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Wei Wu Wei, or the inactionable option

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — the excellence of today’s piece by Joshua Foust and the importance of intelligence that is not actionable, with illustrations from Zenpundit, Dickens and Shakespeare ]

Kate Bosworth peers out from under a blindfold in the 2010 movie, Warrior's Way


Josh Foust just posted an important piece in his Atlantic column and on his American Security Project blog titled Myopia: How Counter-Terrorism Has Blinded Our Intelligence Community, with the subtitle:

The United States’ overriding interest in “actionable” information on terrorists has produced a dangerous form of tunnel vision.


This is important, and I’ll circle back to it. But first, please follow the full arc of the circle…


I post little headers at the top of all my Zenpundit posts these days, to let people know where on the irrelevance scale my latest offering should be placed — I guess the idea came from the 19th century practice of offering “synoptic chapter headings” to titillate the reader of novels, as when Mr Dickens titles one chapter of The Pickwick Papers:

Chapter XVIII. Briefly illustrative of two points; first, the power of hysterics, and, secondly, the force of circumstances

I digress.

Some while back, I posted a piece called The Haqqani come to high Dunsinane here on Zenpundit, and gave it the header:

why is non-actionable (useless) intelligence sometimes the most intelligent (useful)? – importance of multiple frames for complex vision

The piece was about the Haqqani network, but obliquely so — I was leaping from an image in a video where a cluster of Haqqani-guys in training were running around dressed as trees, to a similar image in Shakespeare‘s Macbeth:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.

Well, that was the prophecy, and Macbeth took it to mean he’d never be defeated in battle:

That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements! Good!

Prophecies and portents are notorious for their double meanings, however, and this one’s fulfillment comes when Malcolm gives the order to his men:

Let every soldier hew him down a bough
And bear’t before him. Thereby shall we shadow
The numbers of our host and make discovery
Err in report of us.

Heh — “discovery” here means what today we’d call “intelligence” — and notice the importance here of reading multiple meanings out of a single sign.

A while later, a messenger arrives, and declaims:

As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
The wood began to move.

This turns out to be true enough, for in the next scene Malcolm, now before Dunsinane, gives the order:

Now near enough: your leafy screens throw down.
And show like those you are.


Make all our trumpets speak; give them all breath,
Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death.

And so it goes.


Let me emphasize, this is not, definitively not, actionable intelligence that I am in any way attempting to offer as such to anyone engaging in close-quarters combat with the Haqqanis.

Our arc is almost complete at this point, so let’s take a closer look at Josh Foust’s piece:

Large areas of the IC have move away from their traditional role of analyzing a broad range of current events for policymakers and toward supporting the global counterterrorism mission. News stories about this shift suggest the counterterrorism mission has become the overarching concern of the national security staff.

This shift in focus can create blind spots that pose unique challenges for the president. If branch chiefs and the policymakers they support value “exploitable” information over deep understanding, they might be ignoring potentially vital information that doesn’t seem immediately of interest.

Imagine an analyst finding reports of a growing discontent in a Middle Eastern country’s politics; if that does not provide immediate benefit for a decision-making process for targeting suspected terrorists, it can easily be ignored in the avalanche of targeting information.

Blind spots, eh?

Those would be “the dots” in the “larger picture” that you can’t “connect” until it’s too late. And where are they found? In “information that doesn’t seem immediately of interest” — intelligence that’s not “actionable” in other words.

Or to put that another way, what Josh calls “tunnel vision” comes from staring at what’s “actionable” — whereas vision that’s “out of the tunnel” comes from noticing what’s in peripheral vision.


Wei wu wei? It’s a Taoist motto: literally, it means “action without action” though it can also be translated “effortless action”.

I know, I know, this is a useless post. But you know what Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu?

I have a big tree of the kind men call shu. Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them!

And you know what Chuang Tzu said in response?

Quick update / pointer: GR & AZ on prisoner release

Friday, October 12th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — prisoner releases in Arab springtime, abu Musab and Dr Fadl; Daveed G-R and Aaron Z; two major rules of expertise: detail and humility ]

video edit-bay photo credit http://www.cdmastercopy.com


When you watch a well edited movie, the experience is seamless — despite the fact that the film itself was made with hundreds of cuts and splices. Film critics, mavens and the director’s fellow auteurs who make close readings and detailed studies of the film will see and appreciate the juxtapositions and graphic matches, the fine-tuned timing of the edits and the rhythm they give the film — but for the regular viewer, one continuous fabric of story unspools from opening to final credits. The editor’s skill lies in getting the splices right to a degree beyond the perceptual acuity of the audience.

