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ISIS: Paganism with an Islamic Face?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.”

– Leviticus 18:21 

“They rejected the commandments of the Lord … and served Baal. They consigned their sons and daughters to the fire”

– 2 Kings 17:16–17

“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin”

  – Qur’an 17:31

In a recent comment section conversation with Charles Cameron and RAND scholar David Ronfeldt on the character of Fascism and its resurgence, I remarked that ISIS adopting a Fascist style in its propaganda and governance may be drawing upon a ghastly and ancient lineage:

ISIS is really embracing Fascism. It’s ceremonial public executions actually supercede what the Nazis and Fascists did only symbolically with blood flags and heroic cenotaphs and so on. It is reaching back to something very dark and protean, human sacrifice, as a political symbol. I think [ Moshe] Halbertal’s book On Sacrifice, is a useful reference here on how deep this goes culturally, to the bronze age or earlier.

ISIS has for some time been making quite a perverse spectacle of its executions of prisoners, combatant and non-combatant alike, releasing videos to international fanfare and glorying in the resultant horror and global infamy. The precedent for this macabre “propaganda of the deed“was initially set by the forefather of ISIS, the Jordanian jailbird upjumped to “terrorist mastermind”, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who originally led al Qaida in Iraq during the American occupation of Iraq. Prior to expiring after U.S. forces dropped a 500 lb bomb on his head, al-Zarqawi pioneered the use of  beheading videos, usually featuring himself being filmed incompetently and gruesomely sawing off an orange jumpsuit-clad captive’s head with a large knife, blood spraying everywhere.

Zarqawi’s ghoulish innovation in terrorist messaging admittedly held a certain fascination for the psychopathic segment of Sunni Islamist extremists and it attracted foreign fighters of this nature to Iraq who in turn lionized Zarqawi as “the Sheikh of Slaughterers”; but the beheading videos also generally horrified public opinion in the Muslim world and repelled even hardened jihadis, earning Zarqawi a rebuke from al Qaida number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri:

….Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable – also- are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

….However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma. And that however far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan that is waging war on us. And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don’t need this. 

Zarqawi’s Iraqi bloodlust ended only because it was interrupted by the American military, but the leaders of ISIS have carried on. Far from accepting Zawahiri’s advice, they have doubled down, greatly upgrading the marketing of ritualistic murder from Zarqawi’s crude snuff films to slick videos with professional editing and high production values that have become central to the online “brand” of the ISIS “caliphate”. Like the hosts of a sinister game show, ISIS spokesmen have found the time to murder creatively in order to keep their audience of Islamist terrorist wannabes in the West tuned in and captivate the attention of the global media (though sometimes, things do not work  out as planned).


However effective this circus of horrors has been at daunting their enemies and attracting the allegiance of “zealous young men” to ISIS, it reveals an atavistic impulse at play that no amount of Quranic hand-waving can paper over and conceal. Jurisprudence is absent here; not even the grim and rough Islamic “justice” of the Taliban is given to prisoners of ISIS, which violates the customary protections given under Islamic law or historical Muslim judicial practices. These choreographed and sensationalized executions by ISIS are really a cryptic revival of the ancient and terrible practice of human sacrifice, that in most cultures and religions had long been replaced by symbolic ritual, but once reigned supreme during the Bronze Age, not least in ancient Iraq, which if new findings are to be believed was like Aztec Mexico, a charnel-house of slaughter.

Originating in the Stone Age, human sacrifice in the religious sense of an offering to the gods or God, lasted a surprisingly long time. Setting aside the preColumbian cultures of the New World, the ancient Romans, for example, did not formally outlaw human sacrifice until the first century BC, though the practice had become archaic and Rome vigorously sought to stamp it out among the Gauls and Britons, among whom human sacrifice was an accepted part of Druidic religion. Nor was human sacifice entirely unknown among the ancient Greeks of the classical period while child sacrifice was probably central to Carthaginian state rites to such a degree that other peoples of the time, including the Romans, found abhorrent.

What occurred in many cases is that as civilizations evolved in social complexity, substitutionary practices for human sacrifice developed that served the same impulse, to propitiate and honor their God(s) and create powerful emotional bonds among the participants:  animal sacrifice, burial ceremoniesmysteries, religious ritual, necromancy, symbolism in theater and political matters of state religion. The Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac is itself a scriptural admonition to the ancient Hebrews to adopt animal sacrifice as most pleasing to God, a practice the Israelites and Jews of the classical period continued until the destruction of the second temple by the Roman general Titus. From that point on, from the close of the first century AD, Jews and the early, still Judaic, Christians moved away from the practice of animal sacrifice and substituted prayer and theology of salvation, respectively. Sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, became a distinguishing mark of paganism and the subject of Christian crusades in the middle-ages, like the brutal war waged by the Teutonic Knights against the human sacrificing Old Prussians and Lithuanian barbarian tribes.

