffiths

Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age, Jim Chalmers and Mike Quigley

Agent Running in the Field, by John le Carré

Books I’ve been reading (or re-reading) large sections of, but did not finish this year:

Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World, by Andrew Lambert

The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, by Amartya Sen

The Cold War: A World History, by Odd Arne Westad

Xanana: Leader of the Struggle for Independent Timor-Leste, by Sara Niner

Highways to a War, by Christopher Koch (fiction)

Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy (fiction)

The Mind of God, by Paul Davies

Ruling Class, Ruling Culture: Studies of Conflict, Power and Hegemony in Australian Life, by R. W. Connell

Thoughts:

I enjoyed my first book for the year, Kori Schake’s America vs the West. It’s largely a defence of the idea of “liberal international order” against realist critics such as Patrick Porter, and a call for action to sustain remnants of that order. Though I tended to agree with its position, I’m not sure how compelling it would be for a sceptical audience, and it would  have been better if the book engaged more with people who critiqued the idea of liberal international order from the left.

The next book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, was incredibly fun and informative. It had a bold and even evangelical tone at times, and made some big over-simplifications, but it was a great book that covered so many different examples of how social media has created new arenas for transnational conflict. I strongly recommend it as an engaging introduction to the topic.

John Lewis Gaddis’s book On Grand Strategy was enjoyable, and contained several interesting historical snapshots, but it often wasn’t clear what the overall argument holding it together was. I also wasn’t sure what Gaddis’s use of Isaiah Berlin’s “foxes and hedgehogs” framing really added. I plan to revisit some of the chapters to see if I get more out of this book on a second read.

Steve Coll’s Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan was compelling, though a bit of a slog to read. I recommend it, and wrote much more about it here. The book certainly provides the necessary context for the Afghanistan Papers.

This books were all the sort of books I often read, non-fiction books on various international security issues. But I’m glad I didn’t just stick with that sort of reading for the year. John Gaskin’s The Traveller’s Guide to Classical Philosophy, Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age, and Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet were quite different to my usual sort of reading. In different ways the three books all focused on the notion of inner life and asked whether it is under challenge these days, and were quite informative about classical history, art, and 20th century history respectively.

I’ve also found myself increasingly interested in economics; not the academic discipline but histories of how economic changes shape daily life and transform politics. Eric Hobsbawm’s classics, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empires, and the more recent and local focus of Seamus O’Hanlon’s City Life on Melbourne and Sydney, were all valuable for this.

John Hirst’s The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy was a hidden gem and I definitely recommend it. It similarly had a strong economic focus, but also paid a lot of attention to the personalities of key political participants, and covered a lot of angles that I don’t normally see highlighted when people discuss how democracy evolved in Australia. As a conservative historian, Hirst has quite different takes from most other Australian historians which means that you can find ideas in his work which are hard to come across elsewhere.

However, the best history books (and the best non-fiction books altogether) I read this year were James Boyce’s Van Diemen’s Land and Tom Griffith’s The Art of Time Travel.

Van Diemen’s Land made me look at entire section of Australian history in a new way. The book is about the colonisation of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in the early 1800s.

Instead of the common story of privation, Boyce starts by describing how the island was abundant in fresh water and food (particularly wallabies and kangaroos that could be easily hunted on grasslands maintained by Aboriginal fire-stick farming), though it also had formidable mountainous terrain and thick bushlands. This meant that it was easy for individuals to live off the land, but hard for the nascent state institutions to govern the territory as a tightly-controlled British colony.

As a result, many of the colonists (mostly convicts but also some other settlers, along with the sealers and whalers) gained a remarkable level of economic and social independence. Bush-ranging became rife at times, and the government’s direct authority did not stretch far. Yet society functioned well due to various chains of inter-dependencies (Boyce explains this effectively when describing the sheep economy) and because officials found inventive ways to govern. At this stage, colonial authorities were also cautious about venturing too far across the land, to avoid inflaming too much conflict with the native communities (for practical, not moral, reasons).

