January 02, 2006

How Large The Threat from Madrasas?

There has been a lot of back and forth of late re: whether Pakistani strong-man Pervez Musharraf will or won't be expelling foreign students from madrasas in Pakistan. This begs a related query, perhaps. Just how big a deal are these madrasas in the context of the GWOT to begin with? Back in '03, Don Rumsfeld asked: "Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrasas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us"? William Dalrymple, for one, seems more sanguine about madrasas generally, and believes the real peril lies elsewhere, in the main:

...the link between madrasas and international terrorism is far from clear-cut, and new research has been published that has challenged the much-repeated but intellectually shaky theory of madrasas being little more than al-Qaeda training schools. It is certainly true that many madrasas are fundamentalist and literalist in their approach to the scriptures and that many subscribe to the most hard-line strains of Islamic thought. Few make any effort to prepare their students to function in a modern, plural society. It is also true that some madrasas can be directly linked to Islamic radicalism and occasionally to outright civil violence. Just as there are some yeshivas in settlements on the West Bank that have a reputation for violence against Palestinians, and Serbian monasteries that sheltered war criminals following the truce in Bosnia, so it is estimated that as many as 15 percent of Pakistan's madrasas preach violent jihad, while a few have been said to provide covert military training. Madrasa students took part in the Afghan and Kashmir jihads, and have been repeatedly implicated in acts of sectarian violence, especially against the Shia minority in Karachi.

It is now becoming very clear, however, that producing cannon fodder for the Taliban and educating local sectarian thugs is not at all the same as producing the kind of technically literate al-Qaeda terrorist who carried out the horrifyingly sophisticated attacks on the USS Cole, the US embassies in East Africa, the World Trade Center, and the London Underground. Indeed, a number of recent studies have emphasized that there is a fundamental distinction to be made between ma-drasa graduates—who tend to be pious villagers from impoverished economic backgrounds, possessing little technical sophistication—and the sort of middle-class, politically literate global Salafi jihadis who plan al-Qaeda operations around the world. Most of these turn out to have secular and technical backgrounds. Neither bin Laden nor any of the men who carried out the Islamist assaults on America or Britain were trained in a madrasa or was a qualified alim, or cleric.

The men who planned and carried out the September 11 attacks have often been depicted in the press as being "medieval fanatics." In fact it would be more accurate to describe them as confused but highly educated middle-class professionals. Mohamed Atta was an architect; Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's chief of staff, was a pediatric surgeon; Ziad Jarrah, one of the founders of the Hamburg cell, was a dental student who later turned to aircraft engineering; Omar Sheikh, the kidnapper of Daniel Pearl, was a product of the London School of Economics. As the French scholar Gilles Kepel puts it, the new breed of global jihadis are not the urban poor of the third world so much as "the privileged children of an unlikely marriage between Wahhabism and Silicon Valley, which al-Zawahiri visited in the 1990s. They were heirs not only to jihad and the umma but also to the electronic revolution and American-style globalization."

This is also the conclusion drawn by the most sophisticated analysis of global jihadis yet published: Understanding Terror Networks by a former CIA official, Marc Sageman. Sageman examined the records of 172 al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, and his conclusions have demolished much of the conventional wisdom about who joins jihadi groups: two thirds of his sample were middle-class and university-educated; they are generally technically minded professionals and several have a Ph.D. Nor are they young hotheads: their average age is twenty-six, most of them are married, and many have children. Only two appear to be psychotic. Even the ideologues that influence them are not trained clerics: Sayyid Qutb, for example, was a journalist. Islamic terrorism, like its Christian and Jewish predecessors, is a largely bourgeois enterprise. [emphasis added]

I'm open to arguments that Dalrymple underestimates (even grossly) the threat from madrasas. But there is certainly a distinction to be made between, on the one hand, a relatively under-educated madrasa student, hailing from rural Pakistan, that becomes radicalized to fight amidst the neo-Talibs in the environs of Kandahar, say, and, on the other hand, a Western university educated radicalized Salafi (Kepel's Silicon Valley/Wahhabi hybrid), likelier to foster sophisticated mass mayhem in a European metropolis. The former is still a threat, not least to G.I.s in places like southeastern Afghanistan. But I think it's fair to say the greatest peril we face is from the latter camp, and we should probably be paying at least as much attention re: how to dismantle and uncover their networks, mores, etc as we do with regard to the madrasas. (Also worth thinking about, perhaps, is whether there are material differences in the behavior of madrasa alum as between those who are merely attending in their home countries and those coming from third countries--like those Musharraf wanted to expel from Pakistan).

