What counts as ‘terrorism’?

Assessing terrorism is a bit more difficult than it might first appear to be.  At first glance it looks like it should be pretty easy.  When someone detonates an explosive, fires and gun or flies an airplane into a building along with some sort of ideological statement it’s terrorism.  Everyone likes to talk about we haven’t been able to settle on a universal definition (even within the U.S. Government) but I bet more people would say that they could identify it if they saw it.

Yet, that’s not really true and in the case of domestic terrorism. The problem, I suspect, is pretty serious for several reasons. Allow me to demonstrate a couple…

First, please consider this:

The Fort Stewart soldier accused of organizing an anti-government militia and orchestrating plots to takeover the Coastal Georgia Army post, bomb the Forsyth Park Fountain and poison Washington state’s apple crop appeared at the Long County Courthouse Friday to plead guilty in his civilian court case.

And this from an assessment of a group I will discuss later:

  • Criminal activity has ranged from graffiti and trespassing, to vandalism, sabotage and arson;
  • Desired result is to inflict significant economic loss;
  • Historically, activities have not intended to harm individuals

Now, which (if either or both) do you think should be considered a terrorist case?

Both certainly could based on the information provided.  The first is pretty clear cut.  The perpetrators had an ideological agenda, planned to conduct violent activity against a government or population in furtherance of that ideology.  In fact, they were implicated in several homicides and hoarded weapons so they get bonus points for actually taking steps to carry out their plans.  If you review many of the criminal complaints against terrorism suspects you’ll note that most of these knuckleheads have to have the FBI hold their hands through the planning and operational stages of a terrorist attack.  In fact, they’ve been accused of being a bit to enthusiastic in their encouragement of getting people to pick up the black banner of al-Qaeda.

The second group is ‘environmental extremists’ and from an alleged leaked joint presentation from the FBI and Pennsylvania State Police. 1

I’m not going to rehash my issues with the way the law enforcement/homeland security community deals with animal/environmental extremism here (perhaps in another post).  I see I’ve been writing about it for more than 8 years (!) now and see very little progress in the area.  Read that post from 2006 and then look at the leaked document…You’ll see the same sins over and over (and over) again.  2

These two events are significant in terms of what they tell us about federal priorities.  The first case (you know, the one where mass murder was planned) was NOT addressed federally.  It was prosecuted at the county level.  That’s pretty odd given that usually everyone wants credit for busting up a terrorism ring.

And here’s the thing…most assessments of terrorist activity (particularly in the United States) rely on federal government prosecutions or indictments that allege terrorist activity.  So, no indictment…no terrorism.  This essentially makes terrorism analysis a function of prosecutorial decision.  While there may be a lot of overlap, those two things are most definitely not identical.

So, we have a situation where things like the Global Terrorism Database (the ‘go to’ terrorism database and which I endorse) does not include things like F.E.A.R.  So, they don’t get federal attention, don’t get picked up be researchers and they drop out of sight like a bad Reddit thread 3

Start asking questions and watch how quick everyone does their best Obi Wan Kenobi impersonation…

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These are not the terrorists you’re looking for….

If you’re intellectually sloppy this can lead to all sorts of distortions about the current state of terrorism, how it may be trending and open you up for all sorts of strategic surprise.

Key point:  Understand what your data does and does not capture and what you can (and shouldn’t) use it for.

Internationally, there is another concern.  Peruse through most terrorism assessments and you’ll see the unspoken assumption that terrorism events can be lumped together in order to determine trends.  In some cases, that may be warranted.  In terms of tactics, for example (hijacking in the 1960s and suicide bombings in the 2000s) tactics which are effective spread not just geographically but also across ideological boundaries.

But that isn’t a universal rule.  An increase in terrorism in one place or against one target type does NOT necessarily mean it’ll occur elsewhere.  It would be interesting to see if it does (and my impression is that it does not) but we  shouldn’t act like it’s established fact.

The people at START do a good job of making this distinction in products like this.

Although terrorism touched 85 countries in 2012, just three – Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan – suffered more than half of 2012’s attacks (54%) and fatalities (58%)…

“While terrorist attacks have in large part moved away from Western Europe and North America to Asia, the Middle East and Africa, worldwide terrorism is reaching new levels of destructiveness,”

If looking for terrorism trends that might effect…Boise, Idaho (for example) perhaps including incidents from a dataset that includes these three countries isn’t a good idea.  Many places (particularly those in non-academic settings) not only don’t make those distinctions.  Often they don’t even understand them.

