SOFIR has a new post that I highly encourage my readers to check out. In it, Aaron takes on my concept of “jihobbyism,” correctly diagnosing one of its biggest flaws. Before I respond, I want to thank him for helping to advance this discussion. Aaron’s been at this a lot longer than me (or most anyone for that matter) and brings a great deal of wisdom to the table. I take his comments seriously and welcome them any time. It’s only in this kind of back-and-forth (the dialectic), that our community will make any headway on these complicated topics.
The money quote from SOFIR:
The problem is that the term jihobbyist conveys the notion that these guys are not serious, that they do not constitute a threat. In fact what these guys are doing is marking time while waiting for the opportunities and associations to appear that will allow them to become real jihadis.
I’ll actually see that criticism of “Jihobbyism” and raise it. First, I entirely agree with Aaron’s point that the concept runs the risk of making homicidal maniacs seem less maniacal. In some ways, that may be useful. In other ways, it’s entirely counterproductive.
It’s potentially useful in that it introduces shades of grey into the discussion: it acknowledges that people can support al-Qaida and wish death upon Americans without ever ‘joining up’ officially. In fact, it is the this recent convergence of ideology and technology that has helped give rise to this curious situation where utter dolts in their mommy’s basement are now ‘part of the movement.’ The bigger point underlying the term “Jihobbyism” is, I believe, is helpful for law enforcement and security professionals, whose resources and time are stretched thin and they are constantly trying to find metrics for prioritizing cases and problem-children like these guys.
It’s potentially counterproductive, however, in that it can lead some to believe that those who yack about loving al-Qaida online are not a “real” threat, or at least as much of one. This conclusion would be patently false, and thereby damaging to our overall counterterrorism efforts. Mocking as a way to delegitimize these guys (see the Freakonomics section on the KKK comic book) is useful as long as people don’t think that because I’m mocking them, I don’t find them to be a security threat. Funny and stupid does not equal innocuous. Indeed, it often equals unpredictable and rabid.
Another problem that I have with my own term is that it runs the risk of “reifying” a disparate ‘bunch of guys’ into something more concrete. “Reify” simply means that something potentially superimposes a coherence on phenomena that are not necessarily linked or coherent – in other words, making something that’s not “a thing” into “a thing.”
The term, “Jihobbyism,” also runs the risk of creating a false dichotomy between those who “do” and those who “talk.” The premise is flawed because “talking” is a form of “doing.” It may be less immediate in its consequences, but as we’ve learned, talking can actually be more dangerous than blowing stuff up: talking can serve as a force multiplier (See Abu Musab al-Suri’s influence on Western jihadis).
Beyond all that, the term is gimmicky and inherently imprecise in its application. I have neither clarified the bounds of what it comprises nor explained where it starts or where it stops.
Despite all these potential problems with the concept, however, I’m still hesitant to throw the baby out with the bathwater. One reason is that I think it has further encouraged the broader community (non-specialists) to recognize that there is a broad and diverse spectrum of activities that fall under the jihadi rubric. In other words, I think it has increased the overall nuance in public discussions about what constitutes support for al-Qaida.
So, kudos to SOFIR for taking my concept head-on. I agree wholeheartedly with the criticisms and will be the first to contend that ‘Jihobbyism’ is an imperfect concept that may, in fact, run the risk of diminishing these guys to the point of misunderstanding them. I do believe, however, that the overall thrust of the notion – that there are a host of ways to support al-Qaida – is useful.
With hope, the synthesis to this dialectical back-and-forth will be borne out of the minds of the bright students who are working on theses and dissertations. Dialog, engagement, critical thinking and open debate is what makes us better than them. Let’s embrace our diverse backgrounds and perspectives and find a way to crush these guys.