[#3 in a chronological series meant to update this blog with write-ups I failed to post during 2021-2022.]
This post logs the full draft (minus 26 footnotes) of the sub-section I offered to the project discussed in yesterday’s post. I was not under contract and received no remuneration, so the draft remains my property. I stripped the footnotes after having a series of formatting and pasting issues for posting online. But the sources all appear in the bibliography at the end.
A few key points from my argument:
• “In a phrase that will require explanation, terrorism used to be primarily a geopolitical problem for policy and strategy; today it is becoming as much a ‘noöpolitical’ as a geopolitical challenge. As the strategic environment evolves, so must terrorism research and database design.”
• “Terrorism’s increasingly noöpolitical phase may actually have commenced two decades ago — 9/11 was as much a noöpolitical as a geopolitical attack on America. The January-6 insurrection this year was, arguably, a primarily noöpolitical attack within America.”
• “As this grand evolutionary shift occurs — as conflicts become increasingly noöpolitical at home and abroad — terrorism research and database design will be pressed to adapt by placing more emphasis on ideational, cultural, cognitive, and perceptual data.”
That still reads on track to me, confirmed by trends at home and abroad over the past two years.
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Terrorism Database Construction in Global Strategic Perspective
As discussed in a linked publication, the RAND terrorism database of the 1970s and 1980s was appropriate to the time. But now, a half-century later, the times are very different — the world is different, terrorism is different. In a phrase that will require explanation, terrorism used to be primarily a geopolitical problem for policy and strategy; today it is becoming as much a “noöpolitical” as a geopolitical challenge. As the strategic environment evolves, so must terrorism research and database design.
Terrorism’s Primarily Geopolitical Phase
In the 1960s and 1970s, and well into the 1980s and 1990s, terrorism was viewed in primarily geopolitical terms. Policymakers saw terrorism, especially its international varieties, as a new kind of geopolitical threat, one that could damage and destabilize diplomatic, security, and other relations between governments, potentially generating problems along the edges of the larger Cold War. Thus, analyses of terrorist groups and their targets and tactics tended to be very country- and region-specific. In keeping with this primarily geopolitical focus, policymakers and analysts mainly focused on the hard-power capabilities and physical threats they may face from terrorists. Keeping terrorists from publishing a manifesto, a list of demands, or an interview in the media of the times (print magazines, newspapers, radio and television stations) — i.e., soft-power tactics — was of far lesser concern than hard physical violence.
RAND’s terrorism research reflected these geopolitical tendencies. The early incident chronologies and case studies were structured in largely geographic terms. While international terrorism amounted to a new mode of conflict, most of it remained country-specific, aimed at specific regimes and leaders. Having RAND assist in identifying potential geopolitical effects and implications was foremost in the minds of RAND’s key audience: U.S. policymakers and strategists.
Nonetheless, in early anticipation of things to come, RAND’s broader writings about terrorism back then were able to observe that most international terrorism amounted to “theater” and that “what terrorists want is not a lot of people dead, but a lot of people watching.” Moreover, as RAND’s research progressed, the team began delving more into terrorists’ psychological motivations, as well as into the psychological effects of their actions on government leaders and mass audiences. Terrorist mindsets and media influences — terrorists’ propensities for propaganda, deception, and psyops — began to emerge in the 1970s-1980s as new concerns, notably in writings by Brian Jenkins, Konrad Kellen, and myself, and later, by Bruce Hoffman. We were beginning to notice that, for some terrorists, occupying mental terrain was as significant as seizing physical terrain.
Thus, even though RAND data collection and analysis, not to mention policymakers’ concerns, remained geopolitically oriented late into these decades, RAND’s team began to sense that terrorism and its implications were evolving in directions that were more than simply geopolitical in nature. Terrorist groups were becoming more networked in some regions — a geopolitical development — as well as technologically more lethal (a hard-power development). But terrorists were also learning to create widespread soft-power as well as local hard-power effects. They endeavored more than ever to generate ideological, religious, cultural, and other ideational and “identity” effects, often by exploiting media attention.
Yet, in retrospect, U.S. policy as well as RAND research on terrorism during its early decades, the 1970s-1980s, remained mostly within a geopolitical frame. Indeed, the evolution in terrorism we just noted — this reorientation to create soft- as well as hard-power effects, to exert what today is termed “sharp power,” and to impose ideational as well as physical effects — did not start taking hold until the 1990s, near the end of this mainly geopolitical phase, on the eve of what becomes a vast revolution in information, communications, and social-media technologies.