It seems weird to say this but 13 years after 9/11 and we really haven’t done much work in thinking about how we should think about terrorism.  You’d think we’d have terms of reference down pat but we don’t.  We continue to cobble things together and that’s not good.


  1. I can’t verify the authenticity or integrity of the product so evaluate the source as such.  The content does seem consistent with similar products that have been leaked int eh past and public statements from officials on the subject. The one red flag that is raised is the bizarre color scheme used in the presentation.  I can say that I’ve never seen hot pink used in an official presentation.
  2. The question, to me, is if these are sins of intention or incompetence.  Do they know they’re playing with the facts or do they not see the cognitive biases and flaws in logic in what they do?  I have no idea.
  3. Nice attempt to appear culturally relevant but you aren’t fooling anyone. eds.

Peeking behind the curtain of the IC

Late last year there was a story that I think didn’t get the attention it deserved.  A thesis was submitted for a PhD candidate titled:  “Information Sharing and Collaboration in the United States Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study of the National Counterterrorism Center” by Bridget Rose Nolan.  While I can’t comment on its merits as a thesis it is a fascinating look at the culture and operations of the National Counterterrorism Center.

The author was a new employee of the Central Intelligence Agency when she was assigned to the NCTC in 2009.  She presents a ‘bottom feeder’ view of the organization which may (in fact, I’d bet huge amounts of money on this) vary greatly with the impressions of those higher up the food chain.  That being said, her observations and impressions provide insight into the day-to-day operations of the Intelligence Community.  While I’ve never worked at the NCTC, Ms. Nolan’s observations ring true both to my personal observations as well as what I’ve been told by others working at various levels within the IC.

I’d therefore like to take select quotes from Ms. Nolan’s work and then expand upon them here.

Almost all of the analysts I formally interviewed as well as colleagues I spoke to during informal conversations spontaneously mentioned that they simply could not keep up with the volume of information they had to deal with in the course of a day, and that trying to manage the information overload took up a lot of their time.

Everyone feels like were deluged with information (Thanks, internet!) but the IC was hit with the criticism of not ‘connecting the dots’.  One response has been to make sure that everyone has access to as much information as possible.  That sounds great and has the added advantage that it’s a easy metric to trot out to demonstrate ‘improvement’ in the system (‘We’ve given our people access to X more databases since this time last year.’)

That, however, can be highly misleading for several reasons.

First can existing personnel handle the influx of new information?  You’re going to be hard pressed to find people in the IC who say they’ve got boatloads of time on their hands (although, time and resource allocation is another problem that deserves its own post) and so inserting another database, information feed, whatever to the mix risks two bad outcomes:

  1. People just ignore the new information stream
  2. People incorporate the new information but every data-stream gets less time and attention

All else being equal I consider ‘1’ to be the lesser of two evils.

The other, more important, question is whether added information improves analytical quality.  Conventional wisdom is that ‘more information is always better’ but that’s not really true.  More information makes you more confident in your decision but doesn’t improve your results. 1  This means that providing ever increasing reams of information and expecting (or demanding) that all that information be checked does little other than absorb already scarce amounts of analyst time, preventing them from doing quality analysis.

To which you can expect someone to decide the solution is to get the analysts access to one more data stream.

Lather, rinse, repeat.


At just about the same time this paper was released, Mark Stout wrote about a related topic over at War on the Rocks.  He begins by reviewing the difference between secrets and mysteries:

Secrets are questions to which there is a factual answer.  An example is “Where is Ayman al-Zawahiri?”  There is an answer to that question, we just don’t know what it is yet.  By contrast, mysteries are questions to which there is no factual answer.  An example might be “What will Ayman al-Zawahiri do next week?”  (Note that this is quite different from “What does Ayman al-Zawahiri intend to do next week?”)  There is no factual answer to this question because it depends on future events, including interaction with other human beings, and the future is always in motion.

We don’t like mysteries because they’re messy and don’t have an answer (well, until they move from the future to the past) so we are inclined to ignore them and just treat everything like a secret.