From 1803 until the mid-1820s, the new society’s social order grew increasingly different from that in the mother country. While Britain began to experience the industrial revolution and became more urbanised, stratified and gradually puritanical, Van Diemen’s Land remained pre-industrial and was seen by the colonial elite (and new British settlers) as anarchic and degenerate.

By the 1820s there was a concerted effort to crush this perceived widespread deviance and turn the island into a Little England. The establishment of Port Arthur was part of this process.

By the 1830s, Little England had triumphed. As Boyce tells it, this violent reshaping of the social order transformed “Van Diemen’s Land” into “Tasmania”. So the book tells a story of competing social orders, of a clash between pre-industrial and industrial value systems, of the ruthlessness of state-building, and of the natural environment shaping political developments.

It also tells a story the brutal impact of colonisation, so Boyce includes a lengthy appendix to delve deeper into the genocide of the Aboriginal population. A key component of the effort to crush “Van Diemen’s Land” was an increase in the migration of free settlers, which helped lead to the genocide as these newer settlers not only spread out over much more of the land but asserted exclusive ownership of it. That said, Boyce also covers atrocities against Indigenous population, and acts of resistance, before the 1820s. He does not suggest any natural affinity between the convicts and the original inhabitants, or prospects of them joining forces against the free settlers.

It’s hard to explain quite how compelling this book was. It has been called an “ecologically based social history of colonial Australia”, which describes it well but doesn’t quite capture how unique this book felt.

Tom Griffiths’ book The Art of Time Travel was even more exceptional. It is a meta-history of approaches to Australia history, which might not sound like something that could be written in a deeply moving way, but it was. Each chapter discusses the life and work of a different Australian historian. It defines historians broadly and encompasses adjacent crafts and disciplines such as archeology, art and fiction, because one its underlying questions is “what is a historian?”. Like Boyce’s book, Griffiths’ book has a strong focus on environmental history, as well as social and political history. The chapters were mostly self-contained, so you can read them out of order, but Griffiths threads a coherent meditation on the craft of history throughout the whole book.

My best reading decision this year (with my wife’s encouragement) was to read more fiction, and specifically to read different types of fiction from what I used to normally read (spy novels). Two of the novels I read this year, Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Richard Powers’ The Overstory, were simply stunning.

The Overstory is not an easy book to explain. It is essentially a novel about trees, told through the stories of nine human characters. Each of these characters’ lives are shaped by trees in different ways, and the novel follows these characters as their lives intersect and they come together to try to save the natural world.

The novel draws heavily on real historic events and on a large body of scientific literature (using pseudonyms for the authors) and essentially creates an entire philosophy to underpin its story. I’ll provide a few quotes for a taste, but it’s no substitute for reading it.

First, it treats trees as components of giant systems which sustain natural life across the planet:

Trees even farther away join in: All the ways you imagine us – bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal – are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.

That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.

The book also uses trees as a central metaphor, drawing analogies with all aspects of human society, including technological development. For example, character Neelay (a tech genius who builds a hugely-successful game that’s like a combination of Minecraft and Second Life) often sees trees in terms of computer programming:

The father lays it out: All the world’s trunks come from the same root and are rushing outward, down the spreading branches of the one tree, trying for something.

Think of the code that made this gigantic thing, my Neelay. How many cells inside? How many programs is it running? What do they all do? Where are they trying to reach?

And this is how it describes Neelay watching a stop-motion video of a chestnut tree growing (created from photos taken once per year, for well over a hundred years, by another character and his paternal ancestors):

He starts the clip again. The tree fountains up once more into a crown. The upward-wavering twigs reach for the light, for things hidden in plain sight. Branches fork and thicken in the air. At this speed, he sees the tree’s central aim, the math behind the phloem and xylem, the intermeshed and seeth­ing geometries, and that thin layer of living cambium swelling outward.

