Rethinking Terrorism; a reveiw of Open Source Jihad


Terrorism and terrorism studies seem to have taken a back seat in the public consciousness of late. At least it appears to have in regards to the subject of National Security. Most governments have shifted focus back to great power confrontations and the desire to escape from the long wars we have been fighting for the last 18 years and focus instead on the more familiar aspect of state on state traditional maneuver warfare. However, terrorist and terrorist attacks still occur and with the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIS – although I prefer the term DAESH which is the Arabic version of the acronym and has a distinctly negative connotation – this group will likely return to its more traditional, and potentially more dangerous, role as an insurgent terrorist organization from that of a pseudo-state. So we are likely to see an undercurrent of terrorism studies persist. As such, it is important to continuously question the methodology academics use to insure the best possible research is being conducted. Open Source Jihad: Problematizing the Academic Discourse on Islamic Terrorism in Contemporary Europe, takes a meta-analysis of the academic pursuit. Not looking at terrorism itself but attempting to quantify our attempts to study this phenomenon effectively.

Per Erik Nilsson, the author, spends a significant amount of time lamenting at best and berating at worst, the inconsistency of definitions for terrorism and terrorist used in research. He seems to be advocating for an a priori definition to all aspects and component parts of the definition; which would make any article written extremely awkward. It would be similar to defining every number in every math equation the way the math equation “1+1=2” was proven by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell in the Principia Mathematica, which took them some several hundred pages.

In discussing a definition of terrorism he quotes from Richard Jackson “terrorism is just one among several repertoires of political conflict,”a statement with which I agree. Most authors forget or are confused by the fact terrorism, in and of itself, is not an ideology but a tactic used in the spectrum of conflict.

As for a definition of terrorist “in Europe the category seems largely to have been reserved for leftist guerrillas and separatist movements but not for right-wing groups… including racists, neo-fascists, and paramilitary groups and right-wing dictators”; this also appears to be the case in the United States. Seldom does the media, or especially the present administration, refer to right-wing groups or Neo-Nazis as terrorists despite their actions and activities.

Nilsson bemoans the fact most academic studies of terrorism fail to discuss or examine the phenomenon of “state terrorism” when discussing terrorism. It can be logically argued “state terrorism” is a distinct aspect of terrorism and studying it separately from “insurgent terrorism” can be distinctly useful. Therefore, although the point that the use of the tactic of terrorism by states likely should be pursued by academics; it does not necessarily follow its inclusion in studies and texts devoted to insurgent usage would be useful. In fact, the two subjects and the debate of their use could very well distract from each other.

Additionally, the author claims a bias in modern terrorism studies and bases this assertion on the focus many terrorism scholars place on the radicalization of adherents to a terrorist cause. Nilsson asserts modern terrorism studies place too high an emphasis on radicalization; and old or pre-modern terrorism studies rarely delveled into this topic. Although he quotes other aspects and sources from Walter Laqueur et al, Nilsson seems to forget the in depth study and books released with Laqueur’s research into the development, indoctrination, and radicalization of leftist terrorists.

Nilsson also takes umbrage with the focus on the religious aspect of Islamism in modern terrorism studies. Quoting from a study of 172 Islamic terrorist groups by Marc Sageman“only 17% of the terrorists had an Islamic education; only 18%of terrorists showed any religious devotion as youths; 13% of terrorist s indicated they were inspired to join solely on the basis of religious beliefs; increased religious devotion appeared to be an effect of joining the terrorist group, not the cause of it.” – Nilsson attempts to make the argument Islamism is probably more a revolutionary ideology than a religious one. While there is little debate modern radical Islamic terrorism contains a strong bent of revolutionary ideology (one just needs to see the constant desire to overthrow existing regimes and cultures) it is highly debatable there is little to no religious aspect; as there appears to be a large increase in religious devotion after the act of joining and indoctrination into these groups.

Another misplaced argument is presented using the research of Michael Mann from his book Incoherent Empire. Mann argues Osama Bin Laden was not concerned with the United States or Western culture but rather with their imperialism. If the United States had not intervened in the Gulf War, Bin Laden would not have cared about the West, nor once they did, did he care about overthrowing them. Rather he was concerned with removing the infidel from the land of the two holy places (Saudi Arabia). Therefore, the United States continued involvement led directly to the creation of DAESH. However, this completely ignores the language in Bin Laden’s Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Sites in which he derides the western culture for inflicting the evils imposed on the Muslim people. He is the first to explicitly blame the west and decided the most expedient action to right the balance in dar al Islam was to directly remove the influence of the west by attacking the United States. In essence, to remove Western cultural as any influence on Islam and the Middle East. This is in direct contradiction to Mann’s assertion Bin Laden – and subsequent militant Islamic terrorists – would leave the United States alone if it wasn’t physically in the Middle East.

A valid point raised, however, is, in general, the need to be more precise in the terminology we are using and – where necessary – ensure it is as accurate as possible. The misuse of terms or being more precise with more general terms; or ones which are highly nuanced (the author rightly brings up Salafi jihadism as an example) does not further the study and harms understanding. The author himself unfortunately becomes guilty of this at points in his piece. For example, when he suggests that based on how an argument is presented, a reader must ascertain the question of violence can only be assumed and therefore certain ideologies are inherently violent. This is not necessarily the case as an informed reader could reach the conclusion the question has not been sufficiently researched to provide an answer. Or when he makes the simple mistake of claiming the opposite of extremist is moderate when, depending on usage, the antonym could just as easily be considered conservative.

Continuing his investigation in the study of terrorism and how it relates to state sponsored terrorism, Nilsson lists several aspects he asserts are perpetual workings of the terms “objective violence” with regard to state terrorism and are under studied. These include the patriarchal structure of the state, racial discrimination, economic exploitation, and social inequalities. All of these are considered abnormal by most social scientists and are examples of aberration of good order in a society. State sponsored terrorism perpetrated against a rival state has a specifically different characteristic from either non-state terrorists or terrorism utilized internally by a state against its own citizens. Again not considering these uses of the tactic of terror as a separate area of study, Nilsson also fails to address what the significance of attempting to include these aspects in the separate area of academic research dealing with non-state terrorism, either of a religious or other ideological construct, would accomplish. Most likely it would add further confusion and complications in focusing and defining the issue; as he so rightly observes should be an ongoing part of the process of the academic research.

Nilsson also questions the accountability not only of official investigations and study of terrorism within governmental structures; but also its relation to the academic input into the accountability question. He rightly brings up a quote from Christos Boukalas “the secret character of relevant knowledge cancels the possibility of popular input in decision-making, its scientific nature renders it immune from accountability”. The question of accountability and the possible misuse of the information by politicians and senior policy-makers has been argued throughout the development of terrorism studies since the failures of 9/11. The frustration by those within counter-terrorism and terrorism studies to the claim of “faulty intelligence” harkens back to ongoing concerns and the old adage – often quoted by senior policy makers – to either claim an operations success came down to “tactical success” or “intelligence failure” and the misuse or obfuscation of sources should not be discounted when questioning accountability.

Overall, Nilsson concludes critical terrorism studies (CTS) is “a call for a much more rigorous and sensitive research” which is a point I would argue is valid and needed for a plethora of political, historical and military research. However, his insistence in absolute conformity by the scholarship of terrorism is unrealistic. In fact such conformity would likely hinder rather than clarify the study of terrorism.

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