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 #18: Will McCants


Will McCants 101:

Will's books on

Will on Twitter

Will's Brookings page

Will @ Jihadica

Show Notes:

Alex’s blog post on Middlebury / Arabic language study

Press on Taliban Project ( blog link)

Tinderbox (Sources & Methods sponsor)


7:33 - What policy papers do is mark you as a person who has expertise on a particular subject and a certain point of view on that subject. So you become identified with a topic and a way of approaching it, and that is useful then as a calling card. But if you really want to influence policy makers, I think few things are more influential than the op-ed. Anytime you can place something in a major newspaper, that will have a major influence. And sadly, the more critical you are of current policy, the more circulation your op-ed will get inside government.

Marc Sageman

14:15 - As researchers, we forget sometimes that the government in many instances is playing with a different set of information. And we get upset a certain policy or a certain way of thinking and rarely do we pause and take into consideration the fact that they may see it different because they’re looking at a different set of facts than we are. Working in government gives more humility about one’s own research and where it fits into this big decision making process that is the government.

19:36 - Foreigners that come over and work in the US government - I’ve worked with Brits and Australians, and they are always - to a person - astounded by the size of the American bureaucracy. It is huge. In an ideal world, that whole Executive Branch machine would be humming along, generating policy options for their principles to consider and bring before the president. But that’s not really how it works in practice. They do generate those policy options, but really its the president and the few people around him that are deliberating on these things. And if they find a policy that suits their preconceptions or they find a policy they really want, they’ll select it. But my impression being in government that policy options go up - that’s not how it works in practice.

22:36 - The reality is that the Islamic State presents far less of a threat to the homeland as it does to our partners in the region and I think they understand that at the president’s level. If you look at the way he justified the bombings against the Islamic State in Iraq and then in Syria, it was about the threat to our regional allies. But I don’t think popularly that’s the perception in this country. And also from Congress, there’s a feeling that the Islamic State is going to launch waves of human attacks each day, and that’s just not the case.

23:50 - 9/11 was the moment that I decided to get into the policy world. I was at Princeton working on my PhD on Islamic history… and when they smashed the planes into the towers, I wanted to contribute to our response… and my first foray into that was translating The Management of Savagery (overview, Will’s translation).

Michael Scott Doran

25:40 - (On getting a PhD or not) I would say if you’re getting a PhD because you believe you’re going to get an academic job, that would be a terrible decision. You will probably not get an academic job and if you do it will probably not be at an institution or geographic location where you want to be. So if you go into it with that limited perspective, I think you’re going to be very unhappy. But if you go into it with the perspective of ‘I want to get some great training and study with amazing people and the world is my oyster, I can do anything with this PhD’ I think it’s a great thing to do and time well spent.

29:56 - (On sources of information for the Islamic State) And the fourth source would be the amazing reporting that’s been done in Arabic about the group. The Arab reporters have amazing sources, they are fearless, but a lot of times, the things that they report don’t make it into Western Media. So there’s a valuable gold mine there of information to be used… There’s also some great work happening in European languages that we’re not aware of.

Tinderbox (Sources & Methods Sponsor)

35:10 - (On the apocalyptic thinking of the Islamic State) I think it’s really important in terms of attracting foreign fighters from the West. If you think about what gets a foreigner motivated to leave their home and travel to an insanely violent conflict zone, there are few things that might motivate people more than the belief that the end times are right around the corner. So I see (it) as mainly directed to foreign fighters.

But also in the Middle East, after the Iraq War in 2003, apocalypticism began to get a lot more currency than it used to have. Before the war, apocalypticism among Sunnis was really something of a fringe subject, as compared to the Shia, for whom it’s been an important topic for centuries. for modern Sunnis, it’s something the Shia speculate on, but that’s not really our bag. The US invasion of Iraq really changed the ways the Sunnis thought about the end times. With the Arab Spring and all the political turmoil that followed in its wake, its given an apocalyptical framework far more currency than it ever had a way to explain political upheaval in the region.

