18 November 2009

The Emerging Role of the Analyst: Can We Understand How "Suspected Terrorists" Interpret Radical Messages?

Allow me to briefly preface my thoughts with the statement that this is part of research that I am conducting for a broader analysis of "what motivates extreme jihadists - religion, culture, or politics(?)." For the time being, my comments are a response to Pat's post entitled, "Anwar al Awlaki: A 'Confidant' for Nidal Hasan."

Of particular interest, Pat states: "In the specific case of Nidal Hasan, intelligence officials were aware of the contact between Hasan and Awlaki, but assessed that this did not pose a threat; how can we improve our analytical processes and include additional factors when analyzing situations like this?" In short, I argue - as I have always - that theology must be a factor when assessing a) the meaning of radical leaders like Awlaki and b) the value of pursuing a situation in light of intelligence analysis.

This perspective is, as many scholars and professionals argue, "out-of-bounds" [to a degree] as a quantifiable and justified factor for conducting intelligence briefings. Simply stated, this factor has proven itself to be a driving force behind motivations for extreme jihadists - both leader and follower alike. The way to harvest accurate and timely insights is to understand the driving force(s) of the enemy, which in Hasan's case showcases itself in his political statements grounded in religious ideology. The rate and impact of his statements are quantifiable factors for measuring his progressive thought process, and thus an indication of his possible and/or probable actions.

This method reflects the gameboard of chess in that each player must, above all, understand the opposition. Terrorism, on both the domestic and international level, runs its course like a spoked wheel: the issue of terrorism lies at the center while each spoke represents a method by which the phenomenon is spread. Therefore, we need experts from various disciplines to remain ahead of the morphing enemy: finance and economics, sociology and psychology, religion and culture, history and warfare, science and technology, etc.

As presented above, intelligence officials need more religiously-minded scholars to hone in on the theological implications of diversified perspectives exposed by multiple sects in geographical locations. There is much division within Islamic sects horizontally, and the article in the Washington Post today highlights that messages presented by persons like Awlaki are left to "general interpretation" for suspected terrorists. Intelligence officials would prosper from having briefings on how and why these fundamental concepts relate to defensive jihad, offensive jihad, sahwa, dawah, and shariah - and the interconnection of each to the violent tactics and strategies employed by AQ operatives.

Please allow me to end by quoting a statement from the article above by a radical leader himself, an example of the place where we can start our analysis in this manner:
"These armies are the defenders of apostasy," Anwar al-Aulaqi wrote in English on his Internet site July 15 from Yemen, according to the NEFA Foundation, a private South Carolina group that monitors extremist sites. "Blessed are those who fight against them and blessed are those shuhada [martyrs] who are killed by them."
Do we understand this as offensive or defensive jihad, and what are the legal and human-rights implications of such an assessment? It is another factor in determing how we move forward, and in so doing encourages collaboration and coordination among intelligence officials and agencies.


  1. DP, you write:

    As presented above, intelligence officials need more religiously-minded scholars to hone in on the theological implications of diversified perspectives exposed by multiple sects in geographical locations.

    Jean Rosenfeld sent a post to the New Religions Movement listserv recently saying much the same thing from the POV of a scholar of religious studies.

    I copied the body of her post with her permission into the comments section attached to my piece in Small Wars Journal (itself addressing some theological points that struck me as salient in Major Hasan's slide presentation).

    John Hall is another religion scholar who has joined in there with a comment. Jean has also posted some comments on Zenpundit's blog, and David Ronfeldt ("netwars" and "swarming") has been posting comments in both places, too. In short, there's the beginnings of a conversation between analysts and religion-scholars in the works, and it seems to be running in close parallel to your thoughts here.

    I would therefore very much appreciate it if you could expand, either there or here, on your comment:

    This perspective is, as many scholars and professionals argue, "out-of-bounds" [to a degree] as a quantifiable and justified factor for conducting intelligence briefings.

    That's a point I don't think I've seen so clearly delineated before, and I'd be interested to reach a closer understanding of it, and I believe scholars such as Jean Rosenfeld nand John Hall would, also.