Similarly, a fine carpenter will often want to make joints that are imperceptible to the client, seeking a sensitivity to changes in height that is an order of magnitude greater than that required for the quick, cheap performance of the same task.

True expertise is at least one order of magnitude deeper and more self-critical than it needs to be to satisfy a cursory examination.


Thus when Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Aaron Zelin tackle the important — and easily overlooked — question of How the Arab Spring’s Prisoner Releases Have Helped the Jihadi Cause in the Atlantic, they offer us both far more than we knew we needed to know, and yet less than they themselves know about the topic, let alone the broader current of jihadist movements of which this particular topic is a single strand.

It’s a significant topic, though, as their opening paragraphs neatly show:

The investigation of the devastating Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed American ambassador Christopher Stevens — limited as it is by security concerns that hampered the FBI’s access to the site –has begun to focus on a Libya-based Egyptian, Muhammad Jamal (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad al Masri). As a detailed Wall Street Journal report explains, Jamal is notable not only for having fighters under his command and operating militant training camps in the Libyan desert, but also for having recently gotten out of Egyptian prison.

This latter fact makes Jamal part of a trend that has gone largely unremarked upon in the public sphere since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” uprisings: prisons in affected countries have been emptied, inmates scattering after being released or breaking free. In many cases, it is a good thing that prisoners have gone free: the Arab dictatorships were notorious for unjustly incarcerating political prisoners, and abusing them in captivity. But jihadists have also been part of this wave of releases, and we are now beginning to see the fruits of the talent pool that is back on the streets.

I recommend it highly, as does at least one other more knowledgeable than I.


A short piece in the Atlantic is just right for an overview, but not the place to lay out the next level of detail, though — and there are three people in particular whose names I am always on the lookout for, names of people who vanished from public view into some form of imprisonment, and who are of considerable interest to me personally — primarily for their theological significance.

The first of these is the Imam Musa al-Sadr, whose “disappearance” in Gaddafi’s Libya at the age of 50 in 1978 deprived the Lebanon of an inspiring leader — in a manner that eerily paralleled the ghayba or “occultation” of the Twelfth Imam of the Ithna ‘ashariyah.

The second would be Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif, aka Dr. Fadl, whose book The Essentials was one of the major works of AQ ideology and the #2 jihadist manual downloaded from the net according to the CTC Atlas (p.10), and who recanted it from Egyptian prison, writing his Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World which so severely critiqued AQ-style jihad that al-Zawahiri felt obliged to pen a 200-page counter-argument. In Dr Fadl’s case, the interest would be to see what he would say if liberated now.

And my third “person of interest”? That would be Mustafa Setmariam Nasar aka Abu Musab al-Suri, whose massive Call to Global Islamic Resistance is a key document that chides bin Laden for “leading them to the abyss”, says “Al Qaeda is not an organization, it is not a group, nor do we want it to be. It is a call, a reference, a methodology”, and calls for “terrorism created by individuals or small autonomous groups (see Lawrence Wright, The Master Plan). Abu Musab, who may have been released from prison in Syria recently, is of interest to others as potentially the jihadi’s foremost strategist — and to me chiefly because of his use of apocalyptic forecasting in his Call.


Since their Atlantic piece was a short context-setter rather than a longer analytic paper, I asked Gartenstein-Ross and Zelin — Daveed and Aaron — net acquaintance and friendship is a funny thing, we haven’t worked out the etiquette as yet — about Dr Fadl and Abu Musab, not mentioned in the piece itself but surely not far from their thoughts.

Twitter, of course, is even more drastically reduced than a piece in the Atlantic, so you can think of their tweeted responses as something along the lines of snapshots of footnotes. Nevertheless, they give me, as an inquiring mind, a quick glimpse of what a couple of those at least an order of magnitude deeper into these things know or conjecture about two people whose names and potential activities we should all keep stashed quietly away on some easily accessible mental shelf.

Three things emerge from these tweets — how little we actually know, how important what we don’t know may be, and how honest the best analysts are about the limits of their knowledge. I’d tweeted, congratulating them on their piece and saying:

hipbonegamer: i note no mention of Musab a-S – any idea what’s up with Dr Fadl? Dead? Released? Still held?

