Archive | September, 2011

Terrorism in Democracies

28 Sep

Yesterday the FBI arrested a Massachusetts man, who has been subsequently charged with a number of crimes related to terrorism. [1] This is the latest in a string of plots that the U.S. has successfully thwarted, yet it raises alarms for many Americans who have felt immune from Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism on U.S. soil. Erik Dahl, of the Naval Postgraduate School, has identified dozens of credible plots (as many as 45 by jihadist-inspired groups or individuals, according to John Avlon) since 9/11, all of which have been either botched by offenders or thwarted by the authorities.

Americans should not be too surprised by this latest wave of domestic plots. After all, domestic attacks make up the vast majority of terrorist activity–jihadist or not. Neither should they be too surprised about homegrown AQ-inspired activity, which is simply part of the current wave of terrorist activity around the world, as Karen Rasler and William Thompson tell us. Some scholars have even argued that Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism is simply a “fad” that will eventually go the way of all other other fads.

Nonetheless, this brings up three important questions:  (1) Will the current wave of jihadist terrorism be replaced? (2) If so, by what kind of terrorism? (3) Where?

My answers: (1) Probably. (2) Who knows? (3) Largely in democratic countries, most likely.

One of the most important continuities during the past forty years is the fact that terrorism tends to occur much more in democratic countries than in nondemocratic ones–the subject of the book I am currently completing for Columbia University Press. Take a look at this chart, which shows the the number of terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2008 according to the Global Terrorism Database, distributed by regime type:

This chart shows that democracies remain the most frequent targets of terrorist attacks around the world. Additional research confirms that despite all of the concern about terrorism in weak states, democracies also remain the most frequent sources of terrorist activity.

There are lots of reasons why, about which much has been written.

But here’s the good news: terrorism is incredibly rare, even in democracies. As John Mueller insists, a person is more likely to drown in one’s toilet than to be killed (or hurt) by a terrorist. Although there is a fascination with terrorism among the public and in the media, and although it is certainly destructive, violent, and terrifying to those who experience it, terrorist attacks almost never occur.

Moreover, in a recent working paper with Joe Young, he and I find that terrorism does not actually threaten “our way of life,” as some argue. Democracies are incredibly resilient to terrorist threats, and although democracies occasionally do circumvent limits on civil liberties, such measures are usually temporary and are typically repealed over time. Martha Crenshaw has found that democracies almost never retaliate against foreign terrorist attacks using military force, although when they do, it can be quite consequential as we’ve seen in Afghanistan.

My point is that terrorist plots and terrorist attacks are rare but normal in democracies–and that’s likely to continue. Although terrorism is a nuisance, it is not an existential threat to the United States, nor is it ever likely to be.

On the whole, there is nothing to fear but fear itself.

The Department of Homeland Security should put that on a billboard.


[1] I shan’t dabble in definitions of terrorism because the caveats and qualifications could go on ad nauseam. For those interested in debates on how terrorism should be defined, Chapter 1 of Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism is great on the subject. I use a fairly noncontroversial definition: terrorism is politically-motivated violence by non-state actors directed at civilians to produce fear in a broader population.

[this is a cross-post from the Duck of Minerva]

A Day with Members of the Syrian Uprising

25 Sep

At the end of last week, I had occasion to meet and talk with some members of the Syrian uprising at a private event in Europe. I don’t want to disclose much of what went on there, but I have a few reflections I’d like to share.

