Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Rejecting Narratives: Data, Islam and Terrorism

The Year of the Monkey

(As always, footnotes and bibliography are at the bottom of the post). Many of my friends in my ‘ideological camp’ do not seem too pleased with the rise of Vox, 538 and The Monkey Cage. I applaud it as an open break from some of the worst journalism we see. Op-ed writers will write streams about housing[1], immigration[2], foreign policy; and not utilise a pool of peer reviewed, robust empirical literature. Vox and 538 are reversing this trend. And I agree that they may sometimes present the literature through their own ideological lens – but once people accept a form of the scientific method, it’s very easy to have a conversation (and, of course, make sounder judgements). 

This divide between journalism and the academic literature is not new. Back in 2010, The Monkey Cage was still a blog and, as always, they were writing a constant stream of posts which debunked journalists unsubstantiated ‘narratives’ by using the empirical literature. A year later, they came out with a constructive paper, the purpose of which was to help journalists. Often, journalists will place great emphasis on a speech, a presidential debate, gaffes etc – when the literature is fairly clear that this stuff doesn’t really matter. In a somewhat comical response to Sides, Francis Wilkinson wrote

...the media's capacity for creating self-serving, fanciful political narratives is more constrained today than ever. An army of spoilsports -- many with Ph.Ds in political science -- has established camp on the banks of the Web... Take John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington who runs the annoyingly excellent Monkey Cage blog. The guy is a total downer.

Every time some reporter starts to have a little narrative fun, Sides gets all political science-y on them... Look, I'm basically on the side of the "narrative" guys. I enjoy making up half-baked theories and then sending them downstream and seeing what happens.

Data driven journalism is clearly a welcome response to this problem. On my side of the Atlantic, we haven’t really seen a comparable change in our press. I’m not about to make any claims about how many articles aren’t based on data (because I don’t have any data) but what I can say is that the problem still exists. One example is Iona Craig who wrote a rather inaccurate, unsubstantiated article about Yemen. She made claims about poverty, the views of Yemeni population and terrorism without citing a single study from a pool of research not only on terrorism, but specifically about Yemen. And rather than accept that the literature might have something to say on the matter (it does, and it says the complete opposite of her anecdotes), she was brazen enough to say that her personal experience trumped the literature, with a dash of anti-intellectualism:  

No further comment is necessary for such an ignorant and arrogant methodology. This long introduction is merely to emphasise what I have been trying to do in my posts on this blog: draw attention to the actual data, studies and research. My efforts have thus far been targeted toward the “anti-imperialist” and anti-war corners. I have tried to show that there is no link, association and causal relationship between civilian casualties, “occupation”, the war on terrorism, poverty and terrorism. The structuralist idea that it is external conditions that cause grievances that lead to terrorism is simply not supported by the data. In fact, the use of military force is actually associated with declines in terrorism (see hereherehereherehere and the last study here).

I tweet new studies frequently which add to what I call the emerging consensus against Robert Pape’s thesis. I would urge everyone to beware of “The Man with One Study” and carry out your own investigations but what follows are recent studies that I think reinforce that consensus and, in one or another, erodes the Greenwaldian thesis[3]:
  •  Berger, ‘What shapes Muslim public opinion on political violence against the United States?’, Journal of Peace Research,  Volume 51, Issue No. 6 (2014) – “...perceptions of controversial US policies toward Israel, Middle Eastern oil, or the perceived attempt to weaken and divide the Muslim world are not related to support for attacks on civilians in the United States... Approval of attacks on US civilians is shaped, instead, by negative views of US freedom of expression, culture, and people, disapproval of the domestic political status quo and the notion of general US hostility toward democracy in the Middle East” (see this table)
  • Ahmad, ‘The Role of Social Networks in the Recruitment of Youth in an Islamist Organization in Pakistan’, Sociological Spectrum, Volume 34, Issue 6 (2014) – “Findings reveal that young people who joined this organization did not necessarily do so because of their ideological affinity, political or social grievances or because of macro-level events occurring in the national or global arena, such as the U.S.-led war on terror” (see also this quote).
  •  Hultman et al, ‘United Nations Peacekeeping and Civilian Protection in Civil War’, American Journal of Political Science, Volume 57, Issue 4 (2014) – “Using unique monthly data on the number and type of UN personnel contributed to peacekeeping operations, along with monthly data on civilian deaths from 1991 to 2008 in armed conflicts in Africa, we find that as the UN commits more military and police forces to a peacekeeping mission, fewer civilians are targeted with violence. The effect is substantial—the analyses show that, on average, deploying several thousand troops and several hundred police dramatically reduces civilian killings” (see this table)
  •  D'Alessia, Stolzenberg and Dariano, ‘Does Targeted Capture Reduce Terrorism?’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism Volume 37, Issue 10 (2014) – “Using quarterly data and an interrupted times-series Auto Regressive Integrative Moving Average (ARIMA) study design, we investigated the effect of Abimael Guzmán's capture on the ability of the Shining Path to wage its war against the Peruvian government. Maximum-likelihood results revealed that the frequency of terrorist acts committed by the Shining Path dropped by 143 incidents per quarter a short time after Guzmán was captured” (see this table).

These studies are all from late 2014 – all have come out since my last post. The literature on the Greenwaldian thesis is so clear that it really is like beating a horse that was killed years ago.  I could go on but I wanted to direct my focus to another argument.  At its most extreme, it comes from the right but in lesser forms, you’ll find it amongst many on the left: it’s the idea that terrorism has something to do with religion, or more particularly that it has something to do with Islam. In many ways, this narrative is as empirically weak as the anti-American blowback narrative.


I recently came across a “white paper” put out by Katharine C. Gorka (the kind of person who likes to talk about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East to the exclusion of Muslims). In it, she rebukes every single U.S President since Reagan because they have ‘tried to address the reality of terrorism against the United States by Muslims who claim jihad as their justification, while at the same time trying to avoid any direct condemnation of Islam in the context of that terrorism.’ This is misguided, Gorka claims, because it is Islam that is what motivates these people.

The empirical literature does not support the role that many, like Gorka, give to religion and Islam.[4] I will be looking at the literature in three areas: (a) on the incidence of terrorism (which will show there is nothing unique about Islam relating to terrorism); (b) on the characteristics of terrorists (which will show there is no link between religiosity and terrorism). In the next section, I will discuss three conceptual issues to maintaining a link between Islam and terrorism.

(a) On the incidence of terrorism

Conrad and Milton (2013) give a good starting point for looking at the literature. In their study, they note that if there is a connection between Islam and terrorism, ‘then countries with more adherents to Islam might experience and/or produce more terrorism than countries with fewer followers of Islam.’ After controlling for a wide range of variables, ‘Muslim states do not systematically produce more terrorism than non-Muslim.’ The variables they control for, however, are less convincing in terms of the more general research (this criticism is far too broad to detail here).

Nonetheless, it aligns with much of the data on terror threats within the U.S and Europe.  Loonwatch is rightly derided for having content that is usually un-nuanced and hyperbolic – but they do, in two posts, make particular good use of some official statistics. The first relates to the FBI’s statistics which report that from 1980 to 2005, “Islamic extremists” accounted for 6% of terrorist attacks. More recently, the New America Foundation has produced some data on who is behind terrorist attacks in the U.S. They find that Islamist terrorists have carried out four attacks killing 17 since 9/11 and right-wing terrorists have carried out eight attacks killing 9 people.

