Understanding Terrorism: an Interview with Dr. Bruce Hoffman

I am currently writing a textbook on homeland security (due out from Elsevier next spring 2015).  Unique to this text are interviews with renowned experts in the fields of homeland security and national security.  Dr. Bruce Hoffman is one such expert.  He is perhaps the world's preeminent expert on counterterrorism, faculty at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and the author of several books, including the renowned Inside Terrorism.  An excerpt of his interview appears below. Read the rest when it publishes spring 2015.


Professor Bruce Hoffman is currently the Director of the Center for Security Studies, Director of the Security Studies Program, and a tenured professor at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Washington DC. He previously held the Corporate Chair in Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency at the RAND Corporation and was the Director of RAND's Washington, D.C. office. Professor Hoffman also served as RAND's Vice President for External Affairs and was Acting Director for RAND's Center for Middle East Public Policy. Professor Hoffman was Scholar-in-Residence for Counterterrorism at the Central Intelligence Agency between 2004 and 2006. He was also adviser on counterterrorism to the Office of National Security Affairs, Coalition Provisional Authority, Baghdad, Iraq during the spring of 2004 and from 2004-2005 was an adviser on counterinsurgency to the Strategy, Plans, and Analysis Office at Multi-National Forces-Iraq Headquarters, Baghdad. Professor Hoffman was also an adviser to the Iraq Study Group. He remains a member of several groups and organizations, including the National Security Preparedness Group, the successor to the 9/11 Commission, and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program at the Human Rights Watch. Professor Hoffman is a scholar and visiting professor at numerous institutions including the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel; and, the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Professor Hoffman was the founding Director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where he was also Reader in International Relations and Chairman of the Department of International Relations. He is Editor-in-Chief of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, the leading scholarly journal in the field, and editor of the new Columbia University Press Series on Terrorism and Irregular Warfare. A revised and updated edition of his acclaimed 1998 book, Inside Terrorism, was published in May 2006 by Columbia University Press in the U.S. and S. Fischer Verlag in Germany.

What did you study in school, and how did you get started in your field?
BH: Early on in my education, the Munich Massacre made a great impression on me. The Munich Massacre was an incident where 11 members of the 1972 Israeli Olympic team and others were taken hostage and murdered by terrorists. The incident made me start thinking about terrorism as more than just a localized problem, but rather a contemporary and increasingly global phenomenon.

I focused on ballistic missile issues and the NATO-Warsaw Pact. When I entered graduate school four years later, my peers were primarily interested in strategic issues such as inter-continental ballistic missiles and the confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. There was an East-West standoff and a cold war but terrorists were also just then becoming a big part of the picture. It was around this time that terrorists began coercing governments to behave in ways that caused these governments to modify their own policies and treaty agreements. The ability of a small group of people (terrorists) to have such a disproportionate impact on nations was a phenomenon I found fascinating. It made me think of international relations differently and I began focusing on the impact that terrorism was having on international relations.

While in graduate school I began to realize that non-state actors, such as terrorists, have much greater impact on states than people realized. How was this possible? I also became curious about the terrorists themselves. Many of them were in their 20's, around the same age as myself. Sometimes, highly educated and on the same path I was on as a student, but then they somehow headed off in a completely different direction. I began to ask questions that I have attempted to answer since then: Why do persons become terrorists? Why do they commit the acts they do? What is it that compels persons to embrace violence as a means to achieving fundamental political change?

I went to graduate school in 1976 when nobody was studying terrorism, which is also what made it appealing. My graduate degree was in international relations, but I focused on military and diplomatic hisotry and security studies within that degree.

If the behavior and motives of terrorists interested you, then why not pursue a field like psychology or cognitive science?
Though psychology may shed light on why terrorists behave the way they do, it seemed to me even back then, that the impetus to becoming a terrorist was an established narrative - the desire to achieve some fundamental change in a political system that these individuals thought was hostile to them, and the belief that joining a certain group of like-minded believers gave collective meaning to their own anger, feelings, or political leanings. For me, understanding terrorism meant trying to understand the political forces and social movements and the historical reasons that animated war and conflict and impelled individuals to becoming terrorists.

