Thursday, March 4, 2010

Incidentals (4th of 5): apropos terrorist mindsets (à la STA and TIMN)

This post compiles a string of comments about jihadi and related terrorist mindsets that involve millenarian thinking. Most reflect my interest in STA, particularly a hypothesis that the keys to terrorist mentalities lie more in their spatial than in their time or action orientations. Some comments also relate to TIMN, because they spotlight the dark tribalism inherent in jihadi thought and action.

An off-hand remark about “loner tribalism” — meaning a lone-wolf tribalist differs from a lone-wolf terrorist — may be the only brand new notion I have here. Otherwise, what’s here, amid broader references to the study of millenarianism, are notions about tit-for-tat reciprocity, the “hubris-nemesis complex,” and the phenomenon known as “running amok.” At the end are: a rant about tribalism vs. religiosity in the “war of ideas”; and a note about how yesterday’s anarchists who used dynamite, the high-tech weapon of their time, rationalized turning science against “the system” — claiming justifications that today’s terrorists may yet replicate.

I made many of the comments because the topic interests me. But also, I thought that participation might help me grope a way toward finishing part 4 of my languishing four-part series of posts about millenarian aspects of terrorism. Ever since I first made notes for part 4 — over a year ago? — I've intended to focus it on implications for strategy, specifically on the need to generate splits between the incorrigible hard-core millenarians and the tag-along tribalists who may coexist in a movement. But we’ll see. At least I got to raise that idea in these comments.

Most of the comments occurred at Mark Safranski’s marvelous Zenpundit blog in the context of guest posts by Charles Cameron on millenarianism. While I reprise only my own comments here, interested readers should see the original posts and ensuing discussions there for the inputs from not only Cameron but also other experts on millenarianism, such as Jean Rosenfeld (UCLA), “DP” (al Sahwa blog), John Hall (UC Davis), and by email, Michael Barkun (Syracuse). Their discussions are more illuminating than mine alone.

Apropos these matters, I also left some remarks at the ICSR’s interesting FREErad!cals blog in a post by Am Samm on “Preventing, er, Countering Violent Extremism comes to America: Part One” in January 2010. But I said nothing different there from what I said at Zenpundit.

* * *

Cameron’s series at Zenpundit kicked off in August 2009 with a post about “apocalyptic vision” that focused on Mahdism (the Mahdi being “Islam’s end-times savior”). I noted:
An important, very interesting set of points. But oddly, it’s a topic that keeps having difficulty gaining traction among analysts and strategists. I once tried repeatedly in small ways years ago to urge that Al Qaeda et al. be analyzed as expressions of millenarianism — as millenarians who have a strategic sense, and not just as political and military strategists who have a millenarian bent. But my little efforts proved to no avail and usually led to dismissiveness (accompanied sometimes with distinctions about Sunnis vs. Shias, and jihadis vs. apocalyptic millenarians, that were said to counsel against thinking that Islam can exhibit the millennialism that has often cropped up in Jewish and Christian histories). . . .

Some of my key points: For starters, read Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium and Michael Barkun’s Disaster and the Millennium to become familiar with key themes and dynamics. Learn that the millenarian believes he/she faces not just relative deprivation (a favorite theme among conflict analysts) but absolute disaster (a more difficult theme for analysts to cope with). In addition, realize that the millenarian mindset is knotted up with urgent notions not only about social time (the “end times”) but also about the nature of social space (barriers everywhere) and social action (violent deeds to achieve divine breakthroughs).

. . . [O]ne point, perhaps too obvious, is to figure out how to drive wedges between the hard-core millenarians, who are not going to change their minds or relent, and the tag-along tribalists who amount to “accidental” millenarians. This might help us deal with dynamics within and among Al Qaeda, the Taliban and its various elements, not to mention Iranian actors. . . .
In September, I added an STA-related quotation:
. . . [A]n interesting attribute of millenarian religious groups is that they are often on the cutting edge in adopting new info tech, partly because it enables them to project their identity beyond previous capacities. As such, these groups reflect the kind of world view described by Marshall McCluhan and Quentin Fiore (1967?):

“Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of ‘time’ and ’space’ and pours upon us instantly and continuously concerns of all other men. It has reconstituted dialogue on a global scale. Its message is Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism. . . . Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. ‘Time’ has ceased, ’space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village. . . a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorce us.”

