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When What We See Is Not What We Say — Leading a Change in the World of National Security

Posted on Tuesday, July 12, 2016 by Elisha Gechter and Gil Avriel

During his time at Harvard Kennedy School, Gil Avriel, WIF Alum (Class 26) and Legal Adviser to the Israeli National Security Council at the Office of the Prime Minister, published an innovative theory in the Harvard National Security Journal that hopes to change the way we understand ISIS and terrorism.  A year after his graduation, Gil's Civilitary Theory is cited and commended by world experts, discussed at leading national security conferences and explored by governments.  Elisha Gechter, Program Manager for Wexner Israel Programs at Harvard Kennedy School, asked Gil for his takeaways from the project and to share how his journey at Harvard can encourage "Wexners" and other Fellows at Harvard's Center for Public Leadership who wish to make a change and promote innovative ideas around the world.

With all of the serious problems the world is facing on a global scale, how did you narrow in on one thing to tackle when you came to Harvard?  

The world is changing fast  from technology, to cyber, to medical research, new trends and phenomena are constantly popping up.  Yet I noticed a trend that in many cases the rapid pace with which these phenomena develop is faster than the evolution of the terminology we use to describe them.  As a result, we all use outdated words to describe new phenomena.  This gap is also relevant to the field of National Security.  We fail to understand ISIS partly because the stale language that we use to describe the group lags behind the rapid evolution of the group, especially when it comes to its progression from a non-territorial to a territorial terrorist group.  Bridging this gap is essential because wrong words create wrong perceptions and thereafter may lead to wrong decisions and judgments at the highest levels.  Simply put — if you can't name it, you can't contain it.

What was your suggestion to solve this problem?

My work explores the evolutionary process of certain terrorist groups through a new analytical framework: The Civilitary Theory.  “Civilitary” is a new term, coined from the words civil and military, to better capture the state of play imposed on the international community by ISIS and other radical forces that have placed civilians at the heart of military conflict.  The Civilitary Theory has three objectives: to shed light on the current developments in the Middle East and Africa; to demonstrate current patterns in the evolution of terrorist groups which will point to future developments; and to influence political, diplomatic, legal, academic, military and public discourses in an effort to bridge the gap between outdated words and this new reality.  All of this would ultimately help the international community to better meet the national security challenges of our time.

What steps did you first take to make an impact? 

I came to Harvard with an idea, got several distinguished professors on board and developed a new theory.  During the academic year I presented this theory at Harvard, Yale, Brandeis, many public events in Boston and with the help of the networking of The Wexner Foundation, I also presented it at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America in Washington D.C.  Through Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership I presented in a student Ted Talk at the Kennedy School.  Prominent figures from the local community were very supportive and helped me increase awareness and enlarge the scope of publicity.  When it gained the right momentum I published the Civilitary Theory in the Harvard National Security Journal at the Harvard Law School, which gave the theory a strong academic imprimatur.  Shortly after this publication, the Civilitary Theory was reviewed by the former US State Department Legal Adviser on Lawfare Blog and mentioned by several other leading professors.  It was subsequently presented at the annual conference of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) in New York and at the International Law Association British Branch Conference in the United Kingdom.  In the fall, the Civilitary Theory will be presented at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY.  It has an interactive website (www.civilitary.org) and people from all over the world are entering and expressing interest on the issue of terminology.  Nowadays "Wordfare" has become part of "Lawfare," and the use of clear and effective terminology helps the international community to understand and better confront ISIS and other forms of terrorism.

Why do you think the theory has so much stickiness?

Although the theory is about national security and ISIS, in practice its premise is applicable to many other issues and challenges.  Why can't we shape a clear strategy to solve a problem?  What hampers us from seeing reality as it is?  I think that often we tend to embrace the known past and hold onto it, sometimes too tightly.  But when thinking about present challenges we can’t just extrapolate from history and the continued use of outdated terminology that no longer captures the changing reality.  If terminology can't catch up with the rapid pace of the evolution of terrorism, there is no wonder we can't explain the phenomenon of ISIS or shape a contemporary national security strategy to confront it.  This linguistic gap is very relevant to many other fast growing industries, so people around the world are finding that it resonates and are paying attention to the relevancy and accuracy of their own terminology when they define a problem or think about other challenges.  

What takeaways and lessons would you share with others in the Wexner network or other Fellows at Harvard's Center for Public Leadership who wish to make a change and promote innovative ideas around the world?  

Above all:  don't be afraid to fail.  As we all know, people fail again and again and then call it experience… so if you believe in your idea and feel passionate about it trust your instincts and go for it.  Also, try to think in simple terms.  Sophistication hampers innovation and over-complexity blocks creativity.  Remember how often we encountered a new idea and wondered how nobody thought about it before new ideas are often generated when people explore their basic assumptions and realize they can approach the situation differently.  It is also important to be attentive to time  I only had eleven months at Harvard and time flies.  It is therefore useful to know what you want and plan your steps in advance.  In order to save time, listen to experienced people and learn from their mistakes.  It is also wise to understand the state of play around you and get the right stakeholders on board early on.  Lastly, don't forget to thank and keep in touch with those who stood next to you, as you will probably have more than one good idea in your lifetime and may wish to embark on a second creative journey.   

Gil Avriel, WIF Alum (Class 26), serves as the Legal Advisor to the Israeli National Security Council at the Office of the Prime Minister.  He holds an MA in Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School of Government and an LLM in International Law from Georgetown University Law Center, where he was the recipient of the Thomas Bradbury Chetwood S.J. Prize for the most distinguished academic record.  He can be reached at gilavrielwork@gmail.com.

Elisha Gechter is the Program Manager for the Wexner Israel Programs at the Harvard Kennedy School.  She represents The Wexner Foundation at Harvard's Center for Public Leadership and works with mid-career Israelis who spend a year studying for a Master’s in Public Administration at the Kennedy School through the Wexner Israel Fellowship, as well as Israelis who spend a month of intensive training in Executive Education at the Kennedy School through the Wexner Senior Leadership Program.  She can be reached at egechter@wexner.net.