Jihadist leaders, pundits, strategists and enthusiasts have long realized that they can gain insights into the mindset, strategies, goals and methods of their adversaries (read us) by listening to what we say and write. Other than al-Qaida, nobody offers al-Qaida better insights into al-Qaida than America’s think-tanks and research institutes who concentrate on, you got it, al-Qaida.
Yes, jihadists tend to rant about how evil and dastardly they think these centers are. But we also know that jihadists love reading the reports produced by American research centers, in large part because these reports are about jihadists (good ego stroking for them).
It took our community until around 2003 to realize that the same could be done back to the jihadist movement (Scheuer’s Jamestown articles, Stealing AQ’s Playbook, MIA Atlas, work by Hegghammer and Lia). Several of the trailblazing ninjas in this field had been doing it long before (Paz, Ulph, Doran, Haykel, Kepel, Roy).
In-depth mining of jihadist websites, ideological tracts and online magazines began introducing new avenues for counter-ideological engagement and counter-strategy. We began to understand that jihadists are candid about their strengths, weaknesses, hopes and dreams. And more importantly, some of us argued that these insights could be translated into the real world with great effect.
Jihadists, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, have complimented those efforts to level jihadist insights against jihadists, acknowledging how well they work against them. Abu Yahya al-Libi has gone so far as to point out how such strategies would have worked for the United States had he not of preemptively identified them as being effective and, according to him, thereby inoculated the global jihadist movement from the further effect.
The difference between the jihadist movement’s use of the approach and our own is that the jihadist movement has institutionalized it. They not only continue to mine our literature for insights but they’ve made it a national past-time. Every jihadist and their dog is now encouraged to study our news, read our policy statements and analyze our research reports in order to better understand how we think about them and where we think we are most vulnerable. Mining us, not just tactically but strategically, has become standard jihadist operating procedure – the benefit of transforming AQ into a global movement, a la Abu Musab al-Suri’s conception.
Some on our side react to the news that jihadis read our writings for insights by arguing that we should say less publicly. This, in my opinion, is a boneheaded conclusion to draw. Those who make it don’t understand that at the end of the day, this is a contest of ideas.
Not engaging al-Qaida hasn’t worked so far and it’s not going to work much better in the future. On the contrary, I have been arguing that we should be speaking more and publishing more about al-Qaida and to al-Qaida.
Ideologies, like anything else on planet Earth, play by the basic rules of physics: they continue in their forward momentum until they encounter an opposing force. Jihadism-as-ideology continues plowing ahead unchecked. Although the United States has the intellectual resources it needs in order to spot and highlight the hypocrisy, duplicity, bankruptcy and inconsistency in jihadist thought/practice, it has not done so, instead waiting patiently for Islam to deal with the ideological side of this fight. Abu Yahya al-Libi said it best when he pointed out that we have failed as a nation to formalize this process – we have failed to intellectually push back in any real or meaningful way. The majority of America’s academic resources are standing on the sidelines, untapped and uninformed about why their skill-sets are vital.
I’ve been arguing for several years now that we need to be directly engaging the global jihadist movement on their ideological turf, using their concepts, indicting their thinkers and their actions. And we need to be doing this with our own experts. Al-Qaida has made it clear that they 1) read our work; 2) are intellectually bothered by it so much that; 3) they openly respond and try to refute it.
Some disagree, foolishly in my opinion, with my call for waging an intellectual counter-offensive, arguing that such an approach would ‘legitimize’ al-Qaida. The fact that al-Qaida still exists is legitimacy enough for them. Such inane bureaucratic hand-wringing and risk aversion to openly countering AQ’s strategic messaging has led to a wholesale surrender of the rhetorical battlespace to Bin Laden and friends.
We, as a community, have failed to understand that the jihadist movement does not own this methodological approach of turning one’s adversary’s insights against them. We need to understand that when a jihadi speaks, they are communicating volumes to us about their hopes, their fears, their goals, their vulnerabilities, etc.. If you buy my argument that jihadist thinkers tend to discuss that which threatens them most (in other words you view jihadist publishing as inherently reactionary rather than offensive in nature) then you’ll agree that what they are discussing is a good metric for what they find bothersome.
