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IA-Forum Interview: David Edger & James Regens

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IA-Forum: Give us a snapshot of Islamic Radicalism and Global Jihad. What were your goals for this book?

James Regens: Our motivation for writing the book really grew out of our desire in the wake of 9/11 to offer some insights into what Islamic radicalization is and how it is tied into the global jihad. Essentially, what originally was a very obscure movement, largely ignored by many people in the policy community and the public at large, as well as the media, was instantaneously transformed into a globally-recognized movement. Words like jihad and Islamic radicalism immediately entered into the everyday usage of the public. And unfortunately, but also understandably, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 much of our discussion was driven by emotion rather than analysis. I think that led to a lot of oversimplification of the motivations of the Islamic radicals who attacked the United States, of their capabilities, and their intentions towards the West and towards the Islamic countries of the Middle East or south Asia.

Our goal in writing the book was to really try to provide a rigorous and dispassionate evidence-based analysis of the actions and the statements of the jihadists in order to understand their doctrine, their strategy, and their tactics. What we hoped to do was to try to contribute to advancing understanding of Islamic radicalism and the prospects for countering radicalization. In doing that, we made a conscious decision to try to rely on publicly available open sources, to turn to primary source material in Arabic, and to look at what the weight of evidence really indicated, rather than just start from some a priori assumptions.


IA-Forum: Was there anything that surprised you about your research or that you found particularly striking?

James Regens: I think most people are familiar with the line from Santayana that those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. I think fewer people are familiar with Hegel’s comment that what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. I think one of the things that we found with both our experiences, not only ours but also our co-author, Devin Springer’s, is that it is time that we try to prove Hegel wrong. As we conducted our research, we found the need for historical perspective and careful examination of Arabic language sources to be particularly important. In fact, they were essential for understanding both the continuity and the change in the jihadist movement. I think that was really not a surprise, but rather it was something that was a really striking aspect of doing the research: how important context, evidence, and the ability to look at primary sources in Arabic and capture those nuances are to having an appreciation of the complexity and the dynamism of Islamic radicalism’s doctrine, strategy, and tactics.

David Edger: For my part, one of the things I found surprising—and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by it but I was—is that in the literature about terrorism certain supposedly factual themes would be repeated over and over again, but if you tried to actually run these statements down, they usually just came from somebody offering his views. And then they get repeated over and over again to the point that they begin to take on a seeming truthfulness, when in fact they are best guesses. And particularly when we’re talking about those of us in the West making guesses, we’re just as likely to be wrong as we are to be right. I think we have to be careful not to accept some of these statements that really are not based in fact.

James Regens: The other thing that really jumped out to me as we were doing work on the book is how frequently individuals try to impose their own perspective, their own lens, to try to force the “facts” to fit the assumptions, rather than stepping back and saying, “What do we really think we know, but more importantly, what are the things we don’t know, and what are the things we really may have difficulty ever getting at?” I think the chapter in the book that talks about the problems of generating credible intelligence focuses on some of those difficulties.


IA-Forum: What are the West's greatest misconceptions of Islamic radicalism and jihad?

David Edger: One of the reasons I wanted to work on this book is because I became somewhat disenchanted with the fact that many official statements seemed to imply that the jihadist movement was some kind of monolithic, centrally-controlled adversary that could be destroyed if you could somehow remove the top leadership. What we tried to show in the book, among other things, is that this is a very dynamic and evolving movement. [Jihadists] don’t all share the same views; there are disagreements that are aired out every day on jihadist bulletin boards. It may be comforting to simplify it and say, ‘We’re fighting against a thing that we can beat,’ but in fact, it’s a movement, and it’s very hard to fight against a social movement.

James Regens: I think the greatest misconception is the idea that individually and collectively, jihadists are driven simply by a hatred of Western democracy. In keeping with Dave’s observation, it’s a really complex phenomenon. While it might be comforting to say that it’s a simple problem with a simple answer, unfortunately, that’s not the reality. We really are facing individuals and groups that are driven by multiple motivations. They certainly wrap themselves in the language of religion, but in many regards it really is a political movement. One of the complexities is that while some of their objectives are fairly localized, others that are involved truly have regional or broader aspirations. I think that misperception that they all share the same end goal makes it very difficult to forge a winning strategy to counter them.