The Binding of Isaac

The end of late medieval European religious warfare and the rise of the Westphalian system after the Thirty Year’s War slowly shifted the symbolic moral center of sacrifice from God to the State, with divine right monarchy serving as a waystation for the incubation of modern nationalism. There was an epistemic shift, as Halbertal argues in On Sacrifice from a sacred and mystical “sacrificing to” the sovereign God borrowed from the examples of Jewish martyrdom by early Christians who shared in the Romans the same persecutors. This shift opened the gates of permissible sacrifices, legitimating a new secular and political “sacrificing for” the glory of the State.

It is a profound difference but occurring within the same phenomena, as illustrated by two quotes:

…And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And the Lord said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

                                                                              – Genesis 22:2


….But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

     – Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg and Antietam were not Mount Moriah. Neither were the Somme or Stalingrad the same as the Tophet. From time of the Patriarch Abraham to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, nations of men ceased to sacrifice usually helpless others but moved to sacrifice themselves in what they reckoned as the highest cause. Movement away from human sacrifice as practiced by ancient Carthaginian or animal sacrifice as practiced by most peoples of antiquity, including the Jews, to gentler substitutionary practices, Moshe Halbertal has called the “cataclysmic shift” in the history of civilization.

If so, it is a shift that ISIS has begun to reverse.

In their outstanding ISIS: The State of Terror, counterterrorism scholars Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger analyze the dark obsession ISIS has demonstrated in its propaganda messaging with exquisitely orchestrated executions:

….As we have noted, ISIS’s psychological warfare is directed at its potential victims. But it is also directed at those it aims to control. It is deliberately attempting to blunt its follower’s empathy by forcing them to participate in or observe acts of brutality. Over time, this can lead to secondary psychopathy, or a desire to harm others, and contagion of violence. Beheadings are one such tool for blunting empathy.

Berger and Stern are likely correct that the methodical character of ISIS demonstrations of brutality are intended to desensitize the participants and (as they further explained) a tendency to cultivate secondary psychopathology in ISIS recruits, especially the young. A similar process occurred during the Holocaust with Nazi Einsatzgruppen and reserve unit police battalions detailed to assist the SS mobile killing squads on the Eastern front. Many serving in these units, already fanatical National Socialists, became inured to the suffering of women, children and the old who were shot and dumped still alive into mass graves, though some SS men showed signs of PTSD, depression and higher rates of severe alcoholism, desertion and suicide.

The comparison between the genocidal cruelty of the SS and ISIS, while natural, is limited by a very important distinction. However zealous their ideological fanaticism and dedicated in their murderous mission to exterminate European Jewry, the SS lacked the context of moral certainty and the psychological reinforcement effects of religious exaltation enjoyed by ISIS killers. Even the malevolent Heinrich Himmler, in his secret speech to Nazi gauleiters and SS leaders, regarded the Final Solution as a terrible burden that the SS shouldered on behalf of the Fuhrer to assure Germany’s future; a “glorious” crime that Himmler believed must be kept forever hidden from history and the German people.

Not so ISIS, which revels in its bloody terror. Worse, the repetition of garish executions as public celebrations by ISIS, with a vague but constant religious context, devoid of any shred of Islamic legality, inevitably acquire over time the theological characteristics of Halbertal’s “sacrificing to”  – what began as harsh jihadi jurisprudence and psychological warfare mutated under conditions of lazy, sociopathic brutality and totemic invocations of Islam into ritual “offering” by ISIS of its prisoners of war as human sacrifices in the manner of the ancient pagans. A perverse blasphemy, but one that draws on a powerful archetype deeply buried in the human psyche.

ISIS leaders have not only looked into the Abyss, they have descended into and become one with it.

Intellectuals and their Romance with Political Barbarism

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Martin Heidegger, Eric Hobsbawm and Ezra Pound

A  meandering post inspired by Reason Magazine and Charles Cameron.

Reason.com is best known for giving a scrappy libertarian take on current events, crime, technology and pop culture, but recently, an article by Charles Paul Freund touched a deeper, darker vein of twentieth century history and, in my view, a problematic recurring pattern in intellectual life:

Hunger for Fascism

Al Pacino has withdrawn from a Danish stage version of Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger, after learning that the Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author had been an ardent supporter of Nazi Germany. The move dismayed some of Hamsun’s defenders, but it’s also a reminder of the appalling state of intellectual life during the rise of fascism. So many writers and thinkers embraced fascism in those years that they constituted what came to be called a “fascist foreign legion.”

