Tufts University

High Stakes

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The Jebsen Center works to figure out how to stop terrorism before it starts. The conditions that foster terrorist elements, says Howard, include weak governments that are unable to adequately support their populations.

"If the state can't take care of the basic needs of a population, terrorist groups—Hezbollah being one, Hamas being another—can provide those basic needs, and they do," says Howard. "They become the organization that people hold allegiance to because their basic needs are maybe taken care of. That's how terrorist groups gain credibility, it's how they gain recruits."

One of the biggest challenges in modern-day counter-terrorism, says Howard, is dealing with such non-state entities. Going back to the example of the nuclear attack in Cincinnati, Howard explains the challenges in coping with such an enemy.

"You can't treat a trans-national, non-state actor like you do a state," says Howard. With a state, he says, the approach is well established: it begins with negotiations, then sanctions or embargos, possibly followed by the threat of force and, as a last resort, taking military action.

"Chess, you have so many finite moves, and you know what they are. Poker, there is no number of finite moves. You can bluff. And you can cheat."

— Brig. Gen. Russell Howard (Ret)

"But imagine then, how do you use those same mechanisms you use with a state with Al Qaeda?" asks Howard. "Normal diplomacy doesn't work…What positive economic factors can you use with Al Qaeda? Who are you going to embargo?"

Part of the challenge, says Howard, is that the U.S. government is not structured nimbly enough to take on an organization like Al Qaeda or other non-state terrorist groups.

"Organizationally, we're a very hierarchical, bureaucratic organization trying to take down a cellular network structure," says Howard. "We're playing chess, they're playing poker. Chess, you have so many finite moves, and you know what they are. Poker, there is no number of finite moves. You can bluff. And you can cheat."

A Strategic Approach

The Jebsen Center tackles its mission from multiple directions. Aside from the research it sponsors and the speakers it brings to campus, there are also three related courses in the Fletcher curriculum, all taught by Howard: "Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism," "Homeland Security and Terrorism," and "Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism." The Center also has close ties to The Fletcher School's International Security Studies Program.

Howard appreciates being surrounded by students who not only, in many cases, already have practical experience in their fields of interest, but who also come from a diverse range of backgrounds.

"The dialogue here is quite refreshing," he says. "People have a lot of different political views, but the debate is healthy and mature."

Erik Iverson, a first-year MALD candidate and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Fellow, came to Fletcher to better understand the tough questions facing decision-makers at places like DHS. The Jebsen Center has proven fertile ground for this undertaking.

"They're doing a lot of strategic work, looking at the long-term questions that not a lot of the other organizations seem to be doing," says Iverson, who presented a paper at a conference there last fall. "Not the big-think legislative solutions to existing problems, but those small 'what can we do today, what can we do tomorrow' practitioner-level [problems]." He hails the Center's interdisciplinary focus, looking at how economics, development, politics and other factors influence terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Jebsen Center

Howard talks with an attendee at the Jebsen Center's Feb. 29 conference, "Countering Terrorism in Africa Through Human Security Solutions."

Howard also teaches a sophomore seminar version of "Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism" for Tufts undergraduates through the Department of International Relations. Senior international relations major Oleg Svet, a teaching assistant in Howard's undergraduate course, recommended the creation of the course through the IR Director's Leadership Council.

Svet's interest in the topic is personal: Having lived in Israel most of his life, he's seen terrorism up close. So for him and the other students who work through the Center, the resources that Howard, Associate Director Paula Broadwell and others bring to the table are invaluable. It was thanks to Howard that Svet was able to visit West Point and meet with generals and ambassadors for his Summer Scholars project on public diplomacy.

Svet has found his research enlightening. "The Jebsen Center is not into hard power," he says. "It's looking at creative, out-of-the-box thinking on how you can solve issues."

There are, of course, no easy solutions. But for the Fletcher students and faculty probing these complex topics, the journey is a destination in itself.

"I don't always find answers in the work I do with the Jebsen Center," says Iverson. "But I always come away with some really good questions."

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Web Communications

Photos of Howard by Alonso Nichols for University Photography. Other images by Istockphoto.

This story originally ran on Mar. 10, 2008.