September 11, 2011

Special Tenth Anniversary of 9/11 Q&A with Thomas Hegghammer

If you are like me, you mostly avoided the television and the op-ed pages today. I am not sure it is entirely healthy that we force ourselves, as a society, to grieve anew ten full years after a traumatic event like the September 11th attacks. Surely the best rebuke to an organization like al-Qaida would have been to have simply gone about our business as a nation, worshipping with our neighbors in the morning, watching football in the afternoon at the local bar, and in the evening preparing for a new workweek. Although my own path in life was in part set in motion by the attacks in 2001, I believe the best American response to the anniversary would have been to have simply enjoyed one another while hoping and planning toward tomorrow rather than mourning anew those lost in yesteryear.

But the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks does, I must say, give us a moment to pause and reflect on what lessons, if any, we have learned over the past decade. So while dining with Norwegian expert-on-all-things-jihadi Thomas Hegghammer in Oslo last week, I came up with the idea of asking him to participate in a special interview with the blog for the anniversary.

How much do I respect Thomas and his scholarship? I even changed the way I normally spell al-Qaeda al-Qaida for this post because honestly, who the heck am I to tell Thomas what's what?

A few years ago, you wrote a great essay in the Times Literary Supplement arguing that the trauma of the September 11th attacks retarded the development of dispassionate scholarship on jihadi movements. 10 years after the attacks, how are we doing? Has the field of study evolved in the United States? (While you’re at it, explain to us why it seems as if every tenth Norwegian has published peer-reviewed scholarship on al-Qaida.)

First of all, thank you for inviting me to contribute to your blog on this special day. Allow me also to take off my “dispassionate scholar hat” and extend my sympathy to the families of those killed on 9/11 and of the many who fell in the wars that ensued.

Ten years after 9/11, I am sorry to report that the academic study of jihadi movements is still underdeveloped. Things have improved a little bit since I wrote the TLS piece in 2008. There is a core of specialists who continue to do fantastic work, and we see some new recruitment to the field. But the community is still very small and populated mostly by people who are on the fringes of the academy, institutionally speaking (and that includes myself).

The fundamental problem is still the same, namely that the incentive structure in the universities, especially in America, is set against people specialising in the study of jihadi gorups. Studying al-Qaida usually involves qualitative methods and requires high-level skills in Arabic or some other oriental language. Graduate students with an interest in jihadism thus work against two strong biases: the quantitative methods hegemony in the social sciences and the skepticism in American Middle East Studies toward the study of hard security issues. These biases affect hiring decisions and have some striking aggregate effects: for example, there are virtually no tenured faculty specialising in terrorism (let alone jihadism) in any Ivy League school or in any Middle East Studies department in America. Rational graduate students with academic ambitions see this and wisely stay clear of the topic.

A related problem is that jihadism studies in the US lack an institutional home. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has partly filled this role, but even the CTC has rarely had more than one or two Arabic-speaking al-Qaida specialists based at West Point at any one time; several of the CTC’s best reports were written by off-site contractors. Another potential hub for al-Qaida studies was the Centre on Law and Security at New York University, but it recently scaled down its activities and looks set to close down. How America – with its huge academic workforce and enormous counterterrorism budget – in ten years has failed to produce a research institution with more than two permanent jihadism specialists is beyond me.
As far as Norway is concerned, we actually only have around five scholars focusing on al-Qaida, but we have put them all in one place – the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) – and given them stable working conditions. By having 3-4 academics working on closely related subjects and interacting every day you get tremendous synergy.

Our friend Will McCants has been arguing that the Arab Spring is a disaster for al-Qaida. Do you agree?

The Arab spring is certainly bad for al-Qaida, but I would not call it a disaster, because the uprisings have so far only affected parts of the Muslim world. Important countries like Pakistan remain largely unaffected, as do the conflicts in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere. In some places such as Yemen and Libya, jihadi groups arguably have more opportunities now than before the Arab spring. The short and mid-term security implications of the Arab spring are highly unpredictable. At the moment we see a decline of al-Qaida central, but it is difficult to disentangle the effect of the Arab spring from the effect of the concurrent tactical breakthroughs, such as the killing of top al-Qaida commanders and the capture of internal AQ documents. That said, I do think the overall net effect of the Arab spring is negative for the jihadi movement in the long term.

The United States has enjoyed some stunning successes against al-Qaida’s senior leadership in 2011. In Oslo, we discussed the possibility that al-Qaida Central might in fact collapse with a speed that could surprise us all. Sketch out a scenario by which that might happen. What does the rapid collapse of al-Qaida Central look like, and under what conditions might we expect it?

