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What Are Terrorists Afraid Of?

National Security Expert Forest Speaks to NATO Leaders

James Forest with students
Assoc. Prof. James Forest, right, teaches courses on terrorism, security studies and weapons of mass destruction in the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department.

By Sandra Seitz

“If we could read their minds, hear their thoughts, what would we hear al-Qaida’s leaders worrying about?”

That’s the question Assoc. Prof. James Forest of the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department posed to senior leaders of NATO. Forest, among the nation’s most respected national security experts, was invited to speak on Influence Warfare at a recent conference on psychological operations, part of the Joint Special Operations University. 

“The biggest fear for leaders of al-Qaida and affiliated movements is to be seen as irrelevant,” says Forest. “They try to shape their image as being competent, successful, trustworthy — and that they’re the ‘good guys’ leading a global movement of pious and pure Muslims.”

But, with indiscriminate attacks that have killed eight Muslims for every one non-Muslim, al-Qaida has been alienating its primary audience. The Arab Spring has shown that fundamental change can take place without al-Qaida’s intervention, undermining its claims of legitimacy. Corruption and incompetence throughout the ranks further erode their ability to sustain the movement. 

“The day an al-Qaida leader posts a message and nobody pays attention, that’s the day we’ll know that they’re no longer a threat,” Forest says. “I think that’s just a matter of time.”

In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate courses at UMass Lowell, Forest is a Senior Fellow with the Joint Special Operations University, where he holds an advanced security clearance and conducts research projects for the Special Forces community.
“Speaking to an audience of NATO leaders was especially interesting,” he says. “The feedback I get from practitioners, especially from other countries, really makes an impact on my research.”

Forest also noted that he is “just one among dozens of faculty at UMass Lowell who are trying to contribute something to help address national and international security challenges. From new sensor technologies and cyber security tools, to research on social and organizational behavior, there’s an amazing amount of important work going on here.”  

Security is one of the concentrations of the University’s new Ph.D. program in Global Studies, which is taught by Forest and other faculty from the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.