This past week, terrorists struck Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Al Shabaab, a Somali Islamist organization, claimed responsibility. Frustratingly, we still know very little about the attackers, their origins, or the Kenyan security forces’ response. And the news about the last just keeps getting worse.
But there has been some analysis of the attacks – by both journalists and academics. In one of the most widely-circulated pieces, Somalia specialist Ken Menkhaus suggested that the attacks were a sign of desperation, the last gasp of an organization that had run out of an intra-Somalia game (also, here and here). Another strand of argument suggests that the growing ascendancy of a single Al Shabaab leader, Abdul Abdi Godane, has pushed the organization toward Al Qaeda, toward international jihad, toward further attacks on soft targets abroad (here and here and here). The presumption is, again, that we're at a critical juncture for Al Shabaab, a moment of inflection at which the organization changes its character and its aims. See my AU colleague Joe Young’s piece at Political Violence @ a Glance for a roundup of some of this.
In this post, I’m going to make some empirical quibbley points about Somalia, and then I’m going to make a couple of substantive points about terrorism / COIN analysis in general. So if you're not terribly interested in Somalia, you still might want to skip to the end.
This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter received his PhD from Georgetown University in May 2013, and was a Fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia during 2012-2013; he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. His research focuses on religion and foreign policy; he has also written on terrorism and religious conflict.
In his latest blog post on Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt calls for a re-evaluation of the United States' approach to counter-terrorism. One statement--really a quick aside--caught my attention.
Walt claims that "opposition to foreign occupation and interference is one of the prime motivations behind terrorist activities." Well he actually says: "Given that opposition to foreign occupation" causes terrorism, and then uses this assertion to justify calling for a reduction in US forces in Muslim countries. And then he specifically mentions "suicide bombing," and links to Dying to Win, by Robert Pape.
Dying to Win is the book version of an article by Pape in the American Political Science Review, in which he argues that suicide bombing is a rational response to occupation. As I detailed in a blog post a few years ago, there are numerous problems with this argument:
Sadly, many people do not realize that even if the majority of those who engage in behavior X belong to category Y, that does not mean that the majority of people in category Y engage in X. This point is often made, rightly, with respect to race and violent crime and religion and terror. But most treatments I've seen either imply that anyone who doesn't understand is a moron, or manage to scare away the target audience by throwing in a pile of math without explaining it. In this post, I'll try to actually explain why we can't conclude that most members of Y are prone to acts of X even if most acts of X are committed by members of Y. This post won't insult anyone for being unfamiliar with Bayes' Theorem, nor will you find much algebra herein. I'm just going to try to explain, with a relative minimum of technical detail, why we can't assume that most members of Y engage in behavior X just because most people who engage in X are members of Y.
In other words, the focus now should be on the Tsarnaevs as homegrown terrorists, not on the ethnic or regional origins of their family. Journalists’ initial conversations with family members in Dagestan amplify that point: a sense of shock that two nice boys who had gone to America for their education could have been involved in such a brutal act. Dzhokhar, for example, was reportedly a successful student and championship wrestler in Cambridge, Massachusetts—hardly the typical foreign jihadist. People with family roots in the Caucasus are often perceived in Russia and elsewhere as inherently rebellious and conflict-prone, a line of thinking that has deep roots in Russian culture. That imagery still affects how street crime is reported in Moscow, how Russian security services target people they believe to be potential terrorists, and how Russia’s own often brutal “anti-terrorist operations” play out in the towns and villages of places such as Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, and other republics of the north Caucasus that are little known in the West. The sad truth is that the scenes in Boston early this morning—with SWAT teams in full battle gear, a shootout on the street, and an alleged suspect perhaps wearing an explosive vest or other suicide device—are all too typical in the north Caucasus itself. The difference is that in Russia, these operations are sometimes little more than assassination missions, designed to target alleged terrorists on only the flimsiest of evidence. That is obviously not the case in Boston. But speculating about the brothers’ ethnic origins plays into the worst stereotypes that have bedeviled attempts to bring peace, stability, and good governance to Russia’s southern borderlands.
Boston on lockdown. One suspect dead. One--apparently a CRLS graduate--still at large. The fact is that we still don't have adequate information for much in the way of meaningful speculation. But I do think it useful to call attention to three related issues:
Because we don't know enough to engage in anything resembling responsible commentary.
And those things that we can say something worthwhile about--including comparisons with other terrorist attacks past and present, such as what happened on the same day in Iraq; and the socio-political dynamics of the US response so far--don't exactly demand my input.
On a plane ride a couple of days ago, I picked up Judith Butler's Frames of War, perhaps a couple of years after I should have. Though there is a lot of the book that I disagreed with, reading it was a transformative experience. It is perhaps particularly relevant to the subject and content of Megan MacKenzie's latest post, given Butler's suggestion that "specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living" such that "if certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then those lives are never lived or lost in the full sense" (p.1).
Butler spends the book carefully considering the relationship between precarity, violence, and war - considerations that made me think a lot, about the book, about gender/violence more generally, and about the role of reading in our lives as scholars. My thoughts about the book are below the fold, and a separate post about reading is forthcoming.
Frames of War is to me a frustrating combination of absolute and piercing brilliance and letdown ...
When governments offer concessions to dissident groups in the midst of a terror campaign, they often see an increase in violence take place afterwards.
For example, between 1968 and 1977, attacks conducted by the ETA claimed the lives of 73 people. Partial autonomy was granted to the Basque region in 1978, yet despite the fact that this represented a significant shift towards the desired outcome of the ETA, violence increased, over the next three years, the ETA would kill 235 people, and fatality levels remained elevated for decades.
Why then do governments offer concessions?
U.S. Consulate in Benghazi 9/12/2012I heard Dan Drezner in the car on NPR yesterday talking about whether foreign policy might matter in this election. And,
Some commentators have suggested posts that pose questions to our readers. I think that the discussion on Peter Henne's piece, "A Modest Defense of Terrorism Studies,"
APThis is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He formerly worked as a national security consultant.
This is a guest post from Tanisha Fazal, a professor of political science at Columbia University, and Jessica Martini, a human rights and international trade
The NY Times’ recent article on Obama’s “kill list” of American citizens and others suspected--not convicted--of terrorism includes much disturbing information on what our government
<img alt="" galleryimg="no" onload="var downlevelDiv = document.getElementById('4050f2d5-ac8f-40e4-b01c-f6efcd5c7932'); downlevelDiv.innerHTML = "";" src="http://lh4.ggpht.com/-VryqPXZd3y4/T6JAfRaoJBI/AAAAAAAAALU/5Zngh2TsXvw/video1be4ce2ddc1c%25255B12%25255D.jpg?imgmax=800" />Video Games as the Fear-Mongering Pop Adjunct of America’s post-9/11 ‘forever wars’Even tea-partying righties
The Duck crew getting ready for theirannual meet-up in 2011.We are now two weeks away from the start of the annual International Studies Association convention
The news that President Obama plans to sign the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) permitting indefinite detention for Americans accused of supporting terrorism is a
A hypothesis: Pirates, hackers, and terrorists are perennial actors in international relations. They will never be permanently defeated; the frontier will never be permanently settled.The