Terrorism Expert Joins Pardee School of Global Studies

Jessica Stern on how ISIS works and what we can do to stop it

Working with a military intelligence officer, a future BU professor hunted for terrorists who’d stolen a nuclear bomb, finally tracking the last bomber to New York City, where she and her partner escaped death by seconds by jumping through a stained glass window.

OK, Jessica Stern didn’t really do that. But Nichole Kidman did, in the 1997 thriller The Peacemaker, and Kidman’s character was based on Stern, one of the country’s leading terrorism experts. Starting this semester, she has joined the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies as a research professor, coming from Harvard, where she will continue working as a fellow.

Just how leading an expert is Stern? In 1999, she predicted a world where murderers would commit “macroterrorism,” or attacks aimed at achieving previously unimaginable casualty levels. That prophecy came true two years later on September 11, prompting Time to put her on its list of 100 innovators with bold ideas.

More recently, Stern testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, urging an expansion of college courses (like those she’ll teach here) to counter ISIS’s online recruiting propaganda. “One of the major gaps in our response to ISIS,” she told the senators, “is the lack of investment in developing and disseminating effective counternarratives that are compelling to the millennial youth who are ISIS’s principal recruitment.”

Stern is best known for her research sit-downs with murderers: she interviews terrorists in prisons and refugee camps, seeking to understand their motives. Her most recent book deals with terrorism’s public enemy number one: ISIS: The State of Terror (HarperCollins, 2015). Her research for the book serves as the backbone of a course she’s teaching at Pardee this semester, Guerilla Warfare and Terrorism.

Adil Najam, dean of the Pardee School and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and of earth and environment, calls Stern “one of the most thoughtful scholars on one of the most pressing challenges of our times.…Her work exemplifies a blend of rigorous research and a deep understanding of the world of policy and practice, and this will enrich our classrooms and the students’ experience.”

She is a member of the Hoover Institution National Security and Law Task Force, was a Fulbright Scholar last year, and won a 2009 Guggenheim fellowship for her research into trauma and violence.

BU Today interviewed Stern about her work and her reasons for joining the University.

BU Today: What made you come to BU?

Stern: There are so many reasons why I wanted to come to the Pardee School. I am excited about being surrounded by an interdisciplinary group of faculty, all of whom work on global affairs, and from whom I hope to learn a lot. I also anticipate learning a lot from the Pardee students, who come from all over the world. I am also excited to be part of building a new school. I like the energy of Pardee. The students are clearly very excited, and the faculty is very welcoming.

Finally, I have long been an admirer of Dean Adil Najam. He and I both attended a small program at MIT called Technology Policy. He was a star graduate, and I had heard about him for years. Most graduates of the program remain engineers. Najam went on to contribute to a variety of global issues. His leadership was a great draw for me.

What will your duties at BU entail?

I will be teaching two courses a year and spending the rest of my time on research. I hope to entice some students to participate in this research. I am offering a course on terrorism this spring. For the fall, I will be developing an interdisciplinary course that allows students to develop apps or films or curricula to respond to online recruiting by terrorist organizations. The students will get to decide what terrorist narrative they want to respond to; they will be able to choose neo-Nazis or Islamist terrorists or violent animal-rights activists—it will be up to them. This and similar courses are being offered around the world, and our group will be competing with the others.

How does being at BU help or advance your research?

I work on topics—violence and trauma—that cannot be addressed within the confines of a single discipline, so I’m thrilled to get to spend time with, and learn from, faculty across disciplines.

You’ve devoted a recent book and many scholarly and popular articles recently to ISIS. What is unique or unusual about this group vis-à-vis other terrorist organizations?

ISIS is more extreme than previous organizations in a number of ways. It is not the first organization to combine criminal operations and terrorism, but it is better at raising money than its predecessors. It is not the first to flaunt its brutality as a form of psychological warfare, but it takes propaganda very seriously, so much so that it pays its marketing professionals more than its fighters. What is new is that it holds a lot of territory and has declared a borderless state, with an unachievable goal of spreading its caliphate throughout the world.

