Sources & Methods #41: Improving Counterterrorism with Stephen Tankel


Stephen Tankel 101:

Twitter: @StephenTankel

Reaching out: if people have questions.

Professor at American University -

Senior Editor at War On The Rocks - War on the Rocks

Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for New American Security

First book: Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba
New Book: With Us and Against Us: How America's Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror

Show Notes:

4:51 - What I was trying to do (with this book) is ask the question: If most of these partners are both helpful and hurtful, what can the United States reasonably expect from them? And then to offer propositions about what it can expect in terms of cooperation, with the understanding that managing expectations here and what to expect from partners here in knowing what to expect from partners is a critical component.

5:50 - The inspiration for the book came from the year I spent working in government as a senior advisor at the Department of Defense, working primarily in south and central asia, and being forced to wrestle from a policy perspective with the tradeoffs involved in dealing with these countries.

10:21 - I think it’s fair to say that the Bush Administration had often prioritized counter terrorism interests above other interest, and the Obama Administration tried to treat them as a separate entity rather than what really needs to happen in either of those administrations - which is integrating counter-terrorism within the broader US foreign policy approach.

11:03 - There’s another threat between short term security interests and long term interests in promoting good governance, rule of law, human rights, stability overall. We see this with a new report from a US Institute of Peace report on Fragile States.

It’s really hard to do, when you’re focused on shorter term objectives like access for forces for security cooperation, training and equipping local CT forces, or for drone strikes.

These tradeoffs are not unique to the United States.

13:12 - This book is primarily for US policy makers and people in those circles, and also intended to get me tenure (laughs).

17:21 - What I really try to do is get at things from the perspective of the partner with whom the United States is partnering. So I spend as much if not more time about the threat perceptions, the politics, the security compulsions of the partner in question than I do the United States.

It’s strategic empathy - I’m trying to get into the shoes of a partner.

18:09 - One of the main recommendations I have at the end is that the United States needs to devote at least as much time to understanding the perspectives and perceptions of its partners as it does its own internal machinations. Within the confines of the book, I’m trying to get at this from other countries’ perspectives.

23:33 - Another point on regionalism (to Matt’s question) - I think you’re talking primarily about regionalism from the perspective of having people with expertise on this regions. I think that is important. But I think there’s another type of regionalism - to create instruments of statecraft, policies, what we would call Congressional Authorities in the US, that are regional rather than nation specific, that encourage being able to work across a region or across part of a region from a policy perspective rather than always working bilaterally.

Bilateral is going to remain the primary mechanism through which any two countries. But at least from a US perspective, I have encouraged the idea of regional authorities for security assistance, cooperation, development, and things like that because I do believe it is helpful to take a regional view to these issues rather than working bilaterally.

26:22 - Quite frankly - standard metrics for me, that’s the brass ring. I would settle for metrics. I would settle for State Department having metrics, DoD having metrics, and NCTC having metrics, I would settle, from a USG perspective, every agency having metrics.

[On why we don’t have standard metrics everyone can look at and figure out where things are] I think it’s human nature, I think it’s bureaucracy, I think it’s those different theories. I would add more. First - it is my sense that practitioners often don’t have an appreciation for spending time and money on measurement because they want to just get out there and do it. And they see spending time and money on measurement as taking away from everything they could be throwing at the problem. I’ve been an evangelist for the idea that metrics will help you get more bang for your buck. I don’t want to spend my time and money measuring, I want to spend it doing. So you need to change the way you think. You need to think about measurement as intrinsic to whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

Two, I don’t think any bureaucratic culture plays to the strengths of monitoring and evaluation. Because monitoring and evaluation is meant to be objective. And objectively speaking, not every program is going to succeed. Simply because your program fails doesn’t mean it’s your fault. But nobody wants to be the person who was running the program that failed. So I do think there is a human nature issue but especially a bureaucratic culture issue that pushes back against monitoring and evaluation because nobody wants to be on the one who runs the program that doesn’t go well.

One of my dream projects that I want to find funding for is to explore ways in which it might be possible to import into a government culture the culture that in some ways, if not favors, at least s applauds failing early in Silicon Valley or business or something.

This idea that effective monitoring and evaluation - it shouldn’t be that you don’t want to fail, it should be that you want to fail early and figure it out so that you can reform. But that requires a big cultural change within government, within UN, within anything about how we think about these issues.