That is normally, famously quoted because of the “global village” notion. I offer it up today for its millenarian content. What’s important to millenarians is “time war” (Rifkin, 1987), not a “clash of civilizations” (Huntington, 1993).
* * *

In November, Cameron posted next about “speak the languages, know the modes of thought.” In it he referred to Islamist views about reciprocity, and I wondered:
What catches my eye right now is the following point, which is a bit off your main theme today, but I’d like to ask for more about it anyway: “Which powerfully reinforces the idea that bin Laden views his jihad against the US in terms of measured reciprocity — a notion which should give us pause every time we take an action which we would not choose to have taken against us…”

What I wonder about is the nature of a mind bent on measured reciprocity vs. a millenarian mind . . . . Millenarians, I gather, aren’t much into measured tit-for-tat thinking. If they are, then maybe they really aren’t all that millenarian. They may think they are on a righteous, vengeful mission ordained by god — but it’s so tit-for-tat that it falls short of being truly millenarian.

Or is there a spectrum of combinations? I can imagine a millenarian using tit-for-tat thinking as part of a rationale for wanting to inflict apocalyptic punishment. But I can also suppose that it’s a mental game that a millenarian leader uses to help explain his views to attract new adherents. If so, who/what may be examples of minds that combine millenarian with measured reciprocity?
Cameron, Rosenfeld, Safranski, and others provided extensive answers about the meanings and roles of reciprocity in jihadi thinking, in comments left not only in this post but also in a separate follow-up post. This opened an opportunity to recall a cosmic tit-for-tat involving the ancient yet modern dynamic of hubris and Nemesis:
. . . I used to regard tit-for-tat as a game-theoretic way for players to promote a kind of stand-offish equilibrium based on mutual deterrence. Later I realized that real-life tribal societies often have codes of honor that, when wrongs occur, require tit-for-tat retribution by means of compensation or revenge. Yet, this mundane notion of tit-for-tat tends to move away from fostering equilibrium and deterrence, the more that the actors (players, tribes, whatever) expand their spatial and temporal horizons to include wrongs that allegedly occurred far away and/or long ago. Thus, historic enemies in rival big-city gangs or Middle-Eastern sects may be caught up in nearly eternal, never-ending patterns of tit-for-tat that are said to be ethically justified in terms of measured reciprocity, but that in fact begin to break the boundaries of being either measured or reciprocal.

The millenarians that you, Jean Rosenfeld, and others keep illuminating seem to be aiming for more than mundane: a cosmic tit-for-tat. This does not apply to all millenarians, of course, for some seem to have in mind the eruption of a new age that will not require unusual punishment and purification. But the notion of a cosmic tit-for-tat does seem to apply to a lot of millenarians across a lot of religions — bin Laden among them — who long for a violent, ferociously righteous retribution.

All of which reminds me of an older dynamic — a cosmic tit-for-tat in Greek mythology — that antedates the religious texts we’ve discussed: the ancient dynamic of hubris and Nemesis, whereby mortals who exhibit hubris (the vainglorious, prideful pretension to be godlike) are struck down by Nemesis (Zeus’s goddess of divine vengeance and retribution). Narcissus is a classic example (hence the concept of narcissism as a kind of hubris). In a sense, bin laden is playing Nemesis to Western hubris.

But doesn’t bin Laden also exhibit a kind of hubris? I think so; and if so, then we can push the ancient dynamic in a new direction and speculate that he has a “hubris-nemesis complex.” In this extraordinary mindset, an actor not only exhibits hubris but also seeks to play Nemesis against something else that he or she accuses of hubris. The result is a rare, invigorating, all-consuming fusion: a charismatic hubris-nemesis complex.

Not all hubris-nemesis characters are millenarians (or vice-versa). But a bunch are: as literary archetypes, think Captain Ahab in Moby Dick; Satan in Paradise Lost. As real-life leadership examples, think Hitler, Castro, etc. (maybe even some of today’s talk-show hosts?). These are all rather millenarian figures, and in addition — to bring matters around to the theme of this and the preceding post — they all show interest in pursuing some kind of rather cosmic tit-for-tat. . . .

