The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

It’s radical, man.

July 7, 2010

Through the very good King’s of War blog I was directed to a post on Jihadica on the recent emergence of an apparent Al-Qaida affiliated English-language publication called “Inspire”. While the author suggests that this has thrown Western media into a panic, there was very little to actually be worried about (other than the fact that it might contain a computer virus).

The bottom line is that Inspire is a drop in an ocean of jihadi propaganda. The recent media coverage suggests that otherwise educated observers don’t seem to realise 1) how large and 2) how old that ocean is. I find this both disappointing and disconcerting. For a decade, militants have been pumping out sophisticated propaganda and genuinely dangerous training manuals to a vast Arabic speaking audience. In comes a sloppy magazine in English, and suddenly people speak of a new al-Qaida media offensive. This ignorance and linguistic myopia is inexcusable, since blogs and translation services have made information about jihadi propaganda more available than ever.
In my view, the only interesting thing about the release of Inspire is the fact that the PDF file is corrupt and rumoured to carry a Trojan virus… Personally I don’t see why either jihadis or intelligence services would deliberately disseminate viruses, given that a virus would hurt both friends and enemies. In any case, whoever created Inspire wanted attention, and they certainly got that – in spades.

I found this post particularly interesting because last week I attended a conference organized by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) in New York City. This isn’t necessarily in the realm of my normal academic work – other than the fact that I am interested in the way that democracies confront threats and the threat of terrorism. (But let’s face it – it didn’t take a lot of arm twisting to sell me on a conference to New York City in July.)

The conference was interesting for a number of reasons – it brought together academics, policy makers and political leaders to address questions like “are we any safer after 9-11” and thinking about what has been learned. On the one hand there have been two attempted attacks on the US within six months of each other on the United States. On the other hand, one was a guy who literally could not set his pants on fire and the other a failed car bomb. Maybe we’re just safer because the quality of “terrorist” has gone down in the last couple of years?

Given the organizers, the focus of the conference was on radicalization (and they launched a study on radicalization in prisons). I did, however, expect a little more on thinking about these issues within the context of human rights/democracies/constitutions. (Maybe this was a bit of a sore spot as there were many former Bush administration officials there?) However, the issue was touched upon by the third panel of the second day titled “Counterterrorism Cooperation: Is It Working?” (Short answer: yes and no.) The panellists all agreed that human rights played an important part in how counterterrorism cooperation is engaged in. Australian Ambassador for Counterterrorism, Bill Paterson suggested that his country had worked towards helping to improve conditions inside of Indonesian Prisons to diminish the threat of radicalization there. Richard Barrett, head of the UN Al Qaidea/Taliban Monitoring Team maintained that human rights are one of the main pillars of counterterrorism.

Eric Rosand, the Senior Advisor in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the US Department of State argued that for the US this meant increasing the capacity to prosecute individuals within the United States. Interestingly, he also later added that there was a problem with some multilateral efforts. He pointed out that all UN counterterrorism work is being done in New York and Vienna and not on the ground in the countries where it matters.

Another interesting panel was on “How Terrorism Ends” – seemingly named for Audry Kurth Cronin’s 2009 book on the topic. She was at the conference and noted that while terrorism “doesn’t end” that terrorist groups do – the important question is how. She argued that there were six ways: group leadership may be ‘decapitated’ and the group withers, negotiations, success in eradication, failure to eradicate (leading to massive problems in the state or achievement of terrorist goals), mass repression and reorientation of groups. She also noted that given the variations of groups and the different ways they can be approached and confronted that the term “global terrorist insurgency” is not very useful.

I regret to say that the low-mark of the conference for me were the two plenary speakers, Lord David Trimble and Leader of the Opposition in Israel Tzipi Livni. Trimble – who helped to bring about a solution to the Northern Ireland “troubles” and won the Nobel Peace Prize – did not seem to be able to present a coherent narrative about his experiences (and went on so long that there was not time for questions). The main points I took from his talk was that peace in Northern Ireland was possible because of state power – but state power also gave them room to participate in a political process. While the UK government could have left the IRA to just eventually disappear and dissolve into its own infighting, an approach which accommodated them, according to Trimble, helped to diffuse the underlying problems causing terrorism. In addition the process helped to create political structures to address grievances and problems.

Livni, gave a speech which basically amounted to a justification of Israeli policies rather than any kind of serious engagement with the issue – or how democracies can confront the threat of radical violence. Actually, she talked about the way that Hamas ‘uses’ democracy to gain power. She literally stated that everyone “must choose a side… you are either for us or against us” – without any sense of irony or the fact that she was paraphrasing George Bush. I have a lot of sympathy with Livini (and blogged about it in one of my first posts for this site here). But there was nothing new or interesting in her talk – in fact it was rather depressing way to end the conference. (But then maybe that was the point – none of this is going away.)

So terrorism wasn’t solved but I got a really nice dinner out of it. I like to think that means “we’re” winning.

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Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research interests are in the area of international law, security, terrorism and technology. Currently, she is teaching in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, technology and warfare and foreign policy.

Stephanie holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and published her thesis as Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo (Columbia/Hurst, 2010). Her most recent book is Science, Law, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict” (Cambridge, 2015) co-authored with Michael J. Williams. In 2009 Carvin was a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University Law School and worked as a consultant to the US Department of Defense Law of War Working Group. From 2012-2015, she was an analyst with the Government of Canada focusing on national security issues.
Stacie Goddard