  2. Charles,

    Many thanks for your post. I have been searching for a larger network of professionals who recognize the growing consciousness and need to gather minds together to counter violence of this magnitude. All intellectual and societal resources need to be employed to do so.

    I certainly agree with Jean Rosenfeld that religiously-based "methodology, typologies, and frameworks" can formulate "provisional conclusions" and a "database" by isolating phenomena like a medical doctor. Religion needs a scientific method in light of the historic trends of motivation witnessed in AQ; or, to the very least, needs to add a "religious-centered paradigm" with similar meaning as David Ronfeldt at RAND has with a "tribal paradigm" presented in "AQ and Its Affiliates."

    My logic is simple: scientific method uses an example of experimenting with two separate but similar growing plants. The objective, of course, is to use variables as well as placebo effects to measure several factors and draw a plausible conclusion. How I think we need to move forward is to begin to measure vertical ideologies (i.e. dawah) with horizontal trends (i.e. population growth). This, I think, can be done structurally and systematically by utilizing systems theory as well as chi-square analysis.

    The difficulty ahead is precisely what Marc Sageman exposed in his book, "Leaderless Jihad": there is a progressive movement not hierarchically connected to AQ but linked to its ideology(ies). My colleague, Pat Ryan, asks the tipping-point question: [But] how do we track Hasan-types? I add: By what variables that are quantifiably binding; i.e. legally?

    This is exactly why I commented that religiously-centered analysis, at least at the stage it is in currently, is not holistically accepted by officials who are bound to policy which dictates they must present measurable activity which is justifiable in a court of law. Our individual and collective reason, experience, tradition, and/or authority (i.e. leaders) may affirm terrorist ideology and activity is abnormal, unethical, immoral, or unprecendented, but if the conclusions are merely anecdotal evidence than it may be rejected, dismissed, or thought of as a pilot-program/tentative model of inquiry.

    The method, as it stands now, is being used to understand suspected terrorists mainly in sociological and psychological terms. It is "out of bounds" to the extent that some officials [I have come in contact with] think it is quality-based in this sense and holds limited or no quantifiable value all-the-while agreeing that it holds deep meaning.

    I wish to note - in good manner - that I and my colleagues on al Sahwa fully recognize that your efforts as well as the hard work of your colleagues and the blogs, centers, and entities which you are connected to/affiliated with are substantial, worthy, and legitimate. Simply, my singular comment recognizes that some officials and scholars dismiss this analysis as not holding weight. It does not speak to all officials and scholars in our growing area of study. If it did, I would find every way to ensure that my arguement would be stronger.

    In conclusion, Sageman is right to ground his inquiries in data and statistics, but I am continuing to attempt to flesh out - as you, Rosenfeld, Ronfeldt, and Hall are - the exact particulars of how a religious study can be empirically natured in order to a) identify and differentiate between insane, abnormal, "lone-wolf" according to persons like Evan Kohlmann, and/or terrorist as well as b) provide further insight into the ideological teachings - such as those I mentioned; sahwa, shariah - inherent in their motivations.

    I would like to be more apart of the team, and will maintain active communication through blogs and other avenues in the future, as this is all in attempt to counter the extreme jihadi movement and strategically plan for proactive and preventative intelligence.

  3. DP has expressed what I am delighted to see and have hoped for: that scholars and professionals dealing with and attempting to develop strategies regarding religion and violence/terrorism could sit around the same table and share their insights and methods. I actually formulated and taught a course in historical cases of religion and violence in the UC system over 3-4 years, but I would like to break down any barriers that might exist between academic databases/experts and terrorism databases/professionals/experts. I have tried over several years to make contacts across the divide and share ideas and findings.

    After 9/11 I realized that one could apply what many of my colleagues had written and spoken about previously with regard to cases of religion and violence to al-Qaida. Al-Qaida did not look "new" to some of us, so much as it looked like a variation on some fundamental themes.

    For example, many of us look at the language of a new religious movement and pinpoint what drives the group's motivation or "ultimate concern." Usually, there is a core doctrine that is elevated to a "transcendent purpose."
    As DP notes, the doctrine is theology, and because theology has been left out of university studies and sent to seminaries, most of our university grads have not learned to evaluate theological factors. In fact, we are discouraged from doing so, but in cases of religion and violence, theology, as David Koresh put it, "is life and death." It is determinative. Just deciding that theology is the most important variable in forecasting how a religious group will behave is a huge step forward.

