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Transcript: Robert Pape talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT PAPE

CORRESPONDENT: MICHAEL MORELL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL:

Bob, welcome to the show. It is great to have you.

ROBERT PAPE:

And great to be here, Michael. Thanks for having me.

MICHAEL MORELL:

You're welcome. So I need to start with a disclosure. The disclosure is I am a member of the advisory board at your research institute which we affectionately call C-Post.

ROBERT PAPE:

That's right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

I don't receive any compensation for serving on that board. But our listeners should still know of my affiliation. And the bottom line here is I carry a bias in favor of C-Post. And everybody needs to know that. Transparency's important. Bob, from my perspective, C-Post is a national security research center housed at the University of Chicago.

But, to me, it's a special type of national security research center. It does research on important issues. And it develops findings on those issues that have significant, timely application to policy, to intelligence and to law enforcement. And you share this research, I know, with the government in a variety of ways. And I think it's this relevance that makes C-Post so unique and so special and just want to get your sense whether you agree with that and anything else you want to add about the center.

ROBERT PAPE:

Thank you, Michael. And thank you very much also for serving on our board because the truth is, this isn't just research for research's sake. It's research to matter. And it should matter to our government. There are a number of issues in national security affairs that turn on things that no matter how good our CIA is, no matter how good our government is, they just can't drill into because they're about human beings and how human beings operate such as the motives of suicide terrorists.

So my first work which started C-Post, I collected the first complete database of all suicide attacks around the world. And it made a prediction. It said if we invaded and occupied Iraq, we would touch off the largest suicide terrorist campaign in modern times.

Even before the work was published, I gave that prediction to Paul Wolfowitz, then, our Deputy Secretary of State in October 2002. Now, of course, we still did the Iraq war. But he did move all of our forces out of Saudi Arabia, started an airbase in Dela, 2004. And also in February 2004, the DOD was the first funder of C-Post which was, then, the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, now the Chicago Project on Security and Threats. And we have been doing wave after wave after wave of policy-relevant research not to duplicate what happens in government but to augment and do things where we can answer some questions especially about how human beings operate that others can't.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Which is a great transition because there's two specific threads of your research that I really want to drill into and talk about. And the first is what you call the American face of ISIS. So tell us about that research and its findings.

ROBERT PAPE:

Yes. A couple years ago, we got a research project to figure out what inspires people about ISIS propaganda in the United States. Well, we had to start by finding out who was inspired by ISIS in the United States. So we collected the complete set of all individuals who were indicted in U.S. courts or who carried out attacks in the name of ISIS since the ISIS movement began in 2014. That's well over 150 cases. And we have court documents, detailed evidence about who they are.

Well, something jumped right out at us, Michael, that was just super crystal clear which is the core pool of who was attracted to ISIS today and other militant groups has changed fundamentally since 9/11. On 9/11, the 19 hijackers who attacked us and killed 3,000 people that day were all born overseas and radicalized overseas.

Think of them as immigrants. Well, that was the case for Al Qaeda in general. They were well over two-thirds immigrants. And so it was very reasonable to think immigrants were somehow a threat. ISIS is the opposite. Over two-thirds of the ISIS recruits are born in the United States. That other one-third that's not born in the United States, they've been in the United States, many of them, for decades -- no Syrian refugees. It's not--

MICHAEL MORELL:

I think only two refugees in total. Correct?

ROBERT PAPE:

Two refugees in total, an Iraqi and a Bosnian who had been in the country many, many, many years. So they were born in the United States or radicalized in the United States. ISIS did this with video propaganda using the internet to infiltrate videos directly into our homes in Chicago, in the east coast, in the west coast, in the south. This was a fundamentally new threat. We are not waging a war like we did on 9/11. And we've gotta stop fighting the last war.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And to show its application to policy, what does the research on the American face of ISIS mean for something like the Muslim ban?