The way to find secrets is to collect more data and somewhere in the mass of data will be the secret or pieces of a secret which can be assembled like a puzzle.  In the case of mysteries, however, collecting more data is typically the wrong thing to do.  More data often makes it impossible to see the forest for the trees.

But even in the cases of ‘secrets’ too much data can be a problem.  One must balance the ability to collate and analyze data versus the likelihood than any new data source will contain valuable information.  The more data you attempt to absorb the higher the bar should be before adding any new information.  You always could replace an old, less useful data source for a new, better one but that tends not to happen.  Usually we just throw new information on top of old under the assumption that ‘Just one more tiny bit of data won’t hurt.  It certainly won’t impair our ability to collate and analyze information.’

Woe is he who does not heed the warnings of that line of thinking…

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There are some really great quotes from analysts that try to deal with this mess.  Overwhelmingly, they say they’re overwhelmed and make decisions about ignoring large quantities of incoming information.  And while they say they try to systematize what they look at and what they don’t it sounds like any such rules they have developed are more ad hoc than planned or tested.

Is this really a situation we want to be in?  As management continually scurries to get access to more and more information, analysts are scurrying just as quickly to figure out how to ignore that data.  Without, of course, letting management know.

  1. For more see here

How to think about al-Qaeda

Two articles about al-Qaeda that are really worth your time but for different reasons.  Both agree on a couple of key points.  Ayman al-Zawahiri is in a bad way and needs to both reassert his own personal authority as well as the position of al-Qaeda Central as the preeminent terrorist organization.

First is this piece from Matthew Levitt at Foreign Affairs titled Zawahiri Aims at Israel.  He argues that the way for Zawahiri to win back the initiative in the War on Terror and the respect of his peers is by focusing on attacking Israel.  As evidence for that theory, he sites a recently disrupted plot that was ordered by Zawahiri (it’s a long quote but please indulge me):

Abu-Sara reportedly volunteered to carry out a “sacrifice attack” on an Israeli bus traveling between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. The plan was for gunmen to shoot out the bus’ wheels and overturn it. After that, they would they would gun down the passengers at close range. Finally, they assumed, they would die in a firefight with police and first responders. Sham and Abu-Sara also sketched out simultaneous suicide bombings at a Jerusalem convention center, where a second suicide bomber would target emergency responders, and at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, which would be carried out by five unnamed foreign terrorists who would travel to Israel as tourists with fake Russian passports. In preparation, Sham sent Abu-Sara computer files for a virtual bomb-making training course. Abu-Sara was to prepare the suicide vests and truck bombs, and to travel to Syria for training in combat and bomb-making. He had already purchased a ticket on a flight to Turkey by the time he was arrested.

Sham’s other two recruits — Rubin Abu-Nagma and Ala Ghanam — were working with him on carrying out attacks on Israel as well. Abu-Nagma reportedly planned to kidnap an Israeli soldier from Jerusalem’s central bus station and bomb a residential building in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. He, too, learned to manufacture explosives online. Ghanam, who lived in a village near Jenin, a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank, was tasked with establishing a Salafi jihadi cell in the West Bank that would carry out future attacks.

That’s quite an ambitious plan given these guys were recruited and trained on the internet.  Now, I’m not a special operations type of guy but it seems to me that you’ve really got to have your act together to make something like this work.  I don’t want to dissect the whole thing here but can you even flip a bus over just by shooting out its wheels?  Cripes, and that’s just step 1!

The first time I read that plan I imagined Zawahiri’s mission briefing to look something like this

jihad-gnomes-phase-3 copyThere are many things you can say about that plan.  Well thought out and likely to succeed probably are NOT two of them.  If we assume that it is true that Zawahiri ordered this there’s one piece missing from Levitt’s article that might undermine his case.  It is possible that Zawahiri saw this as a low cost/low risk/(potentially) high payoff operation.  So, he may have been thinking that the plan was just crazy enough that it might work and if it didn’t…so what? It doesn’t sound like he spent much in the way of resources on it.

In other words, what did Zawahiri have to lose by backing this plot?

That is very different, however, from the idea that Zawahiri is refocusing his attention towards attacks on Israel.  I’m not saying the central premise might not be correct but rather that Levitt didn’t do much to prove it in the article.