Hunger (1890) is considered a classic of psychological literature, and Hamsun himself is regarded by many critics and writers as one of the fathers of literary Modernism, and an important influence on such writers as Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and many others. In a 1987 introduction to Hunger, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.”

[….] Hamsun’s fascism was hardly a byproduct of hardening of the arteries. He lived for a time in the 1880s in the U.S., and came to dislike the country for its egalitarian principles, and because it had a large black population (even though that population wasn’t benefitting much from the egalitarianism). His 1918 novel, Growth of the Soil, is a pretty good example of “blood and soil” lit. John Carey, a British critic, cites a passage from Hamsun’s Kareno trilogy of dramas, written in the 1890s, as indicative of his outlook:

“I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.”

Hamsun, who gave his Nobel to Hitler as a mark of his esteem, remained faithful to the fascist cause to the bitter end. Hamsun’s most-often quoted words come from the brief eulogy for Hitler that he published in a collaborationist newspaper in May 1945, a week after the Fuehrer died.

[….] George Orwell wrote in 1946 that, “The relationship between fascism and the literary intelligentsia badly needs investigating, and [William Butler] Yeats might well be the starting point.” Such investigations have since been written, of course, and they include the expected chapters on Yeats as well as others on D.H. Lawrence (The Plumed Serpent may be the clearest example of Lawrence’s fascism), T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis (who at this point is probably as well known for his fascism as for anything else he did).

What was the appeal of fascism to such people? It wasn’t just that many of them were racists and/or anti-Semites (though that didn’t hurt); plenty of authors have been racists without embracing totalitarian systems. The underlying issue for many of these figures, according to investigations by John R. Harrison and by John Carey, was an antipathy to democracy.

“Many twentieth-century writers,” wrote John R. Harrison in The Reactionaries: A study of the anti-democratic intelligentsia (1966), “have decided that culture has been sacrificed to democracy; the spread of culture has meant that the level of the masses is raised, but that the level of the elite is lowered.” As for writers like Pound, Yeats, and others, “they realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes.”[….]

Read the whole thing here.

The dark romance of intellectuals with Fascism died in 1945. Their bloody affair with Communism has dwindled significantly, but lingers in some quarters still.

Why though was 20th century totalitarianism so attractive to the West’s leading thinkers, artists and writers? After all, once you got past the snazzy uniforms, the trains running on time and land for the peasants, the overt reveling in barbarism and cruelty by Fascists and Communists was hard to miss – and if you missed it, the Nazis gave choreographed tours of concentration camps and the Soviets held show trials right in the face of world media. Very little of the bloodbath was hidden, except to the willingly blind, who tended to most often be well educated and otherwise thoughtful people yet found ways to morally rationalize collaboration and fellow traveling.

There are, in my view, a number of reasons. These tended to differ somewhat depending on whether the intellectual in question gravitated more to fascism or communism, but even here there is a significant, muddling, psychological, overlap between the two. So much so, that Fascism’s creator cut his political teeth as a firey socialist agitator and as thuggish a Nazi leader as Ernst Rohm could boast of his admiration for his Communist enemies’ “idealism” and street fighting courage. Indeed, in training his stormtroopers, Rohm remarked that ex-communists made the best SA men.

The first person to offer a coherent explanation of the individuals drawn to fascism was the German-Jewish journalist Konrad Heiden. In Der Fuehrer,  Heiden’s groundbreaking 1944 political biography of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement, referred to two categories of potential adherents : “Armed Bohemians” and the “Armed Intellectuals”.  The former were the freebooting roughnecks and men of habitual violence who were always restless and ill at ease in civilized society. Men like Ernst Rohm, who found in totalitarian movements a political cause to justify themselves. These men do not concern us here.

The latter group are also ill at ease in established society. The armed intellectuals are the born critics, gadflies, dreamers, autodidacts, bar-room philosophers, self-styled poets and no small number of crackpots and cranks; what these quarrelsome eccentrics lacked in muscle or raw courage, they more than made up for in the blizzard of half-baked ideas and skill at words which they employed with maniacal zeal.  Heiden’s taxonomy was mirrored a few years later by Eric Hoffer in the groups Hoffer called “practical men of action” and the “fanatics” in his classic, The True Believer The armed intellectuals were seldom noteworthy as intellectual heavyweights – men like Alfred Rosenberg and Grigory Zinoviev were third-rate minds, or worse – but they excelled at propagating ideas and simplifying them in the fashion required to build and sustain a mass movement; ideas as war banners or flags of political tribalism rather than as part of a coherent system of thought.  Or as Ortega y Gasset wrote at the time of the fascists and radicals “….ideas are in effect, nothing more than appetites in words, something like musical romanzas.”