And they responded:

Aaron Y. Zelin: Details still too murky on Abu Mus’ab and no info on Dr. Fadl.

D. Gartenstein-Ross: However, I think the question “where is Dr. Fadl, and why haven’t we heard from him?” is important for many reasons.

D. Gartenstein-Ross: But Aaron is right: I haven’t seen any open source info that speaks to his fate.

That’s two things at once: not very much, and a great deal.


So if lesson #1 of this post is that True expertise is at least one order of magnitude deeper and more self-critical than it needs to be to satisfy a cursory examination, lesson #2 must be…

True expertise never claims knowledge that is one order of magnitude deeper or more exact than is actually known.

Putting that in other terms: having an accurate mapping of one’s archipelago of knowledges within one’s oceanic ignorance is a highly significant form of meta-knowledge, lacking which one’s knowledges have blurred edges and little definitional value.

And that in turns means — especially in terms of human intelligence — humility.


It’s Follow Friday (#FF) on Twitter: @DaveedGR and @azelin are two folks you can follow and trust.

Games of telephone and counter-telephone?

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — embassy or consulate — a minor detail for an editor, perhaps, but all the difference in the world for Ambassador J Christopher Stevens ]

Here’s a screen grab of a piece posted on the Atlantic site today:


The article itself is worth your time, and I’ll get back to the screen grab later. Here’s the text para that interests me:

In the famous “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US” Presidential Daily Brief of August 6, 2001, one of the major analytic points was that “Al-Qa’ida members — including some who are US citizens — have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks” (emphasis added). Notice that this analysis uses two hedges in a single sentence. Given the lack of certainty on the issue, such linguistic dodging made sense — as it does in report after report where individuals are discussing information below the level of actionable intelligence.

Leah Farrall has been tweeting about the way this characteristically cautious phrasing used by analysts gets lost as “the higher up the food chain an analytical report goes the greater the tendency for bosses in [the] food chain to add their two cents worth” — so that by the time it reaches the politicians, “there is absolutely WMD.”

The shift from “apparently” to “absolutely” is an interesting one.


The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate featured a section on the nomenclature of such distinctions, which I trust and imagine was directed more at its readers than towards the analysts who produced it:

What We Mean When We Say: An Explanation of Estimative Language

When we use words such as “we judge” or “we assess”—terms we use synonymously — as well as “we estimate,” “likely” or “indicate,” we are trying to convey an analytical assessment or judgment. These assessments, which are based on incomplete or at times fragmentary information are not a fact, proof, or knowledge. Some analytical judgments are based directly on collected information; others rest on previous judgments, which serve as building blocks. In either type of judgment, we do not have “evidence” that shows something to be a fact or that definitively links two items or issues.

Intelligence judgments pertaining to likelihood are intended to reflect the Community’s sense of the probability of a development or event. Assigning precise numerical ratings to such judgments would imply more rigor than we intend. The chart below provides a rough idea of the relationship of terms to each other.

We do not intend the term “unlikely” to imply an event will not happen. We use “probably” and “likely” to indicate there is a greater than even chance. We use words such as “we cannot dismiss,” “we cannot rule out,” and “we cannot discount” to reflect an unlikely—or even remote—event whose consequences are such it warrants mentioning. Words such as “may be” and “suggest” are used to reflect situations in which we are unable to assess the likelihood generally because relevant information is nonexistent, sketchy, or fragmented.

In addition to using words within a judgment to convey degrees of likelihood, we also ascribe “high,” “moderate,” or “low” confidence levels based on the scope and quality of information supporting our judgments.

• “High confidence” generally indicates our judgments are based on high-quality information and/or the nature of the issue makes it possible to render a solid judgment.
• “Moderate confidence” generally means the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views, or the information is credible and plausible but not corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence.
• “Low confidence” generally means the information is scant, questionable, or very fragmented and it is difficult to make solid analytic inferences, or we have significant concerns or problems with the sources.


You could think of these as counter-telephone measures — attempts to avoid the distortions and corruptions that tend to arise when a message is passed from one person to another, And that’s important a fortiori when an ascending food-chain of transmitters may wish (or be persuaded) to formulate a message that will assure them the favorable attention of their superiors — but also because the higher the report goes, the closer it gets to decision-time..

As the Atlantic article says, this kind of “linguistic dodging” (aka attention to nuance) makes sense “in report after report where individuals are discussing information below the level of actionable intelligence.”