Code – wildly branching code pruned back by failure – builds up this great spiraling column from out of instructions that Vishnu managed to cram into something smaller than a boy’s fingernail.

So it’s an unusual story. I like to think that the book’s central philosophy could be called something like “arbornetics”, as it uses trees as a central metaphor for complex systems and focuses on how human societies survive in tree-dependent eco-systems, much like the idea of cybernetics uses the machine as its central metaphor and looks at interactions between machine systems and human systems.

I’ve no clue how well-formed that idea is, but that’s part of the fun of reading well outside my research area. It’s a thought-provoking novel and absolutely worth reading.

My favourite novel for the year, A Gentleman in Moscow, had a much simpler premise. It is about a Count who is sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in the Hotel Metropole shortly after the Russian Revolution.

He survives and thrives for decades confined inside the hotel, determined to master his circumstances. I was given the book as a Christmas present last year (possibly because the title and cover makes it look like a spy novel) and was not sure what to expect. The book was not plot-driven, as it was focused on the Count’s inner life, which sat really well with the books I’d been reading by Gaskin, Smee and Judt.

So rather than reading with an urge to rush through and find out what happened next, I found I greatly enjoyed almost every paragraph. The Count was just such an interesting and admirable character, and there was something both calming and exciting about the story.

In short, I began this year by reading the sort of books I normally read (security-related non-fiction books) but then broadened to try some other options, which absolutely paid off.

For fiction, my number one recommendation is A Gentleman in Moscow, followed by The Overstory. For non-fiction, I recommend The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft followed by Van Diemen’s Land, probably followed by LikeWar. The natural environment turned out to be a key theme in this year’s reading, as did technology, both in fiction and non-fiction.

There aren’t any books listed here that I would say aren’t worth reading. Feel free to ask any questions (through here, Twitter, or elsewhere) about any of these books, including those not mentioned in these concluding thoughts.

I hope you enjoy reading some of these too, and thanks for reading this blog!

Updates on Sub Rosa, AVERT posts, and PhD

Another quick post of updates.

First, Kate Grealy and I have recorded two more Sub Rosa episodes, which we will release soon. Kate’s episode will be out first:

Politics of the label radical

Second, I’ve had a new AVERT post published, looking back at controversies over neo-Ustasha terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s, and their relevance to current debates about revoking citizenship:

One prominent feature of the debate is that both sides often treat the involvement of Australians in violent extremist groups like Islamic State (IS) as a radically new dilemma. The debate lacks a strong sense of history.

On the few occasions when historical analogies have been made, it is usually to compare IS fighters with people who fought for the Nazis in the Second World War. Those who draw such comparisons argue that it has long been the case that Australian citizenship could be revoked for dual-nationals who serve in “the armed forces of a country at war with Australia”, and that revoking citizenship for suspected involvement in terrorist activity logically follows. Abbott made this argument in 2015, stating that the laws “reflect modern conditions where often people don’t go and fight against us in a foreign army, they fight against us in a terrorist group”.

The resort to analogies with state-based armies implies that Australia has never faced another situation comparable to the current IS threat. However, Australia has faced threats from transnational non-state violent extremists on many other occasions.

For this post, I look back at the spate of violence Australia experienced in the 1960s and 1970s, involving neo-Ustasha groups at war with the government of Yugoslavia, to show how Australia once responded quite differently to a situation somewhat similar to that seen today.

Third, I plan to be posting much less often on this blog over the next 3-6 months, because I will be focused on finishing my PhD:

ZammitPhDTitle

The PhD has been a tremendous journey (which involved transferring to a different university mid-way through) and I am finally reaching the end. It will be my number one professional priority until then. This doesn’t mean I won’t still write the occasional post here when something interesting crops up, but it will be less frequent.

