On threat analysis, al Qaeda, practitioners and academics

I got into the business of threat analysis over twenty years ago as a practitioner. It’s almost terrifying for me to think back now how young and clueless I was. I was poorly trained and overly excited and understanding the world around me seemed difficult but hardly impossible. Oh, the benefits of youth, when you think that you know everything, and cannot imagine how much you do not know. I say terrified to think back not simply because I am embarrassed that I was too cocky and not sufficiently aware of people – and my own – limitations and biases, but primarily because the way I performed my job could have been consequential. The privilege of life in the academia is that there is so little at stake. But when you are a practitioner somebody might actually listen to you and take action. There were many reasons for my decision to leave the bureaucracy and seek an academic career, but the growing acknowledgment of my limitations as an analyst and the sense of frustrating helplessness given high stakes was definitely one motivating factor. Looking back, that period was a good lesson in humility and one that put me in a better position to become a scholar of international security.

Fast forward a few years. The 9/11 attacks found me beginning my second year of grad school at Cornell. I heard about al-Qaeda before and was upset how something so big went under my radar. My response was quite productive. I became curious and eager to figure out more about the jihadi movement, and particularly of al Qaeda. As I had known already that my research will deal with security in the Middle East there were little opportunity costs in starting to explore jihadism. And of course I was not unaware that how events unfolded meant that suddenly my region, so ignored by the academia before, is going to have demand. Who knows, I might even be able to find a job after graduation… Despite the attraction to the study of al Qaeda the lessons from my past experience made me very apprehensive about my ability to understand the group accurately. Especially in the first couple of years after 9/11 when there was little material to work with and many many information gaps. I feared mistakes, over-confidence, and even hubris will affect me. The dominance of the unhelpful discourse of “terrorism” made the study of al Qaeda even more prone to poor results. The potential for mistakes loomed even larger because it is such a “sexy” topic that people regularly asked questions and believed that I will be able to provide good answers. It really is hard to resist the temptation to please. Fame and glory, you know. And of course the eagerness to get attention that is probably a feature of all academics is even stronger when you are a lowly graduate student.

But this post is actually not about me and my failings. It is about threat analysis in policy circles where it counts a whole lot more. By now I’ve been following al Qaeda and the rest of the jihadi movement for a long time. I know more than I did before, but the bastards keep moving and I constantly need to re-think what I know about them. It’s a very difficult task. I’m reminded of that on a daily basis. But I’m less worried about my mistakes than those of people responsible for threat analysis in national and international frameworks. Logic suggests that when states and international organizations are trying to formulate anti-terrorism policies they will engage in a thorough process of threat analysis which will then inform the measures they will take to confront the threat. But I’ve been there and although I’m sure that the current generation of threat analysts is better trained than I was back in the day, I am not sure how well they perform their job, and how much of their nuanced analysis actually makes it through the bureaucracy to the decisionmakers’ level. And I absolutely distrust the politicians that then make the policy choices.

My own research on how threat analysis works in the framework of the Security Council’s efforts to combat al Qaeda and its associate further strengthened my worries. The bottom line is that threat analysis is hard, especially when we need to understand complex and dynamic phenomena. As a student of al Qaeda and the jihadi movement I regularly struggle to understand the “nature of the beast.” But beyond my selfish worries that if I will fail to get al Qaeda right my academic career will hurt, the really worrying issue is that those in important positions may not really do everything possible to understand the threat. There is a lot at stake and I fear that politicians and practitioners, in the U.S. and elsewhere are doing a very poor job. The price for that is then paid by all of us.