Its effects were especially potent on the conflicts unfolding in the Middle East, where al Qaeda, IS, al Qaeda, and other jihadist formations constantly maneuver online to attract recruit and stun enemy audiences by means of graphic videos and other measures. Analysts everywhere struggled to make sense of these new modes of cognitive warfare. In one example of this, RAND co-sponsored a conference in 2014 — War by What Means, According to Whose Rules? The Challenge for Democracies Facing Asymmetric Conflicts — where the concept of “imagefare” was raised by Israeli communications specialist Moran Yarchi, as a contrast to warfare:
“Unlike the conflicts with achievements determined in the battlespace in which the main tool for overpowering is warfare, in conflicts with achievement determined in the information space, the actors should first and foremost consider image concerns and use imagefare: Imagefare is the use, or misuse, of images as a guiding principle or a substitute for traditional military means to achieve political objectives. The actors involved in the conflict attempt to promote their preferred messages through the media in an attempt to gain the public’s support and, ultimately, achieve their political goals.”
While this innovative term has not gained traction, the underlying ideas and observations certainly speak to wondering whether the geopolitical frame is as relevant as it used to be, and whether a new framework is needed. The sections below offer a preliminary but grounded speculation about that.
Terrorisms’ Emerging Noöpolitical Phase
Geopolitics — geopolitical thinking, geopolitical factors and forces — has long had a conceptual grip on how U.S. policymakers and strategists see the world. This concept, first coined in the early 1900s, dominated international strategic thinking all across the 20th century, especially the decades from World War I through the Cold War. Today, in these early decades of the 21st century, the concept still runs strong; many national-security analysts still hold that “Geopolitics matters, then, now, and always,” partly because “Hard power underpins soft power, and enables it”.
In hard-core national-security circles, those maxims seem barely debatable. But in their purest, most exalted form, they are starting to hinder strategic thinking, including about terrorism, largely because of how the digital information revolution continues to transform the world. Once debates do arise about the limitations of traditional geopolitical thinking for addressing today’s world, they are bound to affect, perhaps reshape, future terrorism database requirements.
During the 2000s, terrorisms’ evolution in the directions we noted above accelerated abruptly following the 9/11 attacks, as al Qaeda and IS arose, cyberspace and social media grew exponentially, and the U.S. government mounted its “War on Terror” around the world. Jihadi and other terrorist strategists began sensing, well before any nation’s anti- and counter-terrorism strategists sensed the same, that terrorism is as much about whose story wins as whose weapons win, and that success means targeting people’s mental as well as their physical terrains. Al Qaeda and IS would become masters, especially online, at causing the “fear and alarm” central to most definitions of what terrorism is and does.
The challenges terrorists pose today are still physical — they still conduct bombings, assassinations, armed assaults, etc., as lethal as ever. But today’s challenges are also more cognitive than ever. America’s adversaries everywhere — from nations to nonstate networks, including terrorist organizations — are using dark new modes of political, social, cultural, and psychological warfare against their opponents: wars of ideas, battles of stories, weaponized narratives, memetic viruses, epistemic attacks, etc., waged by way of information operations and narrative strategies, often to drive people’s thinking into information silos and bubbles — linguistic terms of art that mostly didn’t even exist during the foundational years of terrorism research at RAND.
Despite the ideational nature of many conflicts, most are still viewed as being primarily geopolitical in nature. This was the case during the Cold War, when it was framed as both a geopolitical and an ideological struggle, with the latter mattering mostly because of its potential geopolitical consequences. Lately, it has remained the case with analyses about the Arab Spring, the rise of the Far Right in Europe, Hindu-Muslim clashes in South Asia, protest movements in Hong Kong, and secessionist movements around the world — with some being treated as terrorism by local governments. Yet, on closer examination, none of these recent movements are primarily geopolitical in nature; they are equally if not primarily ideational.
Since these new modes of conflict are being used to confound people’s minds, subvert their institutions, fracture their cultures, and polarize their societies, is it not time to see that geopolitics alone may no longer be the best way to frame and explain them?
Classifying them as ideational or cognitive or soft-power in nature, is an easy way to go; such language is widely accepted and is largely the practice today. However, realizing that it may be better to classify them under a new category — as “noöpolitical” — can lead to a more accurate, encompassing grasp of the strategic forces and dynamics at play as we move deeper into the digital information age.
