An Interview with Columbia Professor Assaf Moghadam

Interviewed by Alexa Boncimino

Professor Moghadam currently teaches a course at Columbia titled Insurgencies and Civil War in the department of Political Science. 

Professor Moghadam is also a Professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzilya, Israel.  Previously, he was a fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.  He specializes in research on terrorist organization.  In this interview, we spoke briefly on his research regarding Global Jihad and the evolution of terrorist cooperation. 

I have greatly enjoyed his course and I find his research on the globalization of terror organizations fascinating.  Particularly, the impact of terrorist evolution on counter terrorism strategy. For those who are interested, Professor Moghadam is currently conducting research on proxy wars.

Would you want to give a brief introduction to yourself and your work?

“My name is Professor Moghadam. I am a visiting associate professor here, spending two years at Columbia University. My Home Institution is the Interdisciplinary Center Herzilya where I used to direct the master’s program in government. The focus of my research is terrorism, civil wars, and insurgency. And I’m particularly interested research wise in the dynamics within and between terrorist actors.”

And how did you first become interested in the topic?

“I’ve always been fascinated with international relations.  Growing up in Germany, I was particularly fascinated with the Red Army Faction, which was a left wing militant Marxist Revolutionary Organization active in the late sixties all the way until the 1980s. I was very fascinated with the Red Army Faction because of the combination of their left wing ideology on the one hand and their anti-Semitic leanings on the other. Being Jewish, I was always fascinated by left wing antisemitism.  So that’s what initially sparked my interest in the Red Army Faction.

That led to a much broader interest in Milton actors and Militant Ideologies. The other big event that helped spark my interest in terrorism was when I did my undergraduate degree, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, between 1994 and 1996.  A period which coincided with the first kind of major wave of suicide bombings. I lived in Jerusalem at the time, so I became very interested in the motivations of suicide bombers and that sparked a lifelong interest in terrorism.”

Interesting, you said you first became interested in analyzing motivations of suicide bombers, what would you say the root of that motivation is?

“Initially when I started to examine suicide bombers, the conventional wisdom was that they do it because they are humiliated because they suffer from grievances. And I certainly think that’s part of the answer. But, what I did in my research was try to look in a much more holistic fashion at different levels of analysis. I think that when looking at terrorism in general and looking at suicides bombers in particular, there is a much broader holistic understanding that requires looking at this issue from multiple levels of analysis.

It is not just about understanding the individual level of what motivates individuals in terms of their grievances and their backgrounds, but it is also about looking at the organizational level — so understanding terrorist tactics, strategies, and how terrorists are sometimes enticed to act or provoked to act as a result of the interaction that they have with the government.  Then also looking at a third level, apart from the individual and organizational level at a much broader kind of environmental level. So my interest in suicide terrorism is really kind of a much more general approach of examining terrorism based on different levels of analysis.”

Could you briefly summarize the dynamics of cooperation amongst groups on those different levels?

“So, my last book looks at why is it terrorist actors cooperate with each other? The reason that cooperation is actually a puzzling phenomenon is that terrorist organizations are usually very strictly secretive and very conspiratorial. As a result, any kind of interconnectedness between terrorist actors is actually risky for organizations because the government can try to intercept communications between actors, or if terrorist leaders meet, for example, it poses a risk to these organizations. So it’s actually a fascinating question, why do militant actors cooperate despite the risks of connecting with other organizations.

And the reason of course is that organizations cooperate because there are benefits that are counterweights to the risks. So what I’m really interested in in terms of cooperation is looking not only at a traditional organizations and how they cooperate, but looking at a much, much broader spectrum of contemporary actors and how they cooperate.

Traditional studies of cooperation have looked only at terrorist organizations. What I did in my book is I broadened the unit of analysis, and I’m also interested in why individuals, for example, cooperate with organizations, why informal networks cooperate with formal organizations, and also to what effects.  What are the effects of cooperation and how can we counter it?

I would add, that cooperation is much more apparent in terrorism.  And I use the example in my book of 9/11 because it is not a typical attack in terms of terrorist cooperation. But even the 9/11 attack, had an element of cooperation because we saw the cooperation of a formal organization or within individual terrorist entrepreneur, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who became the mastermind at the attacks. Were it not for those two elements coming together there would not have been a September 11th attack as we know it.”

Along those lines, what do you think the main focus should be for counterterrorism strategies?

“Generally speaking, when it comes to terrorist cooperation and how to undermine it I think there’s a broader question here. One of the problems of me saying, let’s just exploit disagreements and divisions is that that in itself can pose the risk of creating more groups and making the overall number of actors larger. If you start dissent within a movement, you can create more kinds of a terrorist actors. So it’s a real problem, the question of how we should we approach this. I think it’s something which has to be decided on a case by case basis.