Monitoring and evaluation is is hard. It’s hard to gather data. There are disagreements about how to analyze that data.

Article at War on the Rocks: Doing More With Less: How to Optimize US Counter-terrorism

37:32 - One of the areas where we just don’t have a good sense of how well or poorly we’re doing is the question of resiliency. I’f you’d asked me 5-7 years ago, I would’ve said we’re doing poorly on that. Now, I just don’t know because we haven’t had a major attack. We’ve had some smaller attacks  in the US but we’ve kind of gone about our business. At the end of the day, it may be policy makers who are in some cases - I don’t want to say more seriously than they should, but are inflating it more than it needs to be more than the general public.

39:30 - If one looks at where we ultimately want to go with this - it’s that this becomes for most of these countries a law enforcement problem and not a military problem, and that it is a problem that not just their police are strong enough to deal with, but their judiciaries are strong enough and they have prosecutorial capacity and they have capable judiciaries that are able to prosecute people that are involved in terrorism or terrorism-related offenses. And they have prisons that are capable of holding these people where they will not be radicalized. Those are really big asks.

42:06 - [On training police and justice systems actors vs training military soldiers in foreign countries] The United States, for legal reasons, has a lot of trouble training police. Because it used to be that the secret police were used to terrorize the population, so we have laws on the books going against training police. Those laws need to change.

45:40 - Individually, policy makers are all really smart. Collectively, policy-making does not look that smart.

Even though individuals may not be risk averse, institutions typically are risk averse.  
57:30 - [On Useful Tools for Your Career] Learning Languages - I lived in Egypt for awhile, I studied in Syria, I spent a lot of time for my PhD on the ground in Algeria and Lebanon, using other language. I think it’s not only obviously useful in being able to conduct an interview or read a newspaper, two things I would probably struggle to do nearly as well today because I haven’t used it as much as I should have, but the simple - and it’s hardly simple - the exercise of trying to learn a language in and of itself is helpful in understanding other people, other cultures, what have you. I think there’s a lot of value in having the exercise of trying to learn, even if you’re never going to be that great of a linguist. I often encourage my students who have an interest in another part of the world to go live there. I think living in other places - its a bit trite - but it’s an eye-opening experience. I think it’s very easy to say, much harder to do.

1:00:13 - To say to people coming up - ultimately at the end of the day, there’s no substitute for this other than doing it for awhile, which is something people told me 10 years ago when I was starting out and I found frustrating, but now a decade out, I find useful.

And that was useful for government - I understood it a lot better after being inside it.
1:01:40 - Advice from Vali Nasr - He said, Stephen, if you learn a single thing about South Asia during your year in government, you can no longer call yourself an expert on South Asia. Your job is to be a participant observer. It is to work on whatever your bosses want you to work on. It is to participate in the bureaucracy. Go think big strategic thoughts whenever they want you to, but really learn how everything works so that when you come out you have an understanding of the challenges the average bureaucrat faces. That’s an approach I’ve tried to take with me with everything.

Sources and Methods #8: Azmat Khan

Photo credit: Sam Bailey

Photo credit: Sam Bailey


Azmat Khan 101:

TwitterFacebookInstagramGoogle +

-- Tumblr/Blog

-- "The Brothers" (PBS Frontline in Cairo)

-- "The Bombing of al-Bara" (PBS Frontline):

Azmat @ Al-Jazeera America

Azmat @ PBS Frontline

Show Notes:

5:58 - Defining ‘success’ in the digital media age:

It depends on the institution. Some friends of mine have been given quotas to hit. I’ve been lucky not to have to do that. I value response and resonance as an indicator - people writing about it, talking about it online, questions, even critiques, things like that I really value in terms of success. The ideal success of course is when there’s a problem or injustice is to see that result in a conversation that hopefully elicits change.

7:50 - Al Bara Film

10:20 - Is Google News driving all of our news consumption?

Not necessarily - I’d say it’s more social. Facebook in particular, not as much Twitter, is one of the biggest sources of traffic, and it’s not a bad thing for a good thing to be shared a lot. And for people to study data to figure out ways to make it reach as many people as possible. In that way, it can be a very good thing. And there’s the opposite of that - when stories are told in a way just to elicit pageviews of clicks.

