This week, DPR’s Megan Steinkirchner sat down with David Schanzer to discuss realities and perceptions of terrorism in today’s world. Schanzer is the Director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security and an associate professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Prior to his academic positions, he has worked in Washington, DC on the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, counsel to Senator Joseph Biden, and in the Department of Defense, among others. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
DPR: Obama’s reaction to terror attacks in Paris last month – what do you make of them, do you think they were lacking in response or proportional? Namely, the fact he didn’t have a presence at the Unity March in Paris – do you believe the administration should have responded more strongly?
Schanzer: I think when a large group of world leaders get together and stand up against a terrible act of violence, it’s good to show unity—and it certainly would have been better to have a U.S. representative. Whenever the President travels anywhere in the world, it’s a pretty cumbersome undertaking, and can actually make things more difficult on the ground. But certainly to send a high level representative from the U.S. government would have been appropriate. Not to do so was a mistake.
But let’s understand, even on the same week of Charlie Hebdo, there was extremist violence that killed many more people in other places around the world—Yemen, Pakistan—than were killed in Paris. It’s important to demonstrate that we care about the victims of all those events too. It would be quite difficult to set the bar as having to send the President to all those places. Of course, the French are our close ally, and there’s nothing wrong with paying a little closer attention to them than maybe some other places in the world. But I think we should think about the extent to which we respond selectively to acts of terrorism—depending on whether the victims were Westerners or Non-Westerners—and the message that sends to the rest of the world about the relative value we place on the lives of different people.
DPR: So in terms of Boko Haram in Nigeria, what do you think the country can do to grapple with their presence? Is there something they can effectively do to stabilize the region?
Schanzer: When we think about terrorism and these terrorist organizations, our default is often to the idea that these groups are responding to the same set of grievances and have the exact same set of ideas and goals as Al Qaeda: the desire to recreate the caliphate, to respond to the perception that the West is at war with the Muslim people, and to create new government structures where Islamic law is predominant. Boko Haram may share some of those elements with Al Qaeda, but I think it’s probably more accurate to look at what’s happening in Nigeria as a reaction to the way people have been treated by the Nigerian government.
At this point, Boko Haram has grown to the size where it could hardly be considered to just a terrorist group, rather it is more of a broad-based insurgency against the Nigerian government. This is a very difficult and deep-seated problem that has a lot to do with bad governance by the party in power. So, many of our counterterrorism tools are not going to be particularly effective. Right now, it is a pre-election period in Nigeria, so I wouldn’t really expect to see anything of much use to be done until after the election. We’ll see what government comes to power and then we can hopefully begin to start dealing more effectively with this problem.
But to begin to weaken Boko Haram, the effort cannot just be about “going after the terrorists.” I have no problem with providing training and equipment to aid the Nigerian military forces [who are] trying to suppress this group. But any counterterrorism aid has to be contingent on governmental reforms, power sharing, and dealing with the political conflict that is giving rise to the Boko Haram movement. If we don’t deal with the deep-seated political problems within Nigeria, then I don’t think we should expect any counterterrorism effort to be particularly effective.
DPR: How do you think the nature of terrorism has changed over the past 15 years?
Schanzer: We have many different types of terrorism. We have the terrorism that’s been inspired by the ideology of Al Qaeda, which I don’t think is all that different from the ideology of ISIS. In the U.S., we have multiple forms of terrorism. We have some impact from Al Qaeda extremism that spills over into the U.S. But the data shows that we’ve seen a lot more lethality coming from anti-government, racist, white extremist forms of terrorism in the United States than from Al Qaeda-inspired extremism. So it really depends on where you are and what type of extremism you’re tracking. We’re seeing a big rise in anti-immigrant extremism and violence in Europe right now. So, as always in history, these things are going to vary over time and places.
DPR: The past year has been different with attacks in Canada, France, and Australia – places that we don’t normally associate with terrorism. Does this signify a new era of remote cells becoming more powerful?