The second Loonwatch post relates to Europol data which, for an extremely limited data set finds that Islamist terrorists are responsible for less than a percentage of terrorist attacks. These two posts need to be qualified. Firstly, the data is intended to show that there is nothing unique about Muslim perpetrators and terrorism. I am well aware that the risk from Islamist terrorism has grown on U.S soil since 2001 – but the FBI statistic is still a significant data point. Second, for reasons that I have outlined before regarding Al Qaeda being a form of market state terrorism, Islamist terrorism deserves more of our attention – particularly in the UK where we do have separatist groups (which explains an overwhelming bulk of the Europol results) and Islamist terrorism is the biggest terror threat.

Thirdly, the data and research under this head does not apply to the majority of terrorism around the world. Given that I have said that Conrad and Milton study has significant drawbacks, it is significant that in ‘2013, 66% of all fatalities from claimed terrorist attacks were caused by four terrorist groups: the Taliban, Boko Haram , ISIL and al-Qa’ida.’ This is partly related to the previous caveat: Islamist terrorism is a form of ‘market state terrorism’ and causes vast amounts of casualties. But these three qualifications do not negate the point: there is clearly nothing unique to being Muslim and carrying out terrorist attacks (i.e, there are so many other groups that make up a significant amount of terrorism). 

The most significant data point on the incidence of terrorism is not the 66% figure, but the following from Kurzman’s The Missing Martyrs: fewer than 1 in 100,000 Muslims since 9/11 have been recruited by Islamist terrorists (p.11). Those who wish to explain a causal role need to explain why that figure is so low as to be insignificant. It’s a question I ask to blowback-advocates: if foreign policy is the cause, why do we find rejection of Al Qaeda to be the norm? Why, as the subtitle of Kurzman’s book asks, ‘are there so few Muslim terrorists’? In the Ahmad (2014) study quoted above, he says the following:

There are grievances to be found everywhere in the world, many of which never culminate in the membership of a radical party or the formation of a social movements. If there was a direct link between them, society would be swarming with countless organisation and movements struggling for [resolution].

I would ask the reader to replace ‘grievances’ with ‘religion.’ Of course, someone could respond to all of the above by saying ‘all that data shows is that terrorism is not unique to Muslims, that doesn’t mean Islam or being Muslim does not play a causal role in carrying out terrorism.’ That is fair (this subsection is really directed at more EDL types than Eustonite types). Hence, we move on to the literature on the characteristics of terrorists and their supporters.

(b) Characteristics of terrorists

The weakest form of evidence that could be used is to ask what the terrorists themselves think about the role of religion or foreign policy. Glenn Greenwald makes a habit of quoting what terrorists say, followed by “See?!”. Of course, many who make the link between Islam and terrorism will do the same thing. Of course, Greenwald will never cite the literature which shows the opposite. For example, in a recent study published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Botha had a small sample of al-Shabab terrorists who asked why the joined the terrorist group. The results are summarised in the table below: 

 Given recent events, I have seen this quote from Zarqawi being used frequently:

I swear by God that even if the Americans had not invaded out lands together with the Jews, the Muslims would still be required not to refrain from jihad but to go forth and seek the enemy until only God Almighty’s shariah prevailed everywhere in the world (accurate translation from Hashim, Middle East Policy, Vol.1 Issue, No. 4)

In any event, just as we should not use quotes about why people become terrorists, we shouldn’t use the Botha study either. It’s steeped in social desirability biases and in any event, the literature is mixed so doesn’t provide any answers. The literature on the religiosity of terrorists, is, however consistent. Sageman (2008) in his sample of 500 terrorists found that a ‘lack of religious literacy and education appears to be a common feature among those that are drawn to [terrorist] groups.’ MI5’s Behavioural Science Unit (2008) undertook a study ‘based on hundreds of case studies by the security service’ to find the characteristics of terrorists, they found

...far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households...

There is also support from Nielson (2014) (a study that will be discussed further below). These aren’t cherry picked studies, as Patel (2011) notes ‘overall, the available research does not support the view that Islam drives terrorism or that observing the Muslim faith—even a particularly stringent or conservative variety of that faith—is a step on the path to violence.’

Note that we find the same results when we widen the pool to those who support terrorism. Berger (2014) uses a vast amount of survey data from across the Muslim world to assess Muslims’ views on terrorism, U.S culture and norms and their religiosity (it was quoted above in the list of studies against the Greenwaldian thesis). Berger’s (fourth) hypothesis was ‘among Muslim publics, support for political violence against US civilians is associated with greater religiosity.’ What Berger found was no clear relationship between Islam and support for terrorism:   

...earlier findings about the pacifying role of religiosity in the Muslim world find confirmation in the case of Egypt where those who claim to adhere to the Islamic precept of five daily prayers (3.7%) are substantially less likely to support terrorism against US civilians than those who did not (10.8%)... The relationship is the reverse in Pakistan [where] the probability of a respondent endorsing attacks on civilians in the United States increases from 4.3% if he does not pray five times a day to 13.5% if he does. [There is a] lack of a pattern in Indonesia.

If there was a link between Islam, we would expect terrorists and their supporters to be the most observant, pious and have the highest measures of religiosity. But we don’t. This explains why you shouldn’t be surprised when you read that those heading off for Syria purchase ‘Islam for Dummies’, the 9/11 highjackers went to a strip club, Zarqawi was a pimp and Bin Laden’s computer had a ‘considerable quantity of pornographic videos.’

Religion and Causation

There will be those who are not satisfied by the above. They may even engage in the following sophistry: being a Muslim is not related to terrorism, but Islam is. Islam does have an association/causal role in terror, but only amongst Muslims who take their faith seriously. Before moving on to the conceptual issues with this argument, it’s worth noting how weak this argument is through the Nielson (2014) study. Nielson looked at ‘27,124 fatwas, articles, and books by 101 contemporary clerics’ and tried to measure the characteristics that made them more likely to support ‘Jihadi ideology.’ In his study is hidden this nifty graph:

It’s very strange that the more educated a cleric is about Islam, the less likely it is that he will support ‘Jihadi ideology.’ Nielson had previously found that ‘clerics with the best academic connections had a 2-3% chance of becoming jihadist. This rose to 50% for the badly networked.’ In fact we know that Quran readers are more likely to support democracy (see this table from Hoffman and Jamal (2014)).

Leaving aside all of the this literature, there is a conceptual issues about causation, agency and responsibility. Many pride themselves on giving Middle Eastern Muslims agency, a concept that seems to have been robbed of them by the prevalence of structuralist views. But the argument about the connection between Islam and terrorism, seems to me to rob people of agency as well. Here is Sam Harris talking about the connection between Islam and certain behaviours (he is not necessarily talking about terrorism here):

I am never blaming Islam for all the bad things Muslims have done in history. I am only blaming Islam for the things that Muslims have done on the basis of the doctrine of Islam... All I am asking for is honest conversation about the logical connection between ideas and behaviour (38:16).

It should be apparent that one thing that I have not sought to do in this post is to define what ‘Islam’ says about terrorism. My own view is that Islam supports all manner of barbarity (in terms of the way it views women, gays, legitimate punishments) but that a reasonable interpretation does not endorse terrorism. A mainstream interpretation does not support terrorism. But this really isn’t an important point: what Harris is doing is shifting blame from the individual to a set of beliefs. This is a, at times, subtle but definitely important change in emphasis for a number of reasons. No longer are we blaming the individual who acted in a free, informed and deliberate manner but we are focusing on a text.  When you take away from someone blame and responsibility for their decision, you rob them of agency.