But it’s the final paragraph of Levitt’s article that I have a real bone to pick over.

Zawahiri’s plotting against Israel may well have resulted from a need to reassert his position among other jihadist groups, especially in Syria, but that doesn’t mean that the threat of terrorism is less real. However one defines al Qaeda today — as a singular group with a few close franchises, or as the sum of all franchises and decentralized parts — it is clear from plots like this one that the West, including Israel, need beware.

This is typical calorie free nonsense.  Nobody is asserting that terrorism isn’t a threat.  Is it less significant (at least to the U.S. and much of the West) than it was 10 or 15 years ago? Yeah, most definitely.  And it’s plots like these that we need to be wary of?  They set the bar so high for themselves that not only did they make it very likely that they’d get caught before their attack started but even if they evaded detection they likely would have flubbed it.  Too many points of failure.

But think about it.  You could replace the terrorism related words with just about anything and get the same sentiment.  Bad drinking water, meteors, Halloween candy stuffed with razor blades.  There are risks and threats everywhere but in order to live we need to be able to put them into perspective and judge their probability.

J.M. Berger, on the other hand, writes this article which I thought I wouldn’t like (entirely because of it’s subtitle ‘We’re fighting al Qaeda like a terrorist group. They’re fighting us as an army.’) but which is a really strong overview of a complicated issue.

You really should read the whole article but his central thesis is that which al-Qaeda central and its affiliates are still interested in terrorism it is no longer their primary focus.  Instead, these groups are interested primarily in securing and holding territory (a more traditional military objective).  If you agree with those assumptions then it is no longer clear that our current orientation to a ‘War on Terror’ (with al-Qaeda as the lead protagonist) is a sound one.  Currently, we still suffer from a knee jerk reaction to the phrase ‘al Qaeda’ treating everyone who throws around the term as being co-conspirators with 9/11.

We know, however, that a lot of al Qaeda affiliates put attacking the United States pretty low on their priority list.  Many will take a shot at American interests overseas but few appear to spend their resources and personnel on conducting attacks on U.S. territory.  If that’s the case, might we be better served by taking, as Berger calls it, a more ‘agile’ approach?  Some groups may deserve the full court press of military, diplomatic and law enforcement responses while others something less and maybe even some should receive nothing more than malicious neglect.

Establishing intelligence priorities (an alternative)

One of the challenges intelligence personnel face is the lack of clear priorities.  This should be taken care of in the Planning and Direction process but it’s difficult and many a risk-averse officials would prefer to make no decision (or make a non-decision) which protects them from blame if something goes wrong but allows them to take credit if things go right.

As a result, an analyst shop may suffer from lack of focus and drift from one crisis to another, constantly reacting and always finding itself late to the party.

In those cases, I submit an imperfect solution.  This shouldn’t be your first choice since your decision makers should be the ones making decision but if that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this will enable you to get some focus in your shop AND apply a methodology to that focus so that you can articulate why you prioritized the way you did.

There’s lots of opportunity to experiment or modify this system to fit your particular circumstance but this will give you something you can begin to make some decisions off of.

1) Gather together a representative sample of your customers.  If customers aren’t available then get people who interact with those customers on a regular basis.  Keep the groups relatively small (20 or 25 is probably the most you’ll be able to handle in one session).

2) Conduct a structured brainstorming session asking two questions.  First, who (specifically) do you see as the primary customers of the intelligence shop.  Second, what (specific) subjects are primary customers of your intelligence services interested in?

3) Take the answers back and collate them.  Be careful not to lump answers into too broad of categories.  When in doubt treat answers as separate entities.

4) When you have a collated list (and it could be quite long) have each person in your shop rank those lists (the one for customers and the other for products) from most to least important.  When asking people to make this ranking decision it would be a good idea to provide them with any contextual information that you deem relevant.  This might include mission statements, legislative or regulatory requirements, etc.  I’d recommend ranking them in a simple 1 to whatever list.

5) Once you’ve received all the rankings add them up.  For example Topic A receives a ranking of ‘1’ from one analyst, ‘7’ from another and a ’12’ from a third.  Give than entity a ranking of ’20’ (1+7+12).  This will give you a consensus ranking for your shop.