Yet, as Charles Paul Freund indicates, totalitarianism attracted as supporters and admirers not just intellectual crackpots like Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckhart or Trofim Lysenko, but genuinely substantive men of letters, art and science. Many of these did not officially become “party comrades”, though some like philosophers Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt did, most were content to wield their pens as admirers, fellow travelers, enthusiastic supporters and public apologists. Being intellectuals, they were of course entranced by ideas – on the Right, the totemic, mythic, reactionary idolatry and the volkisch ur-narratives of messianic nationalism (much of which was the mummery of fools). Neither Hitler nor Mussolini were innovators here; the bombastic poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s grandiose adventurism in Fiume, for example, presaged much of Fascist Italy’s swaggering Il Duce and his bullying blackshirts. On the left, by the intoxicating prospect of revolutionary “justice” and being on the “right side of history”, which could allegedly be explained with “scientific laws” of dialectical materialism. It was all rubbish but it was politically potent rubbish.

There were also material rewards – the Third Reich and the Soviet Union liked to lavish medals, Stalin Prizes and various emoluments on its foreign sycophants, while intellectuals who were particularly active minions, like Heidegger and Maxim Gorky, were given public honors by their respective regimes. This did not always work out well, however. Unlike Heidegger, who outlived the destruction of his Reich in 1945 to embrace and be embraced by the deconstructionist and postmodernist European left, Gorky was likely murdered by his master, an age-old risk for courtiers of tyrants. While the rewards and awards were highly esteemed, see Paul Robeson’s  pathetic, groveling, gratitude for his Stalin Prize, the primary driver of slavish loyalty was always political. Too many intellectuals in that era were fascinated with totalitarian power, accepted cruelty as strength and despised liberal democracy and individualism, unless if it was individualism as heroic symbolism for some kind of impending vanguard  – square-jawed, blond SS men, muscular Stakhanovite workers brandishing sledgehammers and so on. The barbarism of these regimes the intellectuals either ignored, explained away or embraced.

This longwinded preface brings me to a question that Charles Cameron asked me in regard to the article in Reason:

“I notice that quote about how many early 20C intellectuals “realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes” and wonder how you see it corresponding with current thoughts which view the dismantling of the Gaddafi, Hussein, and Mubarak regimes as enabling the rise of AQI > ISIS > IS?”

This is a great question.

The regimes of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi shared some similarities, notably official secularism and modernization, but they also had some important ideological and structural differences. Saddam’s regime and Mubrak’s Egypt were rooted in pan-Arab nationalism, a regional anti-imperialist movement the built in fervor from the 20’s and peaked in the late fifties with the personality cult of Nasserism and a characteristic that was shared initially in the early years of Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, who idolized Nasser and for a time, hoped to inherit his mantle. All of the regimes were secular, modernizing, anti-monarchical, anti-imperialist and “socialist” in a nationalist style more suggestive of Hitler and Mussolini than Marx and Lenin. Saddam’s Iraq, furthermore, was like Syria,  Baathist in its pan-Arabism and its founding generation of activists like Michel Aflaq, were directly influenced in by the European totalitarian parties of the 1930’s Left and Right and the extremist movements of the French Third Republic .

Colonel Gaddafi, who came to power in a coup in 1969, was somewhat different ideologically and probably psychologically. Initially a pan-Arab Nasserite, Gaddafi soon went his own way, drifting toward Third World revolutionary terrorism, a muddled Islamic Libyan utopianism based on a personality cult and finally as a pan-African interventionist given to bizarre and unpredictable behavior. Fearing coups, Gaddafi deliberately weakened and hollowed out the Libyan state, including the military, weakening them institutionally, relying upon competing revolutionary committees, militias, secret police agencies and the like run by members of his extended family until the entire structure was more or less entirely dependent upon Gaddafi’s personal whims. By contrast, Nasser, Mubarak and Saddam Hussein were centralizers who built states centered on the military and security services and a government dominated economy that did not tolerate political rivals. Saddam in particular, took this tendency to an extreme in a conscious imitation of Stalin and Iraq had up until the first Gulf War, a complex bureaucratic state, albeit one dominated by a Baath Party run by the al-Tikriti clan (Saddam’s rule slid more toward Gaddafi’s in practice as postwar decay and sanctions eroded the efficiency of Iraq’s government and arbitrary terror and corruption increasingly were used to prop up the regime)

