CMC Professor Hicham Bou Nassif talks new book, interviewing families of ISIS recruits

A book cover of a man holding up two peace signs. The book is called "Endgames: Military Response to Protest in Arab Autocracies" by Hicham Bou Nassif.
CMC Professor Bou-Nassif’s most recent book, Endgames: Military Response to Protest in Arab Autocracies, explores the reactions of Arab armies to uprisings during the Arab Spring. (Courtesy: Hicham Bou-Nassif)

“I grew up in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War. So the first 13 years of my life, I was in the midst of a lot of violence, ethnic conflict, invasions and political violence. From growing up in violence to working as a journalist to studying politics — all that led me to where I am today.”

Hicham Bou Nassif is an assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College teaching with a focus on the Middle East. He spoke to TSL about what influenced his interest to teach politics, his recent as well as upcoming books, his research interviewing families of deceased ISIS recruits and his experience surviving the 2020 Beirut bomb explosion. 

“It so happened that my dad is a historian and my mom is very political as well. So essentially I grew up in a very bookish family, in a family that reads a lot, talks a lot about politics,” Bou Nassif said. “And in the 1980s when I was growing up, Lebanon was a bit like Syria today. So the combination of the incredible turbulent times I grew up in and a very bookish and educated family … created in me a deep curiosity about politics.”

Much of Bou Nassif’s outlook on politics and politicians was shaped by his experience as a reporter for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International from 2003 to 2006, a time he recalls as “exceptionally turbulent.” 

“You have to live with [politicians], cover them, to see how much they are after power. So it gets you cynical, a little bit, in the way you approach what people do in politics,” Bou Nassif said. “On the other hand, it gets you even more aware about the importance of money and corruption in politics and more conscious of how much violence there is. 

“So whatever romanticism you may have, whatever idealism, whatever rosy vision you may have, is completely shattered by how bitter the struggle for power is, how violent. And the level of immorality that there is in the game. Being aware of that, reading it in paper is one thing, and then actually being in the midst of this leaves a more permanent mark, and it did.” 

Bou Nassif returned to Lebanon last August taking time off from teaching when the Beirut explosion occurred. 

“I was reading a novelist I loved, and before I knew it, I was drenched in blood. I couldn’t find my wife for a few minutes. People were running in the streets; blood was running in the streets; people had faces covered with ashes. It was a scene from hell, really; it was beyond my capacity to explain,” he said. 

“Yet another Lebanese tragedy I get to see face to face. Even by the levels of my previous experiences in Lebanon, the blast was more violent than anything I had seen in my life.” 

So whatever romanticism you may have, whatever idealism, whatever rosy vision you may have, is completely shattered by how bitter the struggle for power is, how violent.” — Professor Hicham Bou Nassif

In October 2020, Bou Nassif published his book, “Endgames: Military Response to Protest in Arab Autocracies,” which explores how and why armies react to revolutions, a process Bou Nassif finds intertwined with politics.

“What happens to the whole country will depend on what happens to the army. If the army implodes, typically what happens next is civil war. If the army remains cohesive, but sides with the people, then typically what happens next is transition to democracy, or if the army is cohesive, but sides with the dictator, what happens next is survival of autocratic rule,” Bou Nassif said. 

He conducted interviews with military officers in Syria, Tunisia and Egypt to see how armies respond to revolutions, adding that his research impacted the way he teaches at CMC. 

“I didn’t just sit in America and pontificate. When I explain a specific theory, it’s not just a theory. I went to the field and tested theories empirically. I spent months and months in the field, I asked questions, I met people and I conducted interviews. So essentially, I am more confident about my knowledge and my ideas,” he said. 

Bou Nassif is currently in the process of publishing his most recent research on transnational ISIS recruits. His interest for this research topic was sparked while he was in Claremont and read about a Lebanese man who traveled to Iraq to join ISIS and conducted a suicide attack against Kurdish militia men. 

“I went to Tripoli, Lebanon and I interviewed the mothers, fathers, brothers and teachers of 17 ISIS militants, trying to figure out who these guys were, what did they study, where do they work, what do they believe in,” he said.

“It wasn’t dangerous as much as it was depressing to see how completely left alone the families of these people are … to see the level of fear and hatred they have,” he said. “It was sad for me to see my fellow countrymen living in so much poverty and destitution.”

Bou Nassif’s forthcoming book, “The Oxford Handbook of Civil-Military Relations,” will be released May 2021. 

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