Counter-terrorism: unpacking the concepts of 'sanctuaries' and 'safe havens'
Announcer: Welcome to The World of Intelligence, a podcast for you to discover the latest analysis of global military and security trends within the open source defense intelligence community. Now on to the episode, with your host Terry Pattar.
Terry Pattar: Hello. Welcome to this episode of the Janes podcast. I'm Terry Pattar. I lead the Janes Intelligence Unit. On this episode of the podcast I'm joined by Michael Innes, who is someone I've worked with in the past and known for a long time. I specifically wanted to talk to Mike about some research that he's done over the past few years, or actually many years now, which he's distilled into a book that's just been published this year called Streets Without Joy. And the topic I want to talk about is this idea of sanctuary or safe havens, and that is something that is very topical right now with the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, and we are hearing these terms again in the news on a daily basis. So, Mike's research is incredibly timely in terms of considering where this concept came from, so Mike, welcome to the broadcast. It'll be great to talk to you about these concepts. But first it'd be great to get some of your background as well, and understand how you got to where you are now, and how you came about researching this topic.
Mike Innes: Yeah. Thanks, Terry. Thanks for having me on, and for doing this. Currently, I have a couple of different roles. I wear different hats, and that's actually the story of my career, I guess. I currently work for the U. N., so it's important to mention that everything we're talking about is a reflection of my personal interests and research that I've been doing for quite a long time. But I also have an academic hat. I am a senior research fellow with the Department of War Studies at King's College, London, in the Sir Michael Howard Center for the History of War, where we have a Conflict Records Unit that I set up, and I direct that as well, sort of as a side project. My background includes quite a few years of consultative research for government, focusing on strategic issues dealing with classic sort of geopolitical and military kind of issues, as well as some of the problems of insurgency and counter- insurgency and terrorism and counter- terrorism that have been sort of at the forefront of all of those issues, especially after 9/ 11, just a little bit more than 20 years ago. I spent about six and a half years working for NATO in the Balkans and in Belgium, with some side missions to Kosovo and Afghanistan along the way. And I guess I can talk a little bit about the book as well, but I don't know if you have some specific questions you want to lead with, or...
Terry Pattar: Yeah.
Mike Innes: To sort of set things up.
Terry Pattar: I actually do.
Mike Innes: Yeah.
Terry Pattar: And thanks for the introduction, Mike. I think it's, yeah, really useful to get an understanding of your background. I kind of actually want to start off talking about how you hit upon the question that is the key to this book. You know, the concept of sanctuary and safe havens, which we started to hear a lot about post- 9/ 11. And as you relay in the book... I think actually what I should say is as well, I sort of looked at the book, and I'll be honest with you. I thought, " This is going to be a hard read." Because I looked at the title, Streets Without Joy, and I thought, " Wow. That's a little depressing." But then also I thought, you know, there's going to... And I know you've put a huge amount of work into this, and I know that there's some real intellectual rigor gone into the academic aspects of this book, so I was thinking, " Oh, I wonder if it's going to be too academic." But I was really pleased that actually, you started off by really drawing me in as I was reading it, by relaying the kind of anecdotes that you started off with. Being on the tarmac in Banja Luka, and seeing inaudible. And we can maybe talk a little bit about that case as an example. But then you talk about your role in Sarajevo, and that routine you were working through of being in an analytical role, which I'm sure will be very familiar to a lot of the people listening to this podcast, a lot of the people I talk to and the people I've trained over the years, where you're sitting there day in, day out, analyzing information that comes across your desk, whether it's open source information or information from other types of sources, and trying to make sense of it. You know, trying to pick out what is going on, what does this mean. But it's always within the frame of the intelligence requirements that you're working to, whether those are ad hoc requirements or standing requirements. And I guess for you, at that point... And I think I'm right in saying that was in 2003. This was in the shadow of post- 9/ 11 policymaking decisions that had taken place, et cetera. Everything that flowed down from that, and the intelligence requirements were really shaped by this idea of sanctuaries and safe havens, where terrorist groups, militants, extremists would be able to prepare themselves, arm themselves, plan, and be able to conduct the types of attacks we saw on 9/ 11.
