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

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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.

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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.

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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..

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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…

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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…

US Foreign Policy, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

The Obama administration, though they would not characterize it as such nor have much desire to acknowledge it at all, have attempted  a strategic detente with the “moderate” elements of political Islam.

This policy has not been entirely consistent; Syria, for example, is a quagmire the administration has wisely refrained from wading directly into despite the best efforts of R2P advocates to drag us there.  But more importantly, under President Obama the US supported the broad-based Arab Spring popular revolt against US ally, dictator Hosni Mubarak, and pushed the subsequent ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Libyan revolution against the entirely mad Colonel Gaddafi. These appear to be geopolitical “moves” upon which the Obama administration hopes to build.

I would like to emphasize that there is one legitimate and valid strategic pro to this sub rosa policy; namely, if everything went well, it would provide the United States with powerful triangulation against revolutionary, apocalyptic, radical Islamism as expressed by al Qaida and various Salafi extremist movements. There are reasons, rooted in takfirism, strategy and the politics of lunacy that our terrorist enemies frequently hate and revile the Brotherhood as traitors, apostates or whatever. Isolating the most actively dangerous and violent revolutionary enemies from a large mass of potential allies is, at least, a good strategic goal.

It is also my view, that this “outreach” is as politically sensitive  to the Obama administration as was the China Opening was to Nixon and about which they have been equally opaque and misleading for fear of a domestic backlash. The weird, foot-dragging, dissembling, embittered, kabuki drama inside the Beltway about public statements and intelligence on whether Benghazi was caused by obscure crackpot Islamophobic film makers or a well-orchestrated terrorist attack  is in my view due to a major foreign policy strategy never having been framed in public for what it is. I’m sure people will differ strongly with me on this (which is fine), but I would characterize detente with Islamists as a strategic shift on par with the “Pivot to Asia”.

The downside here is that first, things are not likely to come out well at all, as unfinished revolutions tend to give birth to monsters; and secondly, any detente with “moderate” political Islam is an uncertain gamble based on certain exceptionally optimistic conceptions of not only what the Brotherhood might do, but about it’s very nature.

While the removal of Arab dictators resonated with American values , it was questionable realpolitik while the administration’s de facto support of  Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faction over poorly organized secular liberal modernists was an act of realpolitik that required a compromise of the democratic values so recently invoked to justify abandoning Mubarak. This was cynical diplomatic flexibility worthy of Talleyrand.

Unfortunately, the most democratic thing – perhaps the only thing – about Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood supporters was his election.

The Egyptian people who are subjected now to thuggery from both Morsi’s Islamist stormtroopers and from the security forces of the Egyptian military are less sanguine than are the Brotherhood’s cheerleaders inside the administration. The Egyptian people, in fact, seem to be in revolt against domination by the Muslim Brotherhood’s shadow government.

The first question to ask in assessing if the Obama administration policy here is wise would be “What is the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood?” Americans love to personalize foreign policy, but if  Morsi were to be toppled or die, the Brotherhood will remain what it currently is, the best organized political force in Egypt and one widely influential throughout the Arab world and the West itself.

I am not an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, nor am I an Arabist by education. Most of us aren’t – a group that I fear includes most of the Obama administration officials involved in shaping this policy. Almost fifty years after King Faisal determined to export Wahhabism, more than thirty years since Khomeini’s Revolution and more than ten years since 9/11 the USG still has less in-house expertise related to Islam than it did about the Soviet Union and Communism a decade after the Berlin Blockade.

Perhaps we all should begin learning more?

Here is an analysis from FPRI; it is extremely critical but it touches on organizational aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood that I have not seen elsewhere (hat tip to David Ronfeldt). Feel free to suggest others, both for and against. The Brotherhood is a very large group with a long history that includes violence , terrorism and subversion on one hand and peacefully representing expressions of pious, middle-class, social conservatism in other places and times:

Lecture Transcript: What Every American Should Know about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Delivered by Eric Trager 

….Two years ago when I was doing my dissertation fieldwork in Cairo, I sought out interviews with leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I was referred to a man named Muhammad Morsi, now the President of Egypt. At the time, President Mubarak was ill and had gone off to Europe for operations amid a lot of mystery surrounding his health. I asked Muhammad Morsi whether the Muslim Brotherhood would run a presidential candidate if Mubarak died tomorrow. Here is what he said:

[From an audio file played by Trager]

Eric Trager: You don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood nominating a presidential candidate [if Mubarak dies tomorrow]?

