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When the promise of the miraculous is disappointed

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — the role of promise and illusion in recruitment, disappointment and disillusion in CVE ]
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Here’s an example of promise and disillusionment from the early Afghan jihad: upper quote below from Abdullah Azzam, lower quote from Mustafa Hamid.

SPEC DQ miracles azzam & hamid

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It seems that disappointed hopes are and/or should be a major focus in countering violent extremism, ie places where the jihadist recruitment “narrarive” fails when it comes in contact with ground reality. Because a caliphate that is losing ground is no caliphate. Because a caliphate that diverges from its own ideals and standards is no caliphate. Because the food is terrible, or battle turns out to be more real than bargained for:

[ order of these two NYT paragraphs reversed here at Zenpundit ]

During nearly a year in contact with New York Times reporters, Abu Khadija expressed gradually growing discontent. His grievances ranged from relatively mundane issues like eating canned food and being deployed to a front line far from his family because of a lack of fighters, to discomfort with the group’s strategic priorities and its extreme violence.

“I can’t eat, I feel I want to throw up, I hate myself,” he said, adding that the executioners had argued over who would wield the knives and finally settled the issue by lottery. “Honestly, I will never do it. I can kill a man in battle, but I can’t cut a human being’s head with a knife or a sword.”

Jessica Stern makes a similar point on NPR:

I think that we need to hear a lot more from people who leave ISIS – somebody who says, gosh, I joined. I thought I was going to be making the world a better place, and it turned out that it really wasn’t what I imagined, that there were atrocities that I didn’t want to be involved in. There are people who are saying that. We need to amplify those messages.

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The quote in the upper panel of the DoubleQuote above comes from Azzam’s collection, The Signs of Ar-Rahmaan in the Jihad of Afghanistan. There are many miracles (both mujizat and karamat) described there. Among them, one of the most interesting to me concerns the Miraj and al-Aqsa mosque:

Informing the people of the details of Baitul Maqdis after the night of Me’raaj.

Rasulullah sallAllaahu alayhi wa sallam said: When the people denied (the Me’raaj), Allaah Ta’ala revealed the Baitul Maqdis to me and I informed the people of its details whilst looking at it.”

The Miraj was the prophet’s night journey to the Noble Sanctuary / Temple Mount (Bait al-Maqdis) in Jerusalem, from whence he ascended the heavens and was given the instructions for Muslim prayer. The Noble Sanctuary was Islam’s first Qibla or direction of focus in prayer.

The quote in the lower panel above comes from Mustafa Hamid in his forthcoming book with Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan. In it, Hamid illustrates both the spiritual aspirations and disappointed hopes at play in that earlier jihad.

I have discussed Azzam’s and others’ descriptions of miracles previously in such posts as Of war and miracle: the poetics, spirituality and narratives of jihad, Azzam illustrates Levi-Strauss on Mythologiques, and Gaidi Mtaani, the greater scheme of things. Such stories are profoundly moving to those who are open to believing them.

In Mustafa Hamid’s words, we see the equal and opposite influence unleashed when such stories, offered as promises in recruitment, prove unsubstantiated by reality.

A hat-tip to Myra MacDonald, who pointed me to this quote.

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Side note:

Students of comparative religion may find the following paragraphs, quoted in the Azzam compilation from the Deobandi scholar Ashraf Ali Thanwi of interest:

Karaamaat and Mu’jizah do not occur by a person’s design — that whenever the Nabi or Wali wishes he can execute such an act. Such acts only occur when Allaah Ta’ala in His Infinite Wisdom wishes to exhibit the act. It then occurs whether a person desires it or not.]

A karaamah does not indicate that the person performing such an act is better than others. In fact, sometimes the karaamah decreases his status in the sight of Allaah, due to fame and vanity entering his heart. It was for this reason that many of the pious personalities used to make istighfaar (seek forgiveness) when a karaamah would manifest itself at their hands, just as they would make istighfaar when sins are committed

The statement “It then occurs whether a person desires it or not” reminds me, for instance, of the tale told of St Teresa of Avila, friend and colleague of St John of the Cross:

Legend tells it that as Teresa was in the choir singing among her sisters one day, she began to levitate. When the other nuns started to whisper and point, Teresa lowered her gaze and realized that she had risen several inches above the stone floor. “Put me down!” she demanded of God. And he did.

There’s a deeper truth hidden in St Teresa’s request, I suspect: grace is not taken, it is given.

Two new “must read” books

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — Hamid & Farrall, Stern & Berger, full reviews coming up shortly ]
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Farrall & Berger

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I recently received a review copy of Mustafa Hamid & Leah Farrall‘s breakthrough book, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, courtesy of the publisher, Michael Dwyer of Hurst, and will be writing it up once I’ve finished devouring it:

A former senior mujahidin figure and an ex-counter-terrorism analyst cooperating to write a book on the history and legacy of Arab-Afghan fighters in Afghanistan is a remarkable and improbable undertaking. Yet this is what Mustafa Hamid, aka Abu Walid al-Masri, and Leah Farrall have achieved with the publication of their ground-breaking work.