Mike Innes: Yeah, that's a really great setup, Terry. The story that I used to tell, and I guess it got old after a while because I spent so long sort of looking into this before actually writing the book, is that working as an analyst in a NATO environment, and working in a place that was not Afghanistan and not Iraq in the first few years after 9/ 11, and being asked this kind of question, " Is Bosnia a terrorist safe haven, or is Bosnia a terrorist sanctuary?" And if you were an analyst assigned to the Balkans at the time, extremism and terrorism was not a new kind of question. But the kind of extremism and terrorism that was being asked about was new, and not really consistent with the realities of life in the Balkans. It wasn't of the scale or wasn't as important as it was being made out to be. And when I was being asked that question, of course, being an analyst and sort of having that predilection for splitting hairs and wanting to actually get it, you know, where is this question coming from? You know, why am I being asked this question? Why are the people asking this question, asking the questions they are? And then that language, those words, sanctuary and safe haven, tended to come from... Working in a NATO environment. You know. At the time it had 26 member states... But it tended to be coming from senior U. S. officers, and it tended to come from senior U. S. officers who were often linking what we were doing in the Balkans to what was going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, or trying to make that connection. And I was pretty jaded and cynical myself at the time, thinking, well, you know, the Balkans at the time was kind of a foreign policy backwater, and anybody who was looking to make a career in national security was looking towards Afghanistan and Iraq. That's where the real game is, and sort of trying to create equivalencies between what's going on by using this language that was actually language in common use in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq. And so, so I raised those kind of questions, and of course that didn't win me any fans. It didn't make me any enemies either, but it was healthy to ask that question. And I guess as a side project since then, I started looking into where is this language coming from? You know, what are we looking at? Are we looking at sort of a generalized kind of rhetoric amongst people that are deployed on operations? If so, where is that coming from? Is there a bigger discourse around this? And where's it coming from? What are the origins? What's the etymology of the terminology that's being used, and why is it being used, and how it's being used? And doing the classic sort of thing you do as an academic, is you do a literature review. And over time what I was picking up is this sort of cottage industry in academic journal articles, including some of my own work that I published 15 years ago, which would... You know, you have to create a justification for doing the research. What is it that sort of makes it a headline, and makes it important to look into? And across the board, academics would cite one or another piece of policy documentation, whether it's a national security estimate, or the 9/ 11 Commission's report, or a presidential speech stating, you know, terrorist sanctuaries are important, a major threat, and they have to be dealt with. And what was really interesting to me at the time was they were sort of randomly selected, but when you look at them as a whole, there's a sort of corpus of documents and sort of reference material that cites this. Taken individually, they don't appear out of thin air. They're part of a process themselves. And so, if you're looking at the U. S. system, and you're looking at the national security apparatus in the U. S. as a point of origin for developing and deploying this kind of talk... As a way of setting priorities, as a way of deciding where money is spent, as a way of deciding where troops are going to go to war next... you know, there's a process that's well understood, at least in terms of what people can see from the outside, that a presidential speech will set the tone. A State of the Union address will set the tone, and then the policy apparatus will sort of take that on board and start operationalizing that, putting it into reports, and sort of creating subordinate documents and processes that follow from that.
Terry Pattar: I love this idea, though. I love this idea that you're sitting there and you're questioning the requirements as they're coming down. But then you've pulled that thread, and you've pulled it and pulled it, and you've taken it back so far. Because I think that's just what's really important, is that this idea of sanctuary and safe haven, it didn't just come into being after 9/ 11. There was this huge weight of literature and practice around it, I guess, over the decades, within U. S. administrations going back as far as... You've traced it in the book going back to the sort of '50s and'60s. So, you know, that to me is fascinating.
Mike Innes: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's the historian's problem. Knowing how far back to go, and where to sort of draw the line. So, you could keep going back. But I wanted to do a few things. One is I wanted to stay true to the language that was being used after 9/ 11. The book is a bit pedantic, in the sense that it looks at those words and takes them at face value. So, why those words? Why that terminology? And it stands out as terminology that should be traced, because it gets used so aggressively and so proactively. And it gets connected to certain historical ideas right? So, Vietnam is a really big one. Any talk of Al Qaeda sanctuaries or Taliban sanctuaries, at some point there's usually some sort of connection made to Viet Cong sanctuaries across the border in Laos and Cambodia. Or similar sorts of dynamics in other previous insurgencies. And, you know, you'll remember, going back 15 years, going a little bit further than that, 2002, '03, '04, there was this growing interest in past counterinsurgency, the counterinsurgency lessons of the past. And part of that involved invoking these historical cases like Vietnam, but also certain readings from the past. And Bernard Fall, who is this fantastic historian and war correspondent, too, who died in 1967, he was an influential thread in all of that. And in the book, it's important to state the book, my book, Streets Without Joy, is a straight riff on his book published in 1961 called Street Without Joy. That book was about the French experience of war in Indochina in the late'40s and up to the mid- 1950s, prior to American involvement. He was cited in the few years after 9/ 11 as part of this talk of sanctuaries, and academics, practitioners, anybody who's writing counterinsurgency... Not everybody, but a few sort of key items... would sort of invoke Bernard Fall's work, and they would say, you know, " He wrote about this idea of active sanctuary." It was like, okay. My view is if we're going to talk about this, we should go back and actually read what he wrote. And what I found really fascinating, I mean, he wrote these sort of brilliant military histories that were really evocative, and they were written for a popular audience. Right? They were solid histories, but they're written for popular audiences. And he did indeed use that terminology, but he used it so equivocally. Right? He used it in scare quotes in his own books, right? He was drawing from the parlance of the time. And so, that in turn sort of triggered another round of investigations. Like, okay. Where's he getting the terminology from? And I was a bit worried for a time this was going to be kind of a thread that just would keep sort of unraveling, and there would be no end to it, but there's some pretty solid context for this. And so, you could push it back all the way to the second World War, but I sort of start with the war in Korea in the'50s, and with the Chinese revolution, and sort of other insurgencies and civil wars going on at the time. And there's a great mass of national security talk in the'50s, where ideas of sanctuary, they're not part of the insurgency and counterinsurgency world. They are much broader. There's discussion of sanctuary issues in relation to nuclear blast radius around cities, and sort of not targeting cities, so they would be sort of exempt from targeting. Branding those as kind of sanctuaries. That's something that comes up in the Vietnam experience as well, as referenced if you look in the Pentagon Papers to the Hanoi sanctuary and the Haiphong sanctuary. Those were target exemptions for U. S. air power. And so, there's lots of really fascinating variation in the way the terminology is used, and I thought that was really important. Not just to be historically precise and accurate, but also I think in terms of certain meanings. If there are different kinds of meanings that attach to that terminology, then we potentially miss a beat if we're not aware of those, and we assume the terminology just means one thing, and then we start employing that. That was kind of what I was looking at in the period after 2001, where there was this kind of critical, end critical, I should say, use of that terminology to justify going after sort of territorial bases, or sort of rear areas or remote areas where terrorists are thought to set up bases. And that logic was fine, and you can sort of take that at face value. But at the time, there was also a lot of talk about how insurgent groups and terrorist groups distribute themselves. You know, these aren't typically massed armies sitting on a piece of territory that they control, working to basically take over a state. That came later, right?