These dictators, whether hostile to the West (Saddam, Gaddafi) or friendly (Mubarak) lacked the advantage of having a western, fellow-traveling, amen chorus of influential intellectuals as the Fascist and Communist tyrants once enjoyed.  Serious intellectuals and public figures had made pilgrimages to Moscow, Berlin and Rome; no one was going to play John Reed to Muammar Gadaffi’s Lenin or Saddam and say their ramshackle future “worked”. So, when Western leaders, especially the American President, decided it might be good for these regimes to go, the only westerners to defend them in the court of public opinion were those already regarded as minor nuisances, political cranks and buffoons. Furthermore, rather than being viewed as linchpins of stability against radical Islamism, many western politicians and intellectuals of the neoconservative and liberal internationalist variety saw these dictatorships as a cause of radical Islam’s growth at best, or complicit with groups like al Qaida in promoting international terrorism at worst.  Unfortunately, while both Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi had a long and bloody history of funding terrorism, mainly of the radical Palestinian nationalist variety, neither were much interested in helping al Qaida or radical Salafis; Gaddafi  in fact, was fairly busy imprisoning and torturing them on a regular basis, as did the more restrained military backed dictatorship of the Egyptians during most of its existence (the brief period of tolerating Islamism, under Anwar Sadat, resulted in Sadat being assassinated by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which later merged with al Qaida. The Egyptian military did not tolerate them again until coerced into it by the Arab Spring and pressure from the Obama administration).

These police state regimes of the Arab world also played an indirect role in the rise of AQIISIS in the sense that their savage repression of all other political alternatives, especially democratic and liberal ones, created a vacuum in civil society that radical Islamism in all its manifestations could fill. This was not unlike the dynamic of Indochina where Ho’s  Communists were greatly helped by the French first brutally suppressing the right wing Vietnamese nationalists in the 1930’s and then Diem’s regime wiping out all the other potential rivals to the Viet Cong in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, leaving the Communists as the voice of political opposition.  The security services of most Arab states, not just Saddam’s or Gaddafi’s, were efficient enough that no real political opposition existed anywhere outside of the mosque from Oman to Morocco, except on sufferance.  These states also played a passive theological role as foils in shaping decades of jihadi discourse at home, in prison, in exile and online regarding the ruler’s “apostasy”, their strategic priority as ” the Near Enemy” and the Islamic legitimacy of supporting or rejecting peaceful, democratic politics as a tool of struggle. During the course of the years of debates, as in secular revolutionary movements, there was a “ratcheting effect” in Islamist discourse towards progressively more radical, more militant and ever more takfirikhawairijte mythologizing tendencies that glorified barbaric violence, all of which was seen clearly in early 1990’s Algeria even before the rise of the Taliban [An important caveat: it is dubious that  liberal or democratic regimes would have changed the radicalization curve for Islamists much as these too would have been regarded as apostasy by Salafi militants, though there might have possibly been fewer of them, at least outside of Egypt].

With the Arab police states having cleared a space internally for Islamism to dominate underground political discourse the removal of the regimes themselves by American invasion, popular uprising abetted by foreign air support or foreign pressure did eventually enable the rise of ISIS. As much as the cruelty and corruption of the dictators drove their dissatisfied countrymen toward political Islam, they also had means to intimidate, contain or punish those who stepped too far out of line with great severity. No one doubted the ruthlessness of the Assads, Saddam’s willingness to employ terror or the Mad Colonel’s paranoid vindictiveness and when the surety of coercion and retribution disappeared, so too did the restraints on the freedom of action of Islamist radicals. American power was not a substitute for a fearsome native strongman. In the eyes of our enemies we were erratic and soft; capable of miraculous  military feats of devastation if sufficiently provoked, but usually culturally clueless where or when to use our power or against whom, often leaving allies in the lurch or ignoring them spitting in our faces. Instead of fearing the Americans the way they had feared Saddam, the worst jihadis like Zarqawi were emboldened to unleash the kind of medieval barbarism in Iraq that foreshadowed ISIS.

What alarms me regarding ISIS is that it is theologically a radical-apocalyptic Islamist movement blending insurgency, terrorism and conventional warfare that is also reviving the secular pageantry of Fascism with its grandiose mythmaking, blood rituals, compelling uniforms, Fuhrerprinzip and war-worship. It is an unholy combination that exudes a dark romanticism, a glamour of evil that rootless young Muslim men – a new generation of “armed bohemians” and “armed intellectuals” – find mesmerizing the way young Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Japanese did decades ago. Worse, while we may rightly laugh at the mummery of a dime store “Caliphate” and Islamists cribbing their P.R. style from Triumph of the Will, their success in manipulating deep cultural avatars as the key to power will inspire imitators in barbarism elsewhere that we can ill afford.

Fascism is dead – but it may not stay that way.