Using that metric, I’d like to explore why jihadists seem so bothered by the RAND Corporation’s work. Anecdotally, I cant think of another institution that has given the AQ movement more heartburn across the board. On the one hand, jihadists love to yap about how much insight they gain about our thinking about them (post-modern doesn’t quite capture this) from RAND reports. Jihadists also find great utility in using RAND as a scapegoat for all that troubles them about US policy in the Middle East. And RAND fits perfectly into their conspiratorial mindset – these guys honestly believe that the “diabolical” RAND Corporation is the USG’s official planning center for policy on Islam and the Arab world. In other words, they both indict RAND and cite them as authoritative, all in the same breath.
But what they also do by railing against RAND as much as they do is to show us that they fear RAND. They fear the fact that there is an institute dedicated to conducting rigorous, empirically-grounded research about them. That RAND is mining them and trying to help empower mainstream Islam to fight back. Jihadist focus on RAND should be seen as a clear signal for what they believe hurts them.
I was prompted to write this post after seeing a 100 page jihadist Arabic translation of RAND’s “Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan” uploaded to the Al-Faloja Forum last week. Here’s how the jihadi who uploaded it described the report’s utility:
“Read read read do not begrudge yourself my brother especially when such studies have a lot of the enemies methods and ways of defeating the “rebels” as they allegedly claim…could you imagine my dear brother… Read my brother, you may get the grant of Nafir [joining the Jihad] from God and then you will have a good awareness of the enemies methods and do not forget the translator dear brother in your prayers for him and for his parents and for the Mujahedeen as well.”
Here’s the Arabic original of that post: Original Al-Faloja Posting
And here’s the Jihadist Translation of RAND Report
And here’s the Original RAND Report
Yes, they studied the hell out of this report. But they are translating it not just to learn about our approach. They are translating it to let each other know where we are in our thinking about them. Just to show you how meticulously these guys reproduced this report, here’s some side-by-sides of RAND’s original charts with the Jihadist versions.
They did leave off all footnotes and citations (which the translators apparently considered extraneous). But importantly, they think that they have something to learn from this report, which is why somebody took the time on their end to translate 100 pages of it and translate the charts/maps.
The fact is, as Aaron points out on his blog, we will not win this war until jihadists believe that they have been defeated. A key part of doing that is to demonstrate overwhelming intellectual superiority – we need to pwn them with our minds, not just our Predators.
Jihadists have a long-track record of citing RAND reports, demonstrating how long they’ve been fretting about it. Here’s a quick itemized list from how the big boys have discussed RAND
Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi:
“As for writing about the foundation of jihad, everything that I write is directed at this point. God willing, everyday you will see what is new in the support of jihad and the mujahidin everywhere. What was done by the regime in Algeria (and all the regimes today): using the scholars of the rulers to combat jihad and the mujahidin: this is part of the recommendations made by the US Rand Corporation and so-called anti-terrorism conferences. They fight this blessed tide of jihad with the media, ideology, and deviant and false religion. The mission of the ideologues of Salafi jihad and their shaykhs is to combat the doubts of those people, reveal their falsities, and deflect their lies. This mission is no less important than the combat done by our brethren in the arenas of battle.” (Open Interview with Shumukh al-Islam Network Members and the Esteemed Shaykh Abu-Muhammad al-Maqdisi, 8 September 2009).
The West and the Dark Tunnel by As-Sahab, 22 September 2009:
Dr. Hani al-Sibai
“The oppressive, failing security regimes that are perched upon the chest of our Islamic nation [ummah] follow the instructions of the American Rand Corporation to the letter. It is a new-old policy of every occupier: divide and conquer. (The Exposition in Response to the Exposure, 8 February 2009).
Abu Yahya al-Libi:
“Therefore, the mujahidin, as far as we know, are of all groups the most self-critical and the most likely to correct their course and confess their errors. In this they do not rely on the directives and instructions of the security agencies or the Rand Corporation and those like it, but they seek the truth, go back to it, and love it, whatever consequences and difficulties this may cause for them.” (Refuting the Falsehoods of the Rationalization Document: The First Part, 13 December 2008)
Abu Yahya al-Libi:
“I see its features have begun to be formed. It is a new religion in its terminology, new in its perception, new in its measures and principles, new in its creed and its branches, and even new in its worship and transactions and new in its reception sources. Then we will be told that this is moderate Islam, prudent Islam, Islam of the 21st century, Islam of openness, brotherhood, and peace, Islam of moderation and reason. It is only the Islam of the Rand Corporation and the enemies. The Islam that the infidel proselytizers are after by their modern Crusade campaign, this will never happen. Die with your anger and sorrow, God’s religion is protected. A person can only destroy himself.” (“The Moderation of Islam and the Moderation of Defeat,” As-Sahab Media on 22 May 2008).