Analysists have to sit down and think whether it’s worthwhile splitting up organizations of if divisions will wind up making things worse. If the decision is, you know, to split up actors, then I think that my research can actually give some insights. Because what I do in my book is I identify several different levels of cooperation and different types of cooperation. 

So we see, for example, very strong levels of cooperation like mergers or strategic alliances on the one hand. But on the other hand, they’re also lesser forms of cooperation, like tactical cooperation or even transactional cooperation’s, so distinguishing between these different types of cooperation can help us think through the best strategies of sewing divisions.

Just for example, when we have a strategic cooperation, that is very strong like we have between al Qaeda and its affiliates, we may be better off trying to sew strategic divisions or divisions over ideologies to tear them apart. But if we have lesser forms of cooperation, like tactical cooperation, for example cooperation between Iran and al Qaeda. Then I think that these forms of cooperation, are not really based on common goals and common objectives to begin with. It’s more short term interests. In order to break apart these forms of cooperation, I think a much better approach would be to try to affect the cost benefit analysis of these two actors.”

How do you think technology plays into that/how both sides have evolved over time?

“Yeah, technology takes a very important role. Cooperation between terrorist actors has really evolved over time. And when we need to think of the different structural factors that have changed the nature of cooperation over time then certainly the internet and social media has had a huge impact on how terrorists cooperate. Nowadays the Internet, for example, plays a role in several different ways. The Internet actually helped establish new platforms, Internet forums for example, which can be a place for different groups to come together, exchange information, best practices and so forth.

The Internet has also empowered new types of individuals who are much more capable to draw a wide range of connections to a lot of people. And the Internet is also a medium of communication per se. If we think about, for example, the fact that people can communicate, via WhatsApp or Twitter, so it’s also a communication tool that in many ways has replaced traditional tools of communication like telephone.

So there’s a lot of different ways in which the Internet has enhanced the ability of actors to communicate. The Internet is really a function of globalization and globalization in and of itself. It been described as unprecedented levels of connectedness to other people. So the idea of cooperation is very much inherent in the very idea of globalization.”

So do you think that’s the main consequence of globalization in terms of terror actors, this increasing connectedness, or what do you think the main impact of globalization/ modernization has been?

 “I think when it comes to the Internet, cooperation is only one of several consequences on terrorism and may not even be the most important consequence. I think that’s probably the most important consequence of the Internet, in the sense that it has empowered individuals is in their ability to propagate their ideology to a much greater extent than they were able to, 20, 30 years ago.

20-30 years ago to disseminate their ideas worldwide, terrorists had to be able to stage attacks like the Munich massacre at the Olympics in1972 where the world kind of focused on this one major event. But nowadays, every single member of the jihadi movements, and there are tens of thousands of these members, can basically disseminate propaganda to a multitude of people instantly. And so we really kind of see that tactical actions by individuals today can have strategic consequences precisely because of the means that is now at their disposal.”

Is there a way to use those means in terms of counter terror strategy?

“Yeah, sure. I think that, like with every new innovation, it can be exploited for a nefarious purposes and for positive purposes. We saw this with dynamite, when it was invented, it was meant to revolutionize the construction business, but it was then taken for other sinister purposes. So the Internet of course, can help counter terrorist infiltrate. However, I think that when it comes to the Internet, and then I really think that it’s very unfortunate that I have to say this, but I think all else being equal, the Internet probably favors the terrorists more. Again, because of the idea that it helps empower these individuals. It gives them new powers so today an isolated individual can have strategic consequences, can even change international affairs.”

That is really, really interesting.  I think we’ve hit a lot of topics. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about, I know you’re currently conducting research. If you’d like to say something about that?

 “Sure, my current research looks at proxy conflicts which is in some ways connected to my interest in cooperation between different militant actors. Proxy conflicts go back to the Cold War when we had superpowers waging proxy warfare in many different places because they wanted to avoid a nuclear confrontation. And so they had their proxies fight each other on their behalf.  I’m really interested in how the nature of proxy conflict has changed over time. And in particular my current research kind of looks at the role that non-state actors play in all of this. The big change I think that we see in proxy conflicts is that traditionally the relationship between sponsors and proxies was seen as a relationship when you have a state sponsor who is utilizing a non-state actor as its proxy.

But I think that what we’ve seen in recent years is some non-state actors have become so powerful that they have actually become sponsors in their own rights. So non-state actors today, such as Hezbollah, have so much agency that they have the wherewithal and the ability to employ proxies in their own right. And that is, I think, a new phenomenon, we’re only starting to understand.”

That is really interesting. Thank you very much for sitting down with me today to discuss your research!

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