Saturday, May 9th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

This important and terrifying book should be read by everyone who cares about the future of human civilization.” Anatol Lieven

Warlords, inc. ; Black Markets, Broken States and the Rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, Edited by Noah Raford and Andrew Trabulsi

Warlords, inc. a book to which I have contributed a chapter, is being launched today at The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco. Published by Penguin-Random House, Warlords, inc. was the brainchild of Dr. Noah Raford, who recruited an impressive group of experts, journalists, scholars and futurists to analyze and anticipate emergent security trends and irregular warfare among non-state actors, including terrorists, hackers, insurgents, sectarians and corporations.  With a foreword by Dr. Robert J. Bunker, the list of authors include:

William Barnes
Daniel Biro
James Bosworth
Nils Gilman
Jesse Goldhammer
Daniel S. Gressang
Vinay Gupta
Paul Hilder
Graham Leicester
Sam Logan
Noah Raford
Tuesday Reitano
Mark Safranski
John P. Sullivan
Peter Taylor
Hardin Tibbs
Andrew Trabulsi
Shlok Vaidya
Steven Weber

As editor, Andrew Trabulsi did a heroic job herding cats in editing this substantial volume and keeping all of the authors and project on track and on time. Warlords, inc. is available May 12 on Amazon and will be at Barnes & Noble and Target as well. Excited and proud to be part of this endeavor!

Moral Degeneration in the Crucible of War

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013


The recent post on Is 4GW Dead? stirred a great deal of interest, so I would like to extend the discussion on a point that that is critical not only for those who have responsibility for conducting military campaigns, but for statecraft and policy as well.

One of more important tenets of 4GW was the importance of “the moral level of war”, drawn from Colonel John Boyd’s thinking on the strategic impact of a combatant’s behavior, immoral  or exemplary, on all observers – belligerents, civilian noncombatants, neutral third parties, the media, the combatant’s own soldiers and citizens back home. Here is Boyd:

Morally our adversaries isolate themselves when they visibly improve their well being to the detriment of others (allies, the uncommitted), by violating codes of conduct or behavior patterns that they profess to uphold or others expect them to uphold.

· Morally we interact with others by avoiding mismatches between what we say we are what we are and the world we have to deal with, as well as by abiding by those other cultural codes or standards we are expected to uphold.

In a Reader’s Digest version of Boyd,  heroic, noble and magnanimous  behavior is admirable and attractive while hypocrisy, cruelty and cowardice are repulsive and antagonizing characteristics. While the former won’t guarantee your victory and the latter, unfortunately, won’t ensure your defeat, they will be a significant factor in ameliorating or generating friction.  The impression given by an army impacts the will of the enemy to fight, the morale and discipline of the soldiers, the restiveness of the civilians, the loyalty of allies and the goodwill of neighbors.

Boyd developed his thinking about the moral level of war in Patterns of Conflict  all the way up to grand strategy and above. The rub about the moral level  is that war is a crucible that puts every “cultural code” or “standard” to the test, as well as the character of the men fighting it and their leaders upon whom great responsibility rests.  Even with the best of intentions in policy and careful generalship in the field, the horrors of war can erode moral fiber and military discipline in an army, in a company or in the heart of one man. Nor does every army begin with good intentions and effective discipline – some fighting forces are scarcely to be regarded as “armies” at all while others embrace the darkness as a matter of policy.

In terms of warfare, let us define “moral degeneration” as a degraded state of moral decline where a belligerent has effectively abandoned the operational and tactical restraints on conduct mandated by the Laws of War (i.e. war crimes are SOP) and in some instances, the vestiges of civilization.

A textbook example of this kind of moral degeneration came to light a few weeks ago when a jihadi lunatic in Syria, a rebel commander Khalid al-Hamad, who goes by the name of “Abu Sakkar”, cut out the heart of a (presumably) dead government soldier and ate it on video. Charles Cameron expounded at length upon this minor atrocity here. I am not, to say the least, a fan of radical, revolutionary, transnational Sunni Islamism but I cannot honestly say that its proponents like Abul Mawdudi , Sayid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and their ilk ever openly advocated cannibalism. It is much more likely that Mr. al-Hamad’s behavior is explained by the ferocity of the civil war in Syria eroding customary norms of the combatants than  it is by Islamist ideology.

Moral degeneration in war seems to spring from two directions:

a) As a calculated act of Policy, from the top down, enforced by the leadership by military discipline and bureaucratic control.

b) As a spontaneous reaction by soldiers or fighters, appearing from the bottom up, without orders and frequently, in spite of them, possibly due to a breakdown in the chain of command, an erosion of discipline or sheer mutiny for the age-old purpose of reprisal, pillage and rapine.