    Each religious movement shares a worldview that needs to be studied from its own statements and decoded, because the semiotics are distinct from the language of non-members, even when they use the same words. Understanding what
    "synagogue of satan" means to a CSA member and to a priest, is important, for example, because it means entirely different thing to an Identity Christian and to a Catholic.

    Reading Faraj and al-Azzam and Qutb and understanding how they reformulated Salafi Islam--the "parent religion" of jihadism--was critical to my understanding of al-Qaida as another incidence of a revolutionary millennial movement. Having put it in this category (which was formulated from other cases), I could expect aQ to behave like its homologous movements. That said, it also has its own developmental history and personality.

    Major Hasan's slide show recapitulates some of the critical theological/exegetical features of jihadism/sixth-pillar Islam. His final act of violence was "defensive jihad," in his mind I am pretty sure. There have been some other instances of lone operator defensive jihad--even he pointed one or two out in his presentation of four cases: among them are the unknown motivation of the Egyptian pilot of an Egypt Air airliner that went down years ago and the shooting of people at an El Al Airline counter at LAX on July 4, 2002.

    So, I hope we can all share and pool what we have learned from our fields. Scholars, above all, are hampered by lack of access to primary data that may be sequestered under national security rules or discarded because the data are not recognized as of importance. We need to partner with professionals and experts who are dealing with and strategizing about challenges posed by violent religious movements.

  4. I wanted to thank both DP and Jean for an enlightening exchange on both sides, and one that helps to build the much needed dialog that seems to be emerging here and on al-Sahwa and Zenpundit.

    I don't have any statistics to provide, but I would like to note that Hasan himself proposed at least two "markers" that might be used to identify potential jihadists-in-the-making: people who change their name and hence their sense of identity from one that is predominantly secular to one that is sacred (he gave the example of Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and those who show devotion to the Qur'an, hours of prayer, etc. Interestingly, of course, Hasan himself had no need of a name change, since his name was already "Islamic" (ie Arabic).

    I don't find these markers convincing, but they do show that Hasan put thought into the matter, and that he didn’t find anything more definitive and more readily quantifiable.

    But I also think we have two issues in play here: one has to do with what can be passed on up the food chain as reliable and documented evidence, and I take DP's point here, that quantitative approaches are necessary, albeit extremely difficult to devise and work with the requisite skill in matters religious and devotional.

    But the other is also important. Without an appreciation of the ethos of a religious view, and the differing emotional states it generates -- for a Catholic between Good Friday and Easter, for an observant Jew between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, for Muslims during Ramadan and for the Shi'i especially during Muharram and on Ashura -- tracking those who are under a divine imperative must be a bit like trying to dance without hearing the melody or the beat.

    Marking the Night of Power on the 27th night of Ramadan in a calendar is a beginning, but times, seasons and places can have profound influence on the character, motivation and behavior of those who are devoted, and someone needs to have a sense of the music of the thing. Because as Plato once said (Republic 4.424c, in the rough paraphrase used by Ginsberg and others): "When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake."

    Sacred time and sacred space are of great importance: it was the presence of American troops in Saudi, after all, that offered bin Laden his first justification for jihad against "the far enemy", as can be plainly seen in the title of his 1996 "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places".

    So it seems we need the quantitative side of things to provide us with clear evidence for decision makers, and a intuitive feel for the traditions and passions of a given group if we are to understand them -- these being the benefits that qualitative research can provide. And I am including here close readings of the precursors Jean mentions, Qutb and Faraj, on up through Abu Musab al-Suri to Anwar al-Awlaki -- and the insights of first class journalists such as Lawrence Wright and his peers, including anecdote and quote as well as names, dates, places, networks and statistics.

    Enough from me for one post -- my thanks to you both, let's keep the conversation ongoing..

  5. Jean and Charles, great points all around. Thank you both for your posts, and for continuing the conversation. It is our duty.