Al-Yaqin’s Jihadist Issues, Issue 4:
“Translation of a Study: New Strategy To Defeat Jihadist Organizations.” (RAND Corporation recommendations to political and security decision-makers in America and the West) ”Title: Defeating Jihadist Organizations. Author: Seth Jones. ”Published by: RAND Corporation Published on: 18 September 2008″ - ”Number of pages: 13 – Translation published by: Information Resources for Journalism Information. ”Translation published on: 13 November 2008.”
Abdul Elah Haidar al-Sha’i:
“The US occupation forces fail to realize on time that the objectives of the insurgents are different, not identical. The RAND Corporation did research and disclosed that they [occupation forces] did not make the necessary plans for the post-occupation period. The research institution stated in a report published in the USA Today in February 2008 and made available to the US command that the ‘study on the future of Iraq before the war was inaccurate and unbalanced.’ It also criticized the occupation forces Commander Tommy Franks of having ‘a wrong vision on how to provide security to the occupation forces in the aftermath of the invasion.’ ”In mid-2006, the RAND Corporation, the US Department of Defense think tank and the mastermind of US foreign policy, published a 500-page, two-part study entitled ‘Beyond Al-Qa’ida,’ in which it emphasized the need to differentiate between two types of jihadist groups: the local jihadist movement and the global jihadist movement, the latter being led by Usama bin Ladin. The study explained how to make use of the local jihad to strike against global jihad.” (Years of Ember, published by GIMF on 21 October 2008; and in Sada al-Jihad, 26th Issue published on 9 June 2008).
Global Islamic Media Front:
We do not doubt for one moment that Al-Jazirah has a large role in preventing the dissemination and presentation of the Al-Sahab release, which is entitled ‘Harvest of Seven Years.’ It is known that Al-Jazirah, its administration, and its news editing management supply the United States Embassy in Qatar with all the releases of the mujahidin, whether audio or visual, so that they can get permission to publish. The embassy’s representative is the one who determines which passages can be published and which should be withheld. It also deals directly with the office of the Rand Corporation in Qatar. Everyone knows what the Rand Corporation is and the role it plays in directing events in the Islamic world.” (“Has Bush Succeeded in Ruining the Surprise of Al-Qa’ida” on Al-Yaqin Media Center, 17 September 2008).
“”We are raising these questions in light of the increased popularity of Al-Qa’ida internationally as admitted by the Rand Corporation and in light of the repeated accusations that are one of the necessary requirements that cannot be separated from Al-Qa’ida…” (“The Mujahidin Army’s Distinction: Where To? on 30 July 2008)
Muhammad Khalil al-Hakaymah:
“Finally, there was the statement of Shaykh Sayyid Imam in which he declared an end to jihad, and unlike its title [Rationalization of Jihad], he did misguide it. He poured a dose of his anger on his mujahidin brothers outside in compliance with the advice of the USRAND Corporation and the orders of the FBI office in Cairo.” (“Previous Incidents of Retractions in Egyptian Prisons” on Al-Fajr Media, 7 December 2007).
Muhammad Khalil al-Hakaymah:
“The Financial and Industrial groups of Texas and California, including the giant weapon manufacturers, together with the Intelligence Community headed by the CIA, provides most of the funds transferred to the affiliated think tanks such as the Rand Corporation of Santa Monica, (which issued the Rand Report that considered Saudi Arabia as one of the future targets of the United States). And the Hoover Institute, which is specialized in war affairs, the Center for Revolution and Peace in Palo Alto, the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, the Washington Enterprise Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other research centers aiming at development of an intellectual basis for a new American power policy without any “ifs” or “buts.” (The Fantastic Delusion published by Al-Maqrizi Center on 11 August 2006).
Beyond official AQ leaders, advocates and ideological promulgators, the forums love to gripe about these works. Take a gander at the sampling of representative forum posts that I’ve collected for you:
So, in sum, the jihadist movement gets that there’s a lot to be gained from taking your adversary seriously, reading and studying their work and responding to it directly. They realize that there’s a lot to be strategically gained from enlisting the broad intellectual resources of their movement and aiming them at our ideas, at our research, at our intellectual products. Do we?