Achille’s Dark Heel

Raymond Kelly

John Arquilla

“The Internet is the new Afghanistan,” [New York police commissioner Raymond] Kelly said, as he released a New York Police Department (NYPD) report on the home-grown threat of attacks by Islamist extremists. “It is the de facto training ground. It’s an area of concern.”

The report found that the challenge for Western authorities was to identify, pre-empt and prevent home-grown threats, which was difficult because many of those who might undertake an attack often commit no crimes along the path to extremism.

The report identified the four stages to radicalization as pre-radicalization, self-identification, indoctrination, and jihadization, and said the Internet drove and enabled the process.

Internet is “the new Afghanistan”: NY police commissioner, By Michelle Nichols and Edith Honan, Reuters, Wed Aug 15, 3:51 PM ET

Nevermind that this makes about as much sense as saying “the telephone is the new Afghanistan” or “talking is the new Afghanistan”. Of course the Internet enables that process! The Internet enables every communication process.

Let’s look beyond communication and information to what people think they know because of those things:

As the information age deepens, a globe–circling realm of the mind is being created — the “noosphere” that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin identified 80 years ago. This will increasingly affect the nature of grand strategy and diplomacy. Traditional realpolitik, which ultimately relies on hard (principally military) power, will give way to the rise of noöpolitik (or noöspolitik), which relies on soft (principally ideational) power. This paper reiterates the authors’ views as initially stated in 1999, then adds an update for inclusion in a forthcoming handbook on public diplomacy. One key finding is that non–state actors — unfortunately, especially Al Qaeda and its affiliates — are using the Internet and other new media to practice noöpolitik more effectively than are state actors, such as the U.S. government. Whose story wins — the essence of noöpolitik — is at stake in the worldwide war of ideas.

The promise of noöpolitik, by David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla, First Monday, volume 12, number 8 (August 2007)

This sounds almost like what the NYPD is saying.

But keep reading:

But this jihadi noosphere is angrily, narrowly, even brutally tribal in nature, as is the noöpolitik that accompanies it through the projection of images, fatwas, interviews, and stories [28]. These enable the jihadis to foment divisions between “us” and “them,” claim sacredness solely for their own ends, demonize and intimidate others, view their every kin (man, woman, child, combatant or noncombatant) as innately guilty, revel in codes of revenge, entice and radicalize recruits, instruct as well as celebrate violence of the darkest kinds, call for territorial and spiritual conquests, and suppress moderates. The language is often religious in tone, but the stakes reduce, above all, to the exaltation of ancient tribal notions of honor, pride, dignity, and respect [29].

This is not the kind of ecumenical, ethical noosphere that Teilhard envisioned [30], nor the noöpolitik that we have had in mind.

Still sounds like what the NYPD is saying? But wait, it also begins to sound like the NYPD, if you recall how demonstrators at the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC were rounded up and arrested, and New York City since then has tried to keep the details secret, until finally ordered by a judge to release them.

But to the key point:

Moreover, the jihadis attempt to employ noöpolitik for such dark purposes may ultimately be their Achilles’ Heel, since the vast majority of the world’s Muslims reject their doctrines of violent extremism.
When neo-Nazis and holocaust deniers and other violent extremists and apologists for violence started using the Internet in the 1980s, many people wondered if they should be excluded from access. I said then and I say now that letting such slimy animals out from under their rock into the light was the best way to discredit them, since their every post could be more easily compared with what more rational actors said about the same subject, and the nature and degree of their extremism would become more evident. In other words, they would tend to disqualify themselves by the stories they told. That is, as long as better (more factual, humane, attractive) stories were being told.
What would reinvigorate the prospects for noöpolitik? Renewal of a clear intent to favor non–military strategies, operate in partnerships, and abide by stringent ethical standards would surely help. Yet, whatever other answers should be added [34], the key may well be revitalization of a deep sense that ideas matter, along with a better grasp of how ideas move people to think and act in strategic ways — more along the lines of the complex efforts made during the cold war than the simplifications seen this decade. And by this, we mean ideas expressed through actions as well as words, including what the U.S. State Department has begun to call “the diplomacy of deeds.”

The point to which we keep returning is that noöpolitik is ultimately about whose story wins.

Back to the NYPD:

Radicalization could be triggered by such things as the loss of a job, the death of a close family member, alienation, discrimination, and international conflicts involving Muslims, said the report by senior NYPD intelligence analysts.
I wonder if they considered that radicalization could be triggered by such things as the authorities in the nation’s largest city planning to infringe on basic rights, especially when heard after everyone knows that the NYPD already did that only a few years ago?

The Internet is not the problem, anymore than the telephone or the air is the problem. Well, it’s a problem in the sense that the NYPD doesn’t know how to deal with it, and some jihadists do. But that’s only because it’s new and some people adapt to it more quickly than others; not surprisingly, small agile jihadist groups may do so more quickly than a lumbering behemoth such as the NYPD.

However, the NYPD has a major advantage if it would only use it, because the U.S. has that historical advantage.

With respect to ourselves, live up to our ideals: eliminate those flaws in our system that create mistrust and discord while emphasizing those cultural traditions, experiences, and unfolding events that build-up harmony and trust.

Grand Strategy, Chet Richards, Editor, Defense and the National Interest, quoting John R. Boyd.

Casting aspersions at a communications infrastructure and casting suspicion on ones own citizens, while arresting those who don’t agree with you, doesn’t seem to me to live up to our ideals.

If we did, we might have a better chance of attracting the uncommitted.