All in all, I think Dalrymple is being somewhat glib when he describes Islamic terrorism as a "bourgeois enterprise", in the main, or analogizes the supposedly 15% percent of madrasas that are extremist with (a very few) Kahane-esque yeshivas in the West Bank or hyper-nationalist monasteries in Serbian enclaves of Kosovo or Bosnia. The problem of the madrasas, one suspects, will continue to be treated as a high priority issue, and rightly so, by many in Washington. I guess my point here is to query whether we are making absolutely sure we are keeping our eye firmly on other threats that are likelier even more serious (read: Western-educated, under-cover radical Salafists and such) and whether anyone has analyzed the differences (if any) between the behavior of local students post-madrasa versus those hailing from third countries? Maybe these are questions that can be worked into Rumsfeld's initial query as something of a supplement. To whether we are "capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrasas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us"--one might wish to ensure that we are paying at least as close attention to the impact of our policies on potentially radicalized Islamic communities in the West, how their networks are metastasizing amidst more intrusive European intelligence service crackdowns (post 7/7 in London, and with the Germans, Spaniards and French all very active on this score of late), and also the differences in propensity for radicalization and appetite for armed jihad, if any, between madrasa students schooled in their home countries versus those traveling from further ports of call.

I'm not an intelligence expert, but I wonder whether as part of a (still choppy) trans-atlantic rapprochment we might not consider, perhaps under the NATO umbrella, a Brussels-based intelligence body aimed at coordinating information on some of the above matters. I'm pretty confident, despite all the hot air and wailing about regarding how we each suck so much that, say, French and U.S. intelligence agents have maintained pretty good cooperation since 9/11 on such matters. But with networks of international jihadists in great flux, and much of the threat likely emitting from Europe, I wonder whether more institutional modes of intelligence-sharing might not make sense at this juncture. Note, for instance, the following information about NATO's intelligence division:

The Intelligence Division provides day-to-day strategic intelligence support to the Secretary General, the North Atlantic Council/Defence Planning Committee, the Military Committee, and other NATO bodies such as International Military Staff elements, the Political Committee and WMD Proliferation Centre. It relies on the NATO nations and NATO Commands for its basic intelligence needs since it has no independent intelligence gathering function or capacity. On the basis of these contributions, it acts as a central coordinating body for the collation, assessment and dissemination of intelligence within NATO Headquarters and to NATO commands, agencies, organisations and nations. [emphasis added]
Is this lack of an independent intelligence gathering function worth assessing? NATO got along fine without it during the Cold War, and national intelligence services are notoriously zealous of preserving maximum autonomy, but I still put it out there for consideration given that neat bipolar rigidities and roughly accepted rules of the game are so obviously a thing of the past. Put differently, and perhaps putting NATO aside for the time being, I guess my bottom line question is whether trans-atlantic intelligence cooperation is A-OK just now, or whether it needs a shot in the arm? If the latter, should people be considering how to perhaps better institutionalize such cooperation? And, if so, wouldn't NATO be a leading candidate for locus of such formalized intelligence-sharing cooperation?

