There is not a terrorist behind every tree
To promote the values of action and thought, the BGL BNP Paribas Bank organises its ‘Doers & Thinkers’ lecture cycle twice a year”. The guest speaker this time was Thomas M. Sanderson from Washington D.C., who is an expert in geopolitics and global trends. In his interview with LFF, he spoke about global terrorist organisations and conflicts that impact the presidential race in the US.
Mr Sanderson, you are co-director and senior fellow of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). What is the mission of CSIS?
The Center for Strategic and International Studies is a 50-year-old organisation; it is a non-government bipartisan think tank that started at Georgetown University, Washington during the Cuban missile crisis. We provide insights to policy makers on global security and affairs issues. Our focus is outside the United States. We also have a Homeland Security department, but that is more oriented towards threats coming from outside the US. We cover all major populated regions.
How are you funded?
We have around 33 million-dollar budget; we receive funds from foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wealthy individuals and corporations. About 15% of our budget comes from government funding, which is the maximum we can take in order to be classified as a non-governmental organisation. Besides that, we also receive funding from foreign governments. We employ around 225 people; we are located in Washington DC and we have a very small office in Hawaii.
What about your Transnational Threads Project?
This project has been in existence since the early nineties, when it first started as a global organised crime project. It looked at cyber warfare and espionage and the nuclear black market. After 9/11, the project was transformed into the Transnational Threads Project to place greater emphasis on terrorism. But one of the key issues we look at is the intersection of terrorism and organised crime. We conduct research in the field; we go overseas and interview the full range of people who are involved in terrorism.
Yes, I have interviewed six different terror groups. We try to find a place of mutual convenience and safety and we sit down and talk to them; and they are very eager to talk to us. Apart from that, we also meet with clergy, academics, community leaders, journalists, private sector representatives and intelligence agents. We ask a series of questions to get a better sense and degree of the nature of the threat and the reasons behind the terrorist activity. We also look at the nature of the counter-terrorism activity. Everything is definitely not black and white.
What are the most dangerous and the best organised terrorist organisations right now?
Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan and Hezbollah out of Lebanon. They are all very sophisticated, well-organised and well-resourced, except for maybe Al Qaeda. They also have charismatic leadership, and in the latter two cases, state support from Pakistan and Lebanon respectively. Al Qaeda, of course, has a wide range of affiliated, associated organisations in Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia.
I believe Al Qaeda still poses a very significant threat, although I am not one who sees Al Qaeda behind every tree. Their narrative is very potent and persistent. And that narrative in its most basic form is that Islam is under attack by the West and its Muslim and Arab allies and that this attack deserves a violent response.
How do these organisations use new communication tools and social media?
They use them to recruit, raise funds and motivate by radicalising people online by connecting people and simply using them as devises to explode bombs. For them it is a great tool just like for any other organisation. In the future, having completely secure, encrypted communications at a commercial and personal level will be very common.
Right now, terror organisations see mobile phones and other communication devices as a vulnerability as well as a tool, because they know that they are being listened to. They are careful with what they do, and that is why communication often consists of handwritten notes passed from one individual to another who then makes the eventual phone call.
What are the conflicts that have an impact on the presidential race in the US?
There is certainly the tension that is taking place in the South China Sea. On higher level of conflict, you have of course Afghanistan, which remains an issue. It is not that big of an issue in the presidential race because President Obama added so many troops with the political approval of the Republicans in Congress. He took a very aggressive response to Al Qaeda, which has insulated him from the classic approach by Republicans to portray Democrats as weak on defence.
Iraq remains an issue because it is viewed by the majority of Americans and by the vast majority of the world as a mistake, unlike Afghanistan, which was a direct response to Al Qaeda.
What is the impact of television debates on voters’ behaviour?
They do have an impact on voters, though not always. Famous debates include those such as the one between Kennedy and Nixon, which was probably one of the highest-impact debates. President Nixon did not look robust and vibrant; he had a five o’clock shadow on his face. Kennedy looked young, vigorous and handsome. Reagan versus Carter and Reagan versus Mundell were also impactful.
Ronald Reagan did such an excellent job with humour and poise – he was an actor in Hollywood after all – but he had such a good manner and was likeable. President Obama’s poor performance in the first debate did seem to make an impact in the polls.
Whereas people were looking at President Obama and thinking, this is a man I trust and feel comfortable with, Governor Romney is not somebody that people know well and does not seem to be very likeable to a larger number of people. He beat back both of those issues in the first TV debate; he performed very well. He was confident, he had a certain level of charisma, and he had very good arguments and came out as very likeable.
While both were very good in the second debate, the next one will be on foreign policy, where the President has a strong role. This will be a very strong debate for him and he will have a lot to say. Governor Romney does not because he has never been in that role and his one-week visit to world leaders was unsuccessful.
How is the Eurozone crisis perceived by the US?
It is viewed with sympathy and with fear. China is one of our biggest trading partners. At the same time, China’s biggest trading partner is the European Union.Besides, we are concerned about what the Eurozone crisis means for Europe’s partners, what it means for the European cohesion and what it means for democracy, especially because the EU is perceived as a model for transparency and cooperation in settling disputes.
We are also concerned, certainly from my point of view, for what some of the after effects of a deeper recession in Europe might be, which could be anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner sentiment and violence. Think about the Muslim cartoon and the US film on Islam; the friction intensified by a deep recession or even a depression in Europe could increase the attacks on foreigners.
Could this be an ideal breeding ground for terrorists?
That could indeed drive in Al Qaeda and others. Don’t forget that the Iranians and Al Qaeda sent people to the Balkans and Bosnia to fight against Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. I would be very surprised if that did not happen again.
Think about the tragedy in Norway last year. What if Anmders Behring Breivik had decided to target Mosques and Madrassas and what if he had killed 50 Muslim students and kids? You would have had an unbelievable series of attacks on European cities and European embassies in other countries. CW