A New Kind of Terrorism: An Interview with Dr. Jessica Stern

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By Zach Gorwitz.

On September 10, DPR’s Zach Gorwitz sat down with Dr. Jessica Stern, Lecturer on Terrorism at Harvard University, during her visit to Duke. In addition to holding positions as a Fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard’s School of Public Health and a member of the Hoover Institution’s Task Force on National Security and Law, Dr. Stern served on the National Security Council Staff from 1994-95. She has written numerous articles and several books on terrorism, including Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), Denial: A Memoir of Terror, and her most recent work, ISIS: The State of Terror, written with J.M. Berger. Dr. Stern holds a B.S. in Chemistry from Barnard College, a M.A. in chemical engineering and technology policy from MIT, and a Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard University.

DPR: Your latest book is titled ISIS: The State of Terror. The Islamic State has not existed for very long, but many argue that the United States laid the foundation for ISIS’ rise by invading Iraq in 2003. Do you believe this is true?

Stern: Very much so. The group comes out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq; it is essentially Al-Qaeda in Iraq with a new name. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was formed in 2004 immediately after the invasion, and that group was changing its name over time. The Islamic State is its name now, but it’s really the same group.

DPR: The book argues that the United States’ strategy should focus more on containment and constriction rather than overwhelming military force. Is containment and constriction much different from the Obama administration’s approach to fighting ISIS?

Stern: I don’t think we have a strategy for defeating ISIS. I think our strategy, if we’re lucky, will contain ISIS. I don’t think we’re doing even enough to accomplish that at this point. Part of the problem is that no matter how well the coalition does together pushing ISIS back in Iraq, they will always be able to retreat in Syria unless that conflict is resolved. We don’t have a partner in Syria, and we’re not doing very well at training Syrians. We’re trying to use the strategy of training other people’s armies, and so far we’ve trained 54 personnel, and when they were sent back into Syria they were kidnapped. So, we’ve spent a lot of money with very little to show for it. That is one of the problems. The other is that while we have a 60-nation coalition, I think the Sunni majority states need to become much more involved, and so far, Saudi Arabia, for example, is much more concerned about what is happening in Yemen than fighting the Islamic State. I don’t believe that the U.S. or the international coalition fighting ISIS really has a strategy for defeating it.

DPR: It seems that there is no way to contain or defeat ISIS without having a stable state in Syria. Our missteps in Syria date back a few years now; is there anything we can do at this point to salvage the situation or are we going to have to just sit back and see how it plays out?

Stern: Americans always feel if there’s a problem, we should fix it. I think it’s a wonderful impulse. In this particular case, I don’t know that we can fix the problem. You’re right that a few years ago we might have been able to provide more support to the opposition to Assad, but it’s not clear that that strategy would have been effective. Now it would appear that it is too late… Things will change over time, but at this very moment, it’s hard for me to imagine how to fix the problem. King Abdullah of Jordan says this is an Arab problem. The U.S. should be supporting, but the U.S. can’t solve the problem. There may be some truth to that. It’s easier to make progress in Iraq because the Iraqis are asking for our help; they want more help than we’re prepared to provide. Whereas we just don’t have a partner in Syria.

DPR: That’s an interesting statement from King Abdullah. But I think that anyone that has picked up a newspaper in the past few days and read about the migrant crisis would say that this is not just an Arab problem, it’s an international crisis…

Stern: Okay, that’s a really good correction. I think what he meant is that Arab nations need to solve the problem. You’re right, the problem has now caused negative externalities all over the world. The foreign fighters now number 25,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria… Some of those foreign fighters are going to come back and cause problems for us. ISIS is very good at mobilizing lone wolf attacks. Absolutely, you’re right. I stand corrected. He argues that there is a crisis within Islam.

DPR: Social media propaganda campaigns and the systematic targeting of “lonely Americans” has been a reliable recruiting tactic for ISIS. Do we face a larger threat from ISIS abroad or from ISIS within our borders?

Stern: So far, we seem to face a larger threat from ISIS within our borders. We have seen a few cases where people who have gone to fight with ISIS have returned to Europe and have been involved in organizing attacks. And in some cases, from abroad like [the] case in Texas, the attack against Pamela Geller, there was communication with ISIS members abroad. But we haven’t seen actual attacks in the U.S. perpetrated by returnees. ISIS seems to be making it very difficult for fighters to return… Anyone who tries to defect, they kill. I haven’t seen any evidence of them planting operatives. Now, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, but I haven’t seen it.

DPR: You are a terrorism expert, but you have a unique chemistry background… The danger of terror groups obtaining misplaced chemical or toxic weapons or even stealing a poorly guarded nuclear weapon is very real. What is being done to combat this problem and why don’t we hear more about it?

Stern: You know, when I sit around with my colleagues, I could think of really terrible things that terrorists could do. They don’t seem to do the things my colleagues and I dream of– thank God. They just don’t do them. We do know that the group Zarqawi ran before he started al-Qaeda in Iraq, that group was very interested in chemical weapons. Zarqawi himself tried, he had a plot in Jordan that involved chemical weapons, but it failed. ISIS’ predecessor and almost a kind of mascot is Zarqawi; he’s quoted in every issue of Dabiq, pretty much on page 1. He was obsessed with chemical weapons. And ISIS has apparently been using low grade chemical weapons. But terrorists just haven’t done what one could imagine they might do.

DPR: Many Duke students would love to have a career as successful as the one you have, but they’re torn about how to get there. You’ve interacted extensively with academia, public service, and the private sector. In which arena have you been able to be most effective in YOUR work, and what advice would you have for students torn between the three?

Stern: I didn’t plan my career in any way. I was actually about to get a Ph.D. in chemistry; I had gotten into Columbia, and I was on my way to start this program, and I heard about a program at M.I.T. called technology policy, and it was just an accident of fate. I heard about it from my roommate and I applied, and I just kept moving in the direction of policy. And by the way, I never wanted to major in chemistry; I just fell into that too. I got a bad grade in an English class. I had wanted to be a writer, and I was so insulted! I was incredibly childish about it… Chemistry came easy to me, so I just switched. Eventually I got back to what I always thought I would do, which is writing. I also lived in the Soviet Union for a while, and that’s where I really started thinking about war and peace. So I found a way to combine my chemistry background with national security affairs and gradually moved more and more where my curiosity led me. I think that if you work on something that really intrigues you, and you keep working on it even if it doesn’t seem important at the moment. For example, terrorism. When I first started working on terrorism, it was a very odd choice. My dissertation advisor, who is now Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, admitted to me, “I thought it was so weird!” It was so eccentric, nobody was working on it, but I was fascinated by it. So I just kept working on it… I guess if I have one piece of advice — it sounds trite — work on what really intrigues you. And also don’t give up when things don’t go your way immediately. If you keep trying, you’re going to get there, and you should be prepared for that.

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