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Leah Farrall posts on culling elephants and AQ

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — Abu Yahya al-Libi, targeted killings, impact on terrorism ]


My (ex, late, respected) father-in-law Donald Atwell-Zoll co-wrote the book on Managing Elephants, so I suppose you could say it’s a matter of family interest. In any case, I thought these were pretty neat opening paras from an LA Times article a while back, with a dateline from S Africa:

Some teenagers are raising hell in the untamed bush here, tormenting the wild animals and giving tourists a terrible fright.

Such rowdiness may sound typical for adolescents, except these delinquents are running amok in one of South Africa’s most popular game reserves. They have killed rhinos. They have charged cars of safari-goers. And to make matters worse, they are elephant-sized — well, to be precise, they are elephants.

That’s the problem, here’s what they figured out:

“There appears to be a discipline problem among the young elephant bulls,” said Douw Grobler, veterinarian at Kruger National Park, where many of the elephants at Pilanesberg once lived. “There is a missing link in the elephant population at Pilanesberg. There is a need for the presence of adult elephant bulls. They act as the disciplinarians.”

Okay, got that? Let’s get down to business.


Today my twitterfeed briefly buzzed with speculation that Abu Yahya al-Libi had been targeted and killed in a drone strike. The tweets were pleasantly sprinkled with humor — but when the talk got serious, sometimes enthusiasm got the better of caution.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, level-headed as usual, was among those to make it clear that the initial reports — including an anonymous US official confirmation — of al-Libi’s deaths came with no guarantee of accuracy. But he also noted his willingness to rethink his picture of the overall continuing strength of AQ if al-Libi does in fact turn out to have been killed. With, say, confirmation from an official AQ media channel.

Aby Yahya al-Libi is certainly a significant figure in AQ, as Jarret Brachman‘s many posts and Foreign Policy piece on the man attest. His one sentence summary:

If true, a cataclysmic blow to the future of al-Qaida’s General Command.

But it was Leah Farrall who (IMO) got the bigger picture. And in doing so, she was reminded of those young elephants going on the rampage, and the “need for the presence of adult elephant bulls” to calm them down and give them some discipline.

From Leah’s blog entry, Some quick thoughts on reports Abu Yahya al-Libi has been killed, then:

First, I’ll believe it when al Qaeda acknowledges it.

This of course won’t stop the chest beating celebrating his killing.

And if he has in fact been killed, I wonder if those who think this is a victory (and those supporting the strategy of extrajudicial killings more generally) have given ample thought to the fact that he along with others who have been assassinated were actually a moderating force within a far more virulent current that has taken hold in the milieu. And yes, given his teachings I do note a certain irony in this, but sadly, it’s true.

What is coming next is a generation whose ideological positions are more virulent and who owing to the removal of older figures with clout, are less likely to be amenable to restraining their actions. And contrary to popular belief, actions have been restrained. Attacks have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately. Just take a look at AQ’s history and its documents and this is blatantly clear.

Leah continues — I’ve made only a minor cut between paras here —

I’m working on a more detailed, research driven piece on this. But in the meantime, the best way of summing up the consequences of a strategy of killing off leadership instead of using a criminal justice approach lies with what happened in a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa many years ago.

A culling program was implemented to kill off all the older generation elephants owing to overcrowding. Juveniles were spared. However, without the presence of the older elephants they then proceeded to go on rampages, killing other animals and causing such havoc that the rangers thought they’d have to cull them too. Until that is, someone chanced upon the idea of bringing in older elephants from another wildlife park, who ended up bringing the juveniles into line and enforcing discipline, something that had been missing since the cull of the older generation.

Right now you’re probably scoffing at this. Scoff away, because this example has come up time and time again in conversations I’ve had with folks who know this milieu very well because they’ve lived in it. Along with it has been concern expressed for the future, for what will happen when authoritative voices who can restrain the actions of those left and, importantly, those newer folks still seeking to join the cause, no longer exist. When indiscriminate becomes the norm.

So before anyone goes off celebrating another “number” in the death count, it is worthwhile remembering there will be consequences from this short sighted and reactionary path chosen to deal with threat…


It’s not hard to find evidence of that “moderating force within a far more virulent current” that Leah mentions.

From West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center alone, we’ve had the recent Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? with bin Laden expressing displeasure at Faisal Shahzad having broken his citizenship oath in attempting to attack the United States, and warning Yemeni leaders against using Americans who have taken the oath in that way.