The result of thousands of hours of discussions over several years, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan offers significant new insights into the history of many of today’s militant Salafi groups and movements.

Huzzah!

An almost unbelievable and very welcome collaboration.

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And:

Huzzah!

Jessica Stern is terrific, while JM Berger is not only one of our ablest analysts, but also a good friend. This book will be an eye-opener.

A very brief brief on black banners

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — wherein black flag patches run riot ]
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Just a quick something I gleaned via Leah Farrall‘s recent blog post:

Abu Bakr on IS and JaN flags

That’s the gist of an excerpt I transcribed from an Aussie Insight video last year, which featured host Jenny Brockie and the gentleman depicted, one Abu Bakr. Bakr was arrested just before Christmas and charged with “possession of documents designed to facilitate a terrorist attack”. The exchange went like this:

Jenny Brockie: I see you’re wearing the ISIS flag on your shirt

Abu Bakr: It doesn’t really come down to what sort of flag because this flag, here, people might say you’re a supporter of Jabhat al-Nusra, and this flag here, people might say you’re a supporter of ISIS, but these flags are all one, they’re all the same flag, one Muslim nation and that’s it.

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It’s great to see you back and blogging, Leah —

Arabs at War

— and we’re keenly awaiting the arrival of your book!

Recruitment, poetry and tears

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — Hegghammer on testing and trusting as precursors to AQ recuitment ]
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I’ve been having trouble finding any of the anasheed Ibn Siqilli was posting on his site, many of which have been taken down — but this one, found in a comment of his on Leah Farrall‘s site, has somehow survived:

Craftsmanship in search of emotion, in service to the jihad.

Thomas Hegghammer has a fascinating article out titled The recruiter’s dilemma: Signalling and rebel recruitment tactics from which I’ll only tease you with the bits of special interest to me, viz those that speak to religion (roughly, scripture and ritual), and culture (narrative, music and poetry).

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First, matters clearly involving religious piety and its expressions:

At the same time, personal piety at the time of recruitment was certainly a necessary condition for joining. Failure to observe any of the basic rituals or engaging in sinful behaviour – by skipping prayers, smoking, or watching Hollywood films – would have constituted a very negative sign. Moreover, even at the far end of the piety spectrum there were small signs that distinguished the extremely pious from the very pious. These signs were not in material objects such as clothes, but rather in body language and habits. QAP martyrdom biographies would highlight the piety of some but not of others, which suggests some variation. Judging from texts and videos, the behaviours that were appreciated included reading the Qur’an at every available spare moment, weeping while reciting the Qur’an, frequent minor pilgrimages (umra) to Mecca, efforts to acquire religious knowledge, etc. However, to observe these signs, recruiters needed to already be in direct contact with the recruit.

Piety, however, was not enough. Recruiters would also need to see signs of ideological commitment of a more political nature, in particular approval of violent activism.

Particularly interesting to me here is the sentence, These signs were not in material objects such as clothes, but rather in body language and habits.

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And then, culture…

To find out whether a person had really been abroad for jihad, recruiters would solicit signs of jihad experience, either by engaging the recruit in conversation, or if in a larger group, steer the conversation toward the topic of foreign jihad fronts. They would presumably look for displays of three types of knowledge, the combination of which would be very hard to acquire for a person who had not been to any of the major battlefronts.

The first was knowledge of people, places and events specific to the conflict in which the recruit claimed to have taken part. [ more … ]

The second type of distinctive knowledge was weapons expertise. [ more … ]

The third type was familiarity with ‘jihad culture’, a set of peculiar practices and artistic expressions that emerged in the Arab Afghan community in the 1980s and developed in subsequent jihad fronts. One important component was anashid, battle hymns sung a capella during training and socializing. A similar component was poetry. Arab fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya would continuously compose new poems and recite them in the camps. Veterans would be familiar with at least part of this material and would share it during social gatherings in the kingdom. Yet another aspect of jihad culture was the telling of war stories from the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors. While some of these stories were part of the basic religious education of most Saudis, it required extra effort to learn many or all of them, and to be able to cite them verbatim, as custom required. In the training camps and the trenches, such stories were told all the time (Nasiri, 2006), so jihad veterans typically knew many more such stories than the average Saudi.

Of course, non-veterans could acquire some of this knowledge if they wanted to, but to mimic jihad experience, impostors would need to emit large and consistent clusters of correct signs – a considerable challenge.

I’m reminded of Abdullah Azzam‘s book The signs of Ar-Rahmaan in the Jihad of Afghanistan, which I quoted in an earlier post Of war and miracle: the poetics, spirituality and narratives of jihad.

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Here’s how bad we are at learning the local mores of the various war zones we keep dropping in on, in the words of FPRI’s Adam Garfinkle, in Mali: Understanding the Chessboard, posted recently:

As the article says, when the Tuareg rebellion in Mali gained steam after the denouement of the Libya caper, greatly stimulated by the return of heavily armed Tuareg brethren from that fight, these three Tuareg commanders defected to the rebels, bringing soldiers, vehicles, ammunition and more to the anti-government side. Anyone who was surprised by this is at the very least a terminal ignoramus. And anyone in the U.S. military who failed to understand the ethnic composition of the country’s politico-military cleavages, such that he let U.S. Special Forces training be lavished on Tuareg commanders, was clearly insufficiently trained to do his job. And believe me, that’s about as nice a way to put that as I can summon.