 

 

Thoughts on Steve Coll’s Directorate S

I recently finished reading Steve Coll’s newest book, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Directorate S is Coll’s sequel to his excellent 2004 book Ghost Wars: The Secret History Of The Cia, Afghanistan And Bin Laden, From The Soviet Invasion To September 10, 2001, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Ghost Wars covered US support to the mujahideen groups who fought the Soviets, the rise of the Taliban, and CIA operations against al-Qaeda. It was also great fun to read. Coll writes extremely well, and he created a compelling narrative history of the key events leading up to the 9/11 attacks.

Directorate S continues Ghost Wars‘ focus on the CIA, but it also focuses heavily on the State Department and the military, which makes sense. After 9/11, Afghanistan was no longer a sideshow in US policy so the CIA was no longer the most important agency involved. Another change is that Directorate S focuses more on Pakistan than Ghost Wars did, precisely because the country has been so central to the Afghan conflict.

Directorate S was written in the same style as Ghost Wars, yet I found it a bit of an arduous read. This might just represent personal changes: I was much less busy back when Ghost Wars came out, and I was newer to reading things in this area. However, I think this also reflects how much this area of intellectual inquiry has changed.

Back in the mid-2000s, Ghost Wars sat on my bookshelf alongside the few other comparable books at the time, such as Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror. There seemed to be no other book at the time providing such a detailed account of the covert side of US policy in Afghanistan. Many of the events that it covered were not in the media headlines when they happened.

Today, there’s much more writing available on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and US military and foreign policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of the events covered in this book were reported while they were happening, in the news media, academic outlets, and think-tank reports. Many were also covered by specialist blogs at the time, such as the now-inactive Ghosts of Alexander and Registan, or Foreign Policy‘s similarly inactive AfPak Channel, or the still-running Small Wars Journal and Long War Journal. So Directorate S conveys less new and groundbreaking information than Ghost Wars did.

Nonetheless, I recommend it. There is still a great deal of new information in the book (Ghost Wars set a high standard), and Coll ties it all together coherently and insightfully.

The book’s core argument is convincing. In short, it argues that the misalignment of interests between the US, Afghan and Pakistani governments led to the failure of America’s war in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Most importantly, the way the US government saw the war differed greatly from how it was seen by Pakistan’s government, particularly by its powerful spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and by its subsection Directorate S.

As you might imagine from the title, the ISI’s subsection Directorate S is the book’s key focus. Through Directorate S, the Pakistani state supported (but never controlled) the Afghan Taliban movement’s war against the US and Afghan governments. At the same time, Pakistan was itself at war with the Pakistani Taliban movement and al-Qaeda. These are the sorts of contradictions that the book navigates us through.

Coll does not ignore the many potential reasons for America’s failure in Afghanistan, such as the diversion of resources to the Iraq War, the resiliency and local embeddedness of the Taliban, military misconduct, or the hubris of attempting to build on a strong centralised state in a society where that had not been the norm. But he suggests that Pakistani government support for the Taliban, via Directorate S, was likely the core reason behind the failure. As mentioned, I find this argument compelling. However, I would want to read a lot more on the topic before judging whether I find it fully convincing.

It isn’t the book’s overarching argument that makes me recommend it though. Instead, I found the book’s greatest value lay in all the smaller stories that make up its detailed narrative of how the conflict played out from 2001-2016.

The book shows how US leaders and officials constantly wrestled with conflicting policy aims, and how US operatives on the ground tried to achieve policy-makers’ often amorphous goals. The book also looks into how Afghan and Pakistani officials tried to make sense of (and respond to) US actions, but to a much lesser extent as it mainly focuses on the US.

Through this narrative, the lack of coherence in US policy comes out clearly. The story contains example after example of divisions between government agencies, within government agencies, and between individuals with strong personalities (such as Richard Holbrooke) who operated across multiple agencies. Coll shows in great detail how individuals within the US government maneuvered against other individuals and how this shaped the resulting policy efforts and impacted people at other levels of government, officials of other governments, and many Afghan and Pakistani civilians.

