[ by Charles Cameron — typology of intelligence failures, analytic blind spot, millennial movements, prophecy as strategy, abu Musab’s end times chronology ]
To tie in with the first part of this double-post, let me quote Aaron Zelin again:
I’ll back that up with Jean-Pierre Filiu‘s observation that in Abu-Musab al-Suri’s reading of jihadist history, “events lead on from one another toward the appearance of the Mahdi” — and that in Abu-Musab’s own words, “We shall be alive, then, when Allah’s order comes.”
I’ll give a brief account of the chronology below. Let’s get on with this.
I don’t believe that Richard Landes, my mentor at the Center for Millennial Studies, mentions Abu Musab al-Suri in his Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experiences (again as with Furnish, I could be wrong) — but if there’s a single book that will convince you of the enormity of our blind spot when it comes to taking millennial movements seriously, it’s this masterwork — simply stunning.
The thrust of his book is that millennial movements have been quite deliberately overlooked twice by the grand narratives of western civilization — first by religious writers who were embarrassed by the repeated cycle of enthusiasm followed by failure of end times prophecies and retroactively marginalized the topic, and more recently by…
secular historians, determined to push religion into the background of their story, [who] were hardly interested in highlighting religious phenomena that even the ecclesiastical historians considered ridiculous.
It is to undo the damage that this two-fold blindedness has caused us that Landes writes his remarkable book, covering in extraordinarily wide-ranging scholarly detail and with insight and wit, that current in human fear and hope he terms “the most protean belief in human history: millennialism.”
In other words, the “the most protean belief in human history” has been consistently disregarded for way too long by academics, pundits and experts.
Put that in the context of this trenchant paragraph from Richards Heuer‘s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, just recently quoted and indeed highlighted by Clint Watts and John E. Brennan in their paper Capturing the Potential of Outlier Ideas in the Intelligence Community:
Major intelligence failures are usually caused by failures of analysis, not failures of collection. Relevant information is discounted, misinterpreted, ignored, rejected, or overlooked because it fails to fit a prevailing mental model or mind-set.
Rejected and overlooked?
Even the Psalmist (118.22) knows the importance of what’s rejected:
The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
And just in passing, I’d argue that two of the seven “outlandish, unthinkable, and wholly anomalous” outliers that Watts & Brennan offer as bulleted examples in their paper — the Khomeini and bin Laden events — would have shown up rather more prominently had a subset of analysts been tasked to keep an eye on millenialist and / or specifically mahdist movements.
Very quickly, then, here are some of the recent reports regarding al-Suri from well-informed analysts which seem to pay little mind to the Mahdist strand in his strategic thinking:
Raff Pantucci‘s January 26, 2012 post Whither al Suri? focuses on the implications of al-Suri’s release and quotes Brynjar Lia — insightful, but no mention of Mahdism.
Aaron Zelin‘s February 3 Foreign Policy post on al-Suri’s release comes closest to mentioning an apocalyptic angle when he writes:
Additionally, his lore will grow in light of an alleged vision he had this past August, which was relayed by online jihadist Jundi Dawlat al-Islam (“Soldier of the Islamic State”), a member of the important Shamukh al-Islam Arabic Forum. “I have been informed that the Shaykh [Suri] saw in the past days a vision that he will have an important role in Bilad al-Sham (Syria), we ask Allah that it becomes true,” the jihadist wrote. Suri’s release will be seen as a vindication of that vision by his supporters, and no doubt boost his influence.
The significant role of Shams — “the apocalyptic theater par excellence” — in al-Suri’s narrative is something J-P Filiu emphasized (p. 189).
Bill Roggio‘s February 5 piece for Long War Journal is an excellent backgrounder as befits LWJ — but no mention of eschatological strategy there, either.
Jarret Brachman‘s February 6 Abu Musab al-Suri Still Matters Online at Chronus Global is a brief note, just a tip-off that al-Suri is still influential…
MEMRI‘s February 8, 2012 The Release of Top Al-Qaeda Military Strategist/Ideologue Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri from Syrian Prison – A Looming Threat makes no mention of al-Suri’s eschatological thinking, and neither does their more extensive report on al-Suri, Al-Qaeda Military Strategist Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri’s Teachings on Fourth-Generation Warfare (4GW), Individual Jihad and the Future of Al-Qaeda, to which their February 2012 post links.
And the Jamestown Foundation‘s Feb 10 piece by Murad Batal al-Shishani, Syria’s Surprising Release of Jihadi Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, in their Terrorism Monitor v 10 # 3 doesn’t mention the apocalyptic angle — and Jamestown is where I heard Ali A Allawi speak on Millenarianism, Mahdism and Terrorism: The Case of Iraq back in 2007!
Ah well, there’s always Zenpundit [vbg].
Okay, it looks to me as though we’re still so focused on the “nizam la tanzim / system not organization” and “lone wolf / leaderless resistance” aspects of al-Suri’s work, significant as they are, that it’s easy to overlook that damned ridiculous “end times” stuff the fellow also considers important, strategically speaking.
So for the record, here’s the chronology of future events as J-P Filiu recounts it:
Events will unfold in the following manner: “The Arabian Peninsula will be preserved [from harm] until the destruction of Armenia, Egypt will be preserved until the destruction of the [Arabian] peninsula, Kufa will be preserved until the destruction of Egypt, the city of impiety [mad?nat al-kufr] will be conquered only after the great wars, and the Antichrist will appear only after this conquest.” The concentrically expanding path of apocalyptic devastation will then close in upon Palestine, the sanctuary of Judeo- Crusader “impiety,” where the ultimate confrontation with the Byzantines will take place in and around the city of Acre.
Well, that’s part of it, but you should read Filiu’s pp 186-191 for a fuller account — and somebody, please send me a reliable translation of those last 100 pages of abu Musab’s Call if you have one!
Sadly, I don’t read or speak Arabic.
Okay, that’s it, I’ve shouted, or whispered or whatever.
The books at the top of this post are:
David Cook, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature
Timothy Furnish, Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden
Jean-Pierre Filiu, Apocalypse in Islam
Richard Landes, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience
All four are worthy of your consideration.