    A quick thought about understanding the "music" of the AQ movement and "lone wolf" individuals such as Hasan. To use a metaphor:
    a) the music of Islam is written by Allah, whose message is [inherently] peaceful;
    b) the melody of an extremist jihadi is sung by clerics such as Alwaki, whose message [supposedly] coincides with their "music" of Islam;
    c) the harmony of a lone-wolf jihadi is being added to their "melody" by person like Hasan, whose actions [supposedly] enhance their "music" of Islam.

    I use this metaphor to show how difficult it can be, as you point out, to "dance" with extremism. It is morphing, and analysts - in their attempts to stay ahead of the enemy - need partners to study and compare, for example, the original statements of Qutb and how they themselves continue to be interpreted and inspirational to extremists.

    Hasan's deadly actions call to us to begin the database in this manner, and use him as the first stored data set. What "melody" did he listen to, and what "harmony" did he try to sing?

    More to come.

  6. DP and Charles,

    I like analogies and yours are both so apt, because they use what scholars some time ago agreed was the pathway into the mind of those who are acting "religiously."

    One of the things I first noticed about al-Qaida (after Azzam's focus on land and blood), was its "lived myth" (I am translating a concept used by Maurice Leenhardt, the first anthropologist to contribute primary data to the French school of sociology.) Al-Qaida took the Salafi myth of the Saved Sect and the Victorious Group and applied it to themselves. This is in line with the need for converts to see themselves as heroes carrying out a transcendent purpose.

    The Saved Sect was turned into an eschatological myth by bin Ladin and his compatriots. It is a group of warriors who sacrifice themselves for the Din, the Land, and the people. The members of the Sect are a vanguard and they are few. Not only are they attacked by their opponents, but fellow Muslims may persecute them. Thus, if the group remains small and is regarded as practicing fitnah and is denounced, that only validates the group's certitude that it is the Saved Sect. Only this sect--out of "72 sects"(note: this is probably a symbolic number meaning "many")--will attain paradise at the end time. Thus, jihad is to be carried out until the day of judgment, as Charles noted.

    What is important about identifying the myth of the group is that it tells us how they intend to behave and how they see themselves. It is a template.

    Likewise, the names the group gives to themselves individually, collectively, and to their objectives all signify what they seek to imitate, and they actually indicate a whole world they anticipate their god to inaugurate. This gives us clues about how they see their "millennial kingdom," and who fits in and who does not.

    All this symbolic stuff is the first thing to look for in order to understand the group. In addition, as acts and events occur, the group will make its own calendar. Thus, in the Qur'an in the sacred months fighting may be prohibited, but to al-Qaida the prohibition may actually be turned into its opposite.

    Al-Qaida has renamed the world in conformity to the former Muslim empires. Thus, Spain is Andalucia, for example. Naming is invocation, the magical creation of what is named. Naming brings the Caliphate into being, along with the rule it promises.

    I'll stop here (there is a lot more to say about it), but this approach can be applied to any group of this type. So far, I have never encountered a group of this type that has not engaged in this patterned behavior and behind every violent religious sect there appears to be a governing myth.

    DP and Charles indicate this symbolic behavior, as well, and the emotive core of revolutionary millennial groups.

  7. .
    A quick thought or two about music in return, DP...


    a) the music of Islam is written by Allah, whose message is [inherently] peaceful --

    I think it's a significant variant on that:

    In contrapuntal music, there's plenty of tension, but moves are generally made to resolve the dissonances as fast as they announce themselves, albeit sometimes in ways that create new dissonances, also begging to be resolved. The music of Allah, similarly, may have peace as its constant end goal, but it appears to encounter dissonances and then addresses them -- ie peace is fully achieved only when there is no more oppression:

    But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.” -- Qur’an 2:192-193

    Narrated Anas, r.a.: Allah's Apostle said, "Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one." People asked, "O Allah's Apostle! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?" The Prophet said, "By preventing him from oppressing others." -- Hadith, Sahih al-Bukhari 3.624.

    So there's some counterpoint in there -- with Allah leading some on the right path (2.157 "rightly guided") and some astray (Qur'an 4.88 "whom Allah hath sent astray") (though note this is via the actions of others, eg Satan, 4.60, or "those who follow vain desires", 4.27) -- and at times there is a music of war between them. But as with Bach, when there's discordance, there is also resolution. So the music of Allah (it is ultimately his in all cases) can be warlike when faced with injustice, seeking resolution which then permits (his preference) peace.