ROBERT PAPE:

It means, at best, the Muslim ban is irrelevant because if the threat is fundamentally coming from inside, then, banning Muslims from overseas who are not actually causing the threat will, at best, be irrelevant. But it's actually a little worse than that because in ISIS's propaganda that they use to mobilize people already in the United States, they use the travel ban as evidence that it's stage one in a cleansing campaign against Muslims in the United States.

So it's not just the travel ban the way often we talk about it as, like, a border wall issue or something related to our politics, you know, Democrat, Republican. This is a security issue. And the bad guys are using the Muslim ban to recruit.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Okay. The second research thread is what you call the ISIS Propaganda Revolution. And this is the one I really want to spend some time on which is, basically, the story of how ISIS has been able to recruit so many Americans. So walk us through that research and its findings.

ROBERT PAPE:

So we have long known that ISIS has been using propaganda. But most people have thought about that propaganda as slick. It's video. It's kind of modern. Somehow it has music associated with it. What I discovered when I got into this, basically, with meetings at the National Counterterrorism Center, is that there were precious few people actually studying the content of the propaganda, why it was so voluminous.

There were over 2,000 ISIS videos alone. That's 33 solid days of video watching. Well, we at C-Post decided to conquer the content problem and to really get inside what was actually being shown and that people were watching. And what we discovered is that there are narratives not just a theme, but a trajectory of a storyline that ISIS used that no Islamic group, and I've been studying Islamic groups now for over 20 years, no Islamic group has used before.

So the standard Islamic narrative, it's called, is a narrative where there's a community in peril, the Muslim community. You identify who the attacker is, typically the west. And, then, you identify that you're going to attack the attacker.

And it's your duty as a good Muslim. And to be sure, ISIS still has that narrative. But that presupposes you really care about the Muslim community already. What ISIS did is they decided to go for a different mobilization pool, a different pool of people who may have very loose ties to the Muslim community and not know any Muslims hardly at all.

And what they did is they took a page right out of the Hollywood, right out of our blockbuster superhero movies called the heroic narrative. And what they did is they focused on a narrative how an ordinary individual can become super empowered to help a community that he or she doesn't really even know. And think of Wonder Woman, she didn't know the people she was helping. And it's because they see their own personal power coming to floor. They're conquering their own inner demons by doing that.

Well, that's a narrative that Hollywood has honed for over 25 years. There are books. There are writers who have specialized in this. And ISIS has taken that, we call it the heroic narrative, to tap into people who are especially prone to take risks.

And what we discovered is they especially tapped into a pool that Al Qaeda had not tap into before in the west, criminals, people who have a prior history of incarceration or other backgrounds associated with violence.

This is a pool of individuals that Al Qaeda did not embrace. And we know this now with great detail. So we can compare who was an ISIS perpetrator versus who was an Al Qaeda perpetrator in the United States, apples-to-apples comparisons.

And we can see precious few with a criminal record for Al Qaeda, those couple that do exert no motives here associated with wanting to have personal power. With ISIS, we see a lot more criminals. We see them with people who have very little background either by family or otherwise to the Islamic community. We see them coming out of prison. And we see them with people who are really caught by the idea they can be empowered to do things in the special world of ISIS they can't do here like behead people.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. So can you give us an example of one of these heroic narrative on videos?

ROBERT PAPE:

Yes. So a good example is this video called Abu Muslim. Abu Muslim, the video came out in the summer of 2014. And it's a story. It is a story of an individual who's a Canadian who goes from being an individual, is not born in an Islamic family. He's not Islamic.

He becomes a convert. He has a criminal background. And, then, through the course of the narrative, he evolves into being what they call in the video one of the few of the few of the few who can really stand up and be brave in the glorious battles to win against all. And this, Michael, looks a lot like our recruiting videos for some of the military.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Sounds like the marines.

ROBERT PAPE:

It's the marines. It's a "Be all you can be," here. But it's special. The point of this video, the Abu Muslim, is not every Muslim can do this. Not every person can do this. You are one of the few of the few of the few. And that's what you're gaining glory for as you go forward.