I consider the principles at work in a conversation about free speech to apply equally here. Currently in the U.S there is a political controversy regarding ‘rhetoric’ and the extent to which it is responsible for the death of two NYPD officers. “They have created an atmosphere of severe, strong, anti-police hatred in certain communities” Rudy Giuliani says “For that, they should be ashamed of themselves.” And it’s nonsense. People are not there to be acted upon by elites or texts or Anjem Choudary or Muhammed. They choose to act in that way, and if they choose to act in that way after reading the book and accepting it, the emphasis should be on their acceptance, not the book.

In response to  Giuliani’s statements, Kevin Drum wrote a pretty funny post on Mother Jones listing various deaths that the ‘right’ could be blamed for. He concluded with this: ‘Maybe lots of people support lots of things, and we can't twist that generalized support into blame for maniacs who decide to take up arms for their own demented reasons.’ I would go further, Islam at its most heinous interpretation cannot be blamed for the actions of its adherents. That's what causation is about. It can be criticised on rational grounds in the abstract. This point is a rather moot one given the empirical literature doesn’t allow people to make claims about the link between Islam and terrorism. But even if the literature reversed overnight, this point would still stand:

Muslims may act upon the organized collection of beliefs that comprise their faith... But it’s not because those ideas sprang to life, jumped up out of the pages of the Quran and into the minds of Muslims who were captive to their actions... Muslims make conscious choices to act and when they do, for good or bad, that capacity must not be diminished by fixating on lifeless doctrines.

Update (03/01/2015): I've been really pleased with the overwhelmingly positive response to this post. It's been shared, retweeted and viewed more than anything I've written. What's particularly pleasing is that it seems to have gained traction across the ideological divide. I'm glad the first section of this post summarised my views and gave further studies on the lack of a link between foreign policy and terrorism - it's usually people who rightly deny the link between Islam and terrorism that posit the blowback argument.

On Harry's Place (and below here), there have been some criticisms of this post. I don't consider any of them strong (I would say that wouldn't I?) and only two of them are really worth responding to. The first relates to the data used in the section on the 'incidence of terrorism'. WetWork who calls me up on use of my statistics from the New America Foundation. WetWork is right to argue that New America Foundation under-estimates Islamist terrorism and I should have noted that. But I also should have noted that the data 'may well understate the toll of violence from right-wing extremists' too.

But there is a broader point to make. This criticism is based on the premise that I am arguing that Islamist terrorism doesn't make up a disproportionate amount of terrorism. I am not. I explicitly acknowledge that 66% of the terrorism in the world is from four Islamist terrorist groups. I explicitly reject the Conrad and Milton study. I made explicit reference to what that subsection was doing and what it was not doing:
I will be looking at the literature in three areas: (a) on the incidence of terrorism (which will show there is nothing unique about Islam relating to terrorism)... Of course, someone could respond to all of the above by saying ‘all that data shows is that terrorism is not unique to Muslims, that doesn’t mean Islam or being Muslim does not play a causal role in carrying out terrorism.’ That is fair (this subsection is really directed at more EDL types than Eustonite types). Hence, we move on to the literature on the characteristics of terrorists and their supporters.
It's supposed to be a response to those who make the claim that 'not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims.' To that extent, the New America Foundation, FBI statistics, the Conrad and Milton are useful. It's telling that WetWork doesn't criticise the FBI statistics. A commentor below, however, does criticise the FBI stats because it fails to take into account 'qualitative difference in crimes against property versus crimes against persons.' I agree, which is why I say 'for reasons that I have outlined before regarding Al Qaeda being a form of market state terrorism, Islamist terrorism deserves more of our attention' - and in that sentence I linked to an old post of mine which states
The substance of what Bobbitt says is important: they are global, decentralised and they cause a lot more deaths – and they intend to... And as crude as it is to suggest, larger or more frequent death tolls and attacks enhance the response to society in terms of consent. This is precisely why Islamist terrorism is such a threat: because of the intended fearful response it seeks.
Of course, I don't expect people to have read all the links I put in the post. But Anonymous' criticism suffers from the same fault of not realising the aim of that subsection: to show that terrorism is not unique to Muslims. The second criticism worth responding to comes from Lamia on Harry's Place. It's worth quoting the salient points in full:
Mugwump is implictly using a 'no true Muslim' argument of his own - namely that if Muslim terrorists are not highly educated and qualified in Islamic study then they are not true Muslims and it is not fair to in any way blame 'Islam'... I think the theological path is unhelpful and impractical to the point of, well, pointlesness, but Mugwump is essentially treading the same path as his opponents, albeit from the other end of the garden.  
Both are, in my view, erroneously using too narrow a definition of 'Islam' or indeed 'religion'. They both view Islam as a group of texts; they judge people to be proper Muslims in so far as they consider those people to accord with those texts. And here they get into a shouting match as group (a) will insist that Muslim terrorists are the real Muslims, because look at this verse, etcetera, while Mugwump and co will argue that on the contrary they are not real Muslims, because real Muslims who are better educated in their religion understand that the verses in fact mean this (or that; or whatever), etcetera, and only people with imperfect understanding of the religion are terrorists. 
...I would suggest that it is of no value whatsoever who is theologically correct because neither is practically correct. That is because a religion is not merely - or, perhaps, even mainly - its texts. It is both texts and associated humans and human structures (i.e. its congregations, believers, adherents both devout and nominal, preachers, theologians etc of the time, and the organising structures, both dogmatic and actual factual). That is to say, a religion is a mix of what it says and what its followers actually believe and - more importantly - actually do. 
The point is that while in certain respects a religion does not change much or at all - most usually and obviously with regard to its core texts - in other respects it can obviously change, and possibly greatly, especially in relation to the wider state and society... Likewise both Anjem Choudary and Majid Nawaz are constituents of 'Islam' today. All this is subject to change - for better or, of course, for worse.
I disagree. Islam's history is full of different schools of thought, different interpretations (something which a lot of people like Spencer and Gellar are loath to accept). But four things have to be stated: first, a definition of a religion which moves away from a doctrinal analysis is useless. Lamia accuses me of engaging in a 'No True Scotsmas' fallacy; the flaw of Lamia's view is to engage in 'Everyone is a Scotsman' fallacy. Second, the lack of a causal link here should be clear. It's bad enough when we hold a human being responsible for the acts of another human being. This becomes even more problematic when you try to make a causal link between a dead person/lifeless doctrines that are moulded by the a free actor. To put the points together: a Beatlist can listen to Lucy in the Sky, stab everyone and we can say (i) that is a legitimate part of Beatles-ideology and (ii) we can criticise the Beatles for their role in the stabbing. It's absurd.

Third, I am very explicit about why my analysis does not rely on a particular interpretation of Islam being the 'true' one. Agency eradicates the need to do this. (To this end, Jacobin makes a very weak argument in which he misunderstands what I'm trying to say about 'agency' when he says 'Mugwump is impressed and persuaded by the ideas of Adam Smith and JS Mill, so Ayman al Zawahiri was impressed and persuaded by those of al Banna'). Fourth, if we are really going to hold the faith responsible for an act because of its believers, then surely we have our evidence in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not approve of Al Qaeda? Surely religiosity of adherents is relevant in assessing the link between doctrine and 'adherents'? It seems to be the distinction that Lumia is making doesn't affect the empirical analysis given above.

