Remote learning: The final lessons

(Credit: Department of Homeland Security)

It’s been five weeks since this impromptu exercise in online teaching about terrorism began, and now we’ve come to the end. So what I’ve asked my students to think about for this final week of class are two simple questions:

  • Why hasn’t there been another 9/11-scale terrorist attack in the United States in the nearly 20 years since?
  • What are the real risks that terrorism poses to the United States, and how should we address them?

One of the ways I get at that first question is by having my students read a piece by journalist Timothy Noah, published back in 2009, in which he lays out a series of possible explanations for why another 9/11 had not yet occurred. Despite being a decade old now, many of the theories he lays out have held up well, others not so much.

As I discuss in this first video below, Noah’s explanations range from the comforting to the decidedly worrisome. On the comforting side, Noah essentially argues that 9/11 was a fluke that won’t be repeated. Rather than succeeding out of strategic brilliance and flawless tactical execution, the 9/11 attacks worked because of dumb luck. At every one of the many points where the plot could have been discovered or something could have gone wrong, the breaks went in favor of the terrorists. The likelihood of that happening again, he argues, is pretty darn low. On the worrisome side of the equation is the simple argument that another large-scale attack is ultimately inevitable, and it is simply of matter of time until it happens.

Should another large-scale terrorist attack happen in the US, many analysts believe that it will likely involve the use of weapons of mass destruction, or CBRN (chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear) terrorism. Journalist Steven Brill makes this point in assessing US terrorism security policy post-9/11. In the video below I summarize the case made by leading terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman on CBRN. He touches on three main points: Why we haven’t seen CBRN terrorism yet; why it might now be plausible; and why we shouldn’t dismiss the threat.

In the final video, I introduce a contrarian argument, courtesy of Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, who argues that the risks of terrorism for the United States have been wildly overblown (see a short review of his book by that name here), that our overreaction to the risks is more damaging and dangerous than the threat of terrorism itself, and that rational policy making must be based on a clear-eyed assessment of what terrorists actually can do rather than our “worst case fantasies” about what they might want to do.

Remote learning: War is not the only option

Pres. Obama and advisers monitor the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. (White House photo)

This week my students are wrestling with another set of readings which point out just how difficult it is for governments to deal with a terrorist challenge. And how there really are very few good choices under those circumstances.

As British terrorism scholar and expert Andrew Silke points out in the piece I discuss below, the natural human drive for vengeance pushes both governments and terrorist organizations into revenge-driven cycles of violence. For governments, a harsh counterterrorist response is often politically popular and at the same time, policymakers tend to overestimate its effectiveness. For terrorist groups and their supporters, heavy-handed government measures can both stiffen their resolve and move the uninvolved into the arms of a violent opposition movement.

One example of the kind of heavy-handed counterterrorism response that while popular may in fact be ineffective, if not counterproductive, is targeted killing or leadership decapitation. These are tactics that both Israel and the United States have embraced in their respective campaigns against terrorism. In the Israeli case this has entailed strikes targeting the military and political leadership of the Palestinian group Hamas. For the US, we have primarily employed this tactic, via drone strikes, on the Afghan/Pakistan border and in Iraq.

But as terrorism scholar Jenna Jordan, whose work focuses on leadership decapitation, points out, terrorist groups are far more resistant to this tactic than policymakers want to believe. I discus her research in the video below.

Finally for this week, if militarized responses don’t work the way we want them to, then what else can governments do in response to terrorism? Scholar Peter Sederberg offers, and I discuss below, a promising, but politically fraught, answer: conciliation and compromise. In short, Sederberg suggests that democracies can harness the tools that make them politically distinctive, negotiation and the emphasis on compromise, to manage a terrorist challenge. War is not the only option.

Remote learning: Counterterrorism is hard!

The French Army arrives in this scene from the classic film study of terrorism and counterterrorism, The Battle of Algiers.

Here we are, another week of stay-at-home orders and thus another week of teaching my seminar on terrorism without being able to be in the classroom with my students.

As I told you last week, my solution to this has been to record short (well, I’m trying to keep them short) mini lectures on the readings that I’ve assigned to my students. And I’m sharing some of those here with you.

Next week we’re starting to consider the options available to governments facing the challenge of combatting terrorism, and if there’s a bottom line message that I’m trying to get across it’s this: Counterterrorism is really hard.

There’s actually two key points that we’re dealing with when we talk about the challenges that counterterrorism represents. The first has to do specifically with the problems democracies confront when dealing with terrorism. How far can a democratic society go in cracking down on terrorism before it jeopardizes the very democratic values and principles it is fighting to protect? The second point is simple: Governments may have far less ability to “defeat” terrorism than we choose to believe.

I raise both of these issues in the video below, where I talk about the work of pioneering terrorism scholar Martha Crenshaw on the topic of how terrorism declines.

In the second video, below, I preview for my students what may in fact be the greatest study of terrorism and counterterrorism ever committed to film, and that is Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant The Battle of Algiers. I urged my students to take the time to watch it next week and to think about the lessons it has for democratic societies combatting terrorism. You should watch it too.

Finally, here is The Battle of Algiers.