David Edger: One of the things we tried to point out in the book is that when we approach these guys, either in a diplomatic setting or in a confrontational setting, we have to realize that there are different types of players. In the book, we did a chart trying to show the different motivations and rationales that may underlie the adversary that we’re facing across the table. And I think we can see in the recent reactions to Obama’s speech in Cairo how these different types play out in that part of the world. We have quite different reactions depending on whose analysis of his speech you read.


IA-Forum: In the book, you discuss how important it is for jihadists to maintain popular support for their cause. Has there been any broad-based discussion among Islamic scholars aimed at reducing - or increasing - popular support for violent jihad?

David Edger: On the jihadists’ websites every day there are lengthy arguments back and forth about how to unify the believers, how to unify the radical elements in the believers to increase jihadists’ support. And they certainly don’t agree on how to do it. So I know there’s a lot of discussion, if you will, from the terrorist standpoint and the jihadist standpoint about how to increase their support. There has been discussion. But would I call it widespread? I’d stop short of that.

James Regens: There’s clearly a dialogue going on. There are also numerous monologues going on. When one uses the word Islamic scholar, I think it ranges from individuals who have really been trained at Islamic universities, to Middle East scholars who may be Western or non-Western, to self-appointed pundits. So it’s an important question, but as Dave said, it’s not something where I think there is a straightforward answer. And that may be disappointing or it may sound somewhat evasive, but I think the answer is it really depends upon who gets defined as the Islamic scholar and what their take on the movement is.


IA-Forum: If Western nations were to make concerted efforts to integrate their Muslim populations, could we expect a marked decrease in terrorist activity?

David Edger: It’s kind of a truism that integration is always better than exclusion. If we take a look at some of the examples, say in Britain, where the authorities have definitely tried to start new programs to better integrate their Pakistani and south Asian populations, I feel certain that these efforts will always produce some result. Will it be enough to keep individuals from going radical on them? No, clearly it won’t, because after all, all of us make our own decisions about whether or not we’re being excluded from society. We’ve had people in this country decide they’ve been excluded from society when to any objective observer you’d say they were fully integrated. Timothy McVeigh would be a perfect example. You can’t get more Americanized than he was and yet he felt the need to act out and put a bomb here in [Oklahoma City].


IA-Forum: Western countries are becoming more and more vulnerable to cyber-attacks on their infrastructure and businesses. Is cyber-terrorism gaining popularity among jihadists, who already make ample use of the internet and mobile technology? Or can we expect their tactics to remain more conventional?

David Edger: I know that in 2007 there was a marked attempt by certain jihadist sectors to attack websites that they considered anti-Islamic. I think the results were mixed in their ability to actually destroy those sites. That said, I just read a report the other day that said an analysis of the jihadist websites showed that they equaled in technical complexity and sophistication any websites put up by the Department of Defense. So they’re actually pretty good computer guys. Turning that around, I don’t think that cyber terrorism is ever going to be more than an irritant from [the jihadists]. I don’t see it as the kind of overwhelming attack we saw in Estonia, for example. It would have to be pretty much a government that does that.

James Regens: If you look at the use of the internet by Islamic radicals, it has been primarily for proselytizing, for disseminating propaganda, for selective training for communications, for things of that nature. On the other hand, if we look at cyber-terrorism, you’re really saying that you’re trying to target critical infrastructure, be it in the USA or in Estonia, and there the likely threat comes from a state adversary. In fact, DOD computers are under constant attempts to penetrate, many originating in the People’s Republic of China. The civilian net is pretty open to attack. Down the line we may see jihadists or other terrorist groups try cyber-terrorism. That’s a major problem, which is why the Department of Homeland Security really is making a major thrust in the area of cyber security.


IA-Forum: What are your thoughts on President Barack Obama’s recent speech in Cairo?

