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Two tales from the outsider jihad

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — wanna know the very latest on those black banners from Khorasan? ]

Here’s the scene that greeted four British recruits to the jihad on their arrival at a training camp in Pakistan in August 2011:

This wasn’t like the training camps of propaganda videos, with the black flag of al-Qaeda flying free in the wind. There were no racks of weapons waiting for recruits. And all the trainers had left for the religious festival of Eid.

They came home to the UK, where their families “berated” them, they were arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to 40 month terms in prison.

With jihad, as with so much else, you can’t always count on truth in advertising.


And then there’s Omar Hammami.

Even Rusty Shackleford from My Pet Jawa — “a weblog comparing Muslims to Jawas and containing criticism and satire of Islamic traditions and beliefs” — can’t help but like Omar Hammami, aka Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, the American jihadist from Alabama who, as Wired puts it, “shoots the breeze” on Twitter “with the people whose job it is to study and even hunt people like him.” He does it with verve, even when ridiculing al-Shabab, the group he was put on the the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List with a $5 million bounty for joining:

Shackleford commented, “I’ve actually become kinda fond of the guy — if that’s possible”.

Al-Shabab, however, appears to dislike him enough to have tried to assassinate him a couple of days ago, following up their failure with a major attack, results as yet unknown.

With jihad in foreign lands, apparently, you can’t even trust your fellow mujahidin to treat you better than your avowed enemies.

Hysteria about Afghan schoolgirl hysteria

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — Reuters publishes scary stuff, should have checked their facts with WHO epidemiologists first ]

Last time, it was the Jerusalem syndrome — this time it’s mass hysteria, not poison.

The Reuters article, Afghan girls’ school feared hit by poison gas by Folad Hamdard (upper frame, above) was posted on April 21, 2013, just one week ago.

Its key paragraphs in terms of etiology and blame are these:

As many as 74 schoolgirls in Afghanistan’s far north fell sick after smelling gas and were being examined for possible poisoning, local officials said on Sunday.

While instances of poisoning are sometimes later found to be false alarms, there have been numerous substantiated cases of mass poisonings of schoolgirls by elements of Afghanistan’s ultra-conservative society that are opposed to female education.


Between May and June last year there were four poisoning attacks on a girls’ school in Takhar, prompting local officials to order principals to stay in school until late and staff to search the grounds for suspicious objects and to test the water for contaminants.

Takhar has been a hotbed of militancy and criminal activity since 2009, with groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan active.

One wonders: Does Reuters employ fact checkers?


One wonders because…

An Editorial Note on the 2012 article Mass Psychogenic illness in Afghanistan (lower frame, above) in the WHO’s Weekly Epidemiological Monitor (Vol 5 # 22, 27 May) reads in part:

This is the fourth year where episodes of suspected mass poisoning of school girls is reported from Afghanistan. Like in the previous years the events are triggered off with one girl developing symptoms of headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea and fainting. Often these outbreaks were believed to be the work of political elements in the country who oppose girls education. Reports of stench smells preceding the appearance of symptoms have given credit to the theory of mass poisoning (chemical/bioterrorism). However, investigations into the causes of these outbreaks have yielded no such evidence so far. In the last four years over 1634 cases from 22 schools have been treated for Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) in Afghanistan. There are no related deaths reported.

Reuters is read by a whole lot more people than some WHO epidemiological weekly, eh?


Luckily, the NY Times at least posted a blog post by Matthieu Aikins writing from Kabul, The ‘Poisoned’ Girls of Afghanistan, by way of alerting us to the WHO report:

I’m willing to bet that there was no poison.

Over the past few years, thousands of girls have fallen victim to waves of alleged poisonings in Afghan schools. The government, media and education activists have blamed the Taliban, and the police in a number of provinces have produced the “guilty” parties, with some of them confessing on national television.

But last July when I investigated the subject for Newsweek, I discovered never-released reports showing that the United Nations, the World Health Organization and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force had investigated the incidents for years and had never found, despite extensive laboratory tests, any evidence of toxins or poisoning — a fact that may explain ISAF’s conspicuous silence on the issue.

