Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Scott Atran on Defeating Al-Qaeda

Jonathon Rosen
(Image from New York Times)

The anthropologist Scott Atran has an op-ed piece, "To Beat Al Qaeda, Look to the East," in New York Times (December 12, 2009) that's worth reading. I've read elsewhere that the US Military has contracted professional anthropologists as paid advisors to obtain insights into local culture so as to help defeat insurgencies and engage in state-building. I suppose that such advice is enlightening . . . though from my experience at academic conferences, I wonder if two different scholars can agree on anything.

Scott Atran, however, doesn't have a position with the US Military, though he has apparently received research funding through the US Defense Department. His professional positions are as an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, at John Jay College, and at the University of Michigan. He has recently authored Listen to the Devil . . . whatever the hell that title might signify. Listen to the devil we don't know? It's forthcoming, and I've not seen a synopsis, but he has other books already published.

Anyway, the crux of Atran's argument on how to defeat Al-Qaeda reduces to his focus on three critical factors that bind terrorist networks together and that can therefore be utilized for rooting them out and tearing them apart. He gives the example of success in Southeast Asia, specifically Indonesia, whose security forces killed Noordin Muhammad Top, head of Al Qaeda for the Malaysian Archipelago (a splinter group of the Islamist organization Jemaah Islamiyah), and he lists these three factors in that context:
First is friendship forged through fighting: the Indonesian volunteers who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan styled themselves the Afghan Alumni, and many kept in contact when they returned home after the war. The second is school ties and discipleship: many leading operatives in Southeast Asia come from a handful of religious schools affiliated with Jemaah Islamiyah. Out of some 30,000 religious schools in Indonesia, only about 50 have a deadly legacy of producing violent extremists. Third is family ties; as anyone who has watched the opening scene from "The Godfather" knows, weddings can be terrific opportunities for networking and plotting.
He then describes how the three factors were applied, but you can read the article for that. What I find interesting is that in the entirety of his long and insightful op-ed piece, Atran never uses the term "Islam" or even "Islamism," as though Islamist ideology played no role. Perhaps he ignores it because it plays little role in the practical job of rooting out terrorist networks? One need only follow up the links of friends, school, and family? That might work once a terrorist has already been identified, but where would one go about looking for terrorism in the first place? The friendships were formed during jihad (the fighting in Afghanistan), the schools taught Islamist ideology, and the families undoubtedly raised up a child in the radicalized Islamic way he 'should' go. Moreover, the defeat of Al-Qaeda is only one battle in the defeat of various Islamist groups and, more importantly, in the defeat of Islamist ideology.

But I don't fault Professor Atran for avoiding these larger issues. He's focusing on a practical problem, rooting out Al-Qaeda, and pointing toward a way to do so. Moreover, the three factors that he notes might offer some predictive power as to where Islamist ideology might lead to terrorist acts. Islamism doesn't inspire every Muslim to terrorism -- and not even every Islamist. Where, then, can we expect terrorists to emerge? Follow up the links of friendship, schools, and families.

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At 10:20 AM, Blogger Sperwer said...

I think it may understandable that Atran doesn't say anything about Islam or Islamism. Given that he's an anthropologist, he may subscribe to or been influenced by the current trends in the study of ritual that heavily derogate the significance of the ideological content that supposedly motivates it and that it is supposed (merely) to represent. Following Catherine Bell (and others), many would now emphasize "ritualization" as a performative activity as being more significant (in all senses of the word) than "ritual", considered as it was traditionally as a kind of object. Seen from this perspective, the belief content of ritual is much less inherently efficacious and hence important than we intellectual types would like to believe and the "socializing" that goes on about such belief content looms infinitely larger.

Just some thoughts. I only came across Bell's work recently in connection with my research into medieval Korean buddhism. The last time I studied this ritual stuff it was with Victor Turner 35 years ago.

BTW, I was going to commend the latest issue of Acta Koreana to you for a review of the Shinga book, then I saw it was by YOU. Congratulations!

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that Atran's also following Marc Sageman's lead (or vice-versa) in arguing that ideology plays a minor role in radicalizing terrorists, that the real factor is friendship connections.

These two have a point, and it's backed up by some evidence, but it leaves me wondering why the Islamists are producing so many terrorists (especially suicide terrorists) compared to other ideologies. Is it all just just due to friendly connections?

By the way, thanks for letting me know about Acta Koreana. I hadn't heard anything since I sent the article in. I hope that they haven't heavily edited it. I didn't even see any galley proofs!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:38 AM, Blogger Sperwer said...

Well, obviously, the ideology - more precisely, how the ideology is interpreted and presented - plays a role; I don;t think that is being denied. But I think these folks are arguing that it's how it is embedded in social activity that is the dispositive factor in turning people into actors, in this case, terrorists - sort of like drunks learning to get sober: not by "contemplating" the message of AA's book, but simply reading and reciting it as a kind of talismanic exercise that bonds members with one another in the larger "active" disciplines of not drinking and going to meetings. In other words the AA book is less important for what it actually says than for its utilization as a ritual object - sort of like the manner in which some buddhists actually worship texts rather than actually read them.

At 11:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The means of bonding probably do play such a role. Ritual behavior acted out in unison likely does bond those participating (for even such nonritual behavior as work bonds the participants . . . they've got jeong!). And hiving off into a smaller group of friends who build tighter bonds and head in a radical direction would help explain why some Muslims become radicalized (and not others).

The question is more specifically why some groups become radicalized. The answer is probably that they are led into a radicalized direction by someone already radicalized. Radicals radicalize others. That explains the connections among friends, schools, and families -- one usually needs contact with radicals to become a radical.

Rituals enacted in unison are one of the means available to radicals intent on radicalizing others. There probably aren't many 'radical' individualists who are terrorists -- though the Unabomber might have been an exception.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:24 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

I want to think on your third paragraph in light of some of my own experiences. When I was in college I knew some of the Weather People (before they actually became such, though) and took weapons practice with a couple of them in the basement of a building near the university where the radical press that published a lot of movement literature was organized. I was more interested in just firing off guns than anything else though and, while interested in some of the ideas and debates in which they engaged, found them to be insufferable and faintly ridiculous as individuals. Is that all that saved me from becoming a wingnut?

At 12:46 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The real reason that you escaped leftwing wingnut status, of course, is that you were genuine working class, whereas the 60s radicals were all merely working-class wannabes. You had no need to stick around with that group.

I guess that all of us from that time went through our radical phase . . . though mine was limited to growing my hair long and rebelling against my Baptist upbringing and against Baylor University's social codes (which, my being a hillbilly, wasn't too difficult to achieve).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:10 AM, Blogger John B said...

Perhaps Atran is focused more on applying behavioral-type anthropology, rather than cultural stuff? Groups as self-organizing systems and all that stuff; I know virtually nothing on the topic but his diction has that kind of vibe (my hobby is reading technical discourse on topics I know nothing about). Wikipedia claims he is based in evolutionary psychology.

Wikipedia has some interesting links, which I would read more closely if it weren't finals week for me.

Fairly relevant is here: "[Several prominent atheists] ignored the vast body of empirical data and analysis of terrorism — a phenomenon they presented as a natural outgrowth of religion."

Implicit is the argument that Islamic terrorism has little to do with religion or a rational ideology. But, it's not fair to consider him too much without reviewing his academic publications.

At 5:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, thanks for the comment. I noticed that Atran has a lot of articles on terrorism, and I made a mental note to take a closer look, for his article in the NYT showed me that he's someone to take seriously.

Jeffery Hodges

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