Terry Pattar: No, indeed. Yeah.
Mike Innes: Yeah.
Terry Pattar: I think certainly at the time, and it would have been a case of them, as we found subsequently in many other situations, terrorists aren't terrorists 100% of the time.
Mike Innes: Exactly. Yeah.
Terry Pattar: You know?
Mike Innes: Yeah.
Terry Pattar: And certainly in places like that. But I think what's important as well is that in terms of your discussion about the history and the background of the use of these terms, is that... For anyone who doesn't remember, I guess at the time there was a huge pivot towards, okay, now we've got to do counter terrorism. We've got to do counter insurgency. There was kind of a conflation of those two things.
Mike Innes: Yeah.
Terry Pattar: But then also trying to learn from historical examples of insurgencies past. And so, I think it's important because all of those, that history, that does come in again, right? After the post- 9/ 11 period.
Mike Innes: Yeah.
Terry Pattar: It's influential.
Mike Innes: Yeah. No, it absolutely is. And you know, that's why it was important, I thought it was important in this book to get a fix on where the terminology is coming from, how it's understood, how it's used. But, and as part of that, to try to understand how the lessons... Not how the lessons are being learned or un- learned, or lessons were never learned to begin with, and are being learned new, but to try to get a sense of what is it about the current situation, the current situation of course evolving over a period of 15 years that I was looking at this, and how do you... You know, those sort of classical illusions to the war in Vietnam, and allowing the enemy to have sanctuary across the border, in a very sort of macro geopolitical sense. You know, how does that influence or shape how operations are conducted in Afghanistan or Iraq, for example? We know that-
Terry Pattar: Yeah. That's a good point. Yeah.
Mike Innes: ...across border activities... Well, you know, the book focuses on decisions around how the discourse is made. So, I made a hard separation between drawing up those bigger lessons, partly because I stopped the book in 2008, 2009. And a lot of that, while it was understood, only really sort of started to kick in after about 2009 with the surge, and AFPAC being conjoined, in a sense. A lot of these issues were understood and were being dealt with, but they weren't being sort of foregrounded in a lot of the policy discussion. You know, a lot of this comes from the very early logic that actually precedes 9/ 11, at least on the Republican side of the house, was drawing equivalencies between militant groups, terrorist insurgents or what have you, and the states that host them. There's tons of research that's been done on external support to insurgencies or proxy wars, and those are all sort of variations on a theme. But here you have this political attempt, and it's really something that started to take a form that looks a lot more familiar after 9/ 11, in the mid-'80s, with the U. S. attack on Libya, around I think it was in 1986. It was really drawing equivalencies. Like if you're hosting terrorists, if you're hosting insurgencies, then you're just as bad, and we're coming after. And that was the sort of framework that came out of Washington right after 9/ 11. Again, it's one of those things that didn't appear out of thin air. It was something that was percolating in the background. It had been very prominent in the'80s. But what I found, for anybody who's sort of trying to pick apart this thread, and if you're paying attention to headline news, and if you're paying attention to what's going on in the world, the ideas of sanctuary and safe haven aren't just about armed opponents. There's this whole humanitarian side to dealing with safe havens or creating safe havens as refuge for populations displaced by war, that are being victimized by war. And there's a really interesting shear, I guess, between sanctuaries being this forbidden thing that the enemy uses, that we have to stop or take away, and sanctuaries or safe havens as this thing that we have to provide to protect victims of core international crimes or what have you. And so, there's a really interesting tension. If you're trying to follow this jargon, when you're looking at the world of policy makers, jargon gets abused constantly. It's hard to keep up sometimes, because policy makers basically use the words they need, and they make them mean what they need them to mean at any given moment in time. Which is a very cynical view of things, but if you want to keep track, it can be quite challenging. But it's important, right?
Terry Pattar: Yeah. There is that element, I guess. And you describe it in the book as well, in terms of how policy makers need to frame things in order to make them convincing, to get people to buy in to them. Which, yeah.
Mike Innes: Indeed. Indeed. You know, accuracy-
Terry Pattar: Part of this-
Mike Innes: Accuracy isn't the point.
Terry Pattar: Yeah.
Mike Innes: Right? What they're trying to do is... I mean, the classic sort of understanding of why and how policy makers use examples from history or use terminology of certain kinds is that they're doing it for two reasons. Well, for one of two reasons, or a bit of both. One is so they can sort of understand this stuff. Right? Make sense of it, and then do what they need to do. And the other is to basically sell an agenda, right? That they use language that they think will resonate with constituents. And quite often there's a bit of both that comes into that, so.
Terry Pattar: Yeah. I mean, through all of the research that you did, and relating it to your own personal experience and what you saw and worked through in Bosnia... You know, at the end of the book you talk about going out to Afghanistan. What's your sort of view on this use of these concepts? And I guess the nub of that question is really, is it a positive, is it a negative, or is it much more nuanced than that?