6) You know should have two ranked lists.  Take some manageable number from each (5, 10, 20?) and create a matrix with customers on one axis and product types on the other.

Here’s a sample of what this looks like (click to enlarge):


7)  Now comes the fun part.  You know have a list of product topics and customers.  You go through each cell and identify the elements of product definition (scope, purpose, type of output, etc) for each cell.  So, perhaps an elected official will need a strategic level policy briefing in order to help propose legislation on a topic while a law enforcement official will need to know where to deploy her resources with a GIS predictive analysis.

8) Now that you’ve identified the full range of ‘high priority’ customers, topics and product types you (or someone) has to make a decision of which to do in what order.

This doesn’t eliminate the need for someone to make a decision but it does make it easier to do so for decision makers.  Instead of trying to whittle down all the potential threats in the world and juggle all the variables of customer, purpose, etc. this narrows down their choices to something which is (hopefully) manageable.

Kvick Tänkare

From Defence and Freedom, I found this little bit of trivia.  The Esbit stove was invented in 1936 and used by the Bundeswehr.  I love these for camping (which I haven’t done enough of) or your ‘go-bag’.

An interesting story from WWII about outnumbered American and German troops banding together to fight elements of an SS Division.  The author raises a good point.  What hasn’t this been made into a movie?

Courtesy of Julia Angwin, a couple of recommended privacy tools for your computer.  Two of which I include here because they’re so simple to install…

• I installed “HTTPS Everywhere,” created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project. This tool forces your Web browser to use encrypted Internet connections to any website that will allow it. This prevents hackers – and the National Security Agency – from eavesdropping on your Internet connections.

• I also installed Disconnect, a program created by former Google engineer Brian Kennish, which blocks advertisers and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, from tracking which websites you visit.

Kind of feel out of the loop with all these classified revelations from WikiLeaks, Manning and Snowden?  Well, no worries!  Use the NSA Product generator to develop your own completely nonsensical yet authentic sounding intel products!  I suspect these also say something about how impenetrable and embedded Bureuacratese that these sound plausible.  We really need to bring back the English language.

The British National Archives are putting millions of pages of military diaries from World War One on line for the public to use.   They are also asking for help form the public in tagging and classifying the documents.  You can do your part (after a 10 minute tutorial) here.

How nations address their problems….


A study which looked at the language used in Kickstarter campaigns reveals some interesting predictors of success and failure.


The state of terrorism reporting

Will Potter from Green is the New Red writes a post about a leaked FBI Intelligence Report from early 2012.  I like Potter’s work but he’s an advocate for a particular cause and so we don’t always come from the same place.  I think his attempts at equivalency (‘This is the state of the government’s “terrorism priorities.” Favorable media coverage exposing animal cruelty–at a lab that was fined for abuses–is on par with weapons of mass destruction.’) are wrong and that his arguments miss the important pathologies these products demonstrate.

The report in question can be found here.  The first thing I’d like to recommend is look at the titles of each of the subjects (emphasis added):

  • AR Extremists May Increase Criminal Activity after News Program Featuring Animal Research Airs
  • Anti-Abortion Extremist Activity May Increase after Graphic Advertisement
  • Planned “International Judge Muhammad Day” Could Increase Threats to Homeland or Escalate Anti-Islamic Sentiments
  • LCN Arrests May Attract Media Attention
  • Pimps Likely Transport Children across State Lines for Prostitution at Major Public Events

In five of the six headlines the FBI has inserted ‘weaselly’ words.  Sure terrorist might to this or might do that or…they may just buy a cute cat.

This cat MAY be a T-9000 terminator sent back in time to kill you.

This cat MAY be a T-9000 terminator sent back in time to kill you.

Let me be clear that I have NO insight into how the FBI produces (or produced…they may no longer make these things) these products but this looks like an instance where institutional demands trumped any sort of intelligence value.  There’s nothing theoretically wrong with intelligence products that come out of a regular basis like this one (weekly).  Problems arise, however, when expectations of what those products should look like outstrip reality.

I suspect various functionaries have decided that it would not be acceptable for the F.B.I. to put out something called a ‘Weekly Intelligence Report’ and not have something to say.  I’d be willing to put money down that conversations similar to this actually take place:

-Mid-Level flunky:  Hey!  The Weekly Intelligence Report is almost due. What do we have to put in it?

