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Countering Violent Extremism: variants on a theme II

[ by Charles Cameron — modeling / scoring recruitment conversations as a flow of ideas, continued from CVE Variants I ]

Look, in any guidance, in any persuasion, there’s a conversation.

In the image above, the flow is from Anwar al-Awlaki, who already knows and speaks, to Nidal Hasan, who listens and thinks and is persuaded.

But what interests me more than that specific conversation, limited as it was to a handful of emails, is the overall route taken by many different conversations between what the NYPD calls a “spiritual sanctioner” and a prospective recruit.

We know that like a river, any conversation will have its eddies and flows — but if it’s a successful conversation, if it leads to persuasion, if it radicalizes the recruit… then the eddies won’t have prevented or reversed the flow, they’ll just have been a natural part of it.


Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt addressed the stages they believed the radicalization process generally followed in their report for the NYPD, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, and the steps they described after self-identification — in which the proto-jihadist comes to think of themselves as within the broad Salafist thought-stream, were these:

Indoctrination is the phase in which an individual progressively intensifies his beliefs, wholly adopts jihadi-Salafi ideology and concludes, without question, that the conditions and circumstances exist where action is required to support and further the cause. That action is militant jihad. This phase is typically facilitated and driven by a “spiritual sanctioner”.

While the initial self-identification process may be an individual act, as noted above, association with like-minded people is an important factor as the process deepens. By the indoctrination phase this self-selecting group becomes increasingly important as radical views are encouraged and reinforced.

Jihadization is the phase in which members of the cluster accept their individual duty to participate in jihad and self-designate themselves as holy warriors or mujahedeen. Ultimately, the group will begin operational planning for the jihad or a terrorist attack.


For the record: I do understand that the “conversational terrain” of the radicalization process is going to be considerably more twisty and convoluted than any map — as indeed do Silber and Bhatt, who write “Although this model is sequential, individuals do not always follow a perfectly linear progression.”

Let’s take a close look.

Here, for starters, is a diagram from Jeff Conklin, the guy who brought us wicked problems, showing in red the linear path that the creativity books tell you you should take from problem to solution — and in blue, the zigzag path an “actual” designer’s mind might take on its way to that solution — from the first chapter of Conklin’s book, Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems

I’ve paired Conklin’s diagram with a Von Kármán Vortex Street (I wrote about those recently in Having eyes to see) showing eddies within a successful flow, from M Van Dyke‘s An Album of Fluid Motion — both images are a little too “pure” and “diagrammatic” to fit the actual complexity of human thought.

Recruitment conversations will have their eddies, but it’s both the general route of the flow and the specificities of those eddies that would interest me — not because I wish to “police” those thoughts but because I wish to understand them — and any eddies that repeat themselves from one recruitment conversation to the next will likely contain useful hints as to inherent weak points in the sanctioner’s argument.


Let me be clear about this. As to our using such an understanding in an attempt to police the thoughts of a “suspect” community – I would think that would be a piss-poor approach to take, with pretty immediate blowback effects.

What I am trying to get at here is not “how to do CVE” – a topic best left to others, and specifically to those who contest the thrust of the recruitment argument from within the same general theological tradition – but how to better understand the conceptual drivers in play in the recruitment process. I am asking, if you like, for concept-level mapping of the terrain. And I should probably have said something about that in my first post in this series.

Here again, non-linearity seems to be the order of the day — and we need to understand what that implies and learn to think in comparably non-linear ways.


Spiritual sanctioner: what a concept! That’s someone who gives you the fear of hell for after-burners and the hope of paradise as your aim and destination…

And those after-burners burn hot, hot, and that aimed-for Paradise is cool, so very cool…


Leaping quickly back to non-linearity, then: Dan McCauley, in a very recent Small Wars Journal article, Creative Thinking: Linking Environment, Vision, Change, and Strategy, explains:

The human mind does not work in a linear or list-like fashion. The most common forms of communication are speech or writing, but these are limited by time and space to one word at a time. Research shows that the brain is far more multidimensional and capable of processing enormous amounts of information using images, color, relationships, associations, and other depictions in addition to speech or the written word. Defined as “seeking original ways to reach goals when the means to do so are not readily apparent,” creative thinking uses divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking begins at a common point and generates a variety of thoughts, whereas convergent thinking begins from various data points or potential solutions and searches for the one that best addresses the competing requirements.

So there’s more to non-linearity than just adding some feedback loops into a model that would otherwise move smoothly from premise to conclusion. There’s a whole, rich and ambiguous broth of a world in which each problem is found, and the whole, rich and ambiguous broth of each mind with which we approach it…


By the time he presented his testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in November, 2009, Silber had developed his idea of the sanctioner one stage further:

In 2007, we discussed the concept of a “spiritual sanctioner”, an individual who provides religious justification for violent political extremism for individuals who are radicalizing. Within the last six months we have identified a new catalyst for radicalization – what we call the “virtual spiritual sanctioner”. Although he is not the only one, Anwar al Awlaqi, based in Yemen is exemplar of this concept.

The recognition of an online component to recruitment may have been pretty obvious even then — but the February 2011 Lieberman / Collins report, A Ticking Time Bomb: Counterterrorism Lessons From The U.S. Government’s failure To Prevent The Fort Hood Attack picks up on the notion of “virutal spiritual sanctioners” and adds a small but significant detail to the overall picture of how we currently think about (and hence model and prepare ourselves against) such threats:

These individuals provide a false sense of religious justification for an act of terrorism over the internet.


