Want to know what western elites are thinking about global terrorism? Head to the Kennedy School of Government
A course about al-Qaida and the rise of international terrorism was one of the most popular last term at Harvard's elite Kennedy School of Government. The international students crowding into the school's largest auditorium for the twice-weekly classes were a cross-section of Americans, Europeans and Middle Easterners, including current members of the US army and intelligence community on sabbatical leave. Simply attending it gave me a sense of where tomorrow's western and westernised elites stand vis-a-vis "the long war".
The instructor for the course was Peter Bergen, the journalist who bagged Osama bin Laden's first face-to-face interview on CNN. In the 1990s, long before Islamist activism dominated the thinking of western intelligence organisations, Peter Bergen interviewed several jihadist in the Middle East and Europe about their views. His book, The Osama Bin Laden I Know, made him sought-after in the aftermath of September 11, as his international relations colleagues scrambled to shed backgrounds in Soviet studies and switch to the geopolitics of the Middle East. Bergen became a transnational terrorism analyst who challenged the tendency to lump all terrorists into one group. Instead, he classified them by generation, regional provenance and the conflict that shaped their intellectual outlook.
Bergen does not speak Arabic, Kurdish, Persian, Pashtu, Urdu or any of central Asia's Turkic dialects – all crucial languages in the war on terror. He compensates by relying on English-language translations of jihadist material and his contacts in the Pentagon and western intelligence. One such specialist was forensic psychiatrist and former CIA agent Marc Sageman, who ran operations in Pakistan. Standing in front of the class as a guest lecturer, he expounded the theory from his book, Leaderless Jihad, that al-Qaida is in decline and the next generation of threats comes from "self-created wannabes". Isolated and disillusioned, these radical youths live in the Middle East and the west alike and are equally dangerous in both contexts.