Which brings me to my concluding remark: in this post I extol the virtues of data, studies and peer reviewed literature. The most signficant section in this post is 'characteristics of terrorists' - and no one has directly addressed it. Even if you agree with Lumia, that section simply will not allow you to come to a different conclusion. There are other criticisms of the post on Harry's Place (some people ignorantly give weight to quotes from Islamists; others come up with howlers to undermine data like 'academia is no bastion of objectivity' and 'Having data isn't enough'; others still accuse me of Islam apolgetics) but they are weak enough that I don't want to spend time responding to them as people will see through them.


Apologies for the extensive footnotes that have very little to do with the substantive part of this post. I’m off work and have time so I thought I’d handle a few small things in the footnotes.

[1] In a particularly heinous Guardian video, Owen Jones tells us that the real issue with the housing market is property developers. Not once does he get anywhere near the real problem: supply-side restrictions on housing. The most enlightening research on this subject comes from Hilber and Vermeulen (2010) who find that house prices would be ‘21.5 to 38.1 per cent lower if the planning system were relaxed.’ This as Niemietz notes in Redefining the Poverty Debate is likely understating the issue considerably because they assume that no planning controls existed prior to 1974 and the model assumes further development restrictions (p.79). Again, this literature is fairly consistent. The ramp up in property prices, by the way, explains pretty much the entire rise in capital as a percentage of national income (the main measure Piketty uses in Capital for defining rising inequality) as you can see from the graph below taken from Atkinson (2011):

Note also that capital/income ratio is ‘actually stable or only mildly higher’ when you measure property not in terms of its value but the rents that it gathers (a more accurate measure of the wealth that it produces). This is a finding from Bonnet et al (2014) (see this chain of tweets for a summary and the important graphs).

[2] Given that this is a post about Islam, I wont bore the readers of my footnotes with what I hope they already know about the economic benefits of increased immigration. There is however some literature that addresses how well Muslims integrate into Western culture. There is a lot of polling to suggest, for example, that British Muslims have abhorrent views when it comes to homosexuality and free speech (see here for an aggregate of poll results). As I write later in this post, we shouldn't rob these individual of agency by saying that Islam is the cause. We should hold them accountable for their views (and fortunately, in many areas we see a divide which shows how there is no necessary connection). But it’s also worth somewhat downplaying the ‘creeping Sharia’ or ‘Muslims are going to change the character of our nation’ line of argument (not only because of the dubious demographic surrounding the issue).

This line of argument is not entirely without merit. Bisin et al (2007) find that Muslim immigrants integrate at a slower pace than non-Muslim immigration: 

Bisin et al’s study however, has not been replicated indicating that there was some kind of error (Arai et al (2011)). Bisin et al (2011) however accounted for the bad results and said that their results could be replicated, although somewhat weaker that the graph above. Inglehart and Norris (2012), however, find more optimistic results. Given Bisin et al’s weak results, the lack of replication it is worth focusing on Inglehart and Norris’ more robust findings:

the analysis demonstrates that the basic values of Muslims living in Western societies fall roughly half‐way between the dominant values prevailing within their countries of destination and origin. This suggests that migrant populations living in Rotterdam, Bradford and Berlin are in the process of adapting to Western cultures, while at the same time continuing to reflect the values learnt through primary socialization in their original countries of origin... n the long‐term, the basic cultural values of migrants appear to change in conformity with the predominant culture of each society.

... although Western Muslims are consistently located between Islamic and Western societies, there is no evidence that generational change, by itself, will transform the situation so that the cultural differences between Muslim migrants and Western publics will disappear: younger Westerners are adopting modern values even more swiftly than their Muslim peers.

Thanks to Ben Southwood for directing me toward these studies. I’m sure people can cherry pick Bisin et al or Inglehart and Norris – but at least then people aren’t making empirical claims without any empirical research. I have explained why I think the latter study is more rigorous but am open to saying the literature is not, at this point, conclusive. One indication however is to look again at these graphs and see that religiosity is declining. This is significant because once you account for religiosity, many of the socially conservative views of Muslims can be explained away (Lewis and Kashyap, 2013). See also these results from the U.S where Muslims are far more integrated.

[3] In the interests of transparency, I wanted to bring people’s attention to Romano et al (2013). I hadn’t come across this study until last week. It finds that ‘non-Anbar SOI rather than the troop surge reduced casualty rates in Iraq.’ This study does very little to counter the wealth of literature available on the Surge and how it was both Sons of Iraq and U.S troops that were required to reduce violence (Biddle et al 2012). It also does nothing to counter Smith’s (2007) findings either (see an elaboration of each in my last post).

[4] Generally, contrary to the widespread belief, it does not appear that religion is particularly violent either. See this article by Scott Atran, in particular: “The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored "God and War" audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3.”


Ahmad, ‘The Role of Social Networks in the Recruitment of Youth in an Islamist Organization in Pakistan’, Sociological Spectrum, Volume 34, Issue 6 (2014

Arai et al, 'On Fragile Grounds: A Replication of 'Are Muslims Immigrants Different in terms of Cultural Integration?', Journal of the European Economic Association (2011)

Atkinson, ‘Wealth and Inheritance in Britain from 1896 to the Present’, London School of Economic and Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (2011) available at < http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/cp/casepaper178.pdf>

Berger, ‘What shapes Muslim public opinion on political violence against the United States?’, Journal of Peace Research,  Volume 51, Issue No. 6 (2014)

Bisin et al, 'Are Muslim Immigrants Different in Terms of Cultural Integration?', IZA Discussion Paper (2007)

Bisin et al, ‘Errta Corrige: Muslim Immigrants Different in Terms of Cultural Integration?', Journal of the European Economic Association (2011)

Bonnet et al, ‘Does housing capital contribute to inequality? A comment on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century’, Sciences Po Economics Discussion Papers (2014) available at <http://spire.sciencespo.fr/hdl:/2441/30nstiku669glbr66l6n7mc2oq/resources/2014-07.pdf>

Botha, ‘Political Socialization and Terrorist Radicalization Among Individuals Who Joined al-Shabaab in Kenya’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Volume 37, Issue 11 (2014)

Conrad and Milton, 'Unpacking the Connection Between Terror and Islam', Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 36:4, 315-336 (2014)

D'Alessia, Stolzenberg and Dariano, ‘Does Targeted Capture Reduce Terrorism?’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism Volume 37, Issue 10 (2014)

Hultman et al, ‘United Nations Peacekeeping and Civilian Protection in Civil War’, American Journal of Political Science, Volume 57, Issue 4 (2014)

Inglehart and Norris, 'Muslim integration into Western cultures: Between origins and destinations', Political Studies, Volume 60, Issue No. 2 (2012)

Lewis and Kashyap, ‘Are Muslims a Distinctive Minority? An Empirical Analysis of Religiosity, Social Attitudes, and Islam’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 52, Issue No. 3 (2013)

Nielson, ‘Networks, Careers, and the Jihadi Radicalization of Muslim Clerics’ (2014) available at <http://www.mit.edu/~rnielsen/jihad.pdf>

Patel, ‘Rethinking Radicalisation’, Brenan Centre for Justice (2011) available at <http://brennan.3cdn.net/f737600b433d98d25e_6pm6beukt.pdf>

Romano et al, ‘Successful and Less Successful Interventions: Stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan’, International Studies Perspectives (2013)

Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008)

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Five Myths about ISIS

To some extent, the following myths are all interlinked. The typical anti-war activist believes that the current crisis is mainly political and financial and so military means are not addressing the primary cause of the rise of ISIS. The idea that we’re going to make it worse through military intervention isn’t just because its failing to address the key causes but because it reinforces what went wrong: Maliki alienated Sunnis and bombs will alienate Sunnis. And somewhat linked but not entirely, they think because ISIS is a response to local conditions, ISIS is not concerned with attacking the West. This post is addressed to these people – their premises are false and so their conclusions and prescriptions are also flawed. References for the academic studies cited are at the bottom and footnotes are elaborations. Apologies for the length of Myths 1 and 2, Myth 5 should make up for it.  

