The Myths of Counterterrorism

USAF Photo by MSFT Terry L. Belvins 030215-F-5712B-020.


The most recent controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s far-right political appointees concerns Sebastian Gorka, former editor of Brietbart News, friend to Stephen Bannon, and husband to a member of Trump’s transition team and fellow Breitbart contributor Katherine Gorka (“Our pillow talk is the Islamic State and Al Qaeda,” he once confided).

As in the previous cases of Stephen Bannon and Michael Flynn, the uproar over Gorka’s appointment is certainly justified. The new Deputy Assistant to the President, self-described “alpha male,” and member of Bannon’s Strategic Initiatives Group believes the United States is a “Christian nation” that is at war with a global jihadi movement “rooted in the doctrines and martial history” of Islam itself.

He likens allowing in refugees to “suicide” and thinks profiling Muslims is “common sense.” Gorka has also defended the mass surveillance of Muslims carried out by the New York Police Department’s now-defunct Demographics Unit.

Gorka’s views on the relationship between terrorism and religion and the role religious ideology supposedly plays in creating terrorists have not endeared him to many national security and counterterrorism experts. Much of the media coverage of Gorka has focused on his “fringe” and “peripheral” ideas outside the bounds of respectable, mainstream opinion.

Several national security experts interviewed by Politico admitted they had never even heard of Gorka. The experts who had heard of Gorka never had anything nice to say. A former CIA analyst told the Washington Post that Gorka is considered “nuts.” Stephen Walt, a professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, claimed Gorka did not have “much of a reputation in serious academic or policymaking circles.”

In a blistering op-ed in the New York Times, Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin, national security and counterterrorism experts, called Gorka “a huckster weak on jihadist history and doctrine and unaware of what his own government has learned over decades.”

Gorka himself has been content to repay the favor to these experts. He claims to “jettison” the view that issue of terrorism is “nuanced and complicated.” Anyone who “downplays the role of religious ideology,” he says, is “deleting reality to fit their own world.” In a recent interview, he was even more forthright. “We’re not going to listen to so-called terrorism experts who were linked in any way to the last eight years of disastrous counterterrorism,” he told NPR.

This acrimony between Gorka and counterterrorism experts suggests that the new Deputy Assistant to the President is an outcast from his field, derided by experts whose scholarship he questions and who in turn banish him from their storied ranks, labeling him a “fake terrorism expert.” This is only partially true.

Gorka may be explicit about his anti-Muslim animus and rhetoric and the need for a civilizational war against Islam but the counterterrorism industry has promoted its own share of Islamophobic expertise and programs which assume—in theory or in practice—the centrality of Islam in understanding terrorism and “radicalization.”

Indeed, Gorka’s extreme views are only the logical conclusion of the research and “expertise” of much of the counterterrorism industry, which seeks to deflect attention away from understanding the terror threat to the U.S. as a form of political violence in response to U.S. foreign policy and military interventions. Meanwhile it identifies Muslim communities as supposed incubators of a religious ideology which actively cultivates this threat.

Such erroneous assumptions form the basis for a wide range of counterterror program focused on surveilling and policing the thoughts and actions of Muslims while lending credence to the crass and brazenly Islamophobic ravings of individuals like Gorka.

Consider the idea that Islam predisposes its followers to violence and terrorism. This contention is not limited to outright bigots like Gorka. Such a link is pervasive in counterterror programs. Religious piety and observance are taken to be indicators of “radicalization,” itself a dubious concept that tries to chart the path individuals take to violent extremism.

The FBI’s 2006 report “The Radicalization Process,” for example, listed mosques, prisons, universities, places of employment, and internet chat rooms as potential venues “where radicalization can occur,” as if Muslims in all of these spaces were somehow prone to becoming terrorists. The next year, a report by the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division added “cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, … student associations, nongovernmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores” to the list and claimed every Muslim was in a “pre-radical” stage. More recently, a classified FBI survey called “Indicators of Mobilization to Violence” included “religious observance” as a factor contributing to the likelihood of someone becoming a terrorist.

Gorka is not alone in thinking that Islam or its supposed mutations are the driving force behind the threat of terrorism to the United States. This evidence-free assertion is reflected in the overwhelming focus on Muslim communities in programs such as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).

This obsession with Islam and Muslims is certainly sustained by an inflated threat of terror, as some observers say, but it does perform an important function.

As numerous intelligence assessments and government reports have concluded, U.S. wars and military interventions abroad play a critical role in the rise of terrorist groups and “homegrown extremists.” There is always a need to justify these policies, place the blame elsewhere, and attempt to contain the blowback. This is the narrow focus taken on by so-called terrorism experts. The entire discipline is driven by the need to dissociate terrorism from U.S. policies and attempt to reduce the threat of the former while justifying the latter.

It is no wonder some of these experts themselves describe their academic field as “stagnant, poorly conceptualized, lacking in rigor, and devoid of adequate theory, data, and methods.” This is the natural result of the circumscribed nature of the discipline, driven by an overriding concern for the national security priorities of the United States.

Gorka is a useful target for such experts, who can conveniently mock his views while avoiding all introspection about their own contribution to enabling him and others like him. He may be a brazen and unabashed bigot but many of his views are at home in the counterterrorism industry, adorned in a pseudo-scientific garb. The refusal to treat “terrorism” as a form of political violence in all its complexity, the failure to examine its relationship with the violence of the United States, and the assumption that Muslim communities are the source of extremist ideology are not unique to Gorka.

Indeed, it seems plausible that the unrelenting criticism of Gorka from terrorism experts is itself merely a sign that they see too much of themselves in him.