If you saw the sci-fi, dystopian movie, Minority Report, you probably walked out of the theater revolted by the prospect of a future where the government could arrest people before they even knew that they wanted to commit a crime.
We generally agree that it’s a good thing that the government can’t arrest people before they have the intention of committing a crime. In fact, even having the intention to commit a crime is often not enough to prosecute that person much less obtain a warrant to monitor their communications, and again, we agree that it’s a good thing….
…at least until a terrorist attack occurs. It’s at that point that publics tend to lurch in the other direction, demanding answers to why law enforcement wasn’t more proactive in conducting surveillance, or why intelligence agencies weren’t more preemptively aggressive in recognizing pre-operational indicators and warnings.
The problem with our current approach to thinking about al-Qaeda is that it’s not aligned with the reality of al-Qaeda. The conventional approach to thinking about terrorism is fundamentally premised on a false dichotomy: there are terrorists (who do illegal stuff) and not terrorists (who are not doing illegal stuff). We should care about stopping the illegal stuff and, if we have time, think about how the legal stuff gets people to do illegal stuff.
Al-Qaeda has transformed in recent years from a terrorist organization (illegal) that haphazardly used media to advance their cause (not illegal) to a media organization (not illegal) that haphazardly uses terrorism to advance their cause (illegal). In other words, by reconceptualizing their illegal organization into a legal movement, they managed to rope in thousands, if not tens of thousands of new followers. This reconceptualization, by sheer numbers, structurally flipped the ratio of their labor hours from being 3/4 illegal stuff (terrorist operations) and 1/4 legal stuff (media operations) to 1/4 illegal stuff (terrorist operations) and 3/4 legal stuff (propaganda operations).
You no longer have to be a financier or commander or foot soldier – things that are illegal – in order to be al-Qaeda. You can be al-Qaeda by being a web administrator or graphic designer, doing things that are not against the law. In fact, you can now be al-Qaeda without even being al-Qaeda, according to Adam Gadahn’s “Call to Action” video.
To address this messy issue that few CT researchers seem to understand much less discuss in any nuanced way, I launched my ”Meet a Jihobbyist” series to cut right to the heart of this issue. My goal was to force our community to start peering into the understudied world of legal, open al-Qaeda. I intentionally chose unimpressive, banal individuals to profile – not the big bad terrorists who we tend to think of when we talk about al-Qaeda. And it is for this very reason that I’ve been getting reactions across the board in response to my series.
When you see a young kid’s face on my blog, even if it is in a photo gallery alongside images of terorist logos that he posted to the Internet, I’ll bet you were shocked. ”How can Brachman be publishing this sweet, young, innocent kid’s picture on his big bad nasty counterterrorism blog – especially when the kid hasn’t done anything?” – you might have asked yourself. ”Brachman’s such a bully!” or “Brachman is ruining this poor kid’s life who is just lost or venting or experimenting..” were all reactions I received.
The fact is that we are getting stuck on the very issue of what it is we mean when we talk about ”doing anything”?
If al-Qaeda is now mostly a group of guys around the world who talk about being al-Qaeda, or hoping to be al-Qaeda – and only a marginal percentage of those guys ever actually “become” al-Qaeda, then are they a threat? I tried to post provocative questions alluding to this issue without providing detailed analysis. I wanted to see how you, my reader, handled this issue. And the general response was anger that I wasnt answering my questions.
So, let’s go. Here’s some big analytical take-aways from this week’s subjects that will hopefully sate the demand I’m getting for more in-depth commentary on what all this means.
1. There are thousands of individuals from all walks of life and corners of the Earth who are actively using the Internet to consume and promote al-Qaeda and the global movement that it purports to spearhead. This, in fact, is the new al-Qaeda.
2. Many of these individuals are not full-time al-Qaeda propagandists. Far from it. They probably have never nor will never meet anyone officially associated with the actual al-Qaeda group. They just believe in the mission, the goal, the methodology or the allure. It is their version of fantasy football.
3. These individuals are also not one-dimensional. They have close friendships, good families, enjoy past-times and seem to have high self-esteem. They might also work out and take tough-guy pictures of themselves.
4. The Internet activity of these individuals tends to reflect the fact that supporting al-Qaeda fits into just one piece of the pie that is their lives.
5. That said, in their al-Qaeda online adventures, they intentionally create online personas, representations of themselves that they want the world to see. Remember, it is their choice to associate themselves with images.
6. The overwhelming majority of these individuals will never do anything more threatening than posting pro al-Qaeda content to the Internet as a way of supporting this movement. They might huff and puff, but they free ride off the fact that they know others will try to blow the house down.
7. In many cases, what appears to be support FOR al-Qaeda on the surface (like posting images of al-Qaeda personalities) is actually their way of finding self-empowerment, wherein al-Qaeda is merely the vehicle by which they can feel as if they too have overcome great odds or resisted an abstract enemy. In other words, it is not necessarily al-Qaeda that they love, but the feeling they get from thinking about what al-Qaeda has managed to accomplish vis-a-vis the United States.
8. The challenge for law enforcement and intelligence professionals is that they must be constantly looking for early indicators of an impending terrorist attack. There are many ways to structure those indicators – some are better than others. Specifically, the best indicators and warnings are not those grounded in demographics but in behaviors.
9. Unfortunately, there is a glaring dearth of research on behavioral patterns of people who support al-Qaeda but do not commit terrorism. In part, this is a function of a limited time and resources. In part this is a function of a lack of data. In part this is a function of a lack of expertise. And in part it is a function of the fact that it is not popular to look at people who have not crossed the line. Just look at your reactions to my attempt to do just that.
Readers assumed that I was trying to hunt these guys down or shame them, that I was trying to expose them as monsters just by reposting their image galleries on my site. None of that was the point. It was to see what all the fuss is about, and I was baffled that so many of my readers couldn’t get their heads around the exercise.
10. The basic conclusion from Week 1 of this series is that we have no idea, as a community, where that proverbial line is. We talk about it as if we do, but that’s in the abstract. The reason that this series is eliciting such strong emotions from my readers is because we haven’t gazed into the dissonance between what we thought we knew and what we actually know about people who swim in al-Qaeda’s recruitment pool.
Can you look at any of these subjects and say that you are 100% certain that they will never seek to support al-Qaeda in a more meaningful way than just posting pro al-Qaeda propaganda online? Or can you be 100% certain that they will? Are their clues that allow us to prioritize their “threat potential”? Or is the entire premise of this line of questioning flawed because we can’t assume they are bad until they are bad? Then how much support for al-Qaeda can somebody exhibit before we can agree on the fact that they are a threat? Or, given the changed nature of al-Qaeda, is any display of al-Qaeda itself a threat?
I’m not sure I have any better answers after this week of profiling these four subjects, but I sure as hell have better questions. Yes, this might be uncomfortable because it’s a lot easier to work from a starting point that sterilizes the mess of reality. But I’m not willing to do that, and I hope you’ll come along with me and actively participate in this as I drive forward, exploring the messiness, complexity and confusion of this “fence.”