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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Counter-counter-counter-terrorism: The Positive Power of Dissent

Lost in the South Park Scuffle over Revolution Muslim last week was a little post by the cartoon-hating Abu Talha (aka Zachary Adam Chesser) on the subject of counter-counter terrorism. One part in a longer series about how to foil the forces of the West, this week's installment proposed turning terrorism researchers against each other, starting with Jarret Brachman, Evan Kohlman and myself.

...I have noticed that there are many polarizing figures and ideas in the movement that can be exploited to create divisions. My initial experiments pitted expert A against expert B, but this is not practical. However, by identifying areas of difference or strange theories we can exploit them and divide the movement in sha'a Allah.

Another thing I have learned is that you should not dialogue with these people unless you are going to feed them outright lies to mislead them. This is a permissible lie, because it is misleading the enemy. Simply put, they are better at analyzing us than we are at analyzing them. They do it full time, but we spend a large amount of our time learning other things and only spend a little time of CT officials.

Jarret Brachman, on his blog, gave an interesting and lengthy response. I will highlight what I think is his most important point:

In a nutshell, he thinks that turning CT researchers against each other is bad for us, good for them – just like he would view us turning jihadi ideologues against one another. The difference is that, whereas in their world this is called fitna and leads to all sorts of in-fighting, for us, this is called academic debate – even democracy. Our system is predicated on in-fighting (Madison anyone), which is why it works. Jihadis don’t seem to fully capture that, which is why Abu Talhah, a smart guy, advances a strategy that’s flawed from the start.

I would just add to this that sowing fitna among CT experts probably looks like a good counter-counter-terrorism idea to Abu Talha since the tactic has been employed so effectively against the jihadist community, not just by us but by governments in the Middle East. Counter-counter-terrorism suggests turning the tools of counter-terrorism back on the counter-terrorists. So this posting is a backhanded vote of confidence for the counter-terrorism strategy it seeks to emulate. He's seen it work against them, therefore, he figures it will work against us.

Fitna is the Achilles' heel of the Salafi/Jihadi mindset. Sayyid Qutb, one of the fathers of modern jihadist thought, wrote that fitna "must" be interpreted as "a signal pointing to the existence of a strange factor which is alien to [the Ummah's] nature and its faith. There must be a purpose or an ailment which prevents the first characteristic of the Muslim community [namely, unity] from taking root."

This heavy emphasis on unity is one lousy match with pretty much everything else in the jihadist movement, which combines fierce legalism with a non-existent centralized leadership. Its primary thinkers tend to be obsessed with details, and there is no methodology for resolving the inevitable conflicts between different ideologues. Each one is in business for himself, and half of them are willing to excommunicate those who disagree with them. The movement cannot tolerate dissent, and yet it cannot resolve dissent. It's a logic bomb in the heart of the jihad.

Conversely, our culture is (as Jarret Brachman points out) pretty much centered on fitna. We thrive on it, we think it's fun. We learn from it, and through the process of dissent, over time, the best ideas tend to rise to the top. This can take a long, long time, and a lot of garbage tends to flush through the system in the process, but it's essentially a peaceful and merit-based system. Well, at least I hope it is.

Finally, there's an interesting point to be made regarding Abu Talha's choice of experts for his case study. The "terrorism industry" is made up of counterterrorism analysts like Brachman and Kohlmann, people like myself who are more properly classified as journalists specializing in terrorism, and a large vocal army of pundits. Within this fairly large pool, there are many outsized personalities and egos, and many, many ideologues posing as subject-matter experts.

If you're looking to sow fitna, I think it would have been difficult to pick three less likely candidates. The posting of mine which Abu Talha selected as a possible fitna opportunity begins with the words "I don't like to get into politics." That should be a clue. If either Evan or Jarret called me up one day and told me I was wrong about something, I would certainly go back to the drawing board, re-examine my thesis and seek to learn from the criticism rather than come out swinging.

I won't help out the Revolution Muslim cause by suggesting alternative names. By all means, focus on us. But the choice betrays another vulnerability in the jihadist movement -- it's too much inside-baseball, elitist rather than populist. They're following the people who follow them, rather than looking for the biggest or most vulnerable targets. They have this problem in a lot of different fields, so it's not surprising that it would come up in this context.

Of course, the pot pointed out to the kettle, now I'm responding to them, because they're following us. Since the serious jihadists aren't likely to be lured into a debilitating bout of navel-gazing, all of this is a bit of a sideshow. But it does highlight a few interesting vulnerabilities which might be more fruitfully explored later.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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