Home / General / The Gorka Dissertation, Part III

The Gorka Dissertation, Part III


I wasn’t that enthusiastic about writing another installment. There’s only so much satisfaction from bashing an obvious vanity dissertation. But now I see that some right-wing media outlets are alleging a conspiracy to ‘take down’ Sebastian Gorka by nefarious Obama supporters. In the classic style of deflection, his defenders say that he’s a “patriot” and “consummate professional.” Indeed, Georgetown PhD Mike Gallagher, now a GOP Representative from Wisconson, says that “The counterterrorism field is highly politicized, and I fear the personal attacks on him are politically motivated.” So, like it or not, welcome to Part III.

I want to stress again that I am simply commenting on the academic merits of Gorka’s dissertation and, inter alia, some of the claims found within it. My assessment has no direct bearing on any of the other controversies surrounding Gorka, except to the extent that he uses his doctorate to buttress his authority. Also, please keep in mind that when I argue that the dissertation is wanting as a piece of scholarship, that does not imply that its claims are groundless. It merely means that his presentation of them in the dissertation is without scholarly merit.


For a dissertation of its type—one not composed of three-four thematically related journal-article style chapters—Gorka’s thesis is actually quite short. It clocks in at about eighty-thousand words. Roughly eleven percent of the thesis (at least) consists of material cut and pasted from prior work. In addition to the piece that I mentioned in my first post, Gorka also recycled text from a Human Events article that he co-authored with his wife. The very fact that a recycled Human Events article fits seamlessly into the dissertation is a bit of a tell about its academic quality.

Gorka sometimes notes that a particular section of his dissertation is derived from an earlier work. But I can’t find a mention of the Human Events piece. This is in keeping with something that I pointed out in my prior post: the dissertation’s inadequate approach to citations. As I wrote, “Gorka is not big on citations, especially scholarly ones. Moreover, the citation practices are, shall we say, lax.” But I worry that I might not have sufficiently explained the stakes here. Gorka’s use of citations simply does not meet modern scholarly standards. When he does source claims, he relies on very few references. More often, he just doesn’t bother.

Why is this a problem? First, the dissertation gives no indication that Gorka has sufficient familiarity with relevant literature in his field. I already mentioned that I am not, by an stretch of the imagination, an expert on terrorism. But I am surprised how much literature I know of that Gorka ignores. Not a single article from Terrorism and Political Violence or Studies in Conflict and Terrorism makes an appearance. While he does cite a number of major figures in the field, his engagement with their work is almost always perfunctory. However, Gorka does like to talk about the stature and biographical details of some of these figures—especially those whom he references personal conversations with—while dismissing terrorism studies more broadly.

This curious mixture is on display, at least in part, on page 42 of the dissertation.

Even today, after 9/11, the field remains incredibly small39 and the possibilities to study it at undergraduate and graduate level remain very limited. With the odd exception, today there are still very few centres of excellence for research into terrorism40. It is rather telling that of all the billions that have been spent on investment by the US government in recent years to counter terrorism, the vast majority has gone into technology and equipment in general, with very little, by comparison, being spent on the academic side of support to policy. Hopefully this will change.

It’s true that the study of terrorism was, in 2007, not yet mainstreamed in international-relations scholarship. But this description still seems a bit off. A dive into the footnotes clarifies a bit:

39The academic ‘great’ names in political violence remain the same as they were pre 9/11: Sloan, Crenshaw, Rapoport, Jenkins, Laqueur, Wilkinson and Schmid. To quote an anonymous contributor to Schmid’s ‘Political Terrorism’: “there is a tremendous amount of nonsense written in this field.”…. there are “about 5 [authors who] really know what they are talking about – [the] rest are integrators of literature…” Schmid himself goes on to note that “many authors have never written more than one article about terrorism; few have dedicated most of their research time to this field of study. Real specialists in academia are still few.” Schmid’s study includes a table of the leading authors based on frequency of citation, see Chapter Four of ‘Political Terrorism’ op. cit..

The edition of Political Terrorism Gorka (2007, 40-41 fn37) references here was published in 1988. The table Gorka alludes to is based on questionnaires from 1982 and 1985.

He’s ‘substantiating’ a point about the state of the field in 2007 based on a source from nineteen years beforehand—and from data that was more than twenty years old at the time.

Second, the use of citations helps ensure that we don’t engage in plagiarism via paraphrasing. Perhaps some of the clichés I quoted in my second post—whether about globalization or Turkey and the European Union—are so overused that they don’t require references. But it’s good practice in something like a dissertation to provide references. More generally, there is very little here that resembles an original idea. Indeed, much as I wish I could claim otherwise, the same is true of my writing—and of almost all scholarly writings. We all know this. We reinvent the wheel. It’s an important reason to actively look for people to cite when making an argument. Doing so is both an obligation—our ideas are our currency—and a way of protecting ourselves against inadvertent plagiarism.