Which brings me to my last point. As David Martin Jones and MLR Smith say in Whose Hearts and Whose Minds? The Curious Case of Global Counter-Insurgency:

The process of radicalisation is obviously a complex one. Certainly, the passage to the act of terrorism cannot be reduced solely to religion.

That’s right: but to label the religious element in the recruitment discourse “a false sense of religious justification” comes close to dismissing it as irrelevant.

To return to my earlier statement, the after-burners of hell and the aim of Paradise alike are extremely vivid in the imagination to those whose sensibilities are attuned to them.

That’s why Hafez Abdul Qayoom of the Afghan Ulema Council could tell Rod Nordlund of the NY Times:

To Muslims, and especially to Afghans, religion is much higher a concern than civilian or human casualties … When something happens to their religion, they are much more sensitive and have much stronger reaction to it.

That’s why Robert R Fowler wrote of his al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb captors:

Kidnappings of Westerners have fueled debate among securocrats as to whether our AQIM captors might simply bandits flying an Islamic flag of convenience. I know that to be the wrong answer. Our kidnappers were utterly focused religious zealots who believed absolutely in their cause.

We post-enlightenment westerners mostly have a hard time accepting, let alone intuitively feeling this.

4 Responses to “Countering Violent Extremism: variants on a theme II”

  1. J.M. Berger Says:

    So I get more what you’re going for here. My reaction to the initial post was twofold. Partly, it was a rebellion against (other people’s) efforts to “explain” and then “cure” radicalization, which of course you are not doing.

    Primarily, though, I thought the idea of a single point of departure as outlined there (as a track jump) was stretching the metaphor too far. From my observations, it seems to me radicalization requires several ingredients. Which is to say, saltpeter doesn’t make gunpowder, it has to be saltpeter + charcoal + sulfur. No one element explains gunpowder. Complicating things even more, it’s not always the same ingredients in radicalism. Some radicals have a different recipe in which some ingredients are the same, and others are different.

    And radicalism itself also manifests across different belief systems. So jihadist radicals use different ingredients than racist radicals, except that there are defineable similarities in the final product even though the ingredients of thought are often very different.

    If I were looking for concept-level mapping, I would suggest that *the idea of exclusive identity* is the place to begin poking around. It seems to me this is important because it crosses boundaries and is an important ingredient in almost all forms of lethal radicalism. Most violence seems to spring from an overdeveloped sense of distinction between “Self” and “Other.” At its core, I think understanding lies in the realm of understanding why some people attack so strongly to “Self,” the process by they draw maps of the territory of “Self” (religious, racial, etc.), and why asserting Self requires some people to violently exclude Other (while others can affirm without exclusion).  


  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi, JM:
    This is a bit of a hit-and-run answer to your thoughtful comment, and I hope to come back for  seconds… but it struck me when re-reading you that your question:

    why asserting Self requires some people to violently exclude Other (while others can affirm without exclusion)


    relates both to the Aristotelian tradition, hugely influential in the west, of the excluded middle — and thus to binary logic, our ability to be swayed by “either / or” formulations, and so forth…
    and to the “developmental scale” that Don Beck among others has been working on under the name of Spiral Dynamics, which would suggest that only at a certain developmental level is it possible to see past the us / them pattern of dichotomy to “affirmation without exclusion”.
    Beck, if I’m understanding him correctly, would say there’s a growth of maturity necessary to achieve the latter state.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:


    Primarily, though, I thought the idea of a single point of departure as outlined there (as a track jump) was stretching the metaphor too far.

    Ah, gotcha.  
    I’m a divided soul, I guess — interested in concept-mapping in general because that’s what (at least in my version) the glass bead game is all about.  And interested in Islamic radicalization (and for that matter, LTTE radicalization, and Christian and Jewish and Hindu extremist radicalization), because the theology of intensification interests me a great deal. Secular intensity, too — but mostly because it often contains a millennial / apocalyptic kernel.
    There’s a book by Klaus Klostermaier, Hindu and Christian in Vrindaban, which I try to keep a copy of, because of this one paragraph:

    Theology at 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade seems after all, different from theology at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Theology accompanied by tough chapattis and smoky tea seems different from theology with roast chicken and a glass of wine. Now, what is different, theos or theologian? The theologian at 70 degrees Fahrenheit is in a good position presumes God to be happy and contended, well-fed and rested, without needs of any kind. The theologian at 120 degrees Fahrenheit tries to imagine a God who is hungry and thirsty, who suffers and is sad, who sheds perspiration and knows despair.

    I guess I’m pretty fascinated by what happens when religion ceases to be lip-service (for better or worse).

  4. J.M. Berger Says:

    I’m interested in those things as well. I think because of the nature of my work, I have become steadily more interested in the generic markers of intensification and concept-mapping — i.e. what crosses cultural and religious boundaries to incite extremism. It’s hard to sit with all the different types of extremism and not suspect there are common denominators. I suspect that those common denominators are generic and universal because the patterns of behavior are more visible when zoomed out. It’s like the Mandelbrot shape. You can find it echoed when you zoom in to look at certain subsets of radicalization or individual cases of radicalization,

    But when you’re sometimes the shape is distorted.  


    Sometimes you see connections that are real but not at all causative: 


    Sometimes there is so much noise that it’s hard to tell what is important:


    And often all these problems are present in the same image. By zooming out, you might have a better chance of seeing the pure shape. 


    But then you run into the data problem because your case studies are far below this level, and it’s fundamentally impossible to reverse engineer the big picture from the zoomed in segment.

    So these are the things that I think about when I am thinking about radicalization. Arguably I am overthinking the problem to the point of paralysis, but that is a constant risk when dealing with complex issues.  

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