Sunday, February 7, 2010
Would Haredim Make Good Terrorists? Some Thoughts on Radical Religious and Violent (Part II)
It occurred to me that this argument, that successful terrorist organizations require agents with high defection constraints and this is best accomplished by recruiting candidates with long histories of service to the group's social welfare network even before they became terrorists, would explain why certain terrorist and counter-terrorism strategies used in television shows might not work in practice. In season two of 24, one of the major twists is the revelation that the point man in a plot by Islamic terrorists to use a nuclear device over Los Angeles is a blond haired blue eyed American female raised as a Protestant and whose family is unaware that she converted to Islam let alone has become an Islamic terrorist. If I were running a terrorist organization and had the good fortune to come into possession of a nuclear bomb (supplied by a conservative cabal looking to push the United States into a war with specific unnamed Muslim countries), would I be willing to trust this bomb to an American woman who was not raised in the system and has not even made the sacrifice of coming out to her family about her extremist beliefs? This would undermine the anti-profiling premise of this sequence of episodes. Certainly, if the government is looking for Middle-Eastern men I could recruit an all American white female, but do I have any that I can trust? If terrorists are dependent on people from very specific backgrounds then they would be vulnerable to profiling.
On the flip side, the show MI-5 (a British version of 24) has an episode devoted to a project designed to undermine Islamic terrorist cells in England by getting active members to turn and then agree to attempt to turn other members. The story focuses on the recruitment of a black convert to Islam by using his ex-girlfriend from his pre-Muslim days to get to him. If real life terrorist groups behave like Berman assumes they do then it is unlikely that they would ever allow a black convert to be in a position of serious responsibility where he could turn on the group. On the flip side, if I were a terrorist mastermind, I would look at the MI-5 episode as an excellent example of why I do not want to trust converts, no matter how sincere they sound and instead stick to people who have come up through the system.
Ultimately, there is both a liberal and a conservative side to Berman's argument. On the conservative side, he demolishes the common apologetic argument for groups like Hamas that they are primarily a social service network that only incidentally also maintains a militant wing. From Berman's perspective, it is precisely this social service network that is the foundation for terrorist activity so no separation can be made. This though also has a liberal face as Berman argues that counter-terrorism, instead of a military approach, should be focusing precisely on these social services by offering alternatives.
To step away from terrorism, this book is primarily about the economics of religion, particularly of the Haredi system, which is the inspiration for Berman's more general ideas. This book could be read as a study of the Haredi system, sidestepping any concerns about terrorism. Personally, I find Berman's study of Haredim to be a useful refutation of the sort of Haredi apologetics offered by Jonathan Rosenblum. Barring spectacular individuals, the Haredi yeshiva system is not useful as an alternative to secular college in preparation for competing in the job market. As Berman notes:
Israeli secular education in the 1990s had a return of 9.4 percent, a pretty good investment (a little higher than the U.S. return). Ultra-Orthodox education, on the other hand, was a terrible investment, at 1.8 percent. In other words, for every year in yeshiva a student was forgoing a permanent raise of about 7.6 percent, which they could have realized by spending that same year in a secular school. (pg. 73)
It is important that Haredi groups like Satmar do not get credit for their social services. The usual defense for Satmar is to point to their admittedly extensive social services, both in and even outside their own community. Kiryat Joel has the highest rate of poverty in the United States. Their philosophy of attempting to shut out the world is the greatest mass system of poverty creation that remains legal. As with the case of terrorism, the social service network is not something distinct from the extremism; it is the very foundation of the entire system that creates radicals and allows them to continue in their beliefs. (One of the reasons why I am a Libertarian and wish to eliminate government welfare is the knowledge that such policies will be the destruction of the Haredi community as they are faced with having to adopt Modern Orthodox policies or starving to death.)
This brings me to the big question that I came away from this book asking; for all this talk about the similarities between the social systems used by Haredim and Islamic radicals, would Haredim make good terrorists? In fact, Berman's major example of a failed terrorist organization is the Jewish underground that came from the Jewish settler movement. They lacked a system of culling out potentially untrustworthy recruits and were all too easily infiltrated by the Israeli government and neutralized. The Haredi system is very useful if you want to send out riotous youths to smash traffic lights and burn garbage cans or even to harass immodestly dressed women. This does not require any great planning, there is no valuable intelligence to sell, nor does it threaten any high-value targets. Imagine a Haredi youth calling the Israeli police: "hay I have a tip on a planned demonstration against chilul Shabbos. All I want is that you get me out of this life and give me a full year of college tuition with room and board." With something so basic, one could rely on moderately committed youths, motivated more by boredom than ideology.
As I see it, the Haredi system would not be effective for higher defection constant jobs like terrorism. It is not that they lack an effective social welfare system. The problem is that their system is almost too successful and is able to survive and even rely on free riders. The Haredi world is loaded with people who have been trapped into the system and would leave if only they were not dependent on the Haredi social system. (One of the few things that Unchosen got right.) In theory, these would be precisely the sorts of people who would turn traitor the moment they had something to sell. Would these people even be useful as drones, to be given specific low-level missions without any valuable intelligence to defect with?
If you insist you can do the cheap Jewish thing and have a friend lend you this book, do that. It would be hypocritical of me to complain. Better yet go out and purchase this book yourself. I look forward to hearing your reactions to it.