Inevitably there’s a shift in tempo between contemplation and action.


Anyway, messages tend to get distorted as they’re passed along.

Consider, for instance, the caption to the photograph that graces the Atlantic piece at the top of this post:

The U.S Embassy in Benghazi burns following an attack in September. (Reuters)

There’s only one problem there. The US didn’t have an Embassy in Benghazi — they had a Consulate — and that’s not a distinction that lacks a consequence. Whatever else may be the case, Ambassador Stevens would certainly have been better guarded had he been back in Tripoli in his embassy.

Whoever wrote that caption wasn’t as deeply immersed in the situation as the former CIA analyst who write the article. And when you’re not deeply immersed, it is perilously easy to get minor but important details wrong.

Syria, Iran and the Risks of Tactical Geopolitics

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Mr. Nyet 

World affairs are much more like spider’s web than the neat little drawers of an apothecary’s cabinet. In the latter,  the contents of each drawer are cleanly isolated and conveniently compartmentalized. What you do with the contents of one drawer today has no bearing on what you do next week with those of another. By contrast, with a spider’s web, when you touch a web at any point, not only do you find it to be sticky in a fragile sort of way, but your touch sends vibrations through every centimeter of the lattice.

Which alerts the spiders.

The great foreign policy panjandrums of the United States and the Western allies – with assorted Middle-Eastern clients who have real skin in the game-  are attempting to muddle through two overlapping but different crises with Syria and Iran through the medium of international diplomatic organizations. In the case of Syria, whose Baathist-Alawite dictatorship of Bashar Assad is trying to crush a widespread uprising by pacing the body count of their atrocities to what CNN viewers can tolerate, the effort by SECSTATE Clinton and Ambassador Rice to rally the UN Security Council to issue a forceful resolution against Syria was itself forcefully rebuffed by the double-veto of Russia and China. A highly predictable event that left Ambassador Rice “disgusted” but we hope, not surprised.

The case of Iran, which incidentally is one of Syria’s few allies, involves the long-running dispute over Iran’s complex and semi-clandestine nuclear activities which, in violation of the NPT and IAEA agreements, appear designed to pressure the West by giving Iran, at a minimum, a “breakout” capacity to make some nuclear weapons.  This decade long “crisis” has recently escalated, with the EU and United States applying punishing new economic sanctions while an unknown party that everyone knows to be Israel is engaging in a campaign of  sabotage and assassination against Iran’s IRGC-run nuclear establishment. Iran for it’s part has taken hostages, blustered about closing the straits of Hormuz and threatened unspecified new breakthroughs in nuclear activities.

To say that Russia and China have been less than helpful in halting Iranian nuclear weapons-related activity is like saying Pakistan’s ISI might be involved with assisting the Taliban.  Another situation the American foreign policy establishment consistently has trouble puzzling out.

The problem with current US policy or it’s advocates is not target selection. Syria, Iran, Libya and various other states have nasty, disruptive and anti-Western regimes. Giving them the heave-ho, in the abstract, makes sense if advancing American interests  (or basic decency in governance) is the objective. However, unlike the aforementioned apothecary cabinet drawers, states and their regimes do not exist in the abstract, moving according to arid principles of conduct, but in the real world with a society of states which constantly are evaluating and re-evaluating each other’s conduct in light of interest. Which means, as with many things, in foreign policy, timing matters.

The West recently dispatched over the objections of two great powers, Colonel Gaddafi, a ruler who was also an unpopular and violent lunatic with a long pedigree of terrorism and cruelty.  That in itself was tolerable and comprehensible, if not welcome, to Moscow and Beijing, but we rubbed salt in the wound in two ways. First, simply stomping on the Realpolitik economic interests of Russia and China in Libya, as Walter Russell Meade eloquently put it:

….Russia has some specific grievances connected to Libya.  What seems to really enrage the Russians is less the overthrow of the Great Loon than the cancellation of his many contracts with Russia and the refusal of the new government to give Russia a slice of the Libyan pie.  Russia always thought the west’s democratic agenda in Libya was a laugh — and the antics of the thuggish new regime and the array of torturers and thieves now running rampant in that country has done little to dispel that view. (Again, the Putin/KGB worldview would suggest that the hard realists at the core of Washington’s power structure released the ninnies to dance themselves into a frenzy of humanitarian and democratic ecstasy while the cold purposes of the DC machine were advanced.)

