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Cross-grain thinking, 2: mapping the jihadist mind & AQ’s #3 spot

[ by Charles Cameron -- the different types of "leaders" should give us an idea of the different mental operations in play in the individual minds of the led, as well as the "mind" of the organization -- plus fun ]
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credit for mind map aspect of composite image to valdis krebs

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Okay, I made my basic point here quite nicely in that little tag-line that gives you the brief overview of each of my posts right next to my name, so I’ll just repeat it here, very slightly amplified for focus:

The different types of “leaders” we identify in AQ should give us an idea of the different mental operations usually in play in the individual minds of jihadists, as well as within the “mind” of the organization itself.

I tried to show how cross-grain thinking in general, and thinking that includes both “subjective” and “objective” realities specifically, might play a considerable role in understanding some pressing contemporary issues in my recent post on Mozart — a figure so removed from those problems that some of you may have skipped it. Here’s my ending, with the Mozart details safely removed:

I think we should track that pattern, know as much as we can of that pattern, write the biography of the way in which some piece of music weaves between inspiration and thought, composer and instrument, mind and matter, performer and audience, studio and home digital music center…

Then, perhaps, we could begin to map other patterns – in some ways simpler and more urgent ones.

The sorts of “simpler and more urgent” patterns I was thinking of there include:

  • how discussions become deliberations and deliberations decisions
  • how scenarios are built and understood and sometimes poorly configured to our later detriment
  • how foreign policy plus feedback loops can create blowback and how to minimize it..

  • and specifically,

  • how the “jihadist” radicalization process moves from floating frustration and shame, via identification of a plausible “other” to rage against, to commitment, then via theology (!!) (for divine sanction of otherwise unpalatable acts) to the recognition of a binding moral obligation (fard ‘ayn in AQ terms) — and thence to camps for training in weaponry and the requirements and subtle limitations on Quranically sanctioned war…

  • **

    That last one has been an interest of mine, sitting in the back of my mind as an unanswered problem, quietly gathering data and forming insights for a while now, under a rubric along the lines of the question:

    Can we figure out a rough map of the workings of the “typical” mind of a potential jihadist as it radicalizes?

    It occurs to me that the leadership of an organization likely maps well to the organization’s functions, and those functions to the thought processes in which members are involved so a map of the aspects of leadership may well give us a rough draft of a mind-map for the individual member, including the passage from uninvolved observer to active participant: the process of radicalization.

    This may seem pretty obvious to some of you, but it’s a fresh idea for me, and to me it’s important because we already map communications networks and organizational flows, but the mind — the individual mind is one place we don’t seem to go.

    So I’m thinking in terms of sketching the mind of a “person” who is in some ways AQ as a whole, considered as if it were one sensate human-like being, filled with the usual variety of thoughts and emotions, ideals and pragmatisms, hopes and fears, hunches and hard data, clarities and confusions.. And I’m thinking of doing this by treating “leaders” as though they were distinct but coordinated processes in a single mind.

    We track and map people and their connections, we track and map groups and their connections, we track and map communications and their connections — are we tracking and mapping memes as such? ideas and their connections? minds?

    If we are already tracking ideas and minds — or if we aren’t doing that yet, but could — I’d be on the lookout for possible positive and negative feedback loops within the system, some that enhance the overall operation and could be disrupted, and some that fragment and damage it and could be amplified.

    So that, among other things, God willing, we could learn better ways to dampen some of the oscillations of hate…

    **

    I was looking at a comment in the recent ICSR report, Al-Qaeda at the Crossroads [h/t @azelin], and ran across this quote which struck me from an oblique angle:

    About ten core leaders have been subsequently killed, including Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, Abu Hafs al-Shahri, Samir Khan, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Abu Yahya al-Libi.

    Let’s take a look at these folk: Atiyah Abd al-Rahman was reported via Bill Roggio at Long War Journal as al Qaeda’s “operations chief” and a major planning a major attack on the US for the tenth anniverary of 9/11, as AQ’s “general manager” and bin Laden‘s “chief of staff”. Abu Hafs al-Shahri was another “operations chief”. Samir Khan was a publicist, the editor of the English-language magazine Inspire. Anwar al-Awlaki was a minor theologian with a talent for publicity and a decent understanding of his American audience…

    And as for Abu Yahya al-Libi, here’s an excerpt from an NYT piece about him:”I call him a man for all seasons for A.Q.,” said Jarret Brachman, a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency who is now research director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “He’s a warrior. He’s a poet. He’s a scholar. He’s a pundit. He’s a military commander. And he’s a very charismatic, young, brash rising star within A.Q., and I think he has become the heir apparent to Osama bin Laden in terms of taking over the entire global jihadist movement.”

    On that telling, al-Libi alone would be almost enough for my purposes — but let’s go with the whole list. The AQ mindset involves courage, poetry, scholarship, punditry and command and control. Specify that the scholarship needs to include theology (AQ at one point sent al-Libi to Mauretania for advanced Islamic studies) as well as strategy and guerrilla warfare (think Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who was well-read in Taber’s The War of the Flea, Chairman Mao, Che Guevara, and Vo Nguyen Giap), and the significant influences on the jihadist mind begin to swim into focus.

