The Journal Gazette
Friday, December 04, 2015 10:03 pm

IPFW prof using words of ISIS to see inside its world

Brian Francisco | Washington editor

The global fight against Islamic State terrorists is a war of words for Lawrence Kuznar.

The IPFW anthropology professor researches the speech patterns of Islamic State leaders in his role as a civilian analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Kuznar said his job is to "immerse myself into their world to try to see how they look at things."

He is part of a national team of about 40 people enlisted by the Pentagon to scrutinize the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh. Team members are from universities, think tanks and the military, and they keep in regular contact with one another and Defense officials.

"I have never worked with a group on a project where I have seen such a deep level of commitment and concern," said Kuznar, who has taught at IPFW since 1990.

Kuznar, 52, identifies themes and rhetorical devices in Islamic State speeches, such as when a speaker repeats something often for emphasis. He said Islamic State messages contain many disparaging terms, or "trash-talking."

"They use it all the time; they are very unique that way" among terrorist and insurgent groups, Kuznar said.

Kuznar provides a quantitative analysis of speech patterns by using scientific models designed to limit misinterpretation or subjectivity by the reader or listener. He has gotten to know the enemy mindset well enough to participate in an ongoing series of Pentagon war games.

"I have been consistently asked to play the role of Daesh in those and be that person," Kuznar said.

That seems appropriate, considering his profession.

"Traditionally, what we’ve always prided ourselves on in anthropology is being able to look at a different culture and see the world as much as possible through those people’s eyes," he said.

Kuznar had been conducting terrorism research for a defense contractor when the Pentagon contacted him in 2007. He said someone at the Defense Department contacted him about his published article, unrelated to his contracting work, on the conditions that led to conflict and genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

He began doing briefings and studies, mostly related to terrorism and warfare, for various branches of the military, including U.S. Special Operations. He is paid through grants and contracts.

"They’re very open to getting help from anywhere they can get it," Kuznar said.

Working with William Moon of the Air Force, Kuznar presented research findings a year ago in a Pentagon report called the Multi-Method Assessment of ISIL. Moon and Kuznar examined 14 speeches by Islamic State leaders Abu Muhammad al-Adnani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for their section of the 214-page report.

The Islamic State instructs followers that "victory is destined and ordained," Kuznar and Moon wrote, and that "victory can only be achieved through violence."

The authors learned that messages are bundled to appeal to three audiences: Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria, young men across the Middle East and foreign fighters in Western nations. This messaging is "deeply embedded in concepts fundamental to the Sunni Islam and difficult, although not impossible, to counter on an ideological level," they wrote.

In an interview in his office at IPFW’s Kettler Hall, Kuznar said the Islamic State attacks that killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13 have "increased the tempo" of recent research by the Pentagon’s assessment team.

Kuznar also is teaching IPFW classes on South American Indians and biological anthropology. Among his academic specialties are traditional pastoral societies, including Aymara herders in Peru. "I was really interested in economic decision-making," he said. "However, what I found in the kinds of societies that I lived in and studied was that violence always powerfully impacted that decision-making process. So whether I wanted to or not, I always ended up studying violence."

Kuznar said that many conflicts he has studied, including the Islamic State’s battle to rule parts of Iraq and Syria, share a root cause.

"If you dig down deep and look at why people feel so frustrated and so angry, it really does come down to who gets resources," he said.

Even with the ideological divisions among Muslims in the Middle East, "one thing everyone has their eyes on is: Where are the oil fields and who controls them," Kuznar said. "Material resources lurk beneath all of this."

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