‘Terrorism Analysts’, Do They Really Exist?

Last week Glenn Greenwald and Daniel Trombly went through the academic exercise of trying to define what a ‘terrorism expert’ is or isn’t. Greenwald took the stance as titled in his article, ‘The sham “terrorism expert” industry’ that the expertise, false in nature, is built on financing the big machine that makes money off of scare tactics. Essentially terrorism, as defined by Greenwald, does not exist, it’s largely the effect of miscalculated US foreign policy. Regardless of the chain of events that lead to such atrocities, the acts of terrorism and their victims unfortunately cannot be mistaken. Casting blanket blame on those who try to make sense of despicable acts perpetrated by various groups disparages the hard and serious work of people trying to define a very complex issue with ideological, political, economic, sociological, and military facets. Most people who work in the field of counterterrorism are not responsible for the entire fiscal budget built around protecting the United States from terrorism. However, I do agree with Greenwald in that the threat of terrorist activity is all too often used as a convenient bogeyman used to justify unjustifiable things. As a country, we have over-reacted to the threat of terrorism and continue to fund a massive industry to protect us from that amorphous threat. Greenwald writes:

Many of the benefits from keeping Terrorism fear levels high are obvious. Private corporations suck up massive amounts of Homeland Security cash as long as that fear persists, while government officials in the National Security and Surveillance State can claim unlimited powers, and operate with unlimited secrecy and no accountability. In sum, the private and public entities that shape government policy and drive political discourse profit far too much in numerous ways to allow rational considerations of the Terror threat.

At some point the United States will have to understand that, just like the rest of the world, we can be vulnerable to the acts of individuals and groups that adhere to extremist ideologies even inside the United States. We can’t build a bubble that will protect us from everything; and those that would promise us such a bubble are incapable of delivering it, particularly when each promise comes at the expense of the rights and liberties on which the United States was founded. This is a refrain that security experts like Bruce Schneier often make, but often gets drown out by the very bureaucracies and industries that stand to profit from the impossible promise of absolute security.

That being said, part and parcel of this ‘terrorism expert’ industry. Greenwald expresses his concern over this group by writing:

But there’s a very similar and at least equally important (though far less discussed) constituency deeply vested in the perpetuation of this fear. It’s the sham industry Walt refers to, with appropriate scare quotes, as “terrorism experts,” who have built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism and can stay relevant only if that threat does.

Based on my experience as a counter-terrorism analyst and the Chief Targeting Officer hunting Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi at the CIA, I think that Daniel Trombly, who authored a rebuttal (‘What’s Glenn Greenwald’s Problem?’) to Greenwald, makes an excellent point worth acknowledging and considering:

…terrorism is a problematic subject of inquiry, but it is still a subject of inquiry (many so-called terrorism experts in fact identify themselves as, say, political scientists or historians that specialize in terrorism, rather than disciples of “terrorism studies” per se), and those who study it extensively may offer insights others do not grasp.

Terrorism is both a strategy and a tactic. Serious practitioners who are described as “terrorism experts” tend to see themselves as much in the same way that an economist might think of him or herself. Someone who understands general market forces and economic principles in one domain would be hard pressed to assert the same degree of expertise in another: an expert in Chinese macro-economic policy likely would be loath to speak authoritatively on market forces affecting soybean production in Argentina’s agricultural sector.

Significantly, true expertise in domains such as terrorism requires “time on target” (the amount of time needed to be conversational with the issue and the information that informs the collective understanding of the issue; it is worth noting that people such as Malcom Gladwell assert that this comes at about the 10,000 hour mark…or about five years of full-time work) and, in the case of “hard targets” such as terrorism, access to some information that simply does not exist in open sources. This is not to say that good analysis cannot happen using open sources, but rather that the scope and depth of that analysis is likely to be limited to one degree or another. Classified intelligence provides an insight into these underground groups, including all illicit networks, that open source and academic information does not contain.

Despite my experience, I would not define myself as a ‘terrorism expert’. The skills that I developed as an analyst and targeter are extensible to other domains: lately I have become interested in helping stem the flow of human trafficking in the US. I don’t have the subject matter expertise of groups like Shared Hope or the FAIR Girls effort, but I know enough about weighing data, developing and following leads, framing out networks and depicting the relationships between nodes, and telling compelling narratives that I think I can make a small but useful contribution to the ongoing fight.

3 thoughts on “‘Terrorism Analysts’, Do They Really Exist?

  1. Dear Ms. Bakos. Great post. I would say that I agree with most of your points, namely about the nature and seriousness of the “terrorist threat”, or about Trombly’s point (which you quote) about the very real value of much analysis that “terrorism experts” produce.
    However, I would add that Greenwald’s main critique of “terrorism experts”, at least to my understanding, is that their work often appears highly ideological since it tends (often without any kind of serious arguments to explain such a position) to define “terrorism” in ways that focus on what official enemies do while being essentially silent about “our terrorism”. For a “counterterrorism” practitioner, focusing only on specific actors does of course make perfect sense. As a scholarly field however, such a stance tends to deprive it of much credibility, especially when considered from abroad, from countries that have had encounters with “terrorism” that greatly differ from the American experience.
    It was to illustrate how this has worked in one specific historical case, namely US policies in El Salvador in the 1980s, that Greenwald quoted my research in his original post. Foreign Policy Magazine published my reply to Trombly’s post on this topic here:

    I hope you will find this of interest.

    And again, congratulations on a very interesting post.


    Rémi Brulin

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