Mike Innes: Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, I...
Terry Pattar: Yeah. It's a big question, I guess.
Mike Innes: Yeah.
Terry Pattar: I know it's sort of hard to answer in one go, but maybe we can sort of try and unpack that a little bit.
Mike Innes: I think I end the book on a somewhat cynical note, and the kind of cynical note that I just injected a couple of minutes ago. That at the end of the day, it's just words, and they'll be made to mean the things that satisfy current requirements, regardless of historical baggage or sort of current realities. And that can be quite challenging, and it can be quite frustrating. I think one of the things that... I mean, this is almost a side piece to this, but one of the things that I found constantly challenging was the sense that if you really wanted to know stuff, you had to be really up close and up front. You know, right in the mix. You had to be sort of forward deployed, so to speak. You know, you could be reading books, and you could be reading press articles, and you could be reading sort of the original, the thoughts that are being generated in print and in press by various groups, but there's always kind of this distance that sort of separates analysts from what they're analyzing. And one of the things that drove me to... You know, drove me to distraction, actually. Sitting as an analyst behind a desk, behind a computer, behind barbed wire, being expected to know what's going on out there. Right? To divine enemy intentions, or what have you. That was a constant challenge, and one of the things that drove me to get out to Afghanistan as a part of my job in 2009. But even then, I was in the field, so to speak, but I was at a desk behind a computer screen behind barbed wire, and I was no more in the field than I would have been if I was back in inaudible at the time, or any other Western capital.
Terry Pattar: Yeah. You said it was frustrating. I mean, imagine though. There's a lot of people have been in that situation where they're thinking, " Huh. I'm in Afghanistan, but I'm not really in Afghanistan," if that makes sense.
Mike Innes: Yeah. Well, I mean, who gets to know, and what knowledge is more credible, or has more grounding? I mean, that's a constant sort of debate amongst analysts and practitioners and different kinds of analysts, whether they're historians or political scientists, or area studies or cultural specialists or what have you. And that, too, is part of that environment after 9/ 11. You remember, there was this real push for cultural specialists and language specialists and area specialists that played into that, that whole sort of atmosphere. And in bringing it back to the subject of the book, it was really interesting, because all these sort of different disciplines and approaches all had differing, slightly differing, slightly nuanced views of this kind of issue. And by far, the richest sort of streams of thought on why people or groups use sanctuary or safe haven, or why they seek this out or why they try to deny it to others, I mean, it wasn't in the terrorism studies literature. It wasn't stuff that was being done then in direct response to what was going on in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was stuff that had been around for years, dealing with... There's a sanctuary movement in the U. S. which has nothing to do with this stuff, and it was very much about faith- based classic sort of religious provision of sanctuary to people who are fleeing persecution, whether it's individuals or groups. But a lot of this emerged in the U. S. as a domestic issue in the'80s, and prior to that as well, where refugees coming across the border would be given refuge, in the classic sort of Christian religious sense of this. And what I found fascinating about that is it's going on at the same time that these other sort of outward- looking foreign policy kind of discussions are happening. And to my thinking, bringing it back to why people would use this kind of language and where are they getting it from, I thought it would be really interesting, and undoubtedly doable, to connect people using the foreign policy language about terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens who had to maybe deal with these kind of domestic problems of sanctuary and safe haven or what have you, in relation to refugee movements out of Central America at the time, and Haiti's coming into the U. S. across the border. I thought there's a really interesting problem in here. And I don't really deal with it in the book, but I sort of, I put those darts on the board, I think. And what I've tried to do is draw together sort of some of those parallel kind of streams of thinking on this stuff, and I think there's a really compelling history yet to be written about how those different streams work together. And anybody dealing with foreign policy formulation is aware of the influence of domestic issues on the creation of foreign policy, and that was an area that I thought had really been underdeveloped when talking about sanctuaries and safe havens in the foreign policy sense of the term.
Terry Pattar: I thinking about it from kind of I guess two different perspective. You know, one from that perspective of your own work and the roles that you were in from 2001, 2003, up to 2009. But then also looking back perhaps with the benefit of historical hindsight. Do you think this idea of framing the counter terrorism problem as one of trying to deny sanctuaries and safe havens to terrorist groups, it was that useful? Has that been useful? And do you think it's... You know, now that we're hearing it again and again right now in the news every day, is it something else? Is it again going to be useful for us, or actually is it, is it problematic? Does it cause us to think about these issues in a way that isn't actually helpful to solving them?
Mike Innes: Yeah. I mean, there are big and small questions attached to that. I think very early on after 9/ 11, I guess one of the pivot points was in thinking about, okay. So, Al Qaeda. A network of individuals, and in some places that organization isn't organization, you know? Al Qaeda had paramilitary sort of formations, guerrilla units, 055 brigade in Afghanistan, that looked like military units, and they sit on pieces of land and they hold that land. But you also had the sort of dominant thinking at the time was, you've got networks, in the classic sort of terrorist cell sense of the term, all over the place. And there's this idea that was really predominant, that we're talking about transnational networks that aren't occupying territory in the same sort of way. Right? And policy makers were aware of this at the time, and understood Al Qaeda at the time in that sort of sense, in the late'90s and the early aughts. But how do you mobilize a country's military to fight this sort of distributed network? And that was the challenge right at the beginning. And so, part of that drawing equivalencies between if you're in a regular warfare group or a military group that's using terrorism or insurgency, if you're going to draw equivalencies between them, that makes it a lot easier to mobilize in a large scale sort of way. And there was this real appetite to deploy forces, conventional forces as well as unconventional forces, to deal with this problem. And that was a real decision point at the time. It was like, okay. Could the decision makers in Washington right after 9/ 11, could they have gone another way? They absolutely could have. Right? They could have privileged, for example, more intelligence, more special operations, less wholesale deployment and occupation. Right? And they clearly got into a lot of trouble by choosing the latter route. And so, some of this discourse, and painting sort of entire states as sanctuaries, when really we're just talking about a little piece, was part of the problem. And I guess the problem isn't with that language. It's just that it was with the intent. Right?