Third, even when Gorka does provide references, he often engages in poor scholarly practice. I’ve already mentioned that he’s careless about providing page numbers. He also fails to distinguish between when he paraphrases and when he directly quotes work. For example, he summarizes a piece by Martha Crenshaw on pages 61-65, and occasionally intermingles the two.

Compare the paragraph on the left (from his dissertation) with the one on the right (from a later edition of the edited volume from which he cites the Crenshaw piece—the article originally appeared in 1996):


Or one will just find individual sentences:SGMC2

Later on the dissertation, Gorka (2007, 76 fn 105) writes that: “Unless otherwise footnoted, the following biographical and historical information on bin Laden and his organisation is sourced from the first book to treat the subjects comprehensively: Rohan Gunaratna’s “Inside Al Qaeda: global network of terror”, Hurst, London, 2002.”

He’s not kidding. For example:


Although this would appear to violate Corvinus University of Budapest‘s plagiarism guidelines, I see this kind of thing as more of a process foul than something to get really worked up about. It’s just more indication of the general sloppiness of the dissertation.


Sometimes brevity improves a work by giving it focus. In this case, it results in missing ligatures in the logical development of arguments.

Still, the dissertation does have a central set of analytic claims: transcendentally-informed terrorists are on the rise. These terrorists tend toward the irrational. Their goals extend beyond the political. They cannot be negotiated with. They seek mass casualties. In short, these practitioners of “hyper-terrorism” present a threat both novel in form and magnitude This threat would ideally be met by some kind of supranational effort. But that’s not politically feasible. Hence, the solution lies in wrapping internal and external security services together.

If we recognize the fact that our internal national security and defense structures were inherited from another age and for another purpose, yet we are unable for various reasons (foremostly political) to create supranational solutions, then the only viable option it to radically reform the instruments at the nation-state level so as to make them more applicable to the new tasks at hands, to closer resemble the enemies of today and to heighten international cooperation in radical ways. If the internal barriers between the police force, the army and various intelligence services could be dismantled in a constitutionally guaranteed fashion, this would facilitate a modus operandi that is as flexible and as effective as that of our new enemies. There even exists a precedent for such a unified multi-agency approach. Such a reform would result in “SuperPurple” structures being created that would be as flexible and hyper-mobile as the enemies they need to neutralize. It would not even be too far-fetched to make the argument that in the case of many countries they would be best served in the current geostrategic environment by 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 (Gorka 2007, 197-198).

Unfortunately, Gorka does little to expand on this recommendation, at least beyond a footnote on the UK’s 14 Field Security and Intelligence Company, one in which Gorka thanks a friend from the US State Department for suggesting the term, and one specifying that he doesn’t mean something like the “Cold War approach” embodied by the Department of Homeland Security.

The dissertation does, however, have a “check the boxes” feel. There’s little more clichéd in discussions of premodern religious terrorism than invocations of three particular groups. And, indeed, Gorka tells us that “any analysis of terrorism that is even just partially informed by religious or apocalyptic ideas must mention at least three famous groups: the Zealots, or Sicarii (Dagger Wielders), the Assassins, or Hashshishin (hashish eaters) and the Thuggees.” His discussion of the latter two is sourced almost entirely to Paul Elliott’s Warrior Cultswhich, I admit, has an awesome cover. But this part of the thesis serves basically no purpose other than to segue to the ‘secular’ interruption of anarchists, communists, and other assorted ‘ideological’ terrorists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This leads Gorka to the summary of Crenshaw—mentioned above—and to one of Rapoport’s notion of “four waves of terrorism.” The main point of the former seems to be… I’m not sure, actually. He points out a few things along the way. These include that, for Crenshaw, “there do exist counter-intelligence opportunities for creating dissatisfaction and dissent within terrorist organizations” (page 64), or that terrorism at least kinda works, because the Good Friday Accords happened and Israel exists, QED (page 62 fn86). But I think the main point is either to check some boxes (‘look, some theories of terrorist dynamics’) or to suggest that we just need to know some of this stuff for his later discussion (we don’t).

The engagement with Rapoport serves a more self-evident purpose. Rapoport has four stages of modern terrorism, ending in “The Religious Wave” (1979-onwards) which Gorka (2007, 70) represents this way:


Gorka’s contention is that al Qaeda is something new. Or maybe not. Here’s what he writes: “There are facets of al Qaeda and its related network that I believe make it sui generis, or at least worthy of being dealt with as a sub-set of the fourth group” (2007, 70). Later he claims that definitively it constitutes a “fifth wave.” But this is where my lack of expertise might be a problem, because I cannot really figure out why this fourth wave/fifth wave thing matters, except insofar as Gorka wants to argue that al Qaeda is fundamentally different from Hezbollah or Hamas or whatever. But you can read for yourself.