The first category often occur with war as a convenient cover rather than a cause of grave crimes against humanity that leaders and  ideologues had long wished to carry out. The Armenian Genocide, as John Keegan wrote, belongs properly to the history of Ottoman imperial policy than it did WWI; in truth, the Genocide was the greatest and worst in a long succession of vicious pogroms that the Ottomans had launched against their Armenian Christian subjects during the reign of Abdul Hamid and the Young Turks. The Holocaust (which had some inspiration in Hitler’s mind, from the fate of the Armenians) was more closely tied to the evolution of  Nazi war policy but once Operation Barbarossa opened up the vast spaces of Soviet Eurasia, “the East” in Nazi parlance, the war itself increasingly took a backseat to expediting Hitler and Himmler’s ghastly and murderous racial priorities. This is a pattern of a priori planning, an escalating ideological radicalization of society that tends to be present with most of the large scale democides and genocides. It is the organizational powers of  coercion utilized by the state, or a mobilized faction of , it that makes the enormous scale of death possible, not the war.

What is different and also dangerous about moral degeneration from the bottom-up, is that it is cultural evolution driven by the psychological effects of extreme violence at work and, unlike an act of policy, more likely to be diffused widely across society as a permanent change for the worse. Too many German soldiers in WWI, former peasants and artisans and boys from middle-class families, returned from the Western Front morally coarsened and addicted to the adrenalin rush of combat and became in succession Freikorps paramilitaries, Communist streetfighters, Nazi Stormtroopers and SS men. The World War also gave Russia the men of the Cheka, the Red terror and the first Gulags on the Bolshevik Left and brutal and mad warlords on the White Right.

In more recent two decades, the break-up of Yugoslavia unleashed atavistic passions of ethnic hatred and atrocity, while organized society in Western African states and central Africa broke down entirely in transnational regional civil wars with unrestrained massacres and mass rape. As a result, there is little that is political but much that is primeval, at this juncture, to explain Joseph Kony’s motivations; he resembles nothing so much as a 21st century Kurtz. Mexico too is degenerating from the escalating violence of cartel insurgency and narco-cultas – there is not much tactical or strategic value in pagan death cults or human sacrifice but it is spreading:

…Our impression is that what is now taking place in Mexico has for some time gone way beyond secular and criminal (economic) activities as defined by traditional organized crime studies.3 In fact, the intensity of change may indeed be increasing. Not only have de facto politicalelements come to the fore-i.e., when a cartel takes over an entire city or town, they have no choice but to take over political functions formerly administered by the local government- but social (narcocultura) and religious/spiritual (narcocultos) characteristics are now making themselves more pronounced. What we are likely witnessing is Mexican society starting to not only unravel but to go to war with itself. The bonds and relationships that hold that society together are fraying, unraveling, and, in some instances, the polarity is reversing itself with trust being replaced by mistrust and suspicion. Traditional Mexican values and competing criminal value systems are engaged in a brutal contest over the ?hearts, minds, and souls‘ of its citizens in a street-by-street, block-by-block, and city-by-city war over the future social and political organization of Mexico. Environmental modification is taking place in some urban centers and rural outposts as deviant norms replace traditional ones and the younger generation fully accepts a criminal value system as their baseline of behavior because they have known no other. The continuing incidents of ever increasing barbarism-some would call this a manifestation of evil even if secularly motivated-and the growing popularity of a death cult are but two examples of this clash of values. Additionally, the early rise of what appears to be cartel holy warriors may now also be taking place. While extreme barbarism, death cults, and possibly now holy warriors found in the Mexican cartel wars are still somewhat the exception rather than the rule, each of these trends is extremely alarming, and will be touched upon in turn.

The crucible of war either tempers a people or it breaks them.

Manhunt: Radicalization, & comprehending the full impact of dreams

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — how do you intercept messages that come via dreams? I’m thinking of al-Balawi ]

My little graphic (below) may be kidding — but what of reality?


In the bin Laden documentary, Manhunt, which I mentioned before seeing it here, and discussed briefly here, another passage (at 1.22.31) that is missing from the CNN transcript concerns the dream which radicalized Humam al-Balawi, the Khost bomber. Balawi speaks, the subtitles translate for us:

God blessed me to have this dream. I dreamed I saw Zarqawi. He was in my house. His face was like a full moon. He was busy. Preparing an attack. I wishes I could fight with him. Be killed with him. I am your humble brother from Jordan. I am 32 years old and a medical doctor.

I’m not suggesting there was no prior fertilization of Balawi’s mind and heart, nor that he was influenced by no other drivers: I just wonder what the impact of such a dream would be, given that intense smuggling goes on between our waking and dream lives, of a kind that no intercepts can capture for analysis.