P.S. Here's more on the status of Euro-American cooperation worth reading. What's clear is that any move towards greater institutionalization of intelligence-sharing would need to incorporate the G-8, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Also worth considering in all this, of course, have been European attempts to optimize their own intelligence gathering capacities. Often, we hear that progress on this score has been hampered because some countries "[emphasize] national sovereignty over shared intelligence." Doubtless true, and not a surprise to any of us, of course. Also worth noting, as the author points out, is that some NATO countries are reticent to jeopardize privileged relationships with the U.S. (the dastardly French, reportedly, are keen to develop a more independent European intelligence capacity). But Washington should play the grown-up in all these bureaucratic machinations surrounding intelligence-network reorgs. It's probably, all told, in the U.S. interest for a greater optimization of European intelligence gathering to occur via more centralization, provided however: a) the U.S. is assured it will be fully privy to the fruits of such greater efficiency, b) that the U.S. is still able to discreetly maintain privileged relationships via bilateral channels when centralized fora are not the most adequate mechanisms by which to handle whatever pressing intelligence matter is at hand, and c) a coordinated approach to ensuring input from the likes of the IMO or FATF, or G-8 is ensured as well. To me, this all sounds like a good opportunity to re-vivify cooperation at the NATO level, perhaps by conjoining movements towards the more centralized European intelligence operations with the relevant U.S. counterpart(s), but maybe that's not the best approach. Still, I think this is more than just empty talk of prospective bureaucratic re-shuffles signifying little. I can't help feeling that, between and among the U.N., G-8, IOM, FATF, IMO, ICAO, OSCE, national European intelligence services, nascent centralized European stuctures, and, of course, the Americans--somewhere, somehow, sometime actionable timely intel will get lost in the shuffle--and people will unnecessarily perish as a result of a lack of cohesion in the Atlantic community's intelligence apparatus.

Posted by Gregory at January 2, 2006 04:17 PM | TrackBack (0)
Comments

Greg, there are two very different issues addressed in this post. The first, the significance of the Madrasas in Pakistan (and I presume elsewhere) on recruitment by the Islamofacists, and the second, the advisability of a more institutionalized development of intelligence assets as, for example, under a NATO umbrella. I see the connection between the two as tenuous, but both are important.

(1) It is hard for me to conceive of an academic study that could truly test the significance of the Madrassas. We know they are largely funded by the Saudis and that they tend to teach the extreme Wahabbi version of Islam. If the students are truly poor, rural Pakistanis who, after "graduation", will go back to their agricultural lives, one could argue that the importance is small. At the same time, as we promote democracy in these countries, these graduates would have the right to vote and having been radicalized, can we truly expect that they will support moderate leaders like Musharraf? Further, Jihad has many faces and a mass of indoctrinated foot soldiers could well come in handy to the educated elites that lead the struggle and attend to its more technically complex aspects.

In my own life, my children are graduating from high school this year. They have been exposed to an unrelenting left wing indoctrination from their teachers for the past three years and it shows. When my son dared to question some of this teaching, his grades suffered. That is a powerful influence in the competitive world of college admissions. How susceptible will they be to more balanced conservative/liberal thinking in the future? I don't know, but the signs at present are not encouraging.

Transferring that to Pakistan, where in the Madrasas schools, the overall constellation of influences is even more doctrinaire, and further invigorated by the absolutist tenants of Islam, I suspect that the influences are very deeply imbedded indeed. A well indoctrinated zealot is as comfortable wearing an explosive belt as is a motivated middle class doctor who elects to fly a plane into a building.

In short, we should be very careful here. Personally, I would like to see a major effort to dissuade the Saudis from supporting these institutions as they are now constituted, and a parallel effort to encourage NGOs to establish competing schools that offer a more practical and secular curriculum.

(2) On the joint development of intelligence, I am very distrustful. The lively commentary over the Spielberg film, "Munich" has brought to light that the French exposed the identity of an Israeli agent to the Palestinians out of a fit of pique over the assassination on French soil of one of the perpetrators. The agent disappeared.

I think we can all agree that the US must continually hone its intelligence efforts and must be prepared to act on them when appropriate. (We may have differences as to the means, but that is for a different thread.) We probably all also agree that the sharing of intelligence with the agencies of friendly governments is also important. But that should not be controlling and there is the rub. As soon as we overinstitutionalize an international consortium of governments into a NATO-like intelligence machine, we run the risk that one of the participants will find it convenient to compromise the affair in their own perceived national interest. Further, such an intelligence apparatus would surely feel proprietary over the fruits of their efforts and were one member, say the US, to decide to act on the findings as against the wishes of another member, the system would rapidly break down. Further, to the extent that resources that would otherwise be devoted to national intelligence gathering are diverted to similar efforts by a NATO-like organization, there is a risk that complacency would set in with respect to our own efforts.

Anyone who thinks that this GWOT is but a glorified video game is profoundly kidding themselves. They are not fighting us to gain something in particular, whether it be territory or riches. They are fighting us to eliminate our secularity as a competitive ideology. Until the Europeans wake up to that at a political level, as opposed to at an intelligence level, the idea that intelligence efforts could be coordinated by way of a supernational body is a pipe dream.