The important point, I suppose, is that “al Qaeda, along with Aum Shinrykio, must be taken to be in a category of their own, since for both groups it seems obvious that it is not the mass-audience aspect of terror but the ‘mass-casualty’ that is important” (2007, 71). Which strikes me, at least in the case of al Qaeda, as one of those ‘can’t it be both?’ things. Yes, once upon a time a number of observers argued that terrorists wanted to avoid mass causalities because they wanted political sympathy. Yes, a lot of terrorism experts who had noticed things like the Beirut bombings, the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the al Qaeda embassy bombings of 1998 thought this was nonsense. But the idea that mass causality attacks are not designed to have both lots of deaths and mass audiences lacks support in Gorka’s dissertation.

Anyway, Gorka now provides a potted history of al Qaeda. This aims, he (2007, 74) assures us, “at demonstrating a few simple, yet important, facts that are essential to our examination of the transcendentally-informed perpetrator of terrorism.” These include:


If you were tempted to laugh at the first bullet, feel free.

Eventually, Gorka gets us up to a section called the “New Al Qaeda”, which Gorka (2007, 89 fn 121) notes “is expanded upon in an article by the author entitled: “Al Qaeda’s Next Generation”, published by the Jamestown Foundation of Washington in their Terrorism Monitor series, 29th July 2004 – Vol. II, Issue 15.” In fairness to Gorka, I think he mistakes the direction of the expansion. The dissertation is more detailed than the short note. Regardless, he also gets more mileage out of an earlier diagram template.

Now, here’s where I come back to the theme of this post. I have enormous sympathy for Gorka in one respect. It is very difficult to write analytic narratives. Many doctoral students make an argument, dump some history, and think (or expect, or hope) that it ‘speaks for itself.’ So plenty of scholarly dissertations also fail at this task. Still, when Gorka lays out his criteria with the proposition that the desire to pursue Weapons of Mass Destruction precludes an actor from being “classed and dealt with” as a “rational, pragmatic actor” than you know that this isn’t going to end well.

Indeed, Gorka (2007, 96) soon waxes poetic about armed conflict, like “death and taxes” will “always be with us.” And:

During the previous forty years, from the Berlin Blockade onwards, there was a “glue”, as Phillip Gordon [nb: no reference] has put it, that kept the West in agreement and which meant that Portugal, for instance had the same threat perception as the US, France the same as the UK. It was this overarching agreement as to universality of the challenge posed by the USSR and its colonized satellites that would allow one telegram, written by a Moscow-based US diplomat to eventually shape the foreign and security policies of all the future NATO nations. George Kennan’s classified cable, later parsed into the anonymous Foreign Affairs article, The Sources of Soviet Conduct, would be translated by the “wise men” of the post-war US Administration into a very simply doctrine (Gorka 2007, 97).

At the risk of pedantry, this is the kind of shopworn, sweeping, stylized fact that might sound good in a Human Events column, but doesn’t belong in a dissertation. The degree that various NATO members, for example, prioritized and understood the Soviet threat varied rather considerably over the period from 1948-1988. As Gorka himself notes in a diagram (four) later, containment was not some kind of fixed policy—let alone one that the United States consistently implemented.

Anyway, so Gorka needs to do the following:

  • Define and operationalize “rationality” and “irrationality” as meaningful categories.
  • Define and operationalize “political motivations” as a distinctive category from “transcendental motivations.”
  • Show that these categories have important behavioral consequences.
  • Locate al Qaeda within them.

In fact, Gorka has an implicit typological space (see Figure 1):

Figure 1

This really shouldn’t be a 2×2, but rather a continuous property space. Still, it will serve. Gorka’s argument is that al Qaeda is a “D.” His evidence for that looks like it is going to come from translations of bin Laden’s statements—and that of other al Qaeda leaders. He summarizes these:

The only problem is the picture is a mosaic. Yes, it is religiously-informed throughout, but at the same time it is flavoured with the clearly politically, or pragmatic. The best example of this admixture of the two worldviews is the prerecorded video statement that bin Laden gave to the al Jazeera TV station that was to be broadcast only once large-scale military operations were launched against Afghanistan (October 7th 2001). For the majority of the statement, bin Laden talks of religious motivation and the global and absolutist aim of recreating a fundamentalist Caliphate, a vast theocracy that will bring the Arab and Muslim world back to the true path described by the lives of the early Salafi, generations of the Mohammedan faith. A world in which the West is no longer the dominant culture, in which politics, the law and faith are not separated but one again, a world in which the religious leader is the political leader.