How powerful can influence can a dream exert?

Consider this example, taken from Marie-Lousie von Franz, On Dreams & Death: A Jungian Interpretation, p. 64:

She sees a candle lit on the window sill of the hospital room and finds that the candle suddenly goes out. Fear and anxiety ensue as the darkness envelops her. Fear and anxiety ensue as the darkness envelops her. Then, the candle re-lights on the other side of the window and she awakens. She died the same day.


If I may borrow a bit from some unpublished writings of mine…

Dreams as early indicators:

The western secular paradigm considers dreams to be of little or no significance, and it is therefore entirely possible that intelligence gleaned from the recounting of dreams will seem of little interest to western analysts. In the Islamic view, however, certain dreams are of considered to be of real significance, their importance being indicated by the hadith reported by Bukhari:

Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: Allah’s Apostle said, “The worst lie is that a person claims to have seen a dream which he has not seen.”

— Sahih Bukhari, book 87: Interpretation of Dreams, #167.

One early indicator of a Mahdist tendency in a given population, therefore, would be the presence of dreams about the Mahdi in a given discourse — in jihadist chat rooms, for instance — while the frequency of such mentions would be a useful heuristic measure of the development of such a movement. Thus Yaroslav Trofimov reports [Siege of Mecca, hb. p.50.] that in the run-up to the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque and Ka’aba in Mecca, many followers of Juhayman al-Otaibi, the leader of the raid, dreamed dreams:

Then, one after another, hundreds of Juhayman’s supporters experienced detailed, vivid dreams. Mohammed Abdullah’s sister appears to have been the first, quickly followed by others. In their sleep, they all had the same vision: Mohammed Abdullah standing by the sacred Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, accepting allegiance as the blessed Mahdi amid multitudes of believers. Militants from as far away as Lebanon who never encountered Mohammed Abdullah in person claimed to have had the same dream.

It is worth noting here that while, as Trofimov suggests, much of the dreaming “must have been caused by self-suggestion” this in no way invalidates their significance as indicators. Indeed, Reuven Paz writes of the mediaeval scholar Ibn Sirrin‘s still-popular Interpretation of Dreams that “high selling rates of this book can provide us an indicator for rising apocalyptic notions”. Paz also notes a “sizable number” of jihadis publishing their dreams and visions on Jihadist forums on the web [p.4..

Dream narration of this sort certainly corresponds to hikayat as discussed by Michael Vlahos in his essay Terror’s Mask: Insurgency Within Islam — still one of the most necessary pieces I have read on al-Qaeda..


Closer to home, in one sense, than the siege of the Grand Mosque, is the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. This too had its dream precursors, as we can tell from the video transcript of bin Laden‘s taped meeting of mid-November 2001:

UBL: He [Abu-Al-Hasan Al-Masri] told me a year ago: “I saw in a dream, we were playing a soccer game against the Americans. When our team showed up in the field, they were all pilots!” He said: “So I wondered if that was a soccer game or a pilot game? Our players were pilots.” He didn’t know anything about the operation until he heard it on the radio. He said the game went on and we defeated them. That was a good omen for us.

Shaykh: May Allah be blessed.

Unidentified Man: Abd Al Rahman Al-Ghamri said he saw a vision, before the operation, a plane crashed into a tall building. He knew nothing about it.

Shaykh: May Allah be blessed!

and notably:

UBL: We were at a camp of one of the brother’s guards in Qandahar. This brother belonged to the majority of the group. He came close and told me that he saw, in a dream, a tall building in America, and in the same dream he saw Mukhtar teaching them how to play karate. At that point, I was worried that maybe the secret would be revealed if everyone starts seeing it in their dream. So I closed the subject. I told him if he sees another dream, not to tell anybody, because people will be upset with him.

(Another person’s voice can be heard recounting his dream about two planes hitting a big building).

For your in-depth reading pleasure, see Iain R. Edgar, The Inspirational Night Dream in the Motivation and Justification of Jihad if you can get past the paywall…


Vlahos quotes Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, on this point — I’ll present my own version of that quote here, because it describes a mindset that, mutatis mutandis, many of our opponents share to this day:

It was commonly held, in all cultures before the modern age, that dreams and visions could open a door into a world other than that of senses. They might bring messages from God; they might disclose a hidden dimension of a person’s own soul; they might come from jinns or devils. The desire to unravel the meaning of dreams must have been widespread, and was generally regarded as legitimate; dreams told us something which it was important to know.

Dreams are “outside the box” of waking reality — and we need to learn to appreciate the force of dream logic, if we want to think outside our own western prejudices, and inside our adversaries’ heads…

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