April 28, 2016

Q&A with Bruce Hoffman, Professor and Director of Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies

Professor and Director of Georgetown's Center for Security Studies Bruce Hoffman sat down with Global Futures Fellow John Arterbury to discuss terrorism, security studies, and the future of Georgetown's security studies program (SSP).

What steered you to terrorism studies?

2016 marks the fortieth anniversary that I first started studying terrorism when I came to graduate school, and I suppose that’s one big difference between then and now. We have at least 100 students doing the terrorism and substate violence concentration within the security studies master's degree program. I was the only one in my entire university in 1976, much less my master's-equivalent program, interested in terrorism back then. I suppose what drew me to it were two things that I’m still intently interested in: firstly, why do terrorists do what they do and how do they justify or legitimize the violence and death and havoc that they wreak? And, second, why do governments constantly argue that terrorism is a failed strategy—if it’s so unsuccessful, why has it persisted for two millennium? Indeed, why has it become such a prominent and even intractable feature of conflict in the twenty-first century?

There’s the maximalist position that says terrorism absolutely works and is an effective strategy, and then there’s the position that terrorists are irrational or astrategic. What would you say to that?

Terrorists are always rational—logic informs and compels their violence. They have to be strategic; otherwise how could they hope to confront exponentially more powerful adversaries? I think terrorism largely succeeds tactically because it’s about attracting attention to the terrorists and their cause and that indisputably works. Just look at the news. The question in terms of facilitating or sustaining long-term political change and whether terrorism is strategically successful, is where I think the message historically is mixed. They’re not always successful and maybe in a majority of cases they’re not. The problem is that the minority of cases where they are successful becomes a beacon or an inspiration or a motivation to other aggrieved groups who seek to duplicate or emulate that success, and that’s part of why terrorism continues, because there are groups and disenfranchised people that believe it’s the most effective and perhaps the only means of political change available to them, and they hope that even if the odds are against them—which they inevitably are, because it’s a strategy of the weak or the powerless, the would-be powerful—they hope that they’ll defy the odds, and they’ve seen historically in rare instances where other groups have, and those successes have been very prominent lessons that they’ve absorbed.

How should this inform policymakers and the general public?

I think another theme of my research over the past four decades is that terrorists learn very well. They learn from the experiences of both their predecessors and contemporaries—not necessarily just from their own group. The most effective and successful terrorist groups are learning organizations; they’re constantly adapting and adjusting to obviate or overcome the most consequential governmental countermeasures put in their path. I think the big problem is that governments, militaries, and intelligence agencies don’t learn nearly as well and are constantly reinventing the wheel. There’s a penalty for complacency in the aftermath of a terrorist attack when tremendous activity occurs in terms of building the bulwark against the next attack, there’s legislation passed and new laws and new agencies, but then the further time recedes from the terrorist attack, the more there’s an inclination to lower our guard and become complacent, and that provides precisely the window of opportunity for terrorists to strike. A constant and consistent approach to accepting terrorism is understanding it as an omnipresent phenomena in the twenty-first century, not as something that’s episodic or inconsequential.

How do you balance these obligations in a mature democracy like the U.S.? Is it possible to be over-vigilant?

It’s always about striking a balance between giving the authorities the tools they need to keep us safe and preserving fundamental civil liberties. The fact that terrorists are trying to cause liberal societies to adopt illiberal solutions to the violence is really what terrorism is all about. Terrorism is a strategy of provocation, designed to provoke responses from the state that the terrorist hopes will be beneficial to their group and their cause. Accordingly, that means that part of the challenge is reacting soberly and non-emotionally, and even if one devolves greater power to the authorities ensuring that there’s the proper oversight or sunset clauses. But again, we swing between two extremes constantly, and I think that’s part of the problem. It results in a lot of duplication and unnecessary expenditure of resources.

What role is there for cross-disciplinary approaches to terrorism, incorporating fields like food or gender security?

The more knowledgeable and socially and culturally aware one is the more one can identify the fault lines in a society or the sources of discontent and move to at least address them. Terrorism surfaces when people feel disenfranchised or ignored or feel that they have no other option. All terrorists portray themselves as reluctant warriors cast on the defensive, grasping at the only option left to them. One effective approach to countering terrorism is to not let it get that far and to take these grievances seriously before they erupt into violence. And it’s not necessarily giving into the grievances, but at least considering them. Most people want a voice.

How does SSP help prepare the next generation of security practitioners?

I think the role of SSP is unique because it’s one of the pre-eminent master’s programs in the world. I think that programs like SSP enable governments to have a much more informed approach to detailing with terrorism, because you have students who are already in full-time jobs in these positions who are looking to put what they do on a day-to-day basis into a much broader context and get the foundational knowledge they have no time to acquire in their daily jobs. You also have the would-be practitioners who will shortly enter the job market and want the training that will make them more marketable and more appealing to employers. I think both streams combine to lead to a much more expansive and theoretically knowledgeable cadre of individuals that can only better inform and enhance policy and decision-making. What we’re teaching our students is how to be analysts or, if they are analysts already, how to be better analysts, and how to develop effective policy solutions. The other thing that makes SSP unique is its core and adjunct faculty. The majority have had experience in the military and intelligence community, but in the case of the core faculty also have absolutely sterling academic credentials, and their scholarship is impeccable. All of us are publishing and having an impact on both the policy realm and the academic realm, which I think also is quite unique.

Where do you see SSP heading?

I’d say the most important new direction for SSP would be to offer the fruits of security studies to undergraduates. There’s such a strong demand among the BSFS students to do security studies that I think it would be a shame not to expand SSP to be the same sort of powerhouse for undergraduates that it is for graduate students, and to bring the very unique expertise of the SSP faculty and make it much more systemically a part of the undergraduate curriculum.

What do you see as the most challenging security concerns of the twenty-first century that the United States is facing?

I tend to look at the world through the perspective of terrorist threats and what worries me profoundly is that terrorists are the most dangerous when they have access to sanctuary and safe haven. That’s because that’s when they have the opportunity to engage in research and development to pursue all sorts of weaponry, including unconventional weaponry. And the problem is that over the past four or five years the number of terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens has grown exponentially, certainly across North Africa, West Africa, East Africa and the Middle East, South Asia as well. In the very immediate aftermath of 9/11 we were very concerned about terrorists getting a nuke or biological or chemical weapons, but then as the war on terrorism gradually eroded Al-Qaeda’s capabilities I think we’ve kind of taken our eyes of that potentiality, but we shouldn’t be under any illusion that our enemies aren’t thinking along those lines. Unfortunately, terrorists today clearly have the motivation and inclination to use such unconventional weapons, but what’s missing is that capability. Access to safe haven and sanctuary potentially gives terrorists that capability. That was one of the lessons of Afghanistan before 9/11. We have to be as forward thinking as the terrorists are. We became complacent after the killing of bin Laden and thought that Al-Qaeda ceased to exist, but now we’ve got a two-pronged problem: we’ve got an ISIS that’s threatening, powerful, and has eclipsed anything we’ve previously understood about the malevolence and brutality of terrorists, and we have a resurgent Al-Qaeda that’s resurrecting its power because of our preoccupation and fixation with ISIS.