Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Engineers of Jihad

I recently found a paper entitled "Engineers of Jihad" (pdf file) by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog. The paper covers a number of aspects including:

  • The overrepresentation of engineers within Islamic extremist groups.
  • The mentality of Engineers, and how this mentality marries up with some aspects of religious extremism.
  • The engineers' social conditions in Islamic countries.

A few blogs, and a message board, have good discussions on the pros and cons of the paper.

There are also a number of interesting ideas in the paper. One paragraph in particular was worth noting. The snippet below was part of a larger discussion on the corresponding worldviews between Islam and right-wing extremism and the features that correspond. It states:
"One such feature is a corporatist and mechanistic view of the ideal society. Reinhard Schulze has detected a “cybernetic view of society” in modern Islamism (1990: 22), which aims at preserving integrity in the social order." (pg 48)

Another paragraph on worldview features stated Islamist engineers in Turkey have a
"strong belief in the superiority of logical and technical approaches towards societal issues, and see themselves as problem solvers, as “social engineers”, superior to the Kemalist elite of jurists preoccupied with debates on abstract ideas (1990: 172f.). They assume to know the “one best way” of improving society, and feel therefore entitled to speak in the interests of all (Göle 1990: 174)." (pg 49-50)

The terms a “cybernetic view of society” and "social engineers" strike a chord with me. It could be seen in other terms such as a "systems view of society" and "Fourth Generation Warriors" who wish to engineer the minds of a society through propaganda. What if this systems view was backed with bad intentions? Or alternatively, the view was used to create social disorder. Perhaps the concept of systempunkts is how Islamic extremists really do think. Their worldview is the same, but their aims have changed.

This line of thinking brought me to something the paper glossed over in the recruitment part, that is, the knowledge that engineers bring to a terrorist organisation. Now, I'm not an Engineer, but I have played with Lego blocks, so I'm going to offer an opinion on other worldviews, and knowledge, that an Engineer could bring to the fold. I'll use Henry Petroski's thoughts to guide us through this.

Henry Petroski wrote a book entitled "To Engineer is Human: The role of failure in successful design" which is about what engineers do. In short, according to Petroski, they deal with design and failure. Petroski believes that "the colossal disasters that do occur are ultimately failures of design".

Perhaps one aspect of the engineering worldview applied to terrorism is the ability to get inside the designs of any system to spot, and amplify, those failures. Which is similar to the systempunkt concept. Perhaps Islamic extremists are strategists of failure. They look for failures in the design from the tactical to the strategic. From the use of explosively formed penetrators on armoured vehicles, to making sure a nation-state cannot put itself together with day-to-day governing.

Another point that Petroski brings up is "human tastes, resources and ambitions do not stay constant ... this constant change also introduces many more aspects to the design and analysis of engineering structures than there are in the structures of unimproved nature, and constant change means that there are many more ways in which something can go wrong." Which echoes the words of John Boyd in creating a situation where an organism, or group, cannot keep up because of consistent change. So an aspect of finding failure is to create change and chaos.

Another concept Engineers deal with is "How long does something last until it breaks?". Or as Petroski puts it "Engineers deal with lifetimes, both human and otherwise ... The lifetime of a structure is no mere anthropomorphic metaphor, for how long a piece of engineering must last can be one of the most important considerations in its design." Engineers deal with long-term thinking, so for that thinking to carry over to an Islamic terrorist group, there would be long-term strategic thinking on their behalf. The lifetime of a structure could be something non-physical as well. How long does a terrorist group last until it breaks? Perhaps Al Qaeda factored in their leaderless ideology long before their social network breakdown after 9/11, or in the words of Petrotski "Success is foreseeing failure". Also, at the core of 4GW and Insurgency strategy, and something that many members of these Islamic groups are thinking, is "How long do western nations last until they break?".

There are many other concepts that an Engineer could bring to such a group, and twist them for nefarious means, like failure analysis, limit state design etc. I think I've covered a smidgen. In finishing, I realise there is a more pertinent issue at hand ... what FOX-esque buzzword shall we name them ... Terrorgineer? Bahadur the Builder? or something else? For those crazy semantic wordsmiths out there put your ideas in the comments.


Anonymous said...

I would be interested in an exploration of this concept from a 5GW standpoint. Two viewpoints seem to jump out at me. First the shape of an organization of engineers who use 5GW doctrines. Second, how a 5GW organization may attack 4GW organizations whose operations are guided by an engineering mindset.

Nice article.

Pangloss said...

Good article.

To the challenge:

* Babar the Bomber
* Abu Shahid the Engineer
* The more prosaic "Terror Engineer" is plenty descriptive.

Pangloss said...

An organization of engineers who use 5GW doctrines would be pretty much identical to Al Qaeda in its operations against the "far enemy". A revolutionary vanguard working the information war as hard as they can, with the terror destabilizing their "near enemy" and messing with the minds of the naive and foolish among the "far enemy's" populace, all the while working the internet, both public and dark, with all their might to create an ideology from their vanguard that can be communicated like a meme plague to susceptible hosts within the far enemy's populace, there to transform them into little brainwashed Al Qaeda wannabes who keep on popping up and getting more and more sophisticated every year, until in a hundred years, or two hundred, or five hundred, or a thousand, or ten thousand if need be, they will finally conquer the whole world for Allah. And then it's time to purge the Muslim ranks of the insufficiently pure so the world can come to its end.

The job of opposing 5GW counterjihad infowarriors is to come up with our own memes. It must be possible to defeat the Al Qaeda meme of oppression, slavery, savagery and mass murder with a more attractive, more competitive meme of individual liberty. I am certain that this meme war is GWB's intention with the battle of Iraq, and it's clear from AQ's intercepted interior communications that it is what Al Qaeda fears from Iraq.

Jay@Soob said...

Excellent article, Munz. I like the idea of delving deeper into the tactical, even scientific aspects of what we call terrorism.
This paper blows a massive hole in the all too common and myopic "they've embraced the Islamo-nihilist cause 'cuz they're poor and down trodden" misnomer.
Boyd and Petrosky seem to have maintained a strikingly similar theme despite their respectively different realms of study. And John Robb seems to accidentally fall between the two. Disruption of the OODA loop via Boyd, hollowing out of the state via Robb, "systemic disruption and consequent reverse engineering of the state" via your application of Petroski.

Good stuff.

G said...

Arherring: Good point about the 5g vs 4g mindset. Given the amoung of persons in Islamic terrorist groups who are engineers perhaps there Orient part of their OODA loops is influenced by engineering concepts which there would be room to take advantage of. Pangloss has a link to Engineering from a Memetic standpoint, which I hadn't thought of. I believe you guys over at Dreaming 5GW have also covered a similar topic.

Pangloss: Nice names and good thoughts. I'll have a more indepth read of your post on Memetic engineering on your blog in the next few days and comment on it.

Jay: Yeah, everything seems to be intertwined, the more I read and experience the world, the more I think of the concept of Consilience (in the E.O. Wilson sense). You are right about the idea about delving deeper into the tactical and scientific aspects of Terrorism. There are a lot of books about the ideology (Looming tower and Mary Habeck's 'Knowing the Enemy' come to mind) but there is little on the tactical (Poole or Venzke's 'Al-Qaeda Threat' are good though) and next to none on the orientation part of their OODAs, that is, what really drives the group? Ideology of course, but other ideas, norms (or memes) are important to their worldviews?