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Dangers of Ethnicity in Analysis
In the pursuit of high-quality political or intelligence analysis, analysts need to be aware of lazy narratives they might encounter, particularly those of ethnicity and “ethnic strife.” While backgrounds, beliefs, and languages do matter, some observers play the ethnicity card quickly and without much explanation. Occasionally some writers feel as if labeling an article’s subject “Chechen,” “Muslim,” or “Kurd” tells a reader almost everything about him or her. Ethnic narratives change the way the journalists, analysts, and the general public think about peoples in general and potential terrorists in particular. When describing subjects, analysts should carefully consider what they mean by ethnicity and other personal attributes. Likewise, they should avoid the rush to judgment about the implication of any single attribute. Good use of structured analytic techniques and sophisticated thinking on the nature of ethnicity can ensure that analysts avoid generalizations and deliver nuanced insight on the background of an individual, group, or event.
The Boston bombings offer one example of this narrative in action. Some observers spent a lot of time discussing the Chechen roots of alleged terrorists Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and some broadcast news networks mentioned the Chechen connection continuously during their coverage. Chechnya, a federal subject (or republic) within Russia, has had a troubled history and can easily capture a reader’s imagination. Chechnya rebelled against Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Many of its inhabitants are distinct from ethnic Russians by language, custom, and religion (Islam). Like the Abkhazians, South Ossetians, and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Chechens fought for independence after the Soviet Union’s breakup. Georgia and Azerbaijan each lost control of territory during these struggles, but Russia held on even after two wars against fierce Chechen resistance, which included fighters such as Shamil Basayev, a terrorist responsible for several spectacular and bloody attacks during the fighting.
Some Chechens became radicalized during the war and supported armed Jihad in several countries, including Afghanistan. There, as in the Chechen civil war, their fighting prowess became the stuff of legends. Gary Schroen recounts in his Book First In how a fire team of three Chechens caused a company of Hamid Karzai’s troops to panic and flee. The unit regained its composure only after an accompanying Special Forces team called in close air support on the Chechens’ position.
With exploits like these, the presence of Chechen terrorists in the US would be a significant development, and an interesting news story, but how relevant was Chechen identity to the Tsarnaev brothers? Their father was Chechen, but their mother, Zubeidat, is an ethnic Avar. Tamerlan was born in Russia, Dzhokhar was born in Kyrgyzstan. The brothers spent their formative years in the United States, spoke English well, and by classmates’ assessments seemed to be very much typical members of Generation Y in terms of preferences of clothes, music, and social activities. They were raised nominally Muslim but did not attend mosque in Kyrgyzstan. Tamerlan was allegedly radicalized during a visit to the Russian Republic of Dagestan, but that was not until 2012. Inspire magazine, which may have provided tradecraft and motivation, is affiliated with Al-Qaeda, very much an Arab terrorist organization with roots that go deep into the Arabian Peninsula, but with an organizational history and command structure that has been tightly tied to the South Asian countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Clearly many factors played a part in the lives of these men and the choices they made.
I cannot assess the individual drivers of the Tsarnaevs’ radicalization process, but observers, especially intelligence analysts, should use caution before throwing the ethnicity card as an adjective or explanation of action or motivation. Too often our discourses, in news and in academia, treat ethnicity as something primordial, something that is in the blood. A common companion to this broad-brush description of peoples are assessments of “blood feuds,” “ancient ethnic hatreds,” or “they’ve always hated each other.” The conclusion many observers draw is that Hindus and Muslims, Croatians and Serbs, or any two groups, are just bound to fight each other eventually.
These observations and narratives matter. Some writers claim that the lessons Bill Clinton drew from Robert Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts” affected US policy in Bosnia during the 1990s. Kaplan used the phrase “ancient hatreds” in his analysis of the situation, and his writing allegedly cooled Clinton’s interest temporarily in a “lift and strike” policy to lift an arms embargo on the Bosnians and strike at Serb positions and potentially lengthened that conflict.
The premature closing of minds is a well-known pitfall for intelligence analysts. To combat it, a variety of structured analytic techniques (SATs) have been developed that can help analysts keep open minds towards problems. Techniques such as the pre mortem, starburst analysis, and structured self-critique can help analysts consider alternatives. One goal of SATs usage is to ensure one’s answers are not shaped prematurely by labels such as “Muslim,” “Generation Y,” or “Chechen.” These techniques are best learned in structured training but are also accessible to analysts through a variety of good books. The techniques listed here came from “Cases in Intelligence Analysis: Structured Analytic Techniques in Action” authored by Sarah Beebe, an analyst who has served in both the National Security Council and the CIA. Beebe, a veteran instructor and intelligence analyst, counsels clients to employ sound thinking strategies when approaching ambiguous problems.
While SATs are good tools to avoid a variety of analytic pitfalls, Rogers Brubaker, a sociologist at UCLA, has created a theoretical framework that might specifically help observers better understand and analyze the role ethnicity plays in society. As a scholar, Brubaker found modern academia so quick to label segments of the population that he called the phenomenon “groupism” and wrote a scathing critique of the practice in his book “Ethnicity Without Groups.” His work is a reaction to earlier thinkers who insisted on the concrete nature of ethnicity, with some arguing that ethnicity and culture were primordial, or, in essence, genetic. Ethnicity is important, but it is not always concrete. As with abstractions like love and justice, ethnicity can be important, and it can be detected (if not perfectly measured) by degrees. It is this variable-ness of ethnicity upon which Brubaker expands. Analysts might do well to consider three of his concepts when thinking about “groupness.” These concepts are: groupism as a variable, group-making as a project, and the role of ethno-political entrepreneurs as drivers of groupism. These concepts can help analysts think about “groupness” or ethnicity specifically without surrendering to the notion that certain attributes of a group or person are immutable.
