Friday, August 19, 2016

Dr. Cheryl Benard, The National Interest: Trump on Fighting Radical Islam: Rock Solid

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Trump on Fighting Radical Islam: Rock Solid


On August 15, Candidate Trump delivered a major speech on fighting terrorism. These days, everything has become intensely partisan, so I preface my assessment with the following self-disclosure: I have been a lifelong Independent, usually leaning towards the Democrats. I have worked on the issues central to this speech – immigration, integration, youth radicalization, nation-building, political Islam and counterterrorism – for the bulk of my professional life, first with a European think tank and then at the RAND Corporation. At RAND, my research focused on how to distinguish radical and potentially violent segments of the Islamic populace from garden variety religious folks. My team spent time in Baghdad trying to help the military figure out which detainees to worry about and which ones to release. In our 2013 studyEurojihad, we evaluated the policies of European governments and warned that their intelligence was inadequate, their cooperation with each other and with the U.S. needed to be beefed up, many of their social policies were naïve and that without major efforts, terrorist attacks were likely; events have sadly borne this out.
Against this background, I have carefully read and evaluated the suggestions made by Mr. Trump. A dispassionate read did not come easily. I have not much liked his comments about women during the early part of his candidacy. I fail to see how a wall along the border to Mexico could be a sensible idea. And I have followed his various eccentric remarks on Muslims and on other diverse matters with bemusement.
Yet today my bottom line has to be: this policy statement is rock solid. It reflects state-of-the-art knowledge on counterterrorism. I can’t, actually, find anything to disagree with.
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Trump suggests we get in front of such problems by creating “screening procedures” that will allow us to admit only those individuals who “share our values and respect our people.” Our country had such litmus tests during the Cold War to exclude Communists, he argues. But in the current context, is this even possible?
I think it could be. Mindsets and values can be identified, and Islamic extremism is no exception. It’s very difficult, and your methodology needs to be sophisticated, well-informed, and adapted to your goal and to the circumstances. A blunt instrument won’t do, and Trump is right to say that establishing such a process will be slow. I think he is also right to say there is no other option – unless we want societal chaos and are prepared to deal with increasing terrorist violence on our home turf. Flinging open the gates out of a wish to appear inclusive, open-minded and humanitarian is a recipe for disaster.
What would such screening procedures entail? Well, you can’t ask people, “do you believe in democracy” or “are you a terrorist.” That’s much too transparent and the “right” answer is too obvious. Amazingly, some bureaucracies and some countries ask exactly this, but it’s eminently a waste of time. You need oblique indicators, things people will be less likely or less able to falsify. These can be developed, because values and attitudes tend to come in clusters, and people’s behavior has a pattern. A psychopath is likely to have tortured animals as a child. A Canadian has a particular way of pronouncing the “ou” sound. Rural Southern communities in which hunting is a way of life will include few vegetarians. Is this profiling? Yes, it is. Profiling has become a dirty word, but only because we’re conflating two very different things: profiling, and prejudice. Prejudice is not only morally wrong and politically problematic, it is also the exact opposite of what profiling is intended to achieve: it’s a red herring when what you’re looking for is a red flag. Prejudice will make you concentrate on the wrong suspects for the wrong reasons. A profile is not an assumption based on external characteristics, nor is it a way of determining guilt. It is, rather, a set of empirically established correlations that help you narrow the aperture for whatever it is you are looking for, in order to improve your efficiency and allow you to use your resources more effectively. And you can’t get lazy, because the other side is paying attention and adapting. At one point, the terrorist group Hizb ut Tahrir realized that refusing to shake the hands of women was identifying them as religious hardliners, and they instructed their male followers in Europe that henceforth they were to commit this sin in the interest of blending in, arousing less attention and therefore being better able to launch attacks.
I came away from this speech hoping that its ideas won’t be dismissed out of hand by those who don’t like the messenger. Political correctness won’t get us anywhere and neither will partisan hostility. We have problems – big and serious problems – and we need to study them impartially and together, and to consider solutions different from the ones we have unsuccessfully applied since 9-11. Even for a “long war”, that’s too long…
Dr. Cheryl Benard was program director of the Initiative for Middle Eastern Youth and the Alternative Strategies Initiative within the RAND Corporation’s National Security Research Division. Her publications include Civil Democratic Islam, Building Moderate Muslim Networks, The Muslim World After 9-11, The Battle Behind the Wire - US Prisoner and Detainee Operations, and Eurojihad - Patterns of Islamist Radicalization and Terrorism in Europe.
Civil Democratic Islam was one of the books found in Osama Ben Laden’s library during the raid on his compound.