As someone who has seen the field mature, what kind of changes have you seen in the way individuals and scholars approach this field?
BH: Because of 9/11 there is greater knowledge about terrorism and the various dimensions of it, than ever before. Today, people instantaneously comprehend the concept of the “terrorist narrative.” The differences in comprehension are fairy profound. When I was studying terrorism in graduate school, most of the time there were no one else doing so, and certainly very few established academics at the time interested in it. None of the larger related majors, such as political science or international relations, had courses focused on terrorism.

Practically speaking, it was also rare for people to have witnessed a terrorist attack, or even know someone who had been affected directly by a terrorist attack. This changed after the 9/11 attack. Today, it is not very difficult to meet individuals who have been directly impacted by terrorism. Moreover, people today are also increasingly affected by a terrorist attack even though they did not experience the attack themselves. Policies throughout the country change, laws are passed and economies shift due to attacks which may take place hundreds of miles away. As tragic as the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa were, they did not elicit the same visceral reaction as the 9/11 attacks - such as compelling people to join the armed forces or start studying terrorism. Compared to the 1990's many of my students today have had direct experience with terrorism, in one sense or another, often by serving in the U.S. military or in government. The state of knowledge among my students today about terrorism is completely different, and often informed by some kind of direct or personal experience.

Would you say that violence is a productive or successful way of expressing grievances and influencing change? Why does terrorism continue to be so pervasive?
BH: Successful, yes. Productive, I'm not sure. The answer depends on how you define success. If success is achieving long term goals, then terrorism really isn't a successful way of influencing change. But if success means the ability to attract attention to a cause or belief, then absolutely - terrorism succeeds at this. For terrorists, the first stepping stone is attracting sufficient attention to their cause so as to force it to be thrust upon someone else's agenda. If their issue becomes something others have to deal with, then by that definition the use of violence is successful, because in many cases if terrorists had not resorted to violence, are often ignored.

But doesn't the use of violence create barriers to achieving political or social change?
BH: Not as long as terrorists attempt to calibrate their violence. As long as terrorists don't go too far, as they did with the 9/11 attacks, then violence doesn't serve as too insurmountable of a barrier. The modern use of violence is a big difference in terrorism from the late 20th century. During the 20th century, violence almost always seemed calibrated for a specific outcome. The inclusion of a theological imperative, so common and pervasive in the 21st century among terrorists, means that terrorism today has become something of a divine decree, and the sense of restraint or calibration of violence is abandoned. Thus, when the use of violence to achieve political or social change is ad-hoc and uncalibrated, it becomes much less successful. Modern-day terrorists, like al-Qa'ida, may get attention or publicity, but no one is going to negotiate with them.

How would you define terrorism?
BH: Terrorism is use of violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change. It is generally, acts of violence designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions committed by non-state actors that often, but not exclusively, target civilians. States of course use terror and other forms of violence against their own citizens and others —and have done so throughout history. And this is as abhorrent and tragic as terrorism is. But one needs to distinguish between “terrorism” —which traditionally is associated with non-state actors and state “terror,” which is what the violence perpetrated by governments against civilians is termed.

Why the dichotomy between “terrorism” and “hate crimes” - why do you think that the federal government and even academia view certain violent actions as terrorism and others as crime. Should there be a difference?
BH: Hate crimes are terrorism. For instance, the FBI's definition of terrorism includes actions that have a political, social, economic or religious motive. How the media or politicians define terrorism is a different story altogether.

Critics, including Congress, have called the Department of Homeland Security out for focusing too broadly on al-Qa'ida inspired terrorism instead of combating terrorism from other sources such as white supremacists and anti-government groups. In the context of your definition of terrorism and hate crimes, what are your thoughts on their criticism?
BH:I disagree with those who say that law enforcement agencies do not regard threats other than those posed by al-Qa'ida as legitimate. For instance, in 2002/2003, just after the 9/11 attacks, the FBI said that the most dangerous terrorist threat to the U.S. came from radical environmentalists or animal rights activists. Acts of terrorism and hate crimes are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, inevitably, law enforcement agencies and others will prioritize certain crimes over others.