The first way analysts should combat “groupism” is to understand that the “groupism” of ethnic identification is not primordial and set in stone, but rather variable. Our fellows in this world have different shades of skin; they speak different languages and practice different religions, or sometimes none at all. These dimensions can all matter, but they do not matter all the time. Peoples such as the Armenians and the Turks, the Croats and the Muslims, lived side by side peaceably for long periods. Certainly there were distinctions of language, custom, and religion between them, but there were many similarities as well. As people intermarried or learned a new language, group membership could become fuzzy, or even impossible to discern. Something happened to these communities to make them fight each other. Something happened to mobilize the population, to “ethnicize” the peoples and ethnicize their conflicts so that on a level it was an ethnic conflict. One thing that happened is that their group identification increased.
Depending on one’s background, reading Malcolm X’s autobiography, attending Hebrew school, or learning to play the bagpipes can increase an individual’s affinity for and identification with a certain group. Because of its intensity, war is a powerful source of groupism and ethnicization as demonstrated by David Kilcullen, an expert on counterinsurgency. In his book “The Accidental Guerrilla” the author demonstrates how Indonesia’s military occupation of East Timor changed the groupist dynamics of the East Timorese people. Kilcullen estimates that approximately 50% of the pre-occupation population of East Timor identified as Catholic. After 24 years of protracted guerrilla war against the Indonesians, that number was up to approximately 90%. While the church may have won many converts in the decades of war, Kilcullen found upon his arrival in 1999 that many self-identified Catholics engaged in animist practices. On this basis Kilcullen argues that wartime mobilization drove Catholic identification among the East Timorese. He writes that “because most other Indonesians were non-Catholic . . .Catholicism seems to have become a nationalist identity marker, a symbol of East Timorese identity and resistance against the occupation.” In East Timor, Catholic identity seemed variable, and its increase may have been tied to the general mobilization and organization of the East Timorese against their Indonesian occupiers.
Now aware that groupness and ethnic identity in particular is variable, analysts can be on the lookout for the action Brubaker labels “Group making as project.” He writes that if we treat groupness as a variable and isolate the dimensions we wish to observe (such as religious practice or language) we can “attend to the dynamics of group-making as a social, cultural, and political project, aimed at transforming categories into groups or increasing levels of groupness.” This might occur through government efforts--such as schools teaching a certain language, or provinces renaming geographic features to reflect a different language or interpretation of a place. The Kosovo Liberation Army offered a cynical example of group making as project during its fight for independence from Serbia. The KLA engaged in a series of provocative attacks against Serb policemen which invited reprisals in return. These reprisals hardened the resolve of affected Kosovars and increased their desire for independence from Serbia, championed of course by the KLA.
Analysts might identify many drivers of this project. In writing about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Thomas de Waal argues that popular “hate narratives” caused many Armenians and Azerbaijanis to harden their feelings towards their neighbors and ultimately take up arms in a conflict akin to a popular uprising. “Uncomfortable as it is for many Western observers to acknowledge” he writes, “the Nagorny Karabakh conflict makes sense only if we acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis were driven to act by passionately held ideas about history, identity and rights.” Stuart Kaufman, a former director of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council, takes up a similar argument in explaining ethnicized conflict in places like Georgia and Bosnia. He describes the mobilization process as “mass-led violence.” 
An alternative to “mass-led violence” is Brubaker’s concept of the ethno-political entrepreneur. This individual drives the group making “project,” often for personal reasons, such as desire for acclaim, power, or money. Fighting definitely makes people famous. Conflict and banditry in Nagorny Karabakh made wealthy men out of many petty criminals. In Georgia, a former sculptor became the head of its National Guard, and a former bank robber ran one of the more prominent pro-Georgian militias. These ethno-political entrepreneurs benefit from conflict, foment it, and often times use their status to speak on behalf of a certain group. In this way the KLA sought to represent all Kosovar Albanians during the conflict with Serbia, and ETA claimed to represent all Basques living in Spain.
So what does this have to do with the Tsarnaevs and possible Chechen links to recent or future terrorist plots? Possibly it has nothing to do with them. Such questions are best left to students of the case and of Chechnya: I am neither. However, this thinking about terrorist labels, groupism, and the importance of ethnicity does have very much to do with the work of every analyst and consumer of analysis--even readers of general news articles. Analysts must avoid what Beebe refers to as “the rush to judgment” when determining intent and causality behind actors or events. They should question assertions from sources, especially journalists writing in short form newspapers, regarding a subject’s background or the importance thereof. Aspects of groupness, including religion and ethnicity, are very much variable and analysts might find evidence that supports different levels of intensity of these variables and their causes. Events too, can be ethnicized. Is the current fighting in Syria religiously driven? Is it politically driven? By asking these questions, and in particular asking oneself “so what” in regard to a subject’s group affiliations, I hope analysts will be able to deliver richer and more nuanced intelligence products to decision makers, and that decision makers in turn will be able to make sound choices on topics where the general narrative is sometimes oversimplified and sensationalized.
 Gary Schroen, First In (Presidio Press, 2007) pp.283-284
 Michael Kaufman, The Dangers of Letting a President Read (New York Times, 22 May 1999) (http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/22/books/the-dangers-of-letting-a-president-read.html?src=pm
 David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla (Oxford University Press, 2009) p.200
 Rogers Brubaker, Ethnicity Without Groups (Harvard University Press, 2004) p.14
 Tom de Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York University Press, 2004), p.272.
 Stuart Kaufman, Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War (Cornell University Press, 2001), pp.34, 124