dgrff Interview: Counterterrorism Expert Daveed Gartenstein Ross

Described as “a rising star in the counterterrorism community” by the International Herald Tribune, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Gartenstein-Ross’s writings have appeared in Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Reader’s Digest, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Review of Faith and International Affairs, and The Journal of International Security Affairs, among others. He has also written or edited seven books and monographs. The accolades that Gartenstein-Ross has earned for his policy work include being named a 2010 Senior Fellow at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, and being selected for the Claremont Institute’s Lincoln Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveedGR.

John Little: Let’s start with recent events – specifically the situation in Egypt where a Coptic Christian church was bombed and Christians there responded with quite a bit of understandable anger. Attacks on minority Christian communities seem to be on the rise. This is certainly not a completely new phenomenon but it does feel like there is additional momentum and purpose behind recent attacks and threats. Are we seeing a shift here? Is fueling inter-religious violence increasingly a priority for al-Qaeda?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: Yes, the targeting of Christians is increasingly a priority for al Qaeda affiliates and for the group’s sympathizers. As you mentioned, this is not a new phenomenon — which I emphasize because some commentators take an ahistorical perspective on these matters. Egypt’s Copts were frequent targets of Islamist attacks during the 1990s. Indonesian Christians have been periodically targeted for violent assault by Islamists. And sometimes the targeting of Christians has ranged into the West. For example, in January 2005 I exposed a radical Islamist web site called Barsomyat.com. This site was devoted to systematically tracking Christians who were active in debating Muslims on the Internet chat service PalTalk. One representative page from Barsomyat featured photographs of a Syrian Christian who then lived in Canada. Barsomyat’s users posted personal information about him and made clear that they were trying to track down his current address. Subscribers also posted explicit warnings, such as: “Laugh, oh Christian, and soon you will see a big hit.” To be clear, the targeting of Christians in the West has not been comparable to what Christians in Egypt, Indonesia, and elsewhere have been through; I raise the issue of Barsomyat primarily because it is some precedent, from six years ago, for the Shumukh al-Islam threats that I’ll discuss momentarily.

But though we have previously seen the targeting of Christians, it is in fact increasing. You will recall that on Halloween 2010, al Qaeda-linked militants seized a Baghdad church, an event which resulted in 58 deaths — one of a number of attacks on Christians in Iraq last year. The many attacks prompted Juan Cole to bluntly declare: “The attacks on Christians in Iraq are serious, and hold the danger of ethnically cleansing that community.” Not only did al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) threaten Christians in that country with more of the same carnage that we saw in the Halloween attack — saying “we will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood” — but it also threatened the Coptic Church in Egypt. Its threats against Egypt’s Copts were based on scurrilous rumors that the Coptic Church was holding Muslim women as captives. Thus, a statement from AQI declared that “all Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahidin wherever they can reach them.”

And now we’ve seen the Alexandria bombing, along with threats against Christians in the West. More than 100 Arab Christians living in the West (including in Canada, Germany, Austria and elsewhere) have ended up targeted by al Qaeda-affiliated web site Shumukh al Islam because they are allegedly attempting to convert Muslims. Officials are taking these threats seriously. One tragic irony I should point out is how Christians, living in the predominantly Christian West, are being targeted for death because of their efforts to convert Muslims — when Islam is also an openly evangelistic faith that targets Christians for conversion worldwide.

The question of why we are seeing this shift toward more attacks on Christians is harder to answer. Is it based primarily on anti-Christian animus, and religious intolerance more generally? Or is it serving another strategic goal? The answers are not crystal clear.

John Little: Even if there wasn’t a greater strategic goal driving the recent attack on the Coptic church in Egypt it would seem possible that the cycle of retribution kicked off by that event would lead Islamists to re-focus their efforts in this area. Isn’t this cycle of violence an ideal outcome for them? If one relatively small attack contributes to the destabilization of the state, burdening it with expensive and impossible security challenges, and creates an engine for radicalization/recruitment you have to think we’re in for more of the same.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: First, to be clear: at this point we still do not know that the Coptic attack was perpetrated or inspired by al Qaeda (though there has been some suggestive evidence in this regard). Second, I disagree with the premise of this question that the attack has led to a “cycle of violence.” There were days of protests and riots, including some relatively minor violence between Christians and Muslims and Coptic vandalism of a mosque. (There has also been more positive news about Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt since.) Though that unrest could return, this isn’t like Iraq where some devious — but strategically useful — al Qaeda in Iraq attacks managed to set off waves of reprisal attacks between Sunnis and Shias. Christians represent only about 10% of Egypt’s population. To put it bluntly, if you had actual waves of reprisals as you did in Iraq, the Copts would get slaughtered.