Schanzer: I don’t accept the claim that these incidents are becoming far more prevalent than they have been in previous years. We’ve been tracking data and issuing reports regarding terrorism in the U.S. by Muslim Americans since 9/11. And at least with respect to [that specific category], we did see an uptick this year. A lot of that has to do with the conflict in Syria, agitation in Europe, and possibly [similar agitation] in Australia and North America. Yet, we had seen a downward trend in the three previous years. I’m not prepared to say there is a new form of terrorism happening because of a set of isolated incidents mostly by individuals in the West that may be inspired by what is occurring abroad, but who do not have directly linkages to foreign terrorist organizations.
These incidents get a disproportionate amount of press coverage with respect to the actual violence that is caused. But of course, that’s the nature of terrorism—it’s spectacular, it’s designed to gain attention, and indeed, it does get attention. Now, that [being] said, the incidents in Sydney, Ottawa, and Paris are significant and do require a systematic government response.
DPR: Keeping that thought in mind, and also considering the way media can sensationalize these stories – As an academic, is there anything that you wish the American public realized about terrorism and its threat and how media can misconstrue its presence in the world today?
Schanzer: Well, I think when we have an incident like Charlie Hebdo—which was a terrible incident—there’s this pervading sense that we’re automatically and inevitably going to see more of the same types of violence very soon. A lot of coverage focused on there being hundreds, maybe thousands, of individuals in Europe that had similar views as these Charlie Hebdo attackers and were being monitored by security services or the police. That makes the general public think that if there are that many people sharing these ideas, inevitably you’re going to have a rage of violence sweeping through Europe.
We saw a similar pattern after the Boston Marathon bombing, where the experiences [the bombers] had is not that uncommon to a lot of immigrants—whether they be from Muslim countries or elsewhere—feelings of isolation or not fitting in with the general public, and to some extent having a very normal upbringing and then a sharp transition to violence. It makes you think that if it could happen to them, it could happen to hundreds of other individuals. That hasn’t happened in the United States and it’s been two years since the Boston Marathon bombing.
What I want people to absorb is that just because one holds a set of political views that are sometimes linked to religion and sometimes not—it’s a big step to make the move to engage with violence. Now, in war-torn areas of Syria, it’s much easier. But if you’re in places like Europe, the U.S., Australia, psychologically—I’m not a psychologist—but the data shows that it is a huge step to use violence against civilians and act on those views. I believe we will continue to have these episodes. I think the number and lethality will fluctuate over time depending on what types of grievances are taking place in the rest of the world. I also believe that they will continue to be sporadic and not overwhelming to well-established democracies with strong security apparatuses and strong civil societies.
DPR: How do we make sense of the international system and the operation of transnational rebels and foreign terrorist fighters?
Schanzer: With foreign fighters, another assumption everyone makes is, “Well, if an individual leaves Western Europe or the U.S. and they go to fight in the [Middle East], then they will return [home] and will continue to engage in violence in furtherance of the ideas that brought them to the region in the first place.” And I think that’s a fine assumption for security services to work with because that’s their job—to deal with worst-case scenarios, to protect the public and be constantly vigilant. But the rest of us should internalize the level of the threat based on these assumptions. A large number of those who go to these conflict zones are going to get killed. Alternatively, the individuals who go may get very disaffected and abandon the ideas. So, when they come back [to the West] they may have no interest in continuing to pursue violence and mayhem. To be sure, some of them will come back with the expressed intent to engage new violence. We should keep that in mind.
When numbers are thrown around—whether its hundreds or thousands of individuals who are have gone to fight in Syria from different countries—that doesn’t necessarily mean that thousands of domestic terrorists are being created, all of whom will find their way inside our borders to commit horrific acts. At least in the U.S., we have a good track record of finding out about these individuals and preempting their actions at an early stage before they are able to engage in violence.