Moreover, al-Qa'ida presents a very different, sustained threat which straddles something between a strategic and tactical challenge. Since the government and law enforcement lacks endless resources, they have to develop a means to prioritize which crimes and which criminal organizations they will address. Thus, it is important to note that law enforcement isn't ignoring the threat of terrorism or crime unrelated to al-Qa'ida, but rather understand that law enforcement pays attention to all threats, but prioritizes and emphasizes addressing the al-Qa'ida threat.

Let's take a look at foreign policy. There are allegations by many experts that the collateral damage from U.S. drone strikes abroad creates a lot resentment among citizens of countries like Pakistan and Yemen and this resentment is then used by al-Qa'ida and other terrorist organizations to fuel a narrative of terrorism recruitment and retention. What are your thoughts on that?
BH: An innocent civilian is an innocent civilian. Innocent civilians should not be killed - and the fact that they are is a problematic aspect of drone strikes. Moreover, drones should be used judiciously. However, it is important to remember that drones are not the source of all animus directed towards the U.S. The animus towards the U.S. already exists, drones are often used by terrorists groups as yet another justification to launch attacks on American targets.

In many instances, too, the tallies of civilian casualties are imprecisely known. Governments tend to downplay civilian casualties and terrorists groups or others with an interest against the government tend to exaggerate the same casualties. Discerning the accurate number is part of the problem. The bottom line is, it is wrong to kill innocent civilians. They should never be killed. We (the United States) need to exercise greater restraint, but at the same time that does not mean drones have not proven to be an enormously effective weapon.

Why have drones proven to be an enormously effective?
BH: Though drones will not single-handedly win the war on terrorism, they have nonetheless proven to be enormously effective in targeting terrorist leaders. People often confuse tactics with strategy. Drones are a good tactic, but not a viable long-term strategy. Use of drones alone will not end the al-Qa'ida threat. Nonetheless, drone attacks have eliminated many seasoned, experienced and highly trusted al-Qa'ida operatives. They have compelled members of al-Qa'ida, especially the senior leadership, to spend as much time worrying about their own security as planning the next terrorist attack. These are all positive developments.

You've referred to the “war” several times. Many people contend that the “War on Terror” as both a description and an actual conflict is vague and ambiguous. Moreover, critics contend that a war such as this is one without an end. What are your thoughts on these contentions?
BH: It was a mistake to call this war a “War on Terror” because terror is an emotion. We should have gotten it right and called it a “war on terrorism.” This difference is critical because unlike “terror,” terrorism is recognizable as a political phenomenon. Whether you can declare war on a political phenomenon is a whole other problem, but it is at least slightly less problematical.

Broadly speaking, there never was a “war on terrorism” because we were never going to war with terrorists everywhere. At the same time, calling the struggle a “war” may not have been a mistake because labeling it so recognized that the struggle against al-Qa'ida and associated forces had gone beyond the ability of law enforcement to counter. In fact, up until 9/11 the U.S. viewed terrorism as a law enforcement problem. The U.S. would approach terrorists as criminals and throw the perpetrators in jail, while failing to unravel the terrorists' chain of command and thus potentially intercepting other terrorist plots. It was only after 9/11 that the law enforcement and national security community recognized that terrorism had crossed a threshold and become a much more strategic threat that could not be dealt with on a local level.

Secondly, it is important to note that we have wars against a lot of things - drugs, cancer, poverty. None of them have been very successful because they are big, amorphous issues like terrorism. However, you do need some all-embracing, galvanizing word to pull together the disparate strands of governmental effort, though I am still not necessarily sure “war” is appropriate, even while I understood why it was chosen.

What advice would you give someone in graduate school interested in the work that you do?
BH: Terrorism is a problem that is not going away. It is a problem that still requires smart minds. Even if opportunities in this field may be shrinking at one point in time, at another point they are just as likely to change. Building knowledge on terrorism is essential to understanding it—and government and industry will always need smart people with critical analytical abilities and a solid foundation of learning and understanding of this phenomenon.