28 December 2016

Michael Gibbs (Phd 2nd year in Government) is the ISP Fellow in the Brumley Next Generation Graduate Fellows program.  His faculty mentor, ISP Director Stephen Slick, has aided Michael in his research on the inner workings of insurgencies, specifically Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and in Iraq.  Michael updates us on his progress in his Brumley Program interview:

Michael: I’m looking at how the insurgent groups work in the boundaries between states and (more to contextualize than study) the U.S. policy towards them.  In Yemen, for example, you might have ungoverned territory within the state, but with Boko Haram you don’t just have ungoverned territory in one state, you’ve got several you can play with.  Instead of looking at how the U.S. trains forces to work on that, it’s how the insurgent group itself plays around in those weak zones.

Strauss Center: How is Professor Slick helping you with this research?
MG: He’s given me a great grounding in how the U.S. government operates and how intel operates both as a separate fiefdom and how it integrates back into the military.  Some questions emerge straight out of that: trying to understand intel in an insurgency, which I suspect there’s not much research on: it’s hard enough to figure out anything about insurgencies in general, as they don’t publish much information obviously. Maybe the Tamils will, Northern Ireland I could get people to talk to me, but Boko Haram, not so much." 

SC: Tell us a bit about what you're exploring in your research.
MG: What i’m always curious about with insurgencies is how they’re organized, how they conceptualize themselves. You wonder, what’s the goal of this group?  There is an ideology in some sense, but it’s so nihilistic that you can’t imagine what victory for them would ever look like.

Islamic State, terrible as it is, you know what they want. There’s a logic to it, even if it’s an insane logic, but sometimes the only logic seems to be violence.  Part of what’s driving my research is, what leads them to have this logic that is a lack of logic, one that is purely violent or destructive?

Also, how small scale the conflicts are.  I was chatting this summer with two people who’d been involved with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. They told me of an interview they had with a Taliban defector who wanted to join the local Afghan police.  

They first asked him why he had joined the Taliban.
“My cousin’s in the Taliban, and I want to kill him.”
“So you joined the Taliban to kill your cousin...why did you try to then join the local police?”
“I’m having trouble in the Taliban, but I think I could kill him from the local police."

It took a little bit, but they finally figured out that it was a hyper-local Pashtun issue: inheritance. Their grandfather had good lands.  If there was no cousin, the defector got all the land.  You can’t conceptualize this part of a civil war in any of the broad strokes that we normally talk about.

So this is another aspect I want to dig into: to what extent are these conflicts driven by a series of local disturbances.  Are we talking that 10% is the national issue and 90% is local, or is it 90% national, and then you have these far-out stories, but the overall conflict’s roughly the same, regardless of local issues? I don’t really have a sense of that yet, but it’s something that I’ve seen and need to study more.

In early 2011, Michael went to Cairo on a study abroad program to strengthen his Arabic language skills.  His stay was quite short:

MG: We arrived on a Saturday and within a day had found housing.  Sunday and Monday we explored the neighborhood. Tuesday was Police Day, Jan. 25; that was the first set of protests.  We saw protestors marching past us on some of the overpasses. Thursday there was a call for a Day of Rage on Friday.  By then we had consistently heard “don’t worry about it” “this is nothing big” from people, but that day they added “by the way, keep your head down on Friday because if there are protests and the police fight back, it’s going to get ugly. You don’t want to be near the police as they won’t treat you well even though you’re a foreigner."  

Sometime Friday night all the phones went out.  From our place we could see the fires downtown.  Either that night or Saturday night, we couldn't stand on the balcony because there was so much tear gas in the air that even miles away it was forcing us inside.  We watched later as, after the looting, neighbors on our street piled barricades on each end of the street.  

So the men were building barricades and the women were running around on the rooftops.  We eventually realized they were gathering the crowbars and pieces of iron and wood and giving them to their sons, husbands, fathers for guarding the barricades that night.  Saturday night we watched as they manned the barricades. That night the school got through and told us we were evacuating.  They had trouble finding a way for us to get out, but eventually a University of Chicago student found eight taxis and got us to the airport."  

SC: What are your thoughts on the aftermath?
MG: It’s disappointing; there was so much optimism.  There’s the political scientist part of me that says “what did you expect?  The regime did a very good job of disrupting any alternative government, everything was corrupted, and there was no space for another group to evolve." Now you’ve seen that in Yemen and Syria as well.

Part of me wants to matter-of-factly say, “well, at least there’s a stable government, at least it hasn’t fallen into chaos like Syria.”  I saw the protesters in Cairo, with far more hope than they’d ever dared to have just days prior, to see that so brutally shut down afterwards is painful. And I hope that generation can tell their kids that there was a time of optimism, and maybe in 10 or 15 years the next group takes over and does a better job and maybe if it isn’t a revolution, it’s an evolution."  

SC: Thank you Michael for sharing your research and stories with us!