Source: Beware the Hubris-Nemesis Complex
* * *

Later in November, as a result of the Ft. Hood shooting rampage, Cameron posted his ”Analysis of the Hasan Slide Presentation” at Zenpundit (and simultaneously at the Small Wars Journal blog). My points — and here’s where running amok and loner tribalism enter the analysis — were as follows:
. . . Your analysis shines in contrast to other views I’ve seen lately. One deemed the presentation irrational — “just crazy” (commentator on Fox News). Another claimed it was dogmatic — a “crystallization of the SJ [Salafi-Jihadist] ideology" (a jihad-watchers’ blogpost). Yet, I’d say the presentation provides little to no evidence for those views [I was wrong about the latter]. I’m also surprised to see Hasan’s’ rampage at Ft. Hood being viewed (prematurely?) as possibly “a classic example of Fourth Generation war” (acc. to a DNI blogpost).

If I may shift to using a perspective that I like when analyzing mindsets — a perspective that says to look for underlying space-time-action orientations — I’d add and wonder about the following in conjunction with your points:

Regarding space orientations, the presentation conveys a tendency to structure matters — even to compartmentalize them — in terms of binaries and dualities, as you note: e.g., rewards and punishments, paradise and hell, God and country/state, Muslims and infidels. Of course, not everything is viewed in binary terms, but quite a lot. I’m wondering — and asking — whether such binary structuring, especially if a person thinks that ultimately all should be one under God, may add to the strain of coping with a mental balancing act in times of stress. I would think so. Your analysis detects the ambiguities in Hasan’s text. Perhaps coping with ambiguities is a lot harder for a binary mentality.

Regarding time orientations, the presentation reveals a concern with proper progression. As your analysis of the “timeline” reveals, the slides show that Islamic behavior may evolve in phases — from peaceful accommodation, to defensive jihad, to offensive jihad, depending on how Muslims are treated, and on the justifications for “abrogation” to proceed along the timeline. At the time of the presentation, Hasan does not himself appear to be far down this progression, as you indicate. But it’s interesting that he lays it out, a kind of warning.

As for action orientations, I have less to add. The presentation is thoroughly religious: Man should do God’s will. One phrase that catches my eye is on slide 49: “Muslims may be seen as moderate (compromising) but God is not.” . . . I’m supposing this remark is another clue.

Finally, your observations about “Hasan’s mind . . . as gradually becoming a sort of self-imposed prison, an echo chamber” remind me of the explosive reaction known as “running amok” in which a period of sullen underground brooding is followed by an outburst of sui-homicidal rage. Psychiatrist B. G. Burton-Bradley (1972), based on an analysis of amok-runners in Papua-New Guinea (the source of the term), once paraphrased their thinking as follows:

“I am not an important or ‘big man.’ Although poor, I have always had my sense of personal dignity and social identity. But I have had little else. Now even this has been taken from me and my life reduced to nothing by an intolerable insult. Therefore, I have nothing to lose except my life, which is rated as nothing, so I trade my life for yours as your life is favored. The exchange is in my favor, so I shall not only kill you, but I will also kill many of you, and at the same time rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the group of which I am a member, even though I might be killed in the process.”

Wow. That sounds like part of what happened to Hasan. Here, the meaning of the violence transcends its instrumental utility (an action orientation). It seems to be mainly about projecting an ego-identity (a spatial orientation), even more than about expecting to break through to a new future (a time orientation). Some terrorism has this quality. But so does most tribalism. Perhaps Hasan was expressing a kind of loner tribalism more than terrorism.
* * *

At the SWJ blog’s parallel version of the foregoing post, Cameron asked for clarification of the “loner tribalism” notion:
. . . It reflects a view I’ve held for some time . . . that a lot of Islamist and other kinds of religious terrorism expresses a demonic virulent kind of tribalism, more than the religion itself.