The words “noöpolitics” and “noöpolitical” stem from long-ago observations that our planet is finally giving rise to a long-predicted “noösphere” — a term derived from the Greek root “noös” meaning “mind.” The term originated a hundred years ago when three scientists — French theologian-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French mathematician Edouard Le Roy, and Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky — met in Paris in 1922, in order to discuss Earth’s evolution as a planet.
For them and fellow scientists, it was already accepted knowledge that our planet first evolved a globe-circling geosphere, consisting of its geological mantle; and that next to evolve was a globe-circling biological layer, or biosphere, consisting of all plant and animal life, including humans — in other words, the terrains of geopolitics. What Teilhard, Le Roy, and Vernadsky (still revered in Russia) proposed was that a third layer would eventually grow atop the other two: the noösphere — a globe-circling “realm of the mind,” a “thinking layer,” in later wording a “web of living thought” and “common pool of thought” that will lead to an “inter-thinking humanity.” These were powerful innovative insights at the time; they remain so today. People today commonly talk about “cyberspace” and, more broadly, the “infosphere” as information realms — yet the noösphere encompasses both, and more.
The noösphere concept has yet to go mainstream in common parlance, but select scientists and intellectuals have advanced it for decades. Immediately after World War II, its proponents helped inspire the creation of the UN, UNESCO, and other “noospheric institutions.” The concept attracted wide (though fleeting) public attention in Europe and America in the 1950s and 1960s, following the posthumous publication of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s books: The Phenomenon of Man and The Future of Man, which became best-sellers. In the 1990s, the concept gained new legs, especially among Wired magazine fans, following the emergence of cyberspace, which was said to be “hardwiring the noosphere.” Today, the number and variety of online institutes and other platforms in favor of the concept keeps expanding. It won’t be long before new initiatives advocate far and wide for noticing the noösphere’s emergence. As words, noösphere and noöpolitics are not “trending” yet, but they will before long.
For the most part, proponents have wanted the noösphere’s emergence to serve their interests in and hopes for global peace. Indeed, most proponents today associate the noösphere’s emergence with improving the prospects for world peace.
Nonetheless, the three original conceivers of the noösphere predicted that its transitional phases could be turbulent and that conflicts would arise to control it. Today, nearly a century later, this is already occurring in many areas — on occasion explicitly, as when it is said that the “memetic tribes” fighting America’s various domestic culture wars seem “locked in a Darwinian zero-sum war for the narrative of the noosphere, the sphere of human thought.” Meanwhile, usage of the term noöpolitics is starting to spread in spots in Europe. and Russia as a contrast to geopolitics and/or as a concept for critical thinking about information domination and warfare in cyberspace
Meanwhile in Russia and China
The noösphere and noöpolitics, far from seeming to be odd fringe concepts, are proving attractive to America’s adversaries, notably Russia and China. They are developing new concepts akin to noöpolitics, better and faster than are American strategists, implicitly acknowledging that noöpolitics is on the rise relative to geopolitics.
This trend began in the 1990s, when adversaries and competitors of the West — from nation-state actors like Russia, China, and Iran, to nonstate networks like Al Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS), and Wikileaks — quickly learned to develop and deploy dark modes of soft power, especially online, against America and its fellow democracies.
Since then, Russian strategists have developed the non-military, political-warfare concept they call “gibridnaya voyna” (usually translated as “hybrid war,” but “social netwar” might be more accurate). This concept arose from assessments that Russia lost the Cold War not because of the West’s hard power, but because the West used information-age soft-power measures — e.g., support for civil-society movements like Solidarity in Poland — to collapse the Soviet Union, and then to set Russia back through support for the Arab Spring and Color Revolutions. Russia’s intent now is to turn this concept around and use it against the United States, perhaps even inside our country.
While “gibridnaya voyna” is not explicitly about the noösphere or noöpolitics, other Russian concepts are. In particular, Alexander Dugin, Russia’s famed expert on geopolitics and information warfare (he helped formulate gibridnaya voyna) has focused since 2013 on articulating “Noomakhia” — his concept for theorizing about “Wars of Minds” that he says characterize all civilizations, defining their inherent natures and affecting how they rise and fall. So far, Dugin’s unusual publications on noömakhia seem quite historical, philosophical, and theoretical, often weirdly so — but the concept could easily be given operational import if Russian strategists so desired.
It makes sense that Russian theorists and strategists lead in formulating noos-related concepts. For they trace back to Vernadsky, co-founder of the noösphere concept in 1922, who became evermore influential as a scientist in Russia. It may also be worth noting that, for decades, Russians supported unusual international conferences about the noösphere that attracted odd new-age and far-right believers from the United States and elsewhere.