Terry Pattar: Yeah.
Mike Innes: And I think it enabled some of that. But I wouldn't put too much blame on a single word, or a couple of words.
Terry Pattar: That's interesting, though. But did you think it contributed to... I think in the book you sort of mention the response to 9/ 11 being disproportionate. And I think as we've sort of seen in the 20 years since, it hasn't perhaps had the effect that was behind, or was the intent behind, or matched the intent behind it, rather, at the outset of deciding which way to go in terms of whether it's use a more selective approach, or to go in and try to occupy countries. I mean, yeah. Is that concept of sanctuary and safe haven, was that part of what contributed to that? Or do you think actually that's conflating two different things entirely?
Mike Innes: I don't think so. You know, I don't think the obsession was with sanctuary terminology or lessons. I don't think there was an obsession with a particular war in history that was looked at, looked like what the world was looking at right after 9/ 11. I think my view is probably a bit more cynical, in the sense that the policy makers and the people who help them sort of shape the words and shape the ideas to deal with those problems, they were faced with a problem, and they were looking for language to understand it and to frame it and to express that. I think that's something that I trace. I mean, there are three chapters in the book where I look at case studies where this is done, where there was either critical or uncritical use of that kind of terminology. And in some cases the terminology isn't even all that prominent, but the logic is still there. Right? And so, I think the ideas that animated American policy makers and drove large scale occupations was already there. Right?
Terry Pattar: Mm- hmm( affirmative). Yeah.
Mike Innes: There was clearly an interest and an intent in going after Iraq. When exactly that started is still to this day open for debate. Afghanistan was a real target of opportunity, and a different kind of problem right after 9/ 11. So, I don't think it's the language that's driving the problem, initially. I think it's the problem creating an opportunity to develop language around that. But I would say the thing that's interesting is when you trace these sort of case studies over time... And the real core of the book is from 2001 to late 2008. 2001 to late 2008. Yeah... is that the language takes on its own meaning over time, and its own meanings, because it's made to mean different things at different sort of levels of government, in a strategic sense and then sort of operationalized at lower levels. And I think what was really interesting about this is that as time went on, basically that logic sort of just cemented itself, and people would sort of use it unquestionably, and thought that it basically was sort of one of those things that didn't need to be questioned. You know, one of the case studies, I look at the 9/ 11 Commission, which is, for a lot of younger students now and younger analysts now, this is kind of ancient history and abstract stuff. But at the time, it really-
Terry Pattar: That's frightening. I find that frightening.
Mike Innes: Yeah, it really is. It really is.
Terry Pattar: Reading through that. You know, yeah.
Mike Innes: But there was, for about 18 months, two years almost, it was a very prominent sort of set of activities. And what I found fascinating about this is that this was a really interesting case where some of the world's specialists, and how policy makers use historical analogy and use historical language to help shape things. They were really, really keen on developing a history and understanding what happened that allowed Al Qaeda to do what it did on 9/ 11. And they were very keen on not... I mean, you can see, in most of the work they stay away from cheap analogizing, saying, " This is another inaudible. This is another... " You know? They stay away from it. In drafting their policy recommendations, there are 42 policy recommendations that they come up with. They have kind of a policy chapter at the end of the massive report that they produced, and they kind of just slap these two right at the very top. So there are 42 in the end, and the top two were dealing with terrorist sanctuaries. And that was partly because they were under pressure, some of it self- imposed, to be policy relevant. Right? So while they didn't sort of employ cheap analogies, they were too savvy for that sort of thing, they themselves were part of an environment where that language had solidified. I mean, this is around 2003, 2004, so it's about three years' worth of that language about harboring terrorists, and if you harbor terrorists, then you're just as bad, so we'll be coming after you as well. I mean, that had just been hammered home endlessly. And we're getting into that period where the invasion of Iraq happens in 2003, and then into 2004. That's exactly when the 9/ 11 Commission is happening. So, I think in a sense they were sort of victims of context, even though they themselves are more aware than most of the pitfalls of using the wrong kinds of history, or using history incorrectly, including the language of another time or of another place. And so, it was really interesting to see how they themselves had also sort of fallen victim to that. And just to add to that, not to put too fine a point on it, but this was also a time when splitting hairs about language was a big deal. Finding the right kind of terminology was itself kind of a headline activity. People like Donald Rumsfeld, people like the heads of the 9/ 11 Commission were very keen on making sure they chose the right terms. Right? Was what was going on in Iraq a civil war, or was it an insurgency, or was it something else? And they were having all these semantic discussions. You know, what sort of labels to use. But the one they didn't, for me, which is fascinating, was whether talk of sanctuaries and safe havens, those labels, that's the one thing they didn't question out of all of it. And for a time I was wondering, well, maybe that's for a reason. Maybe that's because it's completely inconsequential. Right? Maybe I'm fixating on something that's not there. Right? And I had that doubt. But there are enough occasions along the way, there are enough examples of individuals being asked, " Is this state a safe haven or a sanctuary," and they'd stop and they'd pick it apart. Right? And it happened two or three times. Rumsfeld did it. I mean, he did that with everything, right? It was part of his sort of modus operandi to pick apart the language the journalists would use when they asked him questions. But this happened a couple of times on that. It was just enough to convince me that actually there was something going on sort of behind closed doors in terms of thinking about this stuff. So that's why I basically kept pulling at those threads, instead of just giving up on it.
