“The First Global Terrorists Were Anarchists in the 1890s” – The New York Times

Maya Jasanoff reminds us of the time when anarchists terrorized Europe. The reaction to these acts of terrorism fit a familiar pattern: in response to fear we turn against the Other (immigrants, foreigners, minorities, etc.). The period examined by Jasanoff fits into this pattern, as she notes, “then as now, migrants and civil liberties paid the price.”

While history never repeats itself exactly, there are discernible patterns of human behavior that are instructive and this is one of them. To Jasanoff’s example we could add many others. Unfortunately, the knowledge gleaned from the past is by itself not enough to bring about change. The barrier to making this knowledge useful, as I see it, is also rooted in human behavior. To overcome this barrier we need to turn to psychology.

Here is just a few of the psychological barriers that prevent us from acting rationally:

  • the irrational knee-jerk reaction in the face or fear that prevents us from acting or thinking rationally.
  • the mismatch between the perception of threat and the actual threat. For example, the actual fear of terrorism does not match the slim probability of being killed by an act of terrorism.
  • the tendency to scapegoat those who are different from us even when the evidence clearly doesn’t warrant it.
  • the tendency to reject claims that are contrary to one’s intuition, ideology, or preferred positions, rather than on the basis of reason and evidence.
  • the tendency to seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignoring evidence to the contrary (confirmation bias).
  • our irrational response to cognitive dissonance (the discomfort we feel when we are confronted with two inconsistent beliefs). For example, when an anti-vaxer is confronted with the evidence that are putting kids at risk pits the belief that they are a smart and responsible parent against the claim that they are not.  To reduce the dissonance we could change our behavior or our beliefs, but more often than not we find a way to either ignore the claim or rationalize it away.

And of course, we need an educated population with the skills and desire to do the hard work to have informed opinions.

Read the informative article on anarchists here: The First Global Terrorists Were Anarchists in the 1890s – The New York Times

Counter-Terrorism Beyond Platitudes | commentary

“Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have embraced a shallow, platitudinous approach to counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency warfare.”

Max Boot effectively explains the flawed analogy (resulting from a lack of historical perspective) behind the simplistic approach to counter-terrorism espoused by Trump, Cruz, and many Americans. Their understanding of war is based on the crushing defeats inflicted on the Axis powers during WWII.

But as Boot points out, “The situation with the War on Terror today is very different. We are fighting insurgencies, not nation-states, even if some of the insurgents (the Taliban before 9/11, ISIS today) have taken on many of the attributes of nation-states. This is an unconventional conflict in which our enemies seldom wear uniforms or mass in the open. They prefer to hide among a civilian population and to strike with stealth and surprise, usually against civilian, not military, targets. As I argued in my book Invisible Armies, this is an ancient form of warfare that requires a different response from conventional conflicts. Using maximal force against terrorists and guerrillas can backfire, more often than not, by killing innocent civilians and thereby driving their friends and relatives into the insurgent camp.”

Read the entire article here: Counter-Terrorism Beyond Platitudes | commentary

The ‘war on terror’ isn’t working – LA Times

Andrew Bacevich’s article at the Los Angeles Times is brief but smart. In contrast to the dominant voices calling for more bombing and even the use of torture, he proposes something different. His critique is historically informed and echoes what many scholars, including myself, have been advocating for a long time.

“What Americans refer to as terrorism is more accurately this: a violent outgrowth of chronic political dysfunction and economic underdevelopment affecting large parts of the Islamic world, exacerbated by deep-seated  sectarian divisions and the pernicious legacy of European colonialism and further complicated by the presence of Israel, all together finding expression in antipathy toward the West and especially the United States. For the “war on terror” to succeed, it will have to remedy the conditions giving rise to that antipathy in the first place.” Exactly!

Read the entire article here: The ‘war on terror’ isn’t working – LA Times

Abusing History: “Donald Trump Cites Questionable ‘Pig’s Blood’ Story on Early Terrorism” – The New York Times


“On Friday night, Mr. Trump embraced another urban legend, claiming that an American general a century ago summarily executed terrorists with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.” There is not a shred of evidence for this claim!

Source: Donald Trump Cites Questionable ‘Pig’s Blood’ Story on Early Terrorism – The New York Times

“ISIS vs. History” – The American Interest

hat the rise and fall of a 12th-century Islamic empire does (and doesn’t) tell us about the rise (and fall?) of ISIS.” Before comparing the vastly different Islamic movements, Fromherz reviews the history of the Almohads, a radical Berber sect which briefly ruled in Muslim Spain (A great history lesson in its own right).