While explicit references to noos-related concepts are lacking in China, its strategists are currently intent on developing the most noöpolitical concept to be found in adversarial circles: “discourse power” — a combination of ideological, ideational, and psychological measures for scripting what people think about China and its growing reach around the world. This is manifested not only in Beijing’s international narrative strategies, but also in its aggressive efforts to expand media operations worldwide (particularly in nations tied to its Belt and Road Initiative), and improve its social media presence (and surveillance). Spreading propaganda and managing perceptions about controversial issues fall under this concept. More to the point, Chinese military and special-operations thinkers are working hard to develop China’s capabilities for “cognitive domain operations” for non-military as well as military purposes.
In sum, U.S. adversaries have already detected, quite effectively, that noöpolitical factors and forces are gaining in significance, alongside more traditional geopolitical ones; and that grand strategy is coming to depend as much on noöpolitics as geopolitics. Their conceptual arsenals appear to be more developed and diverse than our own at this point. We do not know what effects this conceptual turn may have on terrorism analyses (and databases) in Russia and China, not to mention other state and nonstate adversaries, but the question may be worth asking.
Future Implications for Definitions and Databases
As noted above, RAND’s early research on terrorism arose in a primarily geopolitical environment. Today, a half-century later, and largely because of the spread of digital information, communications, and media technologies, the world has changed so much that it is time for national-security policymakers, strategists, and analysts to begin putting noöpolitics on a par with geopolitics, including for anticipating, deterring, and responding to likely future bouts of terrorism.
At first, readers may have difficulty accepting that “noöpolitics” is a valuable new concept. If so, bear in mind two clarifications: First, it would be an error to view it as simply new jargon for repackaging an old concept, “soft power.” Noöpolitics is indeed largely about “soft” forms of power, just as geopolitics is mainly about “hard” forms of power. Yet, just as geopolitical actors are often concerned about making moves that have the right kinds of psychological and ideational (i.e., noöpolitical) effects — e.g., as in foreign port visits by a mighty U.S. aircraft carrier, or a “shock and awe” bombing campaign — so does growth of the noösphere, thus noöpolitics, require a hard physical basis: vast technological installations, systems, networks, and other infrastructures for information and communications around the world — e.g., myriad undersea cables, land-based towers, space satellites, server farms, plus vast arrays of surveillance and monitoring systems, as well as what is usually mentioned, the Internet, cellphones, computers, all sorts of media platforms, etc. Hardly any of this infrastructure existed when RAND terrorism research began in 1973; today, a half-century later, it is still in its infancy, still blossoming. Continued expansion of this hard infrastructure will make it increasingly difficult to be dismissive about the rise of the noösphere and noöpolitics.
Second, just as geopolitics is a very broad concept — an aggregator of all sorts of factors and forces that drive territorial interests and actions — so is noöpolitics a broad concept. It encompasses not only cyberspace and the infosphere, but also realms of values, ideas, ideology, philosophy, religion, culture, cognition, psychology, propaganda, public diplomacy, identity politics, etc. Of all these concepts, noöpolitics is the most encompassing; only it can stand on a par with geopolitics. So long as national-security research analysts continue to prefer narrow concepts and categories as their foci, such as ideology, culture, credibility, or identity, they risk being slow to see that these concepts and categories are all overlapping interconnected facets of the noösphere and noöpolitics — which means they risk leaving the strategic and analytical high ground to experts at geopolitics as we enter eras when it will be advisable, even essential to think in terms of noöpolitics as well as geopolitics.
Terrorism’s increasingly noöpolitical phase may actually have commenced two decades ago — 9/11 was as much a noöpolitical as a geopolitical attack on America. The January-6 insurrection this year was, arguably, a primarily noöpolitical attack within America. It may not qualify as a terrorist act, but besides involving violence that spread fear and alarm, it was committed by people in a high state of deliberate inculcation with fear and alarm.
If these speculations are correct about an ongoing shift in the global (and domestic?) strategic environment, what new light may this shed on terrorism? On how to look ahead? On what kinds of acts may be more likely in the future? On what kinds of databases may prove germane not only for analyzing events, but also for anticipating, deterring, and otherwise responding to them? Here are some tentative preliminary speculations:
• Analytical debates about how to define terrorism in operational terms seem likely to go through another challenging round, this time with a new emphasis on the meaning of “fear and alarm” and on specifying measures for assessing it, this time at societal as well as group and individual levels. What may prompt this, as well as complicate it, is knowing that American society at large appears to be more rife with fear and alarm than ever before, mostly as a result of political polarization and tribalization (i.e., malignant noöpolitics). To make matter worse, there are now numerous politicians, preachers, pundits, and partisans for whom manufacturing fear and alarm is a business model.
