London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Brian Fishman is a Counterterrorism Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, as well as a Research Fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center [CTC] at West Point. Fishman previously served as CTC Director of Research, as well as a professor in the West Point Military Academy’s Department of Social Sciences. Fishman has been a regular contributor to the CTC’s Harmony Project reports, including “Dysfunction and Decline: Lessons Learned from Inside al-Qaeda in Iraq” and “Al Qaeda’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records.” Brian Fishman’s work primarily focuses upon the impact the war on Iraq has had on global terrorism, and he has appeared in numerous national and international media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal. In this exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Brian Fishman discusses his work, Al Qaeda’s present condition, and the terrorist situation in general in the Middle East.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did your career as a journalist begin? Was there a defining movement where you were certain that you had chosen the correct path in life?
[Fishman] I actually consider myself more of an academic or a researcher than a journalist. When I was younger, I always wanted to be a journalist–telling stories is fascinating and important–but I now find that I am better at analyzing information and solving problems than in reporting itself.
I think the defining moment for me was when we published the Sinjar Records while I was teaching at West Point. The records allowed us to analyze the patterns of foreign fighters joining al-Qaeda in Iraq. Our analysis was important for the United States, but it also showed just how real the issue was. That was a good moment because our report had a lot of credibility in the U.S. and around the world; it showed that honest analysis of good data can break down some of the misunderstandings between countries and people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell our Arab readers a little bit about yourself; your educational and employment background, your personal experiences, etc?
[Fishman] Sure. I am from California originally, and studied at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Columbia University in New York. I originally moved to Washington, DC on September 10, 2001, just one day before 9/11, and my life has not been the same since. I originally wanted to study China – I speak some Mandarin Chinese – but have been working on terrorism issues since 9/11.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What kind of response did you get following the publication of the Sinjar Records, and how long did you work on this report?
[Fishman] The response was huge. People are often fascinated by how organized al-Qaeda can be; so many were simply surprised that AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] was keeping very rigorous personnel documents. There were other surprises as well – the high number of Libyans in that particular sample, for example. I don’t remember exactly how long we worked on the document, but it was several weeks. We wanted to get something out quickly because we knew that people would find it fascinating, but we also wanted to be as accurate as possible. Our analysis of the Sinjar Records had a lot of quantitative analysis, and it took a long time to clean up the data so that we could analyze it properly.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What kind of projects are you currently working on? Can you tell us a little about them?
[Fishman] I am working on a couple of projects for New America, mostly looking at al-Qaeda’s operations in Pakistan, and a follow up analysis on al-Qaeda in Iraq today.
But I am also finishing up a book with one of my colleagues from West Point looking at divisions in the jihadi movement. One of the weaknesses of Western analysis of jihadi groups is that they are often lumped together when in fact these groups have very different strategic ideas and ideological concepts. For the U.S. to have more effective counterterrorism policy and healthier relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, we need to understand those divisions. I hope that our book helps in that regard.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What report or study took you the longest to finish?
[Fishman] I’m not sure, but I think that it is either a study I wrote on al-Qaeda in Iraq fighting against other Iraqi insurgents or a study on Iranian influence in Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As a writer, and a Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, can you tell us a little bit about how you produce research studies and reports?
[Fishman] I think the biggest part for me is to just approach a question without bias and let the data tell you the story. I’ve been able to get access to a lot of documents that al-Qaeda has produced and I think that is incredibly valuable–sometimes even more so than an interview. Because this data is not what al-Qaeda wants the world to think about them, it just reveals how they are organized and what they think about themselves. You can learn a lot by simply reading what the jihadis produce about themselves.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, what are the reasons behind a generation of young Muslims in Europe and America being pushed into militancy?
[Fishman] I think it is important to recognize that the vast majority of Muslims in the West are not being pushed into militancy. Most are simply living their lives – going to school, finding jobs, getting married, and having kids. These are things that people everywhere want. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Arabs, Americans, etc.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think there is a possibility of the complete disbandment of Al-Qaeda; and if so when do you think this is likely to happen?