Michael

Posted by: Michael Pecherer at January 2, 2006 06:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg.... do you sometimes wonder why you even bother to provide people with information?

Greg wrote: it is estimated that as many as 15 percent of Pakistan's madrasas preach violent jihad, while a few have been said to provide covert military training.


Ist commenter wrote: It is hard for me to conceive of an academic study that could truly test the significance of the Madrassas. We know they are largely funded by the Saudis and that they tend to teach the extreme Wahabbi version of Islam.

**********************

its good to see that in at least some conservative circles, the distinction between "jihadi" and "terrorist" is finally being understood. Hopefully, at some point people will realize that the vast majority of foreign fighters that go to Iraq go as jihadis, and that they see themselves as fighting a defensive war to preserve Islam --- that that the greatest danger for the US is that these jihadis are becoming further radicalized by "terrorists" to believe in the righteousness of going on the offensive and attacking American targets outside the Islamic world.

Posted by: lukasiak at January 2, 2006 08:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg.... do you sometimes wonder why you even bother to provide people with information?

Greg wrote: it is estimated that as many as 15 percent of Pakistan's madrasas preach violent jihad, while a few have been said to provide covert military training.


Ist commenter wrote: It is hard for me to conceive of an academic study that could truly test the significance of the Madrassas. We know they are largely funded by the Saudis and that they tend to teach the extreme Wahabbi version of Islam.

**********************

its good to see that in at least some conservative circles, the distinction between "jihadi" and "terrorist" is finally being understood. Hopefully, at some point people will realize that the vast majority of foreign fighters that go to Iraq go as jihadis, and that they see themselves as fighting a defensive war to preserve Islam --- that that the greatest danger for the US is that these jihadis are becoming further radicalized by "terrorists" to believe in the righteousness of going on the offensive and attacking American targets outside the Islamic world.

Posted by: lukasiak at January 2, 2006 08:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

On the issue of the need for greater co-operation/co-ordination of intelligence....

the primary impediment IMHO is that the rest of the world (including Europe) is opposed to the Bush regime approach to the "War on Terror." Their far greater experience in deal with both terrorism, and Islam, has taught them that Bush's "blunt instrument" approach to dealing with the problem is not merely ineffective, but often counter-productive. And the fact that the US mainland is far less vulnerable to attacks from radical Islamic terrorists makes the rest of the world (including Europe) somewhat reluctant to be too closely associated with the US/Bush approach.

(This, rather than your expressed francophobia, better explains the French desire for a continent-wide intelligence network that does not have the US as a partner.)

Posted by: lukasiak at January 2, 2006 08:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Happy New Year Luka. Was that a compliment or what?

Michael

Posted by: Michael Pecherer at January 2, 2006 09:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't know if I mentioned this here, but as an update to a post on madrasa education, I also blogged Dalrymple's review, comparing it to five years ago:

A student who gave his name as Muhammad stood up: "We would sacrifice our lives for Osama. We would kill Americans."

What kind of Americans?

"All Americans."

Not very encouraging

Posted by: Solomon2 at January 2, 2006 10:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I read this post after some of the commentary on the last tiresome torture piece, and I wonder how much of the anamosity to Bush and/or the US is a reflection of deep seated anxiety over the dysfunctional nature of Islamic societies in general and Western Europe's social welfare state in particular. Very few Islamic terrorists are nurtured either in the US or, more surprisingly, in India. Could it be that both countries have a vibrant economy open to Moslems of ambition? Throughout history the romantics that have pursued the "propaganda of the deed" - especially suicide attacks - have come from groups that have felt excluded from full participation in society.

Posted by: wks at January 3, 2006 05:08 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Foreign Affairs has an interesting article on madrasahs by Andrew Evans of the FCO.

Summary: Since 9/11, Muslim schools have been denounced as breeding grounds for terrorism. But instead of seeing madrasahs as a threat, Western policymakers should recognize that they present an opportunity for engagement and reform.