11:36 - A follow up point on success in journalism:

That it endures, and can be a reference point for something later… that can be a definitive portrait of something at a particular time.

16:00 - Staying up on social media:

I dip in an out of that depending on how busy I am with other things… But I spent a lot of time in the past curating lists of people to follow on Twitter. This can include newsletters. I use Digg’s website and wakeup with a morning email. I use Reddit Edit.

At the same time, I think there are lots of non-traditional ways I gather information from areas that are less talked about.

Facebook Groups. If there’s an issue that sparks my interest or I want to learn more about or report on, one of the first things I’ll do is see if anyone has coalesced around that issue in a Facebook Group. It’s more useful than Message Boards, so you can message them directly, and it’s super easy to get in touch immediately and quickly. And people get intimate on a place like Facebook. That’s one of the most under-reported tools to use when trying to figure something out. It’s not representative of an issue, but it is individuals, and you can learn so much. It’s an incredible starting place that people don’t think about when they want story ideas.

20:58 - for the kinds of stories I’m doing now, I rely more on individuals than people talking about public issues on Twitter.

24:00 - Right now, one of the most fascinating things you can see online are people who’ve supposedly run off to join ISIS. They have blogs, and social media accounts. They are so interesting. But verification is very hard when it comes to these things. The best reporters have done a good job corroborating the facts… but I do wonder, what does this platform or accessibility do in terms of small errors or embellishment of the truth.

26:00 - Norwegian filmmaker and a fake short on Syria

28:02 - Fake blog taken for real news here. Proof here.

32:33 - I think books are increasingly underutilized. The people who turn to information that isn’t publicly accessible when they’re writing about whatever issue it is online.

33:48 - It’s great because much of the material is not publicly accessible, the information is not at fingertips. There should be more of that, we may be losing a lot of that.

34:31 - I think the internet echo chamber is one of the dangers of how we receive our information. You would think the internet would afford more perspectives and differing ones than what you encounter in real life, walking around, but it actually in so many ways provides the opportunity for people to singularly identify - by hashtag, website, by following people - to actually narrow that down further.

38:10 - Standard research tools for Azmat:

  • Know how to write a Freedom of Information Request

  • is an invaluable resource

  • Look at the courts

  • Ask for feedback

FOIA Letter Generator here

42:31 - Language classes are a game changer. (Matt and Alex feel quite strongly about this - you should take them. Need inspiration? Read Alex’s great post on why you should learn languages. And then pair with his second post on how you should learn that language.)

46:18 - Being fluent in a language puts you ahead in so many ways, it’s incredible. I can’t even explain it.

49:45 - If it’s Thursday, I’m listening to Serial. Any other day, I’m listening to NPR’s five minute newscast.

50:35 - I’m also obsessed with audiobooks, and prefer fiction.

54:00 - Azmat’s Instagram account.

56:30 - Azmat on Twitter.  

How did she grow her account to some 48,000 people?

It’s about providing a service, or context, or things that people find useful and interesting. Don’t necessarily push a narrative or an opinion - people really liked that.

1:00:01 - Azmat’s Tumblr.

1:04:00 - Azmat’s moving over to Buzzfeed.

Azmat’s Book: Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Matt’s Book: Zero to One by Peter Thiel

Matt’s Story: Why Our Memory Fails Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simmons, creators of the famous Invisible Gorilla test (a Selective Attention test)

Azmat's Music pick:

Alex’s Book: Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka's Civil War by Rohini Mohan

Azmat’s Film: It’s A Disaster

Azmat’s food she would eat if she were on death row: buttery lobster.

Matt’s Book: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Sources and Methods #2: Erin Cunningham


Alex and Matt are joined by Erin Cunningham, the Egypt-based correspondent for the Washington Post. Erin has previously worked for Global Post and the Christian Science Monitor in Afghanistan and across the Middle East and North Africa. We discuss how she goes about telling the stories of the people who live in places like Egypt, and why she thinks it's important work. We delve into the practicalities of her job and how she keeps track of things going on in the region.

Erin Cunningham on the Web

Erin on Twitter

Erin at the Washington Post

Erin at The National (UAE)

Erin at The Christian Science Monitor

Erin at Global Post

Erin's Tumblr

Erin's Instagram

Erin Cunningham 101: What to Read

In Gaza, how to recycle an economy

The National (July 2009) - Shortages of materials, spare parts and imported goods in Gaza mean residents and businessmen repurpose everything they can get their hands on.