Even more recently, in her comments on Fadil Harun’s memoirs, Beware of Imitators: Al-Qa`ida through the Lens of its Confidential Secretary, Nelly Lahoud discusses what she calls “a jus in bello-like framework devised by [AQ’s] Legal Committee”, noting:

The spirit driving Harun’s manuscript is the desire to produce a corrective history of al-Qa`ida distinguishing it from jihadi groups acting in its name. He believed that unlike al-Qa`ida, many jihadi groups have deviated from the true path of jihad. In his opinion they lack a sound ideological worldview and many of their operations, particularly those which involved resorting to “tatarrus” (i.e., the use of non-combatants as human shields), are in breach of what he deems to be “lawful jihad.” He therefore decided “to write about al-Qa`ida… to make clear to everyone the sincerity and uprightness of its path with respect to jihad and other religious, worldly and political issues.”

and further:

it is evident that Harun’s sentiments were not isolated. The internal communication between a number of well-known al-Qa`ida figures [gathered at Abbottabad and recently released to CTC] indicate that they too were alarmed by the conduct of regional jihadi groups and their indiscriminate attacks against civilians. Bin Ladin in particular was distressed by their conduct and, like Harun, was dismayed by their irresponsible understanding of “tatarrus,” which led to the unnecessary deaths of civilians and tainted the reputation of the jihadis.

So there you have it: the older bull elephants don’t like the undisciplined ways of the youngsters…

And what do we do? We cull the ones who are calling for restraint…


How does Leah conclude her analysis? You’ll remember she said, “there will be consequences from this short sighted and reactionary path”? Here are her almost-final words — and whether you agree fully with her analysis or not, they are words to be considered seriously by those rethinking strategy and making policy decisions:

These consequences will not play out in areas where extrajudicial killings take place, but in indiscriminate attacks in capital cities in the west. I wonder then how those who advocate the current policy plan to deal with this and the implications it will pose for the social contract.

Introducing myself to ETHOS

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — games and complexity, Joseph Kony, think tanks, need for a new analytic institution ]

I just introduced myself to the Ethos Network — their motto: Collaboration, Trust, Moderation — a group of mainly UK-based mil, biz & creativ types a good friend pointed me to, partly responding to an earlier conversation about Kony on their platform, partly laying out my own interests…

And with a suggestion thrown in there that we could really use a new analytic setup of some sort, a point I’ll return to.

Here, then, is my introduction as posted there:



A few words of introduction are probably in order, before I dive in…

You might say I live at the intersection of complexity and games, and work at the intersection of religion and violence.


My interest in complexity comes from a sense that the problems facing us contains many diverse and conflicting tensions to be resolved in some sort of continuous, shifting balance, and that we as humans face them with a complexity of our own, the complexity of our individual tensions, preferences, desires, interrests, hopes, fears, assumptions, resistances and so forth.  

So both within each one of us, and in groups, we have a situation where many points of view, many voices should if possible be heard, taken into account, adjusted for.

As social beings, we need to let the voices of other stakeholders, other constituencies, other points of view be heard, so that we can move towards win-win balances — I won’t call them solutions — wherever possible.

As humans, we need to let some of our own quieter, slower, deeper voices emerge — and that’s the purpose of inward listening, meditation, taking a break, the Sabbath, sleeping on it, relaxing, reverie — to bring out some of the voices that add insight, to give the aha! time to develop and space to show itself…

And in both cases, it’s the voices that go unheard, the parts of the web of tension unattended to, which can come back and bite us.

So… two things.  

One:  I am interested in developing ways to map conversations that are many voiced — literally “polyphonic” — such that, as with the music of Bach and Handel (and hey, Dylan and the Band), multiple voices can be heard at once, held in a shifting tension, with conflict arising and moving into resolution as they do when Glenn Gould plays Bach or Eric Clapton jams with Billy Preston…  I have games I’ve designed that do this…

Two: I am interested in what we’re not paying attention to, to our blind spots, to the undertows of our own and other cultures, to the stuff we easily dismiss.

Which brings me to…


I am specifically interested in the contribution of religion, of religious emotion, to contemporary violence.

Religious violence is obviously not the only aspect of violence — but materiel is easier to quantify than morale, and all too often we miss religious signals in others (and in those on our own side) which turn out to have been powerful drivers of conflict.

Joseph Kony is the example of “religious violence” that I’ve seen mentioned here, and given my interest in jihad — I’d been tracking jihadist groups since before the turn of the millennium — he popped up on my screen and claimed some real estate in my attention in May 2005, when I downloaded DFID Media Fellow Maya Deighton’s report in the then-DFID journal, Developments, in which she wrote:

The rebels’ leader is a religious fanatic called Joseph Kony, who hides out for most of the time in southern Sudan.