[Fishman] I think it will be a long time before al-Qaeda is completely disbanded. But I do think that al-Qaeda is much weaker now than it has been in a long time. The bottom line is that al-Qaeda has killed too many people, too many Muslims in particular. That said, I think that al-Qaeda is able to use the presence of foreign forces in Iraq and Afghanistan for recruiting.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think Osama Bin Laden is still alive; and what are the chances of him being captured?
[Fishman] I do think bin Laden is alive. I don’t think al-Qaeda would keep that secret. There is too much value in portraying him as a martyr. If bin Laden leaves the tribal areas of Pakistan, I think the chances of discovery are very good. If he stays there, they are much lower.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think the Al Qaeda elements in the Pakistani tribal areas are still the most dangerous in comparison to other Al Qaeda cells or other terrorist organizations?
[Fishman] I think so, yes. Al-Qaeda in Iraq showed itself to be a bunch of murderous thugs. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb is weak. Al-Qaeda’s operation in Yemen is growing and worrisome, but the group in Pakistan is most dangerous. They are being smarter in Pakistan and instead of trying to dominate other militant groups, al-Qaeda is willing to work behind the scenes to get things done. Worse, I don’t think Pakistan fully understands the threat to them in the long-run if they allow al-Qaeda to infect other Islamic groups with their ideology.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni American who has ties to both Umar Farooq Abdul-Mutalleb and Ford Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hussein and was reportedly the spiritual adviser to a number of the 9/11 hijackers is a competitor to Osama Bin Laden? Is there a possibility of him obtaining a large international following (such as that enjoyed by Bin Laden)?
[Fishman] I think he can get an important following of Muslims in the West, especially those that do not speak Arabic, Urdu, etc. But Awlaki does not have the history or financial resources that Bin Laden had and which made him so influential originally. Awlaki did not fight the Soviets; and he is not in one of the primary areas of war today – Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a dangerous man, but I don’t think he is as important as Bin Laden.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think it is possible that coverage of Middle Eastern affairs has been oversaturated in the US, and that people are no longer enthralled by this topic?
[Fishman] No. I don’t think so. I think the U.S. needs more news from the Middle East (and other parts of the world). But many Americans right now are focused on the economy. Finding a job and feeding their family is the first priority, just as it is everywhere else.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think more effort needs to be put into the global war against terror?
[Fishman] I think we need more focus and better training on all levels. But we don’t need to spend more money. We need to spend money in smarter ways.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think it is important for journalists covering topics such as terrorism to have specialized knowledg? Does this specialized knowledge make for better media coverage?
[Fishman] Yes, definitely. Many reporters can go out and get information–and these are very valuable people–but it is important to have folks like yourself, Peter Bergen, and Steve Coll that can not only do the great reporting, but explain what it means to readers that don’t have the same expertise. As I mentioned above, my skill set is a little different; I can bring in even more context on the ideology, history, and political environment that terrorist groups operate in. To understand a problem like al-Qaeda you need to have people with different skills looking at the problem.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that print newspapers are under threat due to the presence of free content online, and what is the solution to this?
[Fishman] Yes, definitely. I think there need to be many solutions. In a democracy, having widespread access to information is critically important. People need to know enough to make an informed vote. I think that we will see major philanthropies stepping in to support newspapers.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A recent study in the UK revealed that 1 in 10 university graduates are unable to find employment despite earning top class degrees. What type of degree or educational background is required to work at a prestigious organization like the New America Foundation?
[Fishman] It is harder and harder to get a job in the U.S. and education is critically important. I think reporting is a unique industry where your skills can put you over a “better educated” competitor for a job. But it is increasingly necessary to have a Masters degree for reporters. PhD’s are necessary at most universities. Like in every part of life, a little luck does not hurt either.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there any particular areas that you still aspire to venture into with regards to research and analysis?
[Fishman] I consider myself an analyst; so that’s where I focus. I hope to one day work more on issues involving China than terrorism, but I think I will stay focused on analytical work.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your own opinion, what is the most important report or study that you have worked on to date?
[Fishman] The Sinjar Records.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you describe a typical day at the New America Foundation? How much control do you have on the reports or studies that you work on?
[Fishman] I am lucky to have a lot of freedom. We collaborate on ideas, but I get to choose most of my topics. New America is a great place to work because of the smart people I am surrounded by, so it is a fun environment even as we think about very difficult and troubling issues.