Spontaneous terror

Numbers_1 In Ontario, over the weekend, 17 men were arrested. The charge against them: "plotting to attack targets…with crude but powerful fertilizer bombs."

In the world of counter terrorism, this group must represent a "mixed signal."

The "Ontario 17" were sophisticated enough to recruit widely and train in camps. Plus, they had the wherewithal to purchase 3 tons of ammonium nitrate. Apparently, this was a group to reckon with, and not merely loudmouthed hotheads at the Mosque.

On the other hand, 17 people is a very large group, almost certain to leak (or otherwise "give off") the group’s intentions.   Seventeen people produce a lot of ripples.  Plus, one member of the group, Qayyum Abdul Jamal, 43, was a hot head and a loudmouth, and, as the imam-like figure in the Ar-Rahman Quran Learning Center, a vitriolic presence widely known to the South Asian community in Toronto and the RCMP.  Apparently, the Ontario 17 hadn’t quite worked out the "stealth" part of the terror equation. 

But here’s what makes the Ontario 17 unmistakably scary: they have no ties to Al Qaeda.

In the great sandstorm of information with which counter terrorism must deal, spontaneous combustion must be the biggest threat. With enough time, talent and money, it should be possible to pick up the connected players. But what if we must also deal with rogue groups, people without ties to Al Qaeda, people who are self defining, self funding, self organizing, self motivating? Then the "threat universe" grows larger and less scrutable.

Anthropology and economics to the rescue? Those of us who loiter at the intersection of anthropology and economics may be qualified to make a contribution here.

The economics side of the investigation is probably well mapped. I bet, for instance, that every ammonium nitrate sale is now scrutinized by man and machine. What about the anthropological side? I would guess that we are now assuming that no one or group not connected to active, public, mosque-based worship represents a threat.

This is probably true. But what if it isn’t? Is there a group out there which is not only not connected to Al Qaeda AND not connected to a public place of worship? With the ethnography in hand, an anthropologist could help decide this question, and, enabled the pattern recognition of which economics is capable, identify what we should be looking at, if indeed an additional threat exists. (This would be an exercise in anthropological profiling.)

But as usual, I have made the anthro and the econ mutually exclusive, when the point of the undertaking is to bring them together. And this is indeed where it gets interesting. If we have the ideological, social, cultural, religious signals that the anthropologist can identify, brought together with all the transactional data and pattern recognition that the economist controls, and we make these fully iterative and interactive, zounds, this would be sensational. Now we can ask our anthropological questions on the strength of economic data, and the economic questions on the strength of anthropological data. (If only all the world worked like this.)

Now I know this is beginning to sound like an episode of Numb3rs where the older brother (Rob Morrow) gives the younger brother (David Krumholtz) a mountain of data, and after a couple of days of dreamy reflection with a kooky colleague (Peter MacNicol) and unbelievably beautiful research assistant (Navi Rawat), the younger brother returns with the criminal’s defining characteristics, favorite movies, and home address.

It could work like that, but I imagine it would be more like Bletchley Park, the English code breaking operation in World World II, lots of really smart people sitting around, searching the world of terror for signals both qualitative and quantitative, for patterns both anthropological and economic. There would be lots of beauty, brains, dreaminess and acuity in our Bletchley Park, but the exercise would have not an episodic character but a cumulative one, so that as anthropology and economics worked together over many months, the data, the analysis and the understanding would take on real power and precision.

Eventually, one would hope, we would know what the terrorists were having for breakfast (to paraphrase Field Marshall Montgomery’s praise for Bletchley Park). More important, we would be in a position to anticipate the "unknown unknowns," the threats that exist out there, but throw off no conventional signals to identify their existence and intentions. The very world of unknown unknowns would be smaller and less unknowable.

Post script

If you had asked me to predict whether a show about mathematics (a kind of CSI where math replaces science) would prosper, even after you had quaranteed big stars, big money, and big talent (the Scott brothers), I would have said you were dreaming. Which tells us, once more, that this culture is a lot like the weather in Ireland.  Don’t like it? Give it 5 minutes, and everything  will change.


Austen, Ian and Johnston, David.  2006.  17 held in plots to bomb sites in Ontario.  The New York Times.  June 4, 2006. here.

