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 #28: Matthew Cassel

Image credit: Olivia Dehez

Image credit: Olivia Dehez


Matthew Cassel 101:

Matthew's website

Matthew on Twitter

Matthew on Facebook

"Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus" (co-edited by Matthew)

The Journey from Syria (Matthew's latest project) - Youtube playlist (6 episodes)


Show Notes:

1:00 - Dartmouth Conference (wiki / official site via Kettering Foundation)

2:25 - Matt's Goodreads profile

2:45 - Find out more about language coaching with Alex

11:20 - 2-hour / 2-part documentary: "Identity and Exile"

20:00 - Episode 5 (YouTube)

22:25 - "A Syrian Love Story"

34:35 - Field of Vision / First Look Media

38:05 - Episode 6 (YouTube)

42:50 - "Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus" (co-edited by Matthew)

51:50 - Fusha


Amin Maalouf - The Crusades Through Arab Eyes

Ryszard Kapuściński (wiki / Amazon)

Roger Crowley - 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West

David Hirst - Beware of Small States

David Hirst - The Gun and the Olive Branch

58:45 - Sarah Bakewell - "How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer"

59:45 - L'Haine

1:00:05 - Lingualism Publishers

Arabic Voices 1

Arabic Voices 2

1:01:45 - P.J. Harvey (wiki)

Sources and Methods #19: Naheed Mustafa

The Struggle Over Jihad by Naheed Mustafa

Naheed on Twitter (her account)

Naheed on Tumblr

5:54 - It’s easier to stay with a story when you have a character that you can associate yourself with. But I feel like that’s also become a bit of a problem. When, for example, you do what I just did - you refer to real people as characters, it in many ways diminishes the importance of the story because you end up in a place where you really work on the craft of storytelling rather than highlighting the actual issue or the problem.

8:40 - We’ve come to have this almost sort of fetish around technology, and using the technology to drive the story-telling rather than the other way around.

10:07 - It used to be that we (radio journalists) were competing with Youtube. Now we’re competing with Vine!

12:53 - When I start piecing stories together, I storyboard everything. Scene by scene, a flowchart almost. And then I write each of these blocks separately, and then piece it all together.

16:45 - Unless you’re Nelson Mandela, nobody cares about your opinion (inside of your own work).

27:01 - One of the problems that’s happened, and it’s been a shift for a variety of reasons...There’s been this shift of magazines and places that are looking for long-form writing looking to writers, so fiction writers, to write about politics. So you’ll get somebody who has written novels in Pakistan to write about the current political crisis in Pakistan. What ends up happening is you end up with these beautiful pieces of literature which may or may not be adding anything to the conversation about what’s happening politically, but what it does is it kind of games the system for journalists, because then we’re like, we’re being asked to submit work that can compete with that on a literary level but, well, we’re not that. That’s not what we do. It’s become quite difficult.

29:45 - (on her role as a journalist) What I’m trying to do is illuminate. I don’t see my role as trying to convince anyone of anything... People should have informed opinions.

32:06 - I think objectivity is a myth. We curate and distill and editorialize (even) through the process of creating… the problem comes when we pretend we’re objective.

44:30 - The second you end up representing something specific in a newsroom, you end up running that desk.

Naheed’s crowdfunding effort to fund her work - page here

48:02 - It’s become increasingly difficult in journalism to really make a decent living doing this work. And I’ve always worked freelance, so I’ve always had to grapple with this question. So what you’ll see now is that a lot of journalism schools will have programs for journalists as entrepreneurs, and try to get them some business skills to help. Most of the freelance journalists I know who really make a go of it spend half or three-quarters of their time doing corporate work. And most of the people I know find it a little soul-sucking. Corporate work, or getting a teaching job, this gives you the income to keep going. Again, it’s the work that you want to do and the work that you have to do.

56:47 - I use Twitter in a variety of ways. One of things I was surprised to learn is that people were actually reading my tweets... Another lesson is that people don’t read more than one tweet at a time. I use it as a source of news, what are people sharing. I also use it as a way to highlight the work of others, which I think is really important.

1:06:45 - I really am a deadline driven person. In terms of workflow, it really does shift according to project. I don’t have a specific way of working. My work really depends on the medium I’m working in - print vs. radio vs. research. I wish I had more of a uniform system, that I could really plug myself into.

Naheed’s Books:


Cities of Salt

Muhammad The Last Prophet


Matt’s Pick:

The Practicing Mind


Naheed’s Films:

Kill Bill - Volume I

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective


Alex’s Pick:

Cortex Podcast


Naheed’s Music:

Soundtrack to Pakiza