Jessica Stern

Jessica Stern

Jessica Stern is a lecturer on counterterrorism at Harvard University. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009 for her work on trauma and violence. She has authored Terror in the Name of God, selected by the New York Times as a notable book of the year; The Ultimate Terrorists; and numerous articles on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. She served on President Clinton’s National Security Council Staff in 1994–95. Stern is a member of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. She was named a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, National Fellow at the Hoover Institution, fellow of the World Economic Forum, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellow. She has a BS from Barnard College in chemistry, an MA from MIT in chemical engineering/technology policy, and a PhD from Harvard University in public policy.


“Every age has its own kind of war,” Clausewitz prognosticated in the early 19th century.[i]  And the corollary is that every age has its own kind of intelligence requirements and seductions. The terrorist and sub-state enemies we face today are hard to find, mutable, and globally spread, with constantly shifting agendas, locations, and alliances.  They exploit vulnerabilities and lawless areas wherever they can find them — on the Internet, in war zones, in the chaos that has emerged out of the Arab Spring.   The al Qaeda movement, among the most dangerous of these enemies, is deliberately targeting Americans for recruitment.   All of these characteristics, together with advances in monitoring technologies, would seem to make signals intelligence a uniquely and irresistibly useful tool.

Equally important, protecting American lives from terrorist attacks usually involves violence.  The enemy is playing jujitsu, using the unavoidable collateral damage that accompanies military action as a propaganda tool to recruit others to its side.  Even drone strikes — an increasingly discriminating weapon — are a propaganda boon for the enemy.  Thus, our “kinetic” responses to terrorism enhance the enemy’s ability to spin its false narrative — that the US aims to harm Muslims and destroy Islam.

The surveillance programs disclosed by Edward Snowden clearly horrify privacy enthusiasts.  But to some students of terrorism, they are, at worst, a lesser evil, in that they are less likely to be useful in the enemy’s psychological-warfare campaign than are other counter-terrorism tools.   They do not seem to target any particular ethno-religious group, but all groups everywhere, thereby reducing the propaganda benefits to the enemy.  The fact that these programs target Americans as well as others makes it even harder for al Qaeda to point to this particular quiver in the wars on terrorism as a way to “prove” that the West aims to destroy Islam (although it is no doubt true that al Qaeda will find a way to use Snowden’s revelations — not only to improve its counter-intelligence, but also in its propaganda war against us.) For all these reasons, among others, some students of terrorism favor intelligence and covert action as more effective responses to terrorism, at least over the long term, than overt war.  But that doesn’t mean that the operations disclosed by Snowden are legal or ethical.  (I will leave the legal evaluation to my colleagues.)

How do we evaluate the ethics of intelligence?   In the paragraphs below I propose a series of questions — developed by theologians, philosophers, or scholars of intelligence to assess earlier military or intelligence dilemmas — which might usefully apply to the current debate initiated by Snowden’s leaks.

The first questions relate to just war.  The surveillance programs disclosed by Snowden, at least so far, clearly pass the hurdle of jus in bello, which requires proportionality of means, the avoidance of unnecessary harm, and noncombatant immunity.  In this regard, signals intelligence would seem to be a relatively benign component of the war on terrorism.

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Those who volunteer to defend their country know they are putting their lives at risk.  But the troops and their families are only just beginning to understand the extent to which they are putting their mental health at risk.  As we get better at keeping wounded warriors alive, we need to get better, and more serious, about developing tools for healing the injuries to the mind and brain that are often at least as destructive as more visible wounds.

Because of advances in medical technology and in body armor, soldiers are surviving combat situations that would have killed them in the past, but returning with traumatic brain injuries and with memories of mind-breaking horrors. Our military commitments in the wars on terrorism have required our troops to redeploy again and again, in some cases as many as eight times, such that nearly 13,000 soldiers have spent at least three cumulative years in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Military historians call the frequency and cumulative length of the troops’ tours of duty historically unprecedented; compared with previous wars, deployments have been more frequent and breaks between tours are shorter.  Given that redeployment is a major risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder, this modern style of waging war comes with a profound cost to the troops: widespread psychological injury.

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Until a few years ago, America seemed relatively resistant to the kind of homegrown Islamist terrorism that has plagued Europe for the last decade. Terrorism experts attribute the resilience of American Muslims to their greater integration into society. In Europe, immigrant populations tend to cluster—with Algerians settling in France, Turks in Germany, Moroccans in the Netherlands, and so on, making it easier for ethno-religious groups to remain isolated, spending time only with others like themselves.

Many Muslim immigrants in Europe arrived as unskilled guest workers, and changes in the labor market have made it hard for them to find jobs. Muslims in Europe are far more likely to be unemployed and to receive lower pay for the same work than “native” Europeans. Thus, Muslim immigrants in Europe are often impoverished. For example, 10 percent of native Belgians live below the poverty line—meanwhile, 59 percent of Belgium Turks and 56 percent of Belgium Moroccan are living in poverty.

