Abu Talhah al-Amrikee, avowed South Park critic, American hardline jihadi-Salafi, who admins “The Mujahid Blog,” contributes to ”Revolution Muslim” and a reader/interlocutor of this blog recently published a piece to his website entitled, “Fomenting Disunity in the Counterterrorism Movement.” It’s part of his series on “Counter Counterterrorism” where he tries to help the jihadist movement to sidestep the damage caused by the academic work of CT researchers and, in fact, turn our work back against us. By doing this, he believes jihadists can actually degrade and divide the counterterrorism movement as we try to degrade and divide them. So, I guess this piece could be entitled, “Countering Counter-Counterterrorists” (Paging post-modernism).
I can appreciate the overall thrust of Abu Talhah’s approach (seeking to divide and conquer) as it’s one that I’ve embraced in my own writings and thinking about how degrade al-Qaida movements. For those who don’t have the time to read my whole post, here’s the bottom-line-up-front: although Abu Talhah really tries to advance jihadist counterstrategic thinking, he mirror-images to a point where he makes his argument irrelevant. 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.
The approach that he uses in his counter-counterterrorism series was actually the conceptual backbone of the “Stealing AQ’s Playbook,” article that I co-authored in 2006, which has been cited now several times by Ayman al-Zawahiri specifically because of how it turns his own words against him.
I have since sought to refine and advance this methodology because when it comes to counterterrorism, the devil is in the details. Curiously, al-Qaida has also been honing this methodology, most provocatively in The Power of Truth and most recently in The West and the Dark Tunnel.
My approach since 2006 has been to let my adversary guide me. I let them tell me where they believe they are strongest, most vulernable and importantly, where the fractures are within their movement that can be exacerbated through wedge issues. They are the true experts on themselves and, when they talk, they serve the role of a compass for us. Even better is that they can’t help themselves from talking.
Abu Talhah’s approach in this article employs a similarly-styled methodology (he’s not the first), in that he’s seeking to apply it to counterterrorism researchers, not jihadist ideologues. In other words, he flips the approach that I use against jihadis on its head, turning it back on me, or at least trying to.
I have to applaud him for his ambition. I mean, on paper, it all seems to make sense, right?. CT researchers embody many of the same qualities of the jihadist types who I study. We (CT researchers) are obsessive, mission-oriented, detail-centric and, at least among the public researchers, talkative. We are all vying for attention, support and influence over constituencies. Abu Talhah, in recognizing the structural and personality similarities between the two communities, structures an argument based on the following points, and these are his quotes:
I have noticed that there are many polarizing figures and ideas in the movement that can be exploited to create divisions.
by identifying areas of difference or strange theories we can exploit them and divide the movement in sha’a Allah.
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.
So, I agree with Abu Talhah’s observation that, like the jihadist movement, our field has several polarizing personalities and positions. Our most vocal and provocative ‘experts’, can be leveraged against us, he argues, if done right.
Not anyone can do this, however, Abu Talhah argues. In fact, he says, “I do not think the average person can dialogue (sic) with [counterterrorism researchers] enough to significantly gain their trust and mislead them without making a fool out of his or herself.” Now, since Abu Talhah and I have been holding an ongoing dialog, I’m guessing it’s because he doesnt consider himself an “average person” (he’s a “jihadilitist” – hah). Rather, he believes that he is smarter than the average jihadi in that he’s better equipped to hold that conversation with me (and I guess mislead me, although I don’t get that feeling from our back-and-forth, but that’s probably b/c he’s so good at misleading me). His article, he explains, “is the first work in English dealing with this subject which goes to show how far behind [the jihadist movement]” is.
Now let’s get to the fun part. Abu Talhah profiles three CT researchers as a proof-of-concept for his use of this divide-and-conquer methodology. He says that he “will attempt to show how one can exploit some of the opinions of three leading CT experts: Jarret Brachman, Evan Kohlmann, and J.M. Berger.” I’ll limit my comments to his comments about me.
Before highlighting my exploitable vulnerabilities, Abu Talhah briefly takes on “right wing bloggers,” who he says make, “overzealous attempts” to criticize CT officials even though these bloggers “are average people” who are “half as intelligent or less than your typical CT expert.” He thinks that their comments “can be capitalized on because sometimes what these loons say actually makes it into newspapers and articles from respected institutions.” Again, I agree with his comments about how dangerous some of those alarmist provocateurs in my field looking for media exposure and funding can be for American CT efforts. For some reason, though, they still get invited to the party, despite how little they actually know and how much harder harder they make my job of convincing people that nuance and granularity are more important than blustery over-generalizations.
