Q & A with Jonathan White

Jonathan WhiteJonathan White is the executive director of Grand Valley's Homeland Defensive Initiative and one of the world's foremost authorities on religious terrorism. Since September 11, 2001, he has been assisting the government on terrorism issues. Now, he's looking forward to returning to Grand Valley as a faculty member in January. His book Terrorism: An Introduction is a bestseller in its fourth edition. He is also the author of Defending the Homeland and the forthcoming Terrorism and Homeland Security. The former dean of social sciences spoke with Grand Valley Magazine's Brian J. Bowe.

GVM: How did you get interested in studying terrorism?

White: I was on the police department SWAT team in Jackson, Michigan, and I started looking at groups we had in the local prison. Having a background in both religion and history, it intrigued me from a military history standpoint, and it intrigued me from the various religions and ideologies of the inmates. So, I started studying it in the late '70s as a police officer and just continued. I did some research on it working on my doctorate.

GVM: How did you get to become such an expert in the subject?

White: Most of my research has just been in violent religious behavior and in terrorism. I talked to Brian Jenkins from the Rand Corporation in 1983 when I was just getting started. I just earned my doctorate. I came to Grand Valley because then-Dean Chuck Sorenson had given me carte blanche to work in counterterrorism, which is what I wanted to do. And I asked Brian, "Well, here's where I am in my career, what should I do?" And he said: "Well there are about 300 of us in Western Europe and the United States who study counterterrorism. You need to start writing." He made some flattering remarks about my initial research, said keep developing it.

And so I used my old military background, my old police background and I started writing. I wrote a book about religious terrorism in 1985 when nobody was concerned about it. I wish that it had just stayed that way, rather than become the dominant aspect of terrorism today. And then I wrote a textbook on terrorism that didn't do well at all in 1989 when it came out. By 1995 it was the top-selling textbook in the United States on terrorism and it's been that ever since. My publisher says it's a very odd sales pattern: that it started and then it blossomed. Usually they blossom and then dwindle.

GVM: They were really very few people engaging in this kind of work when you started. Are there a lot more now?

White: (Laughs.) On Fox News, everybody's a terrorism expert now. We had a meeting in Washington right after 9/11 and the joke at the meeting was, can you imagine how many terrorism experts we are about to see coming forth on television?

GVM: Shortly before 9/11, you forecasted an attack similar to that on the World Trade Center.

White: I had been contracted by an entity to portray an attack on the United States. We had worked on it for quite some time and I turned it in and I presented it at this organization's headquarters in August [2001] and it was an attack on the World Trade Center by a radical Islamist group. Ironically, I called it wrong - I had a biological attack and it was Shiites, it was not using technology in the form of airplanes by Sunnis. But that's speculation.

One of the things we can learn with terrorists is they're not as innovative as Fox News and other media would have us believe. They learn incrementally from the past. We can't get a specific target analysis by doing this. We can get a very good handle on whose going to do it, about the time they're going to do it, and what kind of weapons they're going to use. And that's just good analysis. And when we get our system fixed, we will be doing more of that.

The interesting thing about trying to predict an attack is it's very difficult to take data and get a specific target, but one of the things that we know about terrorists is that they learn incrementally. How did Al-Qaeda learn to attack buildings? They learned that from Hezbollah. Where did Hezbollah learn it? They learned it from Al-Fateh. Where did Al-Fateh learn it? They learned it from the Stern gang Jewish terrorist organization at the 1945 King David Hotel bombing in Jerusalem. Where did the Stern gang learn it? They learned it by studying Michael Collins and the Irish Republican Army and the Black and Tan War of 1919. Where did the Irish Republican Army learn it? They learned it by studying the Russian People's Will in Moscow in the 1880s. Where did they learn it? They learned it from studying radical revolutionaries in the United States and in Europe in 1848. Where did they learn it? They learned it from studying the French Revolution in 1789.

Jonathan WhiteI have a funny story about using that predictive model just before the Oklahoma City bombing. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had hired me for some counterterrorism work. And this was after Waco. I had talked to them while they were conducting the negotiations down there, and after Waco they brought me on board. I was talking to all the agents in Michigan and Detroit and one real hardcore agent said, "OK, this academic stuff is real nice, but tell me, what's going to happen next?" And I thought, OK, here's where the extremist right has been heading, here's what they said in their literature - they want to set off a bomb by a federal building, or in a federal building. It wasn't earth-shaking news - it's what they talked about for 15 years, that's their raison d'jtre. That's what they believed in, and the most common terrorist tactic is bombing. The easiest terrorist tactic is a car bomb. So when the crusty agent looked at me, I said, "Well, they are going to attack a federal building or installation with a bomb placed in a car." A month later, the Oklahoma City bomb went off.