Terry Pattar: Sure. And when you hear people, you know. Well, politicians, policy makers now using that same kind of language, what are the thoughts that go through your mind when you hear that?
Mike Innes: Yeah. So, I mean, I've always told people that this is the gift that keeps on giving. I mean, before we started recording, you sort of raised this point. I think in a sense, as the author of a book on the subject I think it's great, because it'll resonate and it'll keep resonating, and maybe people will look to the book to have some light sort of shed on this. But you know, I stopped the book in 2000... The book covers up to late 2008, early 2009, and then things kept happening afterwards that I had myself wondering whether I should extend the book even further. And some of the reviewers, the blind reviewers of the manuscript were like, " We need to see what happens after. This book needs more chapters, or there needs to be a counterpart book that looks beyond this." You know, what happens when you really start looking at AFPAC? What happens when ISIS comes along, and actually you're now looking at something a lot more like a classic situation where an insurgent group has territorial control over a state? Right? And that's looking a lot more like Cold War era discussions of terrorist sanctuaries, and domino theories and the like. And so, I thought that was one set of issues. Another was I think some of the back and forth between the domestic and foreign influences on this. So, when Donald Trump came to power, you'll remember in the first year or two... Well, for his entire presidency, but really in the first year or two... he started shining lights on sort of sanctuary cities in the U. S., and sanctuary cities are a direct outgrowth of, again in the'80s with the sanctuary movement, what began with parishes along the border with Mexico providing sanctuary to refugees, and defying federal authority to cease and desist. Those expanded to the point where cities were then providing sanctuary, and that's something that began in the'80s. And so, I thought that was really interesting. Now you're seeing this sort of about face instead of looking abroad. You know, that's still going on. Policy makers are still looking at Afghanistan and Iraq at that time, but it's a bit more subdued. And then the focus, partly because the president is directing attention that way, to domestic sanctuary cities. And then just in the last month things have reversed. The gaze has been inverted again, and we've been forced to look back at Afghanistan again, and some of that same talk, or some of that talk about, you know, is Afghanistan going to become a safe haven again, is sounding an awful lot like what people were talking about 20 years ago.
Terry Pattar: Yeah, it's interesting. And like you said, these are concepts which are so embedded, I guess, that they won't go away. But also, they will continue to influence our thinking in terms of how we deal with these situations. But it's also reminiscent. I know you mentioned kind of the anxiety as well within the book. At the time around the post 9/ 11 period, immediate post 9/ 11 period, when there was that sort of fear that there would be other similar types of attacks coming, and this had to be really dealt with straightaway. And it feels like some of the sort of discourse at the moment starts to become a little reminiscent of that, and I wonder if that sort of does then continue to shape policy making and responses to these situations. And also then the flow down. As we started out talking about, for those people who are sitting in those analyst roles and dealing with intelligence requirements, how much of that kind of political language really comes through, all the way down the sort of chain of command really, and shapes what they're doing day to day in the work that they're doing, the information they're looking for, how they analyze it, the reports they produce? Yeah. That was one of the things that sort of, the thought that stayed in my mind as I was reading the book. And I kept coming back as well in my mind to the anecdote you started off with talking about Bosnia, and this concept that countries were perhaps deporting people to Bosnia who they thought were involved in terrorist activities, et cetera. And then turning around and saying, " Hang on. That now makes this country potentially a terrorist safe haven."
Mike Innes: Yeah.
Terry Pattar: So maybe you can unpack that a little bit as well, and sort of... It would be good to get your thoughts and your take on that for people who are listening, I think.
Mike Innes: Yeah. I guess, I mean I think we were both thinking along the same lines, because I've just been jotting down some notes about the fact that a lot of this talk of sanctuary is not just at a political level. It's not just at a sort of presidential level. It's also an operationalized set of terms of references, right? And that operationalization creates all sorts of variants. And what I was really interested in, in asking, my main question was if there is some sort of discourse or talk of sanctuary, and it's something that we can observe over time, and it's something that's actually there, what is it? What does it actually look like, and where is it coming from? I was still very interested in understanding how terrorists use sanctuary, and that was a big research sort of question after 9/ 11. Right? How and why do they use sanctuary? And for the longest time I sort of split between looking at how armed groups use this stuff, and then also looking at, well, how do we understand it that way, and who frames it that way? And eventually I had to sort of split the first part off, and just focus on the framing of it. You know, the part that leads to those kind of intelligence requirements. And I think in trying to understand where this stuff comes from, and tracing the observable sort of behaviors of policy makers and people putting together speeches and documents... Not just speeches and sort of official sort of reviews and assessments and estimates, but also the manuals that get produced, and sort of the operational manuals, the field manuals. You know, those kind of documents that sit on a shelf, ready for the next generation to pick them up. You know, the point of reference that makes the stuff available for subsequent users was really interesting. That practical sort of embeddedness of those lessons. So that's what I was looking for in the case study chapters that I look at, is when the president decides he's got an issue to deal with, and the speechmakers get involved, what's the book they pull off the shelf to help them think through this, right? And there was some pretty defined stuff that we were able to identify. And how does that translate, then, in terms of offices being tasked with researching this, money being allocated, labels being put on office doors, a committee in the National Security Council being labeled the Safe Haven Working Group. You know, how is this stuff operationalized? How is it made real, and not just verbiage coming out of a president's mouth? And then what does that mean sort of further downstream, once you get to deploying the troops, or other kinds of resources being allocated? And so, there's quite a bit of material that's there. Right?