He then directs his attention at me. Here’s his comments:
Jarret Brachman is viewed in very high regard by others in his field. However, from what I have seen he can be exploited in three different areas:
Jihobbyism: Often other CT officials express concern over the term “Jihobbyist” which was coined by Brachman. It refers to people who post things on the internet, but who have not done anything concrete as far as action is concerned. For example, I would certainly have this phrase directed at me by Brachman and his associates.
Many people in the CT field are worried that this term causes people to underestimate the threat of domestic attacks. References to this word in postings when a domestic attack does occur could cause people to blame Jarret Brachman for any shortfalls in attention being payed to domestic threats. It does not matter if Brachman has clarified his stance toward “Jihobbyism,” because the damage has been done already and it is clear who popularized this term. We should use this term in our public postings for two reasons:
- It draws a clear distinction between real mujahideen and people like me, which creates a feeling of inadequacy, and feelings of inadequacy drive people to eliminate that feeling through actions.
- It turns any blogger who does anything remotely close to action into a failure by Brachman, and even if people are reading this post right now, then they will not be able to stop their feelings of Brachman’s failure in this matter from coming to light. Even if Brachman’s opinions have a positive result for the CT movement, it will be destroyed by the emphasis on this word by members of the jihadi community.
On “jihobbyism,” Abu Talhah is quite pleased with me for developing this term. He alludes to Aaron Weisburd’s arguments (that the term, “jihobbyism,” creates a false dichotomy between thought and action), which is actually a good thing for jihadists, he argues. Although I have clarified what I mean by the term and wrote a whole article explaining how AQ’s entire goal is to transform jihobbyists into operators, he suggests that the damage has already been done.
In other words, he’s embracing my term jihobbyists b/c he thinks that it makes the CT community think less, not more, of people like him and his RM buddies. When the jihadists embrace the term, they are basically lowering our own expectations of their capabilities, which he believes then allow them to take us by surprise. I actually argue the opposite, that it helps provide us with more tools for make critical distinctions.
His line of thought (focusing on deception, redirection, jujitsu, etc..) reminds me writers like Abd al-Rahman al-Faqir and Muhammad Khalil al-Hakaymah on the tactical side and Abu Musab al-Suri (role of publishing, studying the enemy, education, intellectual empowerment of the jihadist movement) on the strategic side.
Next, Abu Talha tries to show how I’m vulnerable on my research about the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). He says:
The LIFG: Brachman is currently working on a bunch of stuff about the LIFG, which is not related to the greater jihadi movement. This is sort of how CNN tried to promote the fatwa of Tahir ul-Qadri when he has no influence on the jihadi movement.
We will have to wait until he publishes some things before we see exactly how to attack it, but by pretending that there is a group of CT officials who are obsessed with the LIFG we could likely convince someone to produce a paper refuting this LIFG-CT group after a couple of years. This would help divide the movement into camps.
I think Abu Talha is weakest on this argument. What I see is mirror-imaging of the jihadi-Salafi world. First, Abu Talhah accords too much influence to CT speicalists on U.S. policy. If he thinks that by helping to create separate camps between academics he can have some influence over U.S. policy, he’s kidding himself. I’ve been yapping for years and I’m still not sure what direct influence over policy I’ve actually had.
Although there might be some general similarities between jihadist ideologues and public CT intellectuals, getting some CT scholars to debate me about whether or not lessons can be learned from the LIFG experience would not produce his intended effect. As opposed to the jihadist approach, which views competition among ideologues as zero-sum in nature, our field views competitive analysis as useful, if not desirable. We embrace the dialectic (this all goes back to my argument about the epistemological differences between those wedded to hardline Salafism versus those more in the Cartestian/Lockean/Empiricist tradition).
Finally, Abu Talhah tries to show how my interest in Abu Yahya al-Libi can be turned against me. He says:
Abu Yahya Al-Libi: Brachman has an unusual obsession with Abu Yahya Al-Libi, hafidhuhullah, and this can be exploited as a fringe opinion which could eventually divide the CT field into two camps. One camp thinking he is the next Shaykh Usama, and the other thinking he is insignificant. If this was to occur, then Al-Qa’ida would likely begin releasing videos which clearly played him up to be a major leader, and then keep him out of the spotlight for a while. This would divide CT officials, because there would be two sets of evidence which contradict each other. Naturally the movement would fall into two camps overtime.
Again, clever in its ambition but just totally backwards. Our field is predicated on debate. We believe it is this form of competition that helps us get the story right. Whereas you see in-fighting as “fitna,” we don’t. In-fighting makes us better – it brings us closer to the truth – it’s at the heart of why democracy works (insert your comments about tawhid here) . I know embracing in-fighting might seem like a counterintuitive argument for someone who adheres to an absolutist epistemology, where one scholar’s success means another one’s failure, but it’s why our ideology is enduring and yours is not.
Ok, I’ll stop here for now but look forward to continuing the interchange.