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Last night, Nafissatou Diallo, the 32-year old Sofitel employee who has accused the former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault, took the unusual step of appearing on national TV before her criminal case has been settled. Because of this, the New York Post called her "The Blabber" and said that she "suddenly and miraculously regained her memory of a conversation she said she had with Strauss-Kahn." I do not know whether she was brutally attacked, as she claims, or whether the sex between DSK and Diallo was consensual. But I do know this: neither her inconsistencies about what happened immediately afterwards nor her decision to now go public should make us any more skeptical of her story.

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Bin Laden is dead.  There is jubilation in the streets. Finally, as President Obama told the American people and the world late last night, justice has been done. Bin Laden’s demise is a message to the globe that evil, of the kind bin Laden represented, will not be tolerated by the United States.

But this is not just a day to rejoice. Today, we are reminded of everything that we have lost in the decade since the 9/11 strikes. Al Qaeda and its affiliates targeted innocents all over the globe—not just the 2,977 casualties on American soil on September 11, but tens of thousands more all over the world. The vast majority of those killed were Muslims.

Continue reading Jessica Stern at The Daily Beast…

For terrorism experts in the West, it’s tempting to think the so-called Arab spring will destroy the Al Qaeda movement. But it probably won’t happen in the short run — especially if you believe Anwar-al Awlaki, a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most dangerous affiliate organization of Al Qaeda.

In theory, the ability of young people to protest peacefully against unresponsive Arab leaders and work for change through more democratic institutions might help redirect some of the public frustration that Al Qaeda has long tried to harness. But in a four-page essay in the most recent issue of Inspire, the magazine of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Awlaki taunts Western governments with the claim that the mujahidin — the term he uses for jihadist fighters — are elated about the revolutionary fervor now spreading in the Middle East. The “fruits of Egypt” will spread far beyond its borders, Awlaki gloats, presenting many opportunities for the mujahidin.

Continue reading Jessica Stern in the Boston Globe

(photo credit: Khalid Albaih)

Muslims in America

Congressman Peter King has had quite a lot to say about Muslims in America—much of it seemingly inflammatory.

The congressman is right about the growing threat of violent Muslim extremism. The problem is he mischaracterizes the source. American mosques are not at the heart of the threat any more than is the Muslim community. Just as there is a difference between those who oppose abortion on religious grounds and those who target and kill abortion providers, there is a difference between the Muslim community and Muslim terrorists. But it is also wrong to claim, as some have suggested, that because they are greater in number and commit more crimes, white-supremacist and antigovernment groups pose more of a threat to national security than do Muslim extremists. Indeed, it is precisely because the threat of violent Muslim extremism is so serious that Mr. King’s rhetoric is so dangerous.

Read Jessica Stern in The National Interest

Seventeen former and active-duty service members filed a class-action lawsuit this week against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, alleging that the military had failed to stop rapes, investigate reported crimes or prosecute perpetrators. Despite ample evidence of the problem, the suit alleges, Gates and Rumsfeld "ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted . . . and Plaintiffs and other victims were openly subjected to retaliation." While the suit is new, the problem of sexual assault of service members by other service members has long been known to the military leadership.

The Defense Department recorded 3,230 sexual assaults involving members of our military in fiscal 2009, up 11 percent from 2008. But the Pentagon itself concluded in 2006 that only 20 percent of "unwanted sexual contacts" are reported to a military authority, about half of the rate in the civilian sector. Victims of military sexual assault are often forced to choose between frequent contact with the perpetrators or sacrificing their career goals to protect themselves from retaliation, the Department of Veterans Affairs notes.

Continue reading Jessica Stern’s op-ed in the Washington Post

What Motivates Terrorists?

This article is the first in a two part series on rehabilitating former terrorists and turning them into citizens. In the essay below, Jessica Stern examines why some Muslims join terrorists organization in the first place.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia claims to be able to counteract terrorists’ radicalization—to turn them away from violence and return them to society. A number of other governments, in the Middle East, in Europe, and in Southeast Asia, have initiated their own similar efforts.

In the face of today’s global security threats, these efforts raise a critical question: Is it in fact possible to counter-radicalize terrorists and their potential recruits?

 Terrorists Rehab
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Any terrorism prevention or rehabilitation effort must be based first and foremost on a clear understanding of what motivates people to join terrorist movements and what motivates them to leave. Terrorist movements often arise in reaction to a perceived injustice, as a means to right some terrible wrong, real or imagined. Yet ideology is not the only, or even the most important, factor in an individual’s decision to join a terrorist group.

Continue reading Jessica Stern at our sister site Defining Ideas