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Culture, Networks and the Costs of Ignorance


On 16 December, Jarret M. Brachman, author of Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice (2008)―and fearless blogger―gave testimony before the US House Armed Services Committee’s Sub-committee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities.  The topic of his statement was ‘cyberspace as a medium for radicalisation and counter-radicalisation’ and should be required reading [pdf] for all those interested in the relationships between online technologies and people’s transitions to violence of thought and action.

Jarret cites a series of 2009 case studies, all characterised by some level of online activity―Nicky Reilly, David Headley, the Sargodha Five, Hasan Nidal, Najibullah Zazi, all of whom have been discussed on this blog over the last few months.  No surprise that the internet has played a role in all these foiled plots, and Jarret moves swiftly on from this element of radicalisation to address a much broader point about US policy.

His observation is that the US is ill-equipped to engage in the ‘war of ideas’ because it has insufficient intellectual capital to do so.  Jarret maintains that the US has no equivalent to the Norwegian FFI’s TERRA program, for example – a dedicated centre for the study of Islamist ideology and culture.   Jarret’s reasoning is summed up best thus:

History, culture and language are the keys to long-term national strategic endurance.  Understanding the world, not on a reactionary, threat-by-threat basis, but from a global perspective is the preferred approach, and a lesson that was not seemingly learned from the Cold War.

We have seen glimpses of the US admitting this.  The flawed Human Terrain Systemis an attempt to redress the institutional paucity of area experts by employing civilian social scientists in the US Army.  I recall (hopefully not erroneously, as I can’t find the source) some figures from a couple of years ago suggesting that when the US finally invaded Iraq in 2003, their in-house language skills were such that only a single officer spoke Kurdish, for example.  No-one’s suggesting that the US must have staff competent in every language of the world but when the Middle East is one of your strategic priorities it pays to have people who can converse with those who live there.

The importance of cultural understanding applies to almost every field of human intervention―medicine, law, social policy, commerce, etc.  It’s not for nothing thatHSBC claims to be ‘the world’s local bank’.  Jarret recommends that a program is implemented that allows for ‘creative, collaborative academic scholarship’, with the first step of developing an online platform where ideas can be exchanged about jihadi ideologies and cultures; mirroring, in fact, the ways in which jihadis and Islamist use the internet.  A network to counter a network.

This does raise questions about the relationships between the academy and government, however, not least of ethics and autonomy.  Academics who work in security policy should constantly be aware of their own epistemological stance and seek to be open about what it is they do and why.  Although Jarret states that the US ‘needs to invest in up-and-coming scholars doing work on social, cultural and historical topics, particularly when it does not seem directly applicable to operational necessities at-hand’ (my emphasis), I can see a lot of academics bristling at the idea of conducting research just in case it becomes useful to government.

It’s not for me to decide for government or scholars what they research and why, although I’d obviously be happy for more state investment in research, with obvious caveats.  I think that Jarret’s ideas are useful for one simple reason though: I’d rather the US and its allies acted with cultural understanding than without it.  Academics surely do not know all but as Karl Popper said: ‘Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.’ The last eight years reminds us of the costs of action at the expense of understanding.