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Should I whisper, should I scream? – Abu Musab al-Suri redux, Pt 2

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — typology of intelligence failures, analytic blind spot, millennial movements, prophecy as strategy, abu Musab’s end times chronology ]

To tie in with the first part of this double-post, let me quote Aaron Zelin again:

I’ll back that up with Jean-Pierre Filiu‘s observation that in Abu-Musab al-Suri’s reading of jihadist history, “events lead on from one another toward the appearance of the Mahdi” — and that in Abu-Musab’s own words, “We shall be alive, then, when Allah’s order comes.”

I’ll give a brief account of the chronology below. Let’s get on with this.


I don’t believe that Richard Landes, my mentor at the Center for Millennial Studies, mentions Abu Musab al-Suri in his Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experiences (again as with Furnish, I could be wrong) — but if there’s a single book that will convince you of the enormity of our blind spot when it comes to taking millennial movements seriously, it’s this masterwork — simply stunning.

The thrust of his book is that millennial movements have been quite deliberately overlooked twice by the grand narratives of western civilization — first by religious writers who were embarrassed by the repeated cycle of enthusiasm followed by failure of end times prophecies and retroactively marginalized the topic, and more recently by…

secular historians, determined to push religion into the background of their story, [who] were hardly interested in highlighting religious phenomena that even the ecclesiastical historians considered ridiculous.

It is to undo the damage that this two-fold blindedness has caused us that Landes writes his remarkable book, covering in extraordinarily wide-ranging scholarly detail and with insight and wit, that current in human fear and hope he terms “the most protean belief in human history: millennialism.”


In other words, the “the most protean belief in human history” has been consistently disregarded for way too long by academics, pundits and experts.

Put that in the context of this trenchant paragraph from Richards Heuer‘s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, just recently quoted and indeed highlighted by Clint Watts and John E. Brennan in their paper Capturing the Potential of Outlier Ideas in the Intelligence Community:

Major intelligence failures are usually caused by failures of analysis, not failures of collection. Relevant information is discounted, misinterpreted, ignored, rejected, or overlooked because it fails to fit a prevailing mental model or mind-set.


Rejected and overlooked?

Even the Psalmist (118.22) knows the importance of what’s rejected:

The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

And just in passing, I’d argue that two of the seven “outlandish, unthinkable, and wholly anomalous” outliers that Watts & Brennan offer as bulleted examples in their paper — the Khomeini and bin Laden events — would have shown up rather more prominently had a subset of analysts been tasked to keep an eye on millenialist and / or specifically mahdist movements.


Very quickly, then, here are some of the recent reports regarding al-Suri from well-informed analysts which seem to pay little mind to the Mahdist strand in his strategic thinking:

  • Raff Pantucci‘s January 26, 2012 post Whither al Suri? focuses on the implications of al-Suri’s release and quotes Brynjar Lia — insightful, but no mention of Mahdism.
  • Aaron Zelin‘s February 3 Foreign Policy post on al-Suri’s release comes closest to mentioning an apocalyptic angle when he writes:

    Additionally, his lore will grow in light of an alleged vision he had this past August, which was relayed by online jihadist Jundi Dawlat al-Islam (“Soldier of the Islamic State”), a member of the important Shamukh al-Islam Arabic Forum. “I have been informed that the Shaykh [Suri] saw in the past days a vision that he will have an important role in Bilad al-Sham (Syria), we ask Allah that it becomes true,” the jihadist wrote. Suri’s release will be seen as a vindication of that vision by his supporters, and no doubt boost his influence.

    The significant role of Shams — “the apocalyptic theater par excellence” — in al-Suri’s narrative is something J-P Filiu emphasized (p. 189).

  • Bill Roggio‘s February 5 piece for Long War Journal is an excellent backgrounder as befits LWJ — but no mention of eschatological strategy there, either.
  • Jarret Brachman‘s February 6 Abu Musab al-Suri Still Matters Online at Chronus Global is a brief note, just a tip-off that al-Suri is still influential…
  • MEMRI‘s February 8, 2012 The Release of Top Al-Qaeda Military Strategist/Ideologue Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri from Syrian Prison – A Looming Threat makes no mention of al-Suri’s eschatological thinking, and neither does their more extensive report on al-Suri, Al-Qaeda Military Strategist Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri’s Teachings on Fourth-Generation Warfare (4GW), Individual Jihad and the Future of Al-Qaeda, to which their February 2012 post links.
  • And the Jamestown Foundation‘s Feb 10 piece by Murad Batal al-Shishani, Syria’s Surprising Release of Jihadi Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, in their Terrorism Monitor v 10 # 3 doesn’t mention the apocalyptic angle — and Jamestown is where I heard Ali A Allawi speak on Millenarianism, Mahdism and Terrorism: The Case of Iraq back in 2007!