Terry Pattar: Yeah.
Mike Innes: And even though it's there, sitting on the shelf, that doesn't mean it's not subject to being manipulated or abused, and we see that as well. There's a great case of a speech that was given in 2002 or 2003 where, I think it was a DOD press briefing of some kind, and somebody asked that question about is Iran a terrorist sanctuary? Is Iraq a terrorist sanctuary? And Rumsfeld saying basically, you know, picking it apart a little bit and saying, " We'll get back to you." And then a week later there's a press brief given by an unnamed DIA representative, and what they've done is they went back to... Remember, this is 2002, 2003, just in the lead up to the second Gulf War, where they've taken the published lessons of the first Gulf War from 10 years before, and they've basically slapped on the terminology that was developed after 9/ 11, 10 years later, to brand and label all these different kinds of operational behaviors in Iraq by Saddam Hussein's forces as different kinds of sanctuary- denying or sanctuary- seeking behavior. And I thought this is such a brilliant example of sort of taking history, and then using it to sell a new agenda.
Terry Pattar: Is the danger there, though, you know, viewing this type of problem through that frame, that analysts, counter terrorism intelligence agencies, et cetera, national security practitioners, start to look for or start to see sanctuaries and safe havens where before there weren't any? And there may not be, but there's this fear that they could turn into... You know, like you mentioned in the book, that suddenly Bosnia becomes a potential sanctuary or safe haven, where before perhaps it wasn't seen in that light. Does that create its own kind of problems, though? Actually help perpetuate the situation, rather than helping solve it?
Mike Innes: Yeah. Well, I mean there's definitely a matter of priorities that comes into play, but would those priorities be there if they were called something else? Definitely. There's definitely a matter of priorities. And my experience in the Balkans was an interesting way for me to make sense of some of what I was looking at, but I don't look at the Balkans too much after that. I tended to look at how Afghanistan and Iraq were being framed. In terms of the resources that are allocated, and the priorities that accrue to different sort of parts of the world, and for different reasons, are definitely part of this. But I think, like I said before, the logic was already there, and you could sort of pick a term out of your hat and basically apply that. The logic was still the same. And that's where you get these sort of variations in terms of how the sanctuary talk is used in different cases. What was interesting to me is some of the assumptions about the talk after 9/ 11, really after the invasion of Iraq, when the talk of insurgency and counterinsurgency and past lessons of those really came into play, and there was kind of an assumed association between terrorist and guerrilla sanctuaries, and insurgency and counterinsurgency. And I thought that was really interesting, because if you look at the classics, there are a few that use that terminology, but most don't. They're talking about terrain. They're talking about geography. They're talking about logistics. Right? And so, it's pretty complicated. And one of the key things about this kind of language is it provides a really simplifying handle to invoke all of these kinds of issues. But then again, the problem is that over time, that simplifying handle becomes the point. Right? Rather than kind of an umbrella for all the other things that people need to be taking into consideration. So the caveat I would add to that is that people working on those issues know that. They're not gulled into thinking that the issues are as simple as policy makers make them out to be. The whole point when you're operationalizing this stuff is making it apply to the full range of issues that might be on your desk at any given time.
Terry Pattar: That's really interesting. And Mike, I realize we're up against time, so I kind of wanted to bring this maybe to a conclusion. But I wanted to, before we finish, ask you about a project that I was working with you briefly, very, very briefly on, but which I know you led for a time. That was the Taliban Sources Project. Maybe just get you to describe that a little bit. And especially now with the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan, and really coming back to the forefront of international attention, looking back on that project now, is it something that people would find useful to help them understand the Taliban better and to review, and is it accessible for people?
Mike Innes: Yeah, definitely. I mean, going from the book to the TSP, the common point I suppose is that I would say the book is very document- centric. Right? This isn't like a Bob Woodward sort of interview- based book. It's very much built around case studies of document collections. And so, I guess leaping from that to the TSP, to the Taliban Sources Project, was not... It was a project I didn't start. The TSP was actually begun by two well- known scholars of Afghanistan, Alex Strick and Felix Kuehn. They had collected, as researchers sitting in Kandahar between 2006 and 2011, they had collected a lot of what we would consider I guess gray literature, and just open source stuff. You know, stacks of newspapers, stacks of magazines, stacks of items that had been published by the Taliban during their time in government, that were just kind of available in the environment. It's kind of what I like to think of as the tourist junk approach to things. It's inherently worthless, right? And cheap. But you can only get it in certain places, right?
Terry Pattar: Mm- hmm(affirmative). Yeah.
Mike Innes: And so, if you are on the ground, so to speak, you can get access to all sorts of publications and materials that researchers really privilege. Right? That are really important for understanding. crosstalk-
Terry Pattar: Yeah. I can see how it has value through it's accumulation too, right? I mean, in-
Mike Innes: Yeah.
