The sham “terrorism expert” industry
by Glenn Greenwald, Salon
Shortly prior to the start of the London Olympics, there was an outburst of hysteria over the failure to provide sufficient security against Terrorism, but as Harvard Professor Stephen Walt noted yesterday in Foreign Policy, this was all driven, as usual, by severe exaggerations of the threat: “Well, surprise, surprise. Not only was there no terrorist attack, the Games themselves came off rather well.” Walt then urges this lesson be learned:
[W]e continue to over-react to the “terrorist threat.” Here I recommend you read John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart’s The Terrorism Delusion: America’s Overwrought Response to September 11, in the latest issue of International Security. Mueller and Stewart analyze 50 cases of supposed “Islamic terrorist plots” against the United States, and show how virtually all of the perpetrators were (in their words) “incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational and foolish.” They quote former Glenn Carle, former deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats saying “we must see jihadists for the small, lethal, disjointed and miserable opponents that they are,” noting further that al Qaeda’s “capabilities are far inferior to its desires.”
In the next paragraph, Walt essentially makes clear why this lesson will not be learned: namely, because there are too many American interests vested in the perpetuation of this irrational fear:
Mueller and Stewart estimate that expenditures on domestic homeland security (i.e., not counting the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan) have increased by more than $1 trillion since 9/11, even though the annual risk of dying in a domestic terrorist attack is about 1 in 3.5 million. Using conservative assumptions and conventional risk-assessment methodology, they estimate that for these expenditures to be cost-effective “they would have had to deter, prevent, foil or protect against 333 very large attacks that would otherwise have been successful every year.” Finally, they worry that this exaggerated sense of danger has now been “internalized”: even when politicians and “terrorism experts” aren’t hyping the danger, the public still sees the threat as large and imminent. As they conclude:
… Americans seems to have internalized their anxiety about terrorism, and politicians and policymakers have come to believe that they can defy it only at their own peril. Concern about appearing to be soft on terrorism has replaced concern about seeming to be soft on communism, a phenomenon that lasted far longer than the dramatic that generated it … This extraordinarily exaggerated and essentially delusional response may prove to be perpetual.”
Which is another way of saying that you should be prepared to keep standing in those pleasant and efficient TSA lines for the rest of your life, and to keep paying for far-flung foreign interventions designed to “root out” those nasty jihadis.
Many of the benefits from keeping Terrorism fear levels high are obvious. Private corporations suck up massive amounts of Homeland Security cash as long as that fear persists, while government officials in the National Security and Surveillance State can claim unlimited powers, and operate with unlimited secrecy and no accountability. In sum, the private and public entities that shape government policy and drive political discourse profit far too much in numerous ways to allow rational considerations of the Terror threat.
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But there’s a very similar and at least equally important (though far less discussed) constituency deeply vested in the perpetuation of this fear. It’s the sham industry Walt refers to, with appropriate scare quotes, as “terrorism experts,” who have built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism and can stay relevant only if that threat does.
These “terrorism experts” form an incredibly incestuous, mutually admiring little clique in and around Washington. They’re employed at think tanks, academic institutions, and media outlets. They can and do have mildly different political ideologies — some are more Republican, some are more Democratic — but, as usual for D.C. cliques, ostensible differences in political views are totally inconsequential when placed next to their common group identity and career interest: namely, sustaining the myth of the Grave Threat of Islamic Terror in order to justify their fear-based careers, the relevance of their circle, and their alleged “expertise.” Like all adolescent, insular cliques, they defend one another reflexively whenever a fellow member is attacked, closing ranks with astonishing speed and loyalty; they take substantive criticisms very personally as attacks on their “friends,” because a criticism of the genre and any member in good standing of this fiefdom is a threat to their collective interests.
On a more substantive level, any argument (such as Walt’s) that puts the Menace of Islamic Terror into its proper rational perspective — namely, that it pales in comparison to countless other threats (including Terrorism from non-Muslim individuals and states); that it is wildly exaggerated considering what is done in its name; and that it is sustained by ugly sentiments of Islamophobic bigotry — is one that must be harshly denounced. Such an argument not only threatens their relevance but also their central ideology: that Terror is an objective term that just happens almost always to mean Islamic Terror, but never American Terror.
Thus, Walt’s seemingly uncontroversial article was published for not even 24 hours when it was bitterly attacked for hours on Twitter this morning by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, and it’s not hard to see why. Looking at Gartenstein-Ross’s reaction and what drives it sheds considerable light onto this sham “terrorism expert” industry.
Gartenstein-Ross’ entire lucrative career as a “terrorism expert” desperately depends on the perpetuation of the Islamic Terror threat. He markets himself as an expert in Islamic Terror by highlighting that he was born Jewish, converted to Islam while in college, and then Saw the Light and converted to Christianity. During his short stint as a Muslim, he worked at the al-Haramain charity foundation in Oregon — the same one that was found to have been illegally spied upon by the Bush NSA — but became an FBI informant against the group because — as he claimed in a book,”My Year Inside Radical Islam”, which he subsequently wrote to profit off of his conduct — he was horrified by “the group hatreds and anti-intellectualism of radical Islam.”
