You would think that with an annual budget topping $70 billion, the intelligence community would employ the most rigorous scientific research methods and conduct exacting empirical studies to support its assumptions and evaluate the effectiveness of its programs. You would be wrong. Radically wrong.
In fact, our intelligence agencies do their best to avoid meaningful oversight or accountability, and setting empirically measurable benchmarks to evaluate the success or failure of particular programs would only invite the kind of scrutiny they eschew. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously complained way back in 2003 that “we lack metrics to know whether we are winning or losing the global war on terror,” but ten years later the intelligence community continues to avoid setting such metrics.
The latest example is provided in a Government Accountability Office report on “suspicious activity reporting” (SAR) programs, which we’ve long complained are a gateway for biased and inappropriate intelligence collection, because the activities they identify as “suspicious” are commonplace and innocuous. The GAO found that though the intelligence official responsible for the program recommended establishing “a performance measurement plan that includes a results-oriented approach and mature indicators” to evaluate the security benefits of SARs back in 2010, his office has not demonstrated any progress toward this goal. Worse, “the officials could not provide a time frame for completing the performance measurement plan.”
Such willful blindness in intelligence matters is dangerous, and no more obvious than in the government’s continuing embrace of flawed theories of radicalization. Indeed, Rumsfeld’s ultimate question to his military advisors—whether the government was “capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us”—belies a flawed assumption that lies at the heart of radicalization theory: that exposure to radical ideology is the prime driver of violent action, rather than a multitude of other motivating factors.
Most government studies of radicalization are fatally flawed because they skip a basic component of social science research – the use of control groups to ensure the traits of the group being studied (here, terrorists) aren’t also prevalent in the non-group population (i.e. non-terrorists). This is why both the FBI and NYPD radicalization reports identified something as silly as growing a beard as an indicator of radicalization. Obviously, the vast majority of bearded men are not terrorists.
Luckily, a report by Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell and Michael King published by the British think-tank Demos in 2010 identified this deficiency and conducted a study that differentiated between terrorists and non-violent radicals, demolishing the government’s flawed theories in the process. The study avoided the problems endemic to the government studies by recognizing that many people who hold radical views do not support or engage in violence, and therefore should be distinguished from terrorists who do. The researchers also followed social scientific best practices and set up a control group of young Muslims who did not hold radical views to test their assumptions.
Unsurprisingly, the study found that contrary to government theories, “[c]ertain ideas which are sometimes associated with terrorism were, in fact, held by large numbers of people who renounced terrorism.” The authors pointed out that holding radical views and rebelling against the political and social status quo was a normal part of being young, and that “[r]adicalization that does not lead to violence can be a positive thing” when it leads to greater involvement in political and community affairs. It argued that censorship of radical ideas would be ineffective and counterproductive, and the government should ensure “that young people can be radical, dissenting, and make a difference, without it resulting in serious or violent consequences.” Contrast these recommendations with the FBI’s suggestion that “[i]ncreased activity in a pro-Muslim social group or political cause” is an indicator of terrorist “indoctrinization,” and it’s use of “disruption” strategies, including the use of informants to ensnare people who express radical ideas into fake terror plots.
The report argues that “[a]ssuming that radical views constitute the base of the terrorist pyramid can allow for counter-radicalization strategies against large numbers of people who object entirely to al-Qaeda’s methods.” It points out that:
It is possible for people to read or have read radical texts, be strongly and vocally opposed to Western foreign policy, believe in Sharia law, hope for the restoration of the Caliphate, and even support the principle of Afghan and Iraqi Muslims fighting allied troops, while being extremely vocal in denouncing al-Qaeda inspired terrorism in the Western countries. These people can be important allies.
Unfortunately, our government continues to treat radicals—indeed too often all Muslims—as potential threats instead of allies, targeting entire communities for surveillance and disparate treatment. Treating entire communities as suspect takes a real and measurable toll, as researcher Paddy Hillyard documented in his groundbreaking 1993 study: “Suspect Community: People’s Experience of the Prevention of Terrorism Acts in Britain.”
These results are manifesting within Muslim communities here in the U.S., as demonstrated by the release of a new study by the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition, City University of New York’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR), and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The report evaluates the impact the NYPD “Muslim Mapping” and surveillance programs had on Muslim religious practice, free speech and association. It found, not surprisingly, that the very communities the Demos report identifies as “allies” of counterterrorism efforts, as well as the type of speech and association that benefit society, are being chilled by the NYPD’s ubiquitous surveillance.
Debunking the flawed radicalization theories that drive this type of overbroad surveillance programs at the NYPD and FBI is critically important. As a 2011 study, “Beyond Radicalization: Towards and Integrated Anti-violence Rule of Law Strategy,” by Colm Campbell of the Transitional Justice Institute of the University of Ulster, concludes:
There is a need to reclaim the value of democratic radicalization. Empirical data suggest that while many are radicalized, few make the jump to violent mobilization; they also suggest that egregious acts of state repression are implicated in this shift. To demonize ‘radicalization’ as a concept may obscure the importance of that nexus.
Campbell argues that based on his study of terrorism conflicts around the world, anti-terrorist measures that tend to degrade the rule of law, particularly indiscriminate or inappropriate uses of force, “may have a capacity both to suppress terrorism and insurgency and to contribute to their escalation.” What Rumsfeld misunderstood is that an effective counterterrorism strategy needs to worry less about the bad ideas coming from radical clerics and madrassas, and more about whether the government’s attempts at “capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading” terrorists are so poorly conceived and targeted that they do more harm than good.