Flames of War, that's another very famous video which many of these perpetrators have watched. And we know this from their self-reporting. This is recounting glorious battle and the enthusiasm of the fighters as they feel these glorious battles coming into fruition. Other perpetrators point to beheading videos. They want to be the person that is, I'm sorry to say it so blatantly, cutting off the head. And that's because that's something they can't do in their ordinary world. But ISIS gives them, essentially, a permission or the world in which they can act out these urges.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And thereby, be the hero.

ROBERT PAPE:

And thereby, be the hero in their own minds.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So but we don't know, right, how ISIS stumbled onto this? Right. Did they actually read these books that Hollywood writers have written over the years about, "Here's how you tell a story"? Or did they just watch, you know, western movies and say, "Hey, here's a pattern that makes sense for us?" We don't know. Right?

ROBERT PAPE:

We actually don't, Michael. And the truth is the books-- so there's a man very famous screenwriter in Hollywood who's a Disney executive called Chris Vogler. And in the early '90s, he wrote a very important book on the screenwriting of the heroic journey which he's had, essentially, effectively, students. This is now in-- I just mentioned Wonder Woman. So it's almost in every one of the blockbuster movies in some form or other. And so it doesn't really matter whether they got Vogler's book. It doesn't really matter whether it's coming from Vogler's followers. It doesn't matter whether it's just watching the moves. The key point they're seeing is they're stealing western ideas to recruit people who don't have strong ties to Islam. And they're just living right in western society so that it's not like western society--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Because I, then, wanted to ask you that because one of your findings, right, is that it's especially appealing to converts to Islam and to people with prior criminal records. You've explained that second piece, right, why it's so appealing to people with prior criminal records. But why is it so appealing to recent converts?

ROBERT PAPE:

Well, we have to be honest. Right now, we can't say 100% for sure because one of the things we want to do next, Michael, and we're working with the FBI to do this is we would like to be able to interview, in some depth, some of these individuals to find out a little more. Now, to give you some answer, at a surface level, there's a transformation that has occurred with converts from the pre-convert stage to the post-convert stage which, at least on the surface, tracks with the transformation of an ordinary person going through that heroic journey that I just mentioned to you.

But the fact of the matter is, this is one of those issues where we've done more than scratch the surface. But we haven't been able to give, like, final answers to every little corner. And that's one of the reasons why we're not stopping. We're in the middle of the research not at the end of the research. And one of the things we want to do is sort of learn a little more because we'd like to find out just how important it is that you are a convert because not all of them in our sample fit that.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So how easy it is to actually go interview all these people? Do you need the FBI's permission to do that?

ROBERT PAPE:

No. It's not that. You need the prison warden's permission. So we've actually been in touch with the key parts of the prison system, the U.S. prison system here and worked with their behavioral psychol-- they have people with PhDs who overview requests like the kind we make.

And we have tried. But fundamentally, it's an issue of explaining the importance of our study to, essentially, the wardens because if you have myself and my team come in and even though it's just, say, a two or three-hour interview but we need to do it, like, a few dozen times, that can be somewhat disruptive. Now, it's not hugely disruptive. But it would be, you know, more than just coming in and doing a half hour interview. And so they have to really be persuaded that it's valuable here for them to have a modest degree of disruption.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And where are you in that process of having that conversation with them -- because this is really important?

ROBERT PAPE:

Well, so just before I came in, I'm working with the FBI. I'm planning on coming back to Washington to brief FBI HQ on the stuff that we're talking about here in more depth. I've already briefed their field offices here. And one of the big issues here is trying to have them find value in that further stage of the process.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Bob, one of the big changes over the last two years has been the loss by ISIS of its caliphate. Right?

ROBERT PAPE:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Have we seen a corresponding decline in ISIS propaganda? Or is it less so? Is it still out there? What's your sense?

ROBERT PAPE:

So two answers to that. First, once propaganda has been produced, it's almost impossible to destroy. The internet was built to survive nuclear war. It was built for that information not to be destroyed in the event of a giant nuclear holocaust. And what that means is all the efforts to try to censor the internet, all the efforts to try to stop it, they can only go so far. So the information that's out there is effectively out there.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So there's hundreds of different narratives that you talked about.