13 thoughts on “Spontaneous terror

  1. Steve Portigal

    There are some who believe that Al Quaeda is not even a real entity, that’s it’s a political construction meant to, I dunno, give the NeoCons more power by formalizing the thing we’re supposed to be afraid of. Yeah, that sounds conspiracy/knee-jerk-like, but separating the politics of it, for a moment, when we hear that these people aren’t associated with Al Quaeda, that’s a really loaded observation.

    Talking about the Al Quaeda brand as if it’s as formalized an entity as the NRA or the NDP is misleading, isn’t it? What do “ties” mean? What could they be tied to, or how could they be tied? I acknowledge only massive ignorance in this.

    Isn’t this a cultural movement? There were millions of bands in garages that had “no ties” to Iggy Stooge or Paul McCartney in that they didn’t receive funding or materiel from them, or correspond directly with them. But both acts (say) led to lots of other people picking up guitars and crowding into sweaty garages to try to take down the musical establishment.

    (okay this is a labored metaphor, sorry, it’s early).

    I think we don’t really even have the model right for looking at this stuff. Or maybe that’s the point of the ‘no ties’ observation.

  2. Brian

    Grant — You wrote “With enough time, talent and money, it should be possible to pick up the connected players. But what if we must also deal with rogue groups, people without ties to Al Qaeda, people who are self defining, self funding, self organizing, self motivating? Then the ‘threat universe’ grows larger and less scrutable.”

    In some ways Osama BL vs The West is a bit like Martin Luther vs Rome. When Luther tacked his note to the door, suspect groups began forming, and rogue operators found a calling. The Catholic Church never got the genie back into a stoppable bottle…

  3. Brian Moore

    That’s the idea behind self-sufficient cells. Al Qaeda isn’t like some nation where each guy can call his boss all the way up to Osama. Osama isn’t even in charge, because there’s no “in charge” to be had. The imams aren’t “in charge” either. Why does Osama release those videos? Why do the religious leaders proclaim such views in public? Because its ideology — you get out the message and let the expendable zealots else connect the dots. And you’re spot on in realizing it’s just like marketing.

    Major marketing departments don’t call up clients and arrange sales — they produce advertisements, stage press conferences — and hold exhibitions of their products. Then hope that people are influenced and turn to their brand independently. It’s also nice in the deniability department. That’s what September 11th and the London and Madrid attacks are. It is that disgusting ideology’s (label it whatever you want) trade shows. It says: “Look At Our Power” just like like car ads. Just more on the “killing the infidel” and less on the “high gas mileage!”

  4. steve

    Osama used to be in charge–al Qaeda had big camps, training centers, labs, payroll systems, etc. Then we smashed its infrastructure in Afghanistan, wiped out most of its top echelon, and started tracing the alumni of its camps. So the original AQ is no longer the same threat it was before 9/11.

    Now there is a separate threat, as noted by many of the commenters, from AQ-inspired but not linked groups. The downside is that these guys are hard to find. The upside is that they aren’t as competent as the original AQ cadre and so are easier to catch. There is little evolutionary pressure on them to get better, either, because getting caught ends the learning and reproduction process. (Plus, there’s the whole suicide thing, which reduces intergenerational transmission of knowledge, but doesn’t help us much because most of the suiciders aren’t the brains of the operation these days.)

    So we’re going to get hit by some of these guys when they get lucky. But I don’t think getting info off the Internet is equivalent training to going through camps with personal instructor contact (I’m a skeptic on university distance learning, too), so the threat level will be lower overall. The problem is going to be when new infrastructure gets set up somewhere else, whether Somalia or the wilds of Montana.

