A closer look at the doctoral dissertation of President Trump’s expert on “radical Islamist terrorism.”
- By Daniel NexonDaniel Nexon is an associate professor at Georgetown University specializing in international security and international-relations theory.
Sebastian Gorka, President Donald Trump’s deputy advisor on national security affairs, has emerged as an extremely “visible defender of the administration” on television and radio, especially on counterterrorism policy. Apart from his full-throated defense of policies such as the immigration and travel ban, Gorka likes to boast of his credentials and denigrate his predecessors, as when he told Fox News that “I think the message is deadly clear to our enemies and our adversaries. We don’t have a national security team made out of 28-year-old grad school students who have degrees in fictional writing.” Gorka maintains that the West is locked in an existential ideological struggle with Islam — a view that plays well in the Trump administration.
But Gorka’s own credentials have already come under scrutiny. Before his appointment, he was not a well-known figure among terrorism experts. A report in Politico noted that “several experts … puzzled over the gap between the numerous military academic credentials listed by Gorka — a political science Ph.D. who unfailingly uses the title ‘Dr.’ — and their unfamiliarity with his work and views.” This dovetails with a number of reports that raise doubts about his knowledge of Islam and terrorism, as well as about his ties to Hungarian far-right groups — including one, Vitezi Rend, whose members “‘are presumed to be inadmissible’ to the country under the Immigration and Nationality Act” — and his claim to have access to confidential information within the White House, despite no confirmation that he has security clearance. The biggest concern: Despite casting himself as an expert on radical jihadi ideology, Gorka does not speak Arabic and has spent no time in the Middle East.
It’s possible for relative outsiders to produce important work. Often, those scholars extend their intellectual reach beyond their area of immediate expertise and bring fresh or disruptive perspectives to research communities. But sadly, Gorka’s scholarship is as shaky as his credentials, as I discovered when I went to one of the few available sources: his dissertation. I wanted a better understanding of Gorka’s views and their scholarly foundations. As he has, to my knowledge, published only one article in a peer-reviewed journal — a slim, multi-authored piece cautioning against overthinking “complexity” when it comes to grand strategy — my pickings were slim.
I should stress that I am not a terrorism expert, either. However, I have advised many dissertations, including a few on counterterrorism policy and insurgencies, in nearly 15 years as a practicing academic. I am also currently the lead editor of a well-regarded international studies journal, for which I read hundreds of academic manuscripts (of varying quality) in any given year.
I have assessed plenty of rushed, incomplete, and problematic academic manuscripts, including doctoral theses. When I read dissertations, therefore, I anticipate something less than perfection. What I do expect, however, is to see substantive works of scholarship. I would particularly expect this from the only scholarly work produced by a man who loves to wave his doctorate “as though it’s a big deal.”
Gorka submitted his thesis in 2007 and defended it in 2008. He received his doctorate from Corvinus University of Budapest in Hungary. His dissertation advisor, Andras Lanczi, has no academic expertise in terrorism or national security issues — but is, for the record, a strong supporter of authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Lanczi became rector of Corvinus in 2016 after seeking the position unopposed.
In his dissertation, Gorka makes three major arguments, all of which are central themes of his subsequent policy work and now, one worries, U.S. national security policy.
First, al Qaeda represents a “fifth wave” of terrorism, which he calls “irrational, transcendental” terrorism. The terrorist in this wave “represents a wholly different category of threat, since due to the fact that he is completely uninterested in political resolution, he can justify the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Second, the organization of the modern state and its security apparatus is unsuited to deal with this threat; thus, the entire structure of Western security that evolved in the context of the Cold War requires a radical overhaul. Third, the ideal solution would involve a tightly integrated supranational security apparatus, but since “we are unable for various reasons (foremostly political) to create supranational solutions,” the only viable alternative is for states to develop a “unified multi-agency approach.”
This last one involves getting rid of the “internal barriers between the police force, the army and various intelligence services,” although Gorka implies that constitutional barriers might pose a problem. In other words, he wants a “unitary body which conglomerated all the skills of the various separate agencies and units into a new structure better suited to facing threats transcendental terrorist threat such as al Qaeda.” (See also this paper by Gorka.) This sounds like the stuff of totalitarian nightmares — or perhaps just a lot of interesting details for security professionals. Gorka likes big ideas but is not big on fleshing out the specifics.