Muhammad Morsi: No… because society is not ready… Our society is not ready yet to really defend its worth. We want a society to carry on its responsibilities, and we are part of this society. Another thing, if we are rushing things, then I don’t think that leads to a real stable position.

When he made that statement, I don’t think he was lying, and I don’t think he was being coy. I think that he didn’t expect that he would be faced with this reality in a mere six months. He did not expect that Mubarak would step down six months later and, to be completely honest with you, neither did I. My dissertation was entitled “Egypt: Durable Authoritarianism”—until the revolution.

What did Morsi mean when he said that the Brotherhood was trying to build a society? Let me give you some background on the Muslim Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, who was a schoolteacher in Ismailia. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal was then—and remains now—to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. The way it pursues this goal is by trying to Islamize Egyptian society. Through social services, education, and the mosque, it sought to make Egyptians more religious and more Islamic as a grassroots strategy for building an Islamic state. That’s very, very different from a strategy that says, “We’re going to run for president, run for the Parliament, and use that power to transform society.” Rather, the Brotherhood says, in effect, “We’re going to Islamize society to build towards power.” It was a long-term strategy; it took them 84 years before they ran for and won the presidency. So Morsi told me in 2010 that the Muslim Brotherhood was not going to run for the presidency because it was not done Islamizing Egyptian society….

Read the rest here.

The Controversial CTC Report

Friday, January 25th, 2013

The Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point released a report on domestic terrorism that raised hackles for a number of reasons. Despite the dismissals of liberal political pundits, the reasons for objections to the CTC report are legitimate but they did not need to arise in the first place and might have been avoided with a slightly different editorial approach or appropriate caveats (I just finished reading the report, which is primarily focused on the usual suspects). Here’s why I think the normally well-regarded CTC stumbled into a hornet’s nest:

First, in this foray into domestic terrorism analysis, the center chose to concentrate only on the threat of violence of the Far Right while ignoring other threats coming from the Far Left, infiltration by criminal insurgent networks from Mexico, notably the ultraviolent Zetas whose reach has stirred gang violence in Chicago and Islamist terrorism, either homegrown “lone wolves” or from foreign infiltration or subversion. In itself, this is understandable if the CTC plans a series of reports with a separate focus on different domestic threats; but without that context, it is a myopic analytic perspective, particularly given the demonstrated capabilities of various AQ affiliates or just south of the border, the criminal-insurgency of  the narco-cartels. Had all of these been addressed in one omnibus report, any complaints from conservatives were likely to have been muted or nonexistent. This is not to say that the radical American Far Right does not have a violent threat potential of it’s own worth studying; it does and it is real. But available evidence indicates it to be the least organized, least operationally active and least professionally competent in terms of terrorist “tradecraft” of the three.

The second and most problematic aspect of the report is an intellectually sloppy definition of a dangerous “antifederalist movement”  where noxious concepts like “white supremacy” and wacko conspiracy theories are casually associated with very mainstream conservative (or even traditionally bipartisan !) political ideas – coincidentally, some of the same ideas that contemporary “big government” liberal elites tend to find irritating, objectionable or critical of their preferred policies. Part of the equation here is that American politics are evolvng into a very bitterly partisan, “low trust” environment, but even on the merits of critical analysis,  these two passages are ill-considered and are largely responsible for most of the recent public criticism of the CTC:

….The antifederalist rationale is multifaceted, and includes the beliefs that the American political system and its proxies were hijacked by external forces interested in promoting a “New World Order” (NWO) in which the United States will be absorbed into the United Nations or another version of global government.  They also espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights.  Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government

….In contrast to the relatively long tradition of the white supremacy racist movement, the anti-federalist movement appeared in full force only in the early to mid-1990s, with the emergence of groups such as the  Militia of Montana and the Michigan Militia. Antifederalism is normally identified in the literature as the “Militia” or “Patriot” movement. Anti-federalist and anti-government sentiments were present in American society before the 1990s in diverse movements and ideological associations promoting anti-taxation, gun rights, survivalist  practices,and libertarian ideas 

This is taxonomic incoherence, or at least could have used some bright-line specifics ( like “Posse Commitatus” qualifying what was meant by “anti-taxation” activists) though in some cases, such as “libertarian ideas” and “civil activism”, I’m at a loss to know who or what violent actors they were implying, despite being fairly well informed on such matters.