  5. Candy Minx

    Well, they aren’t connected to A-Q. I can profile the personality that lead these people to blog about blowing up the parliment buildings. The the leader is a malignant narcissist…and may flash affinities with other groups but gets off on being a leader and charismatic and having power to influence. followers often look the same and you will be well served by read The Secret Agent by Conrad. These guys always look the same. The Conffidence Man by Melville will have some insight too. They are jealous, conceited and not able to socialize or fit into many aspects of culture. Doesn’t matter whose culture it is , they are typically disaffected youth then when older narcissist shows up more and obviously they even want to compete and steal the thunder at houses of worship. We can recognize these traits in young children. These nihlists have always been with us for the last few thousand years and as long as we have a culture that disenfranchises folks we’ll always have nihilists. Be careful not to confuse an idea that any one who would construct a cell or individual goals like A-Q or Osama bin Laden or these nobs in Canada are faith based…no no they are textbook nihilists. They are related to Lex Luther, not Martin Luther. Meanwhile our fair Prime Minister has been lobbying to compromise womens and gays equality while these madmen are feeling disenfranchised. Good thing for the Mounties! Whew, if we had to rely on our phobic leader while he minces around government we’d be in trouble. Even Mrs. Cretien was able to bonk an intruder attacking government buildings.

  6. Tom Guarriello

    Candy’s comments lead to mine: leave room for the psychologist at this party as well, Grant. We can contribute some understanding the psychological characteristics of the individuals who become key members of the “persona brigades” that are these groups.

  7. Peter

    I disagree profoundly with Candy’s analysis:

    “They are jealous, conceited and not able to socialize or fit into many aspects of culture. Doesn’t matter whose culture it is, they are typically disaffected youth then when older narcissist shows up more and obviously they even want to compete and steal the thunder at houses of worship.”

    Western society has been here at least twice before. Once, in the 19th century, when a wave of anarchist bombings took place across Europe and the US, and only ended with the First World War. Even in far-off New South Wales in the 1880s, anarchists became a political movement to be reckoned with, until a clever Government gave away free land (thus dispersing them) and their leaders took the stongest supporters to found an anarchist colony in Paraguay (the New Australia settlement).

    And, before that, in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, when an oppressed Catholic underground engaged in activities which the English Government interpreted as subversive, and which led to widespread arrests, fines, acquisition of their property by the State, removal of their childen, torture, long-term imprisonment, and public executions. I think there are very strong similarities between modern-day suicide bombers and the Elizabethan Jesuits willing to be martyrs for their faith. One of the similarities is that in both cases we sophisticated westerners fail to understand their mentality, their motivations or their beliefs and attitudes. Yet, most of the Catholic martyrs were not loners, nor jealous, nor disaffected, nor narcisstic, nor conceited, nor any of the adjectives Candy uses. They WERE devout religious believers and felt that the ends (eternal grace versus eternal damnation) justified the means (eg, placing bombs in the basement of the Houses of Parliament). I was raised as a Catholic to believe they were correct to think this.

    So, I would add a good Elizabethan recusant historian to your multi-disciplinary team, Grant.

  8. Candy Minx

    Peter, in many ways you are agreeing with me. It is precisely this kind of “anarchist” that Conrad describes in his novel The Secret Agent. however, I believe profiling an nihilist, which is actually closer to this personality, is more accurate. it is a mistake to conceive them as religious fanatics. Yes, they may have outward speak of faith, but that is not faith. It is a way of thinking without a future, by phiosophically painting themselves into a corner. It is this guaze of romance that prevents, parents, neighbours, teachers from seeing these nihilists under their noses. Unfotunately, it took hundreds of people years to catch these lazy obvious dissenters. They should have had their asses kicked by their own parents and teachers. Yet another failure of responsibilty pointing to denial….and if not a mental illness a form of conditioning and depression masking as religious fervour. Some religious fanatics might take advantage of the mind set of a nihilist to inspire sermon making. Yes, I agree to that, in the same way that Nazis took advantage of sadists to do their dirty work. Steady boy, we need to stop these alienated folks before they develop momentum.

  9. Peter

    Candy —

    We don’t agree. I think that both groups of people — present-day Islamic suicide bombers and 16th-century Catholic Jesuit martyrs — are (or were) sincere people of faith. Your comment expresses my point exactly: that we present-day westerners have difficulty understanding such deep faith, and such people. To call them nihilists or accuse them of suffering mental illness just shows how inadequate is our conceptual framework and hence reveals our lack of understanding. Mis-understanding doesn’t help identify effective solutions to the problems caused by their violent actions, or help us identify likely future recruits to their cause.