• Noöpolitical approaches to conflict already have rising appeal among tribalized groups on the far-left and, even more so, the far-right in Europe and the United States. Members seem increasingly animated by and susceptible to cognitive warfare. Prospects of this resulting in violent terrorist-type incidents within the United States seem likely to increase among political, religious, and cultural factions and militias, especially where such groups may be influenced by and networked with seemingly like-minded outside groups. While they generally use other language, they are set on fighting for control of the noösphere (or their own mini-noosphere) as they see it, be that to expand their own or defend it from expansion and domination by somebody else’s. (Earlier examples of this are anti-abortion and anti-Semitic terrorism.)
• Mindset analysis seems likely to re-surface as a crucial concern for terrorism research and database construction. As noted earlier, “mindset” remains an imprecise concept. Most analyses rely on psychological and ideological criteria for determining people’s mindsets and worldviews. Yet, terrorism analysts may find that new attention to cultural data would now be helpful. More systematic ways of assessing people’s social cognitions (especially their space, time, and efficacy perceptions) may be increasingly crucial for database construction and analysis. So may narrative analysis, since so much depends on the creation and communication of strategic narratives, and on the interactions among different narratives.
• Just as earlier terrorism aimed mostly at geopolitical kinds of targets, such as government officials and buildings, so a more noöpolitically-oriented terrorism may add new kinds of targets, ranging from nonstate actors to cultural institutions to media infrastructures. While iconic forms of geopolitics pit arms against arms, noöpolitics pits “weaponized narratives” against each other in battles over “whose story wins” — the essence of noöpolitics.
• State-sponsorship of terrorism may occur more easily from afar. As the noösphere and its instruments grow, such sponsorship can become less about shipping arms and other material goods to secret groups and individuals, and more about exploiting online platforms (if not proxies, plants, and patsies) for inducing reactive conditioning, deploying weaponized narratives, and otherwise subverting from afar as well as within, perhaps so slowly and nudgingly as to be nearly undetectable and unidentifiable. State sponsors may act for noöpolitical as much as geopolitical purposes, seeking cognitive more than geographic ground.
· In light all this, noöpolitical mapping may become more important to database designers and displayers. Geopolitical strategists love maps — nothing is more iconic than 19th-20th Century pictures of them hovering over a map discussing its geography, built-up structures, and the positioning of forces. Mapping enables strategists and analysts to visualize a strategic landscape, the better to grasp what they are up against and where their advantages and opportunities may lie. Noöpolitically-oriented strategists and analysts will need maps too, but of a very different sort — e.g., maps that display and track mental movements and terrains. Preliminary attempts to do so were made for the wars against Al Qaeda and IS, especially online. But it should be expected that far more advanced and radically different kinds of maps may become possible in the future.
As this grand evolutionary shift occurs — as conflicts become increasingly noöpolitical at home and abroad — terrorism research and database design will be pressed to adapt by placing more emphasis on ideational, cultural, cognitive, and perceptual data. At the same time, public knowledge of this could trigger, even amplify, the tribalizing narratives that already trouble many Americans about being subjected to surveillance, monitoring, profiling, data mining, and other measures that may be perceived as infringing on personal freedom, privacy, identity, and individuality. As RAND analyst Konrad Kellen remarked about mindset analysis in 1982, “in the end, the mindsets of the sympathizing audience and the government officials who must respond to the terrorist threat may be equally significant for the course and conduct of terrorism.”
Thus, on the one hand, mindset and other noöpolitically-oriented terrorism research and database construction may become increasingly essential in order to safeguard domestic peace and assure national wellbeing. But on the other hand, such research could become far more controversial and questionable than terrorist incident research ever was, especially if artificial-intelligence (AI) and Big-Data processing become involved.
Extra care and skill may thus be indispensable if/as analysts move deep into mindset-related research for domestic (or international) security reasons. Yet it can be done. Indeed, recent RAND work on ancillary topics — notably, “truth decay,” “cognitive security,” and “deradicalization” — provide positive innovative examples of how to approach sensitive domestic matters in order to address the polarization and tribalization besetting our society.
In sum, the next phase of terrorism research seems likely to develop in a noöpolitically charged environment. The advantage will go to those analysts and database builders who learn to think and work in noöpolitical rather than older or narrower terms.
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