Former CIA Operative Reveals How to Overcome 3 Roots of Terrorism
How do you spot terrorism before it happens? Look for patterns in what might seem like unlikely places. Like the living wage of a border guard.
Amaryllis Fox is a Former CIA Clandestine Service Officer, writer, television host and peace activist. Before attending university, she traveled to the Thai-Burmese border to volunteer in the Mai Laa refugee camp and worked with the Burmese democracy movement and eventually interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi for the BBC, which landed her a brief stint in Burmese prison at the age of 18, but also resulted in the first radio broadcast from Suu Kyi in almost a year.
In 2002, after extensive field work in East Timor and Bosnia, Amaryllis graduated from Oxford with an honors degree and started graduate work in international security at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. There she developed an algorithm to predict terrorist activity under thesis advisor Dan Byman, a leading thinker on terrorism and US security policy. Asked by the University's CIA Officer in Residence, Dallas Jones, to share the algorithm with the Agency, she began work as a political and terrorism analyst for SE Asia, commuting between Langley and Georgetown to finish her degree with honors. Following graduation, she moved into CIA's Directorate of Operations and deployed as a Clandestine Service officer, focused on counterterrorism and counterproliferation. She served in 16 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, before leaving government service in 2010.
Following her CIA career in the field, Amaryllis has used her coding abilities and international experience to build projects in support of international development and has covered current events and offered analysis for CNN, National Geographic, al Jazeera, BBC, and other global news outlets. She speaks at events and universities around the world on the topic of peacemaking and her videos about dialogue and nonviolence have been viewed over 120 million times online. She is the co-host of the History Channel series American Ripper and lives in San Francisco, CA, with her daughter Zoë.
Amaryllis Fox: I think one of the really scary and overwhelming things about terrorism can be the idea that it’s this giant boogeyman that is really difficult to comprehend, and is terrifying, and comes along in the night out of nowhere and steals your family members or loved ones away.
And for me my life’s work has really been understanding the small logical puzzle pieces that when taken together create that boogeyman so that you can take it apart into manageable pieces and actually begin to understand what drives these inconceivable actions.
So, when you take this overwhelming boogeyman of terrorism and you begin to tease it apart based on the data and look for patterns that turn up again and again each time a terrorist plot is planned in a different territory throughout the historical data, you begin to notice patterns that might not seem obvious to begin with.
So, things like the percentage beneath livable wage that a border guard gets paid which, of course, gives rise to the possibility of accepting a bribe to let somebody just sneak across the border or hand a package to you.
If that bribe is the difference between being able to feed your kids that month or not it’s a pretty understandable small choice for that individual actor and yet has given rise to perhaps a terrorist act being able to take place even though the law of the territory should have prevented it.
So, another example would be the rate of change of things like freedom of the press or freedom of speech—Not the scores themselves, but the rate of change—which goes to the difficulty that societies experience when they suddenly open up and allow liberties that many of the more traditional members of society haven’t been accustomed to in the past.
There are strategies for taking communities through those evolutions, but without those strategies in place it can seem very jarring.
And we experience that even in a mature democracy like ours, where when certain changes take place quickly it can take portions of the community time to be comfortable with them and to catch up in a political environment.
Another example would be the ratio of hookah bars to madrasas, and there you begin to see, you know, tensions between more traditional, religious elements in society and a younger demographic.
In many countries where you have more than 50 percent in that youth demographic, there’s a big cultural rift there that can often give rise to lack of understanding or the feeling that young people are not being incorporated into society and need some other outlet for their feelings of frustration (and eventually rage).
Another really interesting one that we see is: how good machine translation is for a local language.
So often we think that libraries in the olden days and now the provision of hardware and internet access points can be a great tool in the fight against extremism.
All of a sudden young people in a given area have access to the sum total of human knowledge. How great is that? And yet if the language that’s spoken, the dialect in that region is not very well translated by Google Translator or other artificial intelligence programs, then really access to the internet for the majority of young people who don’t necessarily speak another language or dialect is not terribly meaningful, because they’re generally seeing sites that for small dialects are actually created in their vicinity and may not offer perspectives that are particularly different from what they’re hearing around them in a given day.
So, there are a number of these correlations and the beauty, you know, my dad’s an economist and I grew up in a household that loved throwing data around around the dinner table. And the beauty of data is that you can look at huge sets across many different time periods and geographies and see patterns that emerge so starkly that you can’t ignore them. These kinds of inputs are really helpful in understanding how regular human beings like you and me who grew up in different environments subject to different inputs could find themselves with different perspectives about what’s happening in the world. And eventually if their perspectives go unheard feel increasing frustration that eventually can find its outlet in a violent way.
Well, one of the things that I think is very interesting outside of those just being intellectually interesting, one of the practical applications of that kind of study is to see where there are easy, cheap, efficient ways to make a disproportionately big impact in portions of the world where instead of launching a kind of nebulous multimillion dollar program that maybe is not going to hit the milestones that it’s intending to hit, you can go in with very surgical and efficient programs and make a disproportionately large impact in the lives of the people living in those regions.
Amaryllis Fox knows how to spot something 99.999% of people can't spot: acts of terrorism before they happen. She's whittled it down to a near-science just by observing some key elements in local communities and how they tie in to unrest at large. For instance, if there's a lot of hookah bars and madrases in one area there's likely to be conflict between the old and the younger generations, which further down the line can lead to unrest. And something as simple as keeping tabs on the living wage of a border guard—think the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan—could be a good indicator of spotting a potential bribe. With an eye (and a mind) for things like this, Fox shows why these small conditions are indicators of unrest sometimes months and years before they happen in the news.
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