I’m glad that’s been cleared up.


Here’s another DoubleQuote for you:

Of course, the Taliban spokesman was addressing a 2012 outbreak of the same hysteria story, and the “no claim of responsibility” report is from one of this year’s versions.

But why would anyone claim responsibility in any case, if the actual cause is mass hysteria rather than poisoning? There’s history to these things — they didn’t begin in Afghanistan:

The cases the Afghanistan incidents most resemble are the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, in which hundreds of people, mostly schoolgirls, were overcome by fits of mirthless, extended laughter, in what is now known as Tanzania, and the West Bank fainting epidemic of 1983.

The similarities between the heavily studied epidemic in the occupied West Bank and Afghanistan are particularly striking. Both places are in a state of conflict, where political violence is a fact of life, and both have powerful local rumor mills. The incidents follow a similar pattern: First a single report of a bad smell, then a small number of girls come down with symptoms, then it spreads. Local media fueled the rumors and the incidents spread in Afghanistan, just as they did in Israel and Palestine.

Albert Hefez, Israel’s lead psychiatric investigator of the incident, wrote in his 1985 study “The Role of the Press and the Medical Community in the epidemic of ‘Mysterious Gas Poisoning’ in the Jordan West Bank” that Israeli newspaper reports of “poisoning” at the start of the epidemic added fuel to the flames. A front page article in Haaretz on March 28, 1983 even claimed that Israeli military investigators had found traces of nerve gas and quoted “army sources” as saying they suspected Palestinian militants were poisoning their own people in order to blame Israel and provoke an uprising. Palestinian leaders followed up with accusations that Israel had poisoned them in an attempt to drive them from the West Bank.

And such things don’t only happen “abroad” — as detailed in that same NYT blog post I quoted above:

The phenomenon of groups of people falling ill for psychological, rather than physical, reasons is not unknown, nor is it limited to Afghanistan. Moreover, the typical victims are school-age girls. In late 2011, when a group of girls in Le Roy, New York, fell victim to a mysterious twitching illness, medical authorities eventually concluded it was psychogenic.

Red lines and the credibility arms race

Friday, April 26th, 2013

[The views and opinions expressed here are solely the responsibility of Lynn C. Rees. They may not necessarily reflect the official views or opinions of Zenpundit] 

To deter, Barack Obama has publicly drawn a red line between tolerable and intolerable. We now watch to see and (perhaps) learn if open signaling of red lines has deterrent effect.

Open red lines intended to stave off the intolerable without ending in blows are as ancient as territorial instinct. Red frequents coloration of animals who’ve evolved warning signals embedded in their anatomy. Lines, though marked more by scent or suggested by signal, are also abundant among Man and nature.

“Bear”, my brother’s late Shar-Pei, vociferously defended my brother’s chain-linked fence line. All his toing and froing facing down suspicious pedestrians even wore a second line into the front lawn that paralleled the fence. His vigorous bark emerged from wolven ancestors to draw lines red in tooth and claw in wolven mind so it didn’t come to lines red in tooth and claw in wolven reality. 

But, if bluffs are called and barks prove to have more volume than bite, a red line will prove only as substantial as the bite and fight beyond it. If warning is not credibly conveyed and things fall apart, nothing may remain except bite and fight.

Bear’s bark proved a poor red line. While it sounded loud and formidable, when you opened the front gate and entered the yard, Bear would casually mosey up, sniff you, and promptly return to the barking line. Shar Peis are renowned for even-tempers. Bred as guard dogs in China, they often had to be brutalized or drugged into fight and bite. Bear was neither brutalized nor drugged so he lacked credible fierceness.