    There's a really powerful meditation on the "music of God" and the way in which it treats disharmony on the way to resolution in the Ainulindale or ">Music of the Ainur", the creation myth of Tolkien's saga as recounted in The Silmarillion. You can read it here, down below the image of the cover and publishing data.

    In capsule form: Iluvatar, the creator of Tolkien's universe himself plants a discordant theme in the otherwise harmonious music of the world, letting it be developed by his most ambitious creature -- who imagines it is his own invention -- eventually showing his listeners that it is in fact his own work, and that its introduction and resolution ultimately strengthens the whole.


    I've been doing some thinking about the concept-mapping of polyphonic ideas / voices over in the comments section of John Robb's Global Guerrillas blog recently -- there's an interesting discussion that begins further down the same page.

    And also I thought you might find the idea of "jazz warfare" (and perhaps by implication, "jazz analysis") of interest.

  8. Here's a link to an extremely useful paper for those of us interested in developing the dialog between terrorism analysts and scholars of religion: Ted Oleson and James T. Richardson, The Confluence of Research Traditions on Terrorism and Religion: A Social Psychological Examination.

    I've posted the same URL with a more extended comment and some further links, including one to some al-Awlaki notes on "signs of the end times", in a comment on the SWJ blog.

  9. Charles, thank you for your post. I apologize for not responding sooner, but I have been moving into a new house this past week...and there is still plenty to do. Meanwhile, I have been pondering your insights.

    The discord is natural: each religious and theological narrative explains the existence of good and evil. This is another reason why I initially stated in my original post that a religiously-based method of measurement "is, as many scholars and professionals argue, 'out-of-bounds' [to a degree] as a quantifiable and justified factor for conducting intelligence briefings." Scholars in particular are concerned with labeling one as good and one as evil - as they question the [postmodern] nature of such terms.

    This interpretation is focused on authority: who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed? It is clear in the official statements of AQ, Taliban, Hamas, and Hezbollah who their oppressor is; namely, Israel and the West.

    I think systematically identifying what religious-centered teachings are being used as justification for, in this case, extremist "defensive jihad" is part of a workable solution to combating terrorism.

    I am especially interested in the possibility of AQ "defensive jihad" being paired with dawah. Dawah, in this sense, sings the songs of Islam. Our assessment must continually focus on the genre of AQ and like-minded enemies.

    Arguing about Islamic teachings and jurisprudence - Qur'an, Hadiths, Sharia - ends in circles. Some Islamic scholars even argue that those who are not Muslim and do not speak Arabic can never know the true meaning or expression of Allah and the Prophet Mohammed. This can only serve as a barrier for our cross-cultural engagement.

    We need to understand the enemy in full, and I think leaving out a religiously-based assessment as we have been discussing falls short of providing optimal intelligence. Given the military's and President Obama's commitment to a COIN strategy that deploys diplomats, I think it reasonable to employ tactics that ground themselves in religious relationship building with righteous leaders, too.

    The natural discord that existed, for example, in Christianity when Martin Luther posted his 95 Thesis exists today - on a violent level as well - within the Islamic community, particularly oversees. Your suggestion to use polyphonic analysis can give way to providing multi-level interaction with righteous leaders that is constructive. This may help to combat clerics such as Awlaki who demand the continuation of jihad.

    The expert theological source I think we must master is none other than Reinhold Niebuhr. (I am speaking about his writings, not he as a man). A theologian, yes, but active in policy-making, too. In 1946, Allen Dulles nominated him to be a foreign policy expert on the Council of Foreign Relations. His work on "realism" can be used practically to identify a "use of force" strategy.

    As one comment on Robb's page expresses, when two driving forces meet one another they must react. The use of realistic religiously-based assessment can successfully be an aspect of the CT/COIN strategy in order to target in a timely and accurate manner the driving forces (i.e. sahwa, jihad, dawah, sharia, etc.) of extreme jihadist operations and precisely maneuver intellectual resources and human capital to counter and prevent its effects.

    What do you [all] think?