  • Ah well, there’s always Zenpundit [vbg].


    Okay, it looks to me as though we’re still so focused on the “nizam la tanzim / system not organization” and “lone wolf / leaderless resistance” aspects of al-Suri’s work, significant as they are, that it’s easy to overlook that damned ridiculous “end times” stuff the fellow also considers important, strategically speaking.

    So for the record, here’s the chronology of future events as J-P Filiu recounts it:

    Events will unfold in the following manner: “The Arabian Peninsula will be preserved [from harm] until the destruction of Armenia, Egypt will be preserved until the destruction of the [Arabian] peninsula, Kufa will be preserved until the destruction of Egypt, the city of impiety [mad?nat al-kufr] will be conquered only after the great wars, and the Antichrist will appear only after this conquest.” The concentrically expanding path of apocalyptic devastation will then close in upon Palestine, the sanctuary of Judeo- Crusader “impiety,” where the ultimate confrontation with the Byzantines will take place in and around the city of Acre.

    Well, that’s part of it, but you should read Filiu’s pp 186-191 for a fuller account — and somebody, please send me a reliable translation of those last 100 pages of abu Musab’s Call if you have one!

    Sadly, I don’t read or speak Arabic.


    Okay, that’s it, I’ve shouted, or whispered or whatever.

    The books at the top of this post are:

    David Cook, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature
    Timothy Furnish, Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden
    Jean-Pierre Filiu, Apocalypse in Islam
    Richard Landes, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience

    All four are worthy of your consideration.

    Trial of a Thousand Years, by Charles Hill—a review

    Thursday, August 11th, 2011

     trial of thousand years

    by J. Scott Shipman 

    Trial of a Thousand Years, World Order and Islamism, by Charles Hill

    Ambassador Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies, Literature, Statecraft, and World Order was the best book I read in 2010, so I had high expectations for this volume and was not disappointed. Ambassador Hill provides a 35,000-foot view of the relationships between the West and Islam in history focusing on the subtitle of his earlier work in the form of “world order.”

    Unsurprisingly, as in Grand Strategies Hill goes back to the roots of modern order in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). He provides a brief review of the world ushered in by the men who negotiated, and quotes another historian who said, “men who were laboring, each in his own way, for the termination of a terrible war. They had no idea of progress. The word “innovation” was anathema to them. The last thing on their minds was the creation of a new system of sovereign states…” Here we are 363 years later and “from the seeds sown at Westphalia” the system they set in place is has grown, but has been under siege many times from many fronts.

    Westphalia was distinctive because it was “procedural, not substantive” and required a minimum number of procedures/practices to which to adhere and allowed disparate parties with different, “even mutually antagonistic, substantive doctrines and objectives” to work together. Hill points out four distinctions:

    • Religious arguments were not allowed in diplomacy.
    • The State was the fundamental entity.
    • Interstate/international norms and laws were encouraged, absent “divine sources” but based on mutually beneficial/positive agreements.
    • Use of professional military and diplomats with “its own set of protcols.” [Personal note: In another life, I was an arms control inspector enforcing the START I and INF Treaties—protocol was very serious and the true measure of the actual treaty language. There was also a strong and consistent application of reciprocity that made each party think before stretching protocol—this happened to my teams more than once.]

    For Hill a central mission of the United States is the defense of the Westphalian world order. In less than 165 pages and six chapters, he outlines the origins of modern Western order and correspondingly covers Islamic order. From the beginning to the end Hill provides ample evidence of challenges to Westphalia, often from indigenous Western sources, but focusing mostly on our trials with Islam.

    Hill sets the sources from whence the Western and Islamic world orders arose, where the West was grounded in Christianity, and the Islamic in the Caliphate. For two religions claiming Abrahamic roots, their worldviews were, and in many instances remain diametrically opposed. Central was the question of duality or unity. For the West, the State and religion were two complementary systems/powers—following the teaching of Christ ““Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (St Matthew’s Gospel 22:21) For Islam there was no distinction, and the very thought was hateful to Islamists. Islam’s “unswerving devotion to monotheism” continues to this day among those groups and states using terror to upend existing world order.