  1. Among some activists with whom I spoke, there is an optimistic view of the likelihood that the international community will intervene in Syria. This optimism was only evident among older activists, and among those living outside of Syria. The younger activists, who live in Syria, did not appear to expect (and did not appear to want) international intervention.  I do not share the elders’ optimism about intervention; I think that few members of the international community have little taste for intervention there. My research with Maria Stephan shows that nonviolent campaigns rarely get material aid from foreign countries, much less intervention. They do occasionally get enough attention to provoke sanctions against the offending regime, as has happened in the Syrian case. From where I sit, international intervention is probably not coming–even if it should–so my argument is that activists should continue to work under the assumption that they’ll be going it alone. But forward-thinking foreign governments interested in ways to support them without an intervention may find it useful to consult The Diplomat’s Handbook, which contains lots of useful details for how to support activists in oppressive contexts.
  2. Some have the view that because the revolution is almost 7 months old, nonviolent resistance may be insufficient to produce change. This view, while understandable, is perhaps based on the mistaken view that most successful nonviolent campaigns are sudden and swift, like the “endgames” in Tunisia and Egypt. But nonviolent resistance had been occurring for years in both Tunisia and Egypt (the Egyptian campaign was actually about 8 years old, and the Tunisian campaign was probably more like 3 years old). In fact, the average nonviolent campaign is about 2.5 years long, and some last for decades. It would be a mistake to assume that the Syrians have exhausted nonviolent resistance as a method. On the contrary, the conflict has only just begun.
  3. Humor has played a large role in the uprising. For instance, I heard one story in which Syrian security forces “massacred” some donkeys to punish or terrorize members of the uprising. A video is here (note: it’s graphic). But this action backfired, as crowds now invoke this massacre to taunt security forces, saying “Look at the Assads…they massacre their own relatives!” Pretty clever response. In another instance, activists mock Assad’s accusations that they are terrorists by bringing large tubes to protests. They put firecrackers inside them, even as snipers open fire upon them, and mock them by setting off the firecrackers to show that they have no weapons and are not terrorists. It’s a smart tactic that’s meant to poke fun at Assad while demonstrating to the security forces that his accusations are lies.
  4. Some rock-throwing has occurred, but experienced activists are trying to prevent it from happening. At one event, 10,000 protestors gathered to participate. Some of them started throwing rocks at security forces, and pretty soon, the number of protestors dropped to 2,000. This shows the importance of maintaining nonviolent discipline for maintaining a high level of participation and long-term mobilization. When public protests remain nonviolent, people stay; when things turn “thuggish,” people go home.
  5. Like I’ve heard from people involved in many other ongoing conflicts, some Syrian activists argue that nonviolent resistance simply can’t succeed against someone as brutal as Assad, whose associates remain relentlessly loyal and whose torturers relish their jobs. They could be right, but I remember hearing the same thing from Egyptian activists in 2007. Although there are local particularities in terms of the types of tactics that will resonate in a given conflict, most conflicts with which I am familiar share the same elements necessary for success—the need to achieve broad-based participation, the ability to make repression backfire, the need for loyalty shifts within the opponent regime (including security forces, business elites, and civilian bureaucrats), the need for tactical diversity, complementing methods of concentration with methods of dispersion, the importance of massive noncooperation in ushering in the endgame, and patience. My guess (although I could be wrong) is that it will be the same in Syria.
  6. I’ve heard very few people talk about ways that Assad can be coaxed into giving up (as opposed to being forced out). Many people want to simply punish Assad, seeing it as a battle to the death. I’m sure that he sees it the same way, and is therefore very unlikely to budge unless he receives guarantees that he (and his family) will live and prosper once his rule is over. It might be time for foreign governments to think about what kind of golden parachute Assad would need to leave. I suspect it would need to be a pretty sweet deal, including immunity, and extended vacation in a really nice locale, and guarantees of prosperity for his family, etc. It’s insulting to typical views of justice, but given the rising costs of the ongoing struggle, a golden parachute along these lines should at least be on the table.

I left feeling like the next few weeks are going to be critical for the direction of the uprising. It is hard to see where it will go, but it seems like there is no going back for Assad. What would “normal” look like in Syria, after all that has happened there over the past six months? If you’re not subscribed to the Syrian Revolution News Round-Up, you can do so here. It’s a great resource.

Govt Reactions in the Arab Spring

18 Sep

The Middle East Institute published a report on this topic, the second volume in a series on the Arab Spring. You can download it here. Yours truly authored one of the essays.


Yemeni Woman Faces Down Gunfire

16 Sep

Remember Yemen? Yes, it’s still on:

h/t/ to Peter Rutland.

