Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s Break

American University’s Tricia Bacon and Georgetown University’s Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault have a new article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism journal on the break between Al Qaeda and Islamic State. The article’s abstract:

 

Employing counterfactuals to assess individual and systemic explanations for the split between al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), this article concludes that individual leaders factor greatly into terrorist alliance outcomes. Osama bin Laden was instrumental in keeping al Qaeda and ISIS allied as he prioritized unity and handled internal disputes more deftly than his successor, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although a troubled alliance, strategic differences between al Qaeda and ISIS were not sufficient to cause the split. Rather, the capabilities of al Qaeda’s leader determined the group’s ability to prevent alliance ruptures.

 

The article is an interesting use of the counterfactual method for causal inference of explanations. The authors’ focus on Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri contrasts with other explanations such as Will McCants’ focus on Islamic State’s apocalyptic belief system.

Nuclear Politics

During my on-going PhD research at Monash University, I’ve increasingly focused on ‘dissertation to book’ studies from university presses (Cambridge, Cornell, Princeton, Stanford) that develop and test formal theories. This has been a surprise to me – given that my earlier published research used critical theory and journalism experience.

 

The latest study I’m looking at is Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro’s Nuclear Politics: The Strategic Causes of Nuclear Proliferation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). They include a puzzle and case study based approach that emphasises the pivotal role of security concerns. Their book includes coding rules and a formal theory: a useful ‘writing model’ for the relevant sections of my draft thesis.

What I’m Reading

  1. Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason by David Harvey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).  One of Karl Marx’s leading contemporary scholars interprets the three volume Capital in the context of post-2008 secular stagnation. Some interesting comments on how debt and extractive institutions work.
  2. How To Be An Academic: The Thesis Whisperer Reveals All by Inger Mewburn (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2017). The Thesis Whisperer explains why contemporary higher education is like The Hunger Games and offers informed advice on how to survive ‘precariat’ labour and build an institutional profile.
  3. Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation by Douglas Walton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). The University of Windsor professor’s introductory textbook on argumentation and critical reasoning.

 

The Economic Impact of Islamic State Governance in Iraq and Syria

RAND has a new research paper out on Islamic State’s economics:

 

At its peak, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) controlled vast portions of territory in Iraq and Syria with several million inhabitants. ISIL’s territorial ambition and desire to conduct state-like governance over this territory are integral to its global ideological appeal. By examining ISIL’s impact on local economic activity in Iraq and Syria, this report seeks to assess the effectiveness of ISIL’s governance over its self-styled caliphate.

This report leverages remote sensing data and commercial satellite imagery to offer a unique, data-driven look inside areas controlled by the Islamic State. It paints a bleak picture of economic life under ISIL, replete with shortages of electricity, massive refugee flows, reductions in agricultural output, and upticks in violence all associated with ISIL control.

At times, ISIL was able to build a dense governing apparatus that helped maintain stable local commercial activity, particularly in its strategic capitals in Raqqah and Mosul. At other times, ISIL mismanaged key resources or sought to punish its citizenry rather than govern it. However, this report suggests that decaying economic conditions in ISIL-held territory are also a product of ISIL’s inability to insulate its territory from opposing military forces. Outside pressure against ISIL successfully prevented the group from realizing its governing ambitions across significant parts of its caliphate, with major consequences for its ability to support functioning local economies.

This report is important for those trying to understand the group’s impact on local populations in Iraq and Syria, for those seeking to counter its financing or conduct post-conflict stabilization, and for broader efforts to understand the economic impact of insurgent governance.

I’ll likely be citing it in my in-progress PhD chapter on Islamic State.

Trump’s National Security Strategy

Salman Ahmed and Alexander Bick from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have authored a discussion paper on the Trump administration’s likely national security strategy. The authors contend Trump has signalled a “mercantile, transactional vision” that may threaten the existing alliance structure.

The Credibility Vortex

In 2006, I studied strategic studies and wrote a Masters mini-thesis on North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program with Dr Andy Butfoy. He’s an Australian expert on arms control, strategic studies, and US-Australian politico-military relations.

 

In late 2016, Andy released his first novel The Credibility Vortex:

 

It’s a political thriller set in Washington. It features intrigue in the National Security Council, rogue officials, dirty tricks, assassination attempts, and the possible end of the world . . .

 

I recommend you check Andy’s first novel out: it’s a gripping read.

The Post-Classical Hollywood Studio System

One of the major insights I gained from my Bachelor of Arts (Cinema Studies major) at La Trobe University was how the post-classical Hollywood studio system evolved. The late 1960s to the mid 1970s was a period of innovation: the rise of powerful auteur directors and producers. From the mid 1970s onwards the blockbuster film, changes in film financing, and merger-driven studio consolidation came to dominate. J.D. Connor’s book The Studios After The Studios (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2015) may be the definitive recent study of this period (which he dubs ‘neoclassical Hollywood’). Its legacies shape current scholarship on the political economy of the creative industries – and Entourage fans.

ASPI’s Nuclear Strategy Masterclass

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute is running a Nuclear Strategy Masterclass on 27th September 2017 in Canberra. The speakers include the Hon. Kim Beazley, Senator David Fawcett, ASPI’s Rod Lyon, Griffith’s Andrew O’Neil (invited), and the Lowy Institute’s John Carlson. Brad Roberts of the Center for Global Security Research and author of The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (Stanford University Press, 2015) is a major speaker.

S.M. Amadae’s PhD Thesis

I’ve followed S.M. Amadae‘s work for several years. Her 2016 book Prisoners of Reason informs Chapter 1 of my PhD on theory-building in strategic culture. Now, I’m reading her 1999 PhD dissertation from the University of California Berkeley on the 1944-85 history of rational choice theory. I know that rational choice frameworks have influenced Jack Snyder’s later work and Martha Crenshaw’s analysis of terrorist organisations. I also note that Amadae thanks Philip Mirowski in her acknowledgments. Amadae and Mirowski’s work are writing models for possible future research. For example, it may be possible to write a similar history of strategic culture research that goes beyond Alastair Iain Johnston’s influential generations framework.