By the standard used in the first paragraph, Glenn Greenwald, Ralph Nader and the ACLU would also be considered “far right antifederalists”. By the standards of the second, we might be in physical danger from Grover Norquist,  Congressman John Dingell and Penn Jillette. No one who opposed the recent increases in income tax rates, dislikes gun-control or thought the DOJ may have abused it’s power in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz or in their stubborn refusal to prosecute Bankster racketeering is likely to welcome a report under the auspices of West Point that juxtaposes such normal and perfectly valid American political beliefs with neo-Nazism. A move that is simply going to – and quite frankly, did – gratuitously irritate a large number of people, including many in the defense and national security communities who are a natural “customer base” for CTC reports.

As I said previously, this could easily have been completely avoided with more careful use of language, given that 99% the report has nothing to do with mainstream politics and is concerned with actors and orgs with often extensive track records of violence. As the CTC, despite it’s independence, is associated so strongly with an official U.S. Army institution, it needs to go the extra mile in explaining it’s analysis when examining domestic terrorism subjects that are or, appear to be, connected to perfectly legitimate participation in the political process. This is the case whether the subject is on the Left or Right – few activists on the Left, for example, have forgotten the days of COINTELPRO and are currently aggrieved by the activities of Project Vigilant.

I might make a few other criticisms of the report, such as the need for a better informed historical perspective, but that is hardly what the recent uproar was about.

Cross-grain thinking, 2: mapping the jihadist mind & AQ’s #3 spot

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — the different types of “leaders” should give us an idea of the different mental operations in play in the individual minds of the led, as well as the “mind” of the organization — plus fun ]
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credit for mind map aspect of composite image to valdis krebs

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Okay, I made my basic point here quite nicely in that little tag-line that gives you the brief overview of each of my posts right next to my name, so I’ll just repeat it here, very slightly amplified for focus:

The different types of “leaders” we identify in AQ should give us an idea of the different mental operations usually in play in the individual minds of jihadists, as well as within the “mind” of the organization itself.

I tried to show how cross-grain thinking in general, and thinking that includes both “subjective” and “objective” realities specifically, might play a considerable role in understanding some pressing contemporary issues in my recent post on Mozart — a figure so removed from those problems that some of you may have skipped it. Here’s my ending, with the Mozart details safely removed:

I think we should track that pattern, know as much as we can of that pattern, write the biography of the way in which some piece of music weaves between inspiration and thought, composer and instrument, mind and matter, performer and audience, studio and home digital music center…

Then, perhaps, we could begin to map other patterns – in some ways simpler and more urgent ones.

The sorts of “simpler and more urgent” patterns I was thinking of there include:

  • how discussions become deliberations and deliberations decisions
  • how scenarios are built and understood and sometimes poorly configured to our later detriment
  • how foreign policy plus feedback loops can create blowback and how to minimize it..

  • and specifically,

  • how the “jihadist” radicalization process moves from floating frustration and shame, via identification of a plausible “other” to rage against, to commitment, then via theology (!!) (for divine sanction of otherwise unpalatable acts) to the recognition of a binding moral obligation (fard ‘ayn in AQ terms) — and thence to camps for training in weaponry and the requirements and subtle limitations on Quranically sanctioned war…

  • **

    That last one has been an interest of mine, sitting in the back of my mind as an unanswered problem, quietly gathering data and forming insights for a while now, under a rubric along the lines of the question:

    Can we figure out a rough map of the workings of the “typical” mind of a potential jihadist as it radicalizes?

    It occurs to me that the leadership of an organization likely maps well to the organization’s functions, and those functions to the thought processes in which members are involved so a map of the aspects of leadership may well give us a rough draft of a mind-map for the individual member, including the passage from uninvolved observer to active participant: the process of radicalization.

    This may seem pretty obvious to some of you, but it’s a fresh idea for me, and to me it’s important because we already map communications networks and organizational flows, but the mind — the individual mind is one place we don’t seem to go.

    So I’m thinking in terms of sketching the mind of a “person” who is in some ways AQ as a whole, considered as if it were one sensate human-like being, filled with the usual variety of thoughts and emotions, ideals and pragmatisms, hopes and fears, hunches and hard data, clarities and confusions.. And I’m thinking of doing this by treating “leaders” as though they were distinct but coordinated processes in a single mind.

    We track and map people and their connections, we track and map groups and their connections, we track and map communications and their connections — are we tracking and mapping memes as such? ideas and their connections? minds?

