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Surprising results of research on counterterrorism: ‘Assumptions surrounding Trump may be wrong’

It was pouring rain when Alexander Gallo received his diploma from West Point Military Academy. A bad sign, people said back then. It was June 2001, three months before the day etched in everyone's memory. The now 46-year-old American from New Jersey fought in Iraq, did research in Afghanistan and wrote his dissertation on counterterrorism policy.

From Iraq to doing a PhD on counterterrorism, how come?

'Yes, I was an infantry officer in Iraq in 2004. It was intense, I think that's the best description. I had 330 people under my lead and we were in combat every day. After that experience, I realized I wanted to be part of shaping policy and strategy. I decided to study Public Policy at Harvard, the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Here, I delved further into terrorism and wrote my master's thesis on al-Qaida's communications strategy.'

'I saw that the couterterrorism policy changed in 20 years'

Alexander Gallo

You experienced that up close, of course.

'I saw with my own eyes, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan as a researcher, how a terrorist ideology gets people going. It mobilises people to kill others who are nonbelievers in their eyes. Osama bin Laden and successor Ayman al-Zawahiri's theory was: if we destroy all these apostate states, then we can restore the caliphate. This ideology of jihadist terrorism is partly what caused 9/11.'

And after that...?

'I became a professor of Social Sciences at West Point, where I had previously studied myself. Then I went to work in Washington D.C. at the Armed Services Committee of Congress. Here, I spent five years writing policy in legislation for the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. It gave me a chance to meet many people critical to the US policymaking process, which I eventually used for my dissertation. I started the nonprofit Common Mission, and 60 universities joined. The goal: to get more students involved in public policy and public issues. That's how I eventually met Mark Dechesne from Leiden University.'

'Many think of Trump as the drone president, but Trump was a Negotiator'

Now, four years later, we can read your dissertation! Can you tell us more about this?

'Definitely. I found out while reading evaluations of counterterrorism policies since 9/11 that analysts were concluding something completely different. I wondered how that was possible. My hypothesis was that we had no framework for analysing counterterrorism as a phenomenon. Why does the U.S. choose to launch a drone attack in Yemen? You don't eliminate al-Qaida with it. So why do we do it? Because we do have expressive reasons in addition to instrumental reasons. We want to use these kinds of signals to show that we don't tolerate terrorism. That stood out; the analysis of the expressive component of policy was missing.

I decided to look at the policy perspectives to approach counterterrorism. I also looked at decision-making. In a crisis, for example, you tend to want to react quickly, think of 9/11.'

Then a counter-reaction is desirable.

'But is it? Do you always want to react immediately? The challenge is you may not have all the information you need to respond effectively.'

The Americans were in Iraq from 2003 till 2011 (image from the archive)

That’s a good question. Tell me about the four types.

'I created a framework: the Policy Profile Code (PPC). There are four types of policy makers: The Commander, The Prosecutor, The Negotiator, and The Doctor. For this, I looked at policy from 2001 to 2021, which, by the way, are also the years I was involved in and around counterterrorism policy in the United States. It was very personal. I saw that couterterrorism policy has changed across the 20 years: The Commander was Bush, The Prosecutor was Obama, and The Negotiator was Trump. Remarkably, I did not observe a a "Doctor" in my research.'


How would you describe that person?

'The Doctor is someone who wants structural change and takes a more pragmatic, learning approach to decision-making. The reason why there hasn't been a Doctor yet? In short: it's difficult to implement. It's difficult to look at an incredible amount of information with an open mindset. You have to give a diagnosis, just like doctors do. Say you have cancer, you want the doctor to treat the cancer and not kill your body. Compare this to counterterrorism: we want to remove the cancer, but not so much that it leads to failed states. It creates instability and if you are The Doctor as a policy maker, you provide balance. So we are still not there, although the development has been good. But really, you want to go directly from Commander to Doctor. This is taking too long now.'

Who could be The Doctor? You haven't researched Joe Biden.

'That's a good question. I did not research Biden. But Biden appears to be a Prosecutor like Obama. Then again, he was vice president for Obama. I think the result of my research is a surprise to many people; Obama was the drone president. Many think of Trump as the drone president, but he was a Negotiator. Bush clearly the regime-change president. I think the assumptions around Bush and Obama were right, but it is interesting that the assumptions around Trump may be wrong.'

Trump does come out of your research well by the way, Negotiator sounds pretty positive too. Leading up to the election.

'I didn't look at positive or negative in my research. Indeed, Negotiator sounds positive, but it does depend on how you do it. For example: he started as Prosecutor, adopted Obama's policies in the beginning, but that changed. Terrorism was not the primary focus of his administration, that was given less priority. Strategic competition with China became the primary focus under Trump. He also used different tools: immigration law and diplomacy. What he did was controversial. Remember the Muslim ban? And in 20 years of Afghanistan, he was the first US president to engage in bilateral negotiations with the Taliban.'

'What Trump did was controversial'

What does this mean if Trump is re-elected?

'My research does not necessarily inform how Trump might conduct counterterrorism policy, should he be re-elected. You don't know what a new administration would do. The world has changed quite a bit and great power competition has really accelerated. In policymaking, context matters, and the context has certainly shifted quite a bit in the United States with respect to counterterrorism and foreign policy since 2021 when Trump left office.'

Text: Magali van Wieren

Images: Pixabay

Read Alexander Gallo's dissertation: Understanding US Counterterrorism Policy Through Policymaker Profiles. His defence takes place on Wednesday 27 March at 16.15 hrs. 

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