. . . [A] tribalist, including one who tribalizes any religion, is keen about expressing solidarity with a group identity; espousing a kinship of blood and brotherhood; distinguishing us from them; upholding codes of honor that make one extremely sensitive about respect, pride, and dignity; and calling for righteous vengeance against perceived insults. I’m detecting that Hasan yearned to defend his tribe (Muslims) more than to be a terrorist or jihadist (my understanding of what makes jihadists tick being more about the appeal of tribal than religious tenets).

. . . [H]e was thinking in Muslim terms, and he is a Palestinian Arab by background. But as someone (Shlok Vaidya?) noted, Hasan’s act was more like Columbine than 9/11. If so, that makes him, including his choice of weapons and the randomness yet categoricalness of his targets, quite “American” these days.

Similar recent perpetrators I recall in our country — e.g., that guy who shot the abortion doctor, the guy out to murder at the Holocaust Museum, and some incidents I don’t quite recall involving students or gang-bangers — were, I’d speculate, acting not so much as the lone-wolf terrorists they’ve been labeled, but rather as loner wannabe tribalists. What they most wanted was to express solidarity with a group identity that hadn’t quite accepted them, but that in their view needed defending against threatening others, even from the fringe where they tried to participate and belong.

Wasn’t Hasan like that? I do not mean to dismiss that he may have thought he was acting as a Muslim and Arab (note his clothing at the time), but he was into trying to be American too. Perhaps, in a sense, his premeditated violence served to amalgamate and harmonize all his multiple identities at once. At that awful moment, they were finally fused and proclaimed, rather than in conflict tearing him apart.

Thus my notion of loner tribalism — in part, a solitary, self-impelled effort to express identity and solidarity with a group to which they yearned but didn't quite get to belong.

Here’s an additional speculation: You, Jean Rosenfeld, and others have noted a lot of distinctions regarding varieties of millenarians, notably in discussions at Zenpundit. A distinction I’ve wondered about is between the true millenarians in a group/movement and the tag-alongs who amount more to “accidental millenarians” (to use a current adjective). The latters' mindsets tend to be more about tribalism (belonging to the group) than about millenarianism (blasting into a new future). If the distinction makes sense, the point would be to identify strategies and tactics to split the tag-along tribalists off and away from the hard-core millenarians. I’ve wondered about this a bit in regard to Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now I’m wondering about it in regard to Hasan.

From what I’ve seen so far, Hasan wasn’t a full-fledged millenarian. His act was apocalyptic, and some of the beliefs he included in his slide presentation had millenarian aspects. But, at least until recently, he was not far gone in that direction. Could he have been pulled back? Hard-core millenarians cannot be pulled back; they can’t be dissuaded or soothed. But tag-along tribalists may be another matter. . . .

Of course, these thoughts will prove moot and misplaced if evidence turns up that Hasan had in fact morphed into a fully committed, connected jihadist. Yet, if he had made only tentative efforts in that direction, which appears to have been the case with other solitary murderers mentioned above, then the notion of a loner tribalist running amok may remain more accurate than lone-wolf terrorist.
* * *

Later in November, Cameron posted at Zenpundit about “The Duel of Ali ibn Abu Talib with Amru ibn Abd Wudd.” In January, I spotted a new comment about the nature of honor — which triggered the following outburst about tribalism vs. religiosity:
. . . [Y]our comment about honor (which is to tribes what power and profit are to states and markets respectively), prompt me to reiterate this:

Suicide bombing, particularly if it kills noncombatant innocents, is more an act of tribalism than religiosity. One ultimate purpose of religion — meaning all major religions, and especially the Abrahamic monotheisms of the world’s most terribly tribal area, the Middle East — is to enable people to transcend the dark side of tribalism. To the extent that religionists of any creed enact this dark side and claim it is righteous and honorable to do so, they regress into a craven, divisive, vengeful, demonizing, bloodlusting tribalism. Along the way, they take God’s name in vain; they distort their religiosity; and they depart from that ultimate religious purpose noted above.

In my view, then, the interplay between tribalism and religiosity lies at the core of the “war of ideas” in this area. That so-called war has not gone well for U.S. strategists and their allies, in part because we have not known how best to grapple with jihadi narratives about the importance of being anti-imperialist and pro-Islamist on their terms. We have tried to show we are not so imperial and really do favor democratic development. And we have urged the displacement of extremist by moderate interpretations of relevant religious texts. But so far, all to little avail.