Now, could you predict Oklahoma City, could you predict a fertilizer bomb? No. Could you say to Federal Installations, "Beef up?" Yeah, because they, terrorists, can't keep quiet. They learn from the past, they telegraph what they're going to do, and that gives us a way to get them.

GVM: Let's talk about 9/11. Can you describe how that day unfolded for you?

White: I was in a deans' meeting and we were talking about classroom allocation, space allocation, and - let me tell you - I was sitting on the edge of my seat (laughs). Somebody opened the door and pointed at me and made a signal that the phone was ringing. And I thought, "Who would interrupt me during Deans' Council?" I thought it had to be one of my children, and I thought something had happened. So I went to the phone and my heart was beating, and it was somebody from Grand Valley's news office who said, "A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center." Because of what I study, I knew exactly what had happened. I made my way over and watched a videotape and once the second plane hit, the phone calls started coming in. My wife kept count for me, I think I did 53 interviews around the world in the next 24 hours, and then the interviews just continued.

Then the government called and asked Mark [Murray] if they could borrow me for six months, and then they asked if they could borrow me for a year then another year, then they asked me to take a leave of absence to run the program for a year.

GVM: At that moment, did it seem like the kind of thing that your work had been preparing you for?

White: Yes. I don't believe in predestination in some of the strict Calvinistic senses. But I do find it very ironic that after being called to ministry and studying terrorism, after doing police work and studying terrorism and spending my academic career studying religion and terrorism, suddenly on September 11, I was needed. There are four of us in criminal justice around the country who have worked on this for a number of years - I recruited the other three to our organization. People told us we were wasting our time.

GVM: How has your life changed since then?

White: I was deeply, deeply, deeply in love with my wife before September 11. I have learned to absolutely cherish every moment we have together because we're so frequently apart. And I love teaching, I can't wait to get back here. And while I love teaching, this last call was the most meaningful work that I have ever done in my life. Mark Murray chastises me for that. He says, "No, you have many, many meaningful events left." Yes, there will be, but this was the reason that I came to the planet.

GVM: Can you describe Grand Valley's Homeland Defensive Initiative?

White: Right now it's a very functional operation. I don't know what direction it's going to take when I come back. The Department of State has asked me to work with our embassies overseas in training foreign security forces. The Department of Justice wants me to continue the briefings we do. So I imagine our center will have some role in that. Michigan's Department of Homeland Defense has asked me to play a role there. So we'll just let that evolve. It provides a nomenclature for us to respond to a variety of needs without costing the university any money. Because when we respond to these needs, we get the money. It's funded through the various agencies that request our services.

GVM: In 2005 you'll be returning to the faculty. You've said there are all kinds of things you want to share with students. Like what?

White: I had studied terrorism from the very theoretical perspective. I've been out with some of our top counterterrorist people - both the door-kickers and the intelligence people. I can bring a new perspective when I teach about terrorism. The other thing is, I teach a course that I absolutely love called "Militarism." This will give me a new vantage in teaching that course and courses in police administration. I've worked with thousands of police departments, the FBI, the ATF, the Secret Service. If it's a police department in the United States, I've had them in a briefing or I've been out with them.

Jonathan WhiteGVM: There's a certain level of fear of terrorism in this country since 2001. Since you know so much about it, are you afraid of a terrorist attack?

White:  Oh, yeah, it's going to happen. There are force multipliers - a force multiplier is a way you increase your striking power without increasing your personnel. For example, if you have muskets and 40 soldiers attacking a fort, give them modern rifles and that's a force multiplier. It makes 40 soldiers a heck of a lot more potent than 40 soldiers with muskets.

There are four force multipliers in terrorism. One is transnational support, when a terrorist group can transcend national boundaries. Another is technology, a terrorist group can either use existing technology as a weapon like 9/11, or they can use a technological weapon. Another force multiplier is the media; the media can make a very small group of people look like they are controlling the world. In fact, the media is very good at that, especially the 24-hour cable news networks. And the fourth force multiplier is religion. We have all four of those force multipliers in place now. They were in place in the early '90s and I was afraid of terrorism then and I have the same level of fear. Does that mean we're frozen in place? No. Does it mean we're going to get hit? Yes. What frightens me most is not terrorists striking - that's going to happen and that's going to continue to happen at least for the next 20 years. What frightens me most is not responding. Terrorism is a way of fighting and the tactics used are perpetually evolving; they're working incrementally. Learn those tactics and counter it. That's what frightens me most, is that we won't do it.

I'm limited in what I can say politically in my current job - which is another reason I can't wait to get back in the classroom. But we can't fight terrorism with political rhetoric. We can't fight terrorism by calling jihadis "evil-doers." We can't fight terrorism by invading the wrong country. We fight terrorism by finding the network and neutralizing the people. Not with political rhetoric - and I hope our country gets beyond that political rhetoric. And I probably just got myself in trouble with that answer.

Page last modified July 22, 2011