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The Plasticity of the Islamic Activist: Notes from Counterterrorism Literature

The Plasticity of the Islamic Activist: Notes from Counterterrorism Literature

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Published by Isaac Matson



Western intelligence analysts fight an uphill battle to avoid parochial habits of thought

that lump diverse Islamist identities together. The recent counterterrorism literature

gives us tools for understanding a wide spectrum of Islamists, by focusing attention

on what they say about themselves rather than on the intelligence labels we must

ultimately assign to them.



Western intelligence analysts fight an uphill battle to avoid parochial habits of thought

that lump diverse Islamist identities together. The recent counterterrorism literature

gives us tools for understanding a wide spectrum of Islamists, by focusing attention

on what they say about themselves rather than on the intelligence labels we must

ultimately assign to them.

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Published by: Isaac Matson on Nov 24, 2012
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Studies in Conflict & Terrorism
, 32:389–405, 2009Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLCISSN: 1057-610X print / 1521-0731 onlineDOI: 10.1080/10576100902827972
The Plasticity of the Islamic Activist:Notes from the Counterterrorism Literature
MATTHEW HERBERT
United States Department of the Army
Western intelligence analysts fight an uphill battle to avoid parochial habits of thought that lump diverse Islamist identities together. The recent counterterrorism literaturegives us tools for understanding a wide spectrum of Islamists, by focusing attentionon what they say about themselves rather than on the intelligence labels we must ultimately assign to them. The main challenge for analysts is not the brute diversityof Islamist types, but their plasticity—the Islamist’s flexible inhabitation of distinct,sometimes contradictory, identities. Contrary to generalizations about the duplicity of all Islamists, much plasticity is due to ordinary psychological- or ideological strain— the inability to resolve divided allegiances or sustain conflicted principles. Islamist  preacher Yussef al-Qardawi and salafist group Hizb ut-Tahrir present prime examplesof ordinary Islamist plasticity. In order to understand Islamism in all its complexity,analysts should develop methods for disaggregating and evaluating key components of the Islamist persona.
An emerging body of counterterrorism literature contends that Western political leadersfundamentally misunderstand Islamism, and that, as a consequence, the West’s war onIslamic terrorism is proceeding on a wholesale mischaracterization of the enemy.
1
Tothe extent that intelligence analysts receive their starting assumptions from the prevailingpolitical culture, they are at risk of failing to identify, locate, and understand the enemy,their essential professional tasks.
2
On one set of defining assumptions, there are, crudelyspeaking, potentially hundreds of millions of individuals filling the enemy’s ranks. AnyMuslim who tolerates terrorist outrages perpetrated in the name of his religion could beconstrued as “extremist” or “radical,” willing to aid or abet terrorists in his midst. On a setof stricter assumptions, there are just a few thousand enemies—the shock troops of 
jihad 
who have shouldered weapons in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and so on. The intelligenceanalyst’s job is clearly more complicated than choosing one set of black-and-whiteassumptions over another. There are many shades of gray to be discerned. Nonetheless, thetask of locating and counting the enemy and estimating his capacity to fight will ultimatelyhinge on the clear formulation of definitions. These definitions, in turn, ought to takeinto account the actual choices, behaviors, and attitudes of Islamists in all their variety. Itcannot be the case that Islamic terrorists are simply those who are designated as such.Much of the recent counterterrorism literature critiques the assumption that eachMuslim in the world is either an extremist or a moderate, or, more broadly, that Islam
Received 10 June 2008; accepted 13 August 2008.Address correspondence to Matthew Herbert, CMR 456 Box 7, APO AE 09011. E-mail:mwherbert2002@yahoo.com
389
 
390 M. Herber
is either a religion of war or peace. It should come as no surprise that, in reality, a thousandflowers are abloom in the realm of Islamic activism: to approach such diversity with asimple with-us-or-against-us dichotomy primarily in mind is a hopeless, futile task.The cutting edge of recent counterterrorism thought challenges the with-us-or-against-us dichotomy by reference to three themes. The first one acknowledges that the data of empirical enquiry are generally messy and do not, in principle, conform to the wishes of theenquirer. Islamic activism presents just such a variegated picture. It is a globalized, diversemovement rooted in disparate ideological instincts and formed in response to particulargeographic, social, and political conditions. To believe that Islamism’s complex mixtureof elements will reduce neatly into “extremist” and “moderate” groupings is to believe anepistemologicalfairytale.Buttheintelligenceanalystisnonethelessobligatedtodrawsuchyes/no distinctions and apply clear labels that identify threats. A second theme of the recentliterature addresses this tension. It says that crucial intelligence distinctions such as the onebetween friend and foe are to be drawn at the
end 
of an intellectually responsible processof analysis and subjected to evidence-based updates—not assumed before analysis beginsand held firm for all time. Not all Islamists who adopt terrorist methods share Al Qaeda’stotalizing vision of an imposed worldwide caliphate. Many “Islamic terrorists” will turnout to be nationalists, resistance fighters, or ordinary criminals who find an advantage inbranding themselves as
jihadists
. A third theme of the recent literature acknowledges thevoice and agency of Islamists themselves in partitioning their own groups and choosing,developing, and promoting their own ideas. Muslims are not animated by, nor do theyorganize around, the paired concepts that intelligence analysts are charged to impute tothem, such as “extreme”/“moderate” or “violent”/“nonviolent.” Nor do Muslims make acrucialissueofIslam’sbeingareligionofpeaceornot.IfthesequestionsarenotforemostinthemindsofIslamicactivists,theoutsideobserverstartsoff-balancebygivingthempriority.It should be made clear at the outset that this article aims merely to warn of thegravitational pull that Western
3
leaders’ (necessarily) clear-cut policy formulations andpublic statements are likely to exert on intelligence analysts’ starting assumptions. It isnot the author’s intention to expose analytic errors already made. After developing somecritical points on which the recent counterterrorism literature converges, the article willconclude that it is the Islamic activist’s
plasticity
—his flexible inhabitation of distinct, evencontradictory, identities—and not the brute diversity of Islamist ideologies that presents thegreatest challenge to the Western intelligence analyst. The Muslim Brotherhood preacherYusef al-Qaradawi and the millenarian group Hizb ut-Tahrir serve as prime examples of this challenge. The article will not shy away from controversial findings and in fact givespride of place to the hardest-hitting of recent critiques of the Western analytic mindset,which starts from the immodest proposition that some Western governments “don’t have aclue” about Islamism and Islamic-world politics.
4
Conflicts Forum: The Cost of Not Listening
Conflicts Forum, a panel of British and American policy commentators from diplomacyand intelligence backgrounds, seeks to understand Islamism by engaging its proponentsin dialogue.
5
The group’s starting assumption is that the American (and European Union)policy of not talking to designated terrorist groups is both outdated and self-defeating.
6
Many designated terrorist groups already
have
the legitimacy that Western governmentsseek to deny them by not talking to them. Hizbullah, with its weeks-long mass rallies inBeirut, and Hamas, with its January 2006 capture of 58 percent of the Palestinian vote,
7
are exemplary cases. The Muslim Brotherhood, which backs Islamist parties throughout
 