This dramatic and people-focused narrative approach is a strength of Coll’s decades of work as a journalist, which is an approach often lacking in academic books I read. What I most valued was how well it conveyed the unrelenting uncertainty faced by everyone involved.

For every important fact that US policy-makers needed to know, the information was always unclear. Understanding the intentions of their nominal partner, the Afghan government, was never easy as the relationship was frayed by distrust. America’s intelligence services routinely intercepted Afghan government communications, but Afghan officials often assumed this was happening and spoke with their American audience in mind.

These officials were themselves were deeply divided, so the Karzai government itself didn’t necessarily have coherent intentions (just like the Pakistani and US governments). Karzai himself was prone to changing his mind, and CIA analysts devoted resources to trying to understand his mental state. Any illusions US agencies might have had that either their Afghan or Pakistani counterparts could be easily manipulated would not have lasted long.

Similarly, when the White House tried to find answers to pressing questions, such as how many provinces the Taliban controlled or what explained the surge in insider attacks (when Afghan soldiers turned on their international trainers), it never turned out to be simple. Different government agencies held different data, gathered it in different ways, and disagreed over how to interpret it. Outside analysts (such as Marc Sageman) were sometimes brought in to disentangle the competing claims, but their reports often become another weapon in the intra-bureaucratic battles.

Some of the most interesting chapters are the ones about the Obama Administration’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, and they similarly show the constant uncertainty government officials faced. The negotiation efforts were slowed by the difficulty the White House faced simply when trying to figure out who actually represented the Taliban, and how to know whether their interlocutors were genuinely acting on behalf of the Taliban’s leadership.

These negotiation attempts persisted awkwardly for years. Miscommunication was a constant risk in each interaction. One supposed Taliban representative turned out to be a fraud. The Afghan and Pakistani governments often heard about these plans and, seeing themselves as the rightful brokers, objected to being left out.

One major initiative ended up being derailed when a planned opening of Taliban political offices in Qatar collapsed, because the Taliban’s representatives used a different flag to the one agreed on. Qatari officials had trouble believing that the US, as a superpower, did not have control of the minor details. But the book helps show why these sorts of problems are are an unavoidable part of the process.

So while I enjoyed Directorate S less than Ghost Wars, it’s definitely worth reading.

Coll’s overall argument, that the failure to find a solution to the misalignment of Afghan, Pakistani and US governments’ interests doomed the war effort, is compelling. The book shows how the inability to prevent Pakistan’s support for the Taliban lies behind much of the war’s ultimate failure. The smaller stories that woven into the narrative are both interesting and informative, and also help to convey the human tragedy.

The book won’t leave readers feeling very optimistic. The final chapter outlines potential lessons, much as the final chapter of Ghost Wars did. However, the stronger take-away might be the complexity of the conflict, the futility of ambitious goals, and the inherent dangers of trying to shape events in unfamiliar societies and dealing with political actors who don’t conform to outside views of what their interests should be.

 

Ideology, armed conflict, and terrorism studies

I wanted to share a new journal article I’m excited about: Ideology and Armed Conflict by Jonathan Leader Maynard in the Journal of Peace Research.

I’ve mentioned the increasing crossover between civil war studies and terrorism studies a few times on this blog (the newly-released Oxford Handbook of Terrorism is another example). This new article, Ideology and Armed Conflict, sits within this trend but goes even further. It encompasses civil war studies, terrorism studies, and also international relations, by helping make sense of a concept that’s crucially important for all these fields.

Civil war studies has only relatively recently been interrogating the concept of ideology, something that terrorism studies has been grappling with for decades. However, this article does so with greater theoretical rigour than some approaches within terrorism studies (which sometimes either takes ideology as a given, or alternatively expresses excessive scepticism that ideology matters).

Maynard explicitly conceptualises four mechanisms (commitment, adoption, conformity and instrumentalisation) through which ideology can exert a strong influence on armed conflict even when the proportion of “true believers” is remarkably small. He also proposes ways to understand when and how ideological change does, and does not, occur.