    I am sympathetic to Hill’s ideas; however recognize with globalization and the internet tweaks may be required. And I’ll take this segue to introduce an idea for consideration.

    Westphalia’s removal of religion made trade possible among former religious enemies. Unambiguous rules for contracts and dispute resolution evolved. What if we could bridge the gap between Western jurisprudence and tribal, or non-Western legal systems? What if, instead of insisting our way or the highway we design a solution that would allow both sides to keep their respective legal processes and procedures, thereby opening untapped markets?

    At least one person has already considered these alternatives. Michael Van Notten (1933-2002) was a practicing lawyer in the Netherlands and married into a Somali tribe. Van Notten used his legal training and insights gained as a member of his new family to design a method of contracting where tribal law and Western jurisprudence could peacefully and prosperously coexist. Van Notten recorded his ideas in a book called The Law of Somalis, A Stable Foundation for Economic Development in the Horn of Africa. I’ll not review this book, but wanted offer this as a teaser alternative.

    After reviewing the history of the West and Islam, Hill identifies seven Clausewitzian centers of gravity for both: legal, military, the State, women, democracy, nuclear weapons, and values. Hill makes the distinction between the use of diplomacy by Islam and the Islamist (the fundamental variety). No surprises, to the Islamist a secular State is an “apostasy,” as is international law (Sharia being the single source), democracy and the rights of women.

    Hill concludes, “Islamic civilization entered the international system under duress,” which he believes has contributed to the current situation of failing states and lagging economies that establish conditions where radicalized Islam can flourish. The radicalized elements reject the secular Westphalian world order, however Hill points out that some in Islam insist that sharia imposed by the state “cannot be the true law of Islam. It is not possible to apply sharia through the state; it can only be applied through acceptance by human beings (An-Na’im).” Another alternative is the Medina polity established by the Prophet (“later called the Pact—kitab—of Medina) “guaranteeing each tribe the right to follow its own religion and customs, imposing on all citizens rules designed to keep the overall peace, establishing a legal process by which the tribes settled purely internal matters themselves and ceded to Muhammad the authority to settle intertribal disputes…Although this document has been called the first written constitution, it was really more of a multiparty treaty” (Ansary).

    Hill convincingly demonstrates that more often than not, rulers have co-opted Islam as a way to dominate the people (Iran comes to mind.). He quotes Professor L. Carl Brown of Princeton, “nothing exclusively “Islamic” about this Muslim attitude towards politics, any more than the politics of feudalism or of imperial Russia was distinctly “Christian.” It is the political legacy of Muslims, not the theology of Islam…”

    For the Islamist, secularism is the booger man, but secularism in the Westphalian order has its own set of problems. Hill writes, “A new phenomena arose: wars motivated by religious convictions were replaced by wars driven by ideologies—surrogates for religion—each aimed to oppose, undermine, destroy and replace the Westphalian system. The greatest of these was international communism, the latest is international Islamism.”

    In many respects, Trials is as good as Grand Strategies. Ambassador Hill is to be commended for his insight, courage, and conviction—this little book packs a big, enlightening punch. Strongest recommendation.

    References you may find of interest (links to quoted authors above are links to the respective reference):

    The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Abu Hamid Muhammed Al-Ghazali

    The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, Ali A. Allawi

    The Caliphate, Thomas W. Arnold

    Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism, John Calvert

    Crimea: The Last Crusade, Orlando Figes —Figes’ The Whisperers was very good.

    The Morality of Law, Lon L. Fuller

    The Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun (Translated Franz Rosenthal)

    The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making, Lydia H. Liu

    The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, Albert Lyber

    Byzantine Civilization and The Fall of Constantinople, both by Steven Runciman

    The First World War, Hew Strachan

    Mozart and the Enlightenment; Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas Nicholas Till

    Muslim Intellectual: A Study of Al-Ghazadi, W. Montgomery Watt

    Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno 



    I think of Cordoba

    Friday, January 21st, 2011

    [ by Charles Cameron ]


    I think of how the Mezquita, once a mosque, must have looked when its whole floor was a single, arched space of prayer:

    before Moorish Cordoba was conquered, and the conquerors built a cathedral in the very heart of the place:

    like the petals of a flower opening inside the sepals, or a cancer sprouting within the body – for so much depends on your understanding of prayer.