David Edger: I think the biggest problem that we have as a nation is to put out our own storyline to counter the narrative that Al-Qaida has very successfully placed out around the world. Obama’s speech in Cairo created tremendous turmoil inside the jihadist movement. There has been a great deal of discussion, most of it negative, but grudgingly negative in that we’ve seen people posting things that say, “This guy is a skillful adversary, he’s a great speaker, he knows how to use language to win people over,” and [we’ve seen] a lot of worry on the part of some of the jihadists that their supporters are going to be swayed by this discussion. Any time that we do something that counters that [positive] image, we’re playing into the hands of the other side.

James Regens: I think the real key is that, to the degree that it is a challenge of rhetoric versus a challenge of action, if we’re able to frame that narrative on the rhetoric side it’s far easier—not easy but easier—to try to have the terms of debate be ones that we define. I think that’s the point of Obama’s speech in Cairo creating that turmoil because he really was successful in using the language that resonated with that audience and trying to create a narrative that was a far more potentially compelling narrative for them. I think that is the way to approach it, rather than trying to use a narrative that might resonate very well with a non-Muslim audience. If your target is a Muslim audience, why not use the rhetoric that resonates with them? One of the things the jihadists have been very successful in doing is taking the language of Islam, which is commonly understood by the individuals they’re trying to recruit, and using that symbolism and that imagery to foster their own objectives.


IA-Forum: Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Obama is considering a plan that would permit Guantanamo detainees facing the death penalty to plead guilty without a full trial. This would essentially allow those charged with responsibility for the September 11th attacks to achieve martyrdom. At the same time, the plan would keep ‘questionable’ interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo from being disclosed. What effect would this have on the United States' strategy to counter global jihad?

David Edger: Obviously if people plead guilty without a trial, the reaction from the American side will be “Great, these guys admitted it. That proves they’re guilty, they deserve whatever happens to them.” Of course the reaction from the Arab side will be totally different: that they are martyrs, naturally they admitted it - why wouldn’t they? - and the Americans are mistreating them. So you can’t win with this one.

James Regens: On your point about the interrogation techniques, the Attorney General memos have already been released with very limited redaction, and a large number of the detainees have been released. In fact, there was an individual who was interviewed on ABC evening news who is now living in France. He is a Bosnian Muslim, I believe, who was in Guantanamo and he said, “Here are some of the things that happened to me.” DOD chooses not to comment on those allegations, which from the standpoint of being in government is a reasonable response to take, but nonetheless is going to be used [against them]. So it’s a very difficult sell, but at the end of the day, my take is: whether they plead before a trial or whether they are convicted in a trial, whether it is divulged or not, the way it is perceived in the West is not going to be uniform. And it is not going to be uniform as to how it is perceived throughout the Muslim world as well as by Muslims who are in the West.


IA-Forum: What do you believe is the greatest challenge the West will face as it attempts to combat global jihad?

David Edger: To me, as I’ve mentioned before, it is countering this very successful narrative that has come out of Al-Qaida. I think one of the things that we have to do is not allow ourselves to be trapped into the debate on their terms. For example, I’m very conscious of the meaning of language and I’m very concerned that we avoid at all costs being dragged into anything that looks like religious war or religious symbolism to discuss the conflict between the West and Al-Qaida. It is not a war against Islam, it is not a war against the Muslims. We shouldn’t use terms like Islamo-facsist. We need to be very specific that our enemy is the guys who blew up the building, the guys who made the attack of last night, not some religious group. We need to keep it on a political and a strategic level.

James Regens: I agree completely. What we’re confronting is a political struggle. While it may be sometimes couched in religious rhetoric, it really is a political battle or a political struggle and we are far better served not only to realize that but, more importantly, to act on that realization.


David N. Edger is a professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center; he is also a faculty member in the political science department. Prior to coming to the University of Oklahoma, Mr. Edger spent thirty-five years in the Central Intelligence Agency.

James L. Regens is Presidential Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health and adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Regens serves as associate dean for research in the College of Public Health and is founding director of the Center for Biosecurity Research.

Professors Edger and Regens co-authored Islamic Radicalism and Global Jihad with Devin R. Springer, research associate at the Center for Biosecurity Research at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.


Islamic Radicalism and Global Jihad , is published by Georgetown University Press.

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