Nor was I implying that there was no strategic purpose to this attack. One relatively small attack has indeed contributed to the destabilization of Egypt; to the perception that the state cannot protect its minority populations; to unrest by the Christian population; to deteriorating Muslim-Christian relations; and to increasing security expenditures. This may have been the precise strategic goal of the attack. The reason for my caution in saying that the strategic goal was not clear is that sometimes we assume the intention behind a terrorist attack before we have sufficient evidence to really determine that intention. I am well aware that, in this case, I have insufficient information.

John Little: I do think there is a tendency to assume strategic intent, or see signs of grand strategy, where there may be none. There are troubling signs here but, as you point out, evidence is lacking. Do you think there are parallels here to the fears about Mumbai style attacks? I know that I wrote about my concern that a simple swarming attack model would gain favor even before events in Mumbai. Analysts and pundits have written volumes on the subject since, warnings have been issued (as recently as this week for Europe), and security forces around the globe have trained and prepared for just that scenario. But while there’s no doubt that we’ll see the model employed with devastating results again in the future I think most analysts would have expected to see more examples of this over the past few years. Counterterrorism efforts deserve a lot of credit here but the bottom line is that any moderately competent individual or small cell could evade detection with this model so why aren’t we seeing more of this?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: To be frank, we would be far better off had we done more over the past decade to figure out what al Qaeda’s strategy is. Many of the U.S.’s policies designed to defeat al Qaeda have in fact played into the group’s hands, as I addressed in an article I wrote for Foreign Policy in November, precisely because we have not asked the right questions about the group’s strategy. So I’m not offering a generalized argument against looking for our opponents’ strategy. Instead, I’m being cautious about what I know with certainty, and what I don’t. For the record, if I were betting on this one, my money is on there being a strategic purpose to the Alexandria attacks.

As to Mumbai-style urban warfare attacks, I think you’re drastically overestimating the ease with which they can be executed (i.e. “any moderately competent individual or small cell could evade detection with this model”). First of all, the actual Mumbai attackers received training and gamed out the attack using models of the relevant geographic space. They did advance scouting, and put together a decent command-and-control capability. They weren’t just moderately competent, but rather were well prepared and well coordinated. Second, a number of attackers who appear to have been competent were thwarted late last year while planning to execute urban warfare attacks across Europe. In October, I wrote a lengthy analysis of how the Europe urban warfare plots indeed represented a real threat. The example of these European plots demonstrates that avoiding detection is more difficult than you’re giving credit, and also that there has been not just a clear terrorist intention to execute further Mumbai-style attacks, but actual efforts to do so as well.

John Little: I do not want to go too far down the road of publicly discussing how terrorists can do their job better but forget Mumbai specifically. With that event I thought we were witnessing a progression towards attacks that are simple, more immediate, and more likely to avoid sophisticated counter-terrorism measures. Mumbai, for the reasons you mentioned, seemed like a transitional event. I’m referring to attacks that do not require training in foreign locations, the assistance of subject matter experts (bomb making for example), exotic weapons, the transfer of significant funds, or sophisticated planning. Just killing people is, unfortunately, quite easy. Is the relative lack of effort in this area indicative of other priorities?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: I actually think we have seen a move in that precise direction. This is not just propelled by the example of the Mumbai attacks but also another factor: the September 2008 collapse of the American economy. The economic collapse fundamentally changed the jihadi war against the West, in my judgment, because it made the U.S. seem mortal. It created the appearance of a country teetering on the edge of a precipice, such that a smaller attack could finally push it over the edge. The rhetoric of jihadi spokesmen makes clear that they are in fact trying to encourage other Muslims to carry out smaller, more frequent attacks. For example, in a March 2010 video Adam Gadahn praised Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, and encouraged other Muslims to follow his example. “The mujahid brother Nidal Hasan, by the grace of Allah and with a single thirty-minute battle, singlehandedly brought the morale of the American military and public to its lowest point in years,” Gadahn said. “The mujahid brother Nidal Hasan, lightly armed but with a big heart, a strong will and a confident step, again brought into sharp focus the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of America.” Gadahn also put his finger on a point that many figures within the jihadi movement have noticed: even failed attacks can help the jihadis by “bring[ing] major cities to a halt, cost[ing] the enemy billions and send[ing] his corporations into bankruptcy.”