He is now listed as an “expert” at the neocon Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (the group’s list of “experts” is basically a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country). Gartenstein-Ross is specifically employed by the Foundation as something called “Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization.” According to his own bio, he also “consults for clients who need to be at the forefront of understanding violent non-state actors and twenty-first century conflict” including for “major media companies, and strategic consultations for defense contractors” and “also regularly designs and leads training for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Leader Development and Education for Sustained Peace (LDESP) courses, the U.S. State Department’s Office of Anti-Terrorism Assistance, and domestic law enforcement.”
Unsurprisingly, Gartenstein-Ross — like so many “terrorism experts” in similar positions — is eager to depict Islamic Terror as a serious threat: he knows where his bread his buttered and does not want the personal cash train known as the War on Terror ever to arrive at a final destination. If you were him, would you?
In 2009, he wrote a study entitled “Homegrown Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K.” which, needless to say, was only about Muslims: an “examination of 117 ‘jihadist’ terrorists in the United States and the United Kingdom” which “concludes that religious beliefs” — namely, Islam –”play a role in radicalization.” In 2011, he wrote a book entitled Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror, which argues that “despite the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda remains a significant threat.” He has hyped the ludicrous alleged Iranian Quds Forces plot against the Saudi Ambassador (explaining that ”Holder weighing in on the plot’s connection to Iran means the administration is deadly serious about it”), and recently touted Nigeria as the “next front in the war on terror.”
To be sure, Gartenstein-Ross is more nuanced and sophisticated than the standard neocon “terror expert” cartoon — his 2011 bin Laden book argues against wasteful counter-terrorism programs that are out of proportion to the actual threat, and he has, to his credit, publicly opposed some of the more crass Islamophobic attacks — but if the War on Islamic Terror disappears, so, too, does his lucrative career as a “terrorism expert.” In that regard, he’s a highly representative figure for this industry.
Walt’s clearly expressed and uncontroversial argument about the exaggerated Terror threat prompted hours of angry derision and personal mockery today from Gartenstein-Ross (who ironically often holds himself out as the Beacon of Civil Discourse). It began this way:
Gartenstein-Ross then demanded that Muslim Terror be taken more seriously than Walt suggests: “terrorists actually put 3 bombs on passenger planes since 2009.” He was then joined by fellow “natsec” clique members for hours of swarming group mockery aimed at Walt (that’s how they typically behave). Gartenstein-Ross continued: Foreign Policy ”should rename Walt’s blog ‘An Ideologue in an Ideological Age.’ The idea he transcends ideological blinders is laughable.” Professor Walt, he then said, is “far less rigorous than his reputation suggests” and “the gap between perception & reality is rather astounding.” Then: “when an academic starts blogging it’s often easy to tell if that ‘authority’ is undeserved.”
All this public impugning of Walt’s reputation, scholarship and character over the crime of pointing out that the threat of Islamic Terror is wildly overstated by people who have an interest in perpetuating the threat. It’s as though Gartenstein-Ross and his friends were eager to jump up, wave their arms, and prove Walt’s argument by identifying themselves as precisely the fear-mongering culprits he was criticizing.
Exactly the same thing happened this week in response to Juan Cole’ssuperb post entitled “Top Ten differences between White Terrorists and Others,” pointing out all the revealing differences in how white perpetrators of violence are talked about versus non-white (especially Muslim) ones. Cole’s argument was every bit as threatening to the vested interests of the “terror expert” industry as Walt’s was, as it reveals the ugly truth that the hysteria over the Muslim Threat is motivated far more by Islamophobic bigotry and subservience to U.S. Government militarism than any rational policy assessments or high-minded scholarship.
This was too much to bear for J.M. Berger, a self-described “specialist on homegrown extremism” and author of “Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam,” which, in his words, “uncovers the secret history of American jihadists” — meaning Muslims, of course. “American Muslims have traveled abroad to fight in wars because of their religious beliefs,” says the book’s summary. (Symbolizing how relentlessly incestuous this clique is, Gartenstein-Ross randomly took a moment out of his attack on Walt today to pimp what he called Berger’s “valuable book”). Like Gartenstein-Ross, Berger avoids the more overt forms of anti-Muslim rhetoric, often stressing the need to distinguish between Good Muslims and the Terrorist kind, but he spends his time doing things like shrieking about the Towering Menace of Anwar al-Awlaki and generally hopping on whatever Muslim-Terrorism-is-a-Grave-Danger train that comes along.
Berger denounced Cole’s piece as “80 percent BS, 20 percent fair points” and said it was composed of “lazy generalizations.” Specifically, Berger complained that when a Muslim launches a violent attack, there are “whole stories dedicated to AQ being fringe and Islam being peaceful,” but when there’s a violent attack by a white shooter, “no one does stories about how white people are mostly peaceful and non-racist” (apparently, the true victims of unfair media coverage of Terror attacks are white people, not Muslims). He insisted, needless to say, that white perpetrators of violence are depicted as lone nuts while attacks by Muslims are depicted as part of a broader Terror threat only because it’s so true. It’s vital to Berger that Islamic Terror continue to be perceived as a vital, coordinated national security threat or else J.W. Berger and his “expertise” will cease to matter.
The key role played by this “terrorism expert” industry in sustaining highly damaging hysteria was highlighted in an excellent and still-relevant 2007 Washington Post Op-Ed by Zbigniew Brzezinski. In it, he described how the War on Terror has created an all-consuming Climate of Fear in the U.S. along with a systematic, multi-headed policy of discrimination against Muslim Americans based on these severely exaggerated threats…