Event Recap: Chat & Chowder with Northeastern Professor, Max Abrahms

Author: Michaela Tobin, Northeastern Student & International Trade & Communications Co-op at U.S. Commercial Service

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Professionals, students, and members of the WorldBoston community gathered last Thursday at the law offices of McDermott, Will and Emery for the latest installment in WorldBoston’s Chat and Chowder series, a monthly book talk lead by experts in the field of global affairs and international relations. As they enjoyed steaming bowls of chowder and various beverages, audience members listened attentively to Dr. Max Abrahms, the articulate and charismatic speaker of November’s Chat and Chowder event.

Dr. Abrahms is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University and an expert on terrorism and international security. He is an affiliate at the Global Resilience Institute, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a board member on the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. In addition to being published in a variety of leading scholarly journals and an active analyst in the media on matters of international security, Abrahms is also the author of the recently published Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History, which served as the topic of Thursday night’s discussion.

In Rules for Rebels, inspired by author Saul Alinsky's similarly titled work, Rules for Radicals, Abrahms studies different militant groups to explore why some groups fail at achieving their goals while others remain successful. During his presentation, Abrahms used the example of ISIS, examining the tactics of the Islamic State’s infamous leader, Abu Bakr Al- Baghdadi to explain why the organization ultimately failed, despite its leadership being crowned a “mastermind” by the media, and lauded by various think-tank pundits.

“Smart militant leaders are not always successful,” Abrahms stated, “but successful militant leaders need to be smart”.

In his opinion, smart leaders are those that refrain from partaking in certain behaviors that have historically doomed terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State. Abrahms theorizes that there is a science to militant victories and proposes three rules militant groups must follow in order to be successful in achieving their goals: 1) learn to avoid terrorism, 2) restrain members from committing acts of terrorism, and 3) deny responsibility for terrorism if they want to achieve their goals. His lecture touched on these three criteria, though Rules for Rebels delves considerably deeper into the evidence behind each assertion.

The lecture concluded with a lively question and answer session, in which audience members voiced their curiosities regarding successful terrorist cells and the trends seen in modern day terrorism. Abrahm’s talk created a lasting impression on listeners, leaving them to consider how national governments and militaries can apply these findings to prevent or react to terrorism in the future. After the talk, members stayed to mingle for more conversation, and many chatted further with the author.

For a more comprehensive look at Dr. Abrahms research, get your copy of Rules for Rebels here.