Friday, January 29, 2010

The Strategic Logic of American Jihadists

. Friday, January 29, 2010

In a fascinating article on American-born jihadists, Andrea Elliott looks up Robert Pape:

America is now at a watershed. In the last year, at least two dozen men in the United States have been charged with terrorism-related offenses. They include Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan immigrant driver in Denver who authorities say was conspiring to carry out a domestic attack; David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American from Chicago who is suspected of helping plan the 2008 attacks in Mumbai; and the five young men from Virginia who, authorities say, sought training in Pakistan to fight American soldiers in Afghanistan.

These cases have sent intelligence analysts scurrying for answers. The American suspects come from different backgrounds and socioeconomic strata, but they share much in common with Europe’s militants: they tend to be highly motivated, even gifted people who were reared in the West with one foot in the Muslim world. Others may see them as rigid or zealous, but they envision themselves as deeply principled, possessing what Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago, calls “an altruism gone wildly wrong.” While their religious piety varies, they are most often bonded by a politically driven anger that has deepened as America’s war against terrorism endures its ninth year.

That is just a short bit from a very engaging, in-depth article. I'm pleased to see that Elliott refuses to regurgitate the normal "Muslims iz crazy!!!" rhetoric of much press coverage. These actors act politically and strategically; they aren't crazy or nihilistic. Some of them are barely religious, if at all.

None of which is meant as any sort of justification or equivocation of course; they're still vicious murders whether they're motivated by politics or piety. But it's important to understand who your enemy is and what motivates him. If we treat these actors as irrational psychopaths then that will lead us towards one type of action; if we treat them as rational strategic actors, it will lead us toward a very different course of action.

Framing matters, and changing the conversation from hysteria to pragmatism can only help us. Hopefully political scientists can be in the vanguard of that ideological fight.


Thomas Oatley said...

I raise you one John Horgan. He actually knows what he's talking about.

Penn State Center for the Study of Terrorism.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Horgan looks interesting. I'd like to read his book sometime. A quick Google search turned up this Time story that demonstrates that jihadists are romantics.,28804,1720049_1720050_1722062,00.html

Yeah? How does that contradict the rationalist view? Wikipedia and Horgan's site don't offer much more in the way of theory. there's probably more to it, but i don't have the time right now to investigate fully.

Don't get me wrong: I don't think Pape is perfect at all. I have major problems with a lot of his conclusions, as everyone seems to. But at least he's asking the right questions and thinking systematically rather than just freaking out. I'd much rather debate the merits and demerits of Pape in the NYTimes than bear another op-ed by one of the Kagans.


The Strategic Logic of American Jihadists
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