Kony manages to combine a heady blend of occultism, born-again Christianity, and most recently, a much-proclaimed conversion to Islam, with his campaign of terror and child abduction.

At about the same time, I dowloaded a Chalcedon Foundation file containing Lee Duigon’s piece, “Uganda’s War with ‘the Devil’” — Chalcedon is the late “dominionist” theologian Roussas John Rushdoony’s outfit, and preaches the imposition of the full Old Testament law of Moses, stoning of adulterers included, in the United States (and ultimately the world) — hence my interest.

In any case, it would have been Kony’s “much-proclaimed conversion to Islam” that likely caught my interest in Deighton’s article, and it may well have been Duignon’s piece that first brought Kony to my attention. 

I have tried to keep a wary eye out for news of Kony and the LRA ever since, and for my own purposes, the most informative materials that I have run across in the interim are the notes taken by LTC Richard Skow, published by the New York Times in December 2010.

I have blogged at least twice on Kony, once after Rush Limbaugh, an American media presence on the right, described Kony and the LRA approvingly as “Christians … fighting the Muslims”, and the other time to note (among other things) Kony’s connection with Alice Lakwena.

But Kony’s not the point, and indeed Kony’s wider context, with its multiple drivers in terms of resources, warlords, moral issues, the whole shebang, isn’t the point either.

The point is that I work a seam that’s very little noticed by western analysts, and that runs through the heart of pretty much every insurgency and terrorist movement in recent memory.

The LTTE, for what it’s worth, included.


Al-Qaida’s the prime example of course — but when Omam Hammami’s made his video presentation just last week, how many people noticed that he defined jihad as an act of worship?  And who had an inkling of what that meant?

That was the topic of my most recent blog-post on Zenpundit, but it’s just the most recent instance of a trend that’s both significant and significantly under-appreciated.  It’s in one of our blind spots.

There are times when I’m hugely thankful for the work of people like Nelly Lahoud at the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point — her preliminary report on the “history of jihad” written by bin Laden’s personal secretary came out today — or Will McCants at the Center for Naval Analyses.  But there are other times when I’m equally frustrated, knowing how many bright scholarly voices with valuable insights to offer go unheard.

The think tanks are pretty much all heavily politicized: twitter and blogs are the go to places to keep up with cutting edge thinking — and still, just today, a rising star like Aaron Zelin can tweet about another, in this case Gregory Johnsen:

Is it me or has  predicted everything re: AQAP/Yemen/US policy the past 4-5 yrs? Yet no1 in gov is listening to him. Stupid.

— and pretty much everyone who knows about Yemen agrees…  

This, too, while hugely knowledgeable people like JM Berger of Intelwire are in all likelihood too independent-minded and truth-driven to fit into one of those politicized tanks!  A place for bright, oddball, curious analysts to work without the pressures of group think or authority is very much needed.

But I rant!  And to get back to my own area of special interest – who’s paying attention to the Khorasan motif, to the idea that Afghanistan is where the Mahdi’s army will come from, to the significance of black flags (sometimes Mahdist signals, sometimes “just a cigar”), to the end game in Jerusalem — and for that matter to the notion, likewise found in hadith and widely proclaimed on populist Pakistani videos, that there’s a prong of attack — the Ghazwah-e-Hind — that sweeps from Pakistan down into India, until the victorious flag of Pakistan flies over the Red Fort?


Well, I’ve pointed you towards my own areas of interest, and I do want to indicate that they are extremely focused — that in my view they constitute one important and often overlooked strand in a much larger weave, a strand that needs to be braided along with many others into a larger picture that I make no claim to see.

I am frankly ignorant about what doesn’t interest me, and frankly a very quick study in what piques my curiosity.  And I learn — and forget — more with each passing day.

Any place where Oink’s friends gather grabs my attention. I already see a number of friends here, Greg Esau, Richard Hodkinson, Peter Rothman, John  Kellden, Bryan Alexander, Gregory McNamee… 


How can I be of service?


So that’s what I wrote for Ethos — and one of my analytic buddies already sent me a comment:

There is def a vacuum that needs to be filled that intersects relevant research with a level of independence for writers. Something between academia and a think tank.

I think that’s an important issue — but it shouldn’t remain at the issue level, it should be acted on.

Any ideas about that?

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