Since September 2008, we have in fact seen two successful jihadi attacks that employ the exact model you’re speaking of: the Fort Hood shooting, and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad’s fatal shooting at the National Guard recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas. (If you expand this to non-jihadi terrorist attacks, there have been even more, including Joseph Stack’s suicide plane attack on an IRS building in Austin, Texas; the June 2009 shooting at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; and now the reprehensible shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several bystanders at her “Congress on Your Corner” event in the Tucson, Arizona area.) So I think we have moved in that direction. But for a variety of reasons — including the relatively low pull al Qaeda has for American Muslims — this doesn’t mean that you’ll see someone get gunned down by Islamic militants every week.

John Little: So if American Muslims are overwhelmingly moderate, overwhelmingly good citizens, then aren’t we heading into dangerous territory with things like congressional hearings on Muslim radicalization and preemptive strikes on Shariah? Are we pushing American Muslims away when we should be more engaged than ever? Homeland security and counter-terrorism efforts obviously still need to proceed at a furious pace but should elected officials and concerned citizens be searching for more opportunities for positive engagement? Is the current landscape contributing to radicalization rather than preventing it?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: First, I don’t think we have proof that American Muslims are “overwhelmingly moderate.” I said previously that al Qaeda has a relatively low pull for American Muslims, but that’s a different conclusion. A couple of studies made the claim last year of overwhelming moderation. One of them, Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans, is one of the worst studies that I read all of last year, sloppily researched and either incompetently or else dishonestly argued. I did not have the same objections to the other study, Brian Michael Jenkins’s Would-Be Warriors, but it did overreach on this point, claiming: “There are more than 3 million Muslims in the United States, and few more than 100 have joined jihad — one out of every 30,000 — suggesting an American Muslim population that remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence.” On this point, I agree with a thoughtful critique that Drew Conway provided when Jenkins’s study came out:

We know … that this final assertion is not true; specifically, with regard to the numbers. The numbers, at best, only support the claim that domestic radicalization is very rarely observed. It does not suggest anything about the internal disposition of American Muslims. While this may actually be the case, simply … not observing a phenomenon cannot support this claim. The cliché, “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” is particularly applicable to small N problems.

So I think my initial claim that al Qaeda has a relatively low pull for American Muslims is accurate, but we don’t know that the community is “overwhelmingly moderate.”

I do think that American Muslims are currently facing an elevated level of societal discrimination, and this isn’t helpful to our counterterrorism efforts. With respect to preemptive strikes on sharia, I assume you’re referring to the legislation that passed in Oklahoma. That legislation is almost certainly unconstitutional, on both free exercise and equal protection grounds, as it prohibits Muslims from doing what adherents to other faiths are free to do: enter into marriage or other consensual contracts stating that the relationship should be governed by religious law. Of course, there are aspects of dominant interpretations of sharia — such as its non-recognition that there is such thing as marital rape — that would be disturbing to allow people to contract into. However, the court system would almost certainly find such contractual interpretations void as against public policy.

As to Rep. King’s proposed hearings, there is a right way and wrong way to investigate radicalization within the American Muslim community. To give a plug to my recent Bloggingheads appearance, Matt Duss and I just discussed this issue. I haven’t been fond of the optics surrounding this hearing thus far, but that doesn’t mean the subject should be off limits. I hope the hearing is sufficiently nuanced, and that it’s successful, because it’s likely to do a lot to set our nation’s CT priorities for the next couple of years.


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