The article covers a wide scope, using examples from the Cold War:

Groups may, for example, stick with existing ideologies out of fear of membership defection, loss of public legitimacy and credibility, or the withdrawal of patron support (Drevon, 2017; Gutiérrez Sanín & Wood, 2014: 220). Even as sincere faith in orthodox communist ideology declined among Soviet elites in the 1980s, for example, ‘hardliners’ feared that abandoning the ideological struggle against global capitalism would weaken the militarized party–state apparatus, and so bitterly opposed reforms (English, 2002: 72–78, 83–87).

From jihadist movements:

Similarly, Salafi-Jihadism has become an attractive ideological framework for armed groups in part because it allows them to call upon the support of powerful transnational networks of jihadist activists and sympathizers (Adamson, 2005; Bakke, 2014; Hegghammer, 2010/11; Owen, 2010: ch. 7; Walter, 2017).

Ideologies are not static features of individuals, groups, organizations or societies, but change before, during, and after conflict. The consequences of such change can be profound: Hegghammer (2010/11), for example, suggests that ideological changes within transnational Islamist networks are crucial in explaining the rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters from the 1980s onwards (see also Bakke, 2014)…

And from the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

Ideological effects often arise, therefore, from networked interdependencies of different sorts of actors guided by different mechanisms, with the largest scale effects emerging from mutually reinforcing internalized and structural dynamics. For example, neoconservative justifications of the Iraq War – as an exercise in rapid democracy-promotion which would positively transform Middle Eastern regional security – were, in many respects, dramatic breaks from previous US policy assumptions and appear puzzling and dangerous from conventional strategic perspectives (Flibbert, 2006: 310–311; Gilpin, 2005: 5–6, 17). These justifications proved so consequential, however, because they were simultaneously longstanding commitments for key members of the Bush administration, provided a plausible roadmap of action for broader sympathetic constituencies after 9/11, were successfully institutionalized within the administration (as critics of the war were sidelined) in ways that created strong pressure for officials to support an emerging ideological consensus, and were instrumentally effective in mobilizing public support and legitimating the administration’s priorities (Flibbert, 2006).

It’s unfortunately behind a paywall, but if you can access it and are interested in ideology and conflict in any way, I recommend it. And I highly recommend it if you follow terrorism studies but want to see how the concept of ideology is used in other fields.

Writing and other updates

This is another quick post for a few updates.

I recently had a chapter published in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Counterterrorism Yearbook 2019, looking at counter-terrorism developments in Australia during the past year. You can read the chapter here or my Strategist post on it here.

I recently spoke to David Wroe for this article about the United States urging the Australian government to “take responsibility” for Australian Islamic State fighters captured in Syria. At some point I want to write a post on this issue, either on this blog, or AVERT, or elsewhere, to make clear how much of dilemma counter-terrorism authorities (not just in Australia) are facing. Leaving these Australians in hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces carries a whole range of risks, but my own preference (that the government make more efforts to prosecute them here) entails serious risks as well.

In other terrorism-related news, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor has announced a review into the citenship-stripping legislation, which is a great idea.

Finally, there are several terrorism trials currently underway in Sydney (according to the NSW Courts Registry app) which should be incredibly interesting, but I’ve seen absolutely no media reporting of them so I am guessing that there are loads of suppression orders. Hopefully some of it becomes public soon.

The best articles from 2018 on the state of terrorism studies

Articles examining the state of terrorism studies are quite common, but last year saw some really excellent and constructive assessments of the field. Three of these deserve to be much more widely read.

First example: Mark Youngman, “Building ‘Terrorism Studies’ as an Interdisciplinary Space: Addressing Recurring Issues in the Study of Terrorism“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 9 October 2018.