The Plasticity of the Islamic Activist 391
the Muslim world, also has broad legitimacy as an enduring, influential source of Is-lamist thought.
8
Refusing to talk to these groups, according to Conflicts Forum, has notonly failed to deliver the desired diplomatic result—isolation—but has left Western gov-ernments “frighteningly out of touch with the principal political currents in the MiddleEast,”
9
and, by extension, the Muslim world. Instead of talking to groups with real con-stituencies, according to Conflicts Forum, Western interlocutors take their views from anisolated elite who pander to Western governments, telling them only what they want tohear.
10
The most costly consequence of Western leaders’ policy decisions in this area, forintelligence analysts, is the information deficit it creates in the area of terrorist decisionmaking.
11
By refusing to talk to suspect Islamist groups, Western leaders deny themselves andthe agencies they serve a portal view into the internal diversity of Islamic militancy. Notall terrorist groups think the same way about violence, despite the slogan endorsed byRussian president Vladimir Putin and former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznarthat all terrorists, everywhere, are the same, wishing ruin and destruction on the civilizedorder.
12
While moral clarity compels one to perceive all terrorism as uniformly wrathfuland murderous, strategic acuity compels one to acknowledge the role of rational choicebehind terrorist actions.
13
Many designated terrorist groups use the same decision-makingtemplate that state actors do in applying military force. Objectives are prioritized, meansare matched to them, and the costs and benefits of violence are weighed. Upon seeingthis pattern in Hamas’s decision-making process, one Western participant in a ConflictsForum dialogue voiced the realization that his interlocutors in Hamas were not “geneticallyencoded monsters, but hard-headed—albeit brutal—political actors who carefully choosetheirtacticsandattempttomanagetheeffectsoftheiractions.”
14
BothHamasandHizbullahareforcedbytheregionalimbalanceofmilitarypowerintheLevant toseekunconventionalmeans of mitigating their respective disadvantages. For Hamas this has meant suicidebombing and improvised Qasam rockets. For Hizbullah it has meant setting itself up asIran’s military proxy, by way of Syria. (Conflicts Forum contests this point sharply, givingample and sympathetic hearing to Hizbullah’s claim that it is fundamentally a Lebanesemovement.)
15
In both cases the adoption of terrorist tactics is a strategic choice based onmilitary reasoning.Still,manyWesternleadersandobserversarecaptivatedbytheMuslim-nessofIslamicterroristgroups,believingthattheyterrorizebecausetheyarefollowingareligiousscript.Ina March 2004 speech, then–U.K. prime minister Tony Blair judged that Islamic extremismin Chechnya, Kashmir, and Afghanistan “was not driven by a set of negotiable politicaldemands,butbyreligiousfanaticism.”
16
TheDutchpopulistpoliticianGeertWilderscauseda stir across Europe and much of the Muslim world in 2008 by producing a short filmsuggesting,amongotherthings,thatwhenMuslimscommitterroristacts,theyarefollowingthe Koran’s main directive, to subdue and eliminate infidel cultures; they are not acting on afanatical, minority interpretation of Islam. Jeffrey Imm regularly upbraids U.S. officials forfailingto“defineIslamismastherootoftheIslamicterroristthreat.
17
TerrorismresearcherLorenzo Vidino—who has testified on Islamic extremism before the U.S. Congress—interpretsAlQaeda’sattacksinEuropeascoextensivewiththeMuslimBrothers’sreligiousaspirations to “conquer” Christian territory.
18
While religious fanaticism often plays a rolein preparing individuals for terrorist operations,
19
it does not, in a significant number of cases,suffusetheterroristgroup’swholedecision-makingprocessordetermineitsstrategicoutlook. A 2008 biography of Al Qaeda strategist Abu Musab al-Suri (captured in Pakistanin 2005) shows that even leaders of his most violent of Islamic terrorist groups engagedin dispassionate operational analysis and deliberated on how to achieve optimal military

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