It’s time to rethink (again!) how to find our way through the “war of ideas” against Al Qaeda and its ilk: Narrative engagement along the political and religious lines noted above should continue, however slow and marginal their effectiveness. But I’d suggest fielding a new line about the relationship between tribalism and religion. We should attack the suborning of religion (any and all religions) to an extreme tribalism of the darkest kind. I’m not sure exactly how to accomplish this, but I’m sure it’s worth experimenting with. Figuring out how to ask the right questions, in depth and detail, relentlessly, about whether particular thoughts and actions are truly religious or just plain tribal may provide new keys to the battle over whose story wins.

Caveat: In proposing this, I’m not opposing tribalism in general, just the extremely dark kind. The tribal form of organization is fundamental to social evolution in all societies, past, present, and future. Getting the tribal form right matters; so does respecting its nature. I’m often just as worried about the dark sides of hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks. But in the case at hand, it’s the tribal form that’s in play, along with its implications for religion.
I’ve tried to argue for this view in various writings for some years now, but it never seems to gain much traction. Finding a clear convincing formulation still requires work. However, I detect a disincentive for proceeding in this direction; it is supposed to apply to the extreme tribalization of any religion. And that could mean that strategists in the “war of ideas” would have to decry tribalistic violence by Christian and Jewish sectarians along with Islamist ones, no easy task in today’s world. Meanwhile, I see that Lee Smith’s new book The Strong Horse (2010) may provide a supportive analysis, or so I gather from the excerpt — “Introduction: The Clash of Arab Civilizations” — recently published in the New York Times.

* * *

Finally, the irascible but illuminatory Fabius Maximus blog carried a post on “Are islamic extremists like the anarchists?” in December 2009. And I, still in a mood to comment on terrorist mindsets, hastened to impart that:

Today’s violent jihadis have two historical analogs that I like: one consists of the millenarians of the Middle Ages, which has received some attention at Zenpundit, notably via posts by Charles Cameron. The other analog consists of the 19th-20th century anarchists, and I’m delighted at the rare light you cast on this.

Many years ago we looked briefly at anarchists’ use of dynamite, the high-tech weapon of its time, as a possible analog for thinking about the potential appeal of nuclear terrorism for the kinds of terrorist groups that existed in the 1980s. Some themes we found in anarchist writings about dynamite that still resonate today included: using science against the system; empowering individuals to bring down the system; and breaking through to create a new time. The anarchists we looked at rationalized the usage of dynamite as a populist, scientific, moral, humane, and/or mystical-magical form of power.

Source: The Mindsets of High-Technology Terrorists: Future Implications from a Historical Analog (Rand, 1981)
In other words, if “they” can’t get us with their religion, they’ll try to get us with our science.


Charles Cameron (hipbone) said...

Hi David:

Thanks for your new series in general, and for this one in particular. Your presence with Zen, DP and others, alongside religious studies folks like Jean Rosenfeld and John Hall, made for some very rich conversations. I'll naturally miss your comments at Zenpundit and hither and yon across the net as you focus in on your work here, but these things have their seasons, and I wish you well with the projects you have in hand.


I was intrigued by your suggestion above, particularly as it regards Major Hasan and my comments on his slide presentation:

Of course, not everything is viewed in binary terms, but quite a lot. I’m wondering — and asking — whether such binary structuring, especially if a person thinks that ultimately all should be one under God, may add to the strain of coping with a mental balancing act in times of stress. I would think so. Your analysis detects the ambiguities in Hasan’s text. Perhaps coping with ambiguities is a lot harder for a binary mentality.

I think that's an excellent insight.

A comment springs to mind today, as I reread those words: Major Hasan may have been dealing with a double dose of ambiguities.

He has a legitimate question, about which he feels ambiguous, which is how he as a Muslim and a psychiatrist and a member of the Armed Forces is going to resolve the moral issues presented to him in his case study of Sergeant Hasan Akbar, who threw grenades into a tent full of officers at Camp Pennsylvania, Kuwait, in 2003 killing two -- this appears to have been a topic of special study for Maj. Hasan, and may indeed have been a focus for his entire slide presentation.