Indeed, the dissertation is particularly thin on the central topics that Gorka trades on: Islam, terrorism, and Islamic terrorism. For example, Gorka’s discussion of Islam and democracy is sourced pretty much exclusively to Louis Milliot’s 1953 book, Introduction a l’étude du Droit Musulman — a scholarly, but dated, work by a French academic born in Algeria during the colonial period. He writes: “In fact of the few Western scholars who have written on the subject it is the French speaking world that has most to offer with Louis Milliot’s Introduction a l’étude de Droit Musulman being a seminal work.” Gorka also cites conversations with “leading Hungarian Arabist Miklós Maróth.” Maroth is a Hungarian academic and government advisor who has argued that European Muslims should be stripped of their citizenship and that Muslims who fail to assimilate should be “wrapped in pig skin.” From these two sources, Gorka confidently asserts that:
Without over-exaggeration it must here be noted that the two starting points are very different. For the Muslim understanding of law and political order the bedrock is faith and more specifically the will of Allah. Subsequently human action primarily depends upon God and only secondarily upon the human himself. As a faith-system Islam believes completely in the concept of predestination. All is determined by God and as a result there is no room for free-will. As a result the status of unbelievers is very different from that say of the Christian faith. For the Muslim, the concept of converting the unbeliever has little importance since the separation of believers from non-believers has been determined already by the Creator.
It follows, argues Gorka, that “our version of democracy cannot be sustained in a Muslim context, for if there is no free will, if the world and the future are predetermined, then the people’s choice as prerequisite is irrelevant.” Gorka shows no interest in the varied and careful literature on the subject of, or related to, democracy, Islam, and the Middle East nor concern about generalizing a large and diverse community of believers with different theological and pragmatic religious commitments. He also fails to explain how, if doctrines of predestination frustrate democracy, Europe’s Calvinist republics ever got their act together. One also has to wonder, as a Middle East expert commented to me, how Islam is now the majority religion of countries from Morocco to Pakistan if “the concept of converting the unbeliever has little importance” in its theology.
Gorka’s ridiculous understanding of Islam is only one part of a pattern of consistent carelessness and narrowness that runs through his dissertation. At the outset, Gorka does list some hypotheses and what he will do to demonstrate them. But he includes nothing resembling a methodology, very little in the way of consideration of alternative explanations, or any of the other basic requirements of scholarship. For example, Gorka relies on very few sources and shows little interest in engaging with more than a handful of works on terrorism.
Sometimes the results are unintentionally amusing, as when he makes claims about the state of terrorism studies in 2007 based on a book chapter written in 1988 — which itself uses field surveys conducted in 1982 and 1985. Twenty-two years is an eternity in most scholarly fields, but this means his claims about the state of the field are sourced to a period before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Oklahoma City bombing, the emergence of al Qaeda, the Good Friday accords, the conflicts of the North Caucasus, 9/11, the attack on the Parliament of India, and the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Other parts are just plain weird. He includes a brief and pointless survey of past “apocalyptically motivated terrorism.” It discusses only the Zealots-Sicarii, the Assassins, and the Thugs. This is something of a cliché in histories of terrorism, and his account of the latter two groups comes almost entirely from a 1998 book called Warrior Cults: A History of Magical, Mystical and Murderous Organizations. This section showcases a pattern found elsewhere in the dissertation: Gorka drops a footnote indicating that relevant material comes from a particular source unless he indicates otherwise. He then proceeds without additional references, leaving the reader in the dark as to how to check his research. At least in some places, this leads him to pass off direct quotations from source material as his own language.
Given its overall tone and lack of depth, it’s perhaps not surprising that at least 5 percent of the doctoral thesis is cut-and-pasted from his prior nonscholarly writings. One of these is a Human Events opinion essay that Gorka co-authored with his wife. Another is a policy piece that he first drafted in 2004, which Gorka does not bother to update. In consequence, a crucial claim in his 2007 dissertation — that terrorism is increasing in lethality — rests entirely on data from the period between 1993 and 2003. As he writes in his dissertation, “For the years 1998 until 2003, the average number of terrorist victims per attack jumped to 13.71. In 1992 the number of victims per attack was 2. In 2003, the number was 20.5 victims per terrorist attack.”
When we zoom in on this claim, we can see the sloppiness of Gorka’s methods. Not only is this an unacceptably truncated period, but the aggregate, descriptive statistics he gives just aren’t remotely good enough. The period from 2001 to 2003 covers not only the 9/11 attacks but also the first years of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. He does not even bother attempting to identify the proportion of such attacks carried out by groups — including in the Middle East and Central Asia — that would qualify as “irrational, transcendental” terrorists rather than, say, secessionists or guerrilla movements. In other words, this is an exercise without any evidentiary value.