Red Team, Blue Team: Simulating a Successful Nonviolent Resistance

12 Sep

If you are an activist in an authoritarian regime today, you need a plan–and a good one. With regimes threatening to drive pro-democracy resistance movements underground, it would be useful for opposition leaders to know their options, the different risk profiles of those options, and the variety of potentially effective methods they could use to avoid repression while keeping the momentum of the movement going.

Back in the days when I worked in emergency medical services (a long time ago), I participated in mass casualty-incident scenarios to learn how to effectively deploy our resources, anticipate and deal with curveballs (since nothing ever goes according to plan), and figure out how to save the most lives when real incidents occurred. Although simulations almost never go the way you plan, they give you opportunities to respond to unplanned events, which turns out to be as important as having a good plan in the first place. Moreover, lots of creative thinking can emerge out of these types of sessions. Well-designed red team/blue team exercises can help people to experience and prepare for a number of different scenarios without having to experience any of the adverse consequences of making mistakes in real life.

Military, marketing, and IT personnel often spend considerable time and energy on red team/blue team “games,” or “battlefield scenarios” that they use to map out strategy and to anticipate and respond to unforeseen events in constructive ways. The “red team” is often the one hatching up a plot to engage the opponent (e.g., a terrorist attack against a the US), and the “blue team” is given limited information with which to stop the red team within a given time frame (e.g., a way to thwart the attack). Red team/blue team exercises allow officers and strategists to develop a skill that is crucial for a successful nonviolent resistance: the ability to outmaneuver the opponent under adverse conditions.

Militaries and corporations often have massive resources and personnel to devote to simulations. They sometimes fly in “subject experts” to help design and implement the scenarios. Now, most civilians in most countries don’t have backgrounds in conducting red team/blue team exercises, nor are they in a position to “practice” nonviolent resistance in the streets or to fly in experienced activists to help them develop these skills. But when the stakes are high, as they are in Syria and many other places today, a few big strategic mistakes could end the movement.

How can nonviolent resistance movements strategize without subjecting themselves to detection or repression?

One way do so is by playing People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance. Developed by York Zimmerman and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, this game allows people to develop a scenario where their opponent in the game approximates their opponent in real life. The site says:

People Power is about politics, about strategy and about social change. As a leader of a popular movement you fight against tough adversaries who control the police, the army and bureaucracy, even the media. The only weapon in your hand is your strategic skill and ingenuity.

The game can be used by activists to develop strategic skills and experience in facing a militarily superior adversary. Part of the idea is to allow people to get used to making strategic mistakes (like choosing the same, predictable method over and over again, or failing to communicate the campaign’s message to a wider audience) against brutal opponents without winding up in prison.

It’s $10, but they will make exceptions.

Now, importantly, I wouldn’t suggest that playing a video game (if they could even access it in the first place) is going to improve oppositions’ chances against brutal dictators. That would be an especially arrogant and irritating claim.

But in the long term, I do think that strategic planning (and strategic thinking) is a crucial element to a successful nonviolent resistance. If activists today can improve those skills by playing a game, they should. If they don’t find a tool like this useful, they should invest some time in figuring out another way to do it. As Winston Churchill said, “Those who plan do better than those who do not plan even though they rarely stick to their plan.” He would know.

Wednesday Roll Call: Rational Stuff I Like

7 Sep

Al Giordano and crew announce the NYC Workshop on Organizing Journalism and Civil Resistance. Apply here.

Activists create an interactive map of the 43 prisons in Burma, where human rights and pro-democracy activists are currently imprisoned.

Israelis invoke Tahrir Square symbols and imagery in their 400,000-strong protests against wage inequality.

Syrians keep the pressure on, with more security force defections as a result.

The Diplomat’s Handbook is updated, with several new case studies available.

Activists in Tehran show disdain for the regime and break taboos by engaging in water fights. The regime blames the West.