-Bottom feeder analyst:  Things are actually pretty quiet.  We’re not seeing any new threats this week.

-Mid-Level flunky: Not acceptable! How about we just put in something about that TV show coming up and say it might encourage terrorists to attack

-Bottom feeder analyst:  Uh…but there’s no evidence of that.

-Mid-Level flunky:  Yeah, but terrorists COULD be motivated to attack. Put it in there!

The other tell in situations like this is phrases peppered in the product like the following:

Though the FBI has no reporting indicating specific threats related to the broadcast, extremists could use information from the program to target researchers or facilities.

If you ever see wording like that you should mentally insert the following:  ‘We’re just making this shit up.’

An exception to the above rule would be if the authors actually laid out a line of reasoning why this really might happen.  Maybe similar events instigated attacks, maybe there’s something new in the subjects capabilities or intent that makes action in this case more likely.

They attempted to do that in another entry but look what they do…

While the announcement has given rise to no specific reported threats, the earlier event inspired backlash
overseas, including by terrorist groups and extremists. The proposed event could lead to similar
reactions and could give rise to threats in the Homeland or escalate anti-Islamic sentiments, potentially resulting in anti-Muslim hate crimes.

So, they link this upcoming event to the overseas backlash and that’s good.  Cause – Effect.

But then they make a leap to say that could translate to attacks here in the states 1 and we’re right back to square one with that wishy-washy ‘could’ crap.  Would it have killed them to take the extra step and spell out who has and/or who is likely to be motivated to carry out such attacks?

‘So what?’ I can hear you say.  Let them publish their bulletin and just ignore it if it doesn’t have value, right?  The problem there is this isn’t just one weekly bulletin.  This goes on all the time by hundred of agencies all around the country.  Each creating their own calorie free product loaded with speculation because they refuse to say ‘We’ve got nothing.  We’ll let you know once there’s something relevant to share.’  As a result everyone get bombarded with products like these making it difficult (if not impossible) to read and evaluate all the information that comes pouring in.

And in that vein…I’ll leave you with this.

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  1. And we’ve got to get rid of that fascist ‘homeland’ crap

The Kuchi in Afghanistan

7102707-R1-049-23The Kuchi are a nomadic tribal people in Afghanistan.  Like nomads everywhere they tended to get the short end of the stick in Afghan politics.  With no land or settled areas, it’s hard to be a constituency.  After all, why would a politician (or warlord) expend capital (political, economic, etc.) on you if you’re only going to be around to support him part of the year.  And then for the rest of the year, some other guy gets the benefit of your largesse when the Kuchis are moving through his territory.

Much easier to exploit the nomads and divide their spoils among your full time constituents.

The Afghan Analysts Network has a piece of the current status of the Kuchi.  I can’t speak directly on where they are in 2014 but I did have the opportunity to interact with one tribe back in 2003.  The land surrounding Bagram airfield had large swaths of uninhabited and pretty barren terrain.  On one particularly large area the coalition forces marked off an area for shooting ranges for all sorts of ordinance.

There was concerns that ‘ACM’ (anti-coalition militias…the term used at the time to refer to anyone who would…well, attack coalition forces), might set up an attack or, more likely, set IEDs or booby traps for soldiers training.  In addition, there was (and is) a market for unexploded ordinance.  Shells that don’t explode can be broken down for their materials (specifically their explosives) and sold for all sorts of reasons.  When I was there, those explosives were used frequently for mining.  The local Kuchi tribe was hired to observe the area and keep out the riff raff when they were in the area.

It’s dangerous work but if you’re dirt poor you might be inclined to consider anything. As Coalition forces begin pulling out the money used to keep these ranges will dry up and the temptation to scavenge will increase.

As the US military and its allies shut down bases and ranges, the number of civilian casualties has risen sharply, according to Abigail Hartley, program manager for the independent United Nations Mine Action Service in Kabul. She says 33 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded on US or coalition ranges last year, up from 23 in 2012 and just one in 2011.

In fact, it sound like not much has changed at all:

That is not true of kuchis, some of whom live in ragged tents near the range, Afzal said. “You can’t find a healthy kuchi,” he said. “They are missing their arms or legs, their eyes. They know this place is dangerous, but they run out there after every firing to grab the shells.”