Abstract: Over the years, there have been many debates regarding the state of research into terrorism and whether “terrorism studies” constitutes an academic discipline in its own right. Such reflections, coupled with the natural evolution of what is still a relatively new area of research, have arguably led to significant improvements in quality and rigour. At the same time, the status of terrorism studies itself remains somewhat ambiguous: it is both discussed as a distinct field and simultaneously evades criticism by pointing to the difficulties of defining its boundaries. There are undoubtedly a number of advantages to forming a separate discipline, which would go some way to helping the field address some of the recurring problems that terrorism research faces. However, this article ultimately argues that scholars are better served by deliberately moving in the other direction and developing the field as a space for interdisciplinary engagement.

Mark Youngman’s article is outstanding and I strongly agree with many of its points. Youngman begins by discussing how the field straddles several different disciplines and therefore lacks a secure foothold in academic institutions. However, he argues that the field should emphatically not try to become a discipline in itself and that terrorism scholars should instead critically engage more with their home disciplines. Hegghammer made a similar argument a few years back, which I concurred with.

Youngman’s article also has a valuable section on the field’s need for greater methodological sophistication, which does not simply repeat the constant calls for more empirical research. Terrorism studies is often accused of lacking empirical data and of failing to talk directly to terrorists, but in my view these critiques are no longer well-founded and they tend to miss the point. There is no shortage of empirically-based datasets, but there are valid critiques of how some datasets are constructed. Similarly, many terrorism scholars conduct interviews with terrorists, though there are legitimate questions over whether such interviews are always conducted with sufficient rigour and methodological transparency.

So it was great to see Youngman’s article did not simply repeat the common calls for more fieldwork. He instead points out that holding interviews with terrorists (particularly in conflict zones) up as the gold standard is both unwarranted and creates currently unaddressed risks. He argues that it reflects poorly on the field when one research method is treated as inherently superior to all others, instead of a more pluralistic approach based on detailed discussions about which methods are best suited for different types of questions.

Youngman’s article makes many other good points. He critiques the recurrence of strawman arguments in the field, such as when the argument that terrorism is “not all about ideology” is presented as being counter to conventional wisdom, yet almost nobody actually contends that it is all about ideology. He points out the ethical risks involved in engaging the media, policy-makers and practitioners, but rightly adds that “[w]e cannot criticise state policies for being ill-informed and at the same time turn away those who seek to make them better informed”. He also notes the potential for productive engagement with civil war studies, which has increased in the past couple of years and was long overdue. However, Youngman adds an ethical argument in support of such crossover, as civil war studies appears to have “a greater emphasis on the victims and social consequences of violence” than terrorism studies has.

Second example: Bart Schuurman, “Research on Terrorism, 2007–2016: A Review of Data, Methods, and Authorship“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 1 March 2018.

Abstract: Research on terrorism has long been criticized for its inability to overcome enduring methodological issues. These include an overreliance on secondary sources and the associated literature review methodology, a scarcity of statistical analyses, a tendency for authors to work alone rather than collaborate with colleagues, and the large number of one-time contributors to the field. However, the reviews that have brought these issues to light describe the field as it developed until 2007. This article investigates to what extent these issues have endured in the 2007–2016 period by constructing a database on all of the articles published in nine leading journals on terrorism (N = 3442). The results show that the use of primary data has increased considerably and is continuing to do so. Scholars have also begun to adapt a wider variety of data-gathering techniques, greatly diminishing the overreliance on literature reviews that was noted from the 1980s through to the early 2000s. These positive changes should not obscure enduring issues. Despite improvements, most scholars continue to work alone and most authors are one-time contributors. Overall, however, the field of terrorism studies appears to have made considerable steps towards addressing long-standing issues.

Bart Schuurman’s article updates earlier quantitative assessments of terrorism studies conducted by Andrew Silke, which covered research published in the journals Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (and their predecessor journals) up until 2007. In doing so, Schuurman’s article does the field a great service.

