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02 August 2007

Cultural intelligence and the underground economies of the dead

Once upon a lifetime ago, there was a particular course on strategic intelligence analysis that was offered by a contractor (which shall remain nameless, to protect both the guilty and the innocent in the spirit of the Chatham House rule) in a number of USG and foreign government iterations (one of the few to span so many different countries, from the UK, to Sweden, to Australia, and even South Africa.) The primary audience for this course were law enforcement types, usually at the national level (this was also around the time of the first steps of the UK’s National Intelligence Model) – but these were also the halcyon days of the pre-9/11 world, in which matters of crime and disorder were enshrined by PDD-35 as among the top intelligence priorities for the community. Thus the audiences in some offerings tended to be quite a bit more diverse, so to speak, as an entire generation struggled to come to terms with transnational issues.

One of the more memorable exercises from the course involved class groups assigned to develop what essentially amounted to mission management planning for intelligence issues that were far outside of the current mainstream. The point was to get students out of their comfortable headspace and familiar issues and attack problems de novo. This was usually quite an interesting discussion, and although it was biased towards smaller agencies and functions, it was generally worth the time.

One of the unconventional intelligence issues sometimes presented for class discussion was a semi-notional problem set involving the illegal market for human organs. The initial scenario was based on a popular urban legend of the day projected into a futures scenario, but what was most fascinating were the real world events and incidents that were crystallized into an intelligence problem by many of the more imaginative of the students. Far from viewing the scenario in criminal analysis terms, with simple scams and investigative case outcomes, outlines of entire illicit medical structures and market exchange mechanisms that would be required to support organ harvesting activities emerged – touching on insurance fraud, professional and official corruption, pharmaceutical diversion, customs and border control weaknesses, and the very real challenges of collection against non-traditional targets spanning both domestic and international environments.

We are reminded of this exercise by the following item from the Economist, regarding the growing market for “ghost brides” in the PRC. The practice is a fascinating intersection of centuries old belief systems, draconian and disastrous Communist population control policies, and the emerging illicit markets in a country which knows almost no normal market structures in the first place.

The Chinese practice also recalls the Shi’ite tradition of seeking burial near the tomb of Ali in Najaf, Iraq - where it is believed that the rigours of death will be eased and their entrance to Paradise made faster. Since the medieval age, it has been common for bodies to be sent from around the Shia Islamic world for internment in what has become one of the largest necropolises in human history. This difficult terrain embodied entirely new operational challenges for urban combat during the 2004 actions against the Jaish al Madhi of Moqtada al-Sadr. The practice also spawned an entire industry of professional mourners, supported by unique memorial foundations and other funding structures that developed under the atypical constraints of Islamic financial restrictions – structures which to this day represent serious challenges to the financial intelligence community seeking to track and interdict terrorist funding sources.

Under the British Mandate, a Western power previously had cause to reflect upon these Shia burial practices as an intelligence challenge. The transport of corpses from abroad was restricted on the basis of sanitary considerations, with regulations prohibiting the transport of “wet” remains, and requiring that all bodies have been temporarily interred for at least one year before being permitted passage through the border as “dry” remains (with less likelihood of creating certain classes of disease in the wake of their passage). However, the psychological impact of this regulation, particularly on the devout near the seminary city of Qom in Iran, was far more serious than the British would have ever contemplated. A brisk smuggling trade thus emerged, in which the recently dead of the particularly religious would be moved across the border with false documentation, bribery, and a variety of other means of concealment. These smuggling routes exist to this day, some of them no doubt now being used to transport Iranian manufactured EFP IEDs to cells in Iraq.

We can think of few better examples of the kinds of cultural intelligence challenges that will increasingly come to define the hardest issues faced by the community in assessing the developing world, especially when those are mission critical issues encountered in the context of ongoing stability and support operations. It is exceedingly difficult to inculcate the flexible mindsets and analytical tradecraft practices that will be required to meet these challenges in the future, and this is perhaps one of most significant areas in which the intelligence studies academia could offer substantial contributions to the community. But thus far, cultural intelligence and related transnational issues (especially in the information operations realm) have been regrettably too long ignored…

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