    Since my ealier comment, I realized we have another recent example in western societies of violent political action: the various left-wing groups which engaged in violent direct action from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. For instance, the Weather Underground (in the USA), the Baader-Meinhof Group (Germany), the Red Brigades (Italy), the Nihon Sekigun (Japan), and the Angry Brigade (UK). These people had legitimate political ends and most members were certainly not insane. Most of their fellow citizens disagreed with their political ends (usually the overthrow of capitalism), and with their use of violence to achieve those ends.

    If we want to solve the problems of suicide bombers and groups engaged in violent direct action (whether religious-based or not), it behooves us to first understand the motivations and drivers of the people involved. To do this, IMHO, requires some empathy, however distasteful this may be.

  10. Candy Minx

    heh heh yes, well empathy? No you’re not gonna see empathy for some brats whose society has let them down and they are such sore losers they turn to violence. No, I know these guys I’ve seen them, and there is no empathy. God help them they don’t have to deal with me. I’d have no problem taking care of them. And before you arrest my grannie at mass tonight, you’re right. We don’t agree. First, I’m not really sure we can “solve the problem” of suicide bombers. I believe the parents, teachers and temple are as responsible for these kids alienation and means to plot these attacks as the kids and their personal mentors. These people were not looking for faith or practicing faith. I am diametrically (my fancy cliche word for the day) opposed to your naivete. Maybe you don’t have kids? But trust me, I know what a petualnt teen looks like. It’s not pretty and it’s obvious, and then “bliss” of religious fervour is obvious too. These people would have had “tells”. And as long as we think “oh okay they are adopting passion in their faith” we are going to miss recognizing these tells among each other. These parents and temple participants are every bit as responsible as the parents of the Columbine boys. If I mislead you by using mental illness as a metaphor I deeply apologize, my bad. Not mental illness but these nihilists have a social illness. They were lonely, they wanted friends, they wanted something to believe in and someone to look up to. It’s often a natural phase of growing up to ask questions, to doubt authority to feel disappointed in ones school or future. Most people, MOST people do not turn to violence.You are completely going to be oblivious if you think it was about faith. Alienated young people were channeled into idea motivated group dynamics. Please don’t insult people of faith with your ignorance of alienation in our culture. Faith, service and community participation are a long ways away from the brainwashing of a charismatic asshole leading with ideas for lonely deadendthinking people. Especially young people. A sick mentor should not be given empathy. I’d love to kick his ass. Interstingly enough, I happened to watch the third final installment of Star Wars yesterday. I hadn’t seen it yet…and it was a complete pleasant surprise to see that George Lucas had a firm grasp of what births a terrorist. The portrayal and transition of Skywalker into Dark Father was very well conceived. Who knew watching Star Wars would have been so relevant to this blog? Peter, I am sorry we disagree, i don’t like to fight for too long and I have really appreciated you taking the time to chat. You sound like a kind person and a lot more politically tolerant than me. All I can think about is how I would have so grounded those bloody kids and taken away their nintendo and their cars! Don’t you feel sorry for my kid? I wouldn’t let her wear logos or go to McDonalds! Take care…agree to disagree? Peace?

  11. Ginna

    Coming late to the question, if I may add something completely different. Grant, why are you so sure there isn’t a modern day Bletchley Park, and that it didn’t factor into the capture of these 17 and their cohorts in Britain?

    After all, ordinary citizens had no idea BP or anything like it was going on until years (20? 30?) after the war.

    Keep in mind that one of the biggest problems in intelligence is knowing something, and figuring out how to act on it without the other side realizing how you knew what they were up to.

  12. Peter

    “Keep in mind that one of the biggest problems in intelligence is knowing something, and figuring out how to act on it without the other side realizing how you knew what they were up to.”

    Ginna — It seems that the easiest way for our intelligence community to do this is just to ignore any relevant information. We in Britain have just learnt that the police were informed a couple of years before the 7/7/05 terrorist attacks on London about the suicide group’s existence and intentions, from a programmer who was helping them create a web-site. It seems that despite repeated attempts to inform the police authorities, this man was ignored. He was first interviewed after the fatal attacks.

Comments are closed.