Istanbul, Turkey – International travel is swiftly loosing its sense of drama. Arriving at the airport, we are ticketed, screened, and sorted before being strapped into into our seats and hurtled across time zones. The experience leaves little time for farewells and less for personal reflection. Instead we preoccupy ourselves with mundane aggravations: bad traffic, long lines, the inconvenience of removing our shoes and belts. Even the inflight entertainment seems aimed at distracting us from the separation wrought by time and distance. We deaden our worries with Ambien, alcohol, and the in-flight movie, wrapping ourselves in a warm cocoon of presumed security that bears little resemblance to the frigid void outside.
I don’t care for flying. A close call aboard an Ariana Airlines flight from Kabul in 2005 left me with a latent (though gradually subsiding) fear of turbulence. Add high mountains or low visibility to the equation, and I interpret even gentlest airborne tremor as a prayer-inducing reminder of my own mortality. So there is no rest for me on this evening’s bumpy flight from Washington to Istanbul. And while my fellow travelers sleep, or read, or tend to crying children, I have long hours to refine my research agenda in Yemen and contemplate the associated perils.
Over the last week friends have filled my inbox with State Department travel advisories. Several have tried to dissuade me from going for Yemen, especially following the May 21st suicide bombing in Sana’a. Even my interpreter seems tense, urging me to cancel my reservations at a small Yemeni guesthouse and book a room in the European chain hotel favored by expatriates. His concern is understandable. Although the insurgency is most active in the south, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its allies have reportedly made inroads in the mountain districts surrounding Yemen’s dusty capital.
Yemen is not my first such journey, however. Its difficult for me to imagine a city more dangerous than Kandahar, or a region less stable than the North Caucasus. Nor is my trip particularly remarkable, at least not when compared with the burden borne by the thousands of service members deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. Yemen may be the next al-Qaeda stronghold. It may be fraught with tribal and political strife. It may even be one of the most dangerous places in the world. Yet ultimately the risk I’m running pales in comparison to the perils our soldiers and diplomats endure.
What then, if the purpose of such a journey? America has soldiers to fight its battles and war correspondents to tell the story. It has diplomats to conclude treaties and aide workers to rebuild broken nations. Scholars, it seems, have no role In the kinetic world of counter-terrorism operations or the realm of billion-dollar development budgets. Balkanized into narrow subspecialties and increasingly preoccupied with narrow doctrinal debates, we seems increasingly isolated from the crises and conflicts we seek to understand. We contemplate and prognosticate, but we do not necessarily understand.
The value of understanding cannot be understated. For several years, I have argued that we cannot hope to address the challenges posed by global terrorism if we do not appreciate local dynamics. In some cases, al-Qaeda finds fertile ground for its ideology and operations. This was arguable the case with the Afghan Taliban, who entered into a prolonged alliance with its foreign guests despite Saudi warnings and American threats. In other cases, however, al-Qaeda must contend with local resentment and resistance. Rather than being viewed as allies or assets, they come to be seen as a threat to the indigenous social and political order.
Scholars can examine these dynamics at a distance, but only up to a certain point. While studying Osama bin Laden’s archives offers insight into al-Qaeda’s waning reach and relevance, it does not explain how how the global jihad has influenced local insurgencies. A similar argument can be made for systematic surveillance of jihadi media, including online chatrooms. While these forums may offer insight into jihadi doctrine and the individual radicalization process, the resulting emphasis on al-Qaeda’s aspirations does not necessarily reflect the agendas held by their local interlocutors–let alone their political allegiances. In short, armchair analysis risks exaggerating al-Qaeda’s actual reach and relevance.
This is why local knowledge–and local perspective–is so crucial. While the twenty-four hour news cycle may thrive on snapshot analysis, true understanding requires a willingness to view contemporary Islamic militancy from the ground up. More significantly, it requires criteria for what David Kilcullen calls “distinguishing and disaggregating” our adversaries. While many have little affection for militant Islamists or tribal militias, our experience in Iraq suggests great value in engaging those with whom we share a common adversary.
So why go to Yemen? Because our current perspective and policies are conceived from the top down. Because policy makers and the public lack adequate insight into how Yemenis view and interpret these threats. And because if Yemen is truly the new center of gravity for the al-Qaeda movement–and I believe it is–then then the costs of getting our analysis wrong could be disasterous. Someone has to do the homework, and this is one area where a scholar’s approach can make a meaningful contribution. So while fieldwork may be dangerous, the perils of arms chair analysis are far greater in the end.
There is also another reason to go. If nothing else, Cambridge taught me that scholarship is an inherently public endeavor. Like attorneys, clergy, and physicians, society gives scholars the power to define the scope and standards of their discipline. We allow them to regulate themselves, to continuously test and improve our collective knowledge in the marketplace of ideas. In return ,scholars have an obligation to educate the public–to share the insight and understanding they acquire in the goals of producing a more resilient and innovative society. This is true for the arts, true for the sciences. And it is particular vital in matters of politics, strategy, and war.
So on to Yemen, with all the peril and promise that entails. And then back to America, God willing, with as little turbulence as possible.