He is careful to note the many differences between the groups, but notes one important “possible comparison.” He observes that it is likely that “the process of routinization—that is, the process of ideological compromise and moderation needed to practically govern as state—will probably begin soon. There is no reason to believe ISIS will not follow the path of so many religious and millenarian movements before it. In this case, the best long-term strategy for ISIS’s would-be targets and victims may be to wait for ISIS to destroy itself.” I like this option!

Fromherz is not the only to note this trend toward routinization as a factor in bringing down radical movements. Rationally, based on a cost-benefit analysis, this is probably our best strategy. But, realistically, this is not emotionally or psychologically appealing, and therefore it is unlikely to be adopted. But we should heed Fromherz’s warning: “If parties and politics in the West become increasingly intolerant and nativist in their reaction to ISIS, the West may indeed inflict more harm on itself than anything the charismatically apocalyptic minds behind ISIS could imagine.”

Source: ISIS vs. History – The American Interest

A well tried strategy: Dividing through violence: “In Retrospect: A Year of Sharpening Contradictions” |History News Network

This is the lesson we can never seem to learn: “Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance.”

In contrast to the hyped up rhetoric of politicians, and Mr. Trump in particular, Juan Cole rationally analyzes the goals and purposes of the terrorists. We only play into to the hands of the terrorists when we demonize and blame Muslims as a whole. They want to divide us. In that way they can bring the disgruntled formerly moderate Muslims into their camp. The clash of civilizations becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Unfortunately, political leaders will continue to play into the hands of the terrorists because the rhetoric of “strength” and nationalism proves too useful in pursuit of political power.

Read Cole’s astute observations here: History News Network | In Retrospect: A Year of Sharpening Contradictions

Paris-attacks 2015

Paris Attacks 2015

“Killing the Islamic State Softly” | Foreign Policy

The interesting question is this: What would a smart power campaign directed against the challenges represented by the Islamic State (which are of course broader than just that group) look like? What are the techniques; levels of resources; and strategies of cooperation, collaboration, and communication?” James Stavridis offers some suggestions: Killing the Islamic State Softly | Foreign Policy

“Beyond ISIS” | History News Network

In the aftermath of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks more and more Americans are in favor of sending troops to destroy ISIS and a “do whatever it takes” strategy to completely destroy ISIS and other terrorist threats. But do they know exactly what they are advocating? It’s unlikely!

It is not completely their fault. Many on the Right (pundits, politicians, and intellectuals) are advocating this strategy in the face of what they claim is an existential threat. Many of those who are pushing for this all in approach either don’t understand the level of commitment they are promoting, or have not fully thought through what it would take to achieve such a goal.

In light of this disconnect, Andrew J. Bacevich challenges the proposal by laying out in no uncertain terms what it would take to execute this strategy. He concludes that the costs (in terms of lives, treasure, and values) would be great! “By sowing fear and fostering impossible expectations of perfect security, it would also compromise American freedom in the name of protecting it. The nation that decades from now might celebrate VT Day — victory over terrorism — will have become a different place, materially, politically, culturally, and morally.”

“For a rich and powerful nation to conclude that it has no choice but to engage in quasi-permanent armed conflict in the far reaches of the planet represents the height of folly. Power confers choice. As citizens, we must resist with all our might arguments that deny the existence of choice. Whether advanced forthrightly by Cohen or fecklessly by the militarily ignorant, such claims will only perpetuate the folly that has already lasted far too long.”

Read the entire piece here: History News Network | Beyond ISIS


“Paris: The War ISIS Wants by Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid” | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

“Following the Paris attacks, France, the United States, and our allies may opt for all-out war. But even if ISIS is destroyed, its message could still captivate many in coming generations.”

If we want to defeat ISIS we must understand them first. The desire for revenge in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris is understandable. However, this emotionally satisfying response will lead us right into the trap set by ISIS, and will most likely make things worse.

The article by Atran and Hamid go a long way in helping us understand ISIS and the motives to those who join the movement: Paris: The War ISIS Wants by Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

“Dylann Roof Was No Lone Madman” | History News Network

The historian Randall Law explains why Dylann Roof’s crime was an act of terror: “Terrorism is an infection whose best disinfectant is bright sunlight. We – all Americans, left, right, white, black – need to face the painful truth of what happened in Charleston: Dylan Roof is the product of a long-established, widely-held American tradition of racial hatred. In other words, Roof is not alone. History shows us this quite clearly.”

Dylan Roof