Eli Berman


On his book Radical, Religious, and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism

Cover Interview of December 13, 2009

The wide angle

My book offers a fresh way of understanding insurgency and terrorism.  I outline a constructive approach to confronting localized insurgencies like those in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the international terrorism that now threatens most Western countries.

The threat is limited to a very small number of organizations, only those capable of sustainable violent acts without leaks and defection.  The U.S. State Department lists only 39 such organizations—less than half are radical Islamists.  So why not concentrate on undermining the benign organizational bases of these few organizations?  This is best done by helping host governments compete directly in the provision of the benign services that radical Islamists provide to their members: security, education, health care, justice, welfare services, and political representation.

Has this approach ever worked?  Gamal Abdul Nasser managed it in the 1950s when he confronted the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the prototypical modern radical Islamists.  Nasser’s arresting of thousands of leaders is pretty standard—but he also nationalized the vast social service provision network that the Brotherhood had developed, successfully suppressing them for over two decades.

This constructive tactic has additional advantages.  It carries no ideological baggage; allies, local governments, and NGOs can wholeheartedly sign on.  It also plays to the strengths of western democracies: our resources and capacity for strong governance and economic growth.

If improving governance works, then why is Afghanistan going so badly?  Perhaps because we misunderstand the enemy.  In Iraq the insurgents may have been less a club, and so succumbed to a more standard “hearts and minds” governance and security enhancement approach, in which noncombatants rat out insurgents.  The Taliban in Afghanistan may be more defection-proof, leaking less information.  Undermining their organizational strength would require competing directly with their organizational base, which is currently outside Pakistan, in North Waziristan and Baluchistan.

Is this all just a liberal rant?  No.  It’s based on peer-reviewed empirical research published in scholarly journals.  It is also informed by my own experience as a counterinsurgent and by conversations and consultation with current practitioners.