There is no certain calculus in drawing red lines. My calculus teacher wisely taught that variables have only one invariable certainty: they tend to vary. Man is not only variable, he is contrary. His contrariness not only votes present, it votes with real impact. If it were otherwise, you’d have a sort of Clausewitzian “red line by algebra: tally up one side of a red line in one column and tally the other side in another column. Then, when clearly displayed in public, those on either side would be forced to agree on how substantial the red line was and openly acknowledge its deterrent psychology.

Politics, the division of power, varies most in the intensity in which its division of power escalates confrontation toward violence. Some political contestants’ escalation is too hot. Others’ escalation is too cold. For others, their escalation will be just right. Some draw red lines and aggressively escalate political intensity based on broken red line theory: one small crack in your red line, like someone publicly urinating on it, means the entire red line will be stripped down to its bare chassis overnight if small infractions aren’t predictably and promptly punished. Others use them to draw folks along, perhaps as bait, perhaps as stalling tactics, while they do something else somewhere else. Some red lines are implicitly understood by all as being for entertainment purposes only.

Unfortunately, we’re armed with only a few rules of thumb to guide us in drawing and escalating red lining, most centered on creating intrinsic credibility:

  • …every power ought to be commensurate with its object…
  • …the means ought to be proportioned to the end…
  • …there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose, which is itself incapable of limitation…
  • A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.
  • As the duties of superintending the national defense and of securing the public peace against foreign or domestic violence involve a provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned, the power of making that provision ought to know no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community.
  • As revenue is the essential engine by which the means of answering the national exigencies must be procured, the power of procuring that article in its full extent must necessarily be comprehended in that of providing for those exigencies.
Beyond that, it’s a matter of converting intrinsic credibility into fully mobilizable and then field-deployable credibility. Angelo M. Codevilla writes:

John Quincy Adams, a student as well as a practitioner of statesmanship, believed that governments understand their own and others’ interests quite well. His involvement in diplomacy, which lasted from 1778 to the end of his presidency in 1829, convinced him not that negotiations are superfluous, but rather that they ratify the several parties’ recognition of existing realities regardless of agreements or lack thereof. Diplomacy can make it more comfortable to live with reality by clarifying mutual understanding of it. On the other hand, Adams’ magisterial notes on his 1823 recommendation that America spurn the invitation to join Britain in a declaration disapproving any attempt to recover Spain’s American colonies—that jointness would have added nothing to the reality of parallel British and U.S. opposition to such a venture—underlines the central fact about diplomacy: though it conveys reality, it does not amend it.

In 1968, Fred Ikle published How Nations Negotiate, which is used by diplomatic academies around the world. Too many graduates, however, forget its central teaching, which is that the diplomat’s first task is to figure out whether agreement is possible on the basis of “the available terms”—in short, whether both sides’ objectives, though different, are compatible. Only if they are can negotiations proceed according to what Ikle calls “rules of accommodation”—making sincere proposals, honoring partial agreements, etc. If the objectives are incompatible, the diplomats may choose to walk away, or to “negotiate for side effects”—to use the negotiations to undermine the other side’s government, sow dissention among its allies, deceive it, pocket partial agreements and renege on commitments, buy time, gather intelligence, etc. Disaster looms when one side follows the rules of accommodation while the other negotiates for side effects. The essence of Ikle’s teaching is that the negotiator’s primordial job is to judge correctly whether the other side is negotiating for “available terms” or is waging war through diplomatic means, and hence to choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat the diplomatic table as a battlefield. That choice is “perpetual,” he writes, because human motives are variable.

When the president publicly drew his red line:

Michelle and I have used a strategy when it comes to things like tattoos — what we’ve said to the girls is, ‘If you guys ever decide you’re going to get a tattoo, then Mommy and me will get the same exact tattoo in the same place,'” he said. “And we’ll go on YouTube and show it off as a family tattoo. And our thinking is that it might dissuade them from thinking that somehow that’s a good way to rebel.

He’s made his “primordial job” as a parent public. Under public scrutiny, he has to “judge correctly” whether Maliah or Sasha are negotiating for “available terms’ or “waging war” through tattooed means. He has to publicly choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat tattoos as a battlefield. As a parent, his choice is “perpetual”.