It is difficult for me to say, because academics like myself know precious little about the current inner workings of al-Qaida Central. The only people who have a chance of knowing what is going on are in the intelligence community, and whatever I say about the subject is sure to make someone in that community laugh. My overall impression, though, is that al-Qaida central has been severely weakened over the past six months.

Your award-winning book on al-Qaida and Islamism in Saudi Arabia has been justly praised. Tell us about your thesis, and also why al-Qaida’s insurgency was such a failure in Saudi Arabia in 2004 and 2005.

The book is basically a history of violent Islamism in Saudi Arabia after 1979. It tries to explain the ebbs and flows of militant activism in the Kingdom, focusing on the 2003-2006 terrorism campaign by al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula. I show that the campaign was not an organically developed domestic rebellion, but rather the work of an foreign-trained network of militants who had returned to Saudi Arabia after al-Qaida’s eviction from Afghanistan in late 2001. The rebels never enjoyed much popular support and failed to recruit outside a closed network of jihad veterans and their acquaintances. This made them an easy prey for the Western-supported security services.

A key argument in the book is that we have tended to overestimate the level of political opposition to the Saudi regime, because we have equated Islamism with anti-government activism. Observers have assumed that because Saudi Arabia has many Islamists, anti-regime sentiment must run very deep. But there are different types of Islamism and not all have regime change as their priority. The Kingdom has produced a lot of jihadists over the years, but most have been what I call extreme pan-Islamists rather than revolutionaries; that is, they preferred to fight non-Muslims rather than fellow Muslims. In fact, the normative barriers to revolutionary violence appear to be higher in Saudi Arabia than in the Arab republics. The non-revolution in Saudi Arabia earlier this year seems to bolster this hypothesis.

One of the more horrifying things I have seen recently was at your house: a DVD of jihadi propaganda and music sitting alongside a Norwegian children’s DVD. Tell us about your latest project examining jihadi culture. And please, also assure my readership (and your wife) that you do not sometimes get your DVDs confused and show your children jihadi propaganda.

Well, the two worlds are closer than you think. Some children’s entertainment is so bad it must be the work of al-Qaida. I have reason to suspect that Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri created the Teletubbies to destroy Western society from within.

The project you are referring to is about jihad culture, or “the things jihadis do when they don’t fight.” It is inspired by the observation that militants in the underground spend a lot of time doing things that appear to serve no immediate military purpose, like singing songs, reciting poetry, or discussing dreams. They also do unexpected things like weep on a regular basis, notably when reciting the Qur’an. The infamous Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, for example, was known among fellow militants as both “the butcher” (al-dhabbah) and “a weeper” (baki). All this “soft matter” of jihadism remains virtually unstudied; one reason, I think, is that it has been considered less consequential than the hard stuff of terror, such as attacks, resources, organizational structures and the like. My hypothesis is that jihad culture is not inconsequential at all; instead I think it may shed important new light on the processes by which jihadi groups recruit, exercise organizational control and make tactical decisions. I am sure that the military men and women reading this blog will find all this rather intuitive, because they have experienced the important role of music and rituals in their own organization.

As a first step in the inquiry, I am currently working with a great team of scholars on an edited volume that will explore various dimensions of jihad culture. I have recruited subject specialists – including a musicologist, an Arabic poetry expert, and an anthropologist of dreams – to help document and decipher al-Qaida’s internal culture. We are only scraping the surface of this vast topic but hopefully it will inspire others to dig deeper. Eventually I hope to write a monograph on some aspect of this topic, but that’s a few years down the line.

I usually end these Q&A’s with a list of the interviewee’s favorite drinking holes. And I imagine it must be depressing to be such a leader in your field of study yet still be only the second-brightest scholar in your own home. This, perhaps, explains your excellent taste in spirits. Tell us the best places to sip a gin-and-tonic from Princeton to Oslo to, er, Riyadh.

Princeton: The Triumph Brewing Company – a decent microbrewery and the least bad place in town for a drink.

Cambridge: The Conservatory in the Harvard Faculty Club – extremely preppy, but that is the whole point.

Oslo: For beer, I prefer Olympen, a 120-year old beer hall on the city’s east side. For G&Ts, I guess I would go for the deep leather couches of the Bristol Bar.

Riyadh: If I could sneak in a bottle of gin, I would drink it in either on the bridge of the Mamlaka Tower or in the golden ball of the Faysaliyya Center.

Takk! I knew there was a reason I went to school in Philadelphia (with its excellent bars and pubs) rather than New Jersey! (Or Riyadh -- not entirely sure which would be worse, honestly.) As for the rest of you, go buy the man's book here.