Gol, the kuchi who lost his leg, said 11 people in his village had been killed and 80 had been wounded over the years by ordnance and mines. Most kuchis migrate with the seasons, but Gol said his neighbors had lived in the nearby village of Barikaab off and on for years.

The Kuchi were in a rather odd predicament.  Even though they are ethnically Pashtun they didn’t seem to be particularly trusted by any community 1.  The (settled) Pashtuns didn’t trust their wandering ways (Who are they talking to when they aren’t around us?) and the other ethnic groups saw them essentially as Pashtun spies.  So everyone basically shit on them.

7102707-R1-045-21Things are changing for the Kuchi now…whether for good or ill remains to be seen:

On the one hand, the insecurity caused by decades of war, coupled with periods of drought, has led an increasing number of Kuchis to abandon their nomadic lifestyle. The lack of jobs and social services has meant that many now live in dejected conditions on the outskirts of major Afghan cities. On the other hand, simultaneously, the Kuchi community has experienced a high degree of political mobilisation, facilitated by the Karzai administration, which took several initiatives to enhance the Kuchis’ political profile including their recognition as a separate electoral constituency.

  1. I’m obviously talking in generalities here so caveat emptor

Wow…that hat’s cool. It’s pa-kool!

A long overdue history of the pakolA type of hat associated with the Tajik population.  I have one from my travels there.  In fact, it looks remarkably like this:

They’re kind of strange hats in that they seem to have little utility for Afghanistan.  They don’t keep the sun out of your eyes and don’t really even keep the sun off your ears or neck.  I suppose utility is in the eye of the beholder though and I’m looking at it from a different perspective.

…the pakol is really one of the loftiest human achievements in the art of covering the head. It is warm, practical, pocketable; it doesn’t make you sweat and (supposedly) lends you a tough guerrilla look. You can even tuck flowers, pheasant feathers or porcupine quills found on the road in its fold, together with pre-rolled cigarettes and talkhan (dried mulberry powder) stored there for the journey to come. (Not least, the pakol can passably substitute for a frisbee at close-medium range – but only if properly rolled). Above all, with its earthy colors and practicality, it is particularly well-suited to the needs of guerrillas fighting in hilly terrain.

One finds it difficult to argue against its ability to stand the test of time.

Looking at Hellenistic coins, statues or frescoes found  from Italy to India, hats similar to pakols were a relatively common sight on the heads of Macedonians. Pictures of the ancient headgear called kausia bear in fact a striking resemblance to the modern pakol, most likely rendering the pakol a legacy of that crazy ride to the East that Alexander the Great undertook out of ambition or boredom in the 4th century BC.


Of course, the most famous pakol wearer (at least in the West) was Ahmed Shah Masood or the ‘Lion of the Panjshir.


How language affects analysis

A lot of things we have no control over have profound influences on how we interpret the world around us and, therefore, the way we can conduct analysis.  One of the most basic is the language we use.  The words we have at our disposal and the ways in which we can use them.  Two recent articles talk about just that phenomenon, plus also demonstrate another current lesson relevant to intelligence analysis.

First, from NPR, is this piece which talks about how language can affect how we perceive something like direction.

Lera Boroditsky once did a simple experiment: She asked people to close their eyes and point southeast. A room of distinguished professors in the U.S. pointed in almost every possible direction, whereas 5-year-old Australian aboriginal girls always got it right.

The hypothesis is that the Australian aboriginals use language which centers around compass points rather than relative descriptions of location (X is to the left of Y) and therefore, they have a better awareness of where they are geographically.  I have no idea if it works the other way and these girls would have trouble description the position of two things in relation to each other but the point is there probably isn’t an ‘ideal’ way of describing something.  It’s just that using one system closes (or makes more difficult) the ability to use another.

The second piece is from Cracked.  I’m not sure what’s going on over there but I’ve found a couple of pieces there lately that belie the image of the site as being all penis jokes photoshopped punch lines.  Or, maybe I’m just trying to find an excuse to read all those penis jokes….

Anyway, the article gives very brief overviews of 5 ways language can screw with your worldview and one in particular jumped out at me.