His credibility in deterring tattooed rebellion does have some fight and bite behind it. The Christian Science Monitor observes:

They’re still kind of young. Malia is 14 and Sasha is 11. They’re not marching into any tattoo parlor near Sidwell Friends School in upper northwest DC. First, there aren’t any – they can’t afford the rents there. Second, you’ve got to be 18 to get a tat in the city, we believe. The City Council approved that move recently.

This move may represent sufficient “provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned” coupled with “the power of making that provision”. But whether tattoos escalate to where parent-child disagreement knows “no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community” is the other half of Maliah and Sasha’s measure of President Obama’s credibility amd the deterrent quality of YouTubed shame over their coming teens.

The CSM doubts it. Conceding the president’s stratagem is “sort of based on assured mutual deterrence. Or preemption – you could call it that, too” and that it’s “interesting, in the sense that it’s a fairly coherent and intellectualized way to approach this common parental problem”, it observes:

…the real reason the preemption strategy probably appeals to the Obamas right now is that their daughters still listen to them. They can process cause and parental reaction and weigh options. They haven’t entered that period where common sense gets suspended, and they focus mostly on their own needs and wants, because that’s what teenagers do…

Once they are 18, they will be away from daily parental authority and tattoos might seem like a better idea. At that age, they don’t really think about long-term consequences, so they might get body art just to spite their parents. Or because they forgot their parents’ we-will-do-it-too vow. Or because they don’t care. Or just because… 

And then what happens? The president of the United States will probably feel obligated to get a tattoo of a butterfly at the base of his neck, because he vowed he would; and if he does not follow through, opponents will doubt his strength of will, or something like that.

I disagree. Rather than being “obligated”, the president retains his God-given agency. America’s greatest strategic thinker of the last fifty years will give him some advice:

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away, know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table,
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done

His choices as a parent are there “because human motives are variable”. As such, they will tend to vary, moment by moment, place by place, tattoo by tattoo. The president should carefully consider where and when he draws red lines, especially in public and especially when publicity is a key component of his red line’s hypothetical deterrent effect. Better to learn to gauge when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em now before the sarin calls of adolescence come around. Only then maybe there will be time enough for counting when the teenage years are done.

Of the Jerusalem and Mahdist syndromes

Friday, April 26th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — messianisms as madness ]

The Economist has a fascinating piece out about Iran’s multiplicity of messiahs (lower panel, below) which reminded me strongly of the Jerusalem syndrome (upper panel).

I suspect that was “bad adab” – bad manners, not bad clothing – but never mind.


The Economist piece is worth reading in full, if you also take the time to read Tim Furnish — who tones down the rhetoric a couple of notches:

I seriously doubt that Iranian jails are full of thousands of self-styled mahdis; I suspect many of them are guilty of nothing more eschatological than complaining too publicly about the price of gas or having too large a satellite TV antenna on their homes. But even if reduced by a factor of ten, the Islamic Republic does nonetheless appear to have a serious problem with apocalyptic antipathy toward the government. And a regime predicated, in no small part, on Mahdist ideology finds itself being hoist by its own philosophical petard.


Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem:

In Israel, Jerusalem Syndrome is taken very seriously. Everyone involved in security, tourism, or health is on the lookout for afflicted visitors. In an average year, three or four tourists develop real, palpable Jerusalem Syndrome. In l999, more than 50 visitors were diagnosed, the increase possibly attributed to millennial activities.

Why the security concern? Well, because occasionally those afflicted try some pretty dangerous stuff. Dr Yair Bar-El wrote in The British Journal of Psychiatry (2000) 176: 86-90:

A Protestant from South America conceived a plan to destroy Islamic holy places in order to replace them with Jewish holy places. The second stage of his plan was then to destroy them in order to start the war of Gog and Magog so that the Anti-Christ would reveal himself, after which Christ would reappear. The patient succeeded in gutting one of the most holy mosques in Jerusalem. Psychiatric examination was ordered by the court, and he was diagnosed as being unable to differentiate between right and wrong, not responsible for his deeds and therefore not fit to stand trial. He was admitted to a local psychiatric institution and later transferred to a mental health institution in his own country

I think “gutting” is overstating what happened — but you can sense the risk…


DoubleQuote Sources:

  • The Savvy Traveler, 2000
  • The Economist, 2013
  • Of Omar Hammami — and dying more than once?

