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Sunday, January 15th, 2006


Myke Cole, an analyst at CACI and one of the more interesting and thoughtful up and coming writers on security policy, has a noteworthy article on terrorism profiling in On Point:

The Taxonomic Obsession: Profiling as a 4GW Tactic” by Myke Cole

Cole argues that the standard counterintelligence practice of profiling for al Qaida or Islamist terrorists based on a model that represents Salafi-Jihadi characterisics is a serious and potentially dangerous error given what we know about 4GW opponents like al Qaida. The evolutionary adaptability of such loosely organized, networked opponents makes, in Cole’s view, the use of standard profiling tactics an effort in self-imposed blindness. ( Dan of tdaxp, in his review, offers a counterpoint).

On the evolutionary margin – where operatives for the next catastrophic terrorist attack are likely to be found – Cole is in my view quite correct. Not only for Muslims who do not fit the Arab Salafi-Jihadi profile such as Western converts, SEA nationalities, Women, Black Africans or Bosnian Slavs but those terrorists who are non-muslims altogether. Future strategic partnerships at the operational level between radical Islamists and Neo-Nazi racial extremist groups in Europe and the United States ( who often express admiration for al Qaida) or the radical Left should not be preemptively ruled out, as slavishly adhering to profiling would have us do.

On the other hand, the inchoate nature of the Salafist-Jihadi demographic means that the itinerant, amateur, self-trained, Islamist terrorist who acts out from inspiration gathered largely from the internet or the downtrodden immigrant who becomes radicalized in the ghetto mosques will fall largely into the standard profile. We need to watch the mediocre quintiles of the terrorist bell curve as well as for the superior ones.

I would like to highlight Cole’s perceptive observation though, because the implications run deeper than just profiling:

The western cultural tendency to rely on taxonomy to classify everything it encounters, from cuisine to terrorists, greatly weakens our position to combat the threat.

… The western desire to fit things into neat boxes works against us as we attempt to gain an understanding of how terror groups organize command and control. 4GW theory, supported by our experiences in and , enforces the idea that the sub and transnational opponents we face today operate in cellular fashion; loose networks that move independently guided mostly by an understanding of the overarching strategic goal.

Given this understanding, it seems odd that we attempt to impart a corporate, hierarchical structure to terrorist organizations from the outside. Confused by the fact that they do not function as we do, we attempt to picture them functioning as we do anyway, and the result is debilitating to our national counterterrorism effort.”


As difficult as it is to step into another man’s shoes it is impossible if you begin your thought experiment with a visualization of the other man wearing one’s own boots. What appears to be a logical potential move for your opponent from your perspective is not the most probable course of action if you are ignoring the opponent’s internal logic. Our national security bureaucracy needed almost two decades after the end of WWII to get a reasonably nuanced, accurate and widespread ” rough sketch” comprehension of the Soviet strategic decision-making process. I hate to say this, but our understanding of the internal dynamics of Islamist terrorism stands at a point equivalent not to 1949 but to 1917.

Our governmental experts and linguists are too few and are generally not of a background that emphasizes experience gained from long cultural immersion but knowledge gained from a point of scholarly removal of the most reductionist, compartmentalized, vertical thinking kind. As a result, expertise in Islamism at the higher reaches of the IC is not only relatively scarce but most likely to suffer from the blindness of “Educated Incapacity” and a lack of imagination. Our taxonomic, model-based, extrapolative, thinking process is a legacy of Aristotle, Bacon, Descartes and Newton and has been a tremendous boon to the West. In terms of mental efficiency, specialization, accumulation of knowledge and creative invention it is a robustly dynamic culture of cognition but it has a few drawbacks.

First, we Westerners tend to naturally underrate interconnectivity and are psychologically intolerant of paradox and ambiguity. Secondly, while much of the world has been forced to adapt this Western cognitive model in science, commerce, diplomacy and so on, it does not mean that ” the other” naturally thinks in such a way as to arrive at similar perceptions of events, much less to the same conclusions, that we do. Abandoning our accustomed cultural thinking patterns, in order to emulate a foreign ones for the purposes of analysis, is an exceedingly difficult enterprise.

Yet, it must be done.

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