Almost eleven years after the attacks of September 11, 2011, it's still hard to discern exactly how we are faring in the struggle against radical Islam. The death in May 2011 of Osama Bin Laden was a key counterterrorism victory for the Obama administration—one that, according to the State Department, has helped put al-Qaeda on a "path of decline." Yet it's far too early to count the Bin Laden network out, as recent terrorist attacks by the group's regional franchises in places like Yemen, Iraq and Mali make clear. Perhaps the most curious anomaly of our current counterterrorism fight, however, is the fact that the subject matter experts who serve at its intellectual front lines have found themselves unexpectedly under attack.
One is Matthew Levitt. A former Treasury Department Deputy Assistant Secretary who holds a PhD in international relations from Tufts University's prestigious Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy, Levitt frequently serves as an expert witness for federal counterterrorism cases, and his writings on the terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah are widely regarded as authoritative. For his troubles, Levitt garnered a sneering takedown in the June issue of Harper's magazine. Among its other disparaging attacks, the Harper's article insinuated that Levitt was an agent of influence for Israel because he consults with policymakers there (among other foreign governments) on Islamic terrorism and because of his current perch as head of terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Another is Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. A former Muslim who once worked at the al-Haramain Foundation, which was proscribed by the Bush administration for its financial support for al-Qaeda, Gartenstein-Ross became an informant for the FBI and played a role in the government case that ultimately brought the Saudi charity down. Yet he was one of the targets of a broadside recently published by online news site Salon, which accused him of, among other things, hyping "the Islamic Terror threat" for personal financial gain.
Even Bruce Hoffman, widely recognized as the dean of modern counterterrorism studies, hasn't been spared the trash-talk. Hoffman, whose book Inside Terrorism is required reading for graduate students and counterterrorism professionals alike, has been accused of intellectual cherry-picking in his approach to classifying what does—and doesn't—constitute terrorism.
Other specialists—from Johns Hopkins University's Will McCants to the Washington Institute's Aaron Zelin to former Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend—have been manhandled in much the same way. And though the targets differ, the accusations are largely the same: that these experts are the War on Terror's version of profiteers, purposely exaggerating the threat posed by terrorism and Islamic radicalism in order to turn a fast buck.
That's a tremendous disservice to the many analysts, inside and outside of government, who have devoted their academic and professional careers to studying violent extremism and the radical ideologies that empower it. It's also a shame, because it obscures real, legitimate issues about how the United States carries out its counterterrorism efforts. Indeed, more than a decade after the attacks of September 11th, some sober reflection is in order regarding whether we fully understand the ideology, motives and tactics of today's terrorist actors—and whether America and its allies are responding adequately to them.
That there is little appetite to probe those issues isn't much of a surprise. After ten-plus years of conflict in the greater Middle East, Americans as a whole are tired of the idea of a struggle against radical Islam, and eager to put it in the rearview mirror.
What is strange, and deeply regrettable, is that at least some in the media no longer appear interested in asking hard questions about the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism. Rather, they now seem more concerned with training their sights on those who are trying to warn us about it.