    Friday, April 26th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — dying more than once in hadith, in press reports, in Rumi and John of the Cross ]

    The American mujahid in Somalia, Omar Hammami [see his Wikipedia bio], who has been tweeting back and forth with various “U.S. national security professionals” [see this Wired piece], reported yesterday that he had been shot in the neck “by Shabab assassin” [see this piece by Clint Watts at Selected Wisdom]. JM Berger, who has been in close correspondence with him, tweeted:

    Omar has indeed been in dispute with Shabab, the group he originally joined [see this LWJ post], and his own most recent tweets, sent eighteen hours ago as I write this, were these:

    Omar Hammami may or may not still be among us, although recent reports suggest with caveats that he survived the attack…

    That’s the background.


    From my point of view, the most interesting discussion anyone had with Hammami in the last day or two was this exchange between Hammami and Jeremy Scahill, whose book Dirty Wars has just hit the stands:

    Characteristically, Omar has a light tone — yet speaks to the issue in the context of his theology…


    There are, it seems to me, basically three ways that one might imagine dying more than once. The first — and it’s the one Hammami himself was referring to — is found in the hadith in Bukhari [Volume 4, Book 52, Number 54]:

    Narrated Abu Huraira:

    The Prophet said, “… By Him in Whose Hands my life is! I would love to be martyred in Allah’s Cause and then get resurrected and then get martyred, and then get resurrected again and then get martyred and then get resurrected again and then get martyred.

    Let the intensity of that hadith — and Hammami’s reference to it, a little earlier [?] on the same day he was shot — sink in.


    The second, “secular” way to have “died” more than once is through faulty intelligence and / or journalism — and that’s what JM Berger is on about when he tweets:

    Indeed, such reports led to the 2011 release of a nasheed in his name, though he may not have sung it himself:

    Now Hammami has apparently resurfaced, with two new a cappella songs that appeared on the web earlier this week. In “Send Me A Cruise,” Hammami begs to be plastered by a tank shell, a drone attack or a cruise missile, so that he can martyred like some of the heroes he names, including Al Qaeda leaders Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Laith al-Libi. In his trademark tuneless drone, he claims “an amazing martyrdom” is what he “strive(s) for and adore(s).” “Send me a cruise like Maa’lam Adam al Ansari/ And send me a couple of tons like Zarqawi,” chants Hammami. “Send me four and send me more, that’s what I implore.”

    More generally, false reports of AQ leaders dying hither and yon have become so common that I posted a DoubleQuote about it last year:


    Here’s where it get’s most interesting…

    For a third view of dying more than once, we can turn to the mystical tradition. Thus the Prophet Muhammad is credited with the hadith “Die before death” by Jalaluddin Rumi, who in his Mathnawi, VI, 3837-38 writes:

    The mystery of “Die before death” is this, that the prizes come after dying (and not before).
    Except dying, no other skill avails with God, O artful schemer.

    The death before death here is the death of the nafs, the “self” — the true martyrdom of the greater jihad. As Peter Lamborn Wilson puts it in his Introduction to the Sufi Path:

    Man’s authentic existence is in the Divine; he has a higher Self, which is true; he can attain felicity, even before death (“Die before you die,” said the Prophet). The call comes: to flight, migration, a journey beyond the limitations of world and self.

    Of course, St John of the Cross wrote in much the same vein:

    This life I live in vital strength
    Is loss of life unless I win You:
    And thus to die I shall continue
    Until in You I live at length.
    Listen (my God!) my life is in You.
    This life I do not want, for I
    Am dying that I do not die.

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