ROBERT PAPE:

Are there.

MICHAEL MORELL:

They're out there. What about new content?

ROBERT PAPE:

New content has shrunk tremendously as the sanctuaries have shrunk. So one of the things that we have discovered is that there is a correlation which many people are finding surprising because when we think about the internet, we think about things that we can do in a small office here.

And you and I are just sitting in an office. And this is about to distributed over the internet. And there's only just the two of us. Well, what we're discovering is there's a close correlation between the loss of the Wilayahs, they're called, the provincial level areas of ISIS and the production from those provincial areas so that it looks from what we can see, is that as we have shrunk the sanctuary, we've also shrunk the production capability of the propaganda and done so in a surprising way. People that I've been showing these to are just really stunned that, well, I thought we could just do this anywhere. I didn't know we needed--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. Pick a computer up and take it to Afghanistan instead of Syria or Iraq.

ROBERT PAPE:

The analogy I use is C-Post. So we now have five offices. We have 40 people who work. And the truth is we could not have anywhere near the production and analysis if we tried to distribute that across the United States with 40 people. Having them all come together, I have a research director, Kevin Ruby, having it organized and centralized, we're using the internet, of course. But I think we're discovering that there is some propaganda production that is seriously lost as the sanctuaries decrease.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So the other question, then, is that ISIS, as you know, is not the only jihadist extremist group out there. There are others. So are those others learning from ISIS?

ROBERT PAPE:

Yeah. So the key answer is yes with two groups. So one is Al-Nusra. So Al-Nusra is a group that is not thought to be currently in conflict with the United States. In fact, we have worked with Al-Nusra. But there are Al-Nusra videos which have adopted and taken hook, line and sinker the heroic journey to attract Brits to come to Al-Nusra. So this is something that's really important to see that there has been a genie that's let out of the bottle. And other groups are starting to-- we're also--

MICHAEL MORELL:

So the point of the Al-Nusra is come to Syria to fight with us?

ROBERT PAPE:

It is, at this point, to come to Syria to fight not to stay in Britain and attack. But that's a later stage in asking them what to do. The first step is recruiting people who wouldn't ordinarily be recruited. And that's the danger part because it's the fighter who's the danger here more than anything else.

So we need to see that these militant groups, it's not their technology that's a danger. It's their fighters that are the danger. Those are the people that have to execute things and carry things out. So that's why I put a lot of emphasis on the fighters. Al-Shabaab's another story, more development here in especially--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

ROBERT PAPE:

In Somalia. They are fast becoming number two in terms of producing video recruitment. But what I have to tell you, Michael, is that we need to take the study that we have done here focused on North America. And we need to replicate this in other areas of the world because the narratives that we've discovered, these, again, trajectories of story plots that are attracting specific sub-pools of individuals. We need to do that kind of analysis in the Middle East, in Europe and even in Africa.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And do you think it might be different in different places?

ROBERT PAPE:

It could well be because the recruitment problem in, say, Iraq is different. So the recruitment problem, and we started to see this in some of the ISIS Arabic videos, the recruitment problem for somebody who already is a Sunni living in Iraq is do they side with the Iraqi government? Or do they side with ISIS?

Well, that's a very different problem than you have inside the United States. And what we're seeing is we're beginning to see what we think of is possibly a third narrative structure that's specifically trying to focus on switching sides. And that's something that's very important because a lot of the way we fight terrorists around the world is try to embrace and partner with local groups.

Well, the bad guys are figuring that out. And they're trying to figure out ways to undermine our strategy. And so that's why it's very important to start to take and replicate parallel studies to what we've done in North America in local regions and, then, also another western region which would be western Europe.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. So Bob, just one more question which is you've talked about two areas of future research. Right. You've talked about interviewing the folks who are in jail here in the United States that have been inspired by ISIS to be understand that. And you've talked about doing a similar study abroad. What other research lies ahead?