It appears to have been the FBI's sense when they first intercepted them, that Hasan's emailed questions to Sheikh al-Awlaki about the morality of killing US military personnel were legitimate questions for an army psychiatrist to be researching, in light of the Sgt Akbar event -- and since Hasan himself might need to counsel servicemen with similar questions in the course of his own work as a military physician.

So that's ambiguity number one: a research ambiguity.

And then on top of that he has a second ambiguity, that's far more personal: that between his topic of study, the case of Sgt. Akbar, and his own predicament, for which his study of Sgt. Akbar is arguably both an academic distancing device, and a sort of personal Rorschach blot.

That, I believe, is a useful distinction to bear in mind.

So Major Hasan is really, in your terms, a binary mentality coping with ambiguity compounded on ambiguity -- and when the whole thing collapses into a single imperative, the result is both powerful and tragic.


Thanks again!

mark said...

Much thanks for the nod and the links David.

re: "Loner tribalism"

As a concept, this strikes me as very Sergei Nechaev -ish in it's psychological orientation.

David Ronfeldt said...

excellent addition, charles, about hasan's "double dose of ambiguities." to extend the traditional notion of a double bind, this sounds like a double binary bind. as you elucidate, a dilemma to get out of of. can't be done easily.

David Ronfeldt said...

hey mark -- good point about nechaev. it rang a bell, so i checked aging still-to-be-finished draft on STA and found that right after i quoted the bit about amok-runners, i drafted the following years ago:

- - -

Spatial perceptions and values, among other things, are clearly central to this mode of thinking. The amok-runner formerly saw himself, not as a big man, but as a reasonably well-integrated actor. Then some terrible insult on wrong greatly diminished his personal significance and identity within his public space. The brooding period, as a form of going underground, represents a way of cutting oneself off from his normal social space, perhaps in order to gather up personal energies or self-assertiveness. This is followed by a violent reentry that seems like an explosive embrace of one's traditional social space. The amok-runner turned to violence in order to reestablish his presence in the eyes of other actors within his social space. The amok-runner seems highly dependent on others' estimations of his personal identity and worth. Moreover, his presence is to be reasserted by eliminating other actors of greater value.

The theme is central in modern revolutionary, and especially terrorist, writings that the revolutionary is a special kind of person, and that violence enables him to recreate not only the structure of his social space, but also his very identity and place in it. According to Nechayev in his Revolutionary Catechism:

"The revolutionary is a lost man; he has no interests of his own, no feelings, no habits, no belongings.... Everything in him is absorbed by a single exclusive interest, one thought, one passion--the revolution.

"...he has broken every tie with the civil order, with the educated world and all laws, conventions and generally accepted conditions, and with the ethics of this world. He will be an implacable enemy of this world; and if he continues to live in it, it must be only in order to destroy it. . . ."

As Bakunimin posed the argument, "The passion for destruction is also a creative passion."

- - -

someday i better finish that draft!

mark said...

"Then some terrible insult on wrong greatly diminished his personal significance and identity within his public space. The brooding period, as a form of going underground, represents a way of cutting oneself off from his normal social space, perhaps in order to gather up personal energies or self-assertiveness. This is followed by a violent reentry that seems like an explosive embrace of one's traditional social space. The amok-runner turned to violence in order to reestablish his presence in the eyes of other actors within his social space"

David, this recalls Dostoyevskii's novel The Possessed, with the interplay between Verkhovensky,Stavrogin and Kirillov. Was that the source of inspiration?

David Ronfeldt said...

hey mark -- what i wrote there was just my paraphrase of a quote i used above in this post (and in my aging draft chapter for STA about spatial orientations) regarding the nature of running amok as written up by B. G. Burton-Bradley, “The Amok-Runner in Cross-Cultural Perspective,” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 14, 1972, pp. 299-305. scroll up to see the full quote again at about mid point in main post here.

aha, yes indeed, it is rather dostoyevskiian. i don't have burton-bradley's paper handy to see whether he catches that (but i doubt he did). i've never read "the possessed" but i recall the tone from what i once read: "crime and punishment" and particularly "notes from the underground."