How do things like this (still) happen, after what we should have learned from years of dealing with Iraqis and Afghans and others on their home turf? I happen to know someone who teaches in the U.S. military education system, and this person happens to be a field-experienced Harvard Ph.D. in anthropology. This person tries very hard to clear away the thick fog created by the innocent Enlightenment universalism that pervades the American mind—the toxic fog that tries to convince us that all people, everywhere, are basically the same, have the same value hierarchies, the same habits of moral and tactical judgment, and mean the same things by roughly comparable translated words.

Now imagine how good we’d be at infiltration, getting the anasheed, poetry and stories right…

Games of telephone and counter-telephone?

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — embassy or consulate — a minor detail for an editor, perhaps, but all the difference in the world for Ambassador J Christopher Stevens ]
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Here’s a screen grab of a piece posted on the Atlantic site today:


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The article itself is worth your time, and I’ll get back to the screen grab later. Here’s the text para that interests me:

In the famous “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US” Presidential Daily Brief of August 6, 2001, one of the major analytic points was that “Al-Qa’ida members — including some who are US citizens — have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks” (emphasis added). Notice that this analysis uses two hedges in a single sentence. Given the lack of certainty on the issue, such linguistic dodging made sense — as it does in report after report where individuals are discussing information below the level of actionable intelligence.

Leah Farrall has been tweeting about the way this characteristically cautious phrasing used by analysts gets lost as “the higher up the food chain an analytical report goes the greater the tendency for bosses in [the] food chain to add their two cents worth” — so that by the time it reaches the politicians, “there is absolutely WMD.”

The shift from “apparently” to “absolutely” is an interesting one.

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The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate featured a section on the nomenclature of such distinctions, which I trust and imagine was directed more at its readers than towards the analysts who produced it:

What We Mean When We Say: An Explanation of Estimative Language

When we use words such as “we judge” or “we assess”—terms we use synonymously — as well as “we estimate,” “likely” or “indicate,” we are trying to convey an analytical assessment or judgment. These assessments, which are based on incomplete or at times fragmentary information are not a fact, proof, or knowledge. Some analytical judgments are based directly on collected information; others rest on previous judgments, which serve as building blocks. In either type of judgment, we do not have “evidence” that shows something to be a fact or that definitively links two items or issues.

Intelligence judgments pertaining to likelihood are intended to reflect the Community’s sense of the probability of a development or event. Assigning precise numerical ratings to such judgments would imply more rigor than we intend. The chart below provides a rough idea of the relationship of terms to each other.

We do not intend the term “unlikely” to imply an event will not happen. We use “probably” and “likely” to indicate there is a greater than even chance. We use words such as “we cannot dismiss,” “we cannot rule out,” and “we cannot discount” to reflect an unlikely—or even remote—event whose consequences are such it warrants mentioning. Words such as “may be” and “suggest” are used to reflect situations in which we are unable to assess the likelihood generally because relevant information is nonexistent, sketchy, or fragmented.

In addition to using words within a judgment to convey degrees of likelihood, we also ascribe “high,” “moderate,” or “low” confidence levels based on the scope and quality of information supporting our judgments.

• “High confidence” generally indicates our judgments are based on high-quality information and/or the nature of the issue makes it possible to render a solid judgment.
• “Moderate confidence” generally means the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views, or the information is credible and plausible but not corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence.
• “Low confidence” generally means the information is scant, questionable, or very fragmented and it is difficult to make solid analytic inferences, or we have significant concerns or problems with the sources.

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You could think of these as counter-telephone measures — attempts to avoid the distortions and corruptions that tend to arise when a message is passed from one person to another, And that’s important a fortiori when an ascending food-chain of transmitters may wish (or be persuaded) to formulate a message that will assure them the favorable attention of their superiors — but also because the higher the report goes, the closer it gets to decision-time..

As the Atlantic article says, this kind of “linguistic dodging” (aka attention to nuance) makes sense “in report after report where individuals are discussing information below the level of actionable intelligence.”

Inevitably there’s a shift in tempo between contemplation and action.

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Anyway, messages tend to get distorted as they’re passed along.

Consider, for instance, the caption to the photograph that graces the Atlantic piece at the top of this post:

The U.S Embassy in Benghazi burns following an attack in September. (Reuters)

There’s only one problem there. The US didn’t have an Embassy in Benghazi — they had a Consulate — and that’s not a distinction that lacks a consequence. Whatever else may be the case, Ambassador Stevens would certainly have been better guarded had he been back in Tripoli in his embassy.

Whoever wrote that caption wasn’t as deeply immersed in the situation as the former CIA analyst who write the article. And when you’re not deeply immersed, it is perilously easy to get minor but important details wrong.


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