    And I think how lovely it still looks, cathedral nestled within mosque under the snow, to this photographer’s eye:


    And I think of Seymour Hersh, who has drawn flak for comments in a recent speech about the Bush war in Iraq, and Obama’s continuation of Bush policies – and here’s the part that caught my eye:

    “In the Cheney shop, the attitude was, ‘What’s this? What are they all worried about, the politicians and the press, they’re all worried about some looting? … Don’t they get it? We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. And when we get all the oil, nobody’s gonna give a damn.'”

    “That’s the attitude,” he continued. “We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. That’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command.”

    And I think then of the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, that was conquered and became a mosque:

    and is now a museum. So these things go, in times of war.


    As for the Mezquita, its history is more complex than I have suggested: it was first a pagan temple, then a Christian church, then shared between Muslims and Christians, then made into a mosque, then a church again – and the cathedral as we see it today was built during the Renaissance…

    And I think at last how much depends on lofty spaces, and on silence, and on prayer:

    Some New Additions…..

    Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

    To the ominously increasing antilibrary and the waning summer reading bookpiles:


    Counterinsurgency by David Kilcullen

    The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire by Edward Luttwak

    Spook Country by William Gibson

    Hope to start  a couple of these by the end of the month. A number of other books to be finished first.

    I have a new decentralized reading strategy that seems to be helping me wad through books faster. Books that I am reading are distributed to be read in different places – one in my gym bag for the treadmill; one in my car in case there’s time to kill at an appointment or at a restaurant; one or two books downstairs to read on the couch or outside on the deck; one to take to the pool with the kids and four of five on my bedstand. There are also a store of books on my iPad, “just in case”.

    The strategy allows me to concentrate on finishing several books – my “primary” reads – even as I steadily chip away at the rest and there are enough choices available to suit my mood on any given day so it doesn’t feel like I am doing a literary marathon. Books that I am focusing on, usually histories, strategic studies and social science works, I will mark up with marginalia and the others are just read without recourse to notation.

    How do you handle your reading time?

    Three Short Reviews

    Wednesday, August 26th, 2009


    Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson

    This classic popular text from 2001 still holds up well as an introduction into the phenomena of emergence and the nature of self-organizing systems. Johnsaon uses a rich array of analogies and historical anecdotes to bring the reader to an understanding how bottom-up, “blind”, systems work and the principles behind them. Highly readable and next to no jargon. Probably due soon for an updated edition though, given the scientific advances in research in network and complexity studies.

    How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy

    Superb overview of the decline and fall of Rome with a rejection of the traditional assertions of causations for the end of the Roman empire ( Barbarians, Christianity etc.). Goldsworthy also sharply criticizes the popular idea among postmodern classicists today that the Roman Empire was “really” as strong during the fourth and fifth centuries as it was during the golden age of philosopher-warrior-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Or that there was no fall of the empire at all, just a gentle “transformation” into something new. Goldsworthy discusses the likelihood of Late antquity  “paper legions” of Roman armies which, in any event, scarcely resembled in elan, tactics or fighting strength the ones that Julius Caesar wielded in Gaul.  A tour de force marred only by a weird epilogue that ranges from pedestrian to ( in it’s last sentences) truly awful – was it it tacked on as an afterthought? Did the editor of the rest of the book die before it was completed? Regardless, How Rome Fell is a worthy addition to an collection of popular ancient histories.

    The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

    A rare, nonfiction book by novelist and blogger Steven Pressfield. The War of Art is a book that I strongly recommend to aspiring writers ( which includes most bloggers) and other people pursuing dreams, not because it is brilliant but because it is profound. Utilizing select personal vignettes and other anecdotes, Pressfield distills in everyday language the essence of what creative people need to understand if they are to succeed – concepts of “resistance”, which seductively undermine your efforts,  and being a “professional”, which is the mindset that will get you there.

    Most of the readers of this blog are interested in military affairs to some extent so I will use this reference to explain why I read The War of Art from cover to cover. Pressfield captures the difference in what Col. John Boyd called the question of “To be or to do. Which way will you go?”.  By Boyd’s definition, Pressfield is a doer.

    Steven Pressfield blogs on The War of Art of writing every Wednesday.

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