But what Russia thought it expected and deserved in return for its abstention on the Libya vote was due consideration for its commercial interests in Libya.  France, Britain and Qatar seem to be dividing that pie enthusiastically among themselves and nobody is thinking about Russia’s share and Russia’s price.

Secondly, was icing Gaddafi under the moral banner of R2P, which would seem – in theory of course – to be applicable to governments very much like those run by the allies of….Moscow and Beijing. To say nothing of , Moscow and Beijing themselves, which already see the “color revolutions” as subversive Western elite sock puppets with a democracy stage show kit.  To be frank, Russian and Chinese leaders see R2P as a doctrine or policy that potentially can be used not only against their nation’s interests, but their own hold on power, which they view, accurately, as a violation of sovereignty.

So it can hardly be reassuring to Moscow or Beijing that when the dust has yet to settle in Libya, that the United States and it’s NATO allies are now pressing for new UN resolutions designed to justify military intervention in Syria to overthrow Bashar Assad. Like the late and unlamented Colonel Gaddafi, Bashar Assad is a cold-blooded murderer, but unlike the crazy Colonel, Assad is a client of Russia and close Syrian ties to Moscow go way back to the earliest days of his father’s dictatorship. There’s no way, in such a short amount of time, that an American effort to topple Assad – however justified morally – that Vladimir Putin and to be truthful, many ordinary Russians, would not view that as a Western attempt to humiliate Russia. And R2P would indicate still more humiliations to come! As Dan Trombly wrote:

….that is precisely why the United States should drop even lip service to the Responsibility to Protect. Honestly stayed, the doctrine requires intervention after intervention, and its strategic advantage to the United States relies on consistency, because without consistency the supposed normative benefits it creates quickly evaporates. Yet R2P, far from strengthening the international order, actually demands continually more resources and, each time it is employed or contemplated, calls into question the rest of the international order the United States promulgates. If the goal is to “expand and strengthen an effective international order,” why would increasing the visibility of Responsibility to Protect, a doctrine that divides the United States and Western Europe from Central Europe, the rising democracies of Brazil, South Africa, and India – not to mention, of course, the major powers China and Russia and exhausts an already overburdened and shrinking Western military capability? 

In that context, the idea that Russia and China would support a UNSC resolution to intervene in Syria and depose Assad borders on the bizarre.  Advocates of R2P, like Anne-Marie Slaughter, would counter here, arguing that both Russia and China previously accepted R2P, so their cooperation in support of a UNSC resolution on Syria should have been a manageable enterprise. It wasn’t, largely because the Russians do not seem to give R2P much weight as a part of international law, the Russian Defense Ministry being even more blunt than their diplomatic counterparts:

….Russia’s Defense Ministry on Thursday reiterated its position stated earlier by the Foreign Ministry: Russia will do its best to avoid military intervention in Syria.

 “As for Syria, we see that harsh discussions are going on in New York and we are just giving backup to our colleagues from the Foreign Ministry who are tackling these problems. Of course, we think it is necessary to prevent military intervention in Syria,” Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told Vesti 24 TV channel.

 Russia has firmly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the uprising against his regime. Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Syria, backed by the Arab League and Western nations, to prevent a repetition of “the Libyan scenario.

Joshua Foust, writing in The Atlantic, addressed the situation with admirable clarity:

….A big reason for Russia and China’s intransigence is the NATO coalition that led the intervention, which badly overstepped the range of permissible actions stipulated in the UN Security Council Resolution that authorized intervention. Russia was an early critic of such actions as France’s weapons shipments to the rebels — criticism that could have been accounted for (Moscow never made any secret of its concerns) but which seemed to be ignored in the rush to intervene. President Obama made a rapid transition from saying “regime change is not on the table” last March (part of the bargain to get Russian abstention from the UNSC vote) to publicly calling for his ouster. France and the UK used similar language, ignoring the politics of getting UN approval for intervention.

….Many states, none of whom are free, worry that the West’s renewed love of intervention might one day be focused upon them. This is a critical consequence of rejecting sovereignty and declaring governments unfit to rule through a mixture of expediency and opportunity. Powerful states with poor human rights records — Russia and China included — look at what happened in Libya and see disaster, not freedom. And they are taking steps to avoid it.

