Faculty Interview Series: An Interview with Truls Tønnessen, Visiting Research Fellow

By: Cillian Muldoon, Reporter

Truls Tønnessen joins the Center for Security Studies as a Visiting Research Fellow. He is on a year-long rotation from the Terrorism Research Group at the Norwegian Defense Research Institute (FFI). Truls holds a Bachelors, Masters, and PhD from the University of Oslo. His Master’s thesis, entitled “Islamisation of the Egyptian Student Movement 1970-1981,” dealt with the rise of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya in Egypt. His PhD dissertation concentrated on the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) during the Iraqi insurgency. Since joining FFI, Truls has focused on al-Qaeda’s use of the internet and terrorism perpetrated against the transportation sector. He has closely monitored the conflict in Syria and Iraq, and AQI’s transformation into the Islamic State. He will be a panelist at Georgetown’s Future of Terrorism conference on April 28, 2016.

You are a Visiting Research Fellow this semester– are you conducting research related to your PhD topic, or on other matters?

My PhD was focused on the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) primarily during the time period of 2002-2006. I’m currently working on a book that will integrate the rise of the Islamic State and its historical relationship with AQI. Additionally, I am working on a book chapter in an edited volume focusing on the rebel governance of the Islamic State, and highlighting how it differs from AQI.

What attracted you to this area of study?

I started out studying the Middle East broadly. I did my Masters on the Islamisation of the student movement in Egypt, and spent some time in Cairo in 2001. I returned to the University of Oslo in June of that year, and can remember that I was actually studying a text from the Quran on the day of the September 11th attacks. Like many others, that event shifted my focus to the ensuing conflict. In 2003, I was employed where I work currently, at the Norwegian Defense Research Institute. My job was to track Internet material issued by the insurgent groups in Iraq. I have been working on Iraq ever since.

Some SSP students are working on their final capstone projects. Do you have any research or writing tips that worked particularly well for you?

My Master’s paper was about 120 pages, so I think my strategy might have been a little different due to this length requirement. One method I found useful was to really concentrate on one particular aspect at a time. I would research one topic intensely, and then at the end of the day I would open a blank Word document and write about it as if I were trying to explain the subject to a friend who had never read about it before. Repeating this technique forced me to write throughout the process (rather than all at the end), and doing so provided a basic structure for my paper that I could later add on and tie together. Of course, I would also recommend finding a place where you can block out all the worldly distractions that can dramatically slow down the process. I can’t say that I was very good at doing that.

The Islamic State’s split from al-Qaeda has produced some strange and shifting bedfellows. Do you think this division makes the threat more manageable or more dangerous as different groups compete for attention?

That’s an interesting question. I think the answer is nuanced. It’s true that as these groups compete for relevancy we have seen an uptick in terrorist activity. I have primarily focused on the conflict in Iraq and Syria, and the relationship between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in that region is quite complicated. These groups are fighting against each other, and serving as a direct impediment to each other. If they coordinated their effort, their influence and capability would be much stronger. However, I would note that the divisions one sees inside the conflict, which are constantly shifting based on local realities, are quite different than the relationships outside of the conflict. In Europe, for example, it seems like there is much more cooperation between the networks. If you look at the Charlie Hebdo attack, the two perpetrators were affiliated with AQAP, while the man behind the attack on the kosher market the same day (in coordination with the Charlie Hebdo perpetrators) had pledged allegiance to Baghdadi and the Islamic State.

Do you think a political solution in Syria is a necessary precursor to delegitimizing the Islamic State? How do you see this conflict resolving itself?

It’s very difficult to know. There are many different players operating in this conflict, and most cannot agree on a common enemy. For Turkey, the PKK is their primary concern. For Saudi Arabia, it is to oust Assad and counterbalance Iranian influence. For Western states, the Islamic State is the primary focus. In Iraq, there are many that actually prefer the Islamic State to the growing influence of Shia militias. I think actively engaging the local Sunni population in a process that they can trust, as was done during the US surge, is going to be critical part of any solution. There needs to be consensus that the Islamic State is the main threat. One lesson to take away from the experience of the Iraqi insurgency is to be extremely careful not to rush into a political solution based on conditions as they currently exist. The conflict occurring in these states is a temporary condition. When it is over, many people who have fled these countries will return and the solution has to be sustainable, and not near-sighted. It’s important to remember that the Islamic State is a group that is able to exist because of the root causes of two separate conflicts. A political solution that neglects the root causes of these conflicts will never successfully undermine the Islamic State because the conditions that allowed for its rise still exist.

In 2004, David Rapoport championed a theory that modern terrorism has occurred in 4 waves: Anarchist, Anti-Colonial, New Left, and Religious. Each had a precipitating event and lasted a span of roughly 40 years. Do you think this theory holds any weight, and that there is a generational aspect to a particular style of terrorism?

Well, according to this theory, I think we should have already seen a new wave; but it seems that religious terrorism is only intensifying. I do believe that in each of these time periods, there was a segment of society that was reacting to a particular issue or political reality. One trend that is growing in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the US, is the rise of right-wing nationalism in response to religious terrorism. It would be interesting to examine the psychological or socio-economic similarities among those that chose to participate in terrorist acts during each wave. Were those that participated in left-wing terrorism the same types of people that were prone to join religious groups as world events changed? Can we see then a continuum that transcends these seemingly disparate waves?

What is one thing that has surprised you about living in Washington, DC?

I was really surprised by how many parks and forests there are in the city. As a European, you imagine DC as this big city – and the reality is that it actually feels quite small with a surprising amount of the city devoted to green space. I recently went for a run and spotted a few deer, which was strange to see inside of a city.

I also find that the grocery stores are very different here. When I go to Whole Foods it’s difficult to know how the store is organized and where to find what I am looking for.

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