When I first started reading this article I was concerned that it categorised research that isn’t based on primary sources under what I saw as the somewhat dismissive term “literature review method” (similarly Silke refers to studies that aren’t based on new data as “essentially rehashing knowledge that was already there”). After all, it can be within such work that the all-important conceptualisation and theorisation can occur. Such work is crucial and it should not be automatically looked down on. It should be judged for how well it advances (or fails to advance) the field by consolidating current knowledge, creating conceptual clarity, developing new theoretical propositions (to later be tested), and ensuring contestation. So I was worried that Schuurman’s article might make the sort of assumptions that Youngman’s article warned about, but my concern turned out be misplaced. Instead, Schuurman noted near the end of his article:

The emphasis on how a lack of primary sources in particular has had a detrimental influence on the field for decades, is not a dismissal of the value of non-empirical work. Many authors who base themselves on the secondary literature have made stellar contributions by bringing together insights from a diverse range of scholarly, governmental, journalistic, and NGO-based works. Others have analyzed existing data in novel ways, presented findings from the non-English literature, or drawn attention to countries, case studies, and historical periods that have been undeservedly neglected. Similarly, the use of primary data is not a guarantee for high-quality work; some articles use only the barest of such sources or fail to study them in depth.

The result is a nuanced and utterly indispensable article, because it finally provides an up-to-date quantitative assessment of the popularity of different research methods within terrorism studies, superseding many of the earlier assessments. The field has needed this for some time. It’s particularly valuable because it focuses not just on Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, the two journals traditionally considered as the field’s core journals, but also on Perspectives on Terrorism, the Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, Critical Studies on Terrorism, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict: Pathways Toward Terrorism and Genocide, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, the Journal of Terrorism Research  and the Journal for Deradicalization. And I agree with its conclusion, that “[r]esearch on terrorism has not stagnated; it has begun to flourish”.

Third example: Deven Parekh, Amarnath Amarasingam, Lorne Dawson, and Derek Ruths, “Studying Jihadists on Social Media: A Critique of Data Collection Methodologies”, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 12, issue 3, 2018

Abstract: In this article, we propose a general model of data collection from social media, in the context of terrorism research, focusing on recent studies of jihadists. By analyzing Twitter data collection methods in the existing research, we show that the methods used are prone to sampling biases, and that the sampled datasets are not sufficiently filtered or validated to ensure reliability of conclusions derived from them. Alternatively, we propose some best practices for the collection of data in future research on jihadist using social media (as well as other kinds of terrorist groups). Given the similarity of the methodological challenges posed by research on almost all social media platforms, in the context of terrorism studies, the critique and recommendations offered remain relevant despite the recent shift of most jihadists from Twitter to Telegram and other forms of social media.

Social media analysis has become quite a common approach within the field, particularly for scholars focusing on jihadist movements, so it was great to see this article disentangling some of the methodological dilemmas involved. Parekh et al‘s article focuses heavily on authentication, that is, how to know if the accounts being the research classifies as jihadist truly are being run by jihadists. The article shows how some methods currently used entail serious authentication problems, and proposes some ways to help fix this, while being entirely respectful in their critiques of others’ work. If you have even the slightest interest in social media as a research resource for terrorism studies, you should read this.

Read them!

So these three articles were all excellent for many reasons. They did not waste much on the purported gulf between “orthodox terrorism studies” and “critical terrorism studies”. They didn’t repeat outdated arguments about the supposed lack of datasets or field interviews (indeed Schuurman’s article provided a much needed corrective, showing the actual prevalence of such approaches). These articles nonetheless did not champion the field; they instead made well-founded critiques of real and serious problems within terrorism studies, and provided helpful ways forward.

There are some unconvincing assessments of terrorism studies out there, but these three from 2018 are all compelling ones, to be placed alongside excellent earlier assessments such as Richard English’s The Future Study of Terrorism, Thomas Heggammer’s The Future of Terrorism Studies, and Lisa Stampnitzky’s Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/Intellectual Production.