Center for Strategic Communication

Tawfik Hamid talks for a 2009 documentary about extremism. Image: Screenshot/’In The Red Chair’

Most counterterrorism scholars will never meet Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, let alone pray with him. As a teenage extremist, Tawfik Hamid did.

Back when Hamid was a youth in Cairo, studying at a medical school, his religious fervor compelled him to associate with terrorists. “One of the mosques at the school was reserved for Gemaa Islamiyah,” Hamid casually explains over a burger in Arlington, Virginia. Before Hamid decided that he’d prefer not to assassinate the police officer that Gemaa Islamiyah wanted him to kill, he shared mosque time on a few more occasions with the man who would succeed Osama bin Laden. Now senior U.S. generals refer to him as a “treasure.”

Similarly, most counterterrorism analysts will never interview one of the seminal figures in Islamic extremism. Yet Abu Walid al-Masri, an associate of al-Qaida figures stretching back to the 1980s Afghanistan jihad, eagerly exchanged e-mails with an obscure Australian academic named Leah Farrall. al-Masri didn’t grant the interview with a major newspaper or television network. He wanted it posted on her blog.

Hamid and Farrall don’t have much in common; he’s working on a new translation of the Koran, she’s writing essays for Foreign Affairs. But they’re united in their rigor, and their structural focus, when it comes to studying terrorism. That puts them — Farrall more than Hamid — in line with a rising group of counterterrorism scholars, many of whom are under 40 and are more likely to debate on Twitter than on the New York Times op-ed page.

“A lot of us have either lived in the region or we’ve also got at least one of the languages — Arabic, French, which helps [study] North Africa, and many of us come from a non-political science or terrorism studies or security studies background,” explains Aaron Zelin, a Brandeis graduate now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Many of us either did history or did area studies in the Middle East or Islam in terms of our actual academic background…. We understand it’s not just ‘This is Islam’; we’ve studied what Islam actually is.”