Max Abrahms, “#Terrorism Theorist / Northeastern Prof / Council on Foreign Relations / Center for Cyber & Homeland Security,” is the very epitome of the vacuous contemporary intellectual, thumping his chest about his “research” and “scholarship” but unwilling and unable to defend them in a public forum, and retailing absurd and defeatist views that appeal to the kneejerk politically correct crowd.
Abrahms offers the kind of terrorism analysis that dominates the mainstream these days — the analysis that has led and continues to lead to numerous foreign policy errors and disasters, because it is determined above all to ignore, downplay and deny the motivating ideology of jihad terrorists, and to preserve the prevailing fiction that Islam is a religion of peace that has nothing to do with the violence perpetrated in its name and in accord with its teachings. Hence it is useful to pop arrogant Max’s balloons from time to time, to help illuminate why our response to the jihad threat has run so far off the rails.
Last Wednesday, June 1, Abrahms made a presentation at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society of Harvard Law School, entitled “Why the Conventional Wisdom on ISIS Has Been Totally Wrong.” In it, he claims that “pundits have focused narrowly on ISIS as if it’s some kind of alien from Mars,” and that “the conventional wisdom on ISIS goes something like this: Islamic State is a very mean group, but it’s also a very successful group. In fact, Islamic State is so successful precisely because it’s so mean.”
Abrahms doesn’t name anyone who actually claims that the (his refusal to use the definite article is a subtle way of denying that they’re really Islamic or a State at all; he is using the name as a title, as if it were a Dantescan college football team) “Islamic State is so successful precisely because it’s so mean.” But he reinforces his straw man several times during this brief talk, claiming that the “conventional wisdom” is that the Islamic State is brutal because that aids it in “attracting fanatics,” and that “there’s no denying that a tiny slice of the world’s population is lured to Islamic State because of its barbarism.”
In reality, those who are attracted to the Islamic State are attracted by its claim to be the caliphate and the quintessential Islamic state, following scrupulously the directives of the Qur’an and Sunnah, as I explain here. That is why we see devout Muslims from all over the world flocking to the Islamic State; if the attraction were barbarism rather than Islamic orthodoxy, we would see non-Muslim sadists and lovers of violence joining the Islamic State in large numbers. In fact, we don’t see any such people joining it. But in his Harvard talk, Abrahms doesn’t even consider the possibility that the Islamic State attracts Muslims because it is so very Islamic even long enough to dismiss it; instead, he sets up the claim that the “conventional wisdom” holds that the Islamic State is successful because it is barbaric, and then argues that it is actually failing because it is barbaric, and losing ground to what he says are moderate groups. Says Abrahms:
Now you might ask yourself, how would ISIS being doing organizationally if it didn’t brag so much about killing innocent people?
Just take a look at Islamist groups that share s similar ideology, but which use more moderate methods.
Groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra are moving in the opposite direction as ISIS.
Unlike ISIS, Ahrar and Nusra are trading on their more moderate branding to expand their territorial control, membership rosters, and material support especially from Sunni Gulf countries and Turkey.
As I’ve been saying since Day 1, the future of Syria is going to look a lot more like these groups than like ISIS precisely because they’re more moderate.
knew things would shake down like this because about a decade ago, I began publishing the first studies on the political effects of militant group violence.
What I discovered is that only certain kinds of violence help groups politically, whereas other kinds are actually counterproductive.
Militant groups tend to suffer when they engage in indiscriminate violence against civilian targets like ISIS does. They’re much better off by instead engaging in selective violence against military targets like Ahrar and Nusra.
Abrahms supports his claim that Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra are more moderate than the Islamic State by making another claim: that they hit military, rather than civilian targets.
Is he right? Let’s see. Moderate? In January 2014, Ahrar al-Sham had two men lashed publicly for missing Friday prayers. Interested only in military targets? In January 2016, Kim Kagan, a former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, said this of Nusra: “While ISIS is flashier … both represent an existential threat, both wish to attack the homeland, both seek the mobilization of Muslim communities against the West.” The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told the Senate intelligence committee that al-Nusra “does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”
In October 2015, Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani exhorted Muslims in the Caucasus to “kill the Russians” in revenge for Russia’s strikes in Syria. He didn’t say anything about killing only Russian soldiers. The Telegraph reported in January 2015 that Nusra participated in the destruction of churches in the Syrian town of Kessab — after making a concerted effort to present themselves as “moderate Muslims” before the international media (looks as if Max Abrahms fell for it). Father Miron Avedissian, priest of the destroyed Armenian Apostolic church said: “They took photographs to show they were looking after the churches, and then set them alight.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denied that there was any difference between the Islamic State and Ahrar al-Sham: “Some mass media have published footage of shocking scenes filmed at the sites of clashes between the Islamic State and the so-called moderates confronting it. Those who saw that footage can make conclusions as to what the ‘moderate’ opposition is really like. Yet we’ve been warned and asked to believe for so long they are ‘moderate.'”
In April 2016, Russia accused Nusra of killing 18 civilians in Aleppo. Of course, Russia is battling against Ahrar al-Sham, so we can take what she says with a grain of salt. But she is not the only one making the claim. In May 2016, a reporter asked State Department spokesman Mark Toner “what qualified Ahrar Al-Sham as ‘moderates,’ when their ideology was no different from Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) or Jabhat Al-Nusra.” Toner gave a non-answer: “I don’t have the criteria, other than the fact that they were believed to be a part of the viable Syrian opposition, and that they exhibited a desire to play a positive, constructive role to resolving the conflict.”
This is a far different picture of Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra from the one Abrahms paints. And it gets worse. Says Abrahms: “When Nusra fighters slaughtered 20 Druze villagers last year in northwestern Syria, for example, the leadership publicly announced that these wayward killers would stand trial before an Islamic court.” He doesn’t mention that the group forced the Druze villagers to destroy their shrines and convert to Islam.
Abrahms’ core assumption that the Islamic State’s brutality turns Muslims away from the group is likely based on the ironclad, unquestionable and forever unexamined dogma that Islam is a religion of peace, and that therefore the vast majority of Muslims are horrified by beheadings, stonings, amputations, etc. Building on that, he purveys this ridiculous and counterfactual analysis, knowing that his audience will not question what he says, because it dovetails so nicely with their own preconceived notions. Max Abrahms is a quintessential example of how today’s academic examination of the jihad terror threat, and the domestic and foreign policy that flows from that examination, is based not on reality, but on politically correct fantasy. He represents an establishment that has been proven wrong, and wrong, and wrong again, and just keeps on being wrong, with no accountability.