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    See, I’m nudging my way to something fairly close to the Lincoln mention in Fred Kaplan‘s Slate piece about Petraeus the other day:

    Toward the end of the war, as the senior planning aide to Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall, Lincoln realized that the Army needed to breed a new type of officer to help the nation meet its new global responsibilities in the postwar era. This new officer, he wrote to a colleague, should have “at least three heads—one political, one economic, and one military.” He took a demotion, from brigadier general to colonel, so he could return to West Point and create a curriculum “to improve the so-called Army mind” in just this way: a social science department, encouraging critical thinking, even occasionally dissent.

    How would we map these mental processes? How would we map the jihadist’s equivalent?

    **

    While I was fishing around for AQ leadership lists in search of an education, I ran across Robert Mackey‘s amusing piece on his NYT blog back in 2010, titled Eliminating Al Qaeda’s No. 3, Again, in which he mentioned as killed or captured claimants to the #3 spot Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, described as “a top financial chief for Al Qaeda” and quotes a colleague as saying “many of Mr. Yazid’s predecessors in Al Qaeda’s No. 3 slot” – from the Bush years alone, he lists Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Hamza Rabia and Saif al-Adel.

    Okay, we should definitely add “financial chief” to my list above.

    The humorist and the artist in me often lead the more serious analyst in me to insights I’d not otherwise have access to, and since I’m worrying away at the notion that analysis needs to feature both “interior” (mind, heart) and “external” (world) realities, I keep the artistry and humor in my analyses, and hope that makes them more rather than less accessible — so let’s run with the AQ#3 nonsense for a bit.

    Mackey’s is a slightly tongue in cheek treatment of a reasonably serious topic. On Twitter the humor gets more incisive, with Andy Borowitz claiming 9,000 AQ#3s have been killed, and AQ#3 in person setting up a twitter account and tweeting merrily away for a while, see the two sample tweets in this SPECS graphic:

    My sources for those two tweets were Bupbin and AlQaedaNumber3.

    To be honest, I find the AQ#3 business both irritating — since it shows how little depth our popular understanding of who we’re dealing with really has — and amusing — because it’s so very ripe for satire…

    **

    I’ve been working at this post so long I’m mentally cross-eyed, so feel free to fill me in or chew me out…

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    4 Responses to “Cross-grain thinking, 2: mapping the jihadist mind & AQ’s #3 spot”

    1. david ronfeldt Says:

      Okay, I’ll nibble, but only if I can bring up my favorite way of analyzing mental maps:  by dissecting people’s space-time-action orientations — that bundle of cognitions in the mind that lies above our quivering mess of emotion and instinct, but below all the complicated thinking we do in categories about political, economic, etc. matters.
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      Of the three cognitive domains — space, time, and action — the one that often receives the most attention in terrorism analyses I’ve seen is action, notably the belief in violence.  Time orientations — as in an apocalyptic intentions — are often second in emphasis.  Spatial orientations generally receive the least explicit attention.  But my reading of points made by analysts, as well as by terrorists and by people who live in locales that produce terrorists, indicates that spatial disorientations, antipathies, and ambitions figure as strongly and distinctly in terrorist minds as do time and action.  It is not simply a loss of hope (a time orientation) that accounts for despair and the turn to terrorism, but more a loss of connection to one’s identity, to one’s people, and to what one values in the surrounding space.  The loss of temporal hope derives from the loss of spatial connection. 
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      In particular — and this is my theme — terrorists come to acquire a very enlarged sense of social space; and within it, they become keenly resentful about the boundaries and barriers that constrain their own and other people’s lives.  They become intent on bursting beyond those boundaries and barriers, and they want none placed on their use of violence.  Hiding underground and then exploding outward is, for terrorists, an epitomizing, spatial act.  A key aim is to accomplish a vast reconnection among like-minded brethren, while disconnecting the rest of us — in other words, it’s a spatial war as much or more than a temporal war.
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      So, in order to “figure out a rough map of the workings of the “typical” mind of a potential jihadist as it radicalizes,” I’d look into tracking how their space-time-action orientations change over time.

    2. Michael Says:

      I’m guessing #3 is the AQ equivalent of a junior officer in WWI–the first to stick their necks out, providing leadership and guidance to the footsoldiers if they survive and a glorious martyrdom to emulate if they don’t. :P

    3. Charles Cameron Says:

      Michael:
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      I suspect it’s a case of “whatever mole you whack, unless it’s clearly #1 or #2, call it #3″…
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      David:
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      Much food for thought there.  I hope you’ll expand on the STA side of things when you can…
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      Thanks as always! 

    4. Charles Cameron Says:

      FTR, something new on the AQ #3 spot via Peter Bergen in From Bin Laden to Boston for CNN two days ago:

      At the time of bin Laden’s death on May 1, 2011, core al Qaeda had already been severely degraded by CIA drone strikes. Drones have killed at least 30 leaders of al Qaeda in Pakistan, according to a count by the New America Foundation. Some of the most senior al Qaeda leaders had also been arrested in Pakistan.
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      As Marty Martin, who headed CIA operations against al Qaeda in the years after 9/11, puts it in the HBO documentary “Manhunt”: “Congratulations, Abu Butthead, you’re now the No. 3 in al Qaeda; that’s the good news. The bad news is, you’re now the No. 3 in al Qaeda. Get ready. Buckle your chinstrap, because your career path is probably going to be short-lived.”

      In this version, the reason so many AQ #3s are reported killed is that they’re really what we used to call before AQ #3.3333 recurring.


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