Vacation Rebel: Why Chris Jeon is Not a Rational Insurgent

6 Sep

Many of you have no doubt heard about Chris Jeon, the young UCLA student who flew to Libya two weeks ago to fight alongside Libyan rebels. In case you missed it, here’s a sum-up from Spencer Ackerman (h/t to Maria Stephan):

Photo credit: Bradley Hope/The National

Bradley Hope, a reporter covering Libya’s uprising, writes in Abu Dhabi newspaper The National that he recently made a curious discovery near An Nawfaliyah: Chris Jeon, a 21-year old University of California–Los Angeles math student. That’s Jeon in the picture above, very unsafely resting his rifle on the ground with the barrel pointed up while his new buddies crowd around. Spoiler: He doesn’t have any military experience.

Why’d he make the long trek from L.A. to L-iby-A? “It is the end of my summer vacation, so I thought it would be cool to join the rebels,” Jeon told Hope. “This is one of the only real revolutions.”

In the following video, you can hear Jeon say “I did it because of the action, because of the fighting.”

A couple of thoughts:

1. Silly as Jeon sounds, it’s refreshing to hear a young man be truthful about his motives in joining in the fight. In fact, I suspect that his desires for “action” and “fighting” are pretty common, though others conceal those motives under “grand designs” that sound less selfish. But Jeon’s motives are pretty a-strategic. They suggest he essentially joined the fight because he wanted to fight. Why not, “I wanted to help liberate them from tyranny,” or “I wanted to bring justice to an oppressed people?” We hear the latter often. It makes me wonder: how many Chris Jeons are there in the world who say they want to achieve some political goal, even though they really just want to see battle, look cool posing with guns, and (maybe) shoot some people with impunity? Jessica Stern wrote a piece a few years back arguing that global jihad was a fad, like ganster rap. Maybe Jeon was trying to be a trend-setter for a new fad: vacation rebel.

2. Although Jeon claims that “action” and “excitement” were his motivations, I don’t know whether that’s the full story. If he wanted those, he could just join the U.S. military. Boot camp probably involves more “action” than he experienced in the Libyan revolution (which, like any war, must have had considerable periods of mind-numbing monotony). It’s also quite a bit more lucrative, including steady pay, signing bonuses, educational benefits, heaps of camaraderie, etc. My guess is that he was less interested in “action” and more interested in notoriety. For instance, Jeon wasn’t bothered by the fact that he didn’t understand what his Libyan comrades were saying to him, nor did he care whether they understood English. Notoriety doesn’t come easily in the military, but it does if you’re the only LA jersey-wearing hood in newly-liberated Libya. He also arrived after Tripoli had fallen. Pretty bad timing if you want to take part in the revolution.

3. Jeon’s story illustrates what I see as a massive challenge for civil resistance scholars and practitioners, as well as policymakers interested in encouraging civil resistance. That challenge is convincing people who want to use violence for violence’s sake (or for notoriety’s sake, perhaps) that nonviolent resistance is a superior strategic choice. Jeon apparently believes that notoriety, action, and excitement can only come from running around in armed camps, firing Kalashnikovs in the air. But these practices serve no strategic purpose and, unfortunately, can ultimately undermine strategic gains if they continue for long enough. This type of behavior does not lead to strategic success. Instead, it leads to personal or ego fulfillment. Because of that, it’s very difficult to persuade such characters to put down the gun and think strategically about how to take on a militarily superior opponent — a process that usually reveals the need for an asymmetric approach involving civil resistance methods, which tend to work more often than not. Many civil resistance movements in the future will be challenged by this problem: they will have to convince people in their societies to maintain nonviolent discipline, even though lots of people are itching to use violence because the opportunity seems to be presenting itself. Someday I want to conduct some research on how to persuade people in this category to have a more neutral — or at least instrumental — approach to violence. This would make them use it more thoughtfully and, in all probability, more sparingly (if at all). I’ll have to wait until I have tenure to write that book.

Regardless, taking his own word for it, I can conclude with some certainty that Chris Jeon’s vacation rebel approach disqualifies him from being a rational insurgent.