March 27, 2012

On Terrorism Experts

As those of you who follow my Twitter feed know, I have been drawn into a debate between Glenn Greenwald and Will McCants about whether or not one can be a "terrorism expert." Greenwald's position, as articulated on his blog:

I had a somewhat lengthy debate on Twitter last night about the Awlaki assassination with several people often identified as “Terrorism experts” — such as Will McCants and Aaron Zelin — and they and others (such as Andrew Exum and Robert Farley) objected rather vigorously when I said I found the entire concept of “Terrorism expert” to be invalid, as it is a honorific typically assigned due to ideology and interests served rather than actual expertise.  This is exactly what I meant: in U.S. political and media discourse, Terrorism means little more than: that which America’s Enemies du Jour (generally Muslim Enemies) do to it, but not what America and its allies do to anyone. Terrorism is not a real concept in which one develops “expertise”; it is, and from its introduction into world affairs always has been, a term of propaganda designed to legitimize violence by some actors while delegitimizing very similar violence by others. See the interview I conducted a couple of years ago with Remi Brulin of NYU for more on that.

Annoyingly, Greenwald has a point in both his post and in his earlier tweets. The study of "terrorism" in the United States over the past decade has been shaped by the American experience on September 11th of 2001, and when Americans speak of terrorism in the popular discourse, as Greenwald noted in a tweet, the word is often short-hand for Islamist terrorism. Travel to the United Kingdom, by contrast, and a "terrorism expert" may have done his or her field work in Northern Ireland. Travel to Spain, and an expert may have done his or her work in the Basque country. Thomas Hegghammer has written more eloquently than I about the way in which the study of both terrorism and jihadi groups has evolved in the United States after 2001, and it's only natural that the study of terrorism will be distorted by the local experience of the country or region in which the research is conducted.

But before I get side-tracked, let me break my response to Greenwald into two arguments. First, let us very briefly review the state of the literature in the study of terrorism and coercive violence. Greenwald is correct that "terrorism" has a pejorative connotation in the popular discourse. In the scholarly literature, though, terrorism has always meant something along the lines of "the threat or use of physical coercion, primarily against noncombatants, especially civilians, to create fear in order to achieve various political objectives." (O'Neill, 2005) Greenwald makes it seem as if states are never mentioned as terrorist actors, but there is a lot of literature on the use of coercive violence by states and state terrorism. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of Schelling (1966); Mitchell, Stohl, Carleton and Lopez (1986); Kalyvas (2006); and Biddle and Friedman (2008). (I'm sure readers of this blog can think of literally dozens more examples. Please do so in the comments section.)

The literature on terrorism and terrorist groups did not spring forth on September 12, 2001. Researchers at my alma mater and elsewhere had been writing about the phenomena of terrorism and groups who use terror tactics for decades. Sometimes these researchers were doing case studies on Islamist or Palestinian groups. Sometimes they were doing case studies on Irish (PIRA) or German (RAF) groups. And sometimes they were comparing and contrasting varied groups. Walter Laqueur originally published this book, for example,
in 1977. Bruce Hoffman published this book in 1999. I'm pretty sure those two guys are terrorism experts without the scare quotes.

Second, let me consider the case of my friend Will McCants, who Greenwald very much picked on in his Twitter feed along with Aaron Zelin (who I do not know well but who seems really smart in his own right). Greenwald is correct that the decade after the September 11th attacks created all kinds of incentives for self-proclaimed terrorism "experts" to rise to the fore, hawking their "expertise" and opinions on both the consulting market as well as in the mainstream media. Too often, this expertise has been ignorant or barely concealed Islamophobia. Ironically, though, one of the scholars who has done the most to condemn what he calls "CT hucksters" is Will McCants. Will is one of the more rigorously credentialed scholars studying violent Islamist extremist groups as well as being one of the most careful. Will fell into a study of terrorism after doing a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. He had no initial academic training in strategic studies or military affairs as far as I know, but his Arabic and understanding of the intellectual currents of political Islam made him ideal to work on al-Qaeda as a case study. And just like I started a dissertation on Hizballah with a background in Middle Eastern Studies and boned up on the theories related to small wars and insurgencies as I went along, so too did Will with respect to terrorism as a phenomenon. At the end of the day, Will is best described as an Arabist, perhaps, but if he is not a bona fide terrorism expert as well -- again, no scare quotes necessary this time -- I don't know who is.

What irked me most about Greenwald's tweets and post is that he is disparaging an entire class of very reputable scholars with the allegation that the only people taken seriously as terrorism experts in the United States are taken seriously because of some media gate-keeper's ideological bias -- and not because of their study of specific terrorist groups and a phenemenon that has a deep body of peer-reviewed literature dedicated to it. Greenwald is attempting to limit and discipline the discourse in his own way. He is signaling to his readers that no true expertise on terrorism as a phenomenon exists and that those who write about it are hopelessly ideologically compromised in principio. That strikes me as close-minded intellectual bullying. 

If you're going to bully people, bully the bad guys. And if you're going to make blanket judgments about entire fields of study but are not yourself an expert in that field of study, have a little humility when you do so. After all, you don't see me telling Glenn Greenwald what's what about due process or Constitutional law, do you?