"Despite the death of Gaza's formal industry, here it feels like at least someone - or something - is at work. "Necessity is the mother of invention" seems a fitting motto for this tiny bazaar of scraps."

Long the glue of Gaza, clans say Hamas is undermining tribal justice

Christian Science Monitor (January 2010) - Hamas disarms Gaza's clans, but leaders of prominent families there say that the Islamist group is stepping onto territory outside its jurisdiction.

"Any overt politicization of the chiefs, historically seen as societal mediators in Gaza, may end up threatening the independence of a system experts say has regulated Gazan society at the grass-roots for centuries."

Gaza Strip moves to preserve its abundant ancient treasure

Christian Science Monitor (April 2010) - Erin looks at Gaza's illicit trade in archaeological artefacts. Gaza's location and history - many empires have passed through - means that the area is disproportionately seeded with old items of historical interest.

""An ancient piece the size of a cellphone from the Pharaonic or Canaanite eras easily sells for $1 million on the black market," says Abu Ahmed, a dealer involved in the underground antiquity trade. "And I used to make a major deal every month.""

Rural Egypt breaks from its Islamist past

Global Post (May 2012) - Ahead of the May 2012 presidential election in Egypt, Erin visits a small town in rural Egypt showing how things have changed. Historically supportive of Islamist politicians, the area now has more day-to-day concerns:

"At the forefront of most people’s concerns here is not Islamic law — in fact, few even mention it — but the need to resuscitate an ailing national economy that has left them even more impoverished, and to halt growing insecurity and drug use."

A Friday in Cairo

Twitter/Storify (November 2012) - Erin spends a Friday tweeting from and about Cairo, taking a walk through the city's famous Khan al-Khalili market to give a sense of what it's like around her. It's a mix of pithy social observation, sightings of cats and unique photos as found on her Instagram account.

"braved the Cairo traffic & Friday morning crowds, so now plopped down at the market's most famous cafe for a Turkish coffee #AFriAFridayInC"

Growing up in Gaza

Global Post (November 2012) - Life is tough for children in Gaza. The dangers of war (as witnesses and victims) are ever present and psychological symptoms are widespread.

""They listen to the radio, they watch TV, they see the dead bodies, they hear the bombs, they feel the shattering of the glass from the windows in their homes, and they listen to stories" of war, said Eyad Sarraj, a mental health expert and founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. "So they are terrified.""

In Egypt, happiness is hard to find

Global Post (December 2012) - Something a little more lighthearted: Erin tries to find people with a positive take on developments. It turns out to be far harder than expected.

"We would have settled for just content people. They were nowhere to be found. It seems there is no life that is not deeply affected by the sputtering economy and the political chaos. Interviews with Cairo residents revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, a city weighed down by the burden of uncertainty."

Inside the sleepy Egyptian district where 682 residents were sentenced to death

Washington Post (April 2014) - Erin travels to the rural south of Egypt to interview those sentenced following a harsh state crackdown following pro-Islamist demonstrations. It was the country's largest ever mass death sentence.

"Far from Egypt’s centers of power, al-Edwa district is a remote cluster of rural hamlets in the southern province of Minya — an otherwise sleepy agricultural patch accessed only by winding, gravel roads through a maze of villages and a vast expanse of desert."

This is what Eid is like in one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous provinces

Washington Post (July 2014) - A visit to a hospital in southern Afghanistan brings home the price civilian victims must pay in the ongoing conflict.

"A baby — naked, with red-hennaed feet and round eyes lined with kohl — screamed in anguish as emergency doctors in this area’s hospital for war victims stitched up a finger-size gash on the side of her tiny head. In a ward down the hall, a young woman had just been brought to the intensive care unit from the district of Sangin. A stray bullet from fighting between Taliban gunmen and Afghan forces struck her while she was sleeping; she bled for eight hours before it was safe to leave for the hospital." 

Photos: What life looks like in Helmand province

Washington Post (August 2014) - Erin's Instagram photos make their way into the Washington Post, this time from her trip to Helmand province in Afghanistan.

These and many more are available at the link above or at on her dedicated Instagram page.