The Believer - Brookings Long-Form Article on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi written by Will McCants

37:53 - (Responding to question ‘is history made by men or faceless forces’) I think if your work-a-day world and you professional experience is going up through graduate school, getting a position in university - you tend to prefer explanations of the world that look at things in terms of big structural forces that are beyond the capability of one human to control. When you go into a big bureaucracy like the US government and you have a series of good bosses or bad bosses and their competency as bosses really has an influence on how policies are made - not just substances, but how it moves around the building, whose attention it gets - you come away with a much greater appreciation for how much individual humans matter in a big, faceless organization like the DoD or State Department. And when I was working on the Baghdadi profile, I had in mind a lot of my own experience in government bureaucracy. How cutthroat it can be, how complicated it is, so I had a much greater appreciation for the role of individuals and I think if you were to look at the landscape of the civil war in Syria and Iraq, you can see a lot of different personalities as leaders of many different groups, but what’s fascinating is they are all responding to the same circumstances - ie the civil war - but in very different ways. They’re making different choices - some of that has to do with their organizational culture and some of it has to do with the temperament of the individual. Even in the current Islamic State, if you compare Baghdadi to his predecessor, or the real shadow ruler of the first Islamic State, Abu Ayub al-Masri, the current Baghdadi is a much more capable bureaucrat than those men were, and they paid the price of their incompetency and he has been rewarded for his competency. So individuals definitely matter.

43:25 - I utterly agree that our understanding of the history of these organizations that are nominally adhering to the same ideology or similar ideologies - we don’t have a good handle on at all. Partly that is a language barrier - as you know, it’s not easy to learn these languages that are required to get deep into it, and also because of how dangerous some of these groups are. It’s not easy to do a lot of original research on them. Also, valuable primary sources are killed off as well. So it’s not an easy area to work in. So I would agree that histories of individuals and groups, we are certainly in the starting stages.

44:45 - (On ‘have policy lessons been learned since 2001/2003’) I would say among the policy-making elite, yes. There is much more a pessimism about what the Americans can do in the Middle East despite their overwhelming military power, and there’s greater humility. It’s tough to say with the political class, and you don’t know which of that to take seriously. Right now I’m trying to catalog the Republican candidates positions on ISIS, and they’re all over the field. Some are isolationist, some sound aggressive, but when you scratch the surface, you realize they’re talking about putting a few more special forces on the ground. I think everybody is constrained by the mood of the American public, which is very much anti-interventionist, and even when there are spikes in their support for intervention, nobody believes it will be long lasting, so it will not sustain a decades long occupation. So I do think there has been a reassessment of the efficacy of American power, almost too far in the opposite extreme. There’s almost a sense of hopelessness, that the Americans cannot do anything to help, which will make it to where - if that endures - America will become increasingly isolationist, and you have other powers who do not feel so isolationist who are getting involved and perhaps making things even worse.

47:44 - (on learning languages to understand groups) I’m not particularly snooty on this topic. I don’t think you need to be a major scholar of the language to understand an enormous amount about these groups. For people making decisions about their time, I think they’d have to really evaluate what type of job they hope to have in the future. That said, it has been a great use to me, both as a researcher, but also in the role of policy-making. Being able to go check a source, or look at a translation - is this word as aggressive as it looks in English? - has been really useful. I don’t think you ever do yourself harm by learning another language but as you both know, it is a huge commitment of time.

50:48 - I benefitted a huge amount (in Arabic language development) from going to Middlebury (see Alex’s post about his experience there above).

52:11 - (On working efficiently) When I start a project, I do try to think through my process and think about ‘What can I improve here.’ For the ISIS book, there wasn’t a lot of systemization to the process. I thought about it in the beginning, but I really needed to get that book done. It helped that I already knew the sources, and I had a general sense of what I wanted to say. So with that one, it was really a process of diving in. Making sure I had essay-length sections as standalone sections, and then synthesize it in a thousand words. You’ll see in the book, some of the sections are blog posts, I forced myself to write the blog posts as a way to put the material down and then refine it a little bit later. So in this one, I did not have a systematic process for collecting. For the Quran book I’ve been working on forever, there is a lot of process. I use Scrivener and there are folders and subfolders, and that’s because I was less familiar with the material. So there’s a ton of background reading I had to do and that requires are a lot more organization. So I would say it depends on the task.

On writing - on shorter pieces, it’s really just wherever you can fit it in. When I was working on the book, I would try to get four days a week where I could get solid writing. I could sit down at the computer - and they always tell you this is the worst thing you can do - I would answer all my emails and turn off all my notifications and go into it.

57:23 - (On ‘managing the flood’) I use Evernote. A lot of my sources are ephemeral, and thankfully I had saved them there. This is also the case for Arabic language sources on news sites. Evernote was a huge help in keeping a digital footprint for where I had traveled.