    If we are already tracking ideas and minds — or if we aren’t doing that yet, but could — I’d be on the lookout for possible positive and negative feedback loops within the system, some that enhance the overall operation and could be disrupted, and some that fragment and damage it and could be amplified.

    So that, among other things, God willing, we could learn better ways to dampen some of the oscillations of hate…

    **

    I was looking at a comment in the recent ICSR report, Al-Qaeda at the Crossroads [h/t @azelin], and ran across this quote which struck me from an oblique angle:

    About ten core leaders have been subsequently killed, including Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, Abu Hafs al-Shahri, Samir Khan, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Abu Yahya al-Libi.

    Let’s take a look at these folk: Atiyah Abd al-Rahman was reported via Bill Roggio at Long War Journal as al Qaeda’s “operations chief” and a major planning a major attack on the US for the tenth anniverary of 9/11, as AQ’s “general manager” and bin Laden‘s “chief of staff”. Abu Hafs al-Shahri was another “operations chief”. Samir Khan was a publicist, the editor of the English-language magazine Inspire. Anwar al-Awlaki was a minor theologian with a talent for publicity and a decent understanding of his American audience…

    And as for Abu Yahya al-Libi, here’s an excerpt from an NYT piece about him:”I call him a man for all seasons for A.Q.,” said Jarret Brachman, a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency who is now research director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “He’s a warrior. He’s a poet. He’s a scholar. He’s a pundit. He’s a military commander. And he’s a very charismatic, young, brash rising star within A.Q., and I think he has become the heir apparent to Osama bin Laden in terms of taking over the entire global jihadist movement.”

    On that telling, al-Libi alone would be almost enough for my purposes — but let’s go with the whole list. The AQ mindset involves courage, poetry, scholarship, punditry and command and control. Specify that the scholarship needs to include theology (AQ at one point sent al-Libi to Mauretania for advanced Islamic studies) as well as strategy and guerrilla warfare (think Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who was well-read in Taber’s The War of the Flea, Chairman Mao, Che Guevara, and Vo Nguyen Giap), and the significant influences on the jihadist mind begin to swim into focus.

    **

    See, I’m nudging my way to something fairly close to the Lincoln mention in Fred Kaplan‘s Slate piece about Petraeus the other day:

    Toward the end of the war, as the senior planning aide to Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall, Lincoln realized that the Army needed to breed a new type of officer to help the nation meet its new global responsibilities in the postwar era. This new officer, he wrote to a colleague, should have “at least three heads—one political, one economic, and one military.” He took a demotion, from brigadier general to colonel, so he could return to West Point and create a curriculum “to improve the so-called Army mind” in just this way: a social science department, encouraging critical thinking, even occasionally dissent.

    How would we map these mental processes? How would we map the jihadist’s equivalent?

    **

    While I was fishing around for AQ leadership lists in search of an education, I ran across Robert Mackey‘s amusing piece on his NYT blog back in 2010, titled Eliminating Al Qaeda’s No. 3, Again, in which he mentioned as killed or captured claimants to the #3 spot Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, described as “a top financial chief for Al Qaeda” and quotes a colleague as saying “many of Mr. Yazid’s predecessors in Al Qaeda’s No. 3 slot” – from the Bush years alone, he lists Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Hamza Rabia and Saif al-Adel.

    Okay, we should definitely add “financial chief” to my list above.

    The humorist and the artist in me often lead the more serious analyst in me to insights I’d not otherwise have access to, and since I’m worrying away at the notion that analysis needs to feature both “interior” (mind, heart) and “external” (world) realities, I keep the artistry and humor in my analyses, and hope that makes them more rather than less accessible — so let’s run with the AQ#3 nonsense for a bit.

    Mackey’s is a slightly tongue in cheek treatment of a reasonably serious topic. On Twitter the humor gets more incisive, with Andy Borowitz claiming 9,000 AQ#3s have been killed, and AQ#3 in person setting up a twitter account and tweeting merrily away for a while, see the two sample tweets in this SPECS graphic:

    My sources for those two tweets were Bupbin and AlQaedaNumber3.

    To be honest, I find the AQ#3 business both irritating — since it shows how little depth our popular understanding of who we’re dealing with really has — and amusing — because it’s so very ripe for satire…

    **

    I’ve been working at this post so long I’m mentally cross-eyed, so feel free to fill me in or chew me out…


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