ROBERT PAPE:

Yeah. The most important third wave of research, our behavioral studies which are already underway which, in about six months, hopefully, we'll have the first results. I've partnered with world-class psychologists at the University of Chicago to take the video discoveries that we have and to show them to different audiences so that we can truly drill into what are the key elements, psychological or otherwise, that are at work. And these are also not just with doing surveys but with FMRIs and also EEGs so that as individuals are watching the videos, we're getting biofeedback to help us really precisely identify the triggers.

Well, we're also doing this in not just Chicago but also Belgium. Belgium, as you know, is the highest per capita producer of fighters for ISIS, perpetrators for ISIS. And so that means we're doing it in French. So we have French language capability. We are producing the systematic studies. And this is a way to really bring together the narrative analysis and behavioral analysis.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So any early results from this that you can share or too early?

ROBERT PAPE:

The number one result that we have is just a very basic result which is that these two narratives that I'm describing for you, the older Islamic narrative which we call the social narrative and also the heroic--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Was Al Qaeda's narrative.

ROBERT PAPE:

That's Al Qaeda's narrative. And, then, ISIS is new narrative that it turns out with over 150 participants, it's not just Pape who thinks those narratives are different. It's not just some other professor who thinks it. It turns out they're fundamentally different for almost every audience who watches them.

And they are not all muddied together. So that's very important because we're, now, proving not just asserting, we're proving there are two distinctly different narratives. And that that's how the viewers watch them. And so this is important if we're going to also, then, later on, and this is the next step, show that there's distinct pools who are attracted to one but not the other.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So I should've asked a question earlier. And I'm going to ask it now even though I said only one more question. (LAUGH) Does our understanding of how ISIS tells its story in these propaganda videos, does that give us insight into how we should push back against them?

ROBERT PAPE:

It absolutely does, Michael. So one of the reasons we're working closely with the FBI is I've been a supporter for over ten years of STING operations inside the United States. In fact, I'm one of the first terrorism people to support this because they do much better because these people who are inspired often reach out to a terrorist group in the later stages which creates opportunities to intercept them. However, the STING operations--

MICHAEL MORELL:

So they have no contact with ISIS. And they watch these videos. And they get inspired.

ROBERT PAPE:

And then reach out.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And they reach out.

ROBERT PAPE:

And they reach out. And we've known that now for a while. That was one of the things I discovered in 2006 here. So that's the first time I told this to the FBI. And so we've been doing quite a bit with STING operations here which is a tradeoff with surveillance because there's only so many people but to our good.

That's how many of those plots have been disrupted. Well, now, I'm working with the people doing the STING operations to show them the different narrative structures here. And they're finding them very, very helpful. It's not they don't have any inkling at all about this because they're, obviously, on-the-ground field agents, however, very helpful to see the clear patterns and the clear distinctions. So, number one, it's very, very important to improve how we deal with STING operations. Number two, it's very important for--

MICHAEL MORELL:

In terms of what they say back.

ROBERT PAPE:

What they say back and also recognizing the different patterns. So we spend so much time in the media talking about Islamic militants as religious nuts, essentially, that we're expecting everything is infused with religion when, in fact, ISIS and other militant groups have since distanced themselves from heavy indoctrination with religion because religion doesn't sell.

So they're going for what sells, you see. Well, it's very helpful for the folks doing the STING operations to see how ISIS is trying to sell the product here in a tighter way. Also community leaders, so we've been holding conference at the University of Chicago with the city of Chicago police, local community leaders to also give them an education because, see, those folks are not going on the internet. They're not actually seeing this.

And they, too, are just watching the little snippets on, you know, Fox News or CNN, you know, which is just focusing on all religion all the time and not really giving a picture of. So if you ask community leaders to try to intercede here, they don't know what the strategy is the bad guys are using to pull their people away, you see. So they're very, very important here.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Bob, thank you for taking so much time to be with us.

ROBERT PAPE:

Absolutely, Michael. Thank you.

MICHAEL MORELL:

It was great to have you on the show.

ROBERT PAPE:

This has just been a great pleasure. Thank you so much.

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