It gets worse. The data Gorka relies on does not extend beyond 2012, so I asked former students to run the same measure using counts from the Global Terrorism Database (for some of the limitations of this data, see, for example). The lethality of attacks — that is Gorka’s own measure — while consistently rising, remains consistently lower than Gorka reports. It does not, to be blunt, seem like evidence of growing “hyper-terrorism” that would require a total paradigm shift in how Western states secure themselves against threats.
What’s going on? Is this a function of the different datasets? Well, Gorka writes that the “lethality” of attacks is increasing, but his footnote discusses “victims.” His table on page 205 has the same discrepancy. He labels it “Lethality of Terrorist Attacks, 1993-2003,” but the relevant column reads “Number of victims.” Until I started to look at the data he uses, I assumed that Gorka was using the terms as synonyms. He’s not. If we check his numbers against the 2004 report that he draws on, it’s obvious that he’s conflating “dead” and “wounded” in his lethality analysis. Big spikes in the number of wounded from attacks tell us something about terrorism, but this kind of semantic obfuscation also tells us something about Gorka’s modus operandi.
Indeed, Gorka’s thesis reads like one of his interviews: It’s full of strong claims, boldly and confidently stated, backed up with very little evidence. Gorka tells us about Turkish-European relations. He opines on globalization. He confidently proclaims on the “sacrosanct nature of sovereignty that would later lie behind the creation of the ‘balance-of-power’ system that would be so important to Europe in following centuries.” Sometimes his assertions make sense. Sometimes, as in his claims that “sacrosanct” sovereignty explains the creation of the “‘balance-of-power’ system,” they don’t. (For these and more quotations, and a longer discussion of them, see here.) But seldom does Gorka provide actual evidence, let alone citations, to support them.
If his dissertation is any guide, then Gorka is, in fact, bluster all the way down. His thesis is part smoke and mirrors, part testament to self-importance, and not at all serious scholarship. Gorka believes what he believes. In the case of his dissertation, that we face a new phase of historically lethal terrorism carried out by irrational actors, this can only be met by radically overhauling the state. Indeed, in 2010, Gorka asserted that the terrorist threat is so supreme that “[w]e need not prepare in the short or even medium terms for conventional warfare between nation‐states, using tanks and aircraft carriers. For the foreseeable future our enemies will be non‐state actors — with or without state sponsorship — using irregular means against us.” Regardless, evidence, methodology, and analytical rigor are nuisances that can be shunted aside, whether in the pursuit of a credential or in the formulation of policy.
Much has been written on the factually challenged echo chamber of the far-right. In the United States, its descent into a world of suspect facts has even alienated some longtime conservative commentators. President Trump himself has a fraught relationship with the truth — whether the size of his inauguration crowd, claiming credit for long-planned corporate hiring initiatives, accusing former President Barack Obama of having him wiretapped, or asserting that the American murder rate is at an all-time high. When a Department of Homeland Security report concluded that Trump’s travel ban would not reduce the threat of terrorism on American soil, the administration simply dismissed its findings.
In a powerful essay, Jacob Levy argues that such post-truth politics move us in the direction of authoritarianism. As he concludes, “insisting on the difference between truth and lies is itself a part of the defense of freedom.… [T]he power to tell public lies and to have them repeated is evidence of, and a tool for the expansion of, a power that free people should resist and refuse.” But there are many consequences of post-truth politics short of autocracy.
To the extent that members of any ideological movement — right or left — respond to “inconvenient facts” not by adjusting their beliefs and preferences but by creating “alternative facts,” they are likely to support and enact counterproductive, and downright dangerous, policies.
It is precisely attention to the significance of inconvenient facts that distinguishes good scholars and true experts from pretenders. Pretenders present themselves as scholars and experts. They adopt the language, get the credentials, and perform as they — or, at least, their audience — imagine scholars and experts sound. Rather than speak truth to power, they peddle what their ideological compatriots want to hear, wrapped up in the trappings of intellectual authority.
The more that political movements, politicians, and leaders move into a universe of alternative facts, the more they render themselves vulnerable to these intellectual grifters. And the more these fake experts influence actual policy, the more damage that they can do. I do not believe that a doctorate, let alone an academic background, is a prerequisite for good policymaking. But the president of the United States is best served by advisors who place facts before ideology, who care about the substance more than the credential, and who would never make sweeping judgments about millions of people grounded on essentially no evidence at all. This is particularly the case for a new president who has repeatedly demonstrated that when ideology — or even vanity — runs into inconvenient facts, he expects the facts to bend. In this sense, Gorka seems a perfect fit for the worst impulses of this administration.
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