For middle-class Kabul district, the insurgency comes home

Washington Post (August 2014) - Erin visits a neighbourhood of Afghanistan's capital that has seen a larger than usual rise in violence. She talks to the families who live there.

"At sunset on this summer day, a commercial airliner took off with a roar, making a sharp ascent over the rugged peaks. Microbuses trundled up the steep mountainsides to ferry laborers home from work, the men bringing home pink plastic bags brimming with cucumbers, carrots and okra for their evening meal.

“I grew up with war, but the children,” Qassim said, trailing off. “We wish the bases would move.”"

Show Notes:

1:00 - National Book Award


1:22 - US Ambassador / Boston University Chat


4:32 Regarding Western Media Shrinking Overseas Bureaus:

Formal analysis from the American Journalism Review on the issue from 2011

A look back on the same issue from as far back as 1998, also by the American Journalism Review


7:02 - Operation Cast Lead

A three-week armed conflict between Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Israel that began on 27 December 2008 and ended on 18 January 2009 in a unilateral ceasefire.


9:01 - Inter Press Service (official link)

Inter Press Service (Wikipedia Page)


10:49 - Watching Peter Arnett describe the First Gulf War


13:00 - Studying Arabic in Cairo:

The American University of Cairo

Cairo Ain Shams University in Cairo

AMIDEAST Arabic Study in Cairo

16:30 - Idea. Erin: It’s important to portray the Middle East as a region full of ordinary people, important to speak to ordinary people and speak to the issues of their lives.


18:45 - Why I Decided War Reporting Was No Longer Worth The Risk by Tom A. Peter, in The New Republic

Quoted paragraphs:


“Never before have Americans disliked journalists as much as they do now. Political coverage, which tends to be most contentious—and also to most influence perceptions of the press in general, thanks to its prominence—remains relentlessly even-handed, as a meta analysis of decades of presidential campaign reporting by University of Connecticut professor David D'Alessio has shown. Yet readers believe the opposite. In a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of respondents said that news stories are often inaccurate. About a third said the news media is “not professional.” Forty-two percent described the news media as immoral, with only 38 percent judging the profession as moral.

Working overseas, I rarely thought about how people process the news. To be certain, I never imagined people clamoring for foreign reporting. I assumed most people were indifferent but I took comfort in knowing that my profession provided a public record readily available if or when a person decided to devote time to an issue. More than anything, I worked as a journalist because I loved the day-to-day hustle. A possible higher purpose was what convinced me it was worth it when bad things happened, like getting caught up in an air strike or having a roadside bomb explode under the truck just in front of me.”


22:43 - Idea. Erin: It’s such an important time in the region, and to be a part of that, to speak to the people participating or affecting or being affected, it’s really amazing.


26:50 - Idea. Erin: What does foreign reporting accomplish? Maybe nothing. Can’t say for certain that it accomplishes anything.


35:50 - Erin’s Twitter account


36:07 - The Arabist Blog was launched in Cairo in November 2003, by Issandr El Amrani, partly as response to the the lack of interest in the domestic politics of Arab countries in much Western media. It focuses on Egypt but tries to follow broader issues in the Arab world, US policy in the Middle East and cultural developments throughout the region.


36:48 - Omar Ashour

Omar Ashour is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. His research focuses on jihadism, democratization, security sector reform and civil-military relations, armed conflict, and Islamist movements and ideologies in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. He is a lecturer in politics and director of the Middle East Politics Graduate Studies Program at the University of Exeter. He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements.


37:38 - Kareem Shaheen, journalist with The Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper


41:45 - ISIS


44:40 - Erin’s information is organized mainly by folders by country, then subject. Adds in color, interviews, tweets, etc to flesh out this information. It’s all backed up on Google Drive.


46:40 - Instapaper


48:45 - Goodreads


49:30 - Erin’s Instagram Account


53:20 - Erin’s Book Recommendation:

Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege, by Amira Hass


55:03 - Matt’s reads this week:

Dark Continent, Europe’s Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz

Recommendations taken from Farnam Street Blog by Shane Parrish


56:40 - Erin’s Film: Iraq in Fragments by James Longley

Film trailer:

Interview with James Longley about the film:


59:30 - Alex's pick: for exercises for keeping flexible and healthy outside of just going to the gym or running.


1:00:00 - Erin’s Song: Soulshine by DJ Cam