Recent studies have suggested that language may act as a cue to which cultural frame of reference a given interaction belongs in…Psychologists call this phenomenon frame-shifting, and it’s basically the ability to put yourself in someone else’s cultural shoes just by speaking in their language.

For example: A test was applied to bilingual Arab Israelis who spoke both Arabic and Hebrew (two cultures that have famously held a little animosity toward each other over the years) that asked participants to record whether words had negative or positive connotations. When the test was given in Arabic, the participants picked Jewish names as being intrinsically negative, but this effect disappeared when the test was given in Hebrew. In short, their bias against Jewish names arose from the fact that they were thinking in Arabic at the time, and not because they necessarily had any deep-seated bias against Jews. Don’t go thinking that the Arabic language is somehow inherently racist — it has plenty of Jewish friends. They just go to another school; you wouldn’t know them.

Probably worth some serious consideration when thinking about sources that are translated or even among those who are non-native speakers.  In intelligence analysis you are usually working with small amounts of information and trying to divine meaning (perhaps too much) from the dribs and drabs you get.  Given how preconceived notions and cognitive biases can form so easily and early a turn of a phrase or different intonation can send even a good analyst careening off into left field.

And just so you don’t feel let down now that you made it all the way through this post, here’s a link complete with your daily allotment of penis jokes….enjoy.

Ten books…

I was recently wasting some perfectly good time on Facebook, when I saw one of those ‘answer a question and pass it along’ things that bounce around there with incredible frequency.  This one, however, seemed rather interesting.  It asked participants to name ten books which have ‘stuck’ with you.  They need not have changed your life or been classics, but rather ones that you’ve returned to either in terms of rereading or thinking about for one reason or another.

So, without further ado, here are my ten 1 in no particular order:

  1. The Prince – Machiavelli - The first political book I ever read and it blew me away as a 15 year old.  In the intervening three decades I’ve always had a copy close by and it’s usually the first thing I download when I get a new electronic device.
  2. Othello – William Shakespeare – Again, something I was introduced to while I was a teenager but the character of Iago remains completely fascinating to me.  His motives seem just out of reach and one feels there is an answer to why he does what he does if only you look closely enough.  I simply never get tired of the story.
  3. Earth Abides – George Stewart – I didn’t like this book when I finished it but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I just kept turning it over in my mind until I realized that my discomfort with the story was due more to the fact that it refused to conform to my expectations.  It’s now a favorite.
  4. The Plague Dogs – Robert Adams – A book I will probably never read again but continues to haunt me.  We don’t really need fiction to tell us about the horrors we visit upon animals every day but this is excellent story telling.  I’m no John Boehner but this book had me seriously weepy.
  5. The Problem from Hell – Samantha Power – An amazing account of American responses to genocide over (roughly) a century.  Reading this does make it difficult to say that America is ‘exceptional’ when you see what sort of legal, rhetorical and military gymnastics we went through to prevent, stop or condemn genocide.
  6. The Norton Book of Classical Literature – Kind of cheating since this is a collection of works but there’s just so much here that resonated with me that I have to include the whole book.
  7. To Reign in Hell – Steven Brust – I suspect I like this book as much as I do because it has similar themes to Othello.  It’s sufficiently different, contemporary and well written to justify it’s inclusion on this list however.  I’ve probably read this book four times and thought about or referenced it too many times to count.
  8. The Art of War in the Western World – Archer Jones – Clearly written and comprehensive, I can think of few other introductions to warfare that could compare to this work by Jones.  Simply brilliant and I can only say a number of his points and descriptions came to mind during my 20 years with the Army, helping me to better understand and put orders into context.
  9. War Letters – Andrew Carroll – While learning about strategy and looking at big arrows sweeping across a map is fun and can make every man a general, we must never forget that each one of those lines is made up of thousands of individual human beings.  Andrew Carroll’s collection of letters from soldiers in Americas wars is simply awe-inspiring.
  10. Buddhism Without Beliefs – Stephen Batchelor – A slim volume which does an admirable job of reconciling core Buddhist beliefs with modern life.  No need for a sky daddy, magic powers or inexplicable miracles.
  1. Didn’t I just write a polemic against top ten lists? Ah, well.  I’ll hoist myself on my own petard later.