It's an important point Evans makes -- madrasahs have been around forever, long before the Saudis started funding a number of them. A huge number of boys get their education via Muslim schools. You can't just shut down the whole system. What we really should be talking about is how to transform education in countries where those schools are prominent. There are, indeed, a portion of them that are directly producing problems. But that's different from trying to secularize education in countries like Pakistan overnight. "Unintended consequences" of launching what is perceived by large portions of the locals as an assault on their very identity and culture would be far worse than what we're facing right now. We've got to learn how to marginalize the extremists while working gradually to build bridges with the mainstream Islamists.

As for transatlantic intel, I'm very reluctant to use NATO as the coordinating body. I don't think military intel is where the big cooperation push needs to come from, and getting military intel guys into the mix of cross-border info-sharing is likely to just complicate things more. As we're just starting to see, at home we've relied too much already on military intel because it was the only fully operating game in town. We're going to need to reduce rather than increase the role of military intel in our own domestic US counterterrorism sooner rather than later. Let's have NATO focus on intel necessary for NATO planning rather than trying to get them involved in counterterrorism.

A lot of the transatlantic and intra-European info-sharing issues are garden-variety cross-border problems that arise in pursuing all sorts of transnational frauds and criminals -- see e.g. the SEC's Enforcement folks and all their Memoranda of Understanding to handle the specific issues of information-sharing that are country-specific. With close attention and motivated people on all sides, the solutions can be found. But it takes a lot of slugging through complicated procedures, even with a great deal of good will, as the Europeans know full well even within the EU. These are not issue areas within military intel's core competencies.

As for the urgency to connect dots. Some of the info sources you list certainly need to be talking with each other constantly, but not all of them. Personally, I don't think you'll find much use in countering terrorism from the FATF other than hampering money-laundering. Stopping money laundering is a good thing -- it makes life harder for both crooks and terrorists. But you're unlikely to see intel that produces dots that would connect to specific terrorist attacks. This is why you're starting to see concerted push-back from the financial services industry on counterterrorism task forces, etc. as distinct from moneylaundering. Lots of extra costs, huge volumes of data that no one will ever plow through and would produce vast numbers of false positives, and very low potential payback.

Rather than focusing on NATO as the place to bring the dots together, I'd pay more attention to the work Tenet was putting into the collaborative arrangements with the Europeans, especially the French. Dana Priest had a companion story to her "black sites" article that hasn't received nearly enough attention - the good side of the post-9/11 intel arrangements. Reading between the lines in articles on internal CIA gossip, and looking at Goss' accelerated travel schedule recently, apparently Goss has been read the riot act that he'd better get going on nurturing those arrangements.

Posted by: nadezhda at January 3, 2006 08:21 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

the article posted, like many seems to miss the point of 9/11 and the wot. Its not just the direct effect of the attacks on the west that are important. By focusing on the attacks themselves, we see them as criminal acts, the oklahoma city bombing writ large, to be addressed by sealing aircraft doors and by LE, with the occasional grand raid on a terror base.

OBL is NOT launching terrorist attacks to modify our foreign policy, or to punish us. Hes doing so in order to set in motion events on the ground in the muslim world, to overthrow regimes that oppose his approach. The educated jihadis living in the west with their access to airports and underground stations could not fulfill this strategy if there werent thousands of grads of radical madrasahs on the ground in Pakistan and elsewhere. They are a threat to the Musharaf regime, to the Kharzai regime, and elsewhere, even if they never plant a bomb in the USA. They are thus central to the WOT.

And of course not all madrasahs are violent jihadist - it is those we must focus on, and esp on foreigners going to paki madrassahs, who seem to be a special problem. Ordinary pakistanis going to ordinary madrassas are not a particular problem - though IF pakistan is going to build a modern secular society, it would probably be better if they played a smaller role.

The analogy to yeshivas holds. The security threat comes from a handful of tiny kahanist places. The larger cultural struggle is something else - and was largely fought out (within the Jewish community) in the first half of the 20th century - though demographics may be bringing the issue back - in any case the question of secularism among jews is hardly the global issue that secularism among muslims is.

Posted by: liberalhawk at January 4, 2006 03:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"The analogy to yeshivas holds."? BARF! Yeshiva students don't graduate to highjacking planes and terrorizing the planet. Oh, you may find one or two individuals, but where can you find someone who was indoctrinated in the way the madrasa students are?

Kahane had a small following, but was disliked and disrespected by almost everyone else. That's not like the jihadis at all.

Posted by: Solomon2 at January 4, 2006 10:03 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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