The problem is not  intervention per se but an otherworldly posture of Western policy makers that embraces tactical geopolitics – i.e.  each intervention (Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq), undertaken whenever chance arises somehow exists on it’s own terms, in splendid isolation. It doesn’t, except in NATO capitols. Any nation not seeing itself as safe and impregnable is constantly calculating their opportunities and dangers based on our actions. If we continue to pursue intervention at the current tempo, blind to the perspectives and interests of others, we will get pushback on a more strategic level. And we will rue it.

NATO has been around so long, it is so enshrouded in hazy nostalgia and circumlocational love of diplomatic process, that we forget it was originally a radical departure for Americans and Europeans alike. Soviet postwar behavior under Stalin was so menacing, so intransigent, so relentlessly pressuring that the US set aside it’s traditional isolationism and the French and British their justified loathing of the defeated Germans, to make common cause against Soviet Communism. The West, on the defensive and backed into corner after corner in one tactical scenario after another by Moscow – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Iran, Berlin – took the conflict with the Kremlin to the next level by forming an enduring supranational, nuclear-armed, military alliance that ensured the next war in Europe meant WWIII.

That turned out to be more conflict than Uncle Joe Stalin was eager to buy.

We are now the ones backing others into corners. Iran, North Korea, Syria, Zimbabwe and other states ruled by kleptocrats and monsters act as buffers for China and Russia. Aside from the benefits these failed states can bring as customers for military hardware or sellers of raw materials, the attention of Western statesmen and human rights activists are diverted by the cause du jour in these hellholes, rather than being focused on what Beijing and Moscow might be up to at home or abroad.  Every dismantling of an anti-Western dictatorship, from their perspective, is a step closer to their direct confrontation with the West’s hyperactive, erratic, morally hypocritical, meddling, ruling elite who will be no more able to ignore “grave injustices” in Wuhai or Kazan than they could in Aleppo or Benghazi.

This is not an argument that we should not press our claims, or not try to keep nukes out of the hands of religious fanatics or refrain from crushing states that attack us with terrorist proxies; we can and should do all of these things with vigor. But when possible, much is to be gained by pursuing our interests in a manner that permits other great powers to at least save face. Destroying Iran’s government because of it’s nuclear activities, for example, is not a strategic “win” if  the way we do it convinces China and Russia to form a military alliance against the United States.

There is no need to forge ahead stupidly just because it is faster not to think matters through to their logical conclusions. America is heading down a road, led by an insular foreign policy clique of lawyers, activists and ex-academics, that eschews the need for maps because all that matters is that we drive well enough to take every short-cut.

Why Johnny Jihad Can’t Read (AQ Mission Orders)

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Sharp analysis on America’s homegrown jihadists by J.M. Berger in The Atlantic:

Why U.S. Terrorists Reject the Al Qaeda Playbook

…So the idea of a cadre of terrorists who can act on their own initiative is, to terrorist leaders, very appealing. The problem is that these new recruits aren’t quite with the program, in ways large and small.

One element of the individual jihad that most homegrown terrorists can’t seem to master is the part where you keep your mouth shut. It’s been a recurring theme, highlighted explicitly by American Al Qaeda member Adam Gadahn and in recent issues of Al Qaeda’s English-language magazine, Inspire:

We have witnessed that operations done by lone individuals has proven to be much more successful. So what can we learn from this? Group operations have a greater tendency of failing than lone operations due to the idea (of the operation) escaping the mind and tongue to other individuals. Even if those individuals are trustworthy in your eyes, there is still that 1% chance that someone from the intelligence agencies are listening in and paying attention to your groups’ actions or that the person you are talking to might be working for the enemy or that he might be pressured at a later period to give information to them. With lone operations however, as long as you keep it to yourself, nobody in the world would know what you’re thinking and planning.

….The problem with individual jihad is, ironically, its individuality. Although loose lips are probably the most operationally significant manifestation of this failure to conform, it works on the ideological level as well.  

For instance, Al Qaeda’s leaders and its most visible propagandists have repeatedly drummed their justifications for killing American civilians. From an operational standpoint, civilian targets are easier to hit, but Al Qaeda also estimates that they make for more effective theater, driving home the point that no Americans are safe from the terror network’s reach for as long as its list of grievances remains unsatisfied.

….Yet cognitive dissonance still creeps in. American terrorists inspired by Awlaki have chosen to aim their fire far more discriminately….

Read the rest here.

Berger is the author of Jihad Joe, reviewed here by Charles Cameron.

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