It is exactly these types of pronouncements that have led many to place bin Laden and his followers in a category separate from the classic terrorism of the second half of the 20th century. Although the IRA may have said it represented the Catholics of Northern Ireland, the annexation of the northern provisions by EIRE was a purely political end-state. As such it was, importantly, an end-state open to negotiations between the IRA (Sinn Féin) and the British government. That is exactly where we are today with devolution to Stormont no longer out of the question. It is nigh impossible to envisage any political negotiations between al Qaeda and its enemy, the West, on its desired end-state. The destruction of our civilization in favour of the creation of a fundamentalist Muslim empire that includes territory that now belongs to the West (such as Andalusia) is obviously not a subject for the G-8 or NATO to discuss behind closed doors at a table with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al- Zawahiri. It is clearly a ‘Them and Us’ situation, as was the Cold War (Gorka 2007, 101).

You want more? Sorry, Gorka now shifts to a discussion of the ‘deep roots’ of all this. The Sykes-Picot agreement ushered in a “fatalistic worldview of the Arab and Muslim world” that, in turn, was disrupted by the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

For at lest a decade, as the USSR fell ever more into an economically and politically untenable state, Iran would successful compete for the attention of the “good” Superpower, representing as it did a threat to US interests in the Gulf region. It ability to nominally become a lead player in a world geopolitics otherwise monopolised by the white cultures of America, its Western allies and Eastern Europe, would have a seminal effect in proving to large parts of the Muslim and Arab world that the post-Ottoman reality was not irreversible (2007, 104).


The second event was even more significant in undermining the fatalistic worldview of the Arab and Muslim world, but unfortunately was not at all understood as such by the West which was so involved in its being brought about. Although it was in large part Western money and organisation and Chinese weapons that help facilitate the final withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the victory was understood by those doing the fighting as a war won by believers against a pagan enemy, and an enemy that was a Superpower. This version of the Mujahedeen war must be placed in context of all that proceeded it from the fall of the Ottomans’ onward. From the end of 1918, for seven decades, the Arabs and Muslim world was seen by many of its members as being a secondary part of the world. One in which the people and their political elites could not determine their own fate, subordinated as they were to the larger theatre of East versus West. The Iranian events of 1979 shook that reality, but it was the events of 10 years later that would undermine that reality completely. The Superpower which had threatened the richest and strongest part of the world for decades had been forced to capitulate to a handle full of irregular warriors with handheld weapons after just a few years. The fate of the believing Muslim was again to be made by his own hands (2007, 104-105).

I understand that he’s drawing on specific discourses, e.g., the Soviets could be defeated, the US can be as well. But you should notice the pattern here: every time that Gorka edges up to something like a viable analytical framework and evidence for it, he shifts gears.

Anyway, after some further detours, we seem to come back to matters on page 128: “There is of course one significant difference between the foe of yesteryear and the foe of today. It is hard to imagine the USSR motivating its people highly enough so that they would consider suicide attacks against the enemy. This is not the case with Salafi terrorism such as al Qaeda’s. As a result we must discuss specifically the motivation that separates the transcendental actor from the political.”

Or not. The next section relates the work of Marc Sageman. Sageman is, in fact, a major player in the field. But don’t take my word for that. Take Gorka’s (2007, 129):

Having personally met Dr. Sageman on numerous occasions, I am convinced that his recent and most valuable work in the field of studying transcendental terror was at least motivated in part by the many fallacious statements Sageman heard regarding al Qaeda after 9/11. The author set himself a simple yet challenging goal: to take what could be known about the core membership of al Qaeda and map the relationships between its members, with the intention of explaining was made them choose the path of transcendental terror. Given the conventional wisdoms surrounding the issue, and conceptions related to al Qaeda that saw its members are undereducated, poor, religious extremists, his findings are most surprising.

Is the importanc of Sageman’s work because he is correct? Or is it because Sageman’s argument about the shifting nature of the threat suits Gorka? Or is it just because Gorka’s met Sageman a bunch of times?

Who knows.

Certainly, the evaluation of alternative arguments, along with other staples of basic qualitative methodology, has no place in this dissertation. But here’s the important thing: the section does not, in fact, “discuss… the motivation that separates the transcendental actor from the political.” There is no comparative analysis whatsoever, no exploration of the analytical category or its variation. The closest we get is this: “Sageman examines elsewhere there is the pattern of a group reaching out to al Qaeda, or the Salafi Jihad. Not vice versa. The established group of radical friends looks for the opportunity to join the cause. The established terror group does not ‘recruit’ the group as we would expect” (Gorka 2007, 132). No evidence is provided as to whether this really distinguishes such terrorism from other forms.

I’ll conclude this in Part IV.

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