In June 2014, the organization announced with great fanfare that it had destroyed the international border between Iraq and Syria. It released a slick film accompanied by nasheed, the haunting jihadi music ISIS often uses as a soundtrack for its propaganda films, and established a Twitter hashtag, #SykesPicotOver. With this accomplishment, ISIS was taunting the West that it was undoing the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 to carve up the Middle East into spheres of influence, which ultimately led to the new Arab nation states of Iraq and Syria.

Soon after this, it pronounced the reestablishment of the caliphate. By April 2015, ISIS had attracted 10 provinces in 8 states. ISIS has shown itself particularly adept at exploiting areas where states are failing or weak.

How does ISIS recruit and raise money, and how do we cut off both?

ISIS robs banks, sells oil, “taxes” people living on its territory, and sells antiquities. Like many terrorist organizations, ISIS also trades in amphetamines and cigarettes. Stopping the flow of finances into ISIS-controlled territory is not easy, because black market trade is hard to track. Meanwhile, Turkey accuses Russia of increasing ISIS’s coffers by supporting the Assad regime, which is a consumer of ISIS’s oil, despite the purported enmity between Syrian President Assad and ISIS. What is required to mitigate the problem is increased sharing of intelligence between (and sometimes within) governments.

ISIS recruits locally as well as globally. Fighters sometimes join because they feel ISIS can protect their families. Money also plays a role. One story told by an escaped Syrian recruit really struck me. This young man, a fighter, said he had first joined al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which competes with ISIS, but switched over to ISIS because it offered him a higher salary.

ISIS recruits personnel—fighters, doctors, engineers, and social-media mavens, among others—from around the world, often starting on Twitter or other social media platforms and eventually moving into one-on-one conversations on encrypted platforms or in person. ISIS has been more successful at recruiting foreign volunteers than any previous jihadi group.

Why do people join such groups? If I had to sum up what I’ve found over many years, I would say that people join terrorist groups because they want to reinvent themselves, and to a lesser extent, remake society. In that context, it is interesting to note that according to a study by George Washington University, of the 71 persons arrested for ISIS-related crimes in the United States in 2015, about 40 percent were converts.

How do we defeat ISIS?  

Both military force and containment are needed.

There are compelling reasons to expand the number of ground forces in Iraq, but it would be better if those forces were made up not of “crusaders,” but of Sunni Arabs. We already tried our hand at imposing a viable democracy on Iraq, an experiment that failed. And the situation in Syria is even more fraught. Defeating the “caliphate” will require ending the civil war in Syria, and for our troops to remain in the region until Sunni safety is assured.

Making Muslims feel unsafe in the West enhances ISIS’s recruitment drive. The vast majority of ISIS’s victims are Muslims. Proposals to implement Nuremburg-type laws for Muslims, requiring them to register with the state—and calls to ban Muslims from entering the United States—further ISIS’s goal of eliminating moderate Islam, to persuade Muslims living in the West to join ISIS’s cadres.

Countering ISIS’s propaganda efforts is essential. Serious containment will require input from business leaders, attorneys, philanthropists, and the government, just as was the case for political-warfare operations against the Soviet Union. Universities have a role to play as well. Next fall, I will be offering a course called P2P: Challenging Extremism, under the auspices of EdVentures Partners, the State Department, and Facebook. The course provides a pathway for university students in 30 countries (so far) to develop their own counternarratives and digital responses to ISIS’s and other terrorist groups’ propaganda.

We also need an army of volunteers able to speak, credibly and persuasively and one-on-one, with youth who are attracted to “jihad-chic,” long before they are drawn to violate the law. To this end, we should be deploying former terrorists—individuals who have abandoned jihadist organizations and can provide a more accurate picture of the jihadist way of life. They are uniquely equipped to explain that counter to ISIS’s propaganda, there is nothing heroic about ISIS.

You were on Time’s 2001 list of 100 bold thinkers for your research speaking with terrorists in the field. Have you done that recently, or do you plan to in the near future?

I have been interviewing an infamous Bosnian war criminal in prison for a number of years, but my editor’s request that I take a break from this work to write a book about ISIS has delayed this effort. It is not possible to interview ISIS members in the field—it’s too dangerous.

Author, Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.