Experts discuss approaches to combating terrorism in U.S.

The Matthew B. Ridgway Center recently hosted leading terrorism experts Dr. Marc Sageman, M.D., and Dr. Martha Crenshaw, for a panel discussion on combating terrorism in the U.S. moderated by Dr. Michael Kenney, interim director of the center. 

Dr. Kenney started the discussion by introducing the panelists. Dr. Sageman is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and Dr. Crenshaw is a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (see full bios below). Dr. Crenshaw has been researching terrorism and the political responses to it since the 1970’s, and since 2005 she has been a lead investigator with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism. She is the author of many publications, including a new co-authored book, with Dr. Gary LaFree, Countering Terrorism.  Dr. Marc Sageman, who also holds an M.D. in psychiatry, is the author of the widely acclaimed study Understanding Terror Networks. He has recently published two new books, Misunderstanding Terrorism and Turning to Political Violence.  He is an expert on the social dynamics of terrorist organizations. 

Following formal introductions, Dr. Kenney focused the discussion on the question at hand: What can the U.S. do about terrorism?

Dr. Crenshaw responded that the best thing to do, was actually to do less. In her opinion, the United States and other governments regularly overreact to terrorist threats and acts, which breeds more contempt and violence, and which doesn’t put an end to the organizations behind terrorism. She noted that America’s “perception of terrorism is still very much colored by the events of 9/11,” but that in reality, since 1993, there had been only 120 jihadist plots in the United States. “That’s not very many. Some of those wound up very deadly, but the majority didn’t come off,” said Crenshaw. And yet, the United States’ response to these threats has been overwhelming. Large sweeping changes to policy made in the aftermath of 9/11 are still in effect today, and they become nearly impossible to rollback. 

Dr. Sageman, the self-appointed contrarian of the group, largely agreed with Crenshaw’s assessment.  He stated that before one could understand what to do about the problem, we first must understand the problem itself. He suggested a model that leads to radicalization and incites violence between states and political groups.  He pointed out that historically individuals often become violent once they have enmeshed themselves with a “political protest group”, and once that group has been violently repressed by the state. The group and the individuals who comprise it are not inherently violent. As Dr. Crenshaw pointed out, the state is usually first to use violence, and overreacts to the threat—real or supposed—of the group. They commit an act of violence against the community, which then prompts members of the community to volunteer as soldiers to protest their community, leading to more violence.

Drs. Crenshaw and Sageman agreed that terrorism, more often than not, is a response to violence and it is often met with excessive force and overreaction. Dr. Poznansky, an assistant professor from GSPIA, then posed the question, “How do we define overreaction and massive force?” Dr. Crenshaw admitted that the use of the term was loose, because it is subjective, and hinges on the proportion of the threat, which is also subjective.

Jalon Alexander, a Pitt Law student, then raised the question, “Do you believe there’s a legitimate use of force in combating terrorism?” noting that both speakers had repeatedly mentioned the use of excessive force by the government can actually incite violence among terrorist organizations. Dr. Crenshaw and Dr. Sageman agreed on this point that military force is not completely off the table, but that it has to be employed with diligent forethought. She suggested targeting members of terrorist groups whose absence would seriously damage the integrity and capability of the group. In contrast, she said, the dropping of the MOAB bomb by President Trump was an example of a poor tactic. “In certain cases, military force can work, but if you think that’s the way to solve it, to end it, that’s a very dangerous route to take.” Dr. Sageman responded that there shouldn’t be a complete ban on responding to terrorism with military force, but that the force had to be measured and rare. “The reason has to be so good, and it has to be the exception, not the rule,” said Sageman. “I can accept 12 drone strikes; I don’t accept hundreds.” 

This brought up another question, posed by the moderator, of how to address the issue of right-wing extremism. He pointed out, in agreement with the panelists, that many more domestic terrorist attacks are carried out by right-wing groups and individuals, but “we’re not focused on that threat.” From Dr. Sageman’s perspective, the issue lies with identity. 

“The reason that right-wing terrorism is not viewed as terrorism is that a lot of Americans identify with them. ‘Terrorist’ is what we call the other guy; we define ourselves in contrast to that.” Dr. Crenshaw agreed, and added that the problem of domestic violence is compounded by the issue of the second amendment. Many more terrorist attacks are carried out with firearms, which are readily available to the public. They both mentioned the political reluctance to deal with this, as some Americans and politicians sympathize with right-wing causes, including anti-abortion and gun control groups. As Dr. Crenshaw said, “The ideology…is more rooted in the culture of this country. There’s a deep societal reluctance to deal with this as a threat.” 

Throughout the discussion, both speakers emphasized the importance of fair and proportionate government responses to terrorism. Too often however, the state implements policies that are not based on evidence but are based on politics, and sometimes even a rejection of evidence. When asked why evidenced-based counterterrorism policy was continually brushed aside, Dr. Sageman responded, “It’s such a minute threat that we have the luxury of not using evidenced-based policy. It’s political.” Dr. Crenshaw’s response was even more pessimistic. She said, “I think the government is quite capable of ignoring evidence of any question.” 

When asked how to measure the success of counterterrorism, Dr. Crenshaw made a point that eradicating terrorism is an unattainable goal. “It’s too volatile, too varied. If you say you’re going to eradicate all crime… [it would be] at a cost that any liberal democracy would never ever want to pay.” In her opinion, the government, and the U.S. in particular needs to set better, more achievable goals for the future.

To listen to the discussion, click here. 

MARTHA CRENSHAW is a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and professor of political science by courtesy. She taught at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., from 1974 to 2007. In 2005-2006, she was a Guggenheim Fellow. Since 2005 she has been a lead investigator with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. In 2009, she was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation/Department of Defense Minerva Initiative for a project on “mapping terrorist organizations” (see mappingmilitants.standford.edu). In 2015, she was elected a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. She is the recipient of the International Studies Association International Security Studies Section Distinguished Scholar Ward for 2016. Ghent University also awarded her the degree of Doctor honoris causa in 2016. She serves on the editorial boards of the journals International Security, Political Psychology, Security Studies, Orbis, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict, and Terrorism and Political Violence. Most recently, she co-authored a book with Gary LaFree titled Countering Terrorism:  A Sensible Approach to Policy, which was published by the Brookings Institution Press (2017).

MARC SAGEMAN is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and founder of Sageman Consulting, LLC. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books: Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) and Leaderless Jihad (UPP, 2007). Misunderstanding Terrorism (UPP, 2016) was recently published, while his latest book, Turning to Political Violence, will soon be released.  As an expert on Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations, he has consulted with various branches of the U.S. government and has lectured at many universities, including Harvard University, MIT, the University of Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins. He has also consulted with foreign government (France, Australia, Spain, Canada, Germany, and Britain) and lectured extensively at foreign universities.

Sageman obtained an M.D. and a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University. After a tour as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy, he joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1984. He spent a year on the Afghan Task Force then went to Islamabad from 1987 to 1989, where he ran the U.S. unilateral programs with the Afghan Mujahedin, and New Delhi from 1989-91. In 1991, he resigned from the agency to return to medicine. Since 1994, he has been in the private practice of forensic and clinical psychiatry.


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