Terry Pattar: ...each one of those newspapers or items of documentation, et cetera, none of them on their own right would be that interesting. But it's the fact that there's this huge collection.
Mike Innes: Yeah. That's right. And so, they had collected quite, I mean a few boxes' worth, travel trunks' worth of documentation. So basically, we found the money to independently digitize all this material. The challenge was that you had all this physical documentation that could be read, and that could really enrich an understanding of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and that's what Alex and Felix really did with their work. But it was in isolation. It wasn't accessible. And so, for anybody dealing with open source for your audience, the accessibility of information is key, so how do you make this stuff accessible? Right? It's inaccessible because of its location. It's inaccessible because of the media that it's in. It's paper. It's not digitized. A lot of it is inaccessible to non- language specialists, who don't have Pashtu or Dari, or there was a small trench of Arabic in there. So, making it accessible was a key thing that we're doing. And it was a very sort of fundamental, un- sexy, but very basic kind of project to just scan all of this stuff, digitize it, translate key elements of it. And that's what we did over a two year period. The team scanned and digitized just over 50,000 pages of material. And as projects like this go, that's not huge. It's a pretty decent amount, but it's not huge.
Terry Pattar: Well, I remember you and I scratching our heads about how can we speed up the scanning?
Mike Innes: Well, indeed.
Terry Pattar: Because there was-
Mike Innes: I mean, the challenges you have to deal with. I mean, there are all sorts of considerations that come into play. So, one of the decisions we made was to, even though most of this was worthless newsprint, it was still a physical artifact that was of Afghanistan, therefore should remain in Afghanistan. So we stayed true to UNESCO standards for cultural heritage. There was a practical reason for that, too, in that if we had tried to physically remove it from Afghanistan, it would probably would have been confiscated and destroyed, and we were trying to preserve this for historical value. And so we managed to do that, and we translated just under two million words worth. And to answer your question about is it accessible and can it be used, the answer is a most definite yes. So, the aim of the project was to make it available for researchers. There is a copy of it that currently sits on the University of Oslo's servers, alongside the Jihadi Document Repository, which some of your readers might be familiar with. It was a project of Thomas Hegghammer, inaudible Anderson, and a few others who are some of the world's leading specialists on Jihadi studies, I guess is the way to frame it. And so, there's a Taliban sources repository next to that. The other place where it will be sitting is at King's College London. So, one of the things that I've done as kind of an outgrowth of all of this is to set up a conflict records unit, and part of its remit is to be able to host and develop these kind of record sets. So, digital versions are available in those two places. And of course it wouldn't be fair to mention this without mentioning Alex and Felix's book. They published a reader with selected items from that. So, what I find interesting about that is the interest in getting right at the primary sources that are hard to get at, but that are central. There's a real interest amongst political scientists, among civil war specialists in particular, human rights specialists as well, in getting to these primary sources that are generated by parties to conflict, whether it's perpetrators or victims or bystanders or survivors or what have you. You know, amongst political scientists there's a real interest in this, and civil society has really developed in this direction as well over the last 10 years, with organizations that you'll be very familiar with, like Bell and Katz or I think indeed forensic architecture is another one in the Baltic and Syria and Iraq, where you're collecting evidence on the ground. And what's interesting to me is how that has been brought back in, and so now you have these major UN mechanisms, one for Syria, one for Myanmar, one for investigating inaudible, where they're very interested in battlefield evidence and battlefield information, including documentary evidence. Right? And so, there's been a real push over the last few years to sort of refocus on that. That in turn has its own... You know, if you again want to pull at the historical threads, document exploitation is a well- defined part, especially in the U. S., but also in the U. K, part of military intelligence. Right?
Terry Pattar: Yeah.
Mike Innes: How do you secure? How do you identify? How do you collect? How do you preserve? How do you make it accessible in a forward, predictive thinking way, or for intelligence purposes? And then you also have this retrospective preserving the evidence for judicial purposes, and also for historical purposes and broader source scholarly research. So it's a really interesting landscape for doing this kind of work now.
Terry Pattar: That's fascinating, and I think it's really useful to know where those are. Hopefully people who are listening will be able to take advantage of those resources, and help them in any research they might be conducting on this. And also, as you said, with Alex and Felix's book, to maybe review that. This will be an opportune time to look back on it and help understand, I think, what we might be seeing in Afghanistan in the future, or in the near future at least. So, yeah. That was really interesting. Thanks, Mike. I appreciate it.
Mike Innes: Yes.
Terry Pattar: And thanks for joining on this podcast. It's been fascinating to talk to you about your book, and all of the experiences that you've had that have led to that point of conducting all of the research, and really asking those fundamental questions, which I think not enough people working in intelligence... Not enough analysts stop sometimes to consider those things, and it's great that you've done that. So, for anyone who's interested, they can find that book right now in hardback.
Mike Innes: Streets.
Terry Pattar: Yeah, Streets Without Joy, and from Hurst and from Oxford University Press in the U. S. I thoroughly recommend it. Thanks again, Mike. It's been really interesting, and great to catch up.
Mike Innes: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thanks, Terry.
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In this podcast we speak to Dr Michael Innes about counter-terrorism. We cover the concepts of 'sanctuaries' and 'safe havens' in the context of America´s post-9/11 discourse.
Dr Michael Innes is Director of the Conflict Records Unit and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies, King's College London. He is the author of Streets Without Joy: A Political History of Sanctuary and War, 1959-2009. Streets is his fifth book-length publication.