Myth 1: Military intervention will make things worse

To the three people who read this blog regularly, I apologise that I am making this argument again. Fortunately, I can make the same point using a different study. Patrick Johnston in a study of militant degradation and its effect on end of conflicts and violence finds positive results. His study systematically looked at 118 decapacitation efforts across 90 insurgency campaigns. Unlike previous studies (with the exception of one), this looks at both decapacitation attempts that failed to hit their targets and successful ones. This allows us to draw causal inferences because it gives us appropriate counterfactuals.

Johnston finds that militant decapacitation increases the probability of defeating the insurgency by 33 percentage points (Table 3, Column 5). There are positive results for both the lethality of their attacks and their frequency as well:

This study is, as mentioned, better than the previous literature because it looks at the counterfactual (i.e., failing to killing militants). But it also means that these results may not necessarily be because of the success of militant decapacitation. Rather, they may be because failed attempts ‘incite mass resent, [and] these failures could decrease the chance of war termination and counterinsurgent victory and increase the chance of escalated levels of insurgent violence’ (p.66). I.e., rather than militant decapacitation being the reason there are positive results, it could be because the consequence of failed attempts is so bad. Does this match the data? Nope:

Indeed, the estimated effect of failed attempts is small and far from statistically significant, with -values that range from 0.356 to 0.788. Taken together, this evidence strongly indicates that the successful removal of insurgent leaders, not blowback from failed attempts, underlies my key findings [given above]

Military action can, therefore, work to reduce violence. This study not only confirms but also refutes the alternative hypothesis: i.e., the idea that it inflames the population to the extent of having a tangible effect on the success of terrorism. This should not be surprising: military action has reduced violence in Iraq, Gaza, Pakistan, the West Bank and Mali. You can also add Johnston’s study to the emerging consensus against those who are still arguing about blowback/foreign policy as a cause of terrorism.  

In Iraq, the strategy that is being pursued is far from ideal. There is currently a reliance on Shia militias. These militias should not be trusted for three important reasons. Firstly, moral: their loyalties ally with their illiberal ideologies rather than with the rule of law or human rights. Second, its short-sighted: the emboldening of Shia militias makes it harder for them to be disarmed and consequently hard for a central, pluralistic government to have control. Joel Wing notes this point and goes on to make another significant point:

...it will be nearly impossible for the state to rid itself of the militias once the fighting ends. They were never disarmed nor disbanded and now some of them such as the Badr Organization and the League of the Righteous have become allies of the prime minister... Iran’s influence is growing with this increasing use of militias. All of them but the Sadrists are beholden to Tehran... they don’t realize is that these militias will not go away when the fighting is over, and neither will Iran keeping the government weak, which was why it couldn’t stand up to the militants in the first place

Thirdly, and most significantly, Shia militias and the Iraqi army are simply not as well trained or capable as we are (on which, see below). A note on two things I am not saying: the killings of Sunnis will inflame the population to the extent that it will cause “blowback” (for reasons that should be obvious now). I am also not saying that air strikes wont cause significant damage to ISIS.

By contrast, the ideal strategy – or one that comes close – is one based on the empirical literature. The most significant study is Biddle et al’s - an under-read study that would refute many different ideas that are currently floating around. I have previously discussed this study and the methodology and the extensive data they rely on is discussed there. To recap, there were two broad strategies prior to 2007 to quell Islamist violence in Iraq. They both failed and it was only in 2007 that violence dropped. One failed strategy was the Sunnis attempting to realign against extremist forces without U.S support, as Biddle notes:

[1] The Nimr reached out to U.S. forces in early 2004 to make common cause against al-Qaida by standing up tribesmen as local police and civil defense forces in exchange for U.S. money, weapons, and support. In 2004, however, the U.S. military had little to offer in the way of direct protection; a single Special Forces detachment of a dozen soldiers was assigned to work with the Nimr and coordinate their security

[2] Sunnis from the Albu Mahal tribe in al-Qaim (together with Albu Nimr elements from the city of Hit) created an armed resistance movement dubbed the “Hamza Brigade.” AQI fought back, and by May the Hamza Brigade was seeking U.S. military assistance. They received little.

[3] The fourth failed realignment was dubbed the “Anbar People’s Council” and began in late 2005. Organized by seventeen tribal elders mostly from the Fahad tribe... Its leaders and many of its members were insurgents from the 1920s Brigade (a prominent Sunni guerilla faction) who had become disaffected by AQI’s criminal activities and expropriation of local smuggling income. On November 28, 2005, they decided to break with AQI and support the coalition, directing tribesmen into the police for local security duty. The coalition accepted these recruits, but failed to protect their leadership. By early 2006, AQI counterattacks against the group had become extremely violent

Without even looking at the data (of which there is plenty) there is a clear pattern of Sunni militias turning against AQ and then not having support from U.S military personnel to make a significant difference. So when you read in The Times that...

Those of us that witnessed the breathtaking courage of the Iraqi Sunni population that resisted al- Qaeda in 2007 know that it is only they, and not we, who can defeat Islamic State

...it’s an ahistorical misreading of what happened in 2007 that gives the wrong prescription. The Times extract is more accurately describes the failed policy that was pursued between 2005-6. The difference between what happen in 2005 and 2007 is the presence of U.S military personnel. The policy of simply letting Sunni groups rise up against ISIS not only ignores the Johnston study (generally about counter-insurgencies) but also the Biddle study which found that it was U.S military personnel working alongside Iraqi Security Forces that worked to reduce the violence. This is what happened to violent incidents when U.S military personnel was there (each graph charts the rate of violence (y axis) over time (x axis) in different areas of operation):

And that should answer what the ideal strategy is. It is one that has worked in Iraq. It’s one that follows directly from both studies: we need boots on the ground to support local forces so that we can decapacitate ISIS. The Kagans in their policy paper endorse such a plan. Their plan takes into account many of the criticisms given above:

A strategy of basing in Kurdistan and Shi’a Iraq and providing air support to Kurdish troops and ISF forces intermingled with Shi’a militias and Iranian advisers may achieve some initial successes, but will ultimately fail... [The first aim should be to] disrupt ISIS sufficiently to prevent it from retaking the initiative and launching either currently-planned operations or offensives [which] will likely require the deployment of not more than 25,000 ground forces supported by numerous air and naval assets.. Keeping two battalions on QRF [quick reaction force]-alert all the time requires a total of six battalions (or two brigades) deployed — around 7,000 soldiers in all. Additional forces will be required to secure any temporary bases established in Iraq or Syria and to provide logistical support.

Myth 2: This is a predominantly a political problem that requires a political solution

(a) One good reason why it’s a myth: The idea is that this is a political problem and therefore requires a political solution is also a myth. This has been littered throughout many articles written about the current campaign – from Wall Street Journal to The Guardian. The argument is that the Iraqi government acted in a sectarian way and so the Sunni population has become alienated and this has allowed ISIS to operate. In my previous post I noted the literature is clear that political support is not an impediment to military success. The support comes after military victory. The idea that we can explain ISIS’s rise on Maliki’s political sectarianism is, therefore, not supported Cohen (2014):

In fact, [in] Anbar... the number of [violent] incidents had declined by over 90 per cent. After that point, between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of Anbaris believed that their neighborhoods were secure. This sense of security, however, did not immediately translate into support for the Iraqi government [it took until October 2008]... Ultimately, Anbar shows an important progression: first, the insurgency is defeated, then the population feels secure and then only then, can the counterinsurgent win ‘hearts and minds’

This is a consistent finding across the three campaigns studied (Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam). If Maliki (and now Abadi) had the military power, he could take the territory back. Political views of the population do not impede such a process. For those interested in an elaboration of this study, see this post. Aside from this very specific and directly relevant study, we have two additional reasons for pushing back against claims that this is a “political problem” rooted in Maliki’s sectarianism.

(b) Two more good reasons

(i) General studies: The rationale of the opposing argument is that the Sunni population has become alienated and so has given space to ISIS. The logic of this argument is the same logic that permeates through those who think that Western foreign policy grievances cause terrorism. There is simply no evidence (see a number of my previous posts) – as I said, the Johnston study above is part of an emerging consensus against the Robert Pape, Greenwaldian school of thought. Somewhat amusingly, there is another strand of research that is relevant here. Neoconservatives were derided for their idea that a lack of democracy was a cause of terrorism. And they were absolutely right to be derided: there is simply no link in the empirical literature between lack of democracy and violent extremism.

Piazza (2008) notes that ‘most empirical studies of terrorism tend to demonstrate a positive relationship between political democracy [not authoritarianism] and terrorism’. Piazza (2007) is the strongest and most rigorous of these studies. His study looks at both international terrorism and domestic terrorism and uses data from 1972 to 2003 covering 19 Middle Eastern countries. He finds that ‘more liberal Middle Eastern political systems are actually more susceptible to the threat of terrorism than are the more dictatorial regimes.’ For those interested in a qualtitative study, Islamist Terrorism and Democracy in the Middle East by Katerina Dalacoura is an okay book which I may get round to reviewing at some point. Needless to say, her conclusion is also that there ‘is no necessary causal link between the lack of democracy in the Middle East and Islamist terrorism’ (p.180).[1]

Why is this research relevant? Because when people talk about Maliki’s sectarianism, they do not simply mean his military action against Sunnis, they mean his sectarian political policies that have alienated Sunnis. They say his policies are not pluralistic, democratic or liberal and these have led to terrorism. The research above should steer us away from such arguments: Maliki’s lack of pluralism would have to buck the trend of authoritarian states having less terrorism. In case its not obvious: of course, democracy should still be promoted as good in and of itself as well as its other benefits.

For those particularly interested in some more studies, I recently came across this study that puts another hole in the “the-West-is-responsible-for-everything-because-of-Sykes-Picot” argument. It is also relevant in showing how there is nothing determined about the current state of Iraqi animosity between Shia and Sunni. Admittedly, the Robinson (2014) study uses data from 16 African nations but the results are still interesting:

Colonial legacy theories also predict that ethnic group partition is problematic for engendering a common national identity. By contrast, the results show that being a member of a partitioned [by artificial borders] ethnic group is instead positively related to identifying with the territorially defined nation over one’s ethnic group... the legacies touted as impediments to widespread national identification in Africa—ethnic diversity and cultural partition—are, if anything, positively related to national over ethnic identification within African countries. [All the results are summarised on Table 3 on p.726 which I recommend looking at].

(ii) Specific facts: Second, we don’t need to refer to these two research strands: Sunni military opposition to ISIS is understated and military support to ISIS is overstated. The Biddle et al study notes how local forces were significant (when used in conjunction with the U.S military) in defeating the insurgency in 2007. If the argument that Maliki’s sectarianism is correct, we should expect the absence of Sunni opposition to ISIS. But the groups that were significant in 2007 remain committed to fighting ISIS:  the Anbar Awakening Council and Foundation Council of the Sons of Iraq are fighting against ISIS. Joel Wing noted back in January:

Almost all of the Anbar sheikhs were involved with the Awakening and remember the excesses the Islamic State’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq perpetrated in the province, and don’t want to see it return.

Not only that, but as Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi (2014) shows us, there are several new Sunni groups that have popped up specifically in response to ISIS: Kata’ib al-Mosul is one which

...consists of a number of sub-battalions, including one known as the “Revenge for the Martyrs Battalion” which invokes as a grievance against IS the blowing up of the shrines of the Prophets Jonah and Seth, as well as the killing of innocents, forced displacement of Christians from Mosul and the attacks on Yezidis. Similarly the “Zalzal Battalion” of Kata’ib al-Mosul invokes IS’s transgressions against holy sites and denounces IS as “khawarij”--a common allegation in present Sunni religious discourse which disparages IS for its extreme conduct.

Harakat Ahrar al-Mosul is another group, as is Kata’ib al-Hamza, as is Kata’ib Sayf al-Haq. These are groups made up of various Sunni tribes (including ‘a number of Anbar sheikhs’). These groups should not exist if you followed the logic of those banging on about Maliki’s sectarianism. The New York Times produced a report which sought to downplay the extent of Sunni opposition to ISIS. The first paragraph of the quote is all doom and gloom and its only until you read further down that you realise the situation is nowhere near as bad as stated:

Behind the government’s struggles on the battlefield is the absence or resistance of many of the Sunni Muslim tribes that officials in Baghdad and Washington hope will play the decisive role in the course of the fight...

Wasfi al-Aasi, a Sunni Arab tribal leader who leads a pro-government council of sheikhs in Baghdad, said the biggest tribes had signaled their support against the Islamic State and were establishing “national guard” units in six provinces.

Back on our side of the pond, The Times notes reports of 25 tribes rising up against ISIS. Of course, lets not avoid the key issue: these groups are weak. A reliance on them, without Western military support, will – as with Shia militias – end in failure. There are evidently some Sunnis that support ISIS but the idea that these individuals are people we can work with or that they arose in response to Maliki’s oppression is nonsense. The Naqshbandi Army (JRTN) are made up of Saddam’s former henchmen, they remain Baathists opposed to the democratically elected government of Iraq. They are also the most powerful non-ISIS non-governmental Sunni military force. There is ‘no indication of any intention of a plan to confront the Islamic State (IS) on a broader scale despite the distancing from IS' actions against minorities and heritage sites.’ al-Tamimi notes that through coercion and co-opation, they have assisted ISIS. ISIS has been gunning JRTN people down despite JRTN helping them.

There are two reasons why we shouldn’t think JRTN is a political problem (i.e., it arose from the political grievances of the Sunnis and can be dealt with by solving those grievances). First, their political grievances are irreconcilable with democratic governance. There is a reasonable debate amongst analysts as to whether JRTN can be brought on side. Shane Harris in Foreign Policy argues because the marriage of convenience between JRTN and ISIS is coming to an end, it provides an opportunity to make ‘some political alliances with ex-Hussein loyalists’ – including by allowing them to join the government. My view is that this would simply not work. As al-Tamimi states, this is a deeply mistaken view because

... [by] its very nature, JRTN is a revolutionary organization and any support for it is fundamentally incompatible with any kind of perceived support for the Iraqi government in Baghdad... To the extent that Baghdad or the West could ever work with JRTN members against IS with a view to restoring some kind of government control over areas like Mosul and Tikrit- no matter how autonomous- it would be such that these JRTN members cease to be JRTN, in so far as they realize the futility of their goals of 'revolution' under their leadership and implementing their political vision with the restoration the pre-2003 Ba'athist state.

Second, JRTN (the most powerful group) and other Iraqi Sunni groups are simply not a significant reason for why ISIS took over towns in Iraq.  As Alexandre Massimo notes

In total ISIS is probably responsible for some 75 to 95% of all insurgent attacks... To give an example of the extent to which ISIS is the dominant group in the insurgency, the regular monthly total of all Ansar al-Sunna operations in Iraq is considerably less then the number of attacks ISIS carries out in a month in any one of Iraq's provinces in which it is operationally active

Those who seek to explain this crisis by pointing to Sunni alienation need to explain why over 75% of the violence was carried out by ISIS rather than non-ISI Sunni groups. If one wanted to fall back on the blowback argument (the government caused ISIS) rather than the indirect sectarianism one (the government caused support for ISIS/caused non-ISIS groups to emerge), there are a lot of examples of former Baathists becoming henchmen in ISIS (see this New York Times report) but its simply not significant enough to refute the empirical literature I’ve cited against the typical blowback argument (see above, below, here, here, herehere, here and the last study here).

(c) The actual problem How, then, do we explain the rise of ISIS? We can start with the academic record considers a solution and see if that solution was present. In line with all of the research above, Smith (2009) finds

...holding political and socioeconomic factors constant, U.S. troop levels have a statistically significant impact on levels of civilian violence in Iraq [i.e., they reduce violence].

A conservative estimate, using a lower co-efficient of -.0061 from Model 3, would be that that an increase of 15,000 troops (from 138,000 to 153,000) would lead to a 9.3% reduction in violence. Note this is a conservative estimate and is based on high levels of troops being present already. The reason I’m quoting this study is not just to reinforce the message stated above about how U.S military personnel were essential in bringing down violence but because of Smith’s conclusions which now appear prophetic:

In terms of reducing troop levels in Iraq, this suggests that some reduction may be merited... but will incur the risk of sparking violence again. The effect of reducing troop levels now that violence is lower will be less severe than it would have been in 2006 when the Surge began. However, since violence exhibits self-sustaining proclivities it may be necessary to quickly reverse course if violence increases substantially. This implies that a gradual and measured reduction in troop levels is appropriate, with enough built-in slack to quickly return troops if necessary

The U.S withdrawal occurred too soon without a capable military force taking over. U.S military planners wanted a contingent of 24,000 troops to stay beyond 2011. According to the New York Times, this was resisted by the Obama administration. Military planners returned with ‘options of 19,000 troops, 16,000 troops and 10,000 troops.’ General Lloyd Austin preferred the highest number and called the lowest number ‘unwise.’ The Obama administration then whittled it down to 5,000. These 5,000 didn’t stay because Iraq and the U.S failed to reach an agreement on immunity for soldiers. Alexandre Massi notes how by drawdown, ISIS had essentially been decimated:

By the drawdown of USF-I [U.S. Forces-Iraq] forces in late 2011 ISIS had collapsed into a network of isolated cells and local units with a minimal centralized hierarchical command structure. ISIS had the capacity to maintain a low-level insurgency and carry out VBIED [Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device] wave attacks and complex assaults, but not to control terrain or exercise area denial against ISF and was no longer an existential threat to the Iraqi government. Continuous, industrial-scale spec ops raids by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had massively degraded ISIS' attack capabilities and depleted its middle and upper tier leadership and VBIED network, killing 34 of the 43 top ISIS leaders.

He goes on to say that

After the US withdrawal in 2011, the ISF largely stopped carrying out proactive counterinsurgency operations. Without U.S. troops in an advise and assist role, the ISF fell back on reactive, ineffective search and raid operations, large-scale clearing operations and a reactive operational posture of defense of fixed positions like checkpoints and combat outposts.

And that’s it: the Iraqi military was weak and Western forces which have proven so capable were simply not there. This has been exacerbated because after the U.S left, many prisoners they were holding swelled the ranks of ISIS. Moreover, ISIS launched a campaign (‘Breaking the Walls’) to free their comrades from Iraqi prisons by targeting said prisons. Knights is almost definitely right to state ‘ISIL is a military power mostly because of the weakness and unpreparedness of its enemies.’ To elaborate further on this weakness, the Washington Post reported a whole litany of failures:

1.       No Iraqi pilot team has qualified to fly F-16 fighter jets that U.S is due to deliver
2.       Only two planes in the Iraqi air force are capable of firing hellfire missiles
3.       [But the U.S approved sale of] Apache helicopters, which are capable of carrying Hellfires. But as of Jan. 27, when the State Department officially notified Congress of the deal, Iraq had not signed the sales contract
4.       Iraq’s aging attack helicopters are armed only with .50-caliber guns and 2.75-inch rockets and must fly vulnerably low to hit a target
5.       Iraq was having difficulties in paying for the training programme.

The report goes on to note that the Iraqi air force and their pilots were due to obtain training in a plan developed by the U.S military in 2011:

The CIA, the National Security Agency and the secretive Joint Special Operations Command offered help in developing target packages that pilots could use to hit “high-value individuals” and mid-level commanders... But even before the U.S. military left the country, the Iraqi government purged many of its best intelligence officers and assets because they were either Sunnis or Kurds, vastly degrading its ability to locate important terrorist target... Killing terrorists was no longer the Shiite-dominated government’s top priority

Of course some of the listed delays and difficulties were unavoidable, even reasonable. There was a legitimate worry that the Iraqi government would target the wrong people. It’s also clear from the report that Maliki’s military sectarianism did weaken the military ability to fight Sunnis not because he alienated people so they turned against him and became terrorists is wrong. The distinction is important because the latter idea is based on the flawed blowback and “grievances to terrorism” analysis. This weakness continues today.


Each point should show why this is predominantly a military problem and not a political problem
  1. We know that political support is not an impediment to military success (Cohen 2014)
  2. We know that authoritarian/undemocratic/sectarian governments do not produce more terrorism (Piazza 2007, 2008)
  3. We know that Iraqi Sunni military opposition to IS exists (al-Tamimi 2014)
  4. High troop levels which could reduce violence were not present (Smith, 2009) and a weak Iraqi military could not pursue an active policy to target ISIS which, as predicted, leads to increases in violence.

Myth 3: ISIS is not a threat to the West

If you made it this far, the last three myths will be significantly shorter. You wouldn’t think that people would be making the argument that ISIS are not a threat to the West. But Simon Jenkins of The Guardian actually stated on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that ‘it’s total rubbish [that they are a threat], the most they could do is set off a few bombs in London.’ This argument was given some credible support by Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, who said that it was primarily a problem for the Middle East (which it is) but he went on to say countries like the UK were ‘marginally affected.’

There is no doubt the Middle East is the primary victim of ISIS violence but to argue ISIS is not a threat to us is gravely mistaken. Note, even if there wasn’t a threat to the West, given that we have capabilities where Iraq does not, I would still support action. But these groups were plotting to carry out attacks involving chemical weapons against Western countries. It was fortunately caught by Iraqi Security Forces.  (The Long War Journal report refers to Al Qaeda in Iraq[2]). I hope it’s clear by now that we cannot and should not put reliance on Iraq Security Forces for our security. U.S officials have also come out as saying that ISIS is attempting to establish cells in Europe.

Fortunately we do not have to rely on either Richard Dearlove or U.S officials, we have a study! Hegghammer (2013) created his own dataset of Western terror plots using datasets from seven previous studies (these include foiled attacks) for the period 1990 to 2010. He found that one in nine foreign fighters return and attempt to carry out an attack and that out of the 401 plots in his data, 107 were carried out by individuals who were once foreign fighters (veterans). Given that we know that roughly 400-500 British individuals are fighting for ISIS, this represents a significant threat – especially because veterans are both more lethal and more successful:  

There is another reason why ISIS poses a threat to the West. Foreign Policy obtained an ISIS laptop which contained

...a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals... The document includes instructions for how to test the weaponized disease safely, before it is used in a terrorist attack.

Foreign Policy subsequently ran an article which rightly cautioned against reading too much into it because it did not reveal an active capability, merely an intention. However, that intention should still be taken seriously. As Phillip Bobbit observes in Terror and Consent, ‘advances in technology are rapidly lowering the thresholds for the development, deployment and deliverability of WMD.’ He goes on to quote an academic paper published in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism which states ‘this technology is gradually moving into the market place... [This] will soon put highly capable tools in the hands of both professionals and amateurs worldwide’ (p.102-3). Back in 2006, The Guardian ordered the DNA sequences for deadly pathogens over the internet. In their report of the affair, they made it clear why such a threat should be taken seriously:

The DNA sequence of smallpox, as well as other potentially dangerous pathogens such as poliovirus and 1918 flu are freely available in online public databases. So to build a virus from scratch, a terrorist would simply order consecutive lengths of DNA along the sequence and glue them together in the correct order. This is beyond the skills and equipment of the kitchen chemist, but could be achieved by a well-funded terrorist with access to a basic lab and PhD-level personnel.

ISIS has that level of funding and the most telling thing about the discovery of the laptop wasn’t only the intention to create biological weapons but that they had the personnel to do so. That is not to say there aren’t significant difficulties in building these weapons. But that doesn’t lessen the threat and the best way to explain why is through the legal case of Wagon Mound (No. 2) [1967] 1 AC 617. In that case, engineers were careless in taking furnace oil aboard in the Sydney Harbour. So careless that oil leaked into the water and drifted to a wharf where it was set alight accidentally. One of the relevant questions for the Privy Council was whether, despite there being a small risk of the oil catching fire, the engineers had a duty to prevent against it. I believe their Lordships came to the right decision. Lord Reid held

... it does not follow that, no matter what the circumstances may be, it is justifiable to neglect a risk of such a small magnitude. A reasonable man would only neglect such a risk if he had some valid reason for doing so, e.g., that it would involve considerable expense to eliminate the risk. He would weigh the risk against the difficulty of eliminating it... The most that can be said to justify inaction is that he would have known that this could only happen in very exceptional circumstances. But that does not mean that a reasonable man would dismiss such a risk from his mind...

Myth 4: It’s a trap!

Sunny Hundal writes in LabourList that

A US and UK led force destroying the most successful and largest Caliphate in recent times, however reviled ISIS may be, would be very symbolic. It would be used as a recruiting tool for terrorists for generations. This is why ISIS want to lure us in and we must be wary of their plans.

A lot of this has been debunked above – but its worth picking up two points. First is the idea that this has what Jon Stewart in a segment on The Daily Show called a ‘crusadey vibe.’ It doesn’t matter that this is a U.S led coalition, it can still degrade ISIS if employed correctly. In any event, there is a lot of Muslim opposition to ISIS (as there was of Al Qaeda). Hundal doesn’t justify why Western intervention would be such a symbolically bad thing to do given how ‘reviled ISIS’ is. It’s simply contradictory: ISIS is not considered Islamic by Muslims but the West attacking an Islamic Caliphate will attract Muslims.

Second, using this argument to reduce or prevent intervention is fallacious. Sunny goes on to say that we should still intervene but ‘it must be led by Arab forces, for symbolic, logistical and theological reasons’ – the evidence above should show why reliance on Arab forces is not remotely possible. But there is a better reason why such an argument is flawed. What was Bin Laden’s rationale for organising 9/11?

[He believed the U.S response would be] one of two strategies: an eventual retreat from the Middle East along the lines of the U.S. pullout from Somalia in 1993, or a full scale American ground invasion of Afghanistan similar to the Soviet invasion of 1979, which would then allow [AQ et al] to fight a classic guerrilla war (The Osama Bin Laden I Know, Peter Bergen, p.311)

Sayef Adel, another leading AQ commander at the time, wrote that AQ’s ‘objective of these painful strikes [i.e., 9/11] against the head of the serpent was to prompt it to come out of its hole. This would make it easier for us to deal consecutive blows...’ (Ibid, p.309). It is a good thing we ignored the intentions of Bin Laden and Sayef Adel because the scale of terrorist training has dropped by 90%, Al Qaeda Central has essentially be decimated to the extent that many analysts no longer speak of AQC but “Al Qaeda Senior Leadership.” As Bergen goes on to note, following the extract above, AQ ‘lost the best base it ever had... it was a strategic disaster for the organization’ (p.311). The same applies now: Sunny can cite ISIS’s intentions (without a source, I might add) but the only relevant question remains whether we can cause another strategic disaster – the evidence above shows that we can.

Myth 5: Cutting off ISIS funding from Gulf states is the way to deal with it

No, no, no and no.


[1] Note that the empirical literature does become somewhat mixed when looking at suicide terrorism and specifically the lethality of attacks. Piazza in a 2007 paper in the Journal of Politics finds that ‘terrorists, however, who are nationals of nondemocracies are significantly more likely to launch suicide attacks.’ The most significant finding in the literature is that failed states are those which are most linked with terrorism. For those who need more evidence that ISIS’ rise comes from a security vaccum created by a weak Iraqi military, these types of studies provide it (taken from Piazza, 2008):

[2] Speaking of AQI, its worth bursting the myth that ISIS ‘was kicked out of Al Qaeda for being so brutal’ (example). This is another misreading of what happened in 2007 after AQI was decimated. As Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi makes clear, AQI was subsumed into an umbrella organisation called ISI (Islamic State of Iraq). This was made up of a collection of Sunni terrorist groups. The link between ISI and AQC does not appear to be one of parent and affiliate. In a question and answer session with al-Zawahiri, he essentially stated that Al Qaeda in Iraq no longer existed. Fast forward to post-2010, al-Baghdadi then funded al-Jowlani (the head of Jabhut al-Nusra/Al Qaeda in Syria). When Baghdadi spread ISI into Syria and renamed to ISIS, Jowlani asked al-Zawhiri to adjudicate. al-Zawhiri decided in favour of Jowlani – i.e., only Nusra was the legitimate AQ front in Syria. Baghdadi did not accept Zawhiri’s ruling because he was never bound by it because ISI was not a AQ affiliate and did not declare allegiance (baya) to Zawahiri.

Selected Academic References

Biddle et al, ‘Testing the Surge: why did violence decline in 2007?’, International Security (2012) 47

Cohen, ‘Just How Important Are ‘Hearts and Minds’ Anyway? Counterinsurgency Goes to the Polls